Michael Marder: The Philosopher’s Plant (CUP 2014) [IBR2022]

Despite its widespread conceptual allergy to vegetable life – indeed, it’s phytophobia – the philosophical tradition in the West could not skirt the issue of plants altogether. Philosophers allotted to them a generally inferior place in their systems; used their germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned them in passing as the natural backdrops for their dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegory’s out of them; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to particular specimens.
Most of these engagements with the flora were fleeting and marginal, as though plants did not deserve the same careful reflection and theoretical attention due to other beings. But our rehashing of the philosophical record, sketchy at best in the case of plants, is not doomed to repeat the failures of the past…. Briefly put, this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought.

I recently became a plant person.

It’s not that I’ve never had an interest in plants before. In the mid-70s, I worked in an office that viewed desktop horticulture as a competitive sport; everything I tried at home developed little white fuzzy spots, possibly because my basement apartment was plagued by dampness (and a few other things). I moved to an airier but much darker place, and to a more work-conscious job, and plants disappeared from my life.

In the early 90s, however, they reappeared, courtesy of balconies and large sunny windows, then disappeared again when I again moved into the dark later that decade. There was one exception to this twenty years of shadow: when I was reading Dante’s Commedia, I noticed a vine growing on the outside of the building, unattached but reaching towards something; this made Dante’s defense of his faith to Peter in “Paradiso” more concrete to this heathen than any commentary:

And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.
That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

“A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness” 8/14/2015 post

Three years ago, I found myself in this current place with abundant windows and great views of sunrises and moonrises and abundant light, but plants didn’t occur to me until a few months later when COVID changed everything. I will now talk anyone’s ear off about my rather mundane array of philodendrons, curly Bonnie spider plants (late-breaking news: one of them is blooming! A rare event, I hear), ponytail palms (named Tina Turner), oxalis (named Mrs. O’Malley), English ivy, and several cobbled-together trios of the phil-ivy-bonnie, and spend far more time than necessary rearranging and propagating my green family.

All of which is a long-winded, self-aggrandizing way to explain why I might have been interested in a book about the role of plants in philosophy when I saw it on that gold mine of interesting books, Five Books’ “What’s everyone reading this weekend” thread. Especially when they included pics of the TOC.

So I walked through the Intellectual Herbarium watching how the philosophical meaning of plants changed over time as schools of thought came and went. A paragraph from the Heidegger chapter – fairly late in the book – sums it up quite nicely:

After Plato called being eidos (Idea), he located truth in the idea of the tree, rather than in the trees themselves, and prioritized other Ideas, such as that of beauty, over the tree. Aristotle conceived of being as the “unmoved mover” and, focusing on the problems of animation and entelechy, reduced plants to the poor bearers of vegetable souls. Plotinus converted the plant into the vegetable dimension of the One, his Parmenidian misnomer for being.
Augustine was still less interested in actual vegetation, preferring to treat it as the symbol of spiritual reality. For him, as for all medieval philosophers, perfect and self-sufficient being is none other than God, while plants are the least autonomous of all creatures. Avicenna slotted plants into an intricate hierarchy of souls and reduced them to their instrumental value (e.g., for a human diet or medicine) even as Maimonides turned them into hapless quasi-things bearing the full brunt of the law.
Leibnitz’ word for being was “substance,” the same as in the thought of Spinoza and Descartes; for him, plants were the most unabashedly material expressions of the one substance. Kant thought of beings as the “thing-in-itself,” beyond the limits of our practical and conceptual grasp. Within these limits, plants were reduced to scientifically knowable matter prepared for reproduction, to useful resources, and, at best, to the placeholders of universal beauty. Hegel called being “Spirit” and implied that actual plants had to lose their immediate biological life – to be preserved as dried mementos or fermented into bread or wine, for instance – to be reborn into the glorious world of Spirit.
On each page of this intellectual herbarium the plants themselves are forlorn: they are supposed to point to a reality beyond themselves, a reality ranging from Ideas to Spirit. The forgetting of the growing trees, herbs, or flowers corresponds to and stems from the forgetting of being in the midst of attempts to name it. Our ethical failures – be they in relation to other human beings, animals, or plants – are the direct consequences of this forgetting that consistently drives us out of this world and away from the material ground of our lives, that commits us to a “higher” reality, and that devalues whatever or whoever surrounds us. Heidegger’s ontology, locating being in the beings themselves, is therefore fundamental also in this important sense: it is the ground for the ethics of respecting beings in their own being.

Marder’s book is unique not only in its focus on plants – similar to many history-of-philosophy books that focus on a certain common element – but in its structure. Four historically-matched sections each contain three philosophers:

  • Ancient Plant-Souls (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus);
  • Medieval Plant-Instruments (Augustine, Avicenna, Maimonides);
  • Modern Plant-Images (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel);
  • Postmodern Plant-Subjects (Heidegger, Derrida, Irigaray).

What’s unique about any of this, you say? It’s the structure of each chapter: they are subdivided into four thematic parts, related to each of the other chapters, which creates, as Marder puts it, a different path for reading:

Readers interested in stories that mingle the episodes from the lives (and, in some cases, the deaths) of philosophers with the life of plants may browse the first section of each chapter. If you would like to glean theories of vegetable existence and how they bear up on the main ideas of each philosopher in question, you are advised to consult the second sections (and, at times, the third). The third section of each chapter explores the implications of human interactions with plants. The concluding sections offer critical vistas for reassessing the place of plants as well as the legacies of the thinkers discussed in the book.

