Plant-Thinking Is Not Species-Thought


Photograph by Jo Naylor.

by Michael Marder

APRIL 24, 2015

When our engagements with living beings rely on the language of “species,” they imperceptibly fall back into the categories of early Scholasticism. It is unclear to me why scientific ways of considering diverse forms of life have to stay frozen in that particular moment of European thought. They neither recall the Greek beginnings of the “systematic” investigations of nature nor catch up with the more recent developments in, say, quantum physics (or, closer to home, evolutionary theory). The outdated method of classifying plants, animals, fungi, etc. has a profound impact on our mode of seeing and treating them, which means that a change in how we order living beings would go a long way toward transforming our ontological and ethical relations to them.

The writings of “the last Roman and the first Scholastic,” Boethius, are especially pertinent to what I refer to as “species-thought.” Through induction from “singular things,” Boethius claims, it is possible to arrive at their likeness (similitudo), which is the foundation for the concept of species:  “…a species should be considered as nothing other than a thought (cogitatio) collected from the substantial likeness of many individuals which differ by number, whilst a genus is a thought collected from the likeness of species” (2InIsag. 166:16-18). From the standpoint of an already formed species-thought, however, the differences among the individuals that comprise it are accidental and superficial, just as from the perspective of the genus the distinctions among the species are inessential. To continue working with the notions of species, genera, and kingdoms (note how the latter superimpose a monarchical structure on modes of living) is to capitulate before the power of abstraction, oblivious to singularity. Even if we stress the multiplicity of such categories, they will remain shackled to the actual or potential unity of a higher-level universal. It is as though we first placed living beings in hermetically sealed boxes, and then tried to air these containers by cutting windows, through which they could communicate with each other and with the world.

In broad brushstrokes, the heavy Scholastic heritage is the background for the reception of the philosophies of plant and animal life developed today. I am often asked, tongue-in-cheek: “You concentrate on plants. But what about fungi-thinking? Or algae-thinking? Or even mineral-thinking? Why exclude these other categories of organic and inorganic entities?” These questions are misguided, because they presuppose that I subscribe to the Scholastic division of the world into species, genera, and so forth.

Actually, “plant-thinking” has little in common with “species-thought.” Although it might seem that I privilege the biological Kingdom Plantae, I do not intend it as a reference to some generic, abstract, nonexistent being that would encompass tulips, sequoias, and moss. Rather, “plants” stand for a tendency of living and thinking that promotes growth, decay and metamorphosis. This vital tendency, vector, or trajectory cuts across Boethius’s “substantial likeness” and difference among individuals, and pertains to various kingdoms, classes, orders, families, and so on. That is why there is nothing odd in recognizing and cultivating “the plant in us,” which is to say, the vegetal trajectory that certain aspects of our lives follow. And that is also why I can maintain that plants are radically other, to the extent that our habitual ways of being in the world and tendencies of living diverge in some respects (e.g., humans are not sessile beings, with all the implications of this fact for our uprooted growth).

Attentive readers will notice that I emphasize thinking, and not thought, because my point of departure is not the substantial similitude of comparable objects but the differentials, at times approaching zero, between living vectors, including “inside” ourselves. The frozen molds of thought correspond to equally static realities they capture, determine, and define, separating these realities from all the others with the help of something like conceptual walls. Conversely, thinking befits the dynamic ontological tendencies that have been for too long contained within the strictures of categories, above all, those of species and genera. Perhaps, “befits” is not the right word here, since the living vectors I have invoked are, at one and the same time, the trajectories of material, spatialized, extended, constantly metamorphosing thinking. Ironically, I may end up re-confirming the insight of Parmenides, typically associated with a static and inflexible ontology, that it is the same thing to be and to think. Indeed, outside the horizons of species-thought, there is virtually no difference between “plant” (being) and “thinking”: plants think, strive or tend toward…, while thinking plants, grows, changes, decays.     

For all the innovations of his process philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead was wrong to ascribe, in retrospect, Scholastic categories to Aristotle: “Aristotle’s science of classification into genera, and species, and sub-species is the science of mutually exclusive classification. It develops Plato’s suggestion of a science of ‘Division’.”[1] Greek classifications were, precisely, not mutually exclusive, to the extent that, failing to live up to their end or telos, certain “higher” beings could become quite indistinguishable from the “lower” ones. This is what happens in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, according to which, if humans disobey the precepts of formal logic—notably, the principle of non-contradiction—they become plant-like. Against relativism avant la lettre, Aristotle writes: “If, however, all men alike are both right and wrong, no one can say anything meaningful; for one must then at the same time say these and also other things. And he who means nothing, but equally thinks and does not think, in what respect does his condition differ from that of a plant?” (1008b). Negatively and with disdain, then, he outlines plant-thinking in the converging trajectories of the human and the plant outside formal-logical parameters. There is nothing “mutually exclusive” about the layers of vitality Aristotle terms psukhē (“soul”) predicated upon one another; as I note in my The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, its vegetal configuration “traverses biological kingdoms and species.”[2] Strip the human stratum of “rational thought” and you will discover a humanoid plant, someone who or that, equally thinking and not thinking, merely vegetates—he implies with some irony. In my view, this is the groundwork of plant-thinking, which has little to do with the logic of species and kingdoms.

From there, the alternative to species-thought winds through Plotinus’s “growth-thought”, Avicenna’s love, Spinoza’s modes, Leibniz’s expression, Schelling’s “minimal irritability”, Bergson’s torpor with the possibility of sudden awakening… But it is always to plants that this other thinking returns, drawing inspiration from their proliferation that disregards all barriers (whether made of physical concrete or of concepts) and that transcends even the opposition between total immanence and pure transcendence.

