Worlds Apart? Reassessing von Uexküll’s Umwelt in Embodied Cognition with Canguilhem, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze


  • Tim Elmo Feiten University of Cincinnati
  • Kristopher Holland University of Cincinnati
  • Anthony Chemero University of Cincinnati



Deleuze, Enactivism, World, Merleau-Ponty, von Uexhull


Jakob von Uexküll’s (1864-1944) account of Umwelt has been proposed as a mediating concept to bridge the gap between ecological psychology’s realism about environmental information and enactivism’s emphasis on the organism’s active role in constructing the meaningful world it inhabits. If successful, this move would constitute a significant step towards establishing a single ecological-enactive framework for cognitive science. However, Uexküll’s thought itself contains different perspectives that are in tension with each other, and the concept of Umwelt is developed in representationalist terms that conflict with the commitments of both enactivism and ecological psychology. One central issue shared by all these approaches is the problem of how a living being experiences its environment. In this paper, we will look at Uexküll’s reception in French philosophy and highlight the different ways in which the concept of Umwelt functions in the work of Georges Canguilhem, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gilles Deleuze. This analysis helps clarify different aspects of Uexküll’s thought and the deeper philosophical implications of importing his concepts into embodied cognitive science. This paper is part of a recent trend in which enactivism engages with continental philosophy in a way that both deepens and transcends the traditional links to phenomenology, including most recently the thought of Georg W. F. Hegel and Gilbert Simondon. However, no more than a brief outline and introduction to the potentials and challenges of this complex conceptual intersection can be given here. Our hope is that it serves to make more explicit the philosophical issues that are at stake for cognitive science in the question of experienced environments, while charting a useful course for future research.