Plants are not stupid

Through this phenomenology of plant life, the philosopher Florence Burgat reminds us that plants are defined above all by what they do not have: without intentional consciousness or a lived world, how could they lead the secret life that certain popular works attribute to them?

What if plants suffered, thought, helped each other, and what if the carrot was an animal like any other? According to Peter Wohlleben, famous German forest engineer, author of a bestseller on The Secret Life of Trees“the oak seedling swallowed by a deer suffers and dies, just as the wild boar suffers and dies when slaughtered by a wolf” (quoted p. 13). The thesis is original and seems all the more harmless since none of its defenders calls for stopping cooking plants.

Is there not in this form of neo-animism, which recognizes a continuity between the subjective interiority of humans and plants, a thought behind the head? Is not the alleged suffering of plants, asks Florence Burgat, “the new counter-fire to the cause of animals” (p. 172)? Dominique Lestel, author of a Apology of the carnivoredoes not hide his polemical intentions: “Why would it be more ethical to make a carrot suffer than a hare?” (quoted p. 13). Logically, if the carrot and the hare suffer as much, “it is not ethical” to discriminate between them, to spare animals, and to savagely kill blades of grass, carrots and bean sprouts. Vegetarians would be murderers like the others. So let’s leave the carnivores to their party!

Against this argument called the “carrot cry”, animalists had until now been content to respond with two things. On the one hand, plants do not have a nervous system, so they do not feel pain. On the other hand, carnivores consume animals that are themselves fed on plants. Worse, the production of an animal protein requires 7 to 10 plant proteins. The argument is strictly accounting. Even if plant suffering were of the same intensity as animal suffering, omnivores would produce seven to ten times more suffering than lovers of only plants.

Florence Burgat is not satisfied with these arguments. The first is based on the idea that there can be no suffering without a nervous system. However, a handful of biologists, controversial to be sure, follow in Wohlleben’s footsteps and maintain that there is a form of “diffuse nervous system” in plants. The synaptic activity, electrical signals, on the body of plants would function like a diffuse brain, not concentrated in a single organ, as in animals. As for the second argument, it concedes that killing a carrot is murder, a murder comparable to that of a farm animal. In the eyes of the philosopher, this concession is absurd, idle.

What is a plant ? goes beyond these two arguments by supporting the thesis of a radical ontological difference between plant life and animal life. According to Florence Burgat, deciding the question of pain, of subjectivity, requires us to be interested in the way in which plants give themselves to us, in their phenomenology.

What do we know about plants?

The book is divided into three parts: epistemology, ontology, morality and law. The first focuses on knowledge of plants. How to produce knowledge about plants? Two models of knowledge can be distinguished: homological and analogical. The homological model assimilates the plant to animal or human life. The body parts of one correspond to the body parts of the other. This is the Wohlleben model. Drawing on numerous passages from this book, Florence Burgat shows without difficulty that anthropomorphism is not here a simple method of popularizing science, a pedagogical metaphor, it is given at face value. The other model of knowledge, the analogical paradigm, is more interesting and more complex. Since we know animals better than plants, since the former are closer to us, bodily, emotionally, mentally, the scientific strategy of botanists, as indicated by the work of François Delaporte, but also Foucault in Words and thingshas long consisted of seeking what was unknown in plants based on the animal model. According to Florence Burgat, this model of knowledge stumbles on at least two fundamental points, plant nutrition and reproduction. Unlike animals, plants are capable of feeding themselves without taking ready-made organic molecules from their environment; they can synthesize the latter from light. The plant therefore does not need to seek its food. As for reproduction, some plants reproduce by cutting, “which remains unexplained, for want of finding an analogue elsewhere” (Canguilhem, cited p. 36). According to this mode of production, the same comes from the same. “A plant,” writes Hegel cited by Florence Burgat (p. 40), “is thus properly an aggregate of a multitude of individuals which constitute a single individual, but whose parts are entirely subsisting-by-themselves.”

It will be objected that some plants, for example carnivorous plants (p. 60), are mixotrophic, also capable of feeding themselves with pre-existing organic constituents. Furthermore, plant reproduction is not always asexual, not all plants can be propagated by cuttings. This is because a good part of the misunderstandings concerning plants “(rests) on the idea that it is enough to find in a plant organism an animal characteristic to extract it from its category and place it in the opposing category” (p. 51-52). No isolated empirical characteristic is the truth of an organism. “Taken one by one, under the analytical eye, the empirical characteristics say nothing, never allow us to decide the ontological question” (p. 52). The organism is the structure and not the sum of its parts. Against the analytical methodology, which breaks down the living into its elements, the philosopher argues for a science or an interpretation of forms, of the whole that is formed and transformed.

