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Adolf Portmann

A Thinker of Self-Expressive Life

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  • © 2021


  • The first overview and analysis of Adolf Portmann’s work in English
  • Offers an alternative approach to anthropology, zoology, and life sciences through the lens of Adolf Portmann's work
  • Examines the full potential of biosemiotics as a developing field for a wider epigenetic movement in biology (e.g. evo-devo, systems biology)

Part of the book series: Biosemiotics (BSEM, volume 23)

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About this book

This edited volume is the first specialized book in English about the Swiss zoologist and anthropologist Adolf Portmann (1897-1982). It provides a clarification and update of Portmann’s theoretical approach to the phenomenon of life, characterized by terms such as “inwardness” and “self-presentation.” Portmann’s concepts of secondary altriciality and the social uterus have become foundational in philosophical anthropology, providing a benchmark of the difference between humans and animals.

In its content, this book brings together two approaches: historical and philosophical analysis of Portmann’s studies in the life sciences and application of Portmann’s thought in the fields of biology, anthropology, and biosemiotics. Significant attention is also paid to the methodological implications of his intended reform of biology. Besides contributions from contemporary biologists, philosophers, and historians of science, this volume also includes a translation of an original essayby Portmann and a previously unpublished manuscript from his most remarkable English-speaking interpreter, philosopher Marjorie Grene.

Portmann’s conception of life is unique in its focus on the phenomenal appearance of organisms. Confronted with the enormous amount of scientific knowledge being produced today, it is even clearer than it was during Portmann’s lifetime that although biologists employ physical and chemical methods, biology itself is not (only) physics and chemistry. These exact methods must be applied according to what has meaning for living beings. If biology seeks to understand organisms as autonomous agents, it needs to take display and the interpretation of appearances as basic characteristics of life.

The topic of this book is significantly relevant to the disciplines of theoretical biology, philosophy, philosophical anthropology, and biosemiotics. The recent epigenetic turn in biology, acknowledging the interconnections between organismal development, morphology and communication, presents an opportunity to revisit Portmann’s work and to reconsider and update his primary ideas in the contemporary context.

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Table of contents (14 chapters)

  1. Paving a Path to the New Biology

  2. Historical Context and Later Reception

Editors and Affiliations

  • Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, University of Hradec Králové, Hradec Králové, Czech Republic

    Filip Jaroš, Jiří Klouda

About the editors

Filip Jaroš is an assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, University of Hradec Králové. He spent one year (2017/8) as a postdoc researcher at the Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu. He obtained his PhD in theoretical and evolutionary biology at Charles University in Prague. His main scholarly interests include the biosocial philosophy of Adolf Portmann, human-animal communication and the problem of anthropological difference. Filip Jaroš is an Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biosemiotics and coedited a book about animal aesthetics, Krása a zvíře. Studie o vztahu estetických a etických hodnot zvířat [Beauty and the beast: essays on aesthetic and ethical values of animals, in Czech].

Jiří Klouda is an assistant professor at the First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University in Prague. He is also working on a research project at the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, University Hradec Králové. His research focuses on Continental philosophy, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of life sciences and topics concerning ancient Greek science, philosophy and literature. Among his most recent publications are “Wilhelm Dilthey: Lived Experience and the Symbolical Productivity of the Body” (In J. Parry – P. Allison, eds., Experiential Learning and Outdoor Education. Traditions of Practice and Philosophical Perspectives, London – New York: Routledge 2020); “Institution of Life in Gehlen and Merleau-Ponty” (In Human Studies, 41, 2018, with J. Halák). 

Bibliographic Information

  • Book Title: Adolf Portmann

  • Book Subtitle: A Thinker of Self-Expressive Life

  • Editors: Filip Jaroš, Jiří Klouda

  • Series Title: Biosemiotics

  • DOI:

  • Publisher: Springer Cham

  • eBook Packages: History, History (R0)

  • Copyright Information: The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-3-030-67809-8Published: 08 September 2021

  • Softcover ISBN: 978-3-030-67812-8Published: 09 September 2022

  • eBook ISBN: 978-3-030-67810-4Published: 07 September 2021

  • Series ISSN: 1875-4651

  • Series E-ISSN: 1875-466X

  • Edition Number: 1

  • Number of Pages: X, 273

  • Number of Illustrations: 9 b/w illustrations, 5 illustrations in colour

  • Topics: Philosophy of Biology, Semiotics, Philosophy, general, History of Philosophy

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