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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

IMPACT FACTOR 2018: 0.509

CiteScore 2018: 0.23

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.232
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.478

Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca: Classe A

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Volume 2014, Issue 198


Umwelt or Umwelten? How should shared representation be understood given such diversity?

Colin Allen
Published Online: 2014-02-15 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2013-0105


It is a truism among ethologists that one must not forget that animals perceive and represent the world differently from humans. Sometimes this caution is phrased in terms of von Uexküll's Umwelt concept. Yet it seems possible (perhaps even unavoidable) to adopt a common ontological framework when comparing different species of mind. For some purposes it seems sufficient to anchor comparative cognition in common-sense categories; bats echolocate insects (or a subset of them) after all. But for other purposes it seems necessary to find out more about how organisms organize their perceptions into biologically significant and perhaps cognitively meaningful states. Complex animals have high bandwidth sensory channels that feed into large nerve networks with very complex dynamics. Even for relatively simple animals belonging to species believed to have a small, fixed number of neurons, the odds are very much against any two animals of the same species, let alone different species, having exactly the same couplings to the environment, the same dimensionality in their nervous systems, or the same dynamics. Given such diversity (which von Uexküll himself recognized), how should we think about shared representation, shared meaning, and cognitive similarity between individuals and species?

Keywords: Umwelt; meaning; representation; cognition; ethology

About the article

Colin Allen

Colin Allen (b. 1960) is a professor at Indiana University 〈colallen@indiana.edu〉. His research interests include animal mind, artificial intelligence, foundations of cognitive science, and digital humanities. His publications include Species of mind: The philosophy and biology of cognitive ethology (with M. Bekoff, 1998); and Moral machines: Teaching robots right from wrong (with W. Wallach, 2009).

Published Online: 2014-02-15

Published in Print: 2014-02-01

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2014, Issue 198, Pages 137–158, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2013-0105.

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