The Philosopher’s Plant
DESPITE its widespread conceptual allergy to vegetable life, the philosophical tradition in the West could not skirt the issue of plants altogether. Philosophers allotted to vegetation a generally inferior place in their systems, even as they used germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts. Virtually all of them mentioned plants in passing as the natural backdrops for dialogues, letters, treatises, and other compositions. Some spun elaborate allegories out of the flora, while others recommended medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to certain representatives of this biological kingdom. But what if plants hold a key to the understanding of philosophy — and to our own self-understanding? And how should we correct the millennia-old biases prevalent in the consideration of our photosynthesizing cousins?
The Philosopher’s Plant takes up these questions by pairing well-known thinkers and their ideas with the plants that appear in their works. To lift the curtain on the role of vegetation in the making (and in the growth) of thought, we will visit fields and gardens, jungles and groves. The meditative quality of the pieces, included in this series, will allow us to give our full attention to the seemingly marginal “green” episodes in philosophical history. Occasionally, we will consult plant scientists on the possibilities of plant learning, vegetal sentience, and other phenomena that destabilize the traditional view we have come to regard as commonsensical. The center-stage will be shared by philosophers and the trees, flowers, cereals, and grasses they admired or despised, feared or embraced. It is my hope that, from this interactive web of associations between plants and ideas, a new image of both will emerge — one, where thought approximates and puts itself in the service of life.
For further discussion of philosophers and their plants, see my recently published book, The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (Columbia University Press, 2014).
The Philosopher’s Plant is a Los Angeles Review of Books Channel. LARB Channels are a community of wholly independent, vanguard online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science, the arts and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books.