Plants and Knowledge: A Conversation

Photograph by imageartifacts

a conversation between

 Michael Marder, Mari van Stokkum, and Christiaan Roodenburg

August 9, 2016


Mari van Stokkum & Christiaan Roodenburg: In your book Plant-Thinking (2013) you discuss a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus. Phaedrus and Socrates are conversing outside in nature, and Phaedrus is wondering why Socrates almost never leaves the city walls. Socrates answers that “the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, as the people in the city do.” In fact, the only reason why Socrates has left the city walls is because Phaedrus has brought a book with him, and this is what sparked Socrates’ curiosity. Do you think that this passage reveals something that is very characteristic of the European philosophical tradition?

Michael Marder: In a sense, this represents an essential problem of philosophy: the didactic or pedagogic problem of exactly who or what we can learn from. As I have been arguing in much of my recent writing, we should ask, first, what it means to learn from non-human beings, and then become apprentices in these non-human knowledges and wisdoms, one of which is what I call, in Plant-Thinking, “the wisdom of plants”.

Now, the worry implicit in Phaedrus is not only “What is philosophy?” but also “Where can or should philosophy be performed?” I’d say that, in that Platonic dialogue, the countryside is presumed from the get-go to be an inappropriate setting for such pursuits, even though much of the conversation takes place there. We should not be taken so far from the polis, Socrates protests. Philosophy should not happen in the countryside. It should unfold inside city walls, and serve the purpose of the city, the common good, which is the highest good philosophy can aspire to. The question of whether philosophy can be, in good conscience, practiced outside the city is also the question of whether it can come into existence for the sake of something outside our political conception of the good; whether it can be for the sake of non-human existence…

MS & CR: So where and for what should philosophy take place then, if not only in and for the city?

MM: In our contemporary situation of the global environmental crisis there is no higher calling for philosophy than to put itself into the service of a still-more-universal good than the good of the city. This would be an attempt—perhaps, a last-ditch attempt—to preserve the planet with all of its living beings. But what is still missing for such an endeavor to take off the ground is another kind of pedagogy, which, paraphrasing Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” I would like to term “pedagogy of the extinct” (or the nearly extinct, for that matter). We can discern its negative outlines from certain classical texts, such as those by Plato. You can see how, beginning to read Phaedrus in a different light, we immediately transition from dismissing the countryside a “mere” natural setting or “mere” scenery for the dialogue to thinking of it as the place where philosophy legitimately happens or fails to happen. Where also means for what or for whom. Who is listening to me there where…? And who am I listening to? Socrates is very quick to brush off the suggestion that we can learn from non-human beings, but I want to keep returning to it over and over again.

Philosophy is literally the love of wisdom (philia and sophia). If you define wisdom not only in anthropocentric (human-related) terms but much more broadly, including for instance the wisdom of plants, then the love of wisdom would be the love of non-human modes of knowing as well. At issue, then, are not only certain physical boundaries, the places where philosophy is circulating or can circulate, but also the boundaries of philosophy itself, and of the object of its love or affection. Remember that all Socratic dialogues are erotic in a sense; Socrates is in hot pursuit of his love-object. In this case it is both knowledge embodied in the books, as you mentioned, but also Phaedrus himself. Socrates is being seduced by Phaedrus. He is following him, and it’s a double seduction: he is being seduced by the script that Phaedrus is holding and by Phaedrus himself into a presumably illegitimate place for thinking. The place of fields, streams, and groves; of nymphs and spirits. But what does it mean to love the wisdom of non-human beings? Patricia Vieira and I broach this question, in relation to plants, though the notion of ‘phytophilia’. To put it succinctly, phytophilia is not just another conception of loving someone or something else, but a meditation on the meaning of philosophy and on the boundaries of philosophy as the love of wisdom.

MS & CR: In what way could an apprenticeship of a non-human entity be different from conducting a scientific study of plants, merely aimed at achieving technological innovation or expanding our encyclopedic knowledge?

MM: Your question is actually very phenomenological. The apprenticeship that I have pointed out, this exhortation to learn from plants or from non-human beings more generally, would avoid imposing any preconceived or prefabricated framework onto these beings. In other words, the plants would not be the objects of knowledge, regardless of which scientific system you’re talking about. Whatever the subject matter or particular science, it is always the study not of a subject but of an object (and unfortunately even contemporary psychology falls prey to this model of scientificity that eviscerates it). The point would be to allow plants to keep their subjectivity, to be subjects, and to follow their subjectivity, perhaps by modeling some of our own human ways of being-in-the-world on certain features of this vegetal subjectivity, or, at the very least, recognizing that the vegetal has been there all along, in us, in the intimacy of our human existence. So the main difference as I see it is as follows: allowing whatever or whoever you learn from their own degree of separation as kinds of subjects in a world, as center-points in a world of their own, as opposed to appropriating and slotting them into a premade matrix that we have in our heads and assigning them a place within an already existing system of knowledge.

MS & CR: But extending our notion of subjectivity to other beings such as plants could also be regarded as a purely intellectual move. Do you also conceive of it in a more practical manner? Throughout our daily lives, we do not only appropriate plants intellectually, but also literally and physically. You seem to have very practical aims with your plant-philosophy as well: not just appropriating the plants, but giving them…I’m not sure if ‘rights’ is the appropriate term, but giving them another type of role within this community or city that we inhabit.

MM: Yes, you are absolutely right. To my mind there is no substantial difference between what we usually label ‘ethical’ and ‘epistemological’ issues. If we think about conceptual knowledge, a concept can be regarded as an ideal way of grasping something. A concept in German is a Begriff – this word already includes the ‘grasping’. When you grasp something conceptually, you intend to leave no remainder of that which is grasped; you wish to take it for yourself as a whole. When you include plants within the purview of a concept, you do not leave any breathing space for them, and so you can justify any use of plants for human purposes. This is what I have in mind when I talk about a complete instrumentalization. There are always very clear connections between the ideal conceptual grasp of something or someone, and the practical grasp of instrumentalization, that is, the extreme use that does not leave any independence to the entity being used. But there exists an irreducible remainder, something that cannot be grasped. And not just in plants—in anything and anyone: humans, animals, and also inanimate things.


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