In what ways have encounters with plants determined theory and in what ways do they continue to do so?
The Philosophical Life of Plants was a research network (2020-22) funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, a five-way collaboration between various philosophy and literature departments, the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London) and the Goethe- and Schiller-Archiv in Weimar.
Its aim was to explore the ways in which plants and thinking have been interlinked since Goethe’s fateful Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen [The Metamorphosis of Plants](1790), the ways in which theoretical ideas have been determined by encounters with plants over the past two centuries.
At the centre of the project stood Goethe’s original text, around which circles discoursed in the history of philosophy, historical botany, environmental humanities and German literary studies. The network culminates in a virtual exhibition, Thinking Plants, which was also in part exhibited physically at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew during Summer 2022.
There were two streams to the project: the first, led by Dr Daniel Whistler, intends to place Goethe’s Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen in its historical context in terms of both theoretical reflections and botanical research at the end of the eighteenth century. The second, led by Dr Danielle Sands, aims to explore the diverse theoretical receptions of Goethe’s text in phenomenology, structuralism and contemporary plant-thinking.
Fiona Ainsworth has been Head of the Library, Art & Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the largest and most significant botanical libraries in the world, since 2015, having joined Kew in 2000. The team of 20 staff manages collections comprising 300,000 books and pamphlets, 5,000 periodicals, 200,000 illustrations, 25,000 maps, and 7,000,000 items in the archives. With a background in library collection management, Fiona’s key priorities include cataloguing, conservation and digitisation, in particular of special collections, to unlock the riches contained within for future research. This work is feeding into Kew’s developing arts and humanities research programme, on which Fiona is working closely with LAA and other Kew collections colleagues, opening up Kew’s resources to new and diverse streams of research.
Charlotte Alderwick is Associate Head of Department and a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Her research interests are primarily in metaphysics, specifically the metaphysics of freedom and agency, and theories of nature. Having spent many years working on Schelling’s metaphysics of powers and freedom, Charlotte is now beginning to work on Eco-philosophy and environmental ethics, and on the productive contribution that philosophies of nature such as Schelling’s can make to contemporary thought in this area. When she is not thinking about Schelling, freedom, and nature, Charlotte likes to exercise her own freedom by being in nature, swimming in rivers and seas, eating and drinking delicious things, and dancing at any possible opportunity.
Matthew Bell is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Kings College London. An expert on Goethe’s thought, he is the author of Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The German Tradition of Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He is currently working on a large-scale study of Goethe’s thought from Princeton University Press.
As Research Assistant to the Philosophical Life of Plants Project, Julia collated material from the Library and Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for inclusion in the Project’s virtual exhibition. Julia has a background in art & design and art history and has been based within the Library and Archives at Kew for a number of years as an assistant to the Illustrations Team.
Jutta Eckle Ph. D., M. A. Studies in Biology and Humanities (History of German Literature, History of European Art and Linguistics). Senior Scientist at the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Deputy Head of Department Editions at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar. Editor of Goethe’s works on natural science (Leopoldina-Ausgabe: Goethe. Die Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft) and Goethe’s letters (Goethe. Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe).
Danielle Sands is Co-Investigator on this project. She is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Culture at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research crosses literary studies, philosophy, and critical theory, with interests in animal studies, and environmental ethics, in particular. She is author Animal Writing: Storytelling, Selfhood and the Limits of Empathy (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
Daniel Whistler is Principal Investigator on this project. He is Reader in Modern European Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has published widely on German philosophy of nature and its contemporary receptions. He is editor of The Schelling Reader (Bloomsbury, 2020), co-editor of Kielmeyer and the Organic World (Bloomsbury, 2020) and of the three-volume Edinburgh Edition of the Philosophical Works of Francois Hemsterhuis (Edinburgh University Press, 2021).
The project culminated in a virtual exhibition, entitled Thinking Plants, curated by Julia Buckley, and available to explore here. Part of this exhibition was also physically exhibited at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, during Summer 2022.
Note on Illustrations
The illustrations reproduced on the website by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) are taken from editions of his Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären. The drawings, totalling 36 panels, were made in the wake of his botanical “experiment” of 1790, in which Goethe first wrote down the basic principles of his morphological ideas. Handwritten explanations of the boards are included in the work. That he received assistance from the painter and copper engraver Johann Christian Wilhelm Waitz (1766–1796) and other teachers at the Weimar School of Drawing is probable but cannot be proven. These illustrations are now housed in the collections of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv.
Other illustrations reproduced from the Kew collection, a world-renowned resource of botanical illustration, forming an exceptional visual and cultural record for species of plants and fungi. It comprises over 200,000 prints and drawings, assembled over the last 200 years and ranging in date from the early 17th century to the present day. As well as documenting the visual characteristics of plants and fungi, the illustrations have historical value in terms of provenance, context and in relation to specific plant hunters. The collection has a global reach with paintings by a range of international artists, recording plants from around the world.