The best books on plants and philosophy

Michael Marder Author Of The Philosopher's Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium
By Michael Marder

Who am I?

For fifteen years now, I have been exploring the seemingly strange connection between plants and philosophy. The unexpected twists and turns of this theme have taken me to forests and gardens, to collaborations with plant artists and plant scientists, to ancient thought and twenty-first-century experimental design. Once you get over the initial surprise (What can philosophy tell us about plants?), you will be in for the exhilarating ride that is vegetal philosophy, finding plant heritage in human thought, politics, and society; witnessing traditional hierarchies and systems of classification crumble into dust; and discovering the amazing capacities of plants that testify to one important insight—plants are smarter than you think! 

I wrote...

The Philosopher's Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium

By Michael Marder, Mathilde Roussel (illustrator),

Book cover of The Philosopher's Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium

What is my book about?

Despite their conceptual allergy to vegetal life, philosophers have used germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned plants in passing as the natural backdrops for dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegories out of flowers, trees, and even grass; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to select species of plants.

In this book, Michael Marder illuminates the vegetal centerpieces and hidden kernels that have powered theoretical discourse for centuries. Choosing twelve botanical specimens that correspond to twelve significant philosophers, he recasts the development of philosophy through the evolution of human and plant relations. A philosophical history for the post-metaphysical age, The Philosopher's Plant reclaims the organic heritage of human thought.

The books I picked & why

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Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

By Matthew Hall,

Book cover of Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

Why this book?

Matthew Hall’s book offers a good formulation of the problem—Western philosophy has treated plants as things, not as living beings—and a nice overview of alternative (non-Western and, above all, Indigenous) approaches to plants that do not fall into the same trap. I have on many occasions vehemently disagreed with Hall’s recommendations that we should treat plants as persons, not least because of the problematic (and, ironically, very Western) heritage of personhood. But it is a wonderful entry point into the topic of plants and philosophy.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Why this book?

Michael Pollan has a gift for engaging and thought-provoking writing, both easy to follow and leading the reader to unconventional conclusions. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan is at his best as an author, who is rediscovering human emotions through plants. I love the part on our craving for the sweet, where Pollan follows the winding paths of apple seeds and apple trees. Along the way, we come across a wealth of unexpected insights, from the fact that, grown from seeds, apples revert to the “wild,” undomesticated varieties to how they are connected to the Silk Road. Overall, the book prompts us to reverse commonplace ideas in our relation to plants. What if, Pollan for instance implies, just when it seems that we are using plants, we are the ones being used by them to spread their genetic materials far and wide? 

Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants

By Monica Gagliano,

Book cover of Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants

Why this book?

Monica Gagliano gives us a enchanting peek at the complexities, consciousness, and subjectivity of plants, as well as at her own story as a woman scientist, who is one of the pioneers in the field of plant intelligence. Weaving together her biography with the life of plants in a creative mix of “phytobiography,” the author shows how working “on” plants is also always working “with” them. We collaborate and communicate, Gagliano suggests, across species and biological kingdom boundaries, and it is on this unknown terrain that her scientific discoveries of plant learning or plant bioacoustics are made. Although Gagliano is not a philosopher by training, the account she offers in Thus Spoke the Plant opens new and exciting vistas in the philosophy of plants.

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Book cover of Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Why this book?

In this book, Robin Wall Kimmerer builds on her scientific training and Indigenous heritage to discuss the enchanting world of moss. In particular, she shows that moss can provide us with a model of how we might live and how it is possible to survive the climate crisis. The horizontality and superficiality of moss, combined with a medley of different varieties sharing symbiotically the same space, becomes both a literal and a figurative reference for human communities that are not stratified and where sharing is key to living together. 

Thinking Plant Animal Human: Encounters with Communities of Differencevolume 56

By David Wood,

Book cover of Thinking Plant Animal Human: Encounters with Communities of Differencevolume 56

Why this book?

This book challenges us to leave behind the conventional distinctions and classifications that separate plants from animals and humans. Instead, Wood urges us to view different species and kingdoms from the standpoint of their collaborative being-with. Seemingly familiar realities, including human and vegetal realities, become strange, indeed, uncanny. Throughout, he focuses on plants—trees, above all—to illustrate the main point of his important study. Wood’s philosophical concern is similar to my own: he wishes to save plants from the unfair neglect, to which philosophers have historically submitted them, and to restore to them their rightful place in the history of life and of thought.

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