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SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Dennis J. Schmidt, series editor
From Philosophy of Nature
to Subjectivity in the Feminine
Elaine P. Miller
Published by
State University of New York Press, Albany
© 2002 State University of New York
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Miller, Elaine, 1962–
The vegetative soul : from philosophy of nature to subjectivity in the feminine / Elaine Miller.
p. cm. — (SUNY series in contemporary continental philosophy)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7914-5391-X (alk. paper) — ISBN 0-7914-5392-8 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Philosophy of nature—Germany—History—18th century. 2.
Botany—Germany—History—18th century. 3. Philosophy of
nature—Germany—History—19th century. 4. Botany—Germany—History—19th century. 5.
Feminist theory. 6. Subjectivity. I. Title. II. Series.
B2748.N35 M55 2002
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The English Gardent
The Metamorphosis of Plants
Empedocles and the Tragic Christ
The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
The Ivy and the Vine
The Legacy of the Vegetative Soul in
Twentieth-Century Thought
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In a preface, written, naturally, when the rest of the work has already
been done, one is often at pains to bring together the way in which the
work was initially projected with its present form, as if one had known
from the outset in what particular ways it would unfold. Somehow one
must show the coherence of the various parts, the way in which each of
them “naturally” develops out of the other. While one has certainly
believed this to be the case, one is always aware there is no way that one
can present this study after the fact as a straightforwardly sustained
“argument.” As one proceeds, things get out of one’s “own” control and
change, without giving any explicit direction for them to do so. And yet,
this is precisely the way in which all writing progresses.
It is also the way in which a plant grows. When a seed first opens
and allows the signs of root and stem to emerge, one cannot tell what
kind of plant it will become. Indeed, to the untrained eye, the leaves of
the plant give no indication of its eventual flower, nor does the flower
somehow imply the particular form of its fruit. I initially became inter-
ested in plant anatomy and growth through descriptions in philosophi-
cal texts from the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. What is
intriguing about plants, and certainly what thinkers from Goethe to the
German Idealists and Romantics and Friedrich Nietzsche found fasci-
nating about them, is the lack of immediately comprehensible or recog-
nizable signs of the direction in which they will grow, the way in which,
as a plant develops, one of its parts will completely metamorphose into
another, leaving little or no trace of its earlier form, and the astonishing
adaptability of plants to the vicissitudes of their environments.
The seeds and growth of a book necessarily reflect interactions
with others who inspire, read, discuss, and criticize it or its ideas. I
would like to thank the DePaul University philosophy community, and
especially: Michael Naas, whose language and philosophical stance were
always something to which to aspire; Peg Birmingham, who could be
counted on to come up with bright guiding ideas at a moment’s notice;
and David Farrell Krell who gave inspiration, motivation, and direction
from beginning to end. Daniel Selcer and Anna Vaughn read my work
from its inception and helped prune its growth, while Daniel Price spent
many much appreciated hours carefully commenting upon and dis-
cussing ideas. A summer research grant and an assigned research leave
at Miami University gave me the time to complete this book in its cur-
rent form. Emily Zakin provided many valuable insights into its contin-
ued development and revision. Celeste Friend gave generously of her
time and ideas. My family gave me support in many ways that allowed
me to continue and thrive. Mark Bryant generously gave me the com-
puter on which it was originally written. I would like especially to thank
my mother, Susan Miller, for proofreading, childcare, and belief in me
even when she didn’t understand. Sheila Croucher’s encouragement and
creative input helped me overcome more than one mental impasse at the
last minute and were immensely appreciated. Jane Bunker and Kelli
Williams of SUNY Press were the most helpful of editors. Finally and
most importantly, I could not have written this book without Ferit
Güven’s intellectual and emotional support. He was there when I chose
to follow philosophy and showed me a way beyond the conventional
path; this book would never have been written had I not met him. As
critic and friend, he, more than anyone, witnessed and fostered its
expansive and contractive metamorphoses. I dedicate it to Sofi Nur, who
was born just as I was finishing the final manuscript, and who convinced
me of what I have formally argued, that the most beautiful creations
transcend any calculation.
viii The Vegetative Soul
All abbreviated references refer first (and sometimes only) to original
language editions, except in the case of Schopenhauer. When two
page numbers are given, separated by a slash, the first number refers
to the original language edition and the second number refers to the
English translation (e.g., GE 575/54). Two abbreviations separated by
a slash indicates that the title is significantly different in English; in
this case the second abbreviation refers to the English title. Numbers
given after the abbreviation but before the comma refer to volume
numbers (e.g., J III, 25). Unless otherwise noted, all references to
Kant will be to Ak. (the “Academy Edition”). There will be no refer-
ence to the English pagination when the English translators include
pagination from the original language edition in their translations
(e.g., KU, KrV). All English translations may have been modified. All
references will be to page numbers unless otherwise noted (e.g., § =
section number).
1. Works by Kant
Ak Kants gesammelte Schriften. Berlin: Königlich Preußische
Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1902). Berlin: Georg Reimer,
KrV Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (Ak. III). Critique of Pure Reason.
Translated by Lewis White Beck. New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 1965.
KU Kritik der Urteilskraft (Ak. V). Critique of Judgment. Trans-
lated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
2. Works by Goethe
GA Gedenkenausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, 24 vol-
umes. Edited by Ernst Beutler. Zürich: Artemis Verlag, 1949.
MP Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geis-
tesleben, 1992.
SS Scientific Studies. Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. New
York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1988.
3. Works by Hölderlin
WB Werke und Briefe. Edited by Friedrich Beißner and Jochen
Schmidt. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1969.
H Hyperion (WB 1). Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York:
The Continuum Publishing Company, 1994.
TE Der Tod des Empedocles (WB 2: 463–566). Version number
(1–3) given before page number.
GE Grund zum Empedocles (WB 2: 570–83). Essays and Letters on
Theory. Translated by Thomas Pfau. Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1988 (50–61).
4. Works by Hegel
W Werke. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.
J I Jenaer Systementwürfe I: Das System der Speculativen Philoso-
phie. Edited by Klaus Düsing and Heinz Kimmerle. Gesammelte
Werke 6. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1975.
J II Jenaer Systementwürfe II: Logik, Metaphysik, Naturphilosophie.
Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Johann Heinrich Trede.
Gesammelte Werke 7. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1971.
J III Jenaer Systementwürfe III: Naturphilosophie und Philosophie
des Geistes. Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Johann Hein-
rich Trede. Gesammelte Werke 8. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Ver-
lag, 1976.
PN Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. Translated by Michael John
Petry. New York: Humanities Press, 1970.
x The Vegetative Soul
TJS Hegels theologische Jugendschriften. Edited by Herman Nohl.
Tübingen: Verlag von J.C.B. Mohr, 1907. Early Theological
Writings. Translated by T. M. Knox. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1948.
GCS Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal (TJS).
L Die Liebe (TJS).
PS The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
5. Works by Nietzsche
KSA Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe. Edited by Giorgio
Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 15 vols. Berlin and Munich: Wal-
ter de Gruyter and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980. Cited
by volume number (in italics) and page number.
HKG Werke. Historische-Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Edited by Hans
Joachim Mette and Karl Schlechta. Munich: C.H.Beck’sche Ver-
lag, 1935. Cited by volume number (in roman numerals), sec-
tion (in italics) and page number.
KGA Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Edited by Giorgio Colli,
Mazzino Montinari, Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, and Karl
Pestalozzi. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993. Cited by volume
number (roman numerals), section (in italics) and page number.
BT The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New
York: Vintage Books, 1967.
GS The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York:
Vintage Books, 1974.
UM Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Cited by number
(1–4) and page number.
WTP The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J.
Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1969.
6. Other works
WWR Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation.
Translated by E. F. J. Payne. Indian Hills, CO: The Falcon’s Wing
Press, 1958. Cited by volume number (1–2) and page number.
xi Abbreviations
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When something in our observation of nature takes us aback, when
we find our usual way of thought inadequate for its comprehension,
we are well advised to look about for parallels in the history of
thought and understanding.
—Goethe, “The Spiral Tendency in Vegetation”
In “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,” Rainer Maria Rilke tells an allegory
of nature rather than a narrative in his version of the story of Orpheus’s
descent to Hades to find his dead wife, Eurydice.
Rilke begins with the
descent of Orpheus and Hermes “like veins of silver ore” into Tantalus,
the realm of stone, also called “the deep uncanny mine of souls.” Blood
“heavy as porphyry” wells up around them as they approach the part of
Hades where human souls abide. On the way out of Hades, Orpheus,
the musician with the power to make the trees pull themselves up by the
roots to dance, to magnetize the stones, now walks powerless and alone,
forbidden to look back to check if Hades has kept his promise to bring
Eurydice to join him once they have passed the gates of the underworld.
Orpheus loses all of his customary equilibrium in his eagerness to rejoin
his beloved, who is walking behind him with Hermes. Rilke chooses to
describe Orpheus’s state of mind in the vocabulary of unreflective and
restless animal instinct. As Orpheus walks out of Hades he “devours the
path” ahead of him “in large, greedy, unchewed bites.” He who had the
power to enchant the beasts of the field loses control of his own state of
mind as if it were an unrestrained animal: “His senses felt as though they
were split in two; his sight would race ahead of him like a dog, stop,
come back, then rushing off again, would stand, impatient, at the path’s
next turn—but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.” In addition,
Rilke draws attention to Orpheus’s arms, which have fallen to his sides
so that he is no longer aware of the delicate lyre “that had grown into
his left arm, like a slip of roses grafted onto an olive tree.” The poet also
describes Eurydice, like the lyre that represents Orpheus’s music and his
power to entrance nature, as a plant. She is “like a fruit suffused with its
own mystery and sweetness,” and closed, like “a young flower at night-
fall.” Her vegetative nature is the dream-like absorption of her position
on the brink of life and death. In the misty dark of the underworld, Rilke
writes, “she was already root.” Hades has promised that if she can pass
through the gates of Hades without being glimpsed by her husband, her
animation will return to her. But Orpheus’s impatient animal-like senses,
consciousness, and desire ensure that Eurydice will remain rooted in
Hades when he cannot resist the temptation to turn around to see her.
One might be tempted to say that Rilke is simply following a tra-
dition that equates plant life with femininity and passivity, animal life
with activity and masculinity, and the mineral with the mysterious and
inanimate. It is certainly not difficult to find examples of such pairings
in the history of literature and philosophy. One can also find many
examples of the linkage of the plant with the oriental, with what is pas-
sive, needlessly decorative, unable to act in its own best interest. But
Rilke’s figuration does not simply reiterate these tired metaphoric equa-
tions. For it is what is most conscious and most willful in Orpheus that
betrays him, and it is what is most plantlike about him, his lyre, that has
given him his identity precisely in allowing him to exceed himself.
Orpheus’s power as a poet and a musician, a power symbolized by the
lyre, is what makes him capable of creating a rapture that made it pos-
sible for listeners to forget the bounds of earthly individuation.
If Rilke is not guilty of simply perpetuating common associations,
if, on the contrary, he pushes these connotations to their limits and in
doing so brings the very oppositional structure they imply into question,
we might inquire into the origin of this multiple metaphorical tension.
The late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries were a time of great
change in the paradigms of natural history, and in philosophy. The ques-
tion of how one represents nature came to the fore in a way that had
never been questioned before. The plant and the animal were separated
and differentiated as the two major divisions of living organic nature.
The science of life, biology, and the basic unit of that life, the organism
(in its current sense), were invented as the focus of natural science
moved from categorization and classification to the observation of the
living body. At the same time, philosophers began to question to what
extent the configuration of the organism was to become the template for
philosophical thought and scientific order, and how one particular bod-
ily figure had already influenced scientific and philosophical paradigms
prior to the ascendance of organic form.
2 The Vegetative Soul
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks written before and around the
time of the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, he mentions, almost in
passing, that the “vulgar perspective” of our own animal bodies is
reflected in almost every thing to which we assign value (HKG 1:3, 388).
Such a disparaging statement would seem surprising coming from Niet-
zsche, the famed “inverter of Platonism,” if one took it out of context
and understood by it that somehow Nietzsche was advocating a per-
spective that would go beyond the bodily and eschew the sensuous in
favor of the purely intelligible. This is manifestly not what Nietzsche
means. Rather, he implies, we do something strange in projecting the
particular dimensions and qualities of our own bodies onto every other
thing we see or think. Such a practice leads to obvious anthropomor-
phisms of nature—think of talking rivers, mountains with faces, and
trees that walk in Disney cartoons—but it also invites a certain reduc-
tionist view of the way in which nature gives of itself.
Philosophers and historians of science are beginning to realize that
classical paradigms of the scientific method have frequently assumed the
very perspective Nietzsche is criticizing. For example, Evelyn Fox Keller,
a biologist and leading contemporary feminist critic of science, writes:
Much of contemporary evolutionary theory relies on the representation of
the “individual”—be it the organism or the gene—that is cast in the par-
ticular image of man we might call the “Hobbesian man”—simultane-
ously autonomous and oppositional, connected to the world in which it
finds itself, not by the promise of life and growth, but primarily by the
threat of death and loss—its first and foremost need being the defense of
its boundaries. In psychological terms we might say that such an individ-
ual betrays an idealized conception of autonomy, one that presupposes a
radical conception of self, and that simultaneously attributes to the rela-
tion between self and other an automatic negative valence—a relation,
finally, not so much of independence as of dynamic opposition.
Keller goes on to specify that the paradigm of biological building
block, which has been described in terms recalling an aggressive animal
fighting against other forces of nature, has been carried over into both
contemporary evolutionary theory and genetics by conventional scien-
tific language rather than by explicit intention. It is interesting to note
that even today, when contemporary physics has radically transformed
our understanding of the universe, the science of biology remains
entrenched in fundamentally the same linguistic and thus interpretive
structures that it has had since Francis Bacon published De Interpreta-
tione Naturae.
Indeed, Keller goes on to show that although the locus
of vital activity in biology has shifted in the twentieth century from the
visible organism to the physico-chemical structure of the components of
3 Introduction
the organism, the central figure for biology—the gene—is still conceived
of as an individual on a smaller scale. Biology has redefined life itself as
a code or cryptogram still understood as a self-defending entity, and the
goals of biological science have shifted from observation to intervention
or “control that promises effective mastery over the processes of making
and remaking life,”
effectively perpetuating this paradigm on another
level. In other words, if the organism has been articulated in the past—
as we will see that it has—in analogy with a machine, it is now being
projected as the possible product of manipulative techniques whose
results rather than actions can be tracked.
This book examines the relationship between the paradigm of the
organism, its description in the language of confrontation and self-
preservation, a description I will refer to as an “animal” metaphor for
individuation, and the depiction of subjectivity in the same terms, terms
that have been called “masculine” from their provenance in the descrip-
tion of the Hobbesian man of the state of nature. The congruence is
based on the rhetoric of description rather than on any explicit position
held by Hobbes or any other philosopher on the status of women. This
is to say, rather than criticizing any particular philosopher’s position on
the status of woman and on whether or not she may properly be called
a subject, I am focusing on the metaphorical use of language to describe
political subjects when it is applied to the realm of nature, and, con-
versely, the language used to describe nature when it is employed to
legitimate particular descriptions of human subjectivity and intersubjec-
tivity. Such uses of rhetoric, because of their subtlety, are often over-
looked, and their detrimental potential thereby underestimated. My con-
tention is that “nature” is always presented as symbolized, and that
nature and culture both negatively define each other and are the sources
for each others’ symbolization. Thus a change in the symbolics of nature
necessarily brings about a change in that of culture. Following Luce Iri-
garay, given that the symbolization of nature has traditionally been
aligned with terms used to describe the feminine, this change might have
the possibility of restructuring or even creating feminine subjectivity in
a way that would make a real difference to women. In particular, I am
interested in a historical period in which paradigms of individuation in
nature seemed to be shifting, and how this both reflected and influenced
ways of thinking about subjectivity. The natural figure that began to
attract the attention of scientists and artists alike was that of the plant,
whose body is configured quite differently than that of the animal.
The term vegetative soul is taken from Aristotle, but refers, here,
to a theory of subjectivity that evolves from what M. H. Abrams has
dubbed “vegetable genius,” the eighteenth and nineteenth-century idea
of genius as the plantlike relationship of the creative mind to nature as
4 The Vegetative Soul
the place from which it springs forth without individual agency and
indeed lacking full transparency to self as to its reason for being.
vegetative soul is radically opposed to the figure of organism as
autonomous and oppositional; its stance toward the world is character-
ized by the promise of life and growth, not the avoidance of death and
loss. Further, its individuation is much less radically defined, is subject
to metamorphosis, and maintains an identity that transfigures itself over
time. The metaphor of plant growth for subjectivity is thus constitutive
rather than merely decorative or fanciful. Finally, characteristics of the
vegetative soul resonate with an important facet of recent feminist the-
ory, in particular of French feminism, namely, the possible configuration
of a feminine subject that is neither atomistic nor confrontational.
The relationship between what we loosely call “nature,” on the
one hand, and the human creativity that includes the attempt to make
sense of that same “nature,” on the other, has often been conceived of
as the locus of the earliest of metaphors. Metaphor itself has been
described as the result of a slow progression in human cognition from
the immediate and the sensory to the abstract and conceptual. The story
goes something like this: the earliest humans had much more intimate
contact with the natural environment, which they strove to master and
in the face of which they were extremely vulnerable, but whether in
domination or in subordination they had a fundamental relationship
with the raw, natural elements that is unknown to most human beings
today. The first civilizations arose as a result of the taming of nature
through the development of agriculture and the domestication of ani-
mals, as well as the taming—through a social contract that exchanges
certain freedoms for the guarantee of protection—of naturally hostile
initial relationships between human beings. “Culture” itself could not
emerge until this initial double mastery of nature and of human nature
had reached a stage of some stability, so that the visual arts, music, and
writing were all products of leisure and of a secure and sedentary life.
The earliest mythologies were personifications of the forces of nature
and allegorizations of natural processes. As culture and language pro-
gressed, a transfer slowly took place from raw, immediate, sensuous
experience to more abstract notions. These non-sensory concepts could
only be put into language by referring them in turn to the elements of
original experience, which explains the etymological derivations of
many abstract words whose roots point to sensory experience yet which
designate ideas that cannot be empirically presented. The nouns of our
language, as a result, are a complicated mixture of names of things that
can be ostensively designated and conceptual or metaphysical terms that
have lost all contact with the experience from which they were derived.
Such metaphysical terms may be called “dead” metaphors.
5 Introduction
One of the many problems with such a reading of metaphor is that
from the outset it presupposes a clear division between nature and cul-
ture, between sensory and non-sensory, between figurative and literal
meanings in language, and it further presumes a parallel structure
between the opposing terms of this set of contraries, so that, for exam-
ple, metaphorical language results from the replacement of a primitive
language closely bound to nature with a “higher” language of abstract
terms that nevertheless can only be articulated with reference to the sen-
sory. Classical metaphysical thinking is inaugurated in such assumptions
even before one begins to look at the history of philosophy. Further-
more, such a story presumes a unidirectional progression from the nat-
ural and the sensory toward the cultural and the intelligible, without
taking into account the influence of particular assumptions about cul-
ture that already orient the way in which nature is understood. Indeed,
there may be no pure experience of nature; in order for “nature” to
appear to us in an intelligible way, it must be signified through a histor-
ical discourse. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany the
question of how one articulates nature formed an important part of sci-
entific and philosophical discourse, producing many thinkers—among
them, Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Hölder-
lin, G. W. F. Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche—who were acutely aware of
this reciprocal relationship between nature and culture. In order to situ-
ate this discourse, it will be instructive to go back in time to the first divi-
sion between a sensible and an intelligible realm.
One of the most striking metaphorical appropriations of the rela-
tionship between nature and human expression in ancient literature
occurs at the end of Plato’s Phaedrus. The first two-thirds of the dia-
logue consist of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, who are
arguing, ostensibly, over the meaning of love and the relative merits of
the non-lover and the lover. Just when Socrates’ climactic speech has
ended, Phaedrus has acquiesced, and it seems the dialogue is coming to
a close, Socrates shifts the conversation to the topics of speech writing
and rhetoric, and finally to writing and reading. Although the connec-
tion between the various scenes is clear—the entire argument was
sparked by the communication of an inscribed speech of Lysias that
Phaedrus carries around with him hidden under his robe—the structure
of the dialogue strikes one as unbalanced and strangely organized, since
it arrives at no “natural” conclusion. This is particularly noticeable
given that the subject of Socrates’ discussion of rhetoric is precisely the
proper organization of discourse.
Socrates says to Phaedrus, “But I do think you will agree to this,
that every discourse must be organized, like a living being, with a body
of its own, as it were, so as not to be headless or footless, but to have a
6 The Vegetative Soul
middle and members, composed in fitting relation to each other and to
the whole.”
Though a “living being” (zoon) might be any type of living
thing, the words headless (akephalon) and footless (apoun) make a clear
reference to the animal body. Even though Greek science included no
notion of “organism,” the ideal of “organic unity” in writing certainly
plays a role in Plato’s dialogue. In this case, Socrates projects the unity
perceived in a natural entity onto a human activity as an ideal form. But
the choice of image is not arbitrary. The animal body, with its perceived
qualities of being self-enclosed, self-propelled, and, to a degree, self-suf-
ficient, has always been the predominant metaphor for organization and
unity in both philosophical and nonphilosophical writing. The animal
body is perhaps the only organism that has the qualities ascribed to
“good writing”: a clear beginning, middle, and end that fit together into
a coherent whole, and form a “living” structure.
A little later in Phaedrus, Socrates asks Phaedrus whether a “seri-
ous farmer” who possesses seeds capable of bearing fruit will plant them
in a “Garden of Adonis” in the middle of summer where they will
mature rapidly and then die within eight days. Phaedrus agrees that only
one who is planting for amusement and not in order to harvest fruit will
act in such a manner. Plato draws parallels between writing and strew-
ing seed carelessly (for amusement), and between speech and the delib-
erate planting of seeds in the earth that a farmer does. Indeed, accord-
ing to Marcel Detienne, a complete semantic framework arose in ancient
Greek associating the gardens of Adonis with impotence, immaturity,
and impermanence.
Socrates thus can draw on the cultural opposites of
purposeful activity and amusement, which in turn are characteristics
projected upon living speech and writing. Detienne shows how an entire
series of binary oppositions, including the association of women with
the gardens of Adonis and men with purposeful harvesting, can be
drawn with respect to the comparison.
In addition, Plato’s description of serious husbandry employs char-
acteristics usually associated with animal procreation. First, the person
who plants, that is, the dialectician, sows words that are “not barren”
(akarpoi) (277A) in the minds of others, a description that could apply
to either animals or plants. The proper mode of planting requires “eight
months” to come to fruition (276B), a period that could suggest the
development of a human embryo in the womb more readily than an
agricultural harvest. The discourse generated in this manner will give
birth to “legitimate offspring” (huieis genesious) and have “descen-
dants” (ekgonoi) or “brothers” (adelphoi) (278A-B). Somehow, despite
the move from animal to plant imagery, the plant has been supplanted
in favor of the “organic” body with head, torso, and feet, coherent
beginning, middle, and end, with which Socrates began when describing
7 Introduction
speech. The metaphor gains complexity by the fact that animal and plant
husbandry, like speech and writing, have become entwined to the degree
that one is not always sure what is being promoted and what denigrated.
For is Phaedrus itself not a series of oxymorons? It is a dialogue that
places speech above writing, but which, like the speech of Lysias that
Socrates mocks, is itself written down. The dialogue promotes the virtues
of an organic animal-like structure, yet it has a plant-like body with no
clear logic holding its beginning, middle, and end together.
Unlike animals, plants live through a process of metamorphosis
and growth; that is, morphological adaptation characterizes vegetative
life. The plant does not grow from an essentially formed infant to a
larger, but essentially and proportionately the same, adult.
Parts of
plants evolve into each other: as Goethe wrote in The Metamorphosis
of Plants, a work that transformed the science of botany in the late
eighteenth century, a plant’s leaf becomes the flower, the flower the
fruit. Plants do not move on their own from one place to another, but
they can continue to grow to no specified end; in other words, there is
no point at which a plant can be definitively designated as an individ-
ual. Animals have a definitively individuated shape from birth onward;
they simply grow larger, and do not transmogrify entirely. Other than
certain species, such as frogs and butterflies, animals do not undergo
complete metamorphosis. The plant represents that organism whose
origin, though hidden, seems accessible, because its history can be read
in the sequence of its metamorphoses. The animal carries its own
metamorphosis within it only as a memory, a trace of its past existence
in the womb, or as a possibility, as sperm or egg. The plant is in touch
with its origin, always contiguous with both its source and its destina-
tion. Yet it is the very separability of the animal body that informs the
way we value a work; we insist that a work should be complete, whole,
“organic,” that its beginning and its end should be clearly defined and
should make sense, as if coherence were intrinsically bound to separa-
tion and independence.
Animal bodies, unlike those of plants, have discrete organs. The
specialization and differentiation of the animal body as well as its organs
lends itself to the notion of an individual. Animals can move and carry
everything they need for sustenance with them. Both of these factors
lead to a picture of an animal with an identity: even as it ages, it can be
identified as itself through time, if only through its bodily appearance. It
is difficult if not impossible, on the other hand, as both Goethe and
Nietzsche note, to identify a plant as an individual: where does it begin
and where does it end? What part of it is “it,” and what part its off-
spring? A plant is dispersed, multiple, in many places at many times even
as it remains rooted. Metamorphosis, as Goethe describes it in The
8 The Vegetative Soul
Metamorphosis of Plants, is characterized by an alterity inscribed into
identity. This means that a plant has no strict identity over time in the
way an animal does.
