The Umwelt

'Umwelt' is simply the german word for 'environment'. It means, quite literally, the 'world around', that is to say, around something - whatever it may be that you are otherwise concerned with. Normally this is taken to mean the material world, or in the case of humans, a combination of the material and social world.

But the word has take on a new significance since it was used by Jacob von Uexküll, an Estonian German zoologist writing and working in the late19th and early 20th Century, to refer to the world as experienced by sentient creatures - the subjectivity of their environment - with the nature of the experience dependent on the physiology, the sensory organs and consequent niche of any particular creature.

'Umwelt' is a concept that 'de-centres' perception and agency from an assumption of human exceptionalism, and there is a growing interest in the new subject of bio-semiotics and embodied cognition. The significance of this concept has grown in the years since, in the understanding of ecologists and many other environmentally minded researchers and philosophers.

The concept of Umwelt in this experiential sense has been applied to illuminate, for example, the communications between animals and insects, plants and fungi. All these creatures both live in and actively create a world of information coded largely in touch and sound (vibration) in electrical signals or in chemicals, all of which issues messages to self and others.

The Umwelt is by its nature experiential and phenomenologically subjective, although often for 'minds' so different to our own that - with the possible exception of some, principally mammals, whose biology is fairly similar to our own - we cannot even begin to imagine how that feels.


Biosemiotics and the neuro-science of trauma

For all its radical revision of thinking on subjectivity and agency as a characteristic of many if not all sentient creatures, outside the human/anthropological, there seems still to be an assumption in biosemiotics that has been carried over from its origins in philosophy, zoology and psychology.

This the assumption that since we share the largely same physiological inheritance, the Umwelt of all human beings will be the much same.Yet what is true of other living and sentient creatures is true also of us, the human beings; but with an extra twist.

With our large brains which are not fully formed and wired up at birth, with an extended dependency on the nurturing niche of others in family and childhood, and our brains are sculpted by our lived experience in that niche throughout life, though most deeply in those early years.

This biological inheritance means that the consequent Umwelt of each individual human being varies according to their formative years, but also to some degree according to the social world they inhabit as adults - the culture of the group or society.

But if the case of human beings, brought up in the niches of childhood, our subjectivity is infused with an interpersonal, inter-subjective and social world. What is more, this social world is mediated and constructed through language, the human world being therefore both quite uniquely individual and yet also deeply social.

We can now begin to understand the impact of neglect and trauma, and their sometimes lasting expression through life, not simply through the lens of pathology - of maladaptation and dysfunctional development - but as fully natural and intrinsically human, part of the repertoire by which our physiology prepares us, as a species, for a wide range of later experiences and environments, more or less adverse.

Nevertheless, contemporary neuroscience also confirms what clinical practice has affirmed - and other healing arts have known from time immemorial - that change is possible, and Post-Traumatic Growth is now a well recognised phenomenon. The question for clinicians and other change agents is how to determine the ways to bring about such changes.

Further background

Other reading/listening/viewing

Wikipedia on the Umwelt : HERE

Wikipedia on bio-semiotics : HERE

What is an environment? (in PIE terms) : HERE

Attachment trauma and the social environment : HERE


Umwelt and Embodied Cognition (video) by Fred Timmins : HERE

The Language of Plants - Science, Philosophy and Literature : HERE

Biosemiotics, the Umwelt, trauma and social policy (Part One) with Robin Johnson : HERE

Introduction to 'An Immense World' by Ed Yong :



Wikipedia on Jakob von Uexkull (excerpt)

Uexküll was particularly interested in how living beings perceive their environment(s). He argued that organisms experience life in terms of species-specific, spatio-temporal, "self-in-world" subjective reference frames that he called Umwelt[9][10] (translated as surrounding-world,[11] phenomenal world,[12] self-world,[12] environment[13] - lit. German environment).

These Umwelten (plural of Umwelt) are distinctive from what Uexküll termed the "Umgebung" which would be the living being's surroundings as seen from the likewise peculiar perspective or Umwelt of the human observer. Umwelt may thus be defined as the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject.

By studying how the senses of various organisms like ticks, sea urchins, amoebae, jellyfish and sea worms work, he was able to build theories of how they experience the world.