Jakob von Uexküll
Jakob von Uexküll
(8 September 1864 – 25 July 1944)
The Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who was born in and lived most of his life in Estonia, is one of the leading figures in the Department of Semiotics. His most widely known contribution to biology was the Umwelt-theory, which studies the organisms’ subjective perception of the environment, the ways of their meaningful entanglement with the world, that is, how do organisms make meaning and thus act accordingly. These subjective worlds Uexküll called Umwelten, or Umwelts (sometimes simply called “environments” in English).
Every creature has its own Umwelt, which consists of those things that the creature is capable of detecting in the environment and which are relevant for its ongoing activities. As such, the life-world of every creature is formed only by those meaningful elements that are significant for it, which have a meaningful “tone”, as Uexküll called it. All creatures – including humans – thus live as if in a meaning-filled “bubble”, which is precisely their Umwelt.
Umwelt-theory, the subject-centred view on the living world is unique in biology, and is one of the main foundations of biosemiotics. Uexküll’s writings influenced many of 20th century’s greatest thinkers, such as Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, and others. Jakob von Uexküll’s son Thure von Uexküll was also an active and influential scientist in the field of psychosomatics, and was an honorary doctor of the University of Tartu. The Department of Semiotics is engaged in continuing research with Uexküll’s legacy and the further development of biosemiotic theories.
On the west coast of Estonia, in Puhtu, there is Jakob von Uexküll’s summer house, where he spent most of his summers and where he drew inspiration for writing his main works. The Department of Semiotics organizes field trips to Puhtu every autumn, to together exchange ideas about nature’s meaning making in a place that was important for Uexküll.
Many of Uexküll’s works have been translated into English. The most important ones are A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1957), Theoretical Biology (1927) and The Theory of Meaning (1982).
Uexküll's Centre (mostly in Estonian)
For publications by Jakob von Uexküll, and publications regarding his work, see: