When we speak of plant life, we might ask whether plants are more than the living cells that make them up. We know, for instance, that plants compensate for the limitations of being rooted in one place by sensing and adjusting themselves to their environment with extraordinary delicacy. Some plants even communicate chemically. The leaves of a plant damaged by insects may signal neighboring leaves to produce a defensive toxin, or, even more impressively, may produce a chemical scent that attracts an antagonistic species of insect.

In 2008, Switzerland modified its constitution to protect the dignity of plants; no one in Switzerland, Wesley Smith reported in the Weekly Standard, was entirely sure how this clause ought to be interpreted.1 A Swiss ethics committee suggested that mowing a field was morally acceptable, but the casual decapitation of a wildflower was not. The committee concluded that plants are, at least, entitled to consideration, and that they should, for their own sake, be spared thoughtless destruction.

That plants have rights, Smith argued, represents nothing less than a falling-away from the Judeo-Christian traditions that place man above everything else in creation. Does it? There is nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition that requires rights to be denied to the lower orders. Animals must be fed before their owners, and must also be slaughtered as painlessly as possible.

Religious traditions and recent scientific discoveries about plants are not necessarily inconsistent. If plants are not purely passive, does that imply additional ethical obligations on our part? Are we responsible to plants for some reason other than our interest in preserving for ourselves an attractive and life-sustaining planet?

These are among the many interesting questions that the two co-authors of Through Vegetal Being have chosen not to discuss.

Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder hoped that their study of vegetal being would “give birth to a new way of being and existing.” Their approach lapsed when Marder realized that Irigaray had failed to preserve the purity of his views, and vice versa. They then wrote two books and stuck them together. Irigaray’s 16 chapters on vegetal being are matched title by title with Marder’s 16 chapters, beginning with “Seeking Refuge in the Vegetal World,” and ending with “Cultivating and Sharing Life between All.” In itself, this is not a scheme without merit. The differing approaches are at times illuminating, often overlapping, and most often frustrating.

In Through Vegetal Being, curiously enough, the authors are united, not so much in thought as in spirit, by self-pity. These qualities are fundamental and foundational.

Marder devotes a considerable portion of his second chapter (“A Culture Forgetful of Life”) to dwelling in outrage on a review of his 2013 book Plant-Thinking in which the reviewer claimed that the only possible interpretation of Marder’s work was as a “brilliant satirical hoax” and that Marder himself was a new Alan Sokal.3

The Western world, Marder believes, is not ready for his views:

An affirmation of vegetal existence in its own right was much more than this culture could bear because a long time ago—indeed, at its very roots—it swapped a caring cultivation for the destruction of plants.4

Mankind has thus far failed to reach maturity, defined by Marder as “resisting the urge to judge plants and animals by human standards.”5 Plant-Thinking, Marder insists, does not “elaborate a model for the appropriation of the vegetal world”;6 its purpose is simply “to restitute the body of the plant back to the soul of plants.” Whether he achieved his aim remains unclear.

Marder is a writer who takes his metaphors literally. The French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, called the human spirit “the longest breath there is.” Marder takes this to mean “that what drives it is the desire to dominate the element of air… and to interrupt the sharing of breath with the outside world by indefinitely delaying the instant of exhalation.”7 Marder wonders whether this “pathetic model” has corrupted all spirit, or only its Western “mutation.” Marder also criticizes Cicero’s characterization of philosophy as the cultivation of the soul whereby the mind may bear the most abundant fruit, attacking Cicero’s “fixation on fruit, prioritized over other vegetal phenomena.”8

Irigaray is considered a pioneer feminist philosopher; the equation E = mc2, she has observed, is sexed “insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.”9 Thinking about the world of plants, she concludes that “there is, or ought to be, a sort of dialectical process between caring about vegetal being and being faithful to our sexuate [sic] identity and subjectivity.”10 This “cannot happen overnight,” she remarks. She is herself prepared to renounce flying, driving a car, smoking, and eating meat. Her rejection of air travel is simple enough:

If we were aware of the fact that the sky corresponds to a sort of flowering of the terrestrial atmosphere, perhaps we would hesitate to cross and perturb, by flying, the various layers that lead from one to the other.11

Whether she regards eating plants as morally and ethically acceptable is less clear.

Irigaray is anything but a systematic thinker. Quoting one of her poems, she observes that the desire for a human companionship cannot substitute for maternal or medical care.12 This is true enough, but Irigaray never explains why we should have thought otherwise. The elements, she argues, “do not easily let themselves be mastered by man.”13 She also believes that the seasons “unfortunately, are disappearing today.” This obviously has some relationship to human activity. Acquaintances commonly remark to her that, “[t]here are no seasons anymore!” There is flash in the night of her thoughts. A radio journalist criticizes her for discussing the seasons. “The same journalist,” she remarks, “broadcasts on the occasion of Christmas or Easter … without establishing a connection between these feasts and the cosmic events that they, in reality, celebrate.”14 There is another flash in the night. Western culture, Irigaray asserts, is apparently a failure at everything except singing, which, inasmuch as it encourages an appreciation of breathing, is not altogether bad. Irigaray observes that women “do not fear the winter because they share terrestrial energy and can feed themselves on the roots that the earth produces at that time.”15 It is the god Shiva, Irigaray remarks, who “stays in the forest in order to reach his individuation, especially through meditating, dancing and loving.”16

“[T]here were people,” Irigaray is persuaded, “who considered me egoistic and a social misfit. Fortunately, I had a psychoanalytic training, which allowed me to relativize these criticisms.”17 Much as Marder did, she concludes that she has been the victim of a culture in self-denial. “[P]eople wanted me to continue sacrificing myself to a society that transforms us into ghosts or robots so as to never question themselves.”

Both Marder and Irigaray write badly, but in different ways. Irigaray recycles her favorite words such as “sexuate,” and “fecund.” Marder cobbles together prepositions such as “of and for life,” “with and of plants,” and “in and as the middle.”

As science gives us further insight into botany, philosophers should be curious about the questions this might raise. The relationship of the plant world to our own may not be what we thought it was. Through Vegetal Being is not in this regard a useful contribution, but it does, in the questions left unanswered and unasked, open the door to a more serious study.

  1. Wesley Smith, “The Silent Scream of the Asparagus,” The Weekly Standard, May 12, 2008. 
  2. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), x. 
  3. In 1996, NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal submitted a hoax paper to an academic journal at Duke University. The paper was published as original scientific research, when it was in reality, as Sokal himself described it, “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.” See Wikipedia, “Sokal Affair.” 
  4. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 123. 
  5. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 206. 
  6. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 126. 
  7. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 131. 
  8. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 209. 
  9. Luce Irigaray, “Sujet de la science, sujet sexué?” pp. 95-121, in Sens et place des connaissances dans la société (Paris: Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, 1987), 110. 
  10. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 100. 
  11. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 28. 
  12. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 53. 
  13. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 34. 
  14. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 34. 
  15. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 39. 
  16. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 72. 
  17. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 64.