So if you’re in an ambling mood, you can read about how Plato snuck himself into Phaedrus as a plano tree, overshadowing Socrates and Phaedrus discussing love, friendship, and sex; then you can move on to some discussion of just why Augustine featured his youthful theft of pears so prominently in his Confessions, to an examination of Kant’s marginal use of a tulip, cadged from Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in his Critique of Judgment (and why it’s unlikely to actually be a tulip), to three encounters Derrida had with plants, one from his teenage years in Algiers, one from writing a love note, and one considering sunflowers and their heliotropism, all of which featured in his later writings.

But if you’re looking more for how these philosophers viewed plants in their overall view of being (for ontology is the primary focus of the works, with a few nods to aesthetics and epistemology), you can start with, say, Plato, who sees humans as upside-down plants: not rooted in the soil, but in the plane of Ideas, with our roots reaching upward from our heads. Then you can read about Maimonides disagreeing with the idea of plants, animals, and humans all having a vegetative soul and seeing instead individual souls for each creature, similar in some aspects but unique to the species. Hegel works in a botanical dialectic, which puzzles me a bit so I’ll just mention it and come back to it later when I’ve got more background. From the post-modern section, Irigaray (who, I confess, is brand-new to me) as a feminist thinker kicks back against the notion of a plant’s perceived passivity and sharing as deficiencies.

While I’ve done some reading and coursework in some areas covered by this book, others were new horizons. I’m familiar with Leibniz from calculus, where there’s usually a comment that in addition to having invented calculus parallel to Newton and contributed notation which is more useful in some circumstances, he was a philosopher, but that’s about it. Now I’ve had a chance to get a small glimpse of his philosophy, particularly the identity of indiscernables, which I think of as something like an ontological Pauli Exclusion Principle. I was also quite fond of Maimonides weaving Jewish law around “pots with holes” and who owns the part above the ground versus who owns the roots. And I was tickled to learn that Avicenna, whose book on medicine was a standard for centuries, didn’t consider fruits and vegetables to be of much nutritional benefit.

Although this is an academic rather than a general-readership book, it’s quite accessible to those of us who have some background but limited depth. For one thing, information on the philosophers involved is easily available online to fill in any gaps. I haven’t thought about Derrida since college (let’s just say that was a long time ago) when I was obsessed with the idea of binary opposition; I was able to find a video from Pomona College that gave a very quick review of differance and enabled me to appreciate all the word play mentioned in the chapter. Everything I know about Heidegger comes from a wonderful short story by Tim Horvath, “The Understory,” which features Heidegger as a character but foregrounds trees. Funny how, if you read enough, it all eventually connects. Yet the chapter was quite readable; I wouldn’t say I understand everything, but learning is a layered process and I’ve made progress.

Another lovely touch are the illustrations by Mathilde Roussel that begin each chapter. It was fun to look at them after reading and see how they illustrated some point that was raised.

One outside reference made me very happy: when Plato proposes that plants have an appetitive soul, Marder editorializes:

Upon hearing about the appetitive soul of plants, today’s readers of Plato might run out of patience with his theory. They will raise a litany of ironical questions: what is it that my cactus desires? What are the pleasures of a rosebush – not the ones it gives to those contemplating its blossoms, but of the bush itself? And that is not even to speak of the pains of a liana, the sensations of a bamboo, or the desires of a palm tree.
Before brushing aside the Platonic insight with a dismissive smirk, why not give the philosopher the benefit of the doubt and let him explain himself. His train of reasoning is actually very simple. Plants cannot live without receiving nourishment by imbibing water through their roots. (although the term is of a Greek pedigree, photosynthesis was as yet unknown at the time of Plato.) When water is in short supply, plants detect the lack of moisture and respond by wilting. If they can be thirsty, and if desire is associated with the experienced a lack of the desired thing in the desiring being, then the fern you have not watered for weeks is, in fact, desirous of water.

First of all, people who take their plants seriously – even if it’s one tiny coleus on an office windowsill – are always saying things like “it doesn’t look happy so I’d better get it out of direct sun” or “it needs something but I’m not sure.” That speaks more to our tendency to anthropomorphize than to the plant’s feelings, but a plant has ways of showing distress: wilting, browning, legginess. And what is legginess but the search for needed light? Not only does the plant know what it needs, it takes steps to find it.

But the really fun part is that next to the sentence, “Does a water-deprived plant really feel the absence of its desire?” I wrote in the margin: “What A Plant Knows!!”, a book by Daniel Chamovitz (and accompanying mooc) I read a couple of years ago. I was going to tell Dr. Marder a thing or two about plants. But then, a couple of paragraphs later, practically danced when he mentioned Chamovitz’ book as providing “data that support the Platonic hypothesis” with the example of leaves that fold up when touched. I still remember the research phytologist who recommended the book to me after she tweeted, “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” So keep your Plato snark to yourself: to paraphrase Whitman, “Do not scorn the plants because they don’t communicate the way you do.”

I have to admit, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, both in its form and content. Beyond enjoyment, it was also a success in how much I learned and in the roadmap I now see for how much I still have to learn. It’s probably not the first philosophy book one should read, but it makes a very nice secondary effort.

4 responses to “Michael Marder: The Philosopher’s Plant (CUP 2014) [IBR2022]

  1. My beloved aunt Eva was a PhD botanist. My mother a plant maniac. And all i have managed so far is to kill some ferns, occasionally to buy something that I am convinced I will take care of right, before running out of enthusiasm. I cleared a sizable plot by our stream, claiming I will make it a butterfly friendly garden. HA!
    Maybe one day I will get there. My bonsai is still alive. It is hardy.
    I speak to trees. Anthropomorphism for sure.
    Maybe this book would help. Or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.