Skip to main content

Organisms as subjects: Jakob von Uexküll and Adolf Portmann on the autonomy of living beings and anthropological difference


This paper focuses on the links between Jakob von Uexküll’s theoretical biology and Adolf Portmann’s conception of organic life. Its main purpose is to show that Uexküll and Portmann not only share a view of the living being as an autonomous and holistically organized entity, but also base this view on the seminal idea of the subjectivity of the organism. In other words, the respective holistic principles securing the autonomy of the living being—the Bauplan, for Uexküll; the Innerlichkeit, for Portmann—share an essentially subjective character. Such principles, indeed, express themselves in a centrally directed and formative way; moreover, in organisms endowed with a central nervous system, they also extend their influence on the overt behavioral sphere and on the organism’s capacity to give meaning to the surrounding reality. The conclusion of the article will show how, though starting from this common background, the two authors develop divergent positions on the issue of the anthropological difference. If Portmann emphasizes the special status of the relationship between the human animal and the world, Uexküll tends to see a substantial continuity in the biosemiotic processes through which human and non-human animals constitute their species-specific worlds of experience (Umwelten).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. On the relevance of Uexküll’s theory of animal action, see Brentari (2016).

  2. Some portion of Portmann’s critical stance was due to political reasons. As a social democrat, he was unhappy that biologists with personal histories stained by the NSDAP (Lorenz, Remane) regained influence in German biology after WWII (cf. Burkhardt, 2005, p. 348). However, the main point of controversy was a distinct epistemological stance of Portmann, which was counted among “unnecessary philosophical issues” by biologists who subscribed to “objective science” (his close intellectual ally Buytendijk faced similar problems; Gruevska, 2019, p. 345).

  3. Despite its substantial correctness, Cassirer’s definition is limiting if one wants to understand the full scope of Uexküll’s theoretical biology. The teleological action of Nature, in fact, is not limited to organizing morphology, but also includes the physiology, perception, and behavior of organisms. On Cassirer’s reception of Uexküll’s Umweltlehre, cf. Brentari 2020.

  4. At the same time, the Umweltlehre was brought closer to National Socialist thought by authors such as Lothar Gottlieb Tirala (1886–1974), a pupil of Uexküll. For an exhaustive picture of the (indirect) political influence of Uexküll’s Umweltlehre see Stella & Kleisner (2010); Schnödl & Sprenger (2021).

  5. The problem of anthropological difference is usually understood as a research array which opens around the following question: Is there any fundamental difference between humans and animals that is prior to all other differences (Glock 2012; Wendler 2020; Wild 2007)? As we will see in the concluding section, the problem has to be separated into two parts: (i) the relation between the cognitive faculties of individual species, (ii) the hierarchical status of human faculties in relation to those of other organisms.

  6. It is beyond the scope of this article to dwell on the subtleties of Portmann’s original epistemology. In relation to his concept of Innerlichkeit, it must be sufficient to state here that the experiences of animals are accessible to scientific empirical investigation; however, they can only be understood in relation to the human subjective life-world. Without a first-person experience of the world, one could not comprehend the phenomenon of life in any of its instantiations. Thus, Portmann’s epistemological stance is essentially a hermeneutic one: the portraying of animal subjectivity is always related to humans’ relation to their own self (Klouda, 2021; Müller, 1988).

  7. For Portmann (1962, p. 2), “[…] moods […] are a fundamental fact of experience, and their reality rests as much on the organization of sense organs and nerve centers as on the collaboration of substances of various origins [in this context, Portmann often mentions hormones; note by authors].”.

  8. Plessner’s positive affirmation of Portmann’s interpretation of the problem of boundary is clear from the final part of the introduction to the second edition of Levels of Organic Life and the Human (see Plessner, 2019, xxxiv–xxxv; originally published in 1965). In a lengthy citation from Portmann’s essay Die Erscheinung der lebendigen Gestalten im Lichtfelde (later published in Portmann, 1970), Plessner touches on the peculiar ontological background of Portmann’s theory of expression: for him, the surfaces of living organisms have to be primarily understood as manifestations in light and space and are only secondarily directed at other forms of life.

