Photograph by Michael Marder.
and Michael Marder
June 24, 2015
Philosophy flourished in Ancient Greece on the basis of the question of nature, construed in vegetal terms. The Greek word for nature was phusis, alluding to growth and, in particular, to the germination and blossoming forth of plants. Nonetheless, the version of classical metaphysics that became predominant in the West was transfixed by the animal world. In fact, provoking the laughter of Diogenes, Plato characterized the human as a featherless bipedal animal and presented an indelible image of the soul as a charioteer who tries to steer a carriage drawn by two horses. Aristotle, in turn, defined the human as a “rational animal.”
The metaphysical privileging of the animal, hierarchically standing above vegetal life, has situated this mode of thinking in opposition to phusis-nature, closely linked to the world of plants. Paradoxically, the most ethereal, spiritual dimension of metaphysical thought unfolds contra natura, against nature, which is to say, against plants. We emphasize the paradoxality of this move particularly in relation to Aristotle’s philosophy, where the demand is to think each being according to what it is, in keeping with its nature, kata phusin. But what does “according to nature” mean, when the word is divested of its vegetal connotations? Perhaps, one can say that metaphysics thinks nature itself against nature and that, it is consistently with this de-vegetalized “counter-nature nature,” that singular beings and being as a whole are grasped.
Aristotle’s expression kata phusin actually contains a veiled double allusion to vegetal life. We have mentioned the first of these overtones, namely the origination of phusis in plant processes and phenomena of growth. The other is hidden in the word kata: according to… , in keeping with… . Kata implies the continuity of thinking with the matter thought about, the former faithfully following whatever the latter presents and dictates. Aristotelian thought cannot, under any circumstances, oppose itself to the object of its inquiry, thinking against it. In fact, it has no object, considering that this construct is something posited over and against the subject, thus violating the continuity of kata phusin. Unbeknownst to him, twice over, Aristotle calls upon us to think similarly to plants, jointly with the environment, with the elements of the earth, water, air, and celestial fire, and with everything else gathered under the vegetal heading of growth. To think not by opposing ourselves to and hence objectifying the known, in what is nothing but mimicry of an animal’s relation to the world, but by tracking whatever has caught our interest like a sunflower that retraces the daily course of the sun.
The attraction of metaphysics to the figure of the animal may be correlated to the preference that this tradition accords to patriarchy and masculinity over matriarchy and femininity. Along with plants, women have been for a long time considered irrational, lacking in intelligence, much closer to the earth and the world of matter than that of spirit. To a certain extent, that has also been the fate of animals, considering that reason has been exclusively attributed to humanity, and only to its male representatives at that. Still, it has been much easier for us to accept that there is something like animal intelligence than to admit that there is also an intelligence of plants. What explains this strong resistance? Could it be due to the nature of patriarchal rationality, sustaining our techno-instrumental world, which displays more affinities to animal activity? Does a rigidly masculine mode of reasoning intuitively feel that the life of plants constitutes its unsurpassable limit? Is that why it cannot help but view vegetation as too passive, strange, foreign, and other to be considered intelligent?
Plant scientists, such as Stefano Mancuso and Frantisek Baluska who investigate vegetal intelligence, have reminded us of Charles Darwin’s idea that plants have a kind of “brain” situated in their roots that detect numerous factors essential to their survival and enable their adaptive responses. Whereas the animal has a brain above, in the air, the plant has a rough cerebral equivalent below, in the obscurity of the earth. In this sense, we might associate the discovery of vegetal intelligence with what psychologist Eric Neumann has termed “matriarchal consciousness,” acting from inside the unconscious and in continuity with its processes. This psychic structure gives rise to a peculiar kind of activity, which cannot be reduced to that of an animal and which, from the patriarchal-animal perspective, remains invisible or appears as mere passivity. At the same time, the later “patriarchal consciousness” separates from and opposes itself to the unconscious in an aggressive fashion, corresponding more to the way an animal’s brain responds to the requirements of its natural environment. A complex opposition thus emerges between acting contra natura, objective-objectifying knowledge, masculinity, metaphysical subjectivity, and animality, on the one hand, and living in contiguity with the world, non-objectivating knowing, femininity, a pre- and post-metaphysical subjectivity, and plant life, on the other.
In patriarchal cultures and mythologies, humans usually interpret themselves starting from animality, as superior or spiritual animals, with whose mobility and projective behavior they identify, all the while striving to domesticate or hunt them. For all its emphasis on pure rationality and the enlightenment, Western metaphysics inherits this bias, sensing an unconscious need to assert its independence vis-à-vis the vegetal world, biological origins in birth from a woman, and a model of reasoning predicated on continuity between thought and existence. Now, matriarchal mythologies that originate from the gathering, as opposed to a hunting, mode of life recognize themselves in the cycles of death and regeneration of vegetation, with its mode of adapting to and working with the environment without ruthlessly transforming it. Although the process of humanization has shifted from the vegetal to the animal, it need not detain itself at the latter stage forever. Its culmination would signal a coexistence of the animal-patriarchal spirit with the vegetal-matriarchal soul, recovered in the context of freedom, equality, and communal attachment. It would, thus, mean thinking according to and against “nature,” keeping the objectivating drive in check.