On Plants / De Stirpibus


Wolfenbüttel, 27 May, 2017. How many beings are in this picture?

by Justin E. H. Smith

Imagine you are in an urban park. Look around. How many animals do you see? I’d imagine you see a few birds, a dog or two, perhaps some insects, and a dozen or so humans. Now how many plants do you see? You could not even begin to count, nor to say where one leaves off and another begins.

I am standing in the train station in Karlsuhe, on my way back to Paris from Wolfenbüttel. Even here I see: a few dozen humans, about as many pigeons, a good deal of concrete and iron. And off in the distance I see, again, countless trees, defining, in more ways than one, the horizon of my perception. I see grass pushing up through the gravel between the tracks. Over a stone wall bounding the station to one side an ivy or vine plant of some sort tumbles: it is not moving, visibly, but one might easily imagine it striving, grasping its way toward our platform. And this is a completely dominated space, this is nearly as close as we can get to the longed-for suppression of the vegetal.

We passively suppose that plants and animals are the two equal parts of living nature, the two kingdoms, two moieties each taking half the territory. Of course this does not stand up to scrutiny. I read somewhere that in terms of biomass Earth’s aquatic life is around 90% animal (and this mostly krill), and 10% vegetal, while among the terrestrials it is roughly the reverse. But this seems to give far too great a share to land animals.

Wherever there is a portion of the Earth’s surface that is covered predominantly with animals, there is a problem, an ecological anomaly. Even pods of gregarious walruses need to clear off the beach before too long, lest they destroy whatever balance was there before them. And this is not to mention factory farms with their billions of cows, or cities with their billions of people. Yet wherever there is a portion of the Earth’s surface that is covered predominantly with plants, there is, simply, nature.

Plant life is the paradigm and the general rule of life itself; animal life is the exception.

Aristotle thought animals are more perfect than plants, because they are capable of locomotion, and so form is able to separate from matter in them to a certain degree. He left it to his disciple Theophrastus to do the systematic botanical work that he himself had neglected for zoology. In 1699 Edward Tyson complained that Europeans were now ransacking ‘both the Indies’ in search of medicinal plants to feed the nascent pharmaceutical industry, rather than paying attention to nature’s most excellent productions, the animals. We’ve shifted to plants as the primary focus of our interest, perhaps, Tyson complains, but only in view of what we can get out of them, not in view of what they are. Aristotle said in defense of his researches in marine biology: ‘Here too dwell gods’. No one who descends from him has yet said such a thing about plants.

What is ontologically distinctive about plants is that they can be cut up in all kinds of ways without thereby ceasing to exist. If you cut off my arm, I am not 10% less the person I was before, and in that respect I am ontologically quite distinct from a sack of flour or any other aggregate; but if you cut off my head, I am 100% less the person I was before. A branch is not analogous to an arm, and there is nothing in a plant that even suggests itself for analogy to the head. Evolutionary theory suggests that this diffuseness, and this full perfection of the pars pro toto principle, whereby any part is as useful as any other for yielding up a complete and perfect representative of the kind, is simply an adaptation to what would otherwise be the disadvantages of sessility: plants have no brain or central nervous system, or any absolutely crucial organs of higher functioning at all, but this saves them the trouble of having to run away from predators without end, protecting their precious jewels. They can stay where they are, be chewed down to a mere sliver of what they were before, and go right on living and growing.

Plants do not have nerve ganglia. But whatever it is about nerve ganglia that makes us sentient is underlain by chemical activity. There is no reason in principle why the chemical transmissions in plants could not be their own neurophysiology.

But, some will insist, it is willed motion, going this way rather than that, that makes a being a being of moral interest, and plants, as we’ve noted, just stay where they are. Well, the boundary between locomotion and change of quantity is not so clear. Plants do get around. Just make a quick biodiversity survey, again, of your local park.

We can’t individuate them, and that troubles us, causes us to look away, or to filter them out. Plants do not so much outnumber animals, as outspread them. The dramatis personae of nature are the animals — this lion, that peccary — and plants are only the stage-setting. Sometimes we can make out what look like individual trees (we even call them ‘proud’), but that’s just a stroke of ecological luck for us, and it hides what is really going on. We know that individuality is not what is really going on with animals either — we are not individuals, but biomes —, yet our ability to move around as one, our ‘proportion of rest and motion’, gives us a sort of unity that makes our talk of this lion, that peccary, seem to reflect the true order of things.

But look around the park again. How can the true order of things be represented by such a vanishingly small share of living nature?

We force plants into the background, pretend not to notice them, because we have no clear way, yet, of speaking about a morally relevant nature except as an assemblage of morally relevant individuals, moving around on their own and pursuing their own interests: earthly gods. If we were to say, of plants, ‘Here too dwell gods’, this could only be in the spirit of pantheism: ‘Here too dwells of god’, in the partitive genitive sense in which one can say, in French, du thé, de la boue, des fleurs.

Plants are there for their own sake, though in recent evolutionary history they have made some overtures to animals, to appeal to animals on terms that animals, whether bees or humans, seem to get. For 400 million years or so there were animals, but still no flowers. And now today we can say: ‘Look at that beautiful rose!’, ‘What a lovely tulip!’

Most of us are not ready for pantheism. We are prepared to see God in a rose, but really would rather not experience the god of the rainforest, of the whole great thing. We rationalise this avoidance as if it were a particular fear of particular dangers, of spiders or snakes. We turn ecology into a practical concern to keep the planet in a condition that can continue to sustain us, and in order to convince others of the importance of plants in this balance we transform them rhetorically into animal organs: the ‘lungs’ of the Earth.

It is reasonable to suppose that the ransacking will go on for as long as plants are conceptualised only as the life-support system of animals, whether this is in terms of pharmacology or of ecology. Somewhat more speculatively, it does not seem implausible that evolution should have contrived a way for them to derive something like joy from the chemical transmissions that keep them doing what they do: putting out their pollen and their roots, absorbing the light of the sun and transforming it into what makes up their own nature: eating light, as has been said.

It seems phenomenologically undeniable, if you will just stop and look, that this planet is theirs.

What I am saying can only come across as foolish, like the effusions of an investment banker just returned from an ayahuasca retreat, or the small-talk of a 1970s suburbanite who has just read The Secret Life of Plants; like the philosophers who are bracketed by many as fun or zany, who speak of ‘rhizomes’, and who in the end turn out to be interested in plants more as metaphors for something else than in plants as plants. Is this not always how it is with the fun and zany philosophers? Just when you think they are talking about something that interests you, it turns out they were only riffing on it, on the way to talking about something altogether different; well, me, I want to talk about plants. Deleuze speaks of rhizomes and wants to tell us that society is like a field of grass, but in the end this is not so different from a medieval courtier who might have declared that the sovereign, the embodiment of political power, is mighty like a lion. We would be mistaken to take this as a lesson in zoology.

Kant said that there would never be a Newton for the blade of grass, and a strong case can be made that this point was not simply an expression of the relative primitiveness of the life sciences in the late 18th century (he speaks as though what interests him are ‘organised beings’ in general, yet whenever he goes in search of an example of what it is that makes these so unfathomable, it is the blade of grass or the tree –and not the parrot or the crustacean, which he treats rather as irreducible ‘works’ of nature than as representatives of life as such– that comes to mind). It may be that he meant that, even when we understand the nature and causes of grass, thanks to Darwin and Mendel and Watson and Crick and all the other successors, we will still feel certain that we have not really comprehended the thing in question. Philosophy since Kant has had trouble knowing what to do with those things for which there can be no Newton. I take it that Kant’s general line, though, was that it is a tremendous mistake to leave what cannot be comprehended to those who don’t understand or respect the limits of comprehension.

I am aware that to insist on the importance of plants is a species of Schwärmerei. But that something that is patently true, phenomenologically and scientifically, can only sound foolish when it is made explicit, is itself a measure of the impoverishment of what I might dare to call our natural philosophy, not a judgment of the quality of the observation. Plants would be at the center of any adequate natural philosophy, not off on the fringes with the stoners and the enthusiasts. And natural philosophy would be at the center of any adequate philosophy: an analysis of what earthly existence is really like for us, and of what is to count as ‘us’.

Crossposted with


Further reading, strongly recommended: Emanuele Coccia, La vie des plantes. Une métaphysique du mélange, Éditions Payot & Rivage, 2016.