Kierkegaard’s Plants: The Problem of a Heritage
Think of a brilliant physiologist (those mere butcher-apprentices who think they can explain everything with a knife and with a microscope are an abomination to me)—what does he do? First and foremost he grants that every transition is a leap, that he cannot explain how a consciousness comes into existence or how a consciousness of the environment becomes self-consciousness or God-consciousness; in short, he admits the qualitative dialectic. Consequently he admits categorically that he really cannot explain anything. But what does he do then? He skeletonizes, he dissects, he pierces with knives as far in as he can, in order to show—that he cannot! If someone knew that even though he picked every leaf from the flower, separated the fibers of the stem, and observed every part microscopically, and still could not explain what is constitutive in plants [det Constituerende i Planten]—why does he do it then?*
Kierkegaard was no gardener, and certainly no scientist of plant life. This is not accidental to his thinking: he is adamant about the uniqueness of human existence. He is equally adamant that it is a category mistake to approach human spirit and consciousness using the analytical tools of natural science; or to try and derive from nature principles for the spiritual life.
One of the causes of Kierkegaard’s break with his mentor, the playwright and philosopher J. L. Heiberg, was just this. Reviewing Kierkegaard’s book Repetition, Heiberg chastised him for applying a principle of repetition from nature to the life of spirit, without that philosophical mediation which would integrate it into a person’s life-view. Properly mediated, sympathy with nature could be ‘one of the primary clues to the true wisdom of life’.
Kierkegaard was incensed: he insisted had not derived repetition from anything natural! Such naturalisation of spiritual decision was a bad joke to him. It was Heiberg who was calling up the ghost of mediation to try to make something spiritually valuable out of the merely natural.
This tiff probably did not help Kierkegaard’s estimation of Goethe: Heiberg’s review invoked the great German polymath in glowing terms. The early interest Kierkegaard had shown in Goethe’s portrayal of Faust gave way to antipathy; in a journal entry from shortly after the one quoted, he writes ‘Goethe, who was no religious mind, cowardly held fast to that differentiating knowledge’ – the spiritless knowledge that fetishizes the microscope.
This is hardly a fair judgement on Goethe, but let it pass. Perhaps more striking is Kierkegaard’s nod to holism and organicism in the journal passage first quoted. Here, he argues that the analytical mind misses what is ‘constitutive in plants’. This implies that such a methodology is not simply inappropriate in relation to the ethical and the religious, but to the natural too.
Kierkegaard left this thought undeveloped; his attention was decidedly elsewhere, and he had no wish to confuse the boundaries he felt were so important. And so he became a major part of that bifurcation of European thought between the existential – with its stress on decision, freedom and transcendence, whether human or divine – and the romantic/idealist. The latter’s ‘materialisation’ or naturalisation of reason, its aim to overcome the dualistic division of human from nature, seems to be the legacy most suited to respond to our environmental disconnections.
It would be somehow appropriate if the discontents of modern philosophy were brewed in the cauldron of a parochial clash of bourgeois egos. But is that all there is to be said?
Take Schelling: romantic, idealist philosopher of nature! Elaine Miller has argued that, for him, is true that the freedom embedded in nature is a necessary precursor to human freedom – and so all ethics are ‘environmental ethics’. At the same time, she notes that Schelling insists on ‘a fundamental gap between nature and human beings’, an absolute alterity without which ethics is not possible at all. Perhaps this offers a tentative bridge to Kierkegaard’s work.
Kierkegaard may not have developed a naturalistic ‘thinking with plants’; but he spills much ink over the lilies of the field which appear in the gospels. Along with the birds of the air, the lilies are a standing challenge to our human anxiety and all the miserable paraphernalia of comparative judgements. The lily and bird remind us to rejoice in being simply what we are; to express joy in silence, far from the wagging tongues of superficial prattle, of information posing as communication.
Of course, there is no botanical eye at work here. The lily seems to be merely a cipher – another plant subjected to the endless human work of figuration.
And yet: Kierkegaard insists that the lily is expressive; that it ‘plays outside’ the world of human distinctions; that it is certainly not thoughtless. There is something unconditional about the lily that stands in place, and from which we are commanded to learn.
Perhaps there is Kierkegaardian work still to be done: to connect the Goethean, the existential and the romantic heritages via thinking with plants, with what is constitutive of plants beyond all analysis. Such a thinking will be reducible neither to human epistemological grasp nor spiritual assimilation, but will open a different knowing, a different ethics. The plants’ verdant otherness invites us to encounter a thought and a call that comes from outside: where the lily grows and expresses a being indifferent to ours.