  9. Uexküll’s thought is an unavoidable reference point for the thinkers belonging to classical German anthropology (Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen) and for many philosophers of the twentieth century (Cassirer, Heidegger, Susanne Langer), when they discuss biological and zoological themes. Their interpretation of the Umweltlehre, however, diverges from Uexküll’s position on a central point; for Uexküll, there is no neat opposition between the concepts of Welt and Umwelt, and, above all, between the (alleged) Weltoffenheit of humans and the—equally alleged—Umweltgebundenheit (closure in the Umwelt) of non-human animals. This is not the place to investigate the reasons why these philosophers depart from Uexküll’s original theory. For many, Scheler’s mediation (accompanied by a lack of direct reading of Uexküll’s founding works) is decisive.

  10. The title of the cited essay is “Earth as the Homeland of Life” (Die Erde als Heimat des Lebens).


  • Baedke, J. (2019). O organism, where art thou? Old and new challenges for organism-centered biology. Journal of the History of Biology, 52, 293–324.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bolk, L. (1926). On the problem of anthropogenesis. In Proceedings of the section of sciences, Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam (Vol. 29, pp. 465–475).

  • Brentari, C. (2015). Jakob von Uexküll. The discovery of the Umwelt between biosemiotics and theoretical biology. Springer.

  • Brentari, C. (2016). Jakob von Uexküll’s Theorie der tierlichen Handlung zwischen Neovitalismus und vergleichender Verhaltensforschung. In M. Böhnert, K. Köchy, & M. Wunsch (Eds.), Philosophie der Tierforschung. 1. Methoden und Programme (pp. 209–240). Alber.

  • Brentari, C. (2018a). Constituting and living the Umwelt. Two levels of semiosis in Jakob von Uexküll’s environmental theory. Versus. Quaderni di Studi Semiotici, 127(2), 303–322.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brentari, C. (2018b). From the Hiatus model to the diffuse discontinuities: A turning point in human-animal studies. Biosemiotics, 11, 331–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brentari, C. (2020). Ernst Cassirer’s reading of Jakob von Uexküll. Between natural teleology and anthropology. In F. Michelini & K. Köchy (Eds.), Jakob von Uexküll and philosophy. Life, environments, anthropology (pp. 106–121). Routledge.

  • Bueno-Guerra, N., & Amici, F. (2018). Introduction. The concept of Umwelt in experimental animal cognition. In N. Bueno-Guerra & F. Amici (Eds.), Field and laboratory methods in animal cognition: A comparative guide (pp. 1–7). Cambridge University Press.

  • Burgat, F., & Ciocan, C. (Eds.). (2016). Phénoménologie de la vie animale. Zeta Books.

  • Burkhardt, R. W. (2005). Patterns of behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the founding of ethology. The University of Chicago Press.

  • Cassirer, E. (1944). An essay on man: An introduction to a philosophy of human culture. Yale University Press.

  • Cassirer, E. (1969). The problem of knowledge. Philosophy, science, and history since Hegel. Yale University Press.

  • De la Rosa, L. N. (2010). Becoming organisms: The organisation of development and the development of organisation. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32(2/3), 289–315.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus. Capitalism and schizophrenia. Continuum.

  • Descola, F. (2013). Beyond nature and culture. The University of Chicago Press.

  • Esposito, M. (2020). Kantian ticks, Uexküllian melodies, and the transformation of transcendental philosophy. In F. Michelini & K. Köchy (Eds.), Jakob von Uexküll and philosophy. Life, environments, anthropology (pp. 36–51). Routledge.

  • Fagot-Largeault, A. (2009). Anthropological physiology: Von Uexküll, Portmann, Buytendijk. In A. Berthoz & Y. Christen (Eds.), Neurobiology of “Umwelt”: How living beings perceive the world (pp. 1–7). Springer.