The terms organic and organism in the sense of “having an orga-
nized physical structure” as applied to a living being, came into their
familiar usage only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Long after Aristotle, the employment of the word organon from ergon,
or “work,” referred to the opposite of what would now come to mind
with the word organic, namely, to a tool or instrument. In French
anatomical studies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, “organic”
referred to the organs of the animal body in analogy with tools, in what
was observed to be their mechanical functioning. According to Phae-
drus, by contrast, speech is superior to writing precisely because of its
proximity to the living, breathing body. Writing, to Plato, is mechani-
cal, distant, and mediate; one strews ink on the page in the way that a
flower exposes its pollen to the wind (Phaedrus 276C). For Plato, the
plant’s sexual functioning can be understood in analogy with the arti-
fice and distance of writing. The term organic is thus a prime example
of a multiple metaphorical structure that can neither be said to “trans-
fer” an observation from nature onto a cultural phenomenon, nor con-
versely a cultural image onto nature, but which performs the compli-
cated intertwining of the two realms that is perhaps inherent in every
act of language.
The word culture, too, has a complicated history. The original net-
work of meanings surrounding “culture” linked it to the controlled cul-
tivation of plants in an agricultural setting, the same “serious planting”
that Plato refers to. The meaning of “culture” underwent a transition in
the eighteenth century from a noun of process, referring to the tending
of something (usually a plant or animal) to a usage that designated
everything human that did not spring directly from nature.
This devel-
opment parallels the eighteenth-century modification of the way the two
sexes were viewed, from a continuum-based differentiation predicated
on the assumption of a basic homology between both the genitals and
the roles of men and women, to a binary opposition that presupposed
the incommensurability of the two.
Both developments probably arose
from the gradual shift from an agriculture- to an industry-based econ-
omy. Both thus show the way in which the description of nature can fun-
damentally change depending on the way in which culture has already
been transformed.
Friedrich Hölderlin shows his awareness of the cultural assump-
tions informing the discourse of the organism by using the term organic
(organisch) to designate human activity, the organized reflected princi-
ple of spirit and of art in the sense of the Greek techne. “Organic” in
9 Introduction
Hölderlin’s theoretical work indicates all human projection onto nature,
all giving of form to what inherently cannot be captured in form,
whereas “aorgic” (aorgisch) refers to nature prior to any human repre-
sentation of it. Hölderlin understood that every human turn toward
nature, whether as a purportedly “neutral” observing scientist or as an
artist, is in some way an appropriation and thus a transformation of it.
The debate that arose in eighteenth-century European literary circles
between the relative merits of “mechanical” and “organic” theories of
literature is ironic, given the etymology of “organic.” Hölderlin’s was
one of many nineteenth-century efforts to unite mechanical and vitalis-
tic views of nature, to overcome a distinction that he recognized as fruit-
Distinctions such as mechanistic/organic are mutually informed. If
nature can never be approached by human beings without being altered,
or, as Hölderlin put it, formed, then tracing the form such structuring
has taken becomes the focus of philosophical inquiry rather than the
establishment of an opposition between ways of approaching nature
that violate it, and those that follow its “natural” coming-to-presence,
since to approach nature is to transform it.
Both mechanistic and organic “models” of literature and science
rely on essentially the same “formation” of nature. The notion of
organic form resulted from an analogy of the workings of animal organs
with perfectly functioning mechanisms, mechanisms that can provide
their own motivating force. Whether one considers the “building
blocks” of nature or of literature to be atomistic elements or organized
wholes whose purpose lies within themselves, one is assuming that
nature consists of self-enclosed bodies that have interactions with each
other. In other words, the form of the human body—which is an animal
body—seems to inform both major approaches to nature up until the
twentieth century. The ideal of “organic” form as it came into popular
usage in the nineteenth century implicitly rests upon the same image that
Plato advocates in the Phaedrus: an animal body with head, torso, and
feet, each of which can be easily distinguished from the other and whose
limits are somehow prescribed and not exceeded.
In reaction to this reductionist understanding of organicity, certain
literary and philosophical theories in Germany in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries advocated the unfolding of the plant as the form
that literary and philosophical creation and human subjectivity take.
These emerged in reaction to “mechanistic” theories of science, litera-
ture, and philosophy rather than to the limitations of thinking natural
form as predominantly animal-like. However, the analogies between the
workings of the animal body and the functioning of a machine make the
advocacy of a plant figure rather than an animal one not as surprising
as it might initially seem. The shift to the notion of “vegetable genius”
10 The Vegetative Soul
allows one to avoid the description of individuals primarily as self-
enclosed purposive centers. The plant moves around the opposition of
inside and outside, for in the process of the metamorphosis of the plant,
as Goethe was perhaps the most eloquent in declaring, what was con-
tracted and contained expands and becomes surface; the plant moves
beyond the opposition of male and female, for both sexes often exist side
by side in the same flower; the plant renders the opposition between pas-
sive and active superfluous, for the motivating force of the plant cannot
be identified as consciousness or intention.
This is not to suggest that there is some other more “originary”
way of approaching nature; when I discuss an alternative, “plant-like”
notion of the organic or of subjectivity, this will not be put forward as a
less aggressive twisting into shape of some preexisting passive reality;
such an assumption would simply repeat the traditional oppositional
structure between nature and culture. “Nature,” then, in the broader
argument of this book, refers to that which is symbolized as nature (as
opposed to culture), although by virtue of being called “natural” it is
sometimes presented as if it were essentially and inevitably figured in a
particular way. The opposition is between two sets of symbols that rec-
iprocally define each other, not between two ontologically distinct
realms. Nature will not be understood as a blank slate upon which a
human story will be written, nor as a piece of wax that takes on intelli-
gible form only through the seal of human inquiry. Nature is always a
symbolized nature. A historical change in the conception of nature, then,
both reflects and engenders a transformation in culture, and what I shall
try to do here is examine a small segment of this history at a time when
a direct challenge was being made to the dominant form of understand-
ing nature, as one large animal organism or as a collection of smaller
animal forms.
The animal body became the privileged figure for the organization
of speech (in Plato) and writing (after Plato). To see the plant, by con-
trast, as the metaphor of metaphors, is to focus on the provisionality of
plant morphology and the way in which every form of the plant meta-
morphoses into another; it is also to emphasize the fact that a plant can-
not be specified as an individual in the same way that an animal can. A
plant-like reading might unfold something like this: one may start with
an idea, or start with a very straightforward reading of a text. Then the
“seed” metamorphoses into a “stem,” “node,” or “leaf,” and without
any specific intention on the part of the author it begins to transform
itself into something else. Then a commentary, or a poem, or something
overheard contributes to the reading, and it metamorphoses again.
One’s final reading will never be final, never exhaustive. A truly philo-
sophical reading can perhaps never be envisaged from the outset. The
11 Introduction
reading will always grow beyond the initial frame around which it is
structured. The body of a plant is never given in advance. One doesn’t
know how it will look, how big it will get, which tendrils will extend far-
thest, how much fruit it will bear. Its size is not prescribed, and the
extent of its metamorphosis can never be predicted.
The plant always has one or more open end(s), turned toward
metamorphosis and toward unspecified growth. In addition, a part of
a plant can break off or be cut off from the whole, sprout roots and be
replanted as its own “individual”—a seemingly arbitrary part of the
plant, not its seed or “child”—a fact that Hegel found monstrous and
Goethe fascinating. In a way, we might say that a plant is monstrous,
displaying its sexual organs in the form of a beautiful flower. The
flower, the symbol of incipient innocent love in human culture, is prof-
fered as a symbol of hesitant hope, of admiration. Yet what could be a
more blatant sign: what we are actually handing each other are trun-
cated sexual organs. In addition to seeing flowers as symbols of beauty,
we eat, drink, burn, and inhale plants; we apply them to wounds, make
houses from them, clothe ourselves with them. Plants are a source of
intoxication. The plant both is and is not an individual, in the Niet-
zschean sense. A plant has the comportment of an alert passivity, the
attendant receptivity of a flower turning its face toward the sun.
Martha Nussbaum writes of the fragility of goodness, of the etymology
of the Greek “arete as plant; a kind of human worth that is inseparable
from vulnerability, an excellence that is in its nature other-related and
social, a rationality whose nature is not to attempt to seize, hold, trap,
and control, in whose value openness, receptivity, and wonder play an
important role.”
In a later essay on love, Nussbaum writes from the
perspective of one recently healed after a damaging affair: “Could it be
that to write about love, even to write humbly and responsively, is itself
a device to control the topic, to trap and bind it like an animal—so, of
necessity, an unloving act?” She continues, “What I am after, it seems,
is a noncontrolling art of writing that will leave the writer more recep-
tive to love than before.”
The fragility and tenacity of the plant make it an apt figure both
for writing and for a reconfigured subjectivity. It is interesting to note
that the words leaf, Blatt, and feuille all refer to part of a plant and part
of a book, as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass makes explicit. Whitman
writes: “Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting/Here
I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them/And yet they
expose me more than all my other poems.”
Hölderlin and Nietzsche
open themselves up to this absolute fragility, this risky yet productive
exposure to utter uncertainty toward which Whitman’s poem and Nuss-
baum’s account gesture. Only in giving up the guarantee of survival of
12 The Vegetative Soul
the theoretical performativity of their own texts can their writing can
unfold authentically. The readings of Hölderlin and Nietzsche are
intended to illustrate this uneven rhythm, this rupturing of the possibil-
ity of continuity. Kant and Hegel, conversely, are determined survivors,
even if to be such is ultimately to deny the fragility of the human rela-
tionship to the realm of nature. At the same time, a dialogue of sorts
takes place between, on the one hand, Kant and Nietzsche, and on the
other, Hegel and Hölderlin, with reference to these very questions.
If Goethe seems out of place, seems to mar the structure of pair-
ing, of symmetrical opposition, of chiasmic transfer, this is not inap-
propriate. Goethe appears in this study as an example of one who gave
himself the task of attempting an explicitly “plant-like” way of think-
ing, and who ruptured any possibility of binary opposition. Two par-
allel crossings thus result, one between Hegel and Hölderlin, the other
between Kant and Nietzsche. Goethe will be the somewhat neutral yet
vital term at the center of these two crossings. Goethe’s work The
Metamorphosis of Plants gives crucial content to the figure of plant
growth, as it marks an important transformation in botanical para-
digm—from classification to morphology—that gave rise to the new
interest in plant growth.
Chapter 1 focuses on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and particu-
larly on what Kant calls the “Technic of Nature” in the Critique of Tele-
ological Judgment. Kant connects the critique of assumptions of purpo-
siveness in the natural sciences to aesthetic judgment through an
attempted synthesis of nature and art, a “technic” (from the Greek
techne, or “art”) of nature. This technic allows for the subjective con-
ceptualization of nature as an organic, that is, purposive, whole by
virtue of the organism’s affinity to our own selves and to the constitu-
tion of our minds as reciprocally means and ends. This affinity opens up
the Romantic and Idealist possibility of describing subjectivity variously
in analogy to an animal, a plant, or a crystal. Kant’s motivation for cre-
ating the technic of nature was to allow for the introduction of final
causes into systematic or totalizing explanations of nature while pro-
scribing them as constitutive of specific knowledge of nature. While
Kant recognizes that introducing final causes into nature is an illegiti-
mate move from the point of view of knowledge, like Hegel after him he
believes that only in doing so can one provide a satisfactory holistic
explanation of natural phenomena. Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judg-
ment delineates the limits of purposiveness with respect to the possibil-
ity of truly knowing nature in the same way that his Critique of Aes-
thetic Judgment delineates the limits of human understanding in relation
to human reason. Kant’s concern with prescribing limits reflects his pre-
occupation with clear individuation and with the separability of one
13 Introduction
kind of explanation from another. Yet Kant’s toleration of ambiguity
and even creativity in the question of the ways in which we represent
nature when we consider it as a whole, together with his description of
natural genius, inspired the entire nineteenth-century discussion of the
ways in which human subjectivity relates to nature and how different
ways of considering subjectivity can result from and influence the ways
in which we conceive of nature in general.
Chapter 2 turns to Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants, and
more generally to Goethe’s attempt to approach art and the study of
nature in a manner he saw as parallel to Kant’s. In contrast to Kant,
Goethe strives not to fashion nature as art, but rather to understand the
principles of art to be natural. Goethe observes metamorphoses in plant
development and the phenomena of color and subsequently tries to
approach art from the standpoint of metamorphosis. The rather star-
tling notion of somehow “becoming a plant” or letting something like
“plant truth” impress itself upon one’s organs, which inaugurates
Goethe’s method of “objective thinking,” leads to a highly original the-
ory of art and of scientific study that exemplifies what I call a “plant-
like” way of reading. Goethe specifies that nature must be understood
in terms of the process of formation (Bildung) rather than form
(Gestalt), which catalyzed the movement in studies of nature from the
static categorization and classification of species to the observation of
the living organism. Goethe called his vision of nature the “rhythm of
vital power” (der Rhythmus des Lebenskraft), and this, I argue, pro-
foundly influenced literary and philosophical ways of considering
human being and human interaction with the natural world.
The question of the rhythm of life recurs as a constant theme in
Friedrich Hölderlin’s theoretical studies of Greek tragedy, in his novel
Hyperion, and in his effort to write a tragedy, The Death of Empedo-
cles. Chapter 3 examines all these texts, but in particular the one that
best exemplifies the trope of human subjectivity as plant. Hölderlin’s
novel Hyperion traces the life of a human being as a series of metamor-
phoses that proceed with the rhythm of forward movement and coun-
tervalent reversals. Hyperion can be connected to Hölderlin’s theoretical
writings on tragedy, particularly with reference to the tragic caesura, a
figure that encapsulates the contracting and expanding rhythm that
Goethe designated the rhythm of life. The caesura relates to the question
of the temporality of the understanding of human existence as plant
metamorphosis, an existential temporality that evades the notion of time
as a continuum that can be divided into uniform segments.
Chapter 4, a “hinge” chapter that moves from the foundational
discourse of Kant and Goethe to the thinkers who were influenced by
their rethinking of nature, discusses the proximity of Hölderlin’s subse-
14 The Vegetative Soul
quent work, The Death of Empedocles, composed between 1797 and
1800, to Hegel’s contemporaneous writings on Christianity, when the
two friends were both living in Frankfurt. By way of transition from
Hölderlin’s study of nature and the temporality of human existence to
Hegel’s philosophy of nature, it examines the similarities between
Hölderlin’s Empedocles and Hegel’s tragic Christ. Both historical figures
are described in terms of “plant” vulnerability and both ultimately die,
but the difference in their deaths—both willing, but one the result of sui-
cide, the other a self-sacrifice—exemplifies the disparity between human
life as “plant” and as “animal.” The understanding of human as plant
does not attempt to incorporate death into a larger, transcendent mean-
ing that would make the life that is now over into a meaningful individ-
ual in memory. What I call “animal” individuation, on the other hand,
is never satisfied with withering or coming to a natural end, but must
take up even death into a larger meaning in order to refer life to a greater
end. Hegel’s philosophy of nature, like Kant’s, will rely heavily on tele-
ological explanations, but will omit Kant’s proviso that such explana-
tions cannot ever be the object of knowledge.
Chapter 5 traces the trajectory of Hegel’s philosophy of nature from
the 1803–1804 lecture courses he gave at the university in Jena to the
final version that was published and then revised in several editions of the
Encyclopedia. In particular, the early lecture notes manifest a parallel
structure between the transformation in Hegel’s portrayal of Christ, on
the one hand, and the change in his description of nature, on the other.
Specifically, the change in emphasis from a tragic Christ to a resurrected
Christ—the latter further forms the middle term in a dialectical logic—
parallels the move away from living and dying nature to a nature that is
nothing more than the prehistory of spirit, a nature that must be left
behind in order for “real” philosophy to begin. The figure of sacrifice is
as characteristic of the plant in Hegel’s Naturphilosophie as it is of his
Christ who agrees to die for the sake of a higher divine manifestation.
Chapter 6 is devoted to Nietzsche’s earliest writings, from his note-
books as a university student in Leipzig in 1868 to the plans before,
after, and including his first published work The Birth of Tragedy. Niet-
zsche originally planned to write a dissertation on the notion of teleol-
ogy after Kant, and this interest continued even though the work was
never fully carried out. Nietzsche is interested in the physiology of
knowledge and of art, and advocates a return to the bodily, the sensu-
ous, and the earthly. Along with this well-known “reversal of Plato,”
however, Nietzsche also sustains a critique in his earliest, unpublished
writings, of the natural science of the eighteenth and nineteenth cen-
turies, specifically of the “discovery” of the organism and its consequent
elevation to the status of the defining trope of scientific knowledge.
15 Introduction
Nietzsche points out that “individuation” is a feature of language,
based in turn upon a perspective that takes the animal body as its point
of departure. Western languages obscure the process-like nature of being
through a language and an ontology composed of things that are per-
ceived to be self-enclosed, self-motivated, and that seem to perdure
through time. Nietzsche read Kant and Goethe on teleology and
intended to respond to their views in his proposed doctoral dissertation.
Considered from this perspective, Nietzsche is a thinker whose concerns
begin and end with a consideration of the human being’s place in the
natural world. Nietzsche’s suspicions about the limits of consciousness
as a distinguishing human feature belong to a broader critique of
anthropomorphism in the natural sciences. Finally, Nietzsche’s discourse
on individuation takes as its point of departure the argument that ori-
ents this study, namely that Western philosophy and language, while de-
emphasizing the bodily and the sensuous, proceed from what Nietzsche
calls a “crude perspective,” a grobe Perspektiv, the closest matter, the
perceived form of our own (animal) bodies.
The conclusion refers to Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix
Guattari, and in particular to Luce Irigaray, in an attempt to bring to light
the contemporary offshoots of the questions this book examines in a his-
torical context. Beginning with a reading of Aristotle, Irigaray inaugurates
a critique of the way in which women have been aligned with vegetative
life in the history of metaphysics. Irigaray subverts the plant in its role as
a metaphor for passivity and unconsciousness, qualities traditionally asso-
ciated with the feminine, such that it turns into a productive metonymical
structure. Irigaray uses the rhetorical configuration of “efflorescence” to
designate a blossoming or blooming forth that cannot be enclosed within
the traditional boundaries of embodiment and philosophical discourse,
and which may have the possibility of transforming it.
Irigaray focuses on the redemptive possibilities inherent in the very
metaphors that have been used to reduce the feminine to the silent, con-
cealed ground of Being. Plant growth, characterized by metamorphosis
and indefinite individuation, provides one of the most striking and per-
vasive examples of such a guiding principle in Irigaray’s work. Thus, Iri-
garay’s use of plant figures continues at the level of feminine subjectiv-
ity a critique that had as its original focus the relationship between
humans and nature.
Though I emphasize Irigaray’s work as the contemporary continu-
ation of the brief promise of Idealist and Romantic Naturphilosophie,
clearly her work does not arise in a vacuum. Twentieth-century post-
modern critique resurrects the “vegetative soul” in the form of the cri-
tique of the modern subject. If the nineteenth-century exploration of
alternative possibilities for the description of nature and subjectivity was
16 The Vegetative Soul
ultimately obviated by a return to the hegemony of the autonomous,
enlightened, self-preserving individual emphasized from Hobbes to
Kant, it returns in the form of twentieth-century critiques of the lan-
guage of science and of the persistent use of masculine characteristics to
describe the subject, as well as of the incorporation of the “liberation”
of women within a masculine paradigm advocated by equality feminism.
Both because this critique has particular importance for feminist theory
and because of Irigaray’s use of figures culled from nature and in par-
ticular from plant life, I consider her work to be the continuation of the
nineteenth-century project I am examining here.
Romantic thought broadly conceived is often portrayed as nothing
more than an impassioned, yet ultimately ill-informed reaction against
the growing power of the natural sciences and their paradigms of human
being and growth, much in the same way that feminist critiques of sci-
ence are often dismissed today. As a response, what I try to show with
my detailed outline of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie, for example, is that the
seeds of this discontent are sown within the very context that gives rise
to the strongest tools for the critique of Enlightenment subjectivity. In
spite of the ultimate triumph of animal form in Kant and Hegel, their
philosophies are rich mines for an alternative conception of nature, and
this historical confluence is of course not accidental. I see Irigaray, along
with Derrida, Deleuze, and others, as carrying on this rich tradition, but
distinguishing herself in giving particular emphasis to the alignment of
plant subjectivity with the feminine. This alignment is subtly present
even in the texts of Goethe, Hölderlin, and Nietzsche. I do not mean to
suggest that these men were proto-feminists; however, revisiting their
texts on the philosophy of nature from the point of view of the vegeta-
tive soul may reveal productive possibilities for feminist philosophy. Iri-
garay’s philosophical “strategy” is to approach canonical texts from the
history of philosophy and to show the non-obvious places in which
misogyny is concealed, such as in the portrayal of the plant in the phi-
losophy of nature. At the same time, one might equally delve for the
places in which possible answers to these problems might be found.
What I try to emphasize throughout with the turn to the plant is
not the plant’s passivity, projected onto it precisely in comparing it to the
animal organism, although one might point to the expectant receptivity
of the flower that turns its broadest surface toward the sun. The plant
appears as the form of finitude and vulnerability, but also of transfor-
mation and renewal. We are accustomed to perceiving the world
through a body that is so close that we have forgotten its complexities,
and because we project its self-enclosed individuation onto everything
that we perceive and think, the world cannot appear in all its possible
strangeness. The plant is not the form of the world but the possibility of
17 Introduction
reforming the world; by taking a closer look at another possibility of
bodily formation, we may perhaps regain some of the wonder that is the
condition of all science, philosophy, and art.
If we recall once again the ancient story of Orpheus’s death, we
remember that he angered Dionysos’s followers by neglecting to honor
the god. Orpheus instead named Helios (the sun), whom he called
Apollo, the greatest of gods. Orpheus’s dismemberment at the hands of
Maenads may be a fitting counterpart to his sundered state of mind in
Rilke’s poem. Both in opposing the ecstatic Dionysian religion and in
turning around to make sure that Eurydice was there, to appropriate her,
Orpheus performs the classical metaphysical gesture against ambiguity
and for totalization or inclusion. In this Apollinian gesture of always try-
ing to make sense of even the most baffling of natural phenomena he
loses his beloved and his life.
When nineteenth-century theorists considered the vegetative soul,
they were returning to the original meaning of the word vegetable,
which in Greek and Latin refers to life, growth, wakefulness, and, in
particular, vigilance (a word with a common root). The words for life
that infuse the meaning of the plant contrast with the roots of the word
animal, which in Greek refers to wind or breath and in Latin to the soul
of self-motivated things, and thus to the mind or spirit in opposition to
the living body. What I here call the vegetative soul, in contrast to the
animated soul, emphasizes rootedness, vulnerability, interdependence,
and transformative possibility rather than a separation of soul from
body, actualization, and a stance of aggressiveness and self-preservation.
The vegetative soul encompasses a thinking rooted incontrovertably in
the body, but a bodily thinking that is itself indefinitely individuated and
subject to metamorphosis.
18 The Vegetative Soul
For art is only perfect when it looks like nature and nature succeeds
only when she conceals latent art.
—Longinus, “On the Sublime”
We cannot help admitting that [Kant] entirely lacks grand, classical
simplicity, naïveté, ingénuité, candeur. His philosophy has no anal-
ogy with Greek architecture that presents large, simple proportions
revealing themselves at once to the glance; on the contrary, it
reminds us very strongly of the Gothic style of architecture. For an
entirely individual characteristic of Kant’s mind is a peculiar liking
for symmetry that loves a variegated multiplicity, in order to
arrange this, and to repeat this arrangement in subordinate forms,
and so on indefinitely, precisely as in Gothic churches. In fact, he
sometimes carries this to the point of trifling, and then, in deference
to this tendency, goes so far as to do open violence to truth, and
treats it as nature was treated by old-fashioned gardeners, whose
works are symmetrical avenues, squares and triangles, trees shaped
like pyramids and sphere, and hedges in regular and sinuous curves.
—Arthur Schopenhauer,
The World as Will and Representation
The use of vegetative metaphors to describe the form of human intel-
lection and appreciation of nature cannot be separated from the late
The English Garden
eighteenth and early nineteenth-century incorporation of an explicitly
aesthetic dimension to scientific inquiry. This project had its roots in
the philosophy of Kant and in the aesthetico-scientific project of
Goethe. Kant’s Critique of Judgment inspired the philosophical use of
organic metaphors to describe human thinking in its relationship to
nature conceived as a whole. In The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H.
Abrams argues that nineteenth-century conceptions of art were distinc-
tive and revolutionary in that they posed and answered aesthetic ques-
tions solely in terms of the relation of art to the artist, rather than to
the world or to an audience.
He describes “German Theories of Veg-
etable Genius” as having their provenance in the idea that genius is
both natural and unconscious, springing forth spontaneously in the
mind of one who cannot explain the rule according to which he or she
produces a work of art.
This explanation does not adequately address
the implications of the nineteenth-century German philosophical and
literary use of vegetative metaphors. While drawing on already existing
literary tropes, Kant’s articulation of genius, upon which these thinkers
based their understanding of vegetable subjectivity, goes far beyond a
description of the provenance of fine art and is not limited to the inte-
riority of the artist. Kant’s third Critique aims not only to explain art,
but to use it as a powerful means of binding together the human needs
to understand nature (science) and to gain from it confirmation of the
power of human freedom, the objects of his first and second Critiques.
