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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

Why did I love 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.

By Matthew Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Plants as Persons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Challenges readers to reconsider the moral standing of plants.

Plants are people too? No, but in this work of philosophical botany Matthew Hall challenges readers to reconsider the moral standing of plants, arguing that they are other-than-human persons. Plants constitute the bulk of our visible biomass, underpin all natural ecosystems, and make life on Earth possible. Yet plants are considered passive and insensitive beings rightly placed outside moral consideration. As the human assault on nature continues, more ethical behavior toward plants is needed. Hall surveys Western, Eastern, Pagan, and Indigenous thought as well as modern science for attitudes toward plants,…

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

Why did I love 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? 

By Michael Pollan,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Botany of Desire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them? In blending history, memoir and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Monica Gagliano,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thus Spoke the Plant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An accessible and compelling story of a scientist's discovery of plant communication and how it influenced her research and changed her life.

In this "phytobiography"--a collection of stories written in partnership with a plant--research scientist Monica Gagliano reveals the dynamic role plants play in genuine first-hand accounts from her research into plant communication and cognition. By transcending the view of plants as the objects of scientific materialism, Gagliano encourages us to rethink plants as people--beings with subjectivity, consciousness, and volition, and hence having the capacity for their own perspectives and voices. The book draws on up-close-and-personal encounters with the plants…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gathering Moss as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Living at the limits of our ordinary perception, mosses are a common but largely unnoticed element of the natural world. Gathering Moss is a beautifully written mix of science and personal reflection that invites readers to explore and learn from the elegantly simple lives of mosses.

In this series of linked personal essays, Robin Kimmerer leads general readers and scientists alike to an understanding of how mosses live and how their lives are intertwined with the lives of countless other beings. Kimmerer explains the biology of mosses clearly and artfully, while at the same time reflecting on what these fascinating…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David Wood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thinking Plant Animal Human as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Collected essays by a leading philosopher situating the question of the animal in the broader context of a relational ontology

There is a revolution under way in our thinking about animals and, indeed, life in general, particularly in the West. The very words man, animal, and life have turned into flimsy conceptual husks-impediments to thinking about the issues in which they are embroiled. David Wood was a founding member of the early 1970s Oxford Group of philosophers promoting animal rights; he also directed Ecology Action (UK). Thinking Plant Animal Human is the first collection of this major philosopher's influential essays…

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