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933), pp. 137-8.

[2] Michael Marder, The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 31.

A Botany of Words

Wisdom Trail Lantau HK. Photograph by Michael McDonough.

by Michael Marder

APRIL 07, 2015

I wonder whether one day we could muster courage and creativity enough to pursue a “natural history of words” (not to be confused with Vico’s or Condillac’s “natural history of grammar”). As I imagine it, this discipline would study how semantic units germinate, undergo metamorphosis, grow, flourish, and decay within and between diverse cultures. Even better would be a botany of words that would finally descend to the literal roots of semantics, the theory of meaning that borrows its name from the Greek sema—“sign” or “seed”. And that is not even to mention the role of roots in grammar, among other botanically inflected terms! Vegetal processes would not play the role of metaphors for the words’ formation, cross-referencing, or falling out of use, but would be recognized for what they are: the first principles of growth and decay in all spheres of life, including the life of culture.

Before dreaming about a botany of words, we must clarify one basic misconception, namely that the word plant is totally transparent, points to an obvious referent, and has an exact equivalent in languages such as Greek and German, Hebrew and Euskera (Basque). Obviously, this word would be everywhere implicated in the botany of words, so much so that it would displace or supplant “God” and “Being” in traditional semiology and hermeneutics. That is why the question about its meanings is unavoidable.

When we say “plant,” we immediately affiliate our speech and understanding with the Latin tradition. The word recalls, through the noun planta (still preserved in the same form in Spanish and Portuguese), the verb plantāre that means “to drive in with one’s feet, to push into the ground with one’s feet,” hinting at that other sense of planta, intimately tied to our bodies—“the sole of a foot” (cf. Barnhart’s Dictionary of Etymology). A mindboggling number of assumptions about plants and our comportment toward them are built into this etymology. Some of the tacit suppositions it underwrites are the following: 1) the soil needs to be leveled and made flat before planting can begin; 2) the root is equivalent to feet, by which plants are driven into the ground; 3) plants are imprisoned in the ground, wherein they are tethered; 4) plants are passive; 5) plants are, in the first instance, the vegetation that is planted, that is, tamed, domesticated, agriculturally produced, driven into a leveled terrain by human beings; 6) plants are lowly beings, and therefore 7) ought to be subjugated, kept underfoot where they belong; 8) we, too, are articulated with plants by means of the lowest part of the human body (considered in terms of its physical configuration), the part that is in direct contact with the earth…

Many European languages have maintained the Latin heritage intact, from the German Pflanz to the French plante and Italian pianta. So static is the entity it signifies that, in English circa 1789, the same word came to denote a factory, the installation of fixed machinery and buildings for industrial production. Shouldn’t we turn to other linguistic realities in an attempt to liberate our minds from the presuppositions attached to “plant”?—you might ask. Beware: some of these efforts may misfire. In Japanese, for instance, vegetation is shokubutsu (植物), related to grass in the form of straw or hay. Now, that is hardly an improvement! But in Greek we encounter the word phuton (φυτόν: literally, “that which has grown”), derived from phuō (φύω), “to grow,” “to come into being,” “to spring forth,” “to produce.” Curiously, on this point, there is complete agreement between Athens and Jerusalem: in Hebrew, “plant” is tzemakh (צמח), from litzmoakh (לצמוח), “to grow”. And even in Russian, thanks to the ties that link it to Greek, the plant is rasteniye (растение), stemming from the verb rasti (расти), which means—you’ve guessed it!—“to grow.”

I do not intend, with this cursory list, to persuade readers about the necessity of reviving the discipline of philology—least of all, in its traditional and “dry” variation—for the sake of giving shape to the botany of words. I only want to suggest that the different terms for vegetation are steeped in divergent tendencies of experiencing plants, even as the linguistic realities themselves privilege certain modes of treating plants over others. Are we to let them grow, cultivating their own propensity for emergence and self-production, or drive them into the ground and keep them at bay? And what if the word for “plant” is absent? That, as a matter of fact, was the case in Euskera (Basque language, which does not belong to the group of Indo-European languages) before its speakers adopted the designation landare from the Latin-based plantāre. According to the explanation I received from my Basque colleagues, Euskera put at the disposal of its speakers names for particular plants (a birch, an oak, peas, wheat…) without generalizing them under an abstract heading, a higher class. Perhaps, the distance from the vegetal world was insufficient to transform it into an object—above all, in and through language—set over and against the human subject. Whatever the explanation, such a level of singularity is virtually inaccessible to our modern sensibilities; at the limit, we can only get an inkling of it with the help of ethical categories and precepts.

Where does this leave the possible botany of words I have conjured up in the opening lines? The Latin baggage of our languages fixes words and plants alike in rigid tables and systems of classification. Together with and in analogy to plants, words are driven into the ground with the soles of our feet, as a result of our obsession with secure and immutable foundations for knowledge. Indeed, to the extent that they are replaced with scientific or numerical notations, they become superfluous, are completely interred in the rock-hard soil of mathematical understanding and denied a chance of germination. We sorely need a botany of words that discerns in plants and in words growing beings, free to spring forth, to flourish, to produce an entire world. In short, a botany of words that, at the extreme, lacking the word for a plant and for a word, acknowledges the inimitable singularity of each. “And only then will words of praise arise, like flowers.”[1]

[1] Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, selected and translated by James Mitchell (San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2004), p. 11.