  • Fischer, J. (2009). Exploring the core identity of philosophical anthropology through the works of Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen. Iris, 1(1), 153–170.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, J. (2016). Michael Tomasello und Helmuth Plessner. Zwei Protagonisten der modernen Philosophischen Anthropologie. In J. Fischer (Ed.), Exzentrische Positionalität. Studien zu Helmuth Plessner (pp. 321–322). Velbrück Wissenschaft.

  • Gehlen, A. (1988). Man. His nature and place in the world. Columbia University Press.

  • Glock, H.-J. (2012). The anthropological difference: What can philosophers do to identify the differences between human and non-human animals? Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 70, 105–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gould, S. J. (1977). Ontogeny and phylogeny. The Belknap Press.

  • Grene, M. (1966). Positionality in the philosophy of Helmuth Plessner. The Review of Metaphysics, 20(2), 250–277.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grene, M. (1968). Approaches to a philosophical biology. Basic Books.

  • Grene, M. (1974). The understanding of nature. Essays in the philosophy of biology. D. Reidel.

  • Gruevska, J. (2019). “Mit und in seiner Umwelt geboren”: Frederik Buytendijks experimentelle Konzeptualisierung einer Tier-Umwelt-Einheit. NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, 27(3), 343–375.

  • Hakl, H. T. (2013). Eranos: An alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century (trans: McIntosh, C.). McGill-Queen’s University Press.

  • Höfer, F. (2007). Die Notwendigkeit der Kommunikation: Die Missachtung eines Phänomens bei Jakob von Uexküll (PhD Thesis). Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität.

  • Illies, J. (1976). Das Geheimnis des Lebendigen. Kindler.

  • Jaroš, F. (2021). Portmann’s view on anthropological difference. In F. Jaroš & J. Klouda (Eds.), Adolf Portmann: A thinker of self-expressive life (pp. 119–142). Springer.

  • Jaroš, F., & Klouda, J. (Eds.). (2021). Adolf Portmann: A thinker of self-expressive. Springer.

  • Jaroš, F., & Maran, T. (2019). Humans on top, humans among the other animals: Narratives of anthropological difference. Biosemiotics, 12(3), 381–403.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jaroš, F., & Pudil, M. (2020). Cognitive systems of human and non-human animals: At the crossroads of phenomenology ethology and biosemiotics. Biosemiotics, 13(2), 155–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kleisner, K. (2008). The semantic morphology of Adolf Portmann: A starting point for the biosemiotics of organic form. Biosemiotics, 1, 207–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Klouda, J. (2021). The “New Morphology” between biology and philosophy: The hermeneutic dimension of Portmann’s thought. In F. Jaroš & J. Klouda (Eds.), Adolf Portmann: A thinker of self-expressive life (pp. 199–218). Springer.

  • Koehler, O. (1969). Neue Wege der Biologie. Review published in Kindlers Literaturlexikon, Bd. V, 410–411.

  • Kurismaa, A. (2021). Revisiting basal anthropology: A developmental approach to human evolution and sociality. In F. Jaroš & J. Klouda (Eds.), Adolf Portmann: A thinker of self-expressive life (pp. 89–118). Springer.

  • Landmann, M. (1985). Fundamental anthropology (trans: Parent, D. J. Washington D.C.). The Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press of America.

  • Levit, G. S., Hossfeld, U., & Olsson, L. (2014). The Darwinian revolution in Germany: From evolutionary morphology to the modern synthesis. Endeavour, 38(3/4), 268–279.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leyhausen, P. (1973). The biology of expression and impression. In K. Lorenz & P. Leyhausen (Eds.), Motivation of human and animal behavior: An ethological view (pp. 272–380). Van Nostrand Reinhold.

  • Lorenz, K. (1935). Companions as factors in the bird’s environment. In K. Lorenz (Ed.) (1970), Studies in animal and human behavior, vol. I, (pp. 101–258). Methuen & Co.

