Confessions of a Plant Philosopher

by

Michael Marder

 

More and more, I hear—or rather see in print—references to myself as a “plant philosopher.” In 2014, the American BOMB Magazine characterized me as “arguably the closest contemporary figure we have to a canonical plant philosopher.” The moniker has resurfaced many time since, most recently in Prudence Gibson’s book The Plant Contract and in the playbill of Manuela Infante’s theatre production Estado Vegetal, “The Vegetative State.”

This is not a term I invented. It has been, like a name one receives before one is able to form memories, given to me by others. Obviously, the fields of my philosophical investigations are not limited to plants; I write on politics, energy, ecological devastation, dust… But it is also true that the others know us better than we know ourselves, which means that there is a deeper truth in their assessment. So, I accept the designation, even if, like you, I am curious to learn precisely what it means.

Let’s start with the words themselves. “Plant philosopher” may refer to the one who philosophizes about plants. Or, it may be a shorthand for “a philosopher of plants,” an expression that needs further unpacking. On the one hand, its sense overlaps with philosophizing about plants, adding nothing new to the preceding interpretation. On the other hand, it becomes really strange, assuming that “of plants” implies belonging to them, being claimed by and for them. Heard in this sense, the expression vegetalizes me. To my mind, this ambiguity is as irresolvable as it is significant. In short, it integrates theory with practice, thinking with doing, knowledge production with ethical concerns.  

 The project of plant-thinking, limited as its scope seems, has gradually drawn the philosopher (yours truly), philosophy as such, and the figure of the human into its orbit. Which is why, regardless of what I (or anyone, for that matter) think, we are all plant philosophers. We owe our thinking (all of it without remainder!) to plants—both at its source, at the inception of thought, and at its points of destination. I will explain myself on this in a moment, but, first, you might be musing: “What is his backstory? How did his affair with plants happen?”

 My relation to plants has never been easy. Since the age of three, I have been suffering from debilitating bouts of pollen allergy, so severe that the doctors in Moscow, where I was born, recommended that I spend much of the spring in another climate. Many years later, I would hypothesize that, the ideal of immutable being is a symptom of philosophy’s conceptual allergy to plants. After all, trees, flowers, bushes, grass are the exact opposite of this ideal: they are living beings in perpetual metamorphosis, growing, changing, shedding leaves or petals, adding new organs. While I could not do much about my physiological allergic reaction, I was determined to tackle the conceptual allergy, which I perceived to be incomparably more harmful to humans and plants alike.

Despite these early experiences, I have always been fascinated with plants. My nickname in elementary and middle school was botanik, “botanist.” For a few years running, I participated in city-wide and regional “Olympiads” on the subject. Living at the outskirts of the city, my geographical location was at the edge of an extensive forest “Elk Island,” which was granted the status of Russia’s first national park in 1983, the year of my initial allergy outbreak. The forest was an integral part of my existence, a place where I took endless walks, gathered berries in the summer, skied in the winter, imbibed the smells and sights of the fallen and already half-rotten leaves in the autumn.  

No wonder that the idea of plant-thinking came to me in another forest (which is, by the way, also a national park)—Paneda-Gerês, spanning the border between Northern Portugal and Spain. Though very different from the woods of my childhood, this enchanted and enchanting place with moss-covered trees and wild horses stimulated my body and mind, lungs, eyes, and cognition like few others before. I spent my days in the forest and, at nightfall, I huddled by the fireplace of the lodge where I was staying with a book on Aristotle by Italian philosopher Claudia Baracchi. It was then and there that I became aware of how plant life was a lacuna in contemporary thought, not to mention in ethical approaches to the world.

 For Aristotle, the soul (by which he means something like the principle of vitality that animates beings, putting them in motion) has three possible forms. A uniquely human principle of vitality is rationality, the capacity to reason; the animal soul revolves around sentience, the senses, feelings, emotions. And there is also the vegetal principle of vitality responsible for nourishment and reproduction.

Over the past fifty years or so, “the human” has been subject to unpicking through critiques of reason as a fake universality, one that spins absolute standards out of particular male, propertied, European experiences. In the last twenty-five years, traditional constructs of the animal as deficient in comparison to the human have been also questioned. At the heart of these constructs is a trick, a sleight-of-hand condensed in the assertion (whether or not implicit) that because animals neither think nor speak as we do, they neither think nor speak, period. Be this as it may, radical changes in the human self-conception and in the notion of the animal intervene in, unsettle, and reframe the upper crusts of the Aristotelian soul, or at least of the shape in which it has reached us.

It dawned on me one fine evening in Gerês that, for all their daring, current interrogations of the human and the animal have left the foundations of the entire philosophical edifice relatively untouched. They have not engaged with plants. Already Aristotle deemed vegetal vitality (or organismic capacity to obtain nourishment and reproduce) to be a shared faculty of the soul, presupposed in the animal and human modes of existence. But there is much more to this faculty than Aristotle is willing to admit. Unless one debunks the myths that plants cannot think and are not sentient, the rest of the exercise in what is known, somewhat pompously, as “the deconstruction of Western metaphysics” is going to be superficial.