Abrams traces the genealogy of the concept of vegetable genius
from the publication of the English theorist Edward Young’s Conjec-
tures on Original Composition (1759), which was translated into Ger-
man twice within two years of its publication, to Johann Georg
Sulzer’s dictionary of aesthetic terms (1771–1774), to J. G. Herder’s
theory of the organic and all-encompassing order of natural growth in
“On the Knowing and Feeling of the Human Soul” (1778).
All of
these works share the common claim that genius, the human capacity
for intellectual and artistic greatness, is as much a product of nature as
are organisms, and that the inability of human beings to account for
the origin of genius is due to its plantlike provenance in unconscious
blossoming or flourishing. Kant’s understanding of genius plays an
important part in his theory of the organism as unconsciously teleo-
logical, moving toward a natural purpose of which it is not explicitly
aware. His linkage of the theory of genius with his critique of teleo-
logical judgment, and thus to the very possibility of delineating an all-
encompassing philosophical system, led theorists who followed him to
describe the relationship of the human mind to the natural world in
terms of vegetative growth. For Kant this linkage provides an impor-
tant regulative principle for judgment, that is, understanding an organ-
20 The Vegetative Soul
ism as a natural purpose is something that guides human investigation
into nature by virtue of an analogy with our own purposiveness.
Goethe, who was respected both for his contributions to the nat-
ural sciences and to art, recognized his own fortuitous proximity to
Kant—fortuitous, for, while the two thinkers were writing contempora-
neously, neither was directly influenced by the other’s work—when he
read a copy of the Critique of Judgment and proclaimed it in exact
accord with his own The Metamorphosis of Plants.
What both Kant
and Goethe strove to accomplish in intertwining the realms or “infinite
worlds,” as Goethe put it, of art and nature, was twofold: first, to dis-
credit unreflectively ontological eighteenth-century scientific assump-
tions of final causes in nature, and second, to reintroduce purposiveness
in nature as an aesthetic requirement for the creation of satisfactory, that
is, systematic, scientific explanations. The use of vegetative metaphors
for thinking in post-Kantian philosophical thought assumes the prob-
lematic that Kant carefully outlines in the third Critique. Adequately
understanding “vegetable genius,” then, requires a comprehensive read-
ing of this work. Kant and many of the philosophers who followed his
lead sought to reconcile the laws that bind human conceptual under-
standing and sensory imagination in the observation of the external
world with the freedom of human reason in its potentiality to transcend
nature through art.
If Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant’s philosophy in the opening cita-
tion initially strikes us as misconceived, it is perhaps because we are
accustomed to think, with Derrida, that “a paradigmatics of the flower
orients the third Critique,” that “Kant always seeks in [the flower] the
index of a natural beauty, utterly wild, in which the without-end or the
without-concept of finality is revealed.”
What could be farther from the
beauty of wildflowers than artificially pruned, geometrically shaped
hedges? Schopenhauer’s observation is instructive nevertheless, but here
the analogy will be revised. Although Kant structures the entire Critique
of Judgment around the paradigm of the wild plant, this plant has a
unique character in that it is wild only within the strict limits of a gar-
dener’s plan that situates, tends, and prunes it to preserve its appearance
of wildness. Kant’s meditation on the purposiveness of nature follows the
scheme of the English garden of the eighteenth century. This garden, also
known as a “sublime” garden from the tradition of imitating Italian land-
scape paintings out of which it originated, had the paradoxical quality of
being cultivated to look wild; at the same time great care was taken to
make sure the wilderness never exceeded predefined limits. For Kant, in
the same way, scientific explanations of nature can only be deemed ade-
quate insofar as they are supplemented by or transformed into art. Such
an endeavor takes its cue from nature itself, however, projecting onto
21 The English Garden
nature as a system or as a whole the perfect (and purposive) form
observed in the organism. Because of the rigorous limits prescribed by
Kant on what can be deemed knowledge of nature, such an explanation
remains part of the realm of art rather than strictly speaking of science.
Thus, though he will not use the language of vegetable genius, Kant intro-
duces the framework that allows it to arise. This framework presumes
that the complex process of creating satisfactory human descriptions of
nature follows the forms observed within nature, and that the aesthetic
properties of holistic explanations of nature form the basis for judging
those explanations to be better or worse, more or less fruitful.
In the first Introduction to the Critique of Judgment, Kant discusses
the tension that arises between the attempt to describe the natural world
solely in terms of empirical observations, on the one hand, and the need
that the human mind feels to classify nature under laws and classes, and
ultimately as a system, on the other. Kant determines an exigency of going
beyond the classificatory system of the Critique of Pure Reason, which
describes the determinate structures of human cognition as the basis for
finding regularity and predictability in nature. Such structures describe a
formal pattern that explains the uniformity of human experience of the
world of natural appearances, but do not lend a systematic wholeness to
this pattern, a wholeness that alone will satisfy the human need to find a
purposiveness in nature. Kant calls this demand for integrity and totality
“artificial” (künstlich) in that it is not derived from ordinary empirical
cognition; he goes further to state that “so far as we think of nature as
making itself specific in terms of such a principle, we regard nature as art.”
This necessity of conceiving nature as constituting a purposive whole is
something that judgment carries a priori within it. Kant calls the a priori
principle that makes only a holistic explanation of nature satisfactory to
the human mind a “technic of nature,” taking “technic” from the Greek
word, techne, for art. Kant also claims that certain natural forms have an
absolute purposiveness, by which he means that
their shape or inner structure is of such a character that we must, in our
power of judgment, base their possibility on an idea. We must do so
because purposiveness is a lawfulness that something contingent may have
insofar as it is contingent. Insofar as nature’s products are aggregates,
nature proceeds mechanically, as mere nature; but insofar as its products
are systems—e.g., crystal formations, various shapes of flowers, or the
inner structure of plants and animals—nature proceeds technically, i.e. it
proceeds also as art. The distinction between these two ways of judging
natural beings is made merely by reflective judgment. (KU 217’–18’)
According to Kant, reflective judgment, unlike determinative judg-
ment, is characterized by a certain freedom of expression in that it
22 The Vegetative Soul
results from a spontaneity in the play of the cognitive powers whose har-
mony with each other forms the basis of this pleasure, a spontaneity that
makes the concept of purposiveness suitable for mediating the connec-
tion of the domain of the concept of nature with that of the concept of
freedom (KU 197).
Kant privileges the form of the natural structures, and of the
organism in particular, as the shape or figure that best manifests the
nature of the relationship of human cognition to nature. The human
mind, Kant believes, is attuned to and reflects forms of nature such as
the crystal, the plant, and the animal, and it is this affinity to these forms
that requires human thinking to value and preserve nature as its kin.
This observation was to have an enormous influence on the literature
and philosophy of the nineteenth century in Germany. Kant privileges
organized beings in nature, stating that they have an “absolute purpo-
siveness” (KU, First Introduction 217’). The absolute nature of the pur-
posiveness of the organism has its origin in the human apprehension of
it, and not (at least not demonstrably) in itself. Insofar as humans cog-
nize nature on the basis of cause and effect or dissection of its parts,
Kant implies, natural explanations can be mechanical ones. As soon as
one attempts to make any claims about the whole, however, Kant main-
tains the absolute necessity of human cognition proceeding technically,
making of nature an art in which organisms viewed purposively play a
central part. Thus, although ultimately Kant’s conservatism and anthro-
pocentrism will not allow him to transgress the boundaries of subjectiv-
ity understood as precise individuation, his critique of the science of his
day would have a crucial influence on the Romantic and Idealist recon-
ceptions of the organic understood as the relationship between humans
and nature, and of Enlightenment descriptions of subjectivity. This is
why Kant must be read as providing the grounding for the “vegetative
soul” of nineteenth-century German thought.
Understanding the two halves of the Critique of Judgment,
namely, the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment and the Critique of Tele-
ological Judgment in a similarly organic way, that is, as interdepen-
dent and mutually informing components of an attempt to unify the
realms of nature and freedom through art, then, allows for a more
complete understanding of the third Critique. Kant’s seemingly odd
juxtaposition of critiques of aesthetic and teleological judgment has a
strong inner coherence that cannot be sufficiently demonstrated by
merely pointing out that both types of judgment are reflective rather
than deterministic. Rather, judgments of teleology in nature can be
included in scientific explanations precisely and only because these
judgments are aesthetic in nature. Teleological judgments’ status as
“art” allows Kant to include them in descriptions of nature without
23 The English Garden
thereby permitting an unreflective, romantic, or “enthusiastic” ele-
ment to intrude into science without severe qualification or pruning.
In a well-known passage of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant
writes, “Human reason is by nature architectonic. That is to say, it
regards all our knowledge as belonging to a possible system, and there-
fore allows only such principles as do not at any rate make it impossible
for any knowledge that we may attain to combine into a system with
other knowledge” (KrV A 474 = B 502). Since humans can cognize only
by making systems, nature itself will have to be encompassed by that
architectonic. Our minds can cognize only what is clearly individuated.
This is what we have referred to as the individuation that is based upon
the animal body. At the same time, Kant clearly recognizes this projection
of unity to be a “false” interpretation, opening the door to multiple pos-
sible conceptualizations of the relationship of the human being to nature.
This is the aspect of Kant’s philosophy that Schopenhauer is criti-
cizing when he compares Kant’s philosophy to an artificially pruned gar-
den. Of course, Kant’s point is that it is impossible to speak of nature as
a totality “in itself” in terms of knowledge, but imperative nonetheless
to do so for aesthetic reasons. The circumvention of the natural such a
philosophy implies remained a problem that captivated post-Kantian
philosophy in Germany. Thinkers such as Schelling attempted to return
to “nature in itself” rather than to a fiction about nature, while, by con-
trast, Hegel radicalized Kant’s elimination of the natural.
The Critique of Judgment attempts to provide a reconciliation of
nature—as a system of deterministic laws that conform to human under-
standing—with human reason as a product of that very natural system
that possesses a freedom that exceeds it. Explanations that are teleolog-
ical for aesthetic reasons force judgment simultaneously to address
nature and to go beyond it. Aesthetic judgment has its roots in sensation;
at the same time, the explanation of the constitution of aesthetic judg-
ment must make manifest why judgment cannot be derived from rules
or determined by concepts. Teleological judgment can never be matched
by a corresponding cognition of the human mind, but by assuming that
nature is purposive the philosopher can resolve a series of antinomies
that the human mind could never otherwise overcome. Kant approaches
the lacunae inherent in aesthetic and teleological judgments by immedi-
ately emphasizing the performative aspect of aesthetic and teleological
judgment. There are always two levels on which both theoretical and
practical philosophy can be understood, that is, in terms of the princi-
ples that ground them, and in terms of applications of these principles.
For example, Kant might distinguish between geometry and the practi-
cal applications of geometry to illustrate the two levels of the theoreti-
cal, and between the categorical imperative and an actual decision to act
24 The Vegetative Soul
morally to illustrate the practical.
Reflective judgment, by contrast,
manifests only the performative aspect, that which can be reduced nei-
ther to the purely theoretical nor to the purely practical. Reflective judg-
ment is always an act: it consists in deeming something to be beautiful,
sublime, or purposive.
Kant distinguishes between several different types of practical
propositions around which rational decisions orient themselves. The
first two, a priori and empirical practical propositions, “assert the pos-
sibility of an object through our power of choice” and thus always
belong to our knowledge of nature and to the theoretical part of philos-
ophy. This is because in such a case the will has no choice but to follow
principles according to which the understanding functions. The third
type of practical proposition has its principle in the idea of freedom and
can give us no insight into the possibility of the object, but rather directs
action in such a way that it can be called a moral precept. “All other
propositions of performance,” Kant writes, might be called “technical
rather than practical,” since these performatives “belong to the art of
bringing about something that we want to exist,” rather than reacting
to something that already exists. Immediately after this Kant writes,
“Hence all precepts of skill belong, as consequences, to the technic of
nature.” In addition, Kant specifies that he will “also” henceforth use
the term “technic” in other cases, “namely, where we merely judge [cer-
tain] objects of nature as if they were made possible through art” (KU
199’–200’). These judgments are thus based neither in the theoretical
nor in the practical insofar as “practical” is understood to imply
grounding in freedom. “Technical” judgments in this specific sense,
then, will always rest upon a kind of sophisticated “wishful thinking” in
which one desires something to be what one can never know it to be, or
one behaves as if something were what it is not. Specifically with refer-
ence to nature, Kant defines the “technic of nature” as “nature’s ability
to produce [things] in terms of causes . . . [which is] basically quite iden-
tical with the mechanism of nature,” such that “we have falsely inter-
preted the contingent agreement of that ability with our concepts and
rules of art . . . whereas it is merely [the result of] a subjective condition
under which we judge that ability” (KU 391; my emphasis). Although
the interpretation is “false,” we retain it because we have none that bet-
ter serves to explain nature.
In the transition from the Analytic of the Beautiful to the Analytic
of the Sublime in the Critique of Judgment, Kant similarly distinguishes
between the proximity of beautiful objects and the relative isolation of
beautiful (natural) views whose “distance prevents us from recognizing
them distinctly.” The distance of the view gives the human being a cer-
tain leeway to see nature “as if” it were other than it actually is. Humans
25 The English Garden
usually find nature (as opposed to crafted objects) beautiful, Kant
claims, not because they actually like what is presented before them, but
because “taste seems to fasten not so much on what the imagination
apprehends in that area, as on the occasion they provide for it to engage
in fiction [dichten], i.e., on the actual fantasies with which the mind
entertains itself as it is continually being aroused by the diversity that
strikes the eye” (KU 243). Nature in itself is not beautiful, Kant implies,
but only becomes so by virtue of the fictions that humans create about
it. These fictions, in turn, require a certain distance from the object upon
which they are based. When we find a bird’s song beautiful, for exam-
ple, we are, Kant says, projecting our affection for what we consider to
be a cheerful little creature onto the song, so that if we heard an artifi-
cial reproduction of the exact notes (and knew that they were artificial),
we would not find them beautiful (KU 243). Likewise, if we had the
anatomy of the bird’s vocal chords before our eyes as we heard its song,
we would lose our liking for the sound. Our taste for the beauties of
nature is largely constructed on the fictions in which we involve it; from
a distance we see nature as alive, animated, and constantly growing, but
these are qualities we admire in human creativity that we project onto
“nature” as a “false” unity in the sense of falsity indicated above.
The technic of nature is informed by the notion of “organism” or
“organized being” as the privileged individual that underlies Kant’s dis-
cussion of teleology. These beings, Kant writes:
first give objective reality to the concept of a purpose that is a purpose of
nature rather than a practical one, and which hence give natural science
the basis for a teleology, i.e., for judging its objects in terms of a special
principle that otherwise we simply would not be justified in introducing
into natural science (since we have no a priori insight whatever into the
possibility of such a causality). (KU 376)
The perception of organized beings as self-organizing allows them
to be referred to as natural purposes, according to Kant (KU 374). Nat-
ural purposes, in turn, form the basis for judging nature as a whole tele-
ologically, as a system of purposes. This principle applies only subjec-
tively as the maxim that “everything in the world is good for something
or other; nothing in it is gratuitous” (KU 379), and is a regulative rather
than constitutive principle. This principle then relies on the peculiarity
(Eigentümlichkeit) of human understanding, namely, that it cannot rest
satisfied with purely mechanical explanations, but must follow the
demand of reason that “subordinates such [natural] products . . . to the
causality in terms of purposes” (KU 415). The phrase “causality in terms
of purposes” refers not only to final causality in contrast to simple
mechanical cause-effect relationships, but also to the creative capacity of
26 The Vegetative Soul
the human mind to conceptualize nature according to the metaphysical
possibilities that are closest to its own perceived form.
In writings preceding the Critique of Judgment, Kant explicitly
opposed the notion of “plant thinking” or “vegetable genius,” instead
using plant metaphors to characterize what was most sluggish and unre-
sponsive in human thought. In his Universal Natural History (1755), Kant
explicitly compares the human being to a plant—precisely at that point
where human sensuality occludes the possibility of attaining reason:
When one regards the nature of most men, man seems to be created as a
plant, to draw in sap and grow, to propagate his kind, and finally to grow
old and die. Of all creatures he least achieves the end of his existence,
because he consumes his more excellent fitnesses for such purposes as
lower creatures achieve more securely and decently with less. He would
indeed be the most contemptible of all, at least in the eyes of true wisdom,
if the hope of the future did not lift him up, if there were not a period of
full development in store for the forces shut up in him.
He continues, “If one seeks the cause of the obstacles that keep
human nature in such deep abasement, it will be found in the grossness
of the matter in which his spiritual part is sunk, in the inflexibility of the
fibers and sluggishness and immobility of the sap/fluid that should obey
its stirrings.”
By contrast, in the turn toward the ideal and the totaliz-
ing power of reason, the human mind rediscovers its animal vigor (a
word that Kant uses to describe the sublime) in its fundamental opposi-
tion to the forces of nature.
Kant’s contemporary, the British literary theorist Edward Young,
expressed the contrasting popular view when he wrote in his 1758
manifesto Conjectures on Original Composition that “an Original
may be said to be of a vegetable nature, it rises spontaneously, from
the vital root of Genius; it grows, it is not made.”
Kant’s description
of genius in the third Critique, written thirty-five years after the Uni-
versal Natural History, strikingly contrasts with his earlier description
of vegetable nature by following this conceit and making genius the
unconscious channel for the forces of nature as they provide the clos-
est possible expression of the supersensible in finite form. For Kant,
however, the fact that genius could never know the rules for its own
art placed artistic achievement forever below the power of rational
thought, for “judgment, which in matters of fine art bases its pro-
nouncements on principles of its own, will sooner permit the imagina-
tion’s freedom and wealth to be impaired than that the understanding
be impaired.”
Finally, Kant’s directive that organic unity may be pro-
jected upon products of nature in order to understand them through
the subjective a priori principle of reflective judgment ultimately
27 The English Garden
allows the principle of what we have called “animal” form to direct
the way in which we judge nature as beautiful or purposive.
In her study of Kant,
Susan Meld Shell observes that in both the
Anthropology (X:165) and the Universal Natural History (I:357), as
well as in the Critique of Judgment, Kant reworks the traditional divide
between the male as active principle (efficient cause) and the woman as
passive recipient (material cause) in the sexual act. The obliteration, in
Cartesian science, of the traditional Aristotelian distinction between effi-
cient and material causation tended to undermine this hierarchy. Shell
suggests that Kant’s description of the predicament of human reason of
being hopelessly hindered by sexual desire, physical attraction, and sen-
sory enticements points to a larger problem with generation itself. She
writes that the dreaded contingency of “the very act of generation—tra-
ditionally the emblem of man’s rational, and formal supremacy—threat-
ens to dissolve into unregulated and hence ‘loathsome’ fecundity.”
Against this threat:
only God’s inseminating spirit (which assures, among other things, the
eternity of biological species) is proof, while man’s physical generative
power descends to the level of the plants. The plantlike passivity tradi-
tionally associated with the female principle of generation infects, in
Kant’s account, the male principle as well, at least insofar as it remains
within the nexus of the physical. It is not in generating, but in resisting
generation for the sake of a higher sort of attraction, that man’s spirit
uplifts itself.
The same problem can be seen in Kant’s advice to young men in the
Anthropology: “If we want to keep our power of sensing lively we must
not begin with strong sensations . . . we must rather forego them at first
and mete them out sparingly so that we can always climb higher.”
“animality,” or Stoic individuation, would refer to the deferral of the
immediate gratification that Kant seems to associate with the untram-
meled growth of vegetative life.
Nevertheless, Kant’s description of the involuntary spontaneity of
the active, transcendental subject inspired German Idealism’s under-
standing of Geist, or spirit, as the interdependent relationship of this
dynamic spontaneity with the ontological ground of nature, often con-
ceptualized as a plant-like, metamorphosing growth. Even Hegel, for
example, writes a passage that strikingly follows Kant’s directive in the
preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
The more rigid conventional opinion makes the antithesis of truth and fal-
sity, the more it tends to expect a given philosophical system to be either
agreed with or contradicted; and in an explanation of the system sees only
28 The Vegetative Soul
one or the other. It does not grasp the difference in philosophical systems
as the progressive unfolding of truth, so much as it sees contradiction in
difference. The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and
one could say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way,
through the fruit the blossom is demonstrated to be a false existence of the
plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of the plant in its place.
These forms do not just distinguish themselves from one another, they also
supplant each another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time
their fluid nature makes them moments of organic unity in which they not
only do not conflict, but each is as necessary as the other; and this equal
necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole. (W 3:12/PS, 2)
While Hegel compares the very movement of historical Spirit to
the metamorphosis of a plant, Kant restricts his analogy to the consid-
eration of nature as a system or organized whole. Hegel will reintroduce
historical purposiveness in no artistic sense in the very place where Kant
forbids the determinative use of final causes in the explanation of
nature. The danger that Kant foresees is that any discussion of the neces-
sity of a teleology of nature appears to turn the idea of a natural pur-
pose into a principle that is constitutive of natural purpose itself (KU
405). Kant writes, “The universal supplied by our (human) understand-
ing does not determine the particular; therefore even if different things
agree in a common characteristic, the variety of ways in which they may
come before our perception is contingent” (KU 406). A cognitive power
that could proceed synthetically from whole to parts, rather than ana-
lytically from concepts to empirical intuitions, would be one of a “com-
plete spontaneity of intuition [Anschauung].” Although such a sponta-
neous intuition can be conceived of by us only negatively, that is, as not
discursive, we can characterize it as a power of cognition something like
the one Kant mentions in the Analytic of the Sublime, where he empha-
sizes that if humans were pure intelligences, there would be no need for
judgments of beauty and sublimity (KU 271).
According to Kant, the limitations on the possibility of human
understanding of nature lead humans to create artworks; the technic of
nature is the primary example of this art. Among all the sensory things
that humans cognize, it is only with reference to the beautiful, the sub-
lime, and the purposive, though in different ways, that the mind makes
no appeal to concepts. The beautiful and the sublime, along with the
teleological explanation, reverse the directionality of cognition: the mind
begins from the particulars rather than from a universal. The particular
has a contingent aspect that is not present in the universal. Thus, the
reflective judgment of beauty or sublimity is faced with a predicament
parallel to that of the mind when it attempts to unify the manifold in
nature. Our understanding achieves cognition only through a harmony
29 The English Garden
between natural characteristics and our power of concepts, a harmony
that Kant calls “very contingent” (KU 406). Unlike the products of
nature, laws of nature are not subsumed under the concepts of the
understanding, and thus they are particulars from the point of view of
human understanding, since it is unable to determine them. Because the
laws are multiple, the mind feels the need to bring them together into a
unity (Einheit). The technic of nature is deployed as the answer when-
ever the mind is confronted with a series of particulars that precede any
universal concepts it can provide. This is the fundamental connection
between aesthetic judgments and teleology: both begin with particulars
and work toward a unity. Kant makes this explicit in the first introduc-
tion to the Critique of Judgment, where he mentions formulas that were
in vogue at the time, such as “Nature does nothing in vain; Nature
makes no leap in the diversity of its forms; Nature is rich in species and
yet parsimonious in genera.” Kant calls these formulas the “transcen-
dental utterance of judgment [by which] it stipulates to itself a principle
for [considering] experience as a system, and hence for its own needs.”
The basis of such an utterance is a “presupposition” that “judgment
makes for its own use, for the sake of unifying empirical laws, so that it
can always ascend from what is empirical [and] particular to what is
more general.” Only by presupposing such a principle can we “engage
in experiences in a systematic way” (KU 399).
Kant indicates a distinction between the way in which he uses the
word aesthetic with reference to science in the Critique of Pure Reason
and in the Critique of Judgment by indicating the incommensurability
of the “aesthetic intuition” and the “aesthetic judgment” (KU 222’).
Although in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant used “aesthetic” to refer
to presentations of the understanding (pertaining to sense perception,
aisthesis in the original sense of the word), he specifies in the First
Introduction to the Critique of Judgment that he will henceforth apply
the term aesthetic solely to acts of the power of judgment. The earlier,
broader sense of “aesthetic” is defined in the third Critique as one in
which “the form is inevitably transferred to the object, though the
object only as phenomenon” (KU 222’). In Kant’s earlier works, “aes-
thetic” always refers to the science of knowledge attained through sense
perception. However, Kant specifies that in the Critique of Judgment
“aesthetic” will henceforth not refer to a way of perceiving that
involves a sensible intuition that allows us to cognize objects, but only
to a way of presenting that arouses feelings of pleasure and displeasure
(KU 410’). Kant juxtaposes the critique of teleological judgment to his
discussion of the beautiful and of the sublime because the discovery of
a structural consonance within mechanically derived empirical knowl-
edge of nature (through teleological judgment) results in a feeling of
30 The Vegetative Soul
great pleasure: “It is a fact that when we discover that two or more het-
erogeneous empirical laws of nature can be unified under one principle
that comprises them both, the discovery does give rise to a quite notice-
able pleasure” (KU 187).
What Kant designates as the “beautiful” is that which pleases by
virtue of its form or its sensuous presence, without reference to anything
beyond that presence as beautiful. By “sublime,” Kant means that which
moves human judgment out of the realm of nature as it is into the realm
of nature as it ought to be. Both of these moments inform the technic of
nature: the beautiful reveals the essentially technical (purposive) struc-
ture of nature and invites the investigation of how such a form is possi-
ble. The sublime makes rational beings look inside themselves for “what
use we can make of our intuitions of nature so that we can feel a pur-
posiveness within ourselves entirely independent of nature.” In the com-
bined movements of judgments of the beautiful and judgments of the
sublime in nature, the three faculties of the mind come together: in judg-
ments of beauty, the faculties of imagination and understanding cognize
the natural scene without bringing it under a determinate concept,
whereas judgments of the sublime result from a disruption of the har-
mony between the understanding and the imagination that flings the
imagination toward the ideas of reason. Although the imagination can-
not comprehend the magnitude (Größe) of what it is observing, and for
this reason the understanding cannot subsume the observation under a
concept, the unity of the faculties is nonetheless able to feel the superi-
ority of the human mind (through the faculty of reason) over nature.