  • Lorenz, K. (1948). Referat über J. v. Üxküll. Unpublished transcription by Hilde Fürnsinn of a seminar by K. Lorenz, conserved in the Lorenz-Archive of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research of Altenberg, Austria.

  • Lorenz, K. (1996). The natural science of the human species. An introduction to comparative behavioral research. The “Russian Manuscript” (1944–1948). The MIT Press.

  • Magnus, R. (2014). Training guide dogs of the blind with the “phantom man” method: Historic background and semiotic footing. Semiotica, 198, 181–204.

    Google Scholar 

  • Michelini, F., Wunsch, M., & Stederoth, D. (2018). Philosophy of nature and organism’s autonomy: On Hegel, Plessner and Jonas’ theories of living beings. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mildenberger, F., & Herrmann, B. (2014). Stellenkommentar. In J. von Uexküll (Ed.), Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (pp. 243–260). Springer Spektrum.

  • Moll, H. (2016). Tension in the natural history of human thinking. Journal of Social Ontology, 2, 65–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Müller, H. (1988). Philosophische Grundlagen der Anthropologie Adolf Portmanns. VCH Acta Humaniora.

  • Naess, A. (1936). Erkenntnis und wissenschaftliches Verhalten. Doctoral dissertation. Oslo: Jacob Dybwad.

  • Nicholson, D. J., & Gawne, R. (2015). Neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but organicism: What the philosophy of biology was. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 37(4), 345–381.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nickel, G. (1996). Wilhelm Troll (1897–1978). Eine Biographie. Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina.

  • Plessner, H. (2017a). Der Mensch als Lebewesen. Adolf Portmann zum 70 Geburtstag. In H. Plessner (Ed.), Conditio humana. Gesammelte Schriften (pp. 314–327). M: Suhrkamp.

  • Plessner, H. (2017b). Die Frage nach der Conditio humana. In H. Plessner (Ed.), Conditio humana. Gesammelte Schriften in zehn Bänden: VIII (pp. 136–217). M: Suhrkamp.

  • Plessner, H. (2019). Levels of organic life and the human. Fordham University Press.

  • Portmann, A. (1935). Die Ontogenese der Vögel als Evolutionsproblem. Acta Biotheoretica, 1(1–2), 59–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Portmann, A. (1938). Die Ontogenese der Säugetiere als Evolutionsproblem. Biomorphosis, 1(1), 49–66; 1(2), 109–126.

  • Portmann, A. (1941a). Die biologische Bedeutung des ersten Lebensjahres beim Menschen. Schweizerische Medizinische Wochenschrift, 71(32), 921–924.

    Google Scholar 

  • Portmann, A. (1941b). Die Tragzeiten der Primaten und die Dauer der Schwangerschaft beim Menschen: Ein Problem der vergleichen Biologie. Revue Suisse de Zoologie, 48(3), 511–518.

    Google Scholar 

  • Portmann, A. (1942). Die Biologie und das neue Menschenbild. Herbert Lang & Co.

  • Portmann, A. (1948). Die Tiergestalt. Studien über die Bedeutung der tierischen Erscheinung. Friedrich Reinhardt.

  • Portmann, A. (1953). Das Tier als soziales Wesen. Rhein-Verlag.

  • Portmann, A. (1954). Biologie auf neuen Wegen. In J. Moras & H. Paeschke (Eds.), Deutscher Geist zwischen Gestern und Morgen; Bilanz der kulturellen Entwicklung seit 1945 (pp. 172–188). Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

  • Portmann, A. (1956). Ein Wegbereiter der neuen Biologie. In J. von Uexküll & G. Kriszat (Eds.), Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten. Bedeutungslehre (pp. ix–xxi). Rowohlt.

  • Portmann, A. (1957). Transparente und opake Gestaltung. In M. J. Langeveld (Ed.), Rencontre/Encounter/Begegnung Contributions à une psychologie humaine, dédiées au prof. F. J. J. Buytendijk (pp. 355–370). Uitgeverij het Spectrum.

