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The Life of Plants and the Limits of Empathy

  • Michael Marder (a1)

ABSTRACT: This article examines the possibility of an ethical treatment of plants grounded in empathy. Upon considering whether an empathetic approach to vegetal life is compatible with the crucial features of plant ontology, it is concluded that the feeling of empathy with plants disregards their mode of being and projects the constructs and expectations of the human empathizer onto the object of empathy. Vegetal life, thus, reveals the limits of empathy, as well as its anthropocentric and potentially unethical underpinnings.

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1 “For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.” Franz Kafka, “The Trees.” I thank Marcia Cavalcante-Schuback for bringing this short story to my attention.

2 See Michael Slote, The Ethics of Care and Empathy (London & New York: Routledge, 2007); Lou Agosta, Empathy in the Context of Philosophy (London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Richard Wilson and Richard Brown (eds.), Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), among others.

3 I am greatly indebted to Patricia Vieira, with whom I discussed, in a series of conversations over the course of the Summer 2010, the crucial differences between these three terms.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 301.

5 “We suffer with him [Wir leiden, mit ihm] and hence in him; we feel his pain as his, and do not imagine that it is ours. In fact, the happier our state, and hence the more the consciousness of it is contrasted with the other man’s fate, the more susceptible we are to compassion.” Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J. Payne (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 147.

6 Gary Steiner, Anthropocentrism and its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 187.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Nietzsche Reader, ed. by Keith Ansell Pearson & Duncan Large (New York & London: Wiley Blackwell, 2006), 488.

8 Dorion Cairns, Conversations with Husserl and Fink (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976), 74.

9 For a critique of the determination of the thing as an inanimate object, see Michael Marder, The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

10 G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 307.

11 Although clandestine instrumentalization might occur in other instances of empathy, where the object is another human being, I limit myself here to the consideration of an empathic approach to vegetal life.

12 “No doubt, it is hard to decide, even in the organized world, what is individual and what is not. The difficulty is great, even in the animal kingdom; with plants it is almost insurmountable.” Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005), 10-1.

13 For a detailed discussion of the plants’ nonconscious intentionality, see Chapter V of Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

14 Such an analogy is advocated, for example, by Matthew Hall in “Plant Autonomy and Plant-Human Ethics,” Environmental Ethics16 (2009): 169-181.

15 Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Book 3: Phenomenology and the Foundations of the Sciences, in Edmund Husserl Collected Works, Vol. I, trans. by Ted Klein and William Pohl (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1980), 8-9. (Hereafter, Ideas III.)

16 Edith Stein, Zum Problem der Einfühlung (Verlagsgesellschaft Gerhard Kaffke: München, 1980), 3/6.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1998), 25.

18 Francis Ponge, Nouveau Nouveau Recueil, 1967-1984 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 106.

19 Fernando Pessoa, Obra Poetica (Rio de Janeiro: José Aguilar, 1969), 206.

20 Ponge, Nouveau Nouveau Recueil, 109.

21 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), 54.

22 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (New York & London: Continuum Press, 2004), 303.

23 Stein, Zum Problem der Einfühlung, 9/16-7.

24 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. by Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 374.

25 Novalis, Fragmentos de Novalis, ed. by Rui Chafes (Lisboa: Assirio & Alvim, 1992), 54.

26 Johann Wolfgang Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 269.

27 Julien de La Mettrie, Man a Machine and Man a Plant, trans. by Richard Watson and Maya Rybalka (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1994), 78.

28 Gaston Bachelard, L’Air et les Songes: Essai sur l’Imagination du Mouvement (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1943), 266.

29 Husserl, Ideas III, 8.

30 Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. by David Farrell Krell, revised and expanded edition (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1993), 230.

31 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, translated by T. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 145.

32 Ibid., 146.

33 Admittedly, this idealization is never complete, since “the poverty of nature equally finds expression in this surface [of the body] by the non-uniformity of the skin, in indentations, wrinkles, pores, small hairs, little veins, etc.” (Hegel, Aesthetics, 146.)

34 Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, 306.

35 Quoted in Jacques Derrida, Glas, trans. by John P. Leavey and Richard Rand (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 154/left.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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