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Are Plants Animals Like Any Other?

About: Florence Burgat, Qu’est-ce qu’une plante ? Essai sur la vie végétale, Seuil


by Enrique Utria , 5 April
translated by Arianne Dorval



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Through a phenomenology of plant life, the philosopher Florence Burgat reminds us that plants are defined above all by what they do not have: Lacking an intentional consciousness or a lived world, how could they lead the secret life that certain popular books ascribe to them?

What if plants suffered, thought, helped each other? And what if the carrot were an animal like any other? According to Peter Wohlleben, famous German forest engineer and author of the best-seller The Hidden Life of Trees, “whether it’s a wolf ripping apart a wild boar or a deer eating an oak seedling, in both cases there is pain and death” (quoted p. 13). The thesis is original, and seems all the more innocuous since none of its defenders call for people to stop cooking plants.

Is there not in this form of neo-animism, which sees a continuity between human and plant subjective interiority, an element of bad faith? Is not the alleged suffering of plants, Florence Burgat asks, “a new diversion from the cause of animals” (p. 172)? Dominique Lestel, author of Apologie du carnivore (Apology for Carnivorism), does not hide his polemical intentions: “Why would it be more ethical to make a carrot suffer than a hare?” (quoted p. 13). In good logic, if the carrot and the hare suffer in equal measure, “it is not ethical” to discriminate between them, to spare animals while savagely killing blades of grass, carrots, and soy sprouts. In this sense, vegetarians are murderers like any other. Just let carnivores enjoy themselves!

Against this thesis, known as the “cry of the carrot” (le cri de la carotte), animalists have so far been content to answer two things. On the one hand, plants do not have a nervous system, and so they do not feel pain. On the other hand, carnivores consume animals that are themselves fed on plants. Worse, the production of one animal protein requires 7 to 10 plant proteins. The argument is a strictly accounting one. Even if plant suffering were of the same intensity as animal suffering, omnivores would produce seven to ten times more suffering than plant lovers alone.

Burgat is not satisfied with these arguments. The first is based on the idea that there can be no suffering without a nervous system. A handful of biologists, controversial to be sure, follow in Wohlleben’s footsteps and argue that plants have a form of “diffuse nervous system.” In their view, synaptic activity—electrical signals—on the body of plants functions like a diffuse brain, one that is 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, pointless.

Qu’est-ce qu’une plante? (What is a plant?) goes beyond these two arguments by defending the thesis of a radical ontological difference between plant and animal life. According to Burgat, resolving the question of pain, of subjectivity, requires us to focus on how plants give themselves to us, on their phenomenology.

What Do We Know of Plants?

The book is divided into three parts: epistemology, ontology, and morals and rights. The first part deals with the knowledge of plants. How does one produce knowledge about plants? Two models of knowledge can be distinguished: homological and analogical. The homological model assimilates plants to animal or human life. The body parts of one correspond to the body parts of the other. This is Wohlleben’s model. Drawing on numerous passages from his book, Burgat easily shows that anthropomorphism is not here a simple method of popularizing science, a pedagogical metaphor; it is taken as a given. 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 physically, emotionally, and mentally, the scientific strategy of botanists has long consisted in investigating the unknown in plants based on the animal model—as François Delaporte observes in his works, but also Foucault in The Order of Things. According to 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. Thus, plants do not need to look for food. As for reproduction, some plants reproduce by cutting, “which remains unexplained, for lack of finding an analogue elsewhere” (Canguilhem, quoted p. 36). In this mode of reproduction, like comes from like. “A plant,” writes Hegel quoted by Burgat (p. 40), “is an aggregate of a group of individuals which form a single individual, but whose parts are completely self-subsistent.”

It will be objected that certain plants, for instance carnivorous plants (p. 60), are mixotrophic, capable also of feeding on pre-existing organic constituents. Moreover, plant reproduction is not always asexual; not all plants can grow from a cutting. This is because a good part of the misunderstandings concerning plants stems “from the idea that finding an animal feature in a plant organism suffices to extract [this organism] from its category and to place it in the opposite category” (pp. 51-52). No single empirical feature is the truth of an organism. “Under the analytical eye, empirical features say nothing when taken one by one; they never allow the ontological question to be decided” (p. 52). The organism is the structure and not the sum of its parts. Against analytical methodology, which decomposes the living into its elements, Burgat pleads for a science or an interpretation of forms, of the whole that is formed and transformed.

