Phenomenological aspects of Uexküll’s theory

Alljärgnev tekst on kirjutatud eesmärgiga näidata biosemiootika ühe rajaja J. von Uexkülli ideede seotust fenomenoloogiliste teooriatega ruumist ja tajust.

The starting point of the essay is the idea, that Uexküll’s theory of Umwelt can be related to phenomenology, at least in that part which concerns existing in the world through subjective percieving experience. Perception world and perceptional signs connect with the phenomenological understanding of the bodily nature of being and world experience. Therefore, ideas of Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Heidegger become usable. The other part of this text turns to „ecofield“ notion, which, introduced by Farina and Belgrano, can also be comprehended through phenomenological approach to percieving horizon, surroundings, space and landscape. Generally it is important to note, that while reality is a mental construction, it still develops by percievable information and thanks to objects and phenomenas that are open to senses, i.g through sensations. We can assume, that meaning creation is born through perception.
The ideas of phenomenological philophists were based on the belief that human existence is characterized by a preceeding, already existing „givenness“ that we are born to: Heiddegger, for example, has written about „being thrown into the world” . So a human being is firsthand a present living being. According to that they reached the point of subjectontological theory, were the world is as it is percieved and experienced by subject. The positon of subject is essential to experiencing world and also to phenomenologists. In his well-known work „Being and Time“, Heidegger has stressed the subjective and spatial qualities of human perception: human being is always placed somewhere, which becomes the individual environment. In his theories and scientific development he reached to the ideas of being thrown into the world – concept of Geworfenheit and to the term of Dasein. So his ideas reflect how experience must be understood, from the position of individual who is experiencing the world. Heidegger’s space is subjective experience space.
Husserl used the notion Lebenswelt, which seems to be rather similar to Umwelt notion in Uexküll’s biosemiotics. It allows to presume, that phenomenological “lifeworld” can be connected with the understanding of organisms’ umwelts. From here it is possible to discuss, whether the world of phenomenological experience and semantizised environment that surrounds any living being are therefore comparable. It is generally known that Husserl used the term Lebenswelt to refer the human (socio-cultural) world but he spoke about this concept in the context of percieving the surrounding world, thereby, in my opinion, pointing out the perceptional mechanism that is rooted in all living world.
In his doctoral dissertation „Umwelt transition and Uexküllian phenomenology. An ecosemiotic analysis of Norwegian wolf management“, Morten Tᴓnnessen expresses the belief that biosemiotics and eco-pnehomenology can be mutually useful, on the basis that perception lies in the core of life sciences. He also marks how the notion of Umwelt and the notion of Lebenswelt are interrelated and partly overlapping notions and uses the term „phenomenological“ while speaking about Uexküll’s view of world experience and world percieving. So perhaps the notion of „experience“ could be fitted into uexküllian functional cycle, for example somewhere next to perception signs and perceptional cues and according organ. Through the perceptional cues an experience occurs in the organism. This connects to the umwelt’s paraphrasing which sees it as a subjective experience world and which can be found from biosemioticians. For example, Jesper Hoffmeyer has offered semiotical paraphrases of original Umwelt term in „Encyclopedia of Semiotics“, mentioning: „ecological niche“, „the experienced world“, „phenomenal world“, „subjective universe“ and „the cognitive map“ or „mind-set“.
When describing Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, Mirjam Lepikult writes in epilogue for Estonian version of Merleau-Ponty’s „Eye and Mind “ in her article „Silma ja vaimu koht“ („The place of „Eye and Mind“), how Merleau-Ponty’s work does not belong into the arguing type of philosophy, but into the showing philosophy. The speciality of so-called showing philosophy is the fact that author has found his own viewpoint from which he is describing the surrounding world. By doing this, new relations can appear, things acquire meanings that differ from previously stated ones. Accidently or not, her description stresses the aspect that Merleau-Ponty himself has stressed – connections between living beings and objects, also meanings, are based on different viewpoints and that is the reason why objects can have different sign relations towards the recievers-percievers. Meanings are, just like Uexküll notes, created and formed through subjective experiences and understandings of reality.
Merleau-Ponty has written about the intertwining of subjects inner-world and percievable outer world. There is a deep and connection between perciever and percievable – things open themselves only to the one who exists in the same world as these things. Things and objects are approachable to experience. He points out that world experience differs among individuals, that the relationship with subject and its surroundings and objects vary: „there exist other landscapes than mine“. Therefore the way, how world and its phenomenons, also the meanings in this entity, are carried out, holds a special interconnectedness with percievers. The world reveals itself according to simultanous existing of different conscious, viewpoints and perceptions. Moreover, Tonnessen mentions the fact, that Merleau-Ponty referred explicitly to Uexküll’sideas is his lectures and posthumous work called „Nature“ (translated into English and published in 2003).