Kant’s discussion of sublimity forms a transition to the consideration of
nature as purposive, specifically with reference to how the technic of
nature informs the notion of organism as the privileged individual that
underlies Kant’s discussion of teleology. It is in this final relationship of
sublime to natural purposiveness that one can most clearly recognize the
analogy Schopenhauer makes of Kant’s work to the crafted garden.
However, the analogy works best not by comparing, as Schopenhauer
did, Kant’s architectonic to the French gardens of Versailles, but rather
by seeing the systematic aestheticization of science as akin to the con-
struction of the English garden, that is, as carefully groomed in order to
appear perfectly natural.
In the technic of nature, nature is conceived as art in an explicit
attempt to avoid the mechanistic model of the universe. For this reason,
the living organized being, which Kant describes as a “product of
nature . . . in which everything is a purpose and reciprocally also a
means” (KU 376) provides the perfect figure for a vitalistic conception
of nature which at the same time precludes the risky move of actually
ascribing a kind of subjectivity or living nature to nature as a whole.
31 The English Garden
What Kant means by seeing nature according to an analogy with art
(KU 246) stems from the dual human pleasure in observing nature.
While on one level the human being takes pleasure in nature as it is (in
its beauty), on another level human pleasure results from seeing nature
as it ought to be, in terms of morality (KU 179). This “ought to be” is
a picture of nature as teleological, moving toward purposes, that is,
toward regulative ideas such as the good, human betterment, and God.
But we cannot verify any “artistic,” that is, teleological, judgment of
nature, since nature as purposive can only be part of the noumenal
realm. Therefore, since the technic of nature remains an art—in the
sense of a constitutive metaphor—and not an object of knowledge, the
mental capacity proper to it is self-reflective judgment rather than
understanding or reason. As we have already seen, Kant specifically
calls the technic of nature a “false interpretation” of nature as a kind
of production that is in agreement with “our concepts and rules of art.”
Seeing nature in terms of final causes as a special kind of natural pro-
duction is “merely the result of a subjective condition under which we
judge that ability” (KU 391). At the same time, nature’s revelation of
itself as purposive is a priori for us, but the faculty proper to this nec-
essary yet false interpretation is reflective judgment, which, rather than
looking at nature in terms of determinate concepts or external condi-
tioning factors, looks back only at itself.
Kant specifies what he means by “analogy” (in a qualitative, i.e.,
nonmathematical sense) in a long footnote in the Critique of Teleolog-
ical Judgment. The analogical relationship allows human beings to
make judgments about things they cannot definitively know based on
an identity of the relation between causes and effects in the unknown
and a known area (KU 464). Human knowledge is limited, according
to Kant, to what we can be directly conscious of, but we can make jus-
tified inferences on the basis of analogy. Thus, for example, we can
infer aspects of animal behavior based on our conscious knowledge of
human behavior, that is, we can understand animal behavior on the
basis of an “analogue of reason,” and this understanding can be judged
“correct.” Similarly, Kant writes, we can legitimately conceive of the
purposiveness of the “supreme world” by analogy with the products of
human art, although we cannot thereby conclude that the two types of
purposiveness have the same properties. In another note, Kant equates
analogy with the indirect presentation of an idea according to its effects
or consequences (KU 351). Through analogy with art, that is, in out-
lining nature in terms of final causes, one can organize nature into the
interaction of self-enclosed purposive centers, in other words, what we
have called the individuation of animal bodies. Just as we project pur-
posiveness onto animals by analogy with the structure of our own cog-
32 The Vegetative Soul
nitive processes, we project the relationship between this presumed pur-
posiveness and the body onto all other natural phenomena.
As with judgments of sublimity, the understanding of the purpo-
siveness of nature can only be formed with respect to culture or civiliza-
tion (Kultur), that is, to the non-natural or technical gathering of human
beings. Animals do not have cultures, though they form groups. The
word for culture or civilization, Kultur, comes from the Indo-European
root kwel-, meaning “to revolve,” “to sojourn,” or “to dwell,” whose
extended form, kwelos, becomes telos in Greek, meaning the “comple-
tion of a cycle.” The root forms the basis of the words cultivate and tele-
ology, in addition to culture. All these words have to do with settling,
tilling the land, harvesting, making plans and carrying them out. Kant’s
specification of “skill” as a requirement for culture refers us again to
techne, the quintessential activity that distinguishes humans from all
other natural beings. It also links teleology to culture and art, that is, to
Culture, which implies discipline (Zucht) along with skillfulness
(Geschicklichkeit), forms “the ultimate purpose that we have cause to
attribute to nature with respect to the human species” (KU 431–32). In
the Methodology of Teleological Judgment, Kant designates the human
being as “Lord of Nature.” If nature is regarded as a teleological system,
Kant implies—keeping the conditionality of the technic of nature
intact—then the human being is the ultimate purpose of that system.
Human beings are the only natural beings to have the capacity to refer
both nature and themselves to a purpose that can be independent of and
external to nature. It is skill that leads ineluctably, according to Kant, to
inequality among people, class structures, and even war. In this case,
“nature still achieves its own purpose, even if that purpose is not ours”
(KU 432). Teleology is thus used to explain seeming injustices that
humans cannot otherwise understand. Discipline, on the other hand, is
a “negative” condition that liberates the will from an entanglement with
natural things. It is directed toward the progressive elimination of ani-
mal characteristics, and thus indirectly leads to the production and
refinement of art and morality (KU 433). This movement manifests the
privilege given to the perceived separability (at least in principle) of the
human from nature.
The point of discussing Kant’s opening up of the possibility of
ascribing final causes to nature through the trope of a (necessary) aes-
thetic fiction is to show how this technic of nature can be (and was) fur-
ther applied to speculations about the nature of human subjectivity,
especially in its relationship to the natural world. It is important to
understand the way in which Kant negotiates the sticky problem of
final causes, not because this issue is equally pressing in the science or
33 The English Garden
philosophy of nature of today, but because it can help explain the ways
in which alternative conceptions of the subject, particularly ones that
do not presuppose separatedness from nature and atomic isolation, can
arise and be legitimated. Thus, we will examine Kant’s technic of nature
at some length.
Kant rejects both dogmatic (intentional) and fatalistic (uninten-
tional) interpretations of the notion of the purposiveness of nature from
the beginning. There will be no appeal to a God whose existence can be
known, nor to a necessary objective purposiveness inherent in nature
(Kant attributes this view primarily to Spinoza). Rather, teleological
judgments about nature say nothing about nature itself, but everything
about the way in which humans cognize nature. Teleological judgment
is not constitutive of determinative judgment, but merely regulative for
reflective judgment (KU 396). It deals not with the content of nature, but
with the form of the human framing of nature. Teleological judgment is
a human techne, which means that although it may be necessary for the
possibility of any other human achievement, primary among all other
techne, and even though it may stand in for a deity that cannot be
proven, it remains a techne and nothing more.
Kant calls the concept of natural purposes a foreigner (Fremdling)
in natural sciences, but a foreigner that looks strangely familiar to
human reason. Nature itself gives us the hint (Wink) that if we were to
use the concept of final causes “we could perhaps reach beyond nature
and connect nature itself to the highest point in the series of causes” (KU
390). Reason has an intimation (Ahnung) that this is the right direction
in which to go, even if this “rightness” cannot ever be proven. The
words hint and intimation intentionally convey a certain reserve with
respect to teleological judgment. Like judgments of beauty and sublim-
ity, which must both be universally communicable—even though they
cannot be expressed in the language of concepts—and exemplify a uni-
versal rule that we are unable to state, the justification of the use of tele-
ological judgment can only be indirect. This principle “is of such a kind
that we can only point to it (anzeigen), but can never cognize it deter-
minately and state it distinctly” (KU 412). Like the sublime, which
works its effects only from a distance, the judgment of purposiveness
can be effective only when the as if holds it at bay.
The relationship between human understanding and the perceived
final causes of the particulars of nature (either products or laws), like that
between understanding and imagination in the judgment of beauty, is
called a harmony (KU 407). The word harmony, which recurs constantly
in the critique of aesthetic judgment and the critique of teleological judg-
ment, comes from the Greek harmos, meaning “joint,” and is related to
the English words “arm” and “art.” A harmony is a fitting together of
34 The Vegetative Soul
parts, a jointure, and for Kant this word always retains its relationship to
techne. The technic of nature, which understands nature as purposive, is
necessary for us in addition to the mechanistic picture of nature in terms
of natural laws and causes because our understanding proceeds in one
direction only, according to Kant. We can cognize natural objects only by
beginning with a universal, supplied by our understanding, and then by
subsuming particulars under it. If our understanding could proceed from
particulars to universals, Kant implies, there would be no need to distin-
guish between mechanistic principles and teleological ones. However,
since we always begin with universals, only then making judgments about
particulars, “the particular, as such, contains something contingent.” Even
laws of nature can be taken as particulars by the faculty of reason, which
then demands a unity (Einheit) in which these particulars can be joined.
The principle under which even the contingent becomes law, or the “law-
fulness of the contingent,” is called purposiveness (KU 404).
The relationship of unity or systematicity and final causes is
brought to the fore in the final section of the Critique of Teleological
Judgment, entitled “Of the Union [Vereinigung] of the Principle of the
Universal Mechanism of Matter with the Teleological in the Technic of
Nature” (“Von der Vereinigung des Prinzips des allgemeinen Mechanis-
mus der Materie mit dem teleologischen in der Technik der Natur”).
This is the union Kant has been waiting for, the union to which he must
appeal, inasmuch as all divisions in his work up to this point still stand
apart in apparent dispersion. The technic of nature must specifically rec-
oncile the assumption that every particular in nature can be subsumed
under a universal with the obviously wide range of specifics that distin-
guish one particular from another of the same general kind by explain-
ing the diversity in terms of purposiveness. Reason must be disciplined
into neither being seduced into a transcendental explanation of pure
purposiveness without mechanical causes (“poetic raving”), nor explain-
ing everything natural only mechanically (“fantasizing”) (KU 410–11).
The union [Vereinbarkeit] of explanations in terms of mechanical
causes and teleological accounts lies in “nature’s supersensible sub-
strate,” and Kant admits that “for human reason both ways of repre-
senting [Vorstellungsarten] how such objects are possible cannot be
fused together [zusammenschmelzen]” (KU 414). Thus, they must be
used in conjunction with each other to the extent that such a practice
results in a better understanding of nature. The same implicit assump-
tion is made in terms of the ranking of final causes. Kant rests the rec-
onciliation on a conditional statement:
[Human] existence itself has the highest purpose within it; and to this pur-
pose [the human] can subject all of nature as far as he is able, or at least
35 The English Garden
he must not consider himself subjected to any influence of nature in oppo-
sition to that purpose.—Now if things in the world, which are dependent
beings with regard to their existence, require a supreme cause that acts in
terms of purposes, then the human is the final purpose [Endzweck] of cre-
ation. For without the human, the chain of mutually subordinated pur-
poses would not have a complete ground. It is this legislation, therefore,
which alone enables man to be a final purpose to which all of nature is
teleologically subordinated. (KU 435; my emphasis)
The “if” is crucial here, for it reminds us that in the Critique of
Judgment we are always dealing with a conditional, human creation, a
technic of nature formed around, and as a system of, natural purposive-
ness, which can never be matched by a corresponding cognition of the
human mind. We can never know that nature is purposive, though to
behave as if it were is the only way to resolve a series of antinomies that
the human mind can never otherwise overcome. Nietzsche criticizes this
move of Kant’s, this way of slipping purposiveness in through the back
gate, more than any other aspect of the critique of teleological judgment.
Like the sublime English garden of the eighteenth century, meticulously
planned and landscaped to look wild, the technic of nature is, at least on
one level, a paradox. Nature is most “itself” for us when it is most
unnatural, that is to say, when it is art, or at least when it is understood
in analogy to human art.
A little farther down, in the same section, Kant goes on to distin-
guish between beautiful objects and beautiful views: “In beautiful views
of objects, taste seems to fasten not so much on what the imagination
apprehends in that area [Feld], as on the occasion they provide for it to
engage in fiction [dichten], i.e., on the actual fantasies with which the
mind entertains itself as it is continually being aroused by the diversity
that strikes the eye” (KU 243). The notion of fiction that we have
referred to above is crucial for understanding the relationship between
Kant’s understanding of aesthetics and the principle of natural teleology.
As we have seen, Kant understands the technic of nature in terms of an
analogy with human art. We recall that in the Critique of Pure Reason
Kant defined an “analogy of experience” as “a rule according to which
a unity of experience may arise from perception” (KrV A180 = B223).
In the third Critique he calls the particular kind of art he is employing
“fiction,” based on a distinction first made in the first Critique
between a being of our reasoning (ens rationis ratiocinantis) and a being
of reason (ens rationis ratiocinatae) (KU 468), or between an objectively
empty concept used merely for reasoning (conceptus ratiocinans) and a
rational concept that is a basis for cognition confirmed by reason (con-
ceptus rationcinatus) (KU 396). The former term of each of these dis-
tinctions is also called “fiction” (dichten) by Kant (KU 467).
In “fic-
36 The Vegetative Soul
tion,” in this very specific sense, our reason is unable to prove the objec-
tive reality of what it posits, but can only use what is posited regulatively
for reflective judgment (KU 396). Kant gives, as an example of an ens
rationis ratiocinantis, the notion of spirits that exist in the universe that
think but have no bodies. The fiction we engage in if we try to think of
such things (by taking away, in the spirit of Descartes, “everything mate-
rial and yet suppos[ing] that it retains thought”), can never be estab-
lished as objective reality (KU 468). In the case of considering things of
nature as natural purposes, Kant insists that “we do not know whether
the concept is an objectively empty one that [we use] merely for reason-
ing (conceptus ratiocinans), or is a rational concept, a concept that is a
basis for cognition and is confirmed by reason (conceptus ratiocinatus)
(KU 396). We can never know, then, whether the teleology of nature is
a fiction or a rational concept. Kant says that we will have to be satis-
fied with calling it a fiction while we continue to assume that it mirrors
the ideas of human reason, since without it we would not be able to cog-
nize nature at all. Again, we can see the importance of the distance that
the “as if” introduces into the analogical structure.
It is important to note that in these theoretical sections, as opposed
to the actual discussion of the art of poetry (Dichtungskunst), Kant
always uses the verbal form of the word dichten. Perhaps “fictioning”
or poetizing, then, would be a more appropriate, if awkward, transla-
tion for this word. One should also keep in mind that dichten does not
simply mean to write fiction or poetry, in the literary sense of the word,
but, like the Latin root of the word “fiction,” which comes from facere,
“to do,” “to fictionize” means “to make,” or “to compose”; this ety-
mology links “fiction” to techne. In this sense it is related to the jointure
of the word “harmony.” In addition, dichten, in German, can mean “to
seal” or “to close tightly,” or “to thicken or jell,” and Kant may have
this double entendre in mind, especially with reference to the technic of
nature, which provides closure to an otherwise open-ended system.
Kant bases the technic of nature upon the figure of the organism.
By contrasting the structure of an organized natural being with a
mechanical human creation, such as a watch, Kant cautions the reader
against understanding the technic of nature merely in analogy to human
art. Kant’s fear stems not from the suspicion that the technic of nature
will be understood as an artwork in itself, but that it will be read as an
extension of the human artist-artwork relationship, that is, as the prod-
uct of some explicit intention on the part of a divine being. The possi-
bility of proving the existence of a god who orchestrates the technic of
nature has never been broached; Kant brackets such issues as undemon-
strable. He writes, “We say far too little if we call [nature and the abil-
ity it displays in organized products] an analogue of art, for in that case
37 The English Garden
we think of an artist (a rational being) apart from nature” (KU 374).
Organized being “is not conceivable or explicable on any analogy to any
known physical ability . . . not even . . . to human art” (KU 375, my
emphasis). In order to understand the seeming contradiction between
this statement and the passages we examined earlier that explicitly
described the technic of nature in analogy to art, we must return to the
first introduction to the third Critique:
When we consider nature as technical (or plastic), because we must pre-
sent its causality by an analogy with art, we may call nature technical in
its procedure, i.e., as it were, artistic. For we are dealing with the princi-
ple of merely reflective and not of determinative judgment (determinative
judgment underlies all human works of art), and in the case of reflective
judgment the purposiveness is to be considered unintentional and hence
can belong only to nature [but not to art]. (KU 251’)
Purposiveness cannot be understood in analogy to art when art is
linked to intention and to an artist. Indeed, Kant draws a very sharp dis-
tinction between the notion of purposiveness within the organism itself,
and the notion of purposiveness extrapolated from the organization of
the organism. The organism is the sole natural entity whose possibility
can be thought only with reference to natural teleology, even when it is
considered apart from any relation to any other thing. The structure of
the organism therefore justifies the practice of introducing the notion of
purposiveness into natural science in the first place (KU 375). Kant
defines the organism as a natural product “in which everything is a pur-
pose and reciprocally also a means,” in which nothing is gratuitous (pur-
poseless) or attributable to a mechanism” (KU 376). Any natural scien-
tist who has dissected a plant or animal body, says Kant, cannot but
recognize the inherent purposiveness of its every part, both in serving its
own individual purpose and in working in conjunction with the other
organs (KU 376). The natural body is also purposive in that it can repro-
duce itself without aid from external causes. To this limited extent, pur-
posiveness has an “objective reality.” The problem arises when people
want to extend the notion of purposiveness from the internal workings
of an organism to the natural world itself, as if the latter were nothing
but a huge organism in which we, as well as all other natural things, are
interdependent organs. This move has no external justification, warns
Kant. Just as we cannot assign the purposiveness of nature an objective
reality in analogy to art (as if God were a supreme craftsman with the
intention of crafting the natural world), we also cannot assign it objec-
tive reality in analogy to the body of an organism.
Indeed, the whole structure of the Analytic of Teleological Judg-
ment suggests that, rather than projecting the fiction of the organism
38 The Vegetative Soul
onto the natural world, the fiction of the natural world (the technic of
nature) delimits the structure of the organism, and from this, the struc-
ture of the architectonic. Shell explains this phenomenon in the follow-
ing way:
Nature becomes organismlike to—and only to—the extent that man
himself, in his capacity as user of nature (rather than as God’s or
nature’s tool ), enacts the form-giving role that had to be referred, at
the level of organic life, to the supersensible substrate. Man himself, in
other words, by virtue of a Tauglichkeit [affinity] that “grows” in him
with nature’s help and yet without prejudice to his freedom, straddles
the otherwise mysterious boundary between mechanism and inten-
tional causation.
As we noted earlier, the Greek organon, from which the word organism
stems, means “tool.” In Die Lehrlinge zu Saïs, the German Romantic
writer Novalis speculates about the beginning of naming and conceptual
thought and the influence of this development on the way in which the
universe was viewed by human beings, and in ruminating on this phe-
nomenon both explicates and illustrates Kant’s imperative that descrip-
tions of nature most naturally and pleasurably follow organic form.
Novalis tends to privilege light and crystal formation rather than vege-
tative growth, but the principle is identical: organic form is a tool that
human beings use to systematize and organize the manifold of nature as
a whole:
It must have been a long time before people started to think of indicating
the manifold objects of their senses with common names and of setting
themselves over and against them. Repetition [Übung] developed this
practice, and with this development came divisions and articulations that
one can readily compare to the refraction of a stream of light. So gradu-
ally our inner nature split up into manifold powers and with perpetual
practice this tendency towards fragmentation intensified. Perhaps, if
human beings have lost the power to remix these dispersed colors of their
spirit and thus to recreate the old simple state of nature at will or to bring
about new, manifold connections between them, it is just due to the patho-
logical tendency of later human beings. . . . We can, for this reason, con-
sider the thoughts of our ancestors about things in the world to be a nec-
essary product, a self-representation of the state of earthly nature at that
time, and we can accept these in particular as the most fitting tools
[Werkzeugen] of the observers of the universe, as the primary relationship
at that time, of the universe to its inhabitants, and of its inhabitants to
it. . . . At the very least one feels certain of a contingent, mechanical
[werkzeugliche] origin of [explanations of nature], and even for the
despisers of the rule-less creations of the imagination this portrayal is
39 The English Garden
meaningful enough. . . . For this reason poetry has become the favorite
tool of the true friend of nature, and in poetry about nature this radiates
most brilliantly.
As we have also already noted, Friedrich Hölderlin used the word
organic to refer to the natural world subsequent to human intervention,
not to a biological or chemical classification. Thus, the organic, at least
for Hölderlin, was explicitly aligned with the technical, but with a tech-
nical that does not presume any specific intention in the sense of an effi-
cient cause. Hölderlin called the natural world prior to any human
imposition upon it the “aorgic”; the alpha-privative prefix indicates that
which has nothing to do with the organon. There is much in the Critique
of Judgment that suggests that Kant, too, shared this understanding of
the organic as being thoroughly stamped by the technical. The technic
of nature precedes art as such, for it dictates the conditions under which
such a thing as art can arise. Only within the limits prescribed by the
technic of nature (which cannot be traced back to an intention, thus to
an artist) does the conception of artist—an individuated body capable of
having intentions that separate it from any other individuated body and
allow it in turn to create something outside of itself to stand on its own,
in the world, as another individuated body—make sense. According to
Kant, determinative judgment underlies all human works of art under-
stood as intentionally created by an artist (KU 251’).
Perhaps, in the spirit of the Critique of Judgment, where the beau-
tiful is that which causes liking without interest, and the sublime is that
which is large without being measurable or fear-inducing without any
immediate threat of danger, the technic of nature is art without an artist,
contrary to what Abrams claims. Nature (subjectively) figured as an
organized being by analogy with an artist manifests in human cognition
characteristics of both symbolic and schematic hypotyposis. The presen-
tation of nature as organized being is a symbolic presentation in that it
manifests itself according to a particular image (that of an organism), but
at the same time Kant goes to great lengths to demonstrate that no image
outside the realm of the organic is possible. In “The Sublime Offering,”
Jean-Luc Nancy aligns symbolism and fiction in “a logic of representa-
tion (something in the place of something else),” and counterpoises them
to the schematism of the aesthetic judgment, which, as Kant writes in
§35, is a “schematizing without a concept” (KU 36–37). However, Kant
keeps discussions of fiction and symbolization separate, and fiction is not
to be confused with making something nonimagistic present in the form
of an arbitrary and alterable figure. Rather, fiction seems precisely to take
the role of the schema, and does so “without a concept.” We must keep
in mind the close etymological relation of dichten to logos itself.
40 The Vegetative Soul
The first introduction to The Critique of Judgment calls the propen-
sity to understand nature as art judgment’s “own concept” (KU 204’).
The concept of the technic of nature is a priori for judgment in order to
allow it to investigate nature, as a principle of its reflection. However,
judgment “can neither explain this technic nor determine it more closely”
(KU 214’). Judgment creates the technic for two reasons: in order to
reflect in terms of its own subjective law, and in order to investigate
nature in a way that harmonizes with natural laws (which are its own
laws in turn). Kant explicitly calls this performance “artificial” (kün-
stlich) (KU 215’). Kant contrasts techne in the form of a technic of nature
with a mechanical instrument because the mechanical explanation of the
universe is modeled upon something like a machine, which is a product
of intentional human techne. The process of reflective judgment is called
“technical” when it judges nature purposively; Kant specifies that in this
process “[reflective judgment] deals with [given appearances] technically
rather than schematically” (KU 213’). Here the technic of nature stands
in for the schematism as an a priori principle for reflective judgment.
Both aesthetic and teleological judgments “need” the critique of
judgment: teleological judgments need it because “if left to themselves”
they “invite reason to inferences that may stray into the transcendent”;
aesthetic judgments need it because they “require laborious investigation
in order to keep them from limiting themselves . . . to just the empirical,
and hence to keep them from destroying their claims to necessary valid-
ity for everyone” (KU 241’). Aesthetic and teleological judgments are
reciprocally disciplinary, then, for opposite reasons. If the technic of
nature, in the end, can make no definitive claims as to the “nature” of
nature in itself (noumenal nature), this is not because it is arbitrary,
merely one in many possible interpretations of nature. Kant stipulates
that the teleological is the place to which the mind turns when it is inca-
pable of conceiving the possibility of a natural object through the prin-
ciple of mechanism alone:
All we can do is this: if we happen to find natural objects whose possibil-
ity is inconceivable to us in terms merely of the principle of mechanism
(which in the case of a natural being always has a claim [to being
applied]), so that we must rely also on teleological principles, then we can
presume that we may confidently investigate natural laws in accordance
with both principles (once our understanding is able to cognize [how] the
natural product is possible on the basis of one or the other principle) with-
out our being troubled by the seeming conflict that arises between the two
principles for judging that product. For we are assured that it is at least
possible that objectively, too, both these principles might be reconcilable
in one principle (since they concern appearances, which presuppose a
supersensible basis). (KU 413)
41 The English Garden
Judgment turns from the mechanistic to the teleological explanation in
the same way that within the judgment of the sublime the imagination
turns to reason when the imagination is incapable of comprehending the
sublime. Kant assumes that the teleological principle is the only possible
supplement to a purely mechanical world view, that without reference to
final purposes humans could not make sense of nature at all.