Phenomenology of plant life

This is what leads Florence Burgat to propose an ontological study, based on a phenomenology of plant life. The investigation focuses on what plants are. The challenge is to understand what substantially differentiates plants from animals, by proposing both a negative, privative definition (what they do not have, compared to animals), and a positive definition (what they have that animals do not have). To understand what is specific to plant life, we must first examine comparative analysis, which is the path by which philosophy, and not only the current of philosophical anthropology, approaches the “question of the plant”. Negatively, the plant has no perception in the psychological sense (p. 55). When the plant has infraperceptions, that is to say perceptions without a subject to feel them as its own, it is not necessarily its unity that infraperceives, an untraceable unity, but some of its parts. Plants react finely to any corpuscular or wave phenomenon, but without having mental images of it (p. 90). There is no interiority, no life of consciousness, no intentionality in plant life, “consciousness appears only in the primitive re-flection of sensation” (Scheler, quoted p. 79). Plant life is neither experiential nor anxious (p. 102).

Plants have no lived world, their life is immediate: they are part of those living beings for whom the objects of the world have only one meaning. There is no plurivocity of meaning. No error experienced as error, no astonishment at what appears. The break is “absolutely radical” between the plant world and the animal world, between the world of “objective correspondence” and the world of subjective meaning (p. 64).

Plants are not individuals, if individuals are indivisible wholes, whose division implies destruction (p. 105).

Finally, plants do not move. Phototropism, the reaction to light, is just that, a reaction. “The animal,” writes Hans Jonas, “can freely close and open its jaws whenever it wants to—to chew, to yawn, or simply to exercise this faculty—and it can stop and reverse each movement in progress” (quoted p. 62). The plant does not have this freedom, it cannot close and open its leaves.

From the point of view of a positive ontology, the philosopher wonders whether the life of the plant would not be as close as possible to life as an all-powerful and eternal force. In some respects, the plant seems immortal, freeing itself from temporality: seeds or fragments of root are enough for its rebirth. Plants are “driven by pure thrust, ignoring the caesura of birth and the irreversible rupture of death, slowly collapsing on themselves to live again elsewhere” (p. 83). If the plant is not an individual, it could be that its positive quality is to be a dividuum (according to the formula of a biologist quoted by Plessner, p. 105). The plant is “the greatest chemist among all living beings (…) it prepares itself with inorganic substances the elements of its organic development” (Scheler, quoted p. 110). This capacity, autotrophy therefore, signs its autarkic royalty (p. 130). If, according to the formula of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the animal is the most other of all others, that is to say the psycho-subjective structure which, on a common basis, is the most foreign to us, plant life is, for its part, according to the philosopher, “radical otherness” (p. 129), that which resists all lived, common experience.

Plant law

Should plant life – which ontological inquiry has taken upon itself to define – be respected? The philosopher shares with Lévi-Strauss and Francis Hallé a certain repugnance for the felling of trees. Their destruction, as well as “the destruction of natural environments, their pollution, are condemned for their consequences and for what they are in themselves: a repugnant attitude” (p. 144). This repugnance seems to be an intuition, the first response that comes to mind when we are asked to answer the question “is it right to cut down this tree, there, right in front of me, which has existed for decades?” But is this intuition right? Is it reprehensible to cut down a hundred hundred-year-old oaks to reconstruct the framework of Notre-Dame Cathedral (p. 148)? If this is reprehensible, does our repugnance fit with a principle of attributing fundamental rights to plants?

Florence Burgat does not definitively settle these questions. On the substance, she sides with Rousseau and Bentham. Sensitivity is a necessary and sufficient condition to be the bearer of rights. On the form, the philosopher points out that, from a strictly technical point of view, nothing prevents the legislator from protecting the interests of men for the environment, if they judge these interests to be sufficiently important to set up specific protection, or from protecting a particular species of flower, or a particularly remarkable tree for aesthetic reasons. We can indeed call legal “rights” this type of rights which, conceptually, are indirect. If historical monuments can be protected (p. 153), plants can too. It is nevertheless appropriate, insists the philosopher, not to attribute an inherent, absolute value to that which does not seem to have any, beyond the beauty that it inspires in us. The humanist doctrine which, believing it serves the cause of humanity, “destroys the object of its contempt (nature and animals)” (p. 144) will find no remedy in metaphors about the soul of trees.

In short, What is a plant ? is a brilliant and necessary work, a discordant voice at a time when plant life inspires biologists and philosophers of carnivorism.