Robert Vallier reviews what looks like a fascinating book, Brett Buchanans’, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. During the course of the review the following struck me:
The animal has an Umwelt, surrounding and enclosing it, much like a soap bubble. Each animal has its own Umwelt, and one soap bubble may enclose many others within it or be enclosed in other, larger bubbles. Unlike Leibniz’s monads, these bubbles have windows, or at least intersect and interact with each other in concrete ways. The Umwelt is not merely given, but rather produced by the animal through the functioning of its body, its sensory and instinctual apparatus, and the objects it encounters. Uexküll devotes years of his productive life to the study of the Umwelt, its formation, and how it constitutes a ground for understanding animal being. From this research, several astonishing examples emerge, most famously the behavior of the tick; but more than that, two major theoretical constructs also come to the fore. First, the plan of nature constitutes a kind of melody. An extensive musical metaphor or “theory of the music of life” runs throughout Uexküll’s work, and later becomes important to Merleau-Ponty later on. Buchanan neatly summarizes and translates the metaphors, but misses an opportunity to return to and evaluate another philosophical source for Uexküll, namely, Leibniz. The soap bubbles may not be monads, but they exist in a kind of pre-established harmony in the composition of nature. It is this harmonious composition that constitutes the plan of nature, or better, the plan is a kind of musical score. Deleuze later characterized Uexküll as a “Spinozist of affects.” Given this, it seems that the background of modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant would be a particularly fecund area to mine in order to understand better the rise of modern biology. Buchanan can’t be faulted for not developing this background, for to do so would have doubled the manuscript. While some mention of it could have been helpful, the absence of it stands as an invitation to his readers to engage in further research in this direction.