August 8, 2023

Getting Entwined: A Foray into Philosophy’s and Art’s Affair with Plants

Giovanni Aloi and Michael Marder

Ernestine Eberhardt Zaumseil, Branches and Vines Quilt, c. 1875.

Let’s begin with an image, as much conceptual as it is aesthetic, entwining the domains of knowing and sensing. The image is that of a gigantic, perhaps cosmic, tree, often with an inverted morphology, according to which the roots stretch high above while branches and leaves extend below. In The Bhagavad Gita, the eternal ashvattha tree is a tree at once of life and of knowledge. Modeled on a fig or a banyan, it is a tree that is imperishable (avyayam), “having its roots above and branches below, / whose leaves are the (Vedic) hymns” (XV.1). Immediately, though, ashvattha’s hierarchical arrangement is put in question: “Below and above [adhascordhvam] its branches spread, / nourished by the qualities, with objects of the senses as sprouts; / and below its roots stretch forth / engendering action in the world of men” (XV.2). The realms above and below merge into a single domain above-below, adhascordhvam, just as living and knowing, sensing-thinking and acting, are different parts of the same vegetal being.

In Hellenic antiquity, Plato and Plotinus probably received the conceptual image of the tree as a microcosm and a macrocosm of existence from Eastern thought, notably from Indian (the earlier Vedic as well as the later Mahabharata-based) and Zoroastrian traditions. In Timaeus, Plato pictures the human “not as an earthly but a heavenly plant,” rooted by the thinking head in the realm of ideas above (90a–b). Plotinus figures “the Soul of All” in the shape of a tree, or, more precisely, “a great growing plant,” with the lower parts embodied and the higher caring for the lower within the same sublime vegetal assemblage (Enneads IV.3.4, 25–30). Although the world tree migrates to ancient Greece and Hellenized Egypt, and although thinking and sensing are both mapped onto its organs, it is endowed with a rigid hierarchical structure, prioritizing abstract thought over sensory and nutritive capacities.

The Biblical heritage, too, adds another brushstroke to the portrait of the world as a tree. In Genesis 2:9, we read that in the Garden of Eden, “God made grow out of the earth every tree that is pleasing to sight and good for food, and the tree of life [’etz ha-chayim] was within the Garden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil [ve’etz ha-da’at tov va’ra’].” In contrast to The Bhagavad Gita, the tree of life is distinct from the tree of knowledge, so much so that the original sin of eating a fruit from the tree of knowledge cuts human connections to the tree of life, connections said to be repaired in Christianity. The prototype of the eternal ashvattha, or fig tree, is associated in Judaism and Christianity with the first attempt to mitigate the consequences of sin by covering genitals with broad fig leaves.

The Edenic condition of the first humans is far from perfect when set against the backdrop of foundational narratives from other cultural traditions and the goals of subsequent mysticisms alike. A hypothetical recovery of the paradisiac state is still burdened by the original division between life and knowledge, including not only the “ethical” knowledge of good and evil but also that of life itself. The two central trees in Biblical Eden are separate and even mutually exclusive: to eat the forbidden fruit from one of them is to be expelled from the vicinity of the other. This division, in turn, cuts through and between the vegetal and the human, human vegetality and our humanity, sensing and knowing, art and philosophy. If we invoke “vegetal entwinements,” it is in order to contribute in our modest way to the integration of these vital dimensions of existence.

A stumbling block in the way of such an integration is the attitude that is called, somewhat misleadingly, anthropocentrism. Without giving a second thought to the competing meanings and to the essential indeterminacy of anthropos (Greek for “human”), this largely unconscious attitude, privileging an exceptionally restricted notion of rationality, has considerably stifled thinking, feeling, and being in the world; it has undercut the potentialities of other-than-human, as well as of human, forms of life.

Anthropocentrism is ingrained in us. It has been passed on for millennia, from generation to generation, by teachers, parents, politicians, and the clergy. We are taught that nature is a resource to exploit; we are made to believe that only children should have an interest in all things natural; we are resigned before the fact that such things are not newsworthy unless disasters strike; we think it’s normal for nature never to be a priority in urban planning; and we are constantly told that animals and plants were created for us to enjoy and dispose of as we see fit (recall in this context the Biblical “pleasing to sight and good for food”). The cultural framework provided by anthropocentrism is difficult to dismantle, an endeavor that requires a good dose of trust in speculative approaches to both art and philosophy.

