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Philosophy, Biology and the Imagination

Lecturer: Undine Sellbach

Originally Taught: Summer School 2013

Writing in the 1930’s, biologist Jakob von Uexküll broke with the scientific paradigm of the time by refusing to study invertebrates and other small animals in terms of a set of isolated external behavioural traits. Drawing on careful observations of the animals interacting with their environments, he set out to intuit the lived worlds of the creatures he worked with. Uexküll argues that genuine biological investigation entails a certain willingness, on the part of the scientist, to evoke to the “mind’s eye” what is forever inaccessible to our physical senses – the radically different spatial, perceptual, temporal and affective worlds of other animals. For Uexküll there is always something fabulous, fabricated and child-like about the whole enterprise of reconstructing the subjective environments of the small animals he works with. Indeed his seminal book A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans was originally subtitled: a picture book of invisible worlds.

Taking Uexküll as a starting point, the course considers the importance of imagination in the formation of key philosophical and scientific concepts that have helped enable the rise of modern biology. It also explores how contemporary science, and the modes of imagination it entails, can contribute to current debates in philosophy, and the humanities and social sciences more broadly, to do with embodiment, the environment, other animals and ecologies. What are the limits of imagination, in the context of scientific research? What tensions and dependencies exist between these two terms? Is it possible, or advisable, to imaginatively evoke the phenomenological worlds for other animals, insects or even the workings of our own bodies?  What are the political and ethical stakes of such imaginings? To explore these ideas we will read Uexküll’s work along side theorist including Georges Canguilhem, Giorgio Agamben, Isabelle Stengers, Elizabeth Grosz and Elizabeth A. Wilson.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1:
An introduction to Jacob von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt, the idea that every animal is the subject of its own perceptual, affective world. We consider the tensions between Uexküll’s research and conventional science, but also  the influence of Uexküll’s unique form of scientific imagination on contemporary biosemiotics, ecology and animal studies.

Lecture 2:
Together we will read some of the experiments Uexküll invents in A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans in order to investigate the radically different Umwelts of invertebrates and other small animals. We will consider how Uexküll’s experiments attempt to bring together attentive empirical observations with many of the imaginative devices of a child’s picture book.

Lecture 3:
Today we turns to Uexkull’s essay “A Theory of Meaning” in order to address some of the ethical, political and ecological implications of Uexküll. We look at the alignments between Uexküll and fascism. We consider how Uexküll has been critiqued and appropriated by thinkers in Continental Philosophy such as Agamben, Canguilhem, Deleuze and Grosz. And we ask why the importance Uexküll gives to the conjunction of science and childhood imagination is rarely emphasised in these readings; and what difference it might make if we attended to this more carefully.

Lecture 4:
Here we turn to feminist Elizabeth A. Wilson’s book Psychosomatic, in particular “Trembling, Blushing: Darwin’s Nervous System,” her essay on Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.  Wilson criticises the idea that fixed animal instincts stand in contrast to the more fluid realm of human drives. Drawing on Darwin, she argues the relationship between instincts and drives, neurological and psychological events in both animals and humans, are more permiable than the conventional accounts allow. We consider her argument that feminism and philosophy are important because they help make visible some of the conceptual and imaginative underpinnings of biological research. And her challenge to the humanities and the social sciences to learn from biological research and the understandings of embodiment it enables.

Lecture 5:
The final lecture looks at Isabelle Stengers's Cosmopolitics series. She argues that universities, with their imperative to publish to a narrow audience, their disciplinary segmentation and alignment with the “knowledge economy,” struggle to envisage the kinds of questions that the current environmental crisis is nevertheless forcing on us. We look at Stengers's account of the mix of critical inquiry and imagination (what Whitehead calls, the “adventure of ideas”) needed in order to replace the scientific claim to self sustaining authority with an “ecology of practices” inside and outside the sciences.

Recommended Readings

Day 1 & 2:
  • Jacob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2010.
Day 3:
  • Jacob von Uexküll, “A Theory of Meaning” in A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2010.
Day 4:
  • Wilson, Elizabeth A., “Trembling, Blushing: Darwin’s Nervous System.” Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body. London: Duke University Press, 2004.
Day 5:
  • Stengers, Isabelle., “The Curse of Tolerance” in Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, London: Athlone Press, 2000.

Level of Difficulty: