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Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life

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The margins of philosophy are populated by non-human, non-animal living beings, including plants. While contemporary philosophers tend to refrain from raising ontological and ethical concerns with vegetal life, Michael Marder puts this life at the forefront of the current deconstruction of metaphysics. He identifies the existential features of plant behavior and the vegetal heritage of human thought so as to affirm the potential of vegetation to resist the logic of totalization and to exceed the narrow confines of instrumentality. Reconstructing the life of plants "after metaphysics," Marder focuses on their unique temporality, freedom, and material knowledge or wisdom. In his formulation, "plant-thinking" is the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants, as much as the process of bringing human thought itself back to its roots and rendering it plantlike.

248 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 2013

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About the author

Michael Marder

72 books19 followers
Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. An author of seven books and over 100 articles, he is a specialist in phenomenology, political thought, and environmental philosophy.

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Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews
Profile Image for Steven Peck.
Author 27 books220 followers
May 16, 2017
I read this book hoping for some actual engagement of continental thought with plants. But this is a phenomenology without even a hint of awareness of what plants are, how they communicate, the rich structure of their interactions, and their being with the world touching other organisms in thick mutualistic and other symbiotic relationships. He reflects on what Nietzsche and Hegel think about plants (which is naive and outdated at best) without engaging in the richness of our knowledge about plants as revealed through long-term study in ways phenological, physiological, or ecological. He tries to show how plants subvert and restructure metaphysics without really understanding how real plants work. It is an interesting idea. This project is fascinating. I think there is something to the idea of exploring a phenomenology of plant experience, or thinking about its possibility anyway, but it ought to be done with real plants rather than what a group of long-dead philosophers thought about plants, or what the author imagines them to be without any real engagement with the rich vegetative world as we understand it today through science.
Profile Image for 0.
86 reviews12 followers
October 7, 2017
Marder wants to show how "plant-being" or "plant-thinking" deconstructs traditional metaphysics and thereby points the way to new modes of thinking and engaging with the world. To this end, Marder recruits three intertwining styles of thought to help us think through and with plants: a hermeneutic, more-than-human phenomenology; deconstruction of metaphysical identity and binary oppositions; and 'weak thought,' which recognizes its own inability to fully think the other, thus welcoming a plurality of possible interpretations, and always takes the side of the marginalized and oppressed.

There are a lot of problems with the book. Marder's prose is overdramatized. Plants and plant-'x'-ing become conceptual stand-ins for whatever Marder thinks is cool or subversive, a screen upon which to project his fantasies. Little engagement in empirical studies of plants 'themselves.' Finally, nothing new is offered in this book. Plant-thinking is synonymous with tired deconstructioninst tropes and strategies (the in-between, the undecidable, the trace, the supplement, the Other, the un-thought, indifference, etc.) which haven't evolved in 40 years.

So we're told all the ways plant life deconstructs traditional metaphysics: e.g. the symbiotic relationship between plants and humans demonstrates notions of impurity, the trace, and the becoming-plant of humans and becoming-human of plants. Or the fact that ancient philosophers conceived of plants as living creatures, unlike rocks, but soulless, unlike humans or animals demonstrates notions of undecidability and in-betweenness. Or the fact that plants grow by repeating patterns, each leaf and branch being an extension of the same without being identical demonstrates notions of differance and iterability. Or that plants depend on their environment demonstrates a Levinasian ethics of ego-less hospitality to the other and radical passivity.

Literally any object or event could deconstruct metaphysics if it's subjected to this kind of banal analysis.

The only redeeming part of the book is about 'plant-wisdom,' a non-conscious intentionality. Plants demonstrate intentionality in their physical growth towards light and in their complex metabolisms, and they do this without being conscious of themselves as such. Non-conscious intentionality points to a primal site of sense-making, coextensive with life, that is shared in the unconscious affectivity of human and non-human animals as well. Marder notes that Maurice Merleau-Ponty has gone the farthest in thinking non-conscious intentionality, through the life of the pre-reflective animal body (p. 159-160). To access plant-thinking, then, humans should study non-conscious intentionality in ourselves and in other beings.

But since we're conscious humans, we project our conceptual human understandings onto plants, so we should realize that in thinking about plants, our concepts never fully capture them as they are. Apparently the way to responsibly honor plants is to print books from their dead flesh about how the task of honoring plants is impossible, and therefore infinite, and therefore requires another book, this time on "Plant-Doing." Yikes.
Profile Image for Mary.
290 reviews18 followers
February 1, 2015
This is a challenging, provocative, and wonderful book. Marder's work has two main goals - first, “to give a new prominence to vegetal life,” and second, “to scrutinize the uncritical assumptions on the basis of which this life has been hitherto explained” (3). Marder argues that plants have long occupied a "subaltern" position in our thinking about them, and he proposes to restore them both to the philosophical tradition and to our daily consciousness.

To this end, Marder explores "plant-thinking," which he defines as: "(1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants (what I later call ‘thinking without the head’); (2) the human thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants” (10). Marder's discussion of plant-thinking leads into his development of a (controversial) plant ethics in the book's conclusion.
Profile Image for Hanneke.
150 reviews2 followers
January 29, 2021
Really informative and insightful. I love how Marder uses deconstruction to unthink the violence of metaphysics and to understand the iterability rather than the consumption, utility or commodification of plants as binding. Different ways to think being thoroughly explored, plants thoroughly explored. The chapter on the unconscious intention of plants is awesome. Great book.
Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews

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