  • Portmann, A. (1960a). Neue Wege der Biologie. Piper.

  • Portmann, A. (1960b). Biologie und Anthropologie. In G. Mann (Ed.), Propyläen Weltgeschichte: Eine Universalgeschichte. Bd. IX: Das zwanzigste Jahrhundert (pp. 559–594). Propyläen-Verlag bei Ullstein.

  • Portmann, A. (1962). The preface to a science of man (trans: Kaal, H.). Diogenes, 10(40), 1–26.

  • Portmann, A. (1964). Animals as social beings (trans: Coburn, O.). Harper & Row.

  • Portmann, A. (1965a). Die neue Auffassung vom Organismus. In H. W. Bähr (Ed.), Die Naturwissenschaft heute (pp. 255–259). Bertelsmann-Verlag.

  • Portmann, A. (1965b). The special position of man in the realm of the living. Commentary, 40(5), 38–41.

    Google Scholar 

  • Portmann, A. (1965c). Aufbruch der Lebensforschung. Rhein-Verlag.

  • Portmann, A. (1967). Animal forms and patterns. Second edition. (trans: Czech, H.). Schocken Books.

  • Portmann, A. (1968). Biologie und Geist. Suhrkamp.

  • Portmann, A. (1970). Entläßt die Natur den Menschen? Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Biologie und Anthropologie. Piper.

  • Portmann, A. (1974). An den Grenzen des Wissens. Vom Beitrag der Biologie zu einem neuen Weltbild. Econ.

  • Portmann, A. (1990a). A zoologist looks at humankind (trans: Schaefer, J.). Columbia University Press.

  • Portmann, A. (1990b). On the uniqueness of biological research. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 15(5), 457–472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Portmann, A. (1990c). Human beings in the perspective of the theory of evolution. In Essays in philosophical zoology by Adolf Portmann: The living form and the seeing eye (trans: Carter, R.) (pp. 125–144). The Edwin Mellen Press.

  • Portmann, A. (1990d). What does the living form mean to us? In Essays in philosophical zoology by Adolf Portmann: The living form and the seeing eye (trans: Carter, R.) (pp. 147–160). The Edwin Mellen Press.

  • Remane, A. (1964). Begrüssungsansprache des Ersten Vorsitzenden. Zoologischer Anzeiger, Jahresversammlung 1963. Supplementband, 27, 35–36.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rieppel, O. (2016). Phylogenetic systematics. Haeckel to Hennig. CRC Press.

  • Ritter, M. (2000). Die Biologie Adolf Portmanns in zeitgeschichtlichem Kontext. Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde, 100, 207–254.

  • Rosenberg, K. (2021). The evolution of human infancy: Why it helps to be helpless. Annual Review of Anthropology, 50(1), 423–440.