For their part, traditional philosophical approaches to plants have supplied the ideological foundations for their unrestricted instrumental treatment. The theoretical gesture of situating vegetal life at the bottom of the metaphysical hierarchy implies that this life is less differentiated or individuated than animal or human vitalities, while obfuscating how it materially (and even psychically) sustains the rest of ontology. That said, we should not simply dismiss the views on plants held by key figures in Western philosophy, some of whom (like Plato and Plotinus) have been influenced by philosophies from other parts of the world. On the one hand, they reveal—if only negatively—what the root of the problem is and, therefore, may play an important part in the current reassessment of the place of plants and that of the human. On the other hand, the “unconscious” layer of philosophical writings on vegetal life includes resources for subverting their own explicit message insofar as they betray the irrepressible tendency of vegetality traversing other sorts of existence, whether animal or human.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, the sudden rise in popularity of human-animal studies and the excitement generated by posthuman perspectives have progressively destabilized Western anthropocentric certitude. Grasping the importance of nonhuman agency has not proved an easy task, and what’s more important, the hard work such a grasp entails has just begun. Now, plants might not be the last frontier of the exciting ontological turn that has swept the humanities over the past twenty years, but vegetal life is one of the most challenging. While mammals often provide anthropomorphic opportunities for representationally bridging the abyss that separates us from them, the utter alterity of plants seems much less generous, at least at first glance. Vegetal life often appears alien when viewed from our habitual perspective: the more or less clear separations between the inner and the outer, the individual and the collective, the organism and its environment, and indeed life and death simply do not apply.

So, why look at plants now? Philosophy and art seem to have simultaneously, if not synergically, come to the conclusion that anthropocentrism has impoverished our universe of meaning and also led to destruction of habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, in an ongoing dialogue with philosophy, contemporary art is especially well situated to shape new conceptions of plants. It leads us to ask: How can we outline a thinking-sensing framework in which to conceive plants and to be with plants while avoiding objectifying and pacifying tropes? How can art respond to the philosophies and sciences of plants, new and old, and, in a reciprocal relation, inspire our theoretical imagination relevant to vegetal capacities? What philosophical insights about vegetation could emerge from a sustained engagement with art? Needless to say, both Western art and philosophy have to a certain degree failed plants by relegating them to the background of human concerns. Perhaps for this very reason the inverted morphology of upside-down trees also abounds in the work of many artists today. For instance, Darwin asked us to think of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal with its main sensitive organs below ground and sexual organs above.1 The upside-down iconography is an invitation to look again and afresh beyond our inherited cultural structures. Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s site-specific installations of uprooted trees, inspired by Sumerian goddess Inanna-Ishtar, aim to make visible commonalities between plant and human life. Through different aesthetic approaches, Shirazeh Houshiary, Giuseppe Penone, Holt/Smithson, Henrik Hakansson, and many others have inverted arboreal forms to challenge our plant blindness.2 This inversion fruitfully complicates the encounter; it subverts and interferes with the objectifying powers of cultural constructs, while allowing for the emergence of knowledge that bypasses the field of botany and its taxonomical structures. Or, like in the case of Rodney Graham’s photographs of upside-down oak trees, the whole of our perceptual/cognitive scope is uprooted, together with the representational systems we rely upon for the production of knowledge. In art, upside-down trees are stripped-bare vegetal bodies—potent and silent enigmas, philosophical questions, or simply monuments to the communicative inadequateness with regard to other forms of life that characterizes our species. But most of all, they stand as opportunities to surpass the representational and rational constrictions that have characterized our anthropocentric methods and knowledge.