The fiction (dichten) human minds create about nature seems to
have something of the same relation to human reason that time has to
the understanding. The teleology of nature schematizes human cognition
of nature. There is a mutual interplay between nature and human think-
ing about nature/creating from nature, in which each determines the
other. At one point, Kant calls the aesthetic idea “the counterpart
[Gegenstück, Pendant] of a rational idea” (KU 314). The aesthetic idea
is a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but
to which no determinate concept is adequate, and therefore no language
can express an aesthetic idea completely. A rational idea is a concept to
which no presentation of the imagination can be adequate. Both types
of idea are necessarily mediated by the presentation of the imagination.
The impact of each on the other forever changes its direction. A strange
materiality emerges from the encounter of the natural and the spiritual,
which becomes, in the end, what we refer to as “nature.”
Like a plant, the technic of nature grows without consciousness,
and like the English garden it is a studiedly “wild” art, designed to look
like untamed nature, but still ruled by the “form” of reason. Nature read
as organized being requires human science to mediate its possible flight
into fantasies of divine beings and supernatural causes whose existence
can never be known. The Abbé du Bos wrote in 1719 that genius “is . . .
a plant which shoots up, as it were, of itself; but the quality and quan-
tity of its fruit depends in a great measure on the culture it receives.”
Similarly, Kant’s technic is a garden that must be cultivated and pruned.
Through the technic of nature the notion of the organism, and from it
the conception of the human as technician arises. If the technic of nature
is a garden, its product, paradoxically, is not a plant but an animal, an
animal whose structure derives from its separability from other organ-
isms, its self-sufficiency, its autonomy, and its ultimate security in the
face of the power of nature that threatens to overwhelm it. Kant’s tech-
nic of nature sets the scene for a new way of considering nature and sci-
entific study of nature. From Goethe through Nietzsche, every philoso-
pher in Germany will have to confront Kant’s critique, and the portrayal
of science as an (at least partially) aesthetic endeavor opened the doors
to the possibility of creating new paradigms of nature and consequently
of culture, including the cultivation of plant life that grows outside of
the confines of a formal garden.
42 The Vegetative Soul
At the end of the Analytic of the Beautiful, Kant comments that
nature is most agreeable to human taste when it is diverse, luxuriant,
“subject to no constraint from artificial rules” (KU 243). The descrip-
tion resonates with theories of the new garden, called the landscape gar-
den, expounded by architects, poets, and essayists from the late six-
teenth to the early nineteenth century in England. In his essay “Of
Gardens,” Francis Bacon directs a gardener to have at least a part of the
garden “framed, as much as may be, to a Natural wildnesse.”
Addison, one of the earliest proponents of the cultivated-to-look-wild
landscape garden, writes, “Tho’ there are several of these wild Scenes [of
nature], that are more delightful than any artificial Shows; yet we find
the Works of Nature still more pleasant the more they resemble those of
The English garden was designed in explicit opposition to the
formal constraints of French classical gardens, exemplified by the
grounds of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. These French gardens were
characterized by angular geometrical lines, severely clipped greenery,
and disciplined flower beds. Yet if the English landscape garden looked
more natural, it remained equally cultivated.
The German taste of the time followed that of the English garden
planners. In “On the Sublime,” Friedrich Schiller writes, “Who does
not prefer to tarry among the spiritual disorder of a natural landscape
rather than in the spiritless regularity of a French garden? Who would
not marvel at the wonderful battle between fecundity and destruction
in Sicily’s plains, or feast his eyes on Scotland’s wild cataracts and mist-
shrouded mountains, Ossian’s vast nature, rather than admire in
straight-diked Holland the prim victory of patience over the most defi-
ant of the elements?”
In a footnote to “Naive and Sentimental
Poetry,” Schiller comments on the necessity of the contrast of art and
nature in order for humans to find something “naive.” Schiller’s use of
“naive” follows Kant’s aesthetic of the beautiful closely, except that it
refers only to things that are revealed as fresh, natural, innocent, and of
course unattached to any determinate purpose. Schiller writes,
“Nobody would find naive the spectacle of a badly tended garden in
which the weeds have the upper hand, but there is certainly something
naive when the free growth of spreading branches undoes the painstak-
ing work of the topiarist in a French garden.”
Thus, nature in
Schiller’s understanding of Kant (the account follows the third Critique
closely) can be seen as truly natural only with reference to the artificial,
even if only by contrast. It has even been argued that the new congru-
ence between the human mind and nature propounded by thinkers such
as Kant and Goethe and developed by writers of the Romantic move-
ment had its provenance in the landscape gardening movement of the
eighteenth century.
We will read this relationship not in terms of the
43 The English Garden
linear model of “influence,” but rather as a chiasmic figure; we do not
assume a preexisting view of nature that somehow shapes philosophi-
cal thinking, but rather insist that nature itself is created in human
thinking about it, from which new philosophical thinking gains its
character in turn. Finally, as a natural being, human being itself is pro-
foundly affected by shifts in thinking about nature.
44 The Vegetative Soul
Kant never took any notice of me, although independently I was fol-
lowing a course similar to his. I wrote my Metamorphosis of Plants
before I knew anything of Kant, and yet it is entirely in the spirit of
his ideas.
—Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann
[A]t the exact moment when Kant’s work was completed and a map
through the bare woods of reality was sketched, the Goethean quest
for the seeds of eternal growth began.
—Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities”
When something has acquired a form it metamorphoses immedi-
ately to a new one. If we wish to arrive at some living perception of
nature we ourselves must remain as quick and flexible as nature and
follow the example she gives.
—Goethe, “The Purpose Set Forth”
(from On Morphology)
Up to this point we have concentrated on the importance of form in
Kant’s technic of nature. Reflective judgment must proceed, when exam-
ining organisms, on the assumption that basic organizational frameworks
inherited or constructed by natural scientists, such as system, purpose,
The Metamorphosis of Plants
and order, correspond to empirical reality, although this unity cannot be
known or proven. The feeling that results when the unity one has
assumed seems to correspond to what one finds empirically is one of
pleasure, the same feeling one has when one makes an aesthetic judgment
of beauty. In aesthetic judgments, whether of beauty, sublimity, or pur-
posiveness, reflection attempts to create a unity out of that which cannot
be subsumed under a concept. Kant calls the assumption of unity “an
occupation of the understanding conducted with regard to a necessary
purpose of its own,” which is then taken up by judgment and ascribed to
nature (KU 187). Kant’s aim, as we have seen, was to avoid confirming
the existence of final causes in nature while allowing them as inevitable
procedural assumptions (as contingent, yet as also indispensable) for the
purpose of doing natural science. However, Kant also expresses sympa-
thy with the desire to find Ur-phenomena and even the Ur-mother (KU
§80): “We would still prefer to hear others offer hope that if we had
deeper insight into nature, or could compare the nature [we know] more
broadly with the parts of it we do not yet know, then we would find
nature ever simpler as our experience progressed and ever more accor-
dant despite the seeming heterogeneity in its empirical laws” (KU 188).
If, on the other hand “we are told that a deeper or broadened knowledge
of nature based on observation must ultimately meet with a diversity of
laws that no human understanding can reduce to a single principle,”
Kant writes, “then we will be content with that too” (KU 188).
Thus, although the reality behind the form remains open-ended
(since unknown), Kant has already traced the trajectory of philosophy,
which must proceed according to the assumption of a progressive order,
according to a scheme of organized individuation similar to the organi-
zation that the pre-critical understanding projects onto nature. Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe, writing at the same time as Kant, also eschews the
anthropocentric notion of the purposiveness of nature, yet continues to
look for the origin Kant declares we will never know exists, although
“origin” will have a specific meaning that may initially seem counter-
intuitive. This is because Goethe reinterprets the very meaning of “ori-
gin,” from a “what” or a “where” to a “how,” from a location to a
process. This shift marks a significant change in the ideology governing
the search for a source: while Kant would prefer to ultimately find a sin-
gle, unifying, simple origin, Goethe admits from the outset that the quest
for a simple in the sense of singular origin is a fruitless one, since the prin-
ciple underlying all of natural development is a multiple and self-trans-
formative one: thus, the Ur-plant or originary principle of life in any form
for Goethe, though sought after, will never be found in a unique and irre-
ducible form. Goethe recognizes many of his own ideals in Kant’s work,
but shifts the focus of the inquiry from the form that both inquiry and
46 The Vegetative Soul
judgment take to the question of form itself. Though Kant questions the
correspondence of the technic of nature to a noumenal realm, the struc-
ture of the technic itself is a priori for reflective judgment. Whether
noumenal nature corresponds to nature as we perceive it or not, Kant
believes that in order to think meaningfully about nature within the lim-
its of human understanding one would at some point have to presume the
purposiveness of nature. Moreover, this purposiveness has a form that
can be delimited, as much of the third Critique demonstrates.
For Goethe, by contrast, nature—whether noumenal or phenome-
nal (for essential reasons, as we will see, Goethe does not make this dis-
tinction)—always remains an open-ended question, a mystery from
which the veil can never be entirely torn. This is perhaps because, for
Goethe, form, or morphe, is always tied to metamorphosis; the organ-
ism is not part of a system so much as a rhythm of life-forces. At the con-
clusion of his The Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe distinguishes
between the regular, successive temporality of development from stem to
leaf, and the eruptive emergence of flower and fruit. Together the two
movements form a kind of natural rhythm, which Goethe calls der
Rhythmus des Lebenskraft.
Emile Benveniste has analyzed the linguistic roots of the word
rhythm as it was used in ancient Greek tragedy and philosophy,
and has
shown that the meaning of rhythm as we understand it today originated
not, as commonly understood, from an observation of nature, specifically
of the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves, but from a particular determi-
nation of the original signification of rhythmos. All etymological dictio-
naries, Benveniste notes, cite the verb rhein, “to flow,” as the root of
rhythmos. The problem lies not with the morphological derivation of
rhythmos from rhein, but from the extrapolation that the notion of
rhythm had been taken from the observation of waves. In ancient Greek,
rivers “flow,” but oceans neither flow nor are said to have a “rhythm.”
The terms that describe the movements of the waves are entirely different.
However, Benveniste cites numerous examples—from Aristotle, Democri-
tus, Leucippus, Herodotus, Archilochus, Anacreon, Aeschylus, and
Plato—to show that the original meaning of rhythmos is synonymous
with skhema, or “form.” However, “rhythm” is a very particular deter-
mination of “form,” one that Benveniste describes in the following way:
There is a difference between skhema and rhythmos; skhema in contrast
to ekho (“je me tiens”) is defined as a fixed “form,” realized and viewed
in some way as an object. On the other hand, rhythmos, according to the
contexts in which it is given, designates the form in the instant that it is
assumed by what is moving, mobile and fluid, the form of that which
does not have organic consistency; it fits the pattern of a fluid element,
of a letter arbitrarily shaped, of a robe which one arranges at one’s will,
47 The Metamorphosis of Plants
of a particular state of character or mood. It is the form as improvised,
momentary, changeable. Now, rhein is the essential predication of nature
and things in the Ionian philosophy since Heraclitus and Democritus
thought that, since everything was procured from atoms, only a different
arrangement of them produced the difference of forms and objects. We
can now understand how rhythmos, meaning literally “the particular
manner of flowing,” could have been the most proper term for describ-
ing “dispositions” or “configurations” without fixity or natural necessity
and arising from an arrangement which is always subject to change.
This passage could describe the vision of nature that underlies all
of Goethe’s studies of natural phenomena, with one significant specifi-
cation. Goethe understands nature in terms of form—as rhythm in the
sense outlined above—but not in terms of atomic particles; one might
align Goethe with Heraclitus, but not with Democritus. Form, for
Goethe, is nothing but a fleeting manifestation, a resting point of that
which is always on the verge of metamorphosis. Indeed, Goethe sug-
gests that the use of the word Gestalt (form) in the German studies of
natural history of his time is misleading, since “with this expression
they exclude what is changeable and assume that an interrelated whole
is identified, defined, and fixed in character.”
Rather, Goethe proposes
the substitution of the word Bildung (formation) for Gestalt, in order
to convey the perpetual motion of all natural and particularly organic
manifestation. In other words, Goethe understands form as “rhythm”
in the ancient sense that Benveniste explicates. Such an insistence on the
equal importance of both form and force clearly shows Goethe’s aware-
ness that the way one approaches nature cannot be separated from
what one thinks nature is. In other words, science is not merely a ques-
tion of the interpretation of a preexisting reality, in terms, for example,
of mechanism or of vitalism, of forces or of isolatable particulars.
Rather, “reality” is actually created in and reflected by the chosen
approach. Thus, the manner of approaching nature cannot be judged
simply by its quantitative results (the amount of information gathered,
the number of phenomena explained), but must also be questioned
qualitatively, in terms of the way nature is configured by it. Here for the
first time we encounter what we have named the “vegetative soul”
explicitly. We note, with Goethe, the congruence of his depiction of
nature with the Kantian outline of a technic of nature in the Critique of
Judgment. It is a congruence that Kant himself would not, most likely,
have accepted. Yet the third Critique would leave a strong legacy, which
Kant could neither predict nor delineate.
The great debate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries over
the way in which natural history (the term biology was just coming into
use) was to be pursued, including the critique of the Cartesian mecha-
48 The Vegetative Soul
nistic picture of the universe, involved more than a switching of
metaphors for nature. As Goethe developed his studies of metamorpho-
sis in meteorology, in insects, in animal skeletons, in plants, and in color,
he came to the conclusion that the principle of all organic nature was
metamorphosis, a phenomenon that depends upon both form and force.
The natural entity that demonstrates the principle of metamorphosis
with greatest clarity, according to Goethe, is the plant.
Accordingly, when Goethe sets out to find the Ur-plant, the plant
that will prove to be the singular origin of all plant life, he is searching
for the plant that demonstrates most irrefutably that metamorphosis is
the source of all organic development. Furthermore, as we have cited
Goethe in the final epigraph to this chapter, metamorphosis occurs as a
phenomenological event that transforms the scientist or observer as
much as what is being observed. Goethe’s advocacy of the metamor-
phosis of the scientist that must accompany observation of the meta-
morphosis of nature anticipates the twentieth-century discourse in the
philosophy of science of the way in which the collection of empirical
data is already shaped in advance by the theory it is supposed to support
or refute.
It is interesting to note, as Ernst Cassirer does with great surprise,
the reaction of Goethe, who was strongly anti-Newtonian (precisely by
virtue of his strong belief that the scientist’s own thinking cannot be
separated from his or her observation of phenomena), to the writings
of Kant. Goethe writes of the Critique of Judgment, the one work of
Kant’s that excited his enthusiasm: “To this book I owe one of the hap-
piest periods of my life. Here I saw my most diverse interests brought
together, artistic and natural production handled the same way; the
power of aesthetic and teleological judgment mutually illuminated each
In the mind of Goethe, at least, there was much common
ground between his own Metamorphosis of Plants and Kant’s Critique
of Judgment. Goethe goes on to say precisely where he finds the sym-
pathy: “The inner life of art as of nature, their mutual working from
within outward, were clearly expressed in the book. It maintained that
the productions of these two infinite worlds exist for their own sake,
and that things that stand beside each other do indeed exist for each
other but not purposely on each other’s account.”
Goethe’s approba-
tion of Kant is based on Kant’s discussion of teleological judgment, and
particularly on the way in which Kant makes room for strictly limited
assumptions of the purposiveness of nature while insisting that such
assumptions will always remain heuristic fictions that are impossible to
prove. Goethe had already expressed strong criticism of unreflective
assumptions of final causes in the study of nature by the time he read
the Critique of Judgment.
49 The Metamorphosis of Plants
At the same time, a single reference of Kant’s to the possibility of
a unique source of all life—the Ur-mother—reminded Goethe of his
own quest for Urphänomene, originary phenomena from which all
other life forms had evolved. The notion of a single origin of all plants
held such importance for Goethe because he believed that if he could
find an origin that conformed to the assumption that the principle of
all life is constant metamorphosis he would then be able to unify all of
nature into a whole. This whole needed to have a material origin, yet
still encompass an ideal. In a brief passage of the Critique of Judgment,
Kant considers the tendency to entertain a “daring adventure of rea-
son,” as he puts it, “that has probably entered, on occasion, even the
minds of virtually all the most acute natural scientists” (KU 419). The
tendency Kant describes in some ways fits Goethe’s project exactly:
natural forms in their variety share certain common arrangements of
parts that lead one to hypothesize that they may all have been produced
according to a common archetype “by a common Ur-mother” (KU
418). The various animal and plant genera, Kant goes on, manifest the
principle of purposes from human beings “all the way to the polyp, and
from it even to mosses and lichens and finally to the lowest stage of
nature discernible to us, crude matter.” The “archaeologist of nature”
envisages Mother Earth as a “large animal emerging from her state of
chaos” giving birth, from her womb, to “creatures of a less purposive
form,” creatures that in turn give birth to creatures even less purposive
in form. Indeed, Kant even seems to refer to one of Goethe’s scientific
achievements, the discovery of the a small bone in the jaw that is the
same in all mammals including human beings. Although Goethe made
this discovery in 1784, it was not published until 1820, so it is unlikely
that Kant, who did not know Goethe, had heard about it. Nevertheless,
Kant writes, “So many genera of animals share a certain common
schema on which not only their bone structure but also the arrange-
ment of their other parts seems to be based,” and he refers to this as a
“common archetype,” the same words Goethe uses in 1820 in a pub-
lished paper on comparative anatomy.
At the end of this “daring adventure of reason,” Kant imagines the
original womb itself eventually ossifying and being reduced to giving
birth to only one determinate species. Of course, Kant entertains such a
thought only as a mental exercise, whereas Goethe spent much of his life
trying to prove that in fact all living beings had originated from a com-
mon archetype. Forty years after the publication of The Metamorphosis
of Plants, Goethe expresses the difference he sees between crude
assumptions of purposiveness and his own assumption of metamorpho-
sis as an explanatory principle of nature: “The teachers of utility would
believe they had lost their God if they could not worship the one who
50 The Vegetative Soul
gave the ox its horns so that it could protect itself. Permit me, however,
to honor the one whose realm of creativity was so great that after thou-
sands of plants he made one more that contained all the rest in it, and
after thousands of animals one being, that contains them all: the human
This understanding of the human being as the result of the
development of other animals opposes the poetic image of the original
mother as the source of all life. The Ur-phenomenon will not be an ori-
gin in the sense of a chronological or ontological cause of life. Rather, it
will posit the structural coherence of all nature, and not simply explain
all nature with reference to the human being.
Goethe does use the image of the Ur-mother giving birth to a fully
formed series of creatures in a poem entitled “Metamorphosis of Ani-
mals” (1806); here he emphasizes the fact that animals spring “com-
pleted” from the womb, lacking only certain protective or utilitarian
features such as teeth or horns. For this reason, Goethe finds plants,
which emerge and then undergo a series of completely transformative
metamorphoses, to be clearer indicators of the principle of metamor-
phosis inherent in all life. This principle is present in animals as part of
their history; according to Goethe, the anatomical archetype of animals
contains “the forms of all animals as potential.” In animals, “the par-
ticular can never serve as a measure for the whole,”
yet Goethe spent
months in Italy looking for the particular Ur-plant.
Kant makes it clear that he is entertaining the hypothesis of the
Ur-mother only as an imaginative form of the technic of nature.
fact that the hypothesis is imaginative, however, does not mean that
it or a form of it is not necessary. Kant admits that the nature—or
limitation—of human knowledge is such that nature cannot be com-
pletely explained according to mechanistic principles. Inevitably, such
an investigation would be unable to explain organisms fully; at this
point, science has the right to invoke final causes, keeping in mind
that this is an artistic or heuristic procedure, and not a source of
determinate knowledge. Yet Kant seems to make an illegitimate move
on his own terms in claiming, later in the third Critique, that the
human being is the final cause of nature by virtue of its noumenal
nature (KU 435). The noumenal status of the human being as end and
never as means—not its erect posture, developed brain, or living
habits—led Kant to posit the human being as the creature of highest
purposiveness. For Goethe, by contrast, the human being could only
be considered to hold the (potential) forms of all the other animals
within it by virtue of its physical form. In the section of the Critique
of Judgment entitled “On the Final Purpose of the Existence of a
World, i.e., of Creation Itself,” Kant expresses this noumenal purpo-
siveness of the human being:
51 The Metamorphosis of Plants
Now in this world of ours there is only one kind of being with a causality
that is teleological, i.e., directed to purposes, but also so constituted that
the law in terms of which these beings must determine their purposes is
presented by these very beings as unconditioned and independent of con-
ditions in nature, and yet necessary in itself. That being is the human
being, but the human considered as noumenon. . . . Now about the
human, as a moral being, (and so about any other rational being in the
world), we cannot go on to ask: For what [end] [quemin finem] does he
exist? His existence itself has the highest purpose within it; and to this
purpose he can subject all of nature as far as he is able, or at least he must
not consider himself subjected to any influence of nature in opposition to
that purpose. Now if things in the world, which are dependent beings with
regard to their existence, require a supreme cause that acts in terms of pur-
poses, then the human is the final purpose of creation. For without the
human the chain of mutually subordinated purposes would not have a
complete basis. Only in the human, and even in him only as moral sub-
ject, do we find unconditioned legislation regarding purposes. It is this leg-
islation, therefore, which alone enables man to be a final purpose to which
all of nature is teleologically subordinated. (KU 435; my emphasis)
The conditional nature of this statement is only implicit, and a
strange but silent transfer takes place almost imperceptibly from the nat-
ural to the moral world order. Since human beings are the only natural
beings who also have a moral or noumenal being, and since humans nec-
essarily judge reflectively in terms of purposes, humans have no choice
but to judge nature purposively, and yet they themselves must be the
final purpose of this natural order, since in fact (at least as far as their
own limited cognition permits them to know) they are the only members
of the hierarchy: final purpose because the only real purpose.
The pre-critical Kant did not have trouble espousing the idea of nat-
ural purposiveness, in, for example, his 1777 essay “Von den verschiede-
nen Rassen der Menschen,” in which he argues that geographically the
various races are distributed so that climate and race suit each other as “a
precaution of nature.” Using another curious plantlike analogy, Kant
describes individuals born with “seeds” (Keime) and tendencies (Anlagen)
stored within them to meet the particular contingencies of a geographical
climate. In a drawn-out argument with Georg Forster, Kant subsequently
outlined the position that would become his own in the Critique of Judg-
ment. An organism can never be arrived at in terms of mechanical causes
alone, which leads to the subjective necessity of creating explanations in
terms of final causes, since purposiveness arises only within ourselves.
Goethe continually reacted against the tendency to see everything
in nature as produced for the sake of human beings, yet he approved of
the Kantian solution of making purposiveness a product of the power of
reflective judgment as opposed to a quality inherent in natural things:
52 The Vegetative Soul
The human being is in the habit of valuing things according to how well
they serve his purposes. It lies in the nature of the human condition that man
must think of himself as the last stage of creation. Why, then, should he not
also believe that he is its ultimate purpose? Why should his vanity not be
allowed this small deception? Given his need for objects and his use for
them, he draws the conclusion that they have been created to serve him.
Why should he not resolve the inner contradictions here with a fiction rather
than abandon the claims he holds so dear? Why should he not ignore a plant
which is useless to him and dismiss it as a weed, since it really does not exist
for him? When a thistle springs up to increase his toil in the fields he blames
it on the curse of an angry god or the malice of a spiteful demon rather than
considering it a child sprung from all of nature, one as close to her heart as
the wheat he tends so carefully and values so highly.
Note the difference between this formulation of the purposiveness
of nature, criticized by Goethe, and the earlier description of the human
being as the animal that contains the forms of all other animals within
it. The sarcastic criticism here is directed toward purposiveness under-
stood as an intentional relationship of the human being with the rest of
nature, while the earlier passage referred to the internal structure of the
human organism. Thus, Goethe would agree with Kant that a technic of
nature is analogous to human art only insofar as “art” does not pre-
suppose an intention on the part of an artist.
The critique of teleological theories that understand the whole of
nature to have been created in the service of human desires and needs
recurs in Goethe’s literary work with reference to the relationship
between nature and the work of art. A whole tradition in the late eigh-
teenth century equated genius with vegetable nature, but tended to fur-
ther embellish this association with an anthropocentric understanding of
nature. The most well known proponent of the vegetable theory of
genius was Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in his 1778 essay “On the
Knowing and Feeling of the Human Soul,” equates the human soul with
a seed that is unaware of “what impulses, powers, vapors of life
streamed into it at the instant of its coming into being.”
rejected the implications of Herder’s essay, which describes a sort of spir-
itual food chain in which the plant draws in water and earth and refines
them, the animal eats the plant and further refines it into animal fluids,
and the human transforms both plants and animals into the noblest of
Paul Hazard comments on the eighteenth-century practice in
botany, which illustrates a broader practice in science generally, of try-
ing to fit the universe and all of its products into a sort of preconceived
scheme or pattern, calling it a “Great Ladder of Creation on which not
a rung was missing. . . . Discontinuity was excluded a priori. . . . At all
costs, every compartment must be filled.”
53 The Metamorphosis of Plants
Positing final causes was also a common practice of the natural
science of Goethe’s day. For example, the eighteenth-century Swedish
botanist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) suggested that herbivores were
placed on earth in order to control the plant population, predators to
limit the herbivores, and human beings to hunt and thus regulate the
carnivorous predators. This was the kind of simplistic theory of purpo-
siveness at which Kant took umbrage, writing, “[O]n this alternative,
though man might in a certain respect have the dignity of being a pur-
pose, in a different respect he would hold only the rank of a means”
(KU 428). In other words, the “purpose” of the human being could
conceivably be reduced, on such an interpretation, to a mere regulator
of animal populations, a predator on a higher level. This led Kant to
posit the purposiveness of the human in its nonbodily, or ideal, nature.
