Publication 4718

Emmeche C. (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll. Semiotica 134(1/4): 653–693. Fulltext at
I will investigate the plausibility of three theses: (1) The Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll, even though his theoretical biology was often characterized as being thoroughly vitalist, can in the context of contemporary science, more adequately be interpreted as a branch of qualitative organicism in theoretical biology. Qualitative organicism is a position which claims, first, a kind of middle road position, that is, on the one hand, there are no mysterious or non-material vital powers in organisms (non-vitalism), but on the other hand, the characteristic properties of living beings cannot be fully accounted for by physics and chemistry because these properties are nonreducible emergent properties (emergentism); second, that some of these emergent pro- perties have an experiential, phenomenal, or subjective character which plays a major role in the dynamics of the living system. Modern bio- semiotics (inspired by C. S. Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, instituted by Thomas A. Sebeok) is a kind of qualitative organicism. (2) This position sheds light on recent discussions in cognitive science, artificial life, and robotics about the nature of representation and cognition – indeed genuine semiotic questions as they deal with the role of information and signs for any system that has the property of being ‘animal-like,’ that is, systems that move by themselves and seem to be guided by a kind of entelechy or, in modern but shallow terms, a behavioral program. (3) Particularly, qualitative organicism allows us to approach the question of whether a robot can have an Umwelt in the sense that Jakob von Uexküll used the term (a subjectively experienced phenom- enal world) The eventuality of a positive answer to this question, i.e., a claim that a robot indeed can have an Umwelt, seems counterintuitive to the extent that a robot may be seen as – to use a bewildering word – an incarnation of the mechanical and reductionist world picture to which Jakob von Uexküll was so strongly opposed. But certain ideas and concepts may sometimes lead us to unexpected consequences, which threaten our cherished metaphysical assumptions, and we should try to face such questions with an open mind.


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