Of great importance, in this context, is the implicit acknowledgment that the inscrutability of plants, their relatively simple anatomy, and their sessile existence should no longer be seen as markers of inferiority, but as fecund opportunities through which to rethink our relationship with the vegetal world, the land, and ecosystems. In light of these opportunities, artists have, since the beginning of the millennium, started to pry open a space from which new vegetal conceptions can emerge.3

The many de-objectifying aesthetic strategies contemporary artists have thus far devised are the first and all-important stage in combating plant blindness in art. More recently, a growing number of artists have shifted their focus toward new notions of interconnectedness in order to foreground plants as crucial actors in bio-networks. They more readily seem to engage with what the American art theorist Hal Foster has identified as a change from qualitative—aesthetically and historically determined—internal affairs of art to “interested art” that challenges the borders of contemporary cultural thought in what amounts to a meaningful shift from “medium-specific elaborations to debate-specific projects.”4 From bio art and installations to video work, artists have begun to focus on the human/vegetal/material/cultural entanglements that define our lives and, along with that, our planet.

Often straddling past and present histories, plants in art easily come to embody collective and individual memories, traumas, and identities. They help us visualize the elusive blueprints of colonial pasts that haunt the world today and trace back histories of exploitation and social injustice in order to confront what metanarratives have concealed. With this context in mind, plants in contemporary art are always political in the sense that they relentlessly trouble anthropocentric certainties, parameters, and limitations. In so doing, they often implicitly invite radical perceptual shifts and deep reconsiderations of subject-object relations. Here lies the subversive power of plants. Artists, curators, and art historians who today take plants seriously are aware of their material recalcitrance; of how they trouble hegemonic conceptions of time, intelligence, movement, and identity; and of how considering plants from new and creative perspectives might also bear the potential to foster more sustainable futures.

The current vegetal turn will be remembered as an extraordinarily unique time in the histories of both philosophy and art. And it is no coincidence that such a momentous shift should become manifest at a time of planetary crisis. Catastrophic climate change and the sixth mass extinction are only two of the most urgent anthropogenic issues our planet currently faces. No doubts are left: anthropocentrism is the prima causa of what today we call the Anthropocene.

According to current statistics, every day roughly eighty-one thousand hectares, an area nearly fourteen times the size of Manhattan, are destroyed to make space for agriculture and to produce timber. The rate of deforestation is such that about thirty-six football fields’ worth of trees are lost every minute.5 Of course, the destructive effects of deforestation are not limited to erosion and the deterioration of soil or the loss of biodiversity. Even conservative estimates indicate that deforestation causes the loss of roughly 137 species of plants, insects, and other animals every day.6 Approximately 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions are generated by deforestation. The loss of trees has a deep impact on the hydrological system of this planet too. Cleared forest leads to drier local climates because water is no longer channeled through tree roots and foliage into the atmosphere. This results in desertification and, at the same time, increased risks of flooding.

Rethinking our relationship with plants, reconsidering their vital place in the biosystems of this planet, and envisioning new modes of coexistence lie at the core of the possibility for more sustainable futures. The time has come to reconsider vegetal ontology and philosophy as such in the face of an ethical urgency. Nevertheless, as one of us has asked recently, “Are we writing and thinking about plants, with such intensity and dedication because the forests are receding? Because we are losing vegetal variety, the biodiversity of the flora, in actuality? Are we trying to commemorate in thought what is disappearing in deed?”7 The current nexus of art and philosophy articulated around plants needs to be envisioned in the context not only of ethical urgency but also of our undisguisable belatedness.

This essay is a lightly modified version of the introduction to Vegetal Entwinements in Philosophy and Art: A Reader, ed. Giovanni Aloi and Michael Marder, MIT Press, 2023.


Charles Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants (John Murray, 1880).


James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61 no. 2, (1999).


Giovanni Aloi (ed. and main author), Why Look at Plants: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art (Brill, 2019).


Hal Foster, Return of the Real (MIT Press, 1996), xi.


Alina Bradford, “Deforestation: Facts, Causes and Impacts of Deforestation,” LiveScience, March 4, 2015 .


Rhett A. Butler, “Rainforest Facts for 2021,” Mongabay, September 12, 2021 .


Michael Marder, “Auto-Heteronomy: Thoreau’s Circuitous Return to the Vegetal World,” in Dispersion: Thoreau and Vegetal Thought, ed. Branka Arsic (Bloomsbury, 2021), 67.

Nature & Ecology, Philosophy, Contemporary Art
Plants & Forests

Giovanni Aloi is Associate Professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. His writings span the fields of ecological theory, phenomenology, and political thought. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and monographs, including Hegel’s Energy (2021), Green Mass (2021), and Philosophy for Passengers (2022), among others.

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