Goethe, who still believed that he could find an actual physical speci-
men of an Ur-plant, was told rather bluntly by Friedrich Schiller (him-
self a Kantian) that the Ur-plant, too, was ideal, and not realized or
realizable in the phenomenal world. Goethe recounts the exchange in
the following way:
We reached [Schiller’s] house, and our conversation drew me in. There I
gave an enthusiastic description of the metamorphosis of plants, and with
a few characteristic strokes of the pen I caused a symbolic plant to spring
up before his eyes. He heard and saw all this with great interest, with
unmistakable power of comprehension. But when I stopped, he shook his
head and said, “That is not an observation from experience. That is an
idea.” Taken aback and somewhat annoyed, I paused; with this comment
he had touched on the very point that divided us. It evoked memories of
the views he had expressed in “On Grace and Dignity;” my old resentment
began to rise in me. I collected my wits, however, and replied, “Then I may
rejoice that I have ideas without knowing it, and can even see them with
my own eyes.”
Goethe’s approbation of Kant stemmed from his own antipathy
toward the assumption of anthropocentric purposes assigned to natural
beings, what Kant referred to as determinate purposes. Although Kant,
too, eschewed vulgar expressions of final cause such as claiming that a
river was created to provide irrigation for fields, or that plants had
sprung forth to provide sustenance for animals, he ultimately assigned
the status of “final purpose of the existence of the world” to the human
being. Goethe would object even to this qualified statement of purpo-
siveness. Instead, Goethe expresses a constant repugnance toward the
very idea of final causes, and read the world as the stage of mutual inter-
actions between human beings—as one type of organized being among
others—and the rest of nature:
54 The Vegetative Soul
When in the exercises of his powers of observation the human being
undertakes to confront the world of nature, he will at first experience a
tremendous compulsion to bring what he finds under his control. Before
long, however, these objects will thrust themselves upon him with such
force that he, in turn, must feel the obligation to acknowledge their power
and pay homage to their effects. When this mutual interaction becomes
evident he will make a discovery which, in a double sense, is limitless;
among the objects he will find many different forms of existence and
modes of change, a variety of relationships vitally interwoven; in himself,
on the other hand, he will find a potential for infinite growth through con-
stant adaptation of his sensibilities and judgment to new ways of acquir-
ing knowledge and responding with action.
Goethe begins with the assumption that all things in nature work
incessantly upon each other, and that no natural phenomenon should be
studied without also taking into account all the other phenomena that
are contiguous to it. What Kant called the “noumenal” nature of human
beings does not exempt the human mind from the exigency of openness
toward transformation. Indeed, if Goethe had made a strict distinction
between mind and body, it is the human mind that would demonstrate
a greater tendency toward metamorphosis, and the body that is trapped
in a completeness and rigidity with which it is born. The mind is capa-
ble of response to the greater nature of which it is a part. However,
Goethe understands sense perception and thinking, whether conceptual
or speculative, to be inseparable, so that the comparison between men-
tal and physical human capacities is not appropriate.
Goethe ultimately became more and more convinced that the only
unitary principle that could explain the development and continuation
of the natural world was metamorphosis. He writes: “I will go so far as
to assert that when an organism manifests itself we cannot grasp the
unity and freedom of its formative impulse without the concept of
Goethe’s scientific work on the metamorphosis of
plants and animals (the second work was never finished) and on the
theory of color, together with his literary writings that combined scien-
tific discoveries with narratives of human life, stimulated a philosophi-
cal movement in Germany in the direction of a conjunction of idealism
and the philosophy of nature, a combination that precisely sought to
undermine the dichotomy that had been drawn between the realms of
the ideal and the natural, between the mind and the body, between
thinking and sense perception.
Goethe understands the process of metamorphosis to be the origi-
nary phenomenon that escapes the nomenclature of either substance or
ideal frame. Metamorphosis is grounded in nature but cannot be con-
tained in any determinate form; nevertheless, there is nothing ideal
55 The Metamorphosis of Plants
about the process of one form changing into another. The Ur-plant,
then, would be the plant that manifests most clearly the principle that
every part contains the potential to turn into every other, that all form
is constantly on the verge of becoming other. What makes the search for
an Ur-phenomenon so difficult is that it is not an origin as a single uni-
fied location. Goethe objects to Kant’s statement in the third Critique
that the human intellect, as an intellectus ectypus (one that requires
images in order to understand), is inferior to a possible intellectus arche-
typus that could first comprehend the whole, and from the whole, the
parts (KU 408). Only through the sensuous observation of ever-creating
nature, thus through the intellectus ectypus, according to Goethe, can
the human being be considered to take part in the eternally ongoing
process of nature by virtue of the metamorphosis of its intellect; this can-
not be achieved if one posits the human subject standing over and
against nature as if “lifted into a higher region” and proximate to a
higher essence.
Having an intellectus ectypus is important for Goethe
because it allows the human being to be both a scientist and an artist.
Goethe’s objection to two tendencies in the science of the late eigh-
teenth century—first, as we have seen, the uncritical assumption of final
causes in nature, and second, the endless search for analogies among the
different realms of nature—complicated his quest for Ur-phenomena.
Goethe believed in strictly separating the plant, animal, and mineral
realms of organic nature for the purposes of scientific study because of
the tendency to understand both the plant and the mineral as deficient
animals when a continuum of nature was presumed. Against Linnaeus,
Herder, and F. W. J. von Schelling, among others, thinkers whose work
otherwise influenced him greatly, Goethe objects that the search for
analogies only conducts one’s knowledge horizontally, and brings one
no closer to an origin. In addition, Goethe warns, when one makes
analogies one suppresses difference by emphasizing similarities.
primary way in which characteristics of one realm had been projected
onto another was the characterization of non-animal life forms as defi-
cient animals, or even more specifically, as distant imitators of humans.
For similar reasons, Goethe does not understand the world itself as one
large organism: such an assumption implies overt anthropormorphism
and fosters the projection of a host of assumptions about the organism
as animal onto the realms of both living and non-living, animal and non-
This caution accords with the later concern expressed in theo-
ries of vegetable genius, namely, the desire to avoid the reduction of all
explanations to atomic, self-enclosed, “animal-like” qualities
The description of plants as “inverted animals” can be traced back
to Plutarch’s report that “Plato, Anaxagoras, and Democritus think that
a plant is an animal fixed in the earth.”
The roots of plants, because
56 The Vegetative Soul
they are the place where plants take in nourishment, were long thought
to be analogous to the heads of animals. Since the flowers of plants con-
tain their sexual organs, plants seem to be simultaneously burying their
heads in the sand and displaying their genitals to the heavens in vulgar
insouciance. The classification of one group as the “inversion” of the
other was a common practice that held sway until the eighteenth cen-
tury. This included the description of women’s sexual organs as the
inversion of men’s, a theory first put forth by Galen that influenced
anatomical treatises through the eighteenth century.
By the nineteenth
century, inversion had became a psychological rather than a physiologi-
cal term, as evidenced in Freud’s discussion of sexual aberrations.
ically, overturning the “inversion” thesis, both in sexual morphology
and in the classification of natural species, resulted in a polarization and
a hierarchization that had existed to a lesser degree before the divisions
were made. Goethe’s intent, for example, was to free plants from the
stigma of being considered inferior to animals. However, Hegel and oth-
ers used the strict division between plants and animals precisely in order
to justify a hierarchical schematization of nature.
The particular analogy of plants to deformed, deficient, or inverted
animals illustrates the overwhelming dominance of animal forms upon
the structure of all kinds of thinking and knowledge, even the thinking
of other kinds of nature. Goethe specifically rejects the imposition of the
form of individuation upon plant life:
Although a plant or tree seems to be an individual organism, it undeni-
ably consists only of separate parts which are alike and similar to one
another and to the whole. How many plants are propagated by runners!
In the least variety of fruit tree the eye puts forth a twig which in turn
produces many identical eyes; propagation through seeds is carried out in
the same fashion.
Although such a statement might seem to be self-evident, the pri-
mary method of botanical studies in Goethe’s day, besides identification
and elaborate classification of genera and species, was the inference of
the anatomical structures and functions of plants by analogy to animal
bodies. For example, Linnaeus, against whom Goethe’s mature theory of
the metamorphosis of plants is primarily directed, believed that to illus-
trate the generation of plants, one must understand it from the point of
view of animals. Linnaeus had the following to say about plant sexual-
ity: “The calyx is the bedchamber, the corolla the curtains, the filaments
the spermatic vessels, the anthers the testes, the pollen the sperm, the
stigma the vulva, the style the vagina, the germen the ovary, the pericarp
the fecundating ovary, and the seed the ovum.”
This is carried over to
a more general botanical analogy: “The belly of plants is the ground; the
57 The Metamorphosis of Plants
chyliferous vessels, the root; the bones, the trunk; the lungs, the leaves;
the heart, the heat [of plant tissues]; hence the ancients described a plant
as an inverted animal.”
In researching the metamorphosis of plants Goethe also takes a
polemical stance against Linnaeus for reducing the study of plants to the
cataloguing of their parts, for examining the plant not in its living inter-
course with the other natural phenomena contiguous to it, but as a dead
and dissected inventory of components. Such a strategy again assumes
that plants, or for that matter all living things, are individuals that can
be isolated; it tends to treat plants according to an analogy with animal
bodies. Kant had already shown that Linnaeus tacitly assumed that
nature was purposive by not questioning the possibility of the order and
systematizability of natural phenomena.
it is clear that reflective judgment, by its nature, cannot undertake to clas-
sify all of nature in terms of its empirical variety unless it presupposes that
nature itself makes its transcendental laws specific in terms of some prin-
ciple. Now this principle can only be that of [nature’s] appropriateness for
the power of judgment itself, [i.e., for judgment’s attempt] to find among
things, [despite] their immense diversity in terms of [all the] possible
empirical laws, sufficient kinship to be able to bring them under empirical
concepts (classes), and bring these under more general laws (higher gen-
era), and so arrive at an empirical system of nature. (KU 215’)
Kant adds in a footnote, “One may wonder whether Linnaeus could
have hoped to design a system of nature if he had had to worry that a
stone which he found, and which he called granite, might differ in its
inner character from any other stone even if it looked the same, so that
all he could ever hope to find would be single things—isolated, as it
were, for the understanding—but never a class of them that could be
brought under concepts of genera and species” (KU 215’).
Kant’s critique is devastating because the claim of naturalists of the
late eighteenth century was that they were doing purely empirical, that
is, observational and descriptive, study, then using the power of their
minds to select common characteristics from the diversity in order to
classify the different genera and species. What Kant demonstrates is that
the attempt to be objective and purely descriptive is informed by a host
of assumptions about nature: that nature tends toward ever greater per-
fection, that everything in nature has a purpose, that kinds are unified
and hierarchically structured, that all parts of nature fall into natural
divisions under which individuals can be named. Naturalists’ assump-
tions about natural order shaped their observations, rather than the
other way around. Goethe takes this critique one step farther by chang-
ing the order in which natural phenomena are usually considered.
58 The Vegetative Soul
Rather than assuming that plants fall into exactly the same categories as
animals, but on a hierarchical lower level, he takes as his point of depar-
ture the idea that the simplest and most universal of natural phenomena
structure all natural forms.
Through his studies of nature Goethe eventually came to reject the
possibility of any real natural individual, that is, of a natural entity that
is clearly demarcated and can be designated as a unity:
No living thing is unitary in nature: every such thing is a plurality. Even
the organism that appears to us as individual exists as a collection of inde-
pendent living entities. Although alike in idea and predisposition, these
entities, as they materialize, grow to become alike or similar, unlike or dis-
similar. In part these entities are joined from the outset, in part they find
their way together to form a union. They diverge and then seek each other
again; everywhere and in every way they thus work to produce a chain of
creation without end.
Goethe understands nature instead as a collection of vital forces that
mutually transform one another. This depiction forms the basis of the
vegetative soul, and for an alternative plant-like model of subjectivity
that others would graft onto Goethe’s theory of nature. The basis of nat-
ural growth is the process of formation rather than the substrate of
form, so that every natural being is subject to constant metamorphosis.
For the human being this metamorphosis takes place, at least as far as
we can be aware of it, on a level that might be called spiritual or even
magical, intimately involving both the mind and sensory perception. In
1812, after the publication of his Theory of Color, Goethe wrote to Carl
Windischmann, who had written a favorable review of the work:
The incredible discoveries of chemistry have already given powerful
expression to the element of magic in nature, so that we need not be afraid
to approach her in a higher sense, stimulating and encouraging a dynamic,
inspired view in all people. We have no need to concern ourselves with
atomistic, materialistic, mechanistic approaches, for these ways of thought
will never lack for supporters and friends.
This interest in the magical qualities in nature can be seen not only
in Goethe’s scientific studies but also in his literary works. The most well
known example is the novel Die Wahlverwandschaften, or Elective
Affinities, as the title has been translated. The English title does not
attest as well as the German to the scientific origin of the idea around
which the narrative is constructed. The word Wahlverwandschaften was
a strictly technical term used in eighteenth-century chemistry to indicate
substances that when brought together immediately lay hold of and
59 The Metamorphosis of Plants
mutually affect each other, becoming, in their union, a new substance.
Goethe was particularly impressed by the way in which apparently life-
less chemical substances would spring into activity when they came into
contact, seeking each other out, attracting, seizing hold of, and inti-
mately uniting with each other, destroying one or both of the original
elements in the process.
Another less often remarked discussion of a natural phenomenon
precedes that of magnetism or chemical attractions in Elective Affinities.
The novel opens with a scene of Eduard grafting new shoots onto young
trees. Goethe uses this image to illustrate his belief that the capacity of
plants to graft onto each other is analogous to chemical combination
and to magnetic attraction, that parallel natural processes unite the
realms of chemistry, physics, biology, and human love. Unlike animals,
plants can actually grow together as one when properly brought into
contiguity, which further complicates the notion of natural individuality.
The theme of grafting thus alternates with that of the union and separa-
tion of chemical and magnetic phenomena. Goethe identifies what he
considered to be the “two great driving forces of nature” as polarity
(Polarität) and enhancement or intensification (Steigerung). Polarity,
according to Goethe, is a property of nature insofar as it is thought of
as “natural,” and intensification is a property of nature thought of as
spiritual. He calls polarity “a state of constant attraction and repulsion”
and intensification “a state of ever-striving ascent.” These two forces
affect mind and body equally: “Since matter can never exist and act
without spirit, nor spirit without matter, matter is also capable of under-
going intensification and spirit cannot be denied its attraction and repul-
Following, among others, Leibniz, Lessing, Herder, Baader, and
Schelling, Goethe regards the phenomenon of magnetism as “originary”
in the same sense that the metamorphosis of plants is: neither phenom-
enon belongs strictly to either the realm of matter or that of spirit, nei-
ther fluctuation can be called purely qualitative or purely quantitative.
Baader called the “polarity of conjoining [Bindung] and liberating
[Befreiung]” the “key” to all nature.
Goethe ultimately uses the con-
cept of polarity to explain metamorphosis in The Metamorphosis of
Plants in terms of expansion and contraction, as well as to explain the
theory of color. It is important to remember that polarity signifies, for
all of these thinkers, more than simply a material phenomenon. Indeed,
polarity was considered to be spiritual, both in the sense that it was sig-
nificant for understanding human freedom and thinking, but also in that
it was a universal explanatory principle for all natural phenomena.
Intensification, a continual process through a series of augmenting
stages (Steigerung), together with polarity, characterize metamorphosis
as Goethe describes it. Intensification refers to a series of stages in the
60 The Vegetative Soul
transformation of one shape or form into another such that the end form
might not bear any traces of the beginning. Intensification occurs
through polarity; for example, the plant metamorphoses into ever more
specialized limbs or members (Glieder) through successive expansions
and contractions. Whatever most transforms itself manifests the highest
spirituality; parts of the plant (to take just one example) that do not
change through growth, such as the root, are considered least important.
The fact that Goethe carries out such observations primarily “empiri-
cally” with reference to plant metamorphosis does not in any way viti-
ate his conviction that such a process is characteristic of all life, just as
he expected that the process that the principle of polarity or magnetism
manifested physically show itself equally in human relations and in ele-
mental chemistry. Goethe does not simply use his scientific studies to
provide colorful metaphors for his literature, but believes that if a sci-
entific principle is worthwhile, it will be relevant for all the forms that
life takes. Both Schelling and Hegel also use the notions of polarity and
intensification; Schelling describes intensification in terms of potencies,
and Hegel creates out of this conception of potencies the different levels
of actuality of the Begriff.
The plant holds a fascination for Goethe for some of the same
reasons that Hegel ultimately dismisses it: plant parts seem to sustain
the broadest possible contact with the world. The shape of a leaf is
spread out, thin and flat, to provide maximum exposure to the sun; the
roots and stems and leaves of the plant proliferate to allow it to bring
in as much moisture, oxygen, and light as possible, to make it grow as
widely as it can, with no limitations prefigured into it. A plant is, to a
greater extent than any animal, conductor, blossom, and possible vic-
tim of its immediate environment. It cannot avoid taking in poison if
it is intermixed with the water that flows around its roots. Not shaped
like a container, the plant strictly speaking neither excretes nor ingests;
it simply provides a conduit for whatever fluids, gases, and soluble
particles with which it comes into contact. It cannot run from danger,
nor refuse to “eat” or “drink.” By contrast, a plant can be broken off
from its origin and replanted, and the fragment will generate a plant
as large as the one from which it came. Thus, a plant’s future (like the
trajectory of a human life, Goethe would say) is open-ended, unpre-
dictable, contingent, fragile. This more than anything, it seems likely,
leads Goethe to concentrate first and foremost on the realm of veg-
etable life in his study of nature. Human art, however, tends to shape
nature according to the qualities science has attributed to the organ-
ism. In Elective Affinities Goethe expresses this thought through the
Captain, who says that the human being appropriates every other part
of nature for itself: “And that is how he treats everything he discovers
61 The Metamorphosis of Plants
outside himself; his wisdom and his folly, his will and his caprices, he
lends to the beasts, the plants, the elements and the gods.”
In the opening scene of Faust, Faust invokes the spirit of the Earth
(Erdgeist), who addresses him, as it might have addressed Goethe, with
the words:
Du hast mich mächtig angezogen You pulled me in powerfully
An meiner Sphäre lang’ gesogen Have long been sucking at my
The word suck conveys the compulsive quality of the search into the
essence of organic life. The action of sucking is characteristic, however,
not of the animal, who roams the earth and sips from its surfaces, but
of the plant, whose organs for the procuring of fluids probe deep into
the soil and remove its fluid through a manipulation of pressure. Thus,
the thoughtful, creative, or curious human being is described in terms of
the plant: transfixed, demanding, capable of changing what it receives
into myriad forms, vulnerable. The Earth-spirit then describes its own
eternal activity:
In Lebensfluten, im Tatensturm, In tides of life and storm of deeds,
Wall ich auf und ab I well up and descend,
Webe hin und her! Weave back and forth!
Geburt und Grab, Birth and grave,
Ein ewiges Meer, An eternal sea,
Ein wechselnd Weben, A changing tapestry,
Ein glühend Leben, An ardent life
So schaff’ ich am sausenden I create at the whirring loom of
Webestuhl der Zeit, time,
Und wirke der Gottheit lebendiges And weave the Godhead’s living
Kleid. mantle.
This description of the Earth-spirit is directly based on Goethe’s
scientific studies, in which he concludes that polarity, an alternation of
expansion and contraction, given here in terms of a metaphor of weav-
ing together two strands, was the way in which all organic life appears.
To call this a “form” in any static sense would be misleading, for the Ur-
phenomenon precisely expresses that location where form and content,
frame and enframed, structure and phenomenon, cannot be separated.
The fabric woven out of the opposing forces, the material nature of the
organic, is the weaving, as are the strands and their interrelatedness.
Here, Goethe seems to invoke the rhythm of the waves that Benveniste
declares to be a mistaken derivation; yet the connection to the incipient
62 The Vegetative Soul
force of metamorphosis is preserved. In Elective Affinities this Ur-phe-
nomenon is magnetism or attraction beyond the power of human
willpower, expressed in terms of chemical substances that must unite
when they are placed in proximity, and in terms of plants, which when
placed in proper contiguity will grow together like the edges of a wound.
In The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, the coming of age of a young
man is described in the terms of the metamorphosis of a plant. For every
forward movement there is a corresponding pull backward, and the
reshaping of a human being takes place always only through both
growth and retrogression.
Goethe considers the scientific theories of evolution and epigenesis
to be inadequate to explain the origin of organic life. Epigenesis, as
described in the work of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (which Goethe
reread after noticing a reference to it in Kant’s Critique of Judgment),
assumes the existence of a vis essentialis, a life force that had a genera-
tive power and preceded the material formation of organisms. Goethe
understands “force” and “matter” to be concomitant phenomena,
inseparable from each other. Blumenbach’s theory places force prior to
matter, thus anthropomorphizing force, according to Goethe, into a
kind of artist who brings form forth. Such a theory contains an implicit
assumption of intentional purposiveness. Goethe equally objected to the
theory of evolution because it credits environmental, and thus non-liv-
ing factors, with the directive power of shaping organisms. According to
Goethe, developed and complex organic life can arise neither solely
because of what is contained in germinal form in primitive organisms
nor as the result of contingent environmental influences.
In the introduction to the illustrated German edition of The Meta-
morphosis of Plants, Rudolf Steiner notes that Goethe and Darwin, while
starting from similar observations of plants, came up with opposing
hypotheses about the origin of plant life. From the fact that all external
distinguishing marks of plants are impermanent and constantly changing,
Darwin concluded that there was nothing constant in plant life. Goethe,
on the contrary, adduces from the same observation that what is constant
about plant life must lie deeper than appearances. Goethe’s goal is to find
this element common to all external variability, while Darwin seeks the
origins of variation in singular (and external) causes.
Goethe distinguishes three types of plant metamorphosis: regular
(regelmäßig), irregular, and contingent. Regular metamorphosis can also
be called “progressive,” while the irregular type is retrogressive
(rückschreitende). The third type of plant metamorphosis occurs
through contingent, external causes such as pollination through the
flight of insects. Goethe calls irregular metamorphosis “weak and inef-
fective,” and contingent metamorphosis “monstrous,” and from the
63 The Metamorphosis of Plants
beginning decides to leave any study of these types of metamorphosis to
a later date, “in order to reach our aim in the surest way.”
Goethe rules out irregularity and contingency here, he held Zufall, con-
tingency or chance, in the highest esteem. As the Greek tyche, it is one
of the “Orphic” words, along with “daimonic,” “eros,” and “ananke,”
that he describes in his poem “Primal Words, Orphic” (1817–1818).
The section of the poem entitled “The Contingent” begins as follows:
Die strenge Grenze doch umgeht The strict boundary obligingly
gefällig shifts
Ein Wandelndes, das mit und um A changeling that plays with us
uns wandelt and around us
[or: A changeling that alters with
us and about us easily circumvents
the strict boundary]
As the poem explicitly goes on to suggest, life can proceed one way and
then immediately shift to its contrary. This quality permeates the nat-
ural. However, Goethe specifies that a work cannot be written about the
contingencies in metamorphosis, for the completion of such a work
would render its subject matter predictable, chartable, and thus no
longer a product of chance.
In plant life Goethe discovers evidence of a spiritual nature not
generally associated with vegetation. Rather than characterizing plants,
as many have, as “innocent” or “passive,” Goethe observes the imme-
diate and constant contact plants have with the sun and the open air, an
atmosphere that he calls “rarefied.” We can see, in a conversation with
Eckermann (1828), exactly how Goethe considers the spiritual effects of
particular environments and external influences:
Wine contains powers of productivity of a very significant kind; but it all
depends on the conditions and time and hour, and what aids one person
may harm another. There are more distant powers of productivity in rest
and in sleep; but there are also such powers in movement. Such powers lie
in water, and most particularly in the atmosphere.—The fresh air of the
open fields is the true place where we belong; it is as if the spirit of God
breathes unmediated on humans there, and a divine power exerts its influ-
ence.—Lord Byron, who spent many hours a day in the open air, some-
times riding horseback at the edge of the sea, sometimes sailing in or row-
ing a boat, sometimes bathing in the sea and exercising his bodily strength
by swimming, was one of the most productive people that has ever lived.
Given this understanding of the intimate relationship between atmos-
phere and organism, it is not surprising that Goethe was fascinated with
64 The Vegetative Soul
plants, which have an even more immediate exchange with the environ-
ment than animals do. Goethe ascribes the initial development of leaves
from the leaf stalk to a growth toward the light from openings that are
already present in the seed in the form of potential nodes. He explains
metamorphosis primarily through the concept of anastomosis (literally:
the process of the opening of mouths), a term used to designate the con-
nection of branches in rivers, blood vessels, or, as in this case, in the
veins of leaves.
In describing anastomosis, Goethe does seem to relapse into an
“animalization” of plants of a sort. He describes plant parts as “wings”
(the two initial leaves of the cotyledon), “eyes” (the source of nodes
from which stems will branch out), and “mouths” (the stoma). How-
ever, this is standard botanical terminology. It is through these openings
of various kinds, these extensions out into the world, stretching toward
water, gases, and sunlight, that the spiritual can have its influence.