 By taking an apparent detour, we have stumbled upon an answer to the question why the project of plant-thinking has drawn this philosopher, philosophy as a whole, and the human into its orbit. If vegetal vitality is the most basic, shared, common life, pulsing through plants, animals, and humans, then it replaces a particularly human brand of reason as the true home of universality. Further, if other modes of vitality, including sentience and thinking, are not external superimpositions but the often-times unrecognizable outgrowths of vegetality, then to really understand them we need to go back to their vegetal roots. It is for this reason that I claimed in Plant-Thinking that even in our highest endeavors we remain sublimated plants.

In concrete terms, is it at all possible to obtain nourishment, reproduce, and finally live without thinking? Would any organism invest large amounts of energy into movement or growth in a haphazard manner, regardless of the whereabouts of what it is seeking? Evidently, such a scenario would be absurd. In fact, plant scientists have shown that roots grow intelligently toward patches of soil that have the most mineral and water resources. Along the way, they utilize biochemical substances to communicate with the roots of other plants. In the so-called transition zones that surround them, they exchange information with fungi and bacteria, with which they live in a symbiotic relation. They can adjust the direction of their growth, navigating underground labyrinths, filled with obstacles and rewards, no less proficiently than rodents placed in above-ground labyrinthine structures. 

This is just a small piece of the puzzle in the rapidly expanding field of plant intelligence studies. I have great respect for scientists (including, among others, Monica Gagliano, Stefano Mancuso, Frantisek Baluska, Richard Karban) who are spearheading this field. They are still working in a state of siege, under attack by their more traditionally-minded colleagues who deny that plants are intelligent and who prefer to see in them green, photosynthesizing machines. But I do not think that intelligence is the whole story here. For me, intelligence and thinking are not synonymous, not interchangeable. Plant-thinking is emphatically not plant-intelligence. So, what’s the difference between them?

Intelligence is basically instrumental. It is a sophisticated tool—using calculations, algorithmic functions, and so on—for getting what one needs or wants in an efficient way. Although different kinds of beings have different types of intelligence at their disposal, the form of intelligent conduct is suspiciously homogeneous: it boils down to utility-maximizing subjects acting to avoid pain (or environmental stress) and to procure pleasure (or ensure optimal conditions for flourishing).

Thinking will have none of that. I see it more as a fragile balancing act happening in the interfaces of the organism and its environment, an act looking, Janus-faced, both ways at the same time. Thinking is not utility-maximizing; it is, precisely, the opposite—leaving one’s comfort zone, one’s enclosure in oneself. It catapults the thinker into the world, for nothing in particular, for no apparent purpose or end. Thinking is existence. (You will have recognized that I am inverting Descartes’ dictum into “I am, therefore, I think.”) Arguably, plants think with unrivalled intensity, because their mode of existence constantly takes them outside of themselves into leafing, blossoming, extending branches and roots. Not only do they have transition zones around some of their organs, but they also are transition zones between themselves and their environments. That is the place of thinking, the site where it happens.

As you can imagine, these and related arguments have landed me in hot water over the years. To give you an example, exactly seven years ago I penned an op-ed titled “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” for “The Stone” philosophy section of The New York Times. I did not expect at that time that it would stir as much controversy (peppered with online death threats) as it did in the following weeks. I was attacked by everyone from Christian fundamentalists to vegans and from neuroscientists to humanist rationalists. I see in the scandal that ensued a symptom of psychological resistance. For centuries, if not millennia, plenty of psychic energy has been poured into creating and maintaining a certain image of humanity, accorded a place at the pinnacle of existence, with lower positions assigned to non-human lifeforms. These ideational structures cannot collapse overnight (and the spans of ten, twenty-five, or fifty years amount to “overnight” compared to the history of metaphysics). When its walls are breached, defenses are mobilized and everything is done to patch up the damaged section and to repel a perceived menace.

Another possibility is that, in my capacity of a plant philosopher, I have been unconsciously conflated with the plants themselves. And so, I have received a fraction of the negative and nihilistic discharge our culture releases against life and, above all, against vegetal life.

Whimsical as it may sound, to be a plant philosopher is to assume the utmost responsibility, which goes beyond the tasks of representing the interests of plants or speaking for them. Deeply engrained in the fabric of existence, of my thinking-breathing body, this ethical function cannot be limited to that of a press secretary or even a legal representative. An ethical stance, which is quite different from a moral position, motivates the unfolding of one’s life and thought in excess of a coherently formulated commitment, a decision one makes. At that level, none of us really knows her- or himself, just as we have no memories of ourselves roughly before the age of three. Others know us better than we, ourselves, do. It is only fitting, then, that they would name us, that they would name me, for example, “plant philosopher.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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