Phenomenology of Plant Life

Thus, Florence Burgat 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 one (what they have that animals do not have). To understand what is specific to plant life, one must first engage in comparative analysis, which is the means by which philosophy, and not only the current of philosophical anthropology, approaches the “question of plant life.” Negatively, the plant has no perception in the psychological sense (p. 55). When the plant has infraperceptions, that is, perceptions without a subject to experience them as its own, it is not necessarily its unity that infraperceives—a unity that is nowhere to be found—but some of its parts. Plants react finely to any corpuscular or undulatory phenomenon, but without forming 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 reflection of sensation” (Scheler, quoted p. 79). Plant life is neither experiential nor restless (p. 102).

Plants do not have a lived world; their life is immediate. They are among the living beings for whom objects in the world have only one meaning. There is no multivocality of meaning. There is no error experienced as an error, no astonishment at what appears. There is an “absolutely radical” division 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 totalities whose division implies destruction (p. 105).

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

From the perspective of a positive ontology, Burgat wonders whether the life of the plant might not closely approximate life as a superpowerful and eternal force. In some respects, the plant seems immortal, freed from temporality: Seeds or root fragments suffice for its rebirth. Plants are “driven by pure growth, unaware of the caesura of birth and the irreversible rupture of death, slowly collapsing in on themselves to relive elsewhere” (p. 83). If the plant is not an individual, then its positive quality may be that it is a dividuum (according to the expression coined by a biologist quoted by Plessner, p. 105). The plant is “the greatest chemist among all living beings (...) it builds the elements of its organic development from inorganic substances” (Scheler, quoted p. 110). This capacity—this autotrophy—is the mark of its autarchic royalty (p. 130). Whereas for Claude Lévi-Strauss the animal is the most other of all others, that is, the psycho-subjective structure which, sharing a common basis, is the most alien to us, plant life for Burgat is “radical alterity” (p. 129), that which resists all common, lived experience.

The Rights of Plants

Is plant life—as defined through the ontological investigation—worthy of respect? The philosopher shares with Lévi-Strauss and Francis Hallé a certain repugnance for the felling of trees. Their destruction as well as “the ransacking and pollution of natural environments are reproved for their consequences and for what they are in themselves: a repugnant attitude” (p. 144). This repugnance appears to be an intuition, the first answer that comes to mind when we are summoned to answer the question “is it right to cut down the tree that is standing over there, right in front of me, and has been around for decades?” But is this intuition correct? Is it reprehensible to cut down a hundred hundred-year-old oaks to rebuild the framework of Notre-Dame Cathedral (p. 148)? If it is reprehensible, is our repugnance consistent with the principle of attributing fundamental rights to plants?

Burgat does not definitively settle these questions. In terms of content, she sides with Rousseau and Bentham. Sensibility is a necessary and sufficient condition to be a bearer of rights. In terms of form, she points out that, from a strictly technical point of view, nothing prevents the legislator from protecting the interests of humans in the environment, if they consider these interests sufficiently important to set up a specific protection, or to protect such and such a species of flower, or such and such a tree that is particularly remarkable for aesthetic reasons. One may well call legal “rights” these types of rights which are conceptually indirect. If historical monuments can be protected (p. 153), then so can plants. Nevertheless, Burgat insists, one should not attribute an inherent, absolute value to what does not seem to have any, beyond the beauty it inspires in us. The humanist doctrine which, believing that 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, Qu’est-ce qu’une plante? is a brilliant and necessary work, a discordant voice at a time when plant life inspires both biologists and philosophers of carnivorism.

by Enrique Utria, 5 April

Further reading

• Georges Canguilhem, Études d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences concernant les vivants et la vie, Paris, Vrin, 2002, p. 217.
G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature Volume III, Oxon, Routledge, 2014.
• Hans Jonas, “Les fondements biologiques de l’individualité,” in Hans Jonas, Essais philosophiques. Du credo ancien à l’homme technologique, translated by Damien Bazin, Paris, Vrin, 2013.
• Dominique Lestel, Apologie du carnivore, Paris, Fayard, 2011.
• Helmuth Plessner dans Les degrés de l’organique et l’homme. Introduction à l’anthropologie philosophique, translated by Pierre Osmo, Paris, Gallimard, 2017.
• Max Scheler, La Situation de l’homme dans le monde, translated by Maurice Dupuys, Paris, Aubier, 1979, p. 31.
• Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, translated by Jane Billinghurst, London, HarperCollins, 2016.

To quote this article :

Enrique Utria, « Are Plants Animals Like Any Other? », Books and Ideas , 5 April 2021. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/Are-Plants-Animals-Like-Any-Other.html

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