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).

Michael Marder

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.

2 thoughts on “ABOUT”

  1. Hello mr. Marder,
    my name is Daniele Schiavi, i’m a 18 years old student in Italy. Now i’m attending my last year in Classic High School, and i would like to study in the future the links between humans’ mind and plants’ one. I don’t understand very well the philosophical language in english, but i am very interested in your studies and publications. It would be great if you could suggest me some sites, articles, or books, where i can find your work explained in italian, or at least more simple!
    Thank you very much for your attention.
    I hope we could continue to keep in touch.

    Have a green day!

    Daniele Schiavi

  2. Mr. Marder,

    As an LARB contributor, I recently received a suggestion for a plant-meets-philosophy piece from a local interview subject. My focus at this point is on a different project, but it strikes me as a good idea for your site, if slightly outside of what you’ve done so far. You may remember beloved Melrose bookstore The Bodhi Tree, which closed several years ago. Apparently the shop’s staff cut saplings from the actual bodhi tree that grew there, and distributed them to a number of faithful patrons, one of them the woman I mention. Telling me about the progress of her fledgling tree, she proposed a piece involving bodhi trees’ unique place in the Buddhist tradition. She herself isn’t a writer, but she’s very happy to discuss the subject with someone interested in exploring it. I hope you’ll consider looking into it; please let me know if you’d like her contact information.


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