  • Rüting, T. (2004). History and significance of Jakob von Uexküll and of his institute in Hamburg. Sign Systems Studies, 32(1/2), 35–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scheler, M. (2009). The human place in the cosmos. Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schnödl, G., & Sprenger, F. (2021). Uexkülls Umgebungen: Umweltlehre und rechtes Denken. Meson Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Starck, J. M., & Ricklefs, R. E. (1998). Patterns of development: The altricial-precocial spectrum. In J. M. Starck & R. E. Ricklefs (Eds.), Avian growth and development (pp. 3–30). Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stella, M., & Kleisner, K. (2010). Uexküllian Umwelt as science and as ideology: The light and the dark side of a concept. Theory in Biosciences, 139(1), 39–51.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thinès, G. (2010). La forme animale selon Frederik Buytendijk et Adolf Portmann: Une phénoménologie du comportement expressif. In F. Burgat (Ed.), Penser le comportement animal: Contribution à une critique du réductionnisme (pp. 117–126). Éditions Quæ.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thinès, G. (2015). Phenomenology and the science of behaviour. An historical and epistemological approach. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolone, O. (2012). Adolf Portmann: The expressive function of technique. Ethics and Politics, 14(1), 230–242.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolone, O. (2015). Plessner und Adolf Portmann. Zur philosophischen Bestimmung des Menschen durch Exzentrizität und Frühgeburt. In K. Köchy & F. Michelini (Eds.), Zwischen den Kulturen. Plessners “Stufen des Organischen” im zeithistorischen Kontext (pp. 141–160). Alber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tønnessen, M., & Beever, J. (2014). Beyond sentience: Biosemiotics as foundation for animal and environmental ethics. In J. Hadley & E. Aaltola (Eds.), Animal ethics and philosophy: Questioning the orthodoxy (pp. 47–62). Rowman & Littlefield International.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tønnessen, M., Magnus, R., & Brentari, C. (2016). The biosemiotic glossary project: Umwelt. Biosemiotics, 9(1), 129–149.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trevathan, W. R., & Rosenberg, K. R. (2016). Human evolution and the helpless infant. In W. R. Trevathan & K. R. Rosenberg (Eds.), Costly and cute: Helpless infants and human evolution (pp. 1–28). School for Advanced Research Press, University of New Mexico Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (1902). Psychologie und Biologie in ihrer Stellung zur Tierseele. Ergebnisse der Physiologie, 1(2), 212–233.

  • von Uexküll, J. (1909). Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (1910). Mendelismus. Die neue Rundschau, 21, 1589–1596.

  • von Uexküll, J. (1921). Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. 2. Vermehrte und verbesserte Auflage. Springer.

  • von Uexküll, J. (1928). Theoretische Biologie. Zweite gänzlich neu bearbeitete Auflage. Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (1929). Plan und Induktion. Wilhelm Roux’ Archiv für Entwicklungsmechanik der Organismen, 116, 36–43.

  • von Uexküll, J. (1933). Staatsbiologie: Anatomie-Physiologie-Pathologie des Staates. Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (1926). Theoretical biology. Harcourt, Brace & Co.

  • von Uexküll, J. (1936). Niegeschaute Welten. Die Umwelten meiner Freunde. Fischer.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (1950). Das allmächtige Leben. Wegner.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (2001). An introduction to Umwelt. Semiotica, 134, 107–110.

  • von Uexküll, J. (2010a). A foray into the worlds of animals and humans. In J. von Uexküll (Ed.), A foray into the worlds of animals and humans, with: A theory of meaning (pp. 41–135). University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J. (2010b). A theory of meaning. In J. von Uexküll (Ed.), A foray into the worlds of animals and humans, with: A theory of meaning (pp. 136–208). University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Uexküll, J., & von Uexküll, T. (1944). Die ewige Frage: Biologische Variationen über einen platonischen Dialog. Marion von Schröder Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Wahlert, G. (1999). Portmann’s work in a newer evolutionary perspective. Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, 37(115), 75–87.

  • Wendler, H. (2020). Philosophical primatology: Reflections on theses of anthropological difference, the logic of anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, and the self-other category mistake within the scope of cognitive primate research. Biological Theory, 15, 61–82.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wild, M. (2007). Die anthropologische Differenz: Der Geist der Tiere in der frühen Neuzeit bei Montaigne, Descartes und Hume (Bd 74). Walter de Gruyter.

Download references


We wish to thank Andrew G. Christensen for English language editing and Martin Nitsche, Jiří Klouda, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. The research for this article was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (GAČR) project “Adolf Portmann—a pioneer of the eidetic and semiotic approach in the philosophy of the life sciences” (grant number 19-11571S).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Filip Jaroš.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

The original online version of this article was revised: Table 1 has been replaced by the correct version. The missing citation to Plessner (2017a,b) has been inserted on page 16.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jaroš, F., Brentari, C. Organisms as subjects: Jakob von Uexküll and Adolf Portmann on the autonomy of living beings and anthropological difference. HPLS 44, 36 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Jakob von Uexküll
  • Adolf Portmann
  • Agency
  • Human and non-human subjectivity
  • Anthropological difference