Another layer can be added if we think about how it is possible for different organisms to percieve their environment. Every living being gets information from their outer world thanks to senses, whether they be sensoric, visual, auditive, smelling or tasting. In here we see the that through sensorical capabilities, the body of the organism become key figure in recieving any kind of information from environment. Body is like the ultimate filter that directs how living beings percieve the world, thanks to bodily sensations it is overall made possible the creation of subjective realities, of Umwelts. Organisms umwelt are different in that scale what are their niches and position in the ecosystem, but also in the sense how their bodies differ from each other, because through body perception signs are recieved, known and formulated.
If we are considering the subjective-centered ontology, that Uexküll’s Umwelt and phenomenologial theories somehow depict, we are confronting many different premisses. Position, from where to percieve the surrounding world and also self as subject is defined through this same subjectivity. So it is hard to break away from the aspects ofagency and „self“ (or individual consciousness). But it should be marked, that the aspect which in human world lies in the existance of self-awareness and conscious individuality, might be found somehow differently in other living organisms. I would suggest that in other, animal and bird, species it might find its form in survival instinct – animal percieves itself as a separate actor in its own good, but there has not developed such consciousness as for humans. The subjectivity emerges generally in the fact that there exists any kind of Umwelt or self-world. The percieving and of everything is based on this self-world.
So, for us humans (as I can only open my own viewpoint and my own Umwelt in here), thinking and experience are essentially connected – we can think on the basis of an experience of the surrounding environment, of signs that are presented to us. The realm of physical-materialistic world depends of whether or not it is meaningful for us as species or as individuals. And in this process of experiencing and object or phenomenon, our potential previous experience and the meaning of this object or phenomenon is implicated. We are in front of this phenomenological constant flow of thoughts, interpretations, a process thanks to which we are part of the reality and at the ame time are creating this reality with imaginary images, cognitions, associations. For animals it is perhaps more connected to their direct natural environment, whereas for humans the socio-cultural layer of reality construction is always relevant and there.
While moving from Umwelt theory towards the notion of „ecofield“, given by Farina and Belgrano, we notice for once again some tight connections between this viewpoint and phenomenology. Ecofield comprises both landscape and environment where subjects actions take place on larger scale, landscape has been analysed from phenomenological epistemological position by Tõnu Viik in his article „Human Spatiality: A Cultural Phenomenology of Landscapes and Places”. In his article he describes the relations between human culture and landscape percieving, but in my opinion, the landscape phenomenology can be widened to the whole of living organisms as the way how subjective meanings are to be found and created in landscape and surroundings. Landscape phenomenology asks the questions how and why certain meaningful spaceconstructions and –structures are developed. Again, phenomenological viewpont allows us to center the environment experience in the sphere of subjectiveness and individual meaning and perception, which makes it a suitable epistemological strategy to use in this context.
Concerning environment and landscape, both phenomenology and ecofield theory are organismic-centered perspectives, thereby mixing ecology and cognitive sciences. The environmental reality which is talked about in these disciplines is cognitive environment, always percieved and sensed in concrete way and also always percieved and recieved by a living being. Farina and Belgrano offer cognitive landscape as the basis from which discuss the environment which is percieved by subject in its full complexity.
Eco-field is by them defined as a spatial configuration where every living function performed by organisms is associated with a specific spatial configuration of their surroundings. Carrier of a specific meaning perceived when a specific living function is activated. The eco-field is considered like an ecological space, or meaning-carrier, in which living functions interact semiotically (meaningfully) with the surrounding world. It is a subject-specific approach, which draws parallells with experiencing the world and percieving meaningful units in phenomenology and Uexküll’s theories.
Landscape acquires specific qualities according to its functional relation to the organism. Rather similarly, the phenomenological experience environment is full of meanings that are approachable to different inviduals and animals according to species and aims. Farina and Belgrano write: „For every function it performs, like searching food, mating, territorial defending, migrating and roosting, an organism requires an operational space with ecological characteristics to achieve the best performance of the selected function. We have to assume that for every living organismic function the perceived surroundings change accordingly.“

The space in phenomenology is always a meaningful space, the meaning is given and acknowledged (more for human being) or recognised (more for other living organisms, also simpler ones as plants) by subject, i.g organisms that live, act, mate, move etc in this spatial environment.

