Philosophical Approaches to Plant Life

What Is It Like to Be a Plant?

Philosophical interest in plants and plant life dates back at least to Aristotle, and as of late, it has begun sprouting again. This tendency manifests itself in a number of new approaches, some of which are historical, others phenomenological, and yet others interdisciplinary in nature. The insights that are thus generated provide fertile ground for new accounts within the field of plant ethics that finally acknowledge the unique characteristics of plants, as many philosophers have demanded.

An analysis of the historical development of our thinking about plant souls is provided by Hans Werner Ingensiep:

  • Ingensiep, Hans Werner. 2001. Geschichte der Pflanzenseele - Philosophische und biologische Entwürfe von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart: Kröner.

Karen Houle, Michael Marder, and Sylvie Pouteau have made empirically-informed arguments (mainly from plant communication, plant intelligence, and the unique morphology of plants) for treating plants as a distinct type of organism rather than degrading them to second-rate animals:

  • Houle, Karen. 2011. "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming? The Case of Becoming Plant." Journal for Critical Animal Studies IX (1/2): 89-116.
  • Marder, Michael. 2012. "Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence." Plant Signaling & Behavior 7 (11): 1365-1372.
  • Pouteau, Sylvie. 2014. "Beyond 'Second Animals': Making Sense of Plant Ethics." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 27 (1): 1-25.

For two lengthier philosophical approaches to plant life, see these two monographs:

  • Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Hall, Matthew. 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.