Goethe and the Philosophical Life of Plants
Plants come in an amazing variety of shapes, colours, and forms. There seems to be hardly any limit to nature’s ingenuity when it comes to their generation. Yet we recognize them all as plants and distinguish them from non-plants like, for example, butterflies or crystals. What is it that all plants have in common, such that they form one of nature’s kingdoms? What makes a plant a plant?
Goethe’s ‘Leaf’ and Scales of the Anthropocene: The Vegetal versus the Geological
Heather I. Sullivan
As indicated by our new geological era of the Anthropocene, the timeframe on Earth since the industrial revolution when traceable amounts of industrial particulates and other ecological alterations can be found across every surface of the planet, human beings have been continuously scaling up their impact and influence so that we have attained geological levels. Indeed, capitalist and industrialist practices of all types seek precisely this action: to scale up, whether it be production, consumption, profiteering, use of planetary resources, or, inadvertently, the devastation of ecological systems.
Goethe, Sprengel and the Origins of Ecology
Conditions of the Botanic Gaze
Some questions for the botanist: Who do you need to be, what do you need to know or have done, and what else do you need to be doing in order to see plants properly?, i.e., see them with the kind of sympathetic attention they demand? What are the practical conditions of the production of a botanic gaze? Jean-Jacques Rousseau and J. W. Goethe tell us many things about plants, and, I want to suggest, this is one of them—the delineation of two botanic ways of life.
a secret journey precursory turn it over underneath single is leaf all?
Botany in Goethe’s Work
Goethe is known as a multifaceted philosopher, passionate about the natural sciences: physics, chemistry and the life sciences. In addition to his considerable philosophical and literary work, he left us a famous botanical treatise: The Metamorphosis of Plants, published in 1790. Why is this little book, apparently very far from traditional philosophical considerations, instructive for understanding the work of Goethe in relation to his time? Conversely, why does the nature of plants prove conducive to grasping certain aspects of Goethe’s philosophy?
To question the place of botany in Goethe’s work implies biographical elements, but also epistemological elements of the relationship between philosophy, art and sciences, central to Goethean thought.*
So what’s Linnaeus got to do with it?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s botanical works could not be more different from the global cataloguing enterprise of Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778): Linnaeus focused on naming and ordering all of nature, while Goethe examined the unfolding and development of the plant from the seed leaves into an ever more complex entity, while at the same time exploring its relationship to the environment. Yet it is all too easy today to dismiss Linnaeus as a Fachidiot, whose compulsive organizing of nature’s elements constituted the ‘classical’ episteme diagnosed by Foucault: ‘When it ascribed to each thing represented the name that was fitted to it, and laid out the grid of a well-made language across the whole field of representation, then it was science—nomenclature and taxonomy’.* As I argue here, this taxonomic moment provided, via a dialectical process of knowledge production, crucial epistemological underpinnings for work in a very different vein.