Eco-field is perhaps comparable to concept of “horizon” by Husserl. In his vision, the world is the widest external horizon, while pointing out that this world is divided into parts by different possible perceptions: spaces are like groups. „Such a group, as the momentary field of perception, always has the character for us of a sector „of“ the world, of the universe of things of all possible perceptions“ . Here we can see, how separated individual subjects each has their own world experience which is only a part of the whole. This part devolves from senses and bodily organs of the subject and also the functions and meanings in surroundings that are actul, important for this concrete organism.
The environment plays the role of background and the overall comprising entity, from which the meanings are drawn and risen up. The meanings, that are always sensed invidually. The aspect of appearing, from somewhere plays a significant role here. What is „intentionality“ in Husserl’s terminology, is similar to the means how environment is opened to different minds of different subjects. Eco-field can be taken as a background from which semiosis and relating to the environment take place, from the environment, only relevant, meaningful foundings reach the subject’s sign process. Eco-fields can also be seen as specific networks – „horizon“ – „field“ are parallel and similar notions here. Meanings and functions appear according to the means which objects and signs are actually relevat and meaningful for concrete subject – what phenomenas play role in the context of organisms life activity. These signs exist in reality, they “swim to the surface“ according to subject who activates them with its percieving world. Only then they become autonomous percieval signs and enter the organisms functional cycle. So for all these three concepts (eco-field, horizon/intentionality, Umwelt) it is clear that subject sythezises its own meanings, using some kind of reality or environmental background.
As phenomenology deals with experience from the viewpoint of subjectivity, it is a suitable epistemological strategy for landscape research, especially for this kind that concerns the meaning processes and the cultural layers of environment. The latter aspects are also tightly connected to semiotical thinking. Analysing landscape phenomenologically, we can make use of terms such as „border“, „structured meanings“, „horizon“,“ code“ etc, like phenomenologist and philosopher Tõnu Viik demonstrates in his essay “Human Spatiality: A Cultural Phenomenology of Landscapes and Places” . These refer to the potential with the theoretical network of landscape and city, where same terms are often used. Phenomenology gives the oppurtunity to analyse this exact cognitive side of reception, when a living being is placed into certain environment keskkonda. Viik statesthat Umwelt is phenomenological idea in its nature: „the pehnomenological idea of Umwelt according to which the world is defined via the stuatedness of its inhabitant is also known from biosemiotic Umwelt theories, according to which all living organisms capable of miving themselves around have a certain type of relationship to the outward extension in which they can move around and which they can signify and memorize for better orientation. It is remarkable how he connects Umwelt with the capability of moving and spatiality, which allows reader to turn attention to the aspect of sensing, of senso-motoric perception in Uexküll’s approach, which also brings us back to bodily experience of the world as in Merleau-Ponty’s theories.

The key-point in experiencing landscape as a meaningful entity is the perspective, viewpoint from which something is seen. This meaningfulness is at the same time conditional of percieving the environment or surroundings as an environmental whole, as the actyual surroundings. Viik also stress the subject-centered view by writing that Umwelt is structured around the subject, otherwise it would be less helpful for the organism. He also mentions spatial frames, which can be compared to eco-field notion, in terms that these frames stabilise and fix the subject’s environment into meaningful spatial formations that are repeated in subject’s behaviour. So organisms are creating their own spatiality through niche-creation and through fields were meanings are given, using spatial signs and elements. In the center of the experience and environment stands subject, the agent, the perciever-reciever. And we have reached to the point were we started – the intertwined nature of organism-environment relation.

To conclude, it can be said that while semiotics and phenomenology are still wide and complex fields with their own different viewpoints and epistemological strategy, we can find some parallel ideas in the context of eco-phenomenology, landscape theories and Umwelt notion. Practising phenomenological approach in biosemiotics and cognitive landscape research might direct the theoretical discussion to interesting and viljakas results and perhaps even add up in the cultivating of new knowledge in practical perception research or landscape architecture concerning both humans and other species.

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