“Anastomosis” refers to the process of expansion and contraction or of
diremption and unification in terms of the forms created by this contin-
ual process. Goethe concludes that the relative coarseness of plants
growing at lower altitudes or underwater is due to a lack of abundant
and rarefied natural gases that causes these plants to grow to a lesser
spiritual level. In other words, the environment and the plant are not
seen as two separate entities working upon each other, but as two insep-
arable sides of a formative process.
In his discussion of the transition to flowering, Goethe notes that
in cases where plants are frequently nourished (Nahrung—referring to
water or fertilizer, rather than to the effect of the sun), their flowering is
hampered, because the plant is too busy drawing off the coarser juices
of the immediate nourishment to be able to develop flowers. When the
plant is deprived of nourishment, however, the transformation takes
place unhindered. Goethe ties in this observation of nature to the way in
which human genius must be tended. He tells Eckermann, “My advice
is . . . to force nothing, and rather spend unproductive days and hours
doing nothing, or sleeping, rather than wanting to produce something—
in which one will later have no joy—on such days.”
Letting the plant (or the mind) lie still without the interference of
excessive coarse nourishment allows for the production of “highly puri-
fied juices” (höchst reine Säfte) that when present in the plant effect the
metamorphosis from leaf to calyx, the outermost protective sheath of
the flower that resembles both leaf and petal. The calyx is formed
through the contraction of already formed leaves around one axis, so
that they become closely packed in a circle. In their highly proximate
state, the leaves “anastomose through the influence of the highly puri-
fied juices” (MP 36).
65 The Metamorphosis of Plants
Goethe at times seems to name the leaf as that part of the plant
from which and into which all other parts metamorphose, as the form of
the Ur-plant, but “leaf” is used in a metaphorical sense, where
“metaphor” indicates not a physical mask for a spiritual reality, but pre-
cisely the point at which the ambiguity or confluence of physical and spir-
itual must be maintained, where the two realms cannot be distinguished.
“Leaf” does not correspond to either a concept or an object. In his “Ital-
ian Journey,” Goethe calls the leaf the “veritable Proteus” that lies hid-
den under what we are accustomed to speaking of as a leaf.
Goethe’s understanding of the Ur-plant, as well as his entire point of
departure as a botanist, would seem to open him to the Kantian critique
of being enmeshed in determinate concepts as opposed to a universal
idea, Goethe recognized his own affinity with Kant’s project. In his Max-
ims and Reflections, Goethe expressed what he understands to be the
treason of Kant’s collapse of the sublime in nature into the architectonic
of human reason in ironic terms: “When Ur-phenomena stand unveiled
before our senses,” Goethe writes, “we become nervous, even anxious.
The sensory person seeks salvation in astonishment, but soon that busy
matchmaker, Understanding, arrives with her efforts to marry the highest
to the lowest.”
The notion of “leaf” as “Proteus” encompasses the
process of metamorphosis. The plant is always leaf “backwards and for-
wards,” that is, it is potentially leaf, or just-having-been-leaf, so that all
three dimensions of time are incorporated into the Ur-plant.
In order to fully understand Goethe’s conviction that the material
and the spiritual are inextricably intertwined, and that this imbrication
both can be viewed in nature and must be described in scientific expla-
nation, it is necessary to take a close look at Goethe’s Metamorphosis of
Plants. Though the book is presented as a scientific description of the
growth of plants, it constantly refers back to phenomena of human
development, as we have seen in the descriptions of the mutual influ-
encing of plants on and by their environment, and as we will see in the
definitions of terms such as metamorphosis and anastomosis. What fol-
lows is an outline of the central arguments of that work.
The plant grows through an initial expansion (Ausdehnung) of
stem and leaves from the seed, followed by a contraction (Zusammen-
ziehung) in the development of the calyx. Thus Goethe relates the phe-
nomenon of plant metamorphosis to cosmic (and universally explana-
tory) phenomena such as magnetism and polarity. The corolla of the
flower, the next to emerge, does so through an expansion. The petals of
the flower are larger, softer, more colorful, and more fragrant than the
calyx, which Goethe takes as evidence of the corolla’s greater refinement
as a stage of metamorphosis. However, according to Goethe, the highest
degree of purity of vegetal juices would appear white and colorless (MP
66 The Vegetative Soul
42). Goethe’s theory that the metamorphosis of plants takes place
through the progressive refinement of juices is based on the medical
work of Hippocrates and Paracelsus.
Expansion is followed in turn by another contraction, this time of
the petals into the stamens that will bear the anthers, the organs at the
top of the stamen that secrete and discharge pollen. Goethe describes
with obvious wonder the way in which the same petal that emerged as
an expansion of the calyx (itself a contraction of a collection of leaves,
that expanded from the initial cotyledon), now rolls up or thickens, at
the middle and at the sides, to become the stamen. This phenomenon
can be observed in the tulip, in which half of the petal remains green, as
a part of the calyx, and the other half rises up colorfully as part of the
corolla. Some flowers are doubled, meaning that some petals remain as
petals of the corolla, while others form stamens with anthers. There is
no separated and coexisting network of organs; rather, each part meta-
morphoses into the next, although some part of each always remains in
excess of the process. Thus, Goethe writes, “we are made even more
aware of the alternating effects of contraction and expansion by which
nature finally attains its goal” (MP 43).
The notion of “spiritual anastomosis,” by which Goethe explains
the sexual reproduction of flowers, stems from this fundamental polar-
ity of contraction and expansion. Like a river, which begins with one
stream but branches out into a network of capillaries, giving it many
branches yet only one mouth, the plant expands and contracts by the
branching out of what was once unified (through expansion) and the
subsequent reunification of those various strands in a form that differs
from their original unity. Thus, seed becomes stem becomes leaf
becomes calyx becomes corolla becomes “nectaries” (called “gradual
transitions from petals to stamens”), and nectaries become stamens and
carpels, each division leading to a smaller and more specialized organ.
Anastomosis refers to a process that continues throughout the life of the
plant rather than a stage in plant growth. In sexual reproduction, anas-
tomosis occurs “on a spiritual level.” At least Goethe is inclined to say
it does, “in the belief that, at least for a moment, this brings the concepts
of growth and reproduction closer together” (MP 50). In so doing,
Goethe wants to show that the male and female organs—of the plant,
for now—are intimately related (both are metamorphoses of the same
organ) to the point of being identical, at least in a “spiritual” way. Thus,
male and female are manifestations of outwardly divided yet inwardly
closely related structures.
This form provided a model for later Idealist
theories of diremption and reunification.
Both male and female are produced by spiral vessels, as are all the
organs of the plant. Goethe identified the “spiral tendency” in plants as
67 The Metamorphosis of Plants
“the basic law of life.” Plants have a vertical tendency that controls the
upward growth and the resiliency of the plant, and an axial tendency
that provides nourishment and controls the development of nodes and
specialized organs. Goethe goes farther, calling the vertical tendency the
“spiritual staff” or the “vital principle” of the plant, the axial tendency
the principle of “eager development.” In his discussion of these tenden-
cies Goethe comes closest to anthropomorphizing the plant, and we can
plainly see a parallel to principles of “spiritual” human growth. When
the vertical tendency is neglected, for example, Goethe writes, the plant
will “lose itself in the rush to develop an excessive number of eyes.”
Goethe ascribes the contractive growth of plants to the spiral vessels,
and the expansive growth to the sap vessels. When the sap vessels have
greater strength, the plant grows upward and outward, and when the
spiral vessels predominate specialized organs are created. When male
and female parts emerge, they do so out of a momentary overcoming of
the expansive force by the contractive force. An excess of expansive
force remains, and is released by the squeezing motion, as it were, of the
formation of the reproductive organs. Through this excess of expansive
force, the male stamen and its yearning anther full of pollen move
toward the female style, equally stretching forward in the working off of
the excess expansion. They meet, unite, fertilize, but always only “on a
spiritual level.”
Goethe identifies the fruit of the plant as the stage of greatest
expansion, and the seed that of greatest contraction. He explains the
growth of the fruit through a complex series of metamorphoses that
include both contraction and expansion, however. The pod containing
seeds develops from a leaf folding over and contracting together. These
pods then merge together around an axis to form the fruit capsule.
Finally, the pods, drawing juices from the entire plant, direct these juices
into their merged mass in order to nourish and expand it. Goethe had
the interior of a sample of such a distended pod analyzed, and discov-
ered therein what he called a “pure air” (eine reine Luft), which he took
to play a part in the engorgement and swelling of the fruit.
Thus, Goethe identifies six separate stages of plant metamorpho-
sis, all of which he claimed were simply reconfigurations of already pre-
sent parts through expansion and contraction. They were, to recapitu-
late, 1) the expansion from the seed to the development of the stem leaf,
2) the formation of the calyx through contraction, 3) the growth of
flower petals through expansion, 4) the shaping of the reproductive
parts through contraction, 5) the appearance of the fruit through expan-
sion, and 6) the formation of the final seed that disperses through con-
traction. The culmination of the developmental process of the plant in a
point of contraction might seem to point to a Hegelian notion of final
68 The Vegetative Soul
interiorization, as far as it can go in plant form. However, Goethe’s
emphasis is never on the final point, but always on the process. The seed
always remains poised to reexpand. The process remains that of a fluc-
tuation, an alternation, a rhythm, and the fact that one part metamor-
phoses out of another means that the two are intimately related, as well
as equal: one cannot take the other up into itself.
Goethe next turns to the nodes, those swollen points on a plant
where a leaf, bud, or other organ diverges from the stem to which it is
attached. In his Philosophy of Nature Hegel dismisses plants as “mon-
strous” because of their capacity to break off from the parent and
become plants in their own right, so that not just the seed and the repro-
ductive organs take part in continuing the species, but any random and
arbitrary cutting can be replanted and sprout roots. Goethe takes this
feature of plants to be anything but monstrous. The development of
eyes—those places that are so similar to ripe seeds in their status as
“potential plants”—at the site of the nodes promises the indefinite
expansion of the plant, which refuses to remain as a single individual.
The plant becomes both undefined and multiple. The only way in which
eyes and seeds can be distinguished as origin once a plant has sprouted
and grown its own roots, especially in plants with a less differentiated
structure, is by “an act of reason” (MP 63). Thus, seeds and eyes are vir-
tually indistinguishable once sprouted, and closely related.
Nevertheless, the eyes are responsible for a feature of plant growth
that cannot proceed from a simple seed. This is the formation of com-
posite flowers and fruits, multiple blossoms or fruits gathering around a
single calyx. Although the eye, according to Goethe, must be considered
to be a separate small plant “planted” on the parent plant in the same
way a seed would be planted in the ground, it receives “purer juices”
from the parent plant (being situated higher up in the metamorphic
process) than the seed would directly from the earth, and the eye can
often produce calyx and flower without needing to go through the prior
stage of metamorphosis from seed to stem to leaf. In other words, the
first stage of metamorphosis itself is contracted or compacted in the sec-
ond stage of sprouting from an eye. Indeed, Goethe goes on to hypoth-
esize that the difference between perennial and annual plants lies pre-
cisely in this ability to compact various stages into a shorter time span.
What takes a perennial such as a fruit tree six years to achieve, an
annual can fit into the space of a single season. Goethe explains the dif-
ference according to the greater purification or rarefaction of juices in
annuals. The eye’s position higher up in the process of metamorphosis
than the seed allows growth from the eye to proceed at an accelerated
rate, skipping some of the intermediate stages and proceeding directly
from stem to calyx.
69 The Metamorphosis of Plants
Goethe rejects Linnaeus’s theory that even for annuals, normal
growth was intended by nature to take six years, one year for each of
the stages we have mentioned above, even though he does accept the
stages as those of metamorphosis. Linnaeus’s theory of prolepsis, or
anticipation, stated that when a plant blossomed or produced fruit
before the six years were up, this was due to an anticipation of up to six
years’ growth. In other words, Linnaeus wanted to specify a “normal”
growth rate and explain all exceptions in relation to this. While Goethe
accepts that plants expand and contract at different rates, he took as his
point of departure not the tree—which Linnaeus had observed—but the
annual plant, where to speak of six years’ growth seems absurd. Goethe
bypasses Linnaeus’s explanation based on the flowering and fruit-bear-
ing tree by making the explanatory principle metamorphosis between
stages and not the classifiable stages within the life of the plant. The
temporal explanation by means of annual stages has the disadvantage of
having to account for every exception to the rule of six years’ growth.
Metamorphosis, by contrast, states that the basic and only organ of the
plant is the leaf, and that the leaf undergoes various metamorphoses—
into root, stem, flower, fruit, seed—as a result of expansion and con-
traction depending on what type of juices flow into it, these in turn
depending in part on the contingencies of its environment. A plant that
only receives crude juices will be merely a vegetating plant, according to
Goethe, and not produce flowers or fruit. A plant in which rarefied
(geistigen) juices predominate will bear flowers and fruit (MP 75). We
can easily foresee the analogies Goethe would be able to draw between
plant morphology and human spiritual development.
Goethe’s analysis bears on a revised sense of temporality that arose
with the positing of the notion of “organism” and the central position it
assumed in the science of the eighteenth century. Elizabeth Von Thadden
argues that the first observations of organic life through a microscope
(from 1625 on), and particularly the proof of the self-reproductive
nature of an organism after it has been divided (von Trembley’s experi-
ments with polyps in 1740, A. v. Haller’s work in the field of vivisec-
tion), led to the establishment of the organism—as an ordered and
simultaneously dynamic whole—as the primary metaphor for whole-
ness. Of course, the functions of the organism, its growth, reproductive
capacity, and irritability all call for a different conception of the tempo-
rality of wholeness. No longer can the whole be regarded as somehow
outside of time.
These experiments are particularly interesting for our
discussion here, since the question they raised was precisely the propri-
ety of the distinction between plants and animals. Willey describes
Trembley’s experiment, in which he cut polyps up into several parts and
each part became a fresh polyp: “They are propagated by cuttings,
70 The Vegetative Soul
therefore they must be animals. No, that won’t do; they must be both
plant and animal together.”
This blurring of the distinction between
plant and animal precisely on the question of where a body begins and
ends intensifies questions of individuation and selfhood.
Goethe focuses on the annual plant because of the contraction and
intensification of the successive temporal process he observes there, not
because he is attempting to regard generation as outside of time. Goethe
writes, “If we consider a plant insofar as it externalizes [äußert] its life-
force [Lebenskraft], we see this occurring in a dual manner: first through
growth, in that it puts forth stem and leaves, and then through repro-
duction [Fortpflanzung], which culminates in the formation of flower
and fruit” (MP 75). The temporalities of the plant’s two ways of “exter-
nalizing” or “expressing” life-force are completely different. The vege-
tative growth is a sequence of individual developments occurring suc-
cessively, one from the other. The formation of the fruit and flower
occurs “simultaneously,” or “all at once,” according to Goethe. For
Goethe, “simultaneity” refers to the greatest possible contraction of life
forces into a compressed or dense moment, what he describes, in his
autobiography, as a moment where “time contracts and space expands.”
Goethe calls moments like this “daimonic” when they occur in the con-
text of human existence.
Goethe goes even farther in trying to adjust the structure of his
own thinking to the natural form of things. He writes appreciatively of
the compliment given him by a reader who characterized his scientific
thinking as “objective” (gegenständlich) in the peculiar sense of con-
forming to objects: “He says that my thinking works objectively. Here
he means that my thinking is not separate from objects; that the ele-
ments of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking
and are fully permeated by it—that my perception itself is a thinking and
my thinking a perception.”
Goethe inaugurated the idea of a kind of
bodily thinking, thinking as vigilant receptivity that waits for the body
to be imprinted by the other natural forces about it, for their truth even-
tually to manifest itself, however partially, upon it, rather than an
aggressive setting upon nature and attempting to force its secrets from
it, in the Kantian or Hegelian manner. In response to the compliment,
Goethe seeks to make this thinking explicit. He writes: “Nature will
reveal nothing under torture; its frank answer to an honest question is
Yes! Yes!—No! No!”
This understanding of the ambivalence of nature’s manifestations
when subjected to observation and experiment has lost some of the rad-
icality it must have had when Goethe first put it forth. In the late eigh-
teenth and nineteenth century, Newton’s influence had just worked
something of a revolution in scientific method. Scientists believed it was
71 The Metamorphosis of Plants
possible to obtain results that were untainted by theological assump-
tions or “outdated” world views simply through empirical methods.
Goethe’s proviso that the scientist, too, must be as open to metamor-
phosis as the nature he or she is observing admits from the outset that
the scientist is as likely to get no comprehensible answer as he or she is
to be enlightened by the dominant scientific method of observing—and
prodding—nature. Goethe’s method of observation is not “objective” in
the well-worn, little-reflected-upon sense in which it is often used in con-
tradistinction to “subjective.” Rather, Goethe was well aware of the
impossibility of observation without bringing a host of assumptions to
bear upon the “facts,” the impossibility of “objectivity” as it is com-
monly assumed. In the preface to his Theory of Color, Goethe writes:
An extremely odd demand is often set forth but never met, even by those
who make it: i.e., that empirical data should be presented without any the-
oretical context, leaving the reader, the student, to his own devices in judg-
ing it. This demand seems odd because it is useless simply to look at some-
thing. Every act of looking turns into observation, every act of observation
into reflection, every act of reflection into the making of associations; thus
it is evident that we theorize every time we look carefully at the world.
This observation sounds quite familiar today, but it was written
almost two hundred years before the time of Thomas Kuhn.
In his essay
“The Experiment as Mediator Between Subject and Object,” Goethe
observes that the propensity to make connections between isolated phe-
nomena increases in an inverse ratio to the lack of instances upon which
the unity is posited, a tendency that he links to the pleasure the human
mind takes in projecting coherence onto what appears to be chaotic.
Goethe, like Kant, finds this tendency to be unavoidable; unlike Kant,
however, he does not specify the conditions under which such a system-
ization would be acceptable, but rather outlines the method through
which its rashness can be mitigated. Again like Kant, Goethe specifies that
this tendency “springs by necessity from the organization of our being.”
Both botany and chromatics, the subjects of The Metamorphosis
of Plants and Theory of Color, Goethe’s two most important scientific
works, deal with what one commentator calls “boundary situations,”
contexts in which “it can become immediately evident that all percep-
tion is grounded in a realm beyond the split between subject and
When analyzing both botanical development and the play of
light, we do not actually see plant growth or light itself, but rather must
construct them out of our knowledge of their structure: “Thus for
Goethe, botany and chromatics were valuable not only for the intrinsic
interest and dignity of their subject matter, but above all because of their
propaedeutic value; because there the contribution of the perceiving sub-
72 The Vegetative Soul
ject to the construction of the phenomenon is immediately apparent.”
Although Goethe also conducted studies in animal skeletal metamor-
phosis (osteology) and meteorology, studies that also took metamor-
phosis as their basis, the principles of transformation of form were not
as immediately evident in these areas.
Goethe’s method of studying plant morphology consists in both
careful observation and expectant waiting. He wrote, “My question to
the object is answered by what is in me,” thus rejecting a simple oppo-
sition between inside and outside, or between subjective and objective
knowledge. Goethe believes that the only way a human being can have
access to the truth of nature was by letting nature imprint itself on the
human body. Goethe is aware that nature is not independent of the way
in which it is approached by the human observer, that we structure
nature in turning our thought to it. The method of objective thinking
assumes a mutual influencing between natural and cultural development
in the very way an organism interacts with its physical environment. As
the same commentator puts it, “Goethe’s scientific ideal is to allow one-
self to be transformed in following the transformations of the phenom-
ena. Thus, for Goethe, the ultimate aim of science is nothing other than
the metamorphosis of the scientist.”
Scientific discoveries in their early stages, writes Goethe, conceal as
much as they reveal, and can paralyze the very progress they hope to set
in motion: “Like an architect who enters a palace by the side door and
then tries to relate everything in his descriptions and drawings to the
minor aspect he encountered first.”
If the scientist and thus science
metamorphose along with nature, there can never be only one “natural”
way for humans to pursue their knowledge of nature. In the end the
notion of a whole (or a totality, in Kant’s sense) can only be constructed
from the point of view of the observer in his or her capacity as synthe-
sizer, but this whole has none of the implications of stability or
endurance in space and time because form is understood as rhythm.
Unity becomes a purely discursive concept.
In an essay on style, Goethe stipulates that an artist becomes great
and decisive only to the degree that
in addition to his talents he is also an educated botanist; when he knows,
from the roots up, what the influence of the various parts are on the thriv-
ing and the growth of the plant, when he recognizes its identifying char-
acteristics and its reciprocal effects, when he observes and reflects upon
the successive development of the leaves, flowers, the fertilization, the
fruit and the new seeds. Then he will not simply show his taste by choos-
ing among appearances, but through a proper presentation of qualities he
will also set us to wondering and instruct us. In this sense one would be
able to say that he has a style.
73 The Metamorphosis of Plants
Goethe himself strove to be “plant-like” in the sense we have been
using all along: to wait, listen, write, to claim no overarching morality nor
any theory that refused the possibility of constant revision. Goethe’s liter-
ary characters almost always have the quality of being strangely unformed.
They do not themselves know exactly where they are going or how they
will reach their goals. Any person who seems to know and to plan in
advance for his or her future will inevitably go astray through circum-
stances beyond human control. In Elective Affinities, each of the four main
characters is magnetically drawn against his or her explicit will to cross-
pollinate—this metaphor is not made explicit but is entirely consonant with
Goethe’s scientific knowledge and his belief in the interrelatedness of all
natural phenomena—with the mate or intended mate of the other. In Wil-
helm Meister’s Apprenticeship the protagonist constantly makes plans to
leave the squalid theatrical company with which he becomes involved while
on a business trip for his father, and then sinks back into it without any rea-
son given for his lack of resolve. These characters are plants that grow and
twist toward the light no matter what direction it comes from, but the light
represents no ultimate good or even a consistent path.
In his brilliant essay “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” Walter Benjamin
refers to a commentary on Goethe’s novel by the literary critic Friedrich
Gundolf, a disciple of Stephan George. Gundolf compared the fateful exis-
tence of the four characters in Elective Affinities to the life of plants, align-
ing seed, blossom, and fruit with Goethe’s conception of law, fate, and
character. Benjamin objects strenuously to this interpretation on the
grounds that “fate . . . does not affect the life of innocent plants.”
Benjamin’s view, the culpability of the characters is central to the narra-
tive. However, the attribution of innocence to plants is misplaced with ref-
erence to Goethe. Hegel (taking much, it is true, from Goethe’s Metamor-
phosis of Plants in describing vegetable nature) is the thinker who
indelibly inscribes the plant with the attribute of “innocence,” in both the
Philosophy of Nature and the Phenomenology of Spirit. For Goethe, how-
ever, metamorphosis and vulnerability in the face of the overwhelming
influence of natural forces can be seen most clearly in plants, and this
alone makes them commensurable in some way with human experience.
Goethe never calls the plant innocent. It is the plant’s visible metamor-
phosis, and not its lack of consciousness or intention, that distinguishes it.
Even so, the issue of lack of self-consciousness may be significant,
though not in the sense to which Benjamin objects. Eckermann has
recorded a long monologue of Goethe’s from April 1829 on the human
situation, and on the question of whether humans can know themselves:
“Throughout the ages people have said and repeated,” Goethe went on,
“that one should strive to know oneself. This is a strange injunction, that
74 The Vegetative Soul
up till now no one has satisfied, and no one actually should satisfy. With
all his sense perceptions and drives, the human being is instructed by
appearances, by the world around him, and his job is to learn to know it
as far as possible, and to make himself of as much service to it as required
for his purposes. Himself he can only know when he enjoys something or
suffers, and thus he will be taught about himself through suffering or joy,
by whatever he seeks for or seeks to avoid. Besides, the human is a dark
being [ein dunkles Wesen]; he knows not whence he comes nor where he
is going, he knows little of the world and least of all about himself. I don’t
know myself either, and God must safeguard me from that too.”
This belief is paramount in Elective Affinities. Eduard and Char-
lotte, lovers who were not allowed to marry in impetuous youth, but
who have come together in calmer middle age after both of their more
suitable spouses have disappeared, through death or divorce, now plan
and execute the perfect life together. Their relationship is based on open
communication and complete trust, their lives are divided into times for
worthy occupation and times for pleasure, and the particular symbol of
their successful planning is the extensive gardens—English gardens—
they are planting, complete with paved walkways and a pavilion that
claims the most auspicious view of their entire estate. Yet precisely this
situation of an ideal relationship built on long-term love and trust,
responsibility, and mature planning erupts into the most chaotic of
reversals: each of the spouses falls under the spell of an overwhelming
attraction to one of their two long-term house guests. Eduard spiritually
connects with Ottilie, while Charlotte is like a seed blown toward the
Captain. The odd—perhaps monstrous, by some accounts, especially
that of the character called “Mittler” or “mediator”—flowering of this
cross-pollination is a child born of the sexual intercourse between
Eduard and Charlotte who nevertheless resembles both Ottilie and the
Captain, a child apparently propagated through a kind of “spiritual
anastomosis.” Despite the superbly well-planned gardens that surround
them, the protagonists succumb to nature’s way of perpetuating the
plant species. Eduard takes great pride in the trees he has planted that
have grown up tall and strong and seemingly permanent, but he himself
is uprooted from his home by his unseemly love for Ottilie.
The cause of the chaos, Goethe implies, is that human beings pro-
ject their own desires of what nature is to be onto nature, an act that
may proceed smoothly, but may also go awry. Like Kant in the third
Critique, Goethe criticizes the notion that nature can be tamed into a
“standing reserve”—to use a Heideggerian term—that serves the pur-
poses of human beings. With the arrival of the Captain into Eduard and
Charlotte’s lives, it seems that the project of the garden will be even
more properly carried out, for the Captain has surveying tools and
75 The Metamorphosis of Plants
map-making skills. After looking at the Captain’s map, Eduard sees
“his possessions taking shape on the paper like a new creation. It
seemed to him that only now was he coming to know them, only now
did they really belong to him.”
But the projections on the map lead, if
anything, to a plan with only the appearance of naturalness. Charlotte
expresses the ideal of the English garden, after months of constructing
walkways, pavilions, and artificial lakes: “If we are to enjoy our gar-
dens they have to look like open country; there should be no evidence
of art or constraint, we want to breathe the air in absolute freedom.”
Thus, Charlotte speaks like Kant, while the nature they seek to subdue
nevertheless ultimately escapes their domination. The artificial lake
drowns the child, and the pavilion becomes a grave. As Benjamin puts
it, “At the height of their cultivation . . . they are subject to the forces
that cultivation claims to have mastered, even if it may forever prove
impotent to curb them.”
A passage from the final section of Goethe’s autobiography, Dich-
tung und Wahrheit, expresses the essence that Goethe tried to capture in
the notion of the Ur-phenomenon and of metamorphosis. Speaking of
himself, Goethe writes:
He thought he could discover in nature—both animate and inanimate,
with soul or without soul—something that manifests itself only in con-
tradictions, and thus could not be grasped with any concept, still less
with one word. It was not godlike, for it seemed irrational; not human,
for it had no understanding; not diabolical, for it was beneficent; not
angelic, for it often betrayed a malicious pleasure. It was like chance, for
it gave no evidence of continuity; it was like Providence, for it suggested
coherence. All that limits us it seemed to penetrate; it seemed to play
willfully with the necessary elements of our existence; it contracted time
and expanded space. It appeared to take pleasure in the impossible
alone, while it rejected the possible with contempt. To this principle,
which seemed to intervene between all other principles to separate them
and to bind them together, I gave the name of daimonic, after the exam-
ple of the ancients and others who had maintained something similar. I
tried to save myself from this fearful thing, by taking refuge, as is my
habit, behind an image.
We have already referred to this passage, above, for the “dai-
monic” is another word for the Ur-phenomenon. Goethe “takes refuge
behind an image,” such as the image of the leaf in the metamorphosis of
plants, but the image is not a “mere” image in the sense of a dispensable
mask that may be removed in order to view the reality, however terrify-
ing, beneath it. The idea of the daimonic is the idea of fate in Elective
Affinities, according to Benjamin.
For Goethe this idea signifies the
76 The Vegetative Soul
beautiful that “comes forth to the limit of what can be grasped in the
work of art.”
Yet the limit becomes the impetus for yet another meta-
morphosis, yet another image in the process of Bildung that replaces the
static sterility of the Gestalt. The Ur-phenomenon is not a terminus, but
contains within its very essence the promise of an unending process that
brings forth life, nature, and human thought.
Goethe’s scientific-aesthetic project thus supplemented the intense
interest excited by Kant’s third Critique, while his usage of plant meta-
morphosis to discuss both nature and subjectivity sparked nineteenth-
century literary and philosophical interest in what we have called the
vegetative soul. We will now move to a literary work to see how the pro-
ject of incorporating new models of the organism, particularly in the
field of botany, led to a reconception of human subjectivity and its place
within the natural world.
77 The Metamorphosis of Plants
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“Nature,” Klingsohr replied, “is to our soul [Gemüt] what a
body is to light. [The body] restrains [the light], refracts it into par-
ticular colors; it kindles on its surfaces or in its interior a light such
that when the light equals its darkness, it makes the body clear or
transparent, and when it exceeds the darkness it emerges from it to
illuminate other bodies. But even the darkest body can by water,
fire, and air be made bright and shining.”
“I understand you, dear master. Human beings are crystals
for our souls. They are transparent nature. . . . But tell me, dear
master, whether or not I am right: it seems to me that just when one
is most intimate with nature, one is least able and least willing to
say anything about it.”
“That depends on how one takes it,” Klingsohr replied.
“Nature is one thing for our enjoyment and our heart, another for
our understanding [Verstand], for the directive ability of our
worldly powers. One must be careful not to neglect either one in
favor of the other. There are many people who know only one side
and disregard the other. But one can unite [vereinigen] the two and
thereby come out well [sich wohl befinden]. It is a pity that so few
think of this capacity to shift freely and easily within themselves,
so that through a proper separation they can secure for themselves
both the most purposive and the most natural uses of their pow-
ers. Generally one [use] hinders the other, and a helpless inertia
gradually arises, so that if such people really want to rise up with
all their powers, they fall into confusion and conflict, and every-
thing stumbles clumsily all over itself.”
—Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen
Goethe’s writing provides only one example of the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth century’s fascination with the trope of plant life.
Botanical terminology taken directly from scientific works began to
pervade writing, from literary criticism to literature itself to philosophy.
This cross-pollination of science and art can be seen in German literary
works from Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde to Hölderlin’s Hyperion, and
in philosophical works such as Friedrich Schelling’s System of Tran-
scendental Idealism and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. What is par-
ticularly interesting about these thinkers’ appropriation of the plant
trope is their refusal to understand metaphor and analogy as purely
decorative devices. As with Kant’s third Critique and Goethe’s literary
and scientific writings, aesthetics and science were assumed to mutually
inform each other.
In the fragment entitled “The Oldest Program Towards a System
in German Idealism” (1796), whose authorship has to this day not been
unequivocally established,
the question of the relationship between
philosophy and art, science, and nature comes to the fore. It is inter-
esting to note that the fragment could have been written either by the
poet Hölderlin, or by the supreme philosopher of reason, Hegel (or for
that matter by their mutual friend, Schelling). These three thinkers,
while studying at Tübingen Seminary, read Kant’s third Critique
together and plotted a new union of science and art, one that might
effect in German philosophy a rebirth of the glory of Ancient Greece.
The author(s) write(s):
Mythology must become philosophical, and the people rational, while
philosophy must become mythological, in order to make the philoso-
phers sensuous. Then eternal unity will prevail among us. No more the
contemptuous glance, no more the blind quaking of the people before
their sages and priests. Only then can we expect the equal formation of
all forces, in particular persons as well as in all individuals. No longer
will any force be suppressed; then universal freedom and equality of spir-
its will prevail!
The injunction that philosophy must become sensuous points to the
importance placed on including aesthetic judgments in the conceptual-
ization of thinking. Whether the text was written by Hölderlin, by
Hegel, or by Schelling, the dispute as to its authorship shows the prox-
80 The Vegetative Soul
imity of the three thinkers’ views with reference to the project of unify-
ing science and art by lending philosophy a sensuous nature and art a
philosophical grounding.
In the 1800 novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, written by Novalis
(Friedrich von Hardenberg), a contemporary of the three thinkers, one
encounters a striking analogy in which the relationship between the
innermost nature or “soul” of the human being (the German word is
Gemüt) and the natural world is compared to the visual interaction of
body (Körper) and light. We have seen the importance of the analogical
structure in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, as well as the mistrust with
which Goethe views the growing popularity of the use of analogy in the
natural sciences. Yet Novalis puts this analogy into the speech of a char-
acter who has often been assumed to represent Goethe, namely the poet
We open a discussion of Hölderlin by citing Novalis because
this strange analogy exemplifies the concern that begins with Kant’s
technic of nature in the third Critique and grows into a constant theme
in German Idealism, namely, the articulation of the position of the
human being within and vis-à-vis the natural world. The analogy
expresses a relationship that concords with Goethe’s understanding of
the way in which human thinking and the natural environment interact
in the creation of philosophy, science, and art. The human being is only
to be privileged by virtue of the power of human thinking to manifest
truths about nature. In turn, still following Kant, the way in which these
truths can be best expressed involves an aesthetic dimension.
Nature is to our “soul” what a body is to light, the poet Klingsohr
explains to Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the protagonist of Novalis’s story;
the body restrains the light and refracts it into particular colors. The
light in turn kindles a glow on the surface or in the interior of the body
such that when the light equals the darkness of the body, it makes the
body first translucent and then transparent, and when the light finally
exceeds the darkness it issues forth to illuminate other bodies. In the
same way, Klingsohr implies, nature restrains the human soul and
refracts it into particular forms of determinate knowledge, including
studies of nature itself. However, before the soul can serve to illuminate
other things (which occurs when the light exceeds the darkness), it first
must make the original body (nature itself) transparent. Self-knowledge,
too, as a particular form of knowledge, proceeds only out of knowledge
of nature; each kind of knowledge can be achieved only by virtue of the
illumination of the human soul after it has passed through nature. Self-
knowledge and knowledge of nature implicate each other, as is indicated
by a reversal of direction in the analogy. Initially, the soul is compared
to light and nature to a body. The sentence begins with what nature
does, namely, it restrains and refracts the power of the soul. But then
81 Gleaning
what kindles a glow on the surface or in the interior of the body cannot
be nature illuminating the human mind, but must be the reverse, since
nature was compared to a body. Knowledge of nature and self-knowl-
edge are mutually dependent.
The German word Gemüt means something like “ownmost dispo-
sition” or “inner nature,” or what is “in one’s heart of hearts.” Hölder-
lin will refer to something similar when he writes of what is most innig,
most intimate or intense. Gemüt is sometimes translated as “mind” or
“intellect” or “spirit.” The first two translations are particularly mis-
leading, since, as can be seen here, the Gemüt is at times specifically con-
trasted to the narrower faculties of cognition such as Verstand (Under-
standing) or Vernunft (Reason). Because of the importance of the word
Geist for German Idealism, in a sense that in no way corresponds to
what we might think of as an individual’s “spirit,” this word is also not
appropriate. Since none of these expressions tersely captures what
Gemüt means, I translate the word as “soul,” with the qualification that
this word has nothing to do with the Christian implications of the eter-
nity of the soul and its relationship to God. Rather, as Schiller put it,
“soul” is nothing other than the unity of our inner life. Indeed, “soul”
is what is common to all human beings, and as such, cannot be individ-
uated or hence pluralized. The passage thus reads “our soul” rather than
“our souls.”
Novalis equates restraint (zurückhalten) with refraction, the
breakdown of a unity into its parts. The German for “refraction” is sim-
ply brechen, “to break.” As human powers of understanding direct
themselves against nature, the unbroken unity of the human soul is
transformed into the specific powers of understanding, reason, will, and
judgment, just as white light is refracted into the colors of the spectrum
upon striking a body. Without the particular radiance produced by the
prism-like quality of nature, we could not know ourselves; in other
words, we know ourselves only in and through nature. Heinrich under-
stands Klingsohr to mean that “human beings are crystals for our soul—
they are transparent nature.” Yet “transparent” here does not mean self-
evident. Nature is the crystal through which human knowledge, on the
one hand, and enjoyment of nature, on the other, can arise. The human
being is limited to knowledge of the refraction of his or her own dispo-
sition through nature. As light bends and separates as it passes through
a prism, human nature becomes manifest to itself only as it passes
through nature.
The passage encapsulates with particularly striking imagery a
question that pervades the literature and philosophy of post-Kantian
Germany. The questioning centers around the constitution of the human
mind and its relation to the world of nature conceived both physically
82 The Vegetative Soul
and spiritually. Novalis and other German thinkers of his time consider
an intimate and direct knowledge of nature to be the sine qua non of
knowledge of any other sort. The period of German Idealism historically
coincides with the beginning of the movement to separate the disciplines
of empirical science from those of philosophy, literature, and art. At the
same time, however, all these disciplines merge and complement each
other to a degree unparalleled before and since then, as if to reach their
greatest unity before inevitably having to diverge. The tension between
these two potentialities results in a series of complex and compelling
deliberations on how to characterize the relationship between the world
(both natural and cultural, if such a distinction can even be made—
putting this distinction into question was part of the issue) and the
human intellect. In addition, and paradoxically, this tension prefigures
the reduction of nature to the object of scientific and technological
research in the century following it, as the act of separating out becomes
cut off from the original phenomenon of refraction. Klingsohr’s vision
of human powers united with nature, yet prone—through an overabun-
dance of knowledge—to forgetfulness of the source from which all
forms of knowledge came, illustrates the human tendency toward frag-
mentation, on the one hand, and toward an overly lyrical relationship
with nature that neglects understanding, on the other.
Novalis chooses the prism or the crystal because it encapsulates a
relationality within a particular object. By itself, the crystal is nothing
but a transparent piece of glass. Light, too, is invisible and unremark-
able until it is refracted into the colors of the spectrum. The conjunction
of light and crystal—and by virtue of the analogy, between human dis-
position and nature—causes both to fundamentally change, but in such
a way that they remain transformed only when they are together. Alone,
each goes back to its former state. What is interesting about the analogy
is not Novalis’s articulation alone, which at times becomes confusing
and seemingly inconsistent, but rather the depiction of an active mutual
influencing that cannot be said to be “contained” in any determinate
thing or image but is purely relational. Thus, as it was for Kant, the ana-
logical structure is crucial to the articulation of this relationship between
human being and nature. Kant privileges the form of any natural thing;
for Novalis (and for Hölderlin) the choice of the natural figure upon
which the analogy is based is crucial; whatever represents the relation-
ship must be capable of presenting both form and transformation, both
the distinction between and the mutual interdependence of the relata.
The prism and the light define and transform each other.
Friedrich Hölderlin turns to the structure of plant life with its man-
ifold growth and metamorphosis to express this same relationality.
Plants manifest the alert receptivity that Hölderlin understands to be the
83 Gleaning
role of the human Gemüt within the natural world. In her study of
Hölderlin and tragedy, Françoise Dastur describes Hölderlin’s under-
standing of the relationship of the soul to nature as a “system of recep-
tivity,” which encompasses on one side the human heart and spirit, and
on the other the “fire of heaven, the dimension of the divine under
whose influence man develops in following the law of succession.”
“fire of heaven” is not something transcendent, but is manifested in the
natural world. The figure of the crystal still suggests an inanimate sub-
stance that is struck or animated by a divine light coming from else-
where. Plants, by contrast, are alive; their flourishing requires both a
force from within and nourishment from the environment that actually
changes their inner constitution. Thus, plant growth can manifest even
more clearly than the interaction of crystal and light the relationship
between environment and formation. Plants are preferred to animals as
symbols because plant life always remains in contact with all its sources
of nourishment, because of the capacity of plants to break off and form
new life when severed from their origin, and because of their growth
through metamorphosis.
What does it really mean to understand human nature as plant-
like, that is, not merely to describe human striving toward an ideal in
terms of plant metaphors in the reductive sense (such metaphors are
fairly predictable: cultivation, strong roots, branching out, receptive
ground, seeds of imagination, fertile soil), but to articulate human iden-
tity in an ideal state as plant-like? In his novel Hyperion, Hölderlin pre-
sents the metamorphosis of plants as a figuration of human life itself.
Such an articulation makes the human mind part of an essentially inter-
connected and interdependent nature, perhaps necessary for manifesting
it in its particular forms but nevertheless only one among its many
forms. Specifically, the plant trope seems to imply a completely different
temporality of thought and a markedly distinct model of human iden-
tity, one that understands individuation as something beyond either con-
sciousness or bodily form. The plant flowers forth, continually exceed-
ing, if only by a tiny tendril, any attempt to frame or contain it. Yet at
the moment of metamorphosis, as Goethe had shown, it contracts
sharply back into itself. The contraction will be followed by another
expansion, and another contraction, the process continuing until the
death of the plant. Plant growth, unlike animal growth, will never reach
a definite conclusion so that one could say that the plant is now com-
pletely developed and all its parts contribute to its identity. The plant
may be mutilated, severed from itself at any point, and yet continue to
grow, perhaps as multiple individuals.
The kind of intellectual life Hölderlin espouses in Hyperion is one
based on the model of the plant and its characteristics of metamorpho-
84 The Vegetative Soul
sis, contraction and expansion, and indefinite growth. Using the trope
of plant metamorphosis to describe subjectivity etches an alterity into
identity, a return to “self” as de-formed, monstrous. In the novel, Fate
(Schicksal), as in Greek tragedy, organizes human development, just as
the environment governs the fortuitous growth and reproduction of the
plant. Fate is not for or against human beings, but simply completely
indifferent to them. Fate is not something that can ever be known.
Hyperion remarks, “I once saw a child put out its hand to catch the
moonlight; but the light went calmly on its way. So do we stand trying
to hold on to ever-changing Fate” (H 318/22). Nature is absolute
unmittelbare Wirklichkeit, absolute unmediated reality. Hölderlin does
not present nature as a set of cryptic ciphers pointing toward an
absolute, but understands it to be the unmediated absolute, and the
human mind a part of it. Like Novalis, Hölderlin emphasizes the inter-
action of human thinking and nature. Images of nature used by Hölder-
lin do not function as metaphors in a reductive sense, since they do not
stand in or substitute for some other (supersensible) signification.
Indeed, for Hölderlin speculation about nature had above all to avoid
the implication that the human being was superior to the other com-
ponents of the natural world.
The “I” of the vegetative soul as articulated by Hölderlin is a sub-
ject whose vulnerability never evolves into a mastery that would allow
it free reign over the realm of nature. Its unconscious source exceeds its
conscious agency and renders it always susceptible to the natural con-
text that surrounds it. The question of mastery and of the impossibility
of understanding nature as a progressive, self-ameliorating teleological
process will dominate Hölderlin’s writings and color his lifelong debate
with Hegel. For Hölderlin, in contrast to Hegel, the gravest threat to
reflective human existence is the belief that it understands its own prove-
nance and objective clearly, that it succeeds best where it separates itself
most from its natural origin.
In an early version of Hyperion, Hölderlin writes, “The higher
nature elevates itself above the animal [das Tierische], the greater the
danger of fading away into transience [Vergänglichkeit].”
The structure
of Hyperion resembles that of Goethe’s fruit-bearing plant: it proceeds
in successive stages, each of which bursts forth and expands, only to
eventually pull back in on itself in order to prepare for a metamorpho-
sis into the subsequent stage. Because this development involves trans-
formation and regression as well as growth and progression, Hyperion
becomes a meditation on identity, time, and memory.
Plants lack self-identity and through their growth embody the
simultaneous drives of desire and resistance. Because of the cycle of
constant metamorphosis, a plant cannot come back to itself as itself,
85 Gleaning
since what it “is,” bodily speaking, will have fundamentally altered.
There can be no going out and returning to the same “I,” if “I” can be
said, even hypothetically, of a plant. The model for plant “conscious-
ness” is thus deformed in an essential sense, such that each stage of
growth in the life of the central character, Hyperion, is simultaneously
1) a moment of contraction and the signal for metamorphosis, 2) a
moment of self-reflection by virtue of that moment of contraction, and
3) a distortion of a sort, where perception is exposed as fallible, akin
to looking in a mirror and seeing a face one does not recognize. Thus,
the subsequent stage is not a bringing-to-completion of a former stage
that lacked something, but rather a fundamental de-formation and
affirmation of open-endedness. These are the moments that we will
identify as “plant-like.”
The final chapter of the first book of Hyperion takes a polemical
stance against Kant’s Critique of Judgment by castigating German phi-
losophy for privileging reason over beauty. Hyperion’s figuration of
human existence as “plant”
gives less importance to consciousness of
purpose than to moments of vision. Humans can hope for no more than
flashes of pure joy in the face of beauty, to be followed inevitably by suf-
fering and lack of comprehension. “Philosophy,” Hyperion states in a
climactic speech, “springs from the poetry of an eternal, divine state of
being.” For its part, poetry is “the beginning and the end of philosoph-
ical knowledge” (H 367/66). The person who has not “at least once” in
a lifetime felt “full, pure beauty in himself,”
when the powers of his being played interwoven with each other [ineinan-
der spielten] like the colors in the rainbow, who has never felt the intimate
harmony that arises among all things only in hours of exaltation—that
person will not even be a philosophical skeptic, his mind is not even capa-
ble of tearing down, let alone of building up. (H 367/66)
The words play of powers are reminiscent of Kant’s description
of judgments of beauty, which result in a free play of the imagination
and the understanding. Hölderlin declares poetry to be the originator
and the terminator of philosophy, and not the reverse. In the third Cri-
tique, Kant separates the philosopher from the genius in making the
philosopher the “pruner” who “clips the wings” of the too-enthusias-
tic poetic genius, introducing “clarity and order” and “guidance,”
making the ideas of genius “durable, fit for approval that is both last-
ing and universal, and [hence] fit for being followed by others and fit
for an ever advancing culture” (KU 319). The philosopher is thus, in
Kant’s words, “far superior to those who merit the honor of being
called geniuses,” for the art of genius is limited, “a boundary is set for
it beyond which it cannot go” (KU 309). The artist, according to Kant,
86 The Vegetative Soul
gives the “material” for the products of fine art, but the “form” of art
can only be provided by an academically trained expert (KU 311).
Hölderlin upsets this hierarchy. Intellect and reason (Verstand and
rather than genius, are severely limited in Hyperion’s view.
Intellect alone simply remains in a state of impoverishment:
Intellect is without beauty of spirit, like a servile journeyman who con-
structs the fence out of rough wood as it has been sketched out for him,
and nails the prepared posts together for the garden that his master
intends to plant. The entire business of intellect is makeshift. By putting
things in order, it protects us from folly, from injustice; but to be safe
from folly and injustice is, after all, not the highest level of human
excellence. (H 368/68)
To be human, to reach for the highest level of excellence, requires a will-
ingness to make oneself vulnerable, to expose oneself to uncertainty.
German philosophy has demanded the reverse, according to Hyperion,
in claiming that: “One must be reasonable, must become a self-con-
scious spirit [selbstbewußte Geist] before one is a human being [Men-
sch], must be a shrewd man [Mann] before one is a child; the oneness of
the whole person, Beauty, is not allowed to thrive and ripen in him
before he cultivates and develops himself” (H 368/68).
From the beginning of Hyperion, Hölderlin uses the trope of plant
life to criticize the excessive analysis that kills, exemplified in German
philosophy and science. In the preface, Hölderlin calls the novel a deli-
cate plant that will wilt in human hands if treated wrongly: “Whoever
merely smells my plant, knows it not, and whoever merely picks it, in
order thus to learn about it, also does not know it.” (H 295/1). This
becomes a theme that recurs throughout Hyperion: thinking, real think-
ing, requires a kind of life-blood running through it, a vital sap that
excessively disciplined and hyperrational philosophy will kill as surely as
the superficial glance of an unreflective observer. The ideal or spiritual,
like Nature itself, must be treated with reverence by a thinker who is
both truly involved in what he or she is examining and not overly
inclined to dissect.
The novel unfolds as a series of letters in which Hyperion recounts
his life to a distant friend. The first letters describe his childhood. As an
adult looking back on his past, Hyperion recounts the gradual transfor-
mation of his unreflective enjoyment of nature into a fragmenting edu-
cation about nature that resembles the “refraction” described by Kling-
sohr. Hyperion describes this change as the feeling of one who awakens
from a pleasant dream; he further intensifies the awakening by compar-
ing it to a nightmare. This nightmare marks the first metamorphosis of
the young Hyperion. The moment of separation from nature is akin to
87 Gleaning
the psychoanalytic description of separation from the mother, but it is
even more radical; for it is not just a separation from the source, but the
moment of realization that what one had taken for a transcendent other
is lodged in one’s own imperfect being. Hyperion writes, “It is as though
I see, but then I become afraid again, as if it were my own shape that I
saw; it is as if I feel it, the spirit of the world, like the warm hand of a
friend, but I wake up and realize that I am grasping my own finger” (H
300/6). The modality of the dream is touch, but the modality of awak-
ening is vision, and the latter is the most abrupt and unambiguous of the
senses. The movement from tactility to visibility accentuates the passage
from a union with nature to a separation from it. The first part of the
passage describes Hyperion looking in a mirror and being shocked at the
reflection of someone he does not recognize.
This enigmatic, brief, yet crucial passage encapsulates the broader
question Hyperion addresses, namely, the relationship between the
human being as individual and nature in both a physical (the warm touch
of a friend) and spiritual (the spirit of the world) sense. The realization
that “one is grasping one’s own finger” when one thought one was being
touched by the warm hand of a (spiritual) friend is affectively the reverse
of the moment of calm awareness of the superiority of one’s faculty of
reason over the realm of sensible nature (as Kant would have it).
Although the story is told as an awakening from a dream (the quintes-
sential philosophical metaphor for the process of enlightenment), the
nightmare happens as Hyperion awakens, and not within the dream
itself. The human being in Hölderlin’s writing is never completely easy in
the world, but always remains fragile and vulnerable, like a young
sapling in a storm. The Kantian revolution, which further emphasizes the
finitude of the human being, results in terror rather than in a feeling of
superiority. Thus, the first moment of monstrous mirroring occurs when
one believes, through education, that the only source of all representa-
tions of wholeness is one’s own insignificant self. Such vaunted wholeness
is the contribution of an unreflective practice of natural science such as
the post-Newtonian scientific method that Goethe criticizes.
The earliest phase of metamorphosis takes the soul through refrac-
tion into moments of particular knowledge that isolate Hyperion from
his (self-posited) origin. Hyperion simultaneously feels a multiplicity and
a singularity within himself that is exacerbated by the study of science
(Wissenschaft) in school. With the knowledge he learns in school, Hype-
rion’s “pure joy” is disturbed: “I became so properly rational among
you, learned so fundamentally to separate myself from what surrounds
me, that I am now isolated in the beautiful world, thrown out of the gar-
den of Nature, where I grew and bloomed, and I am withering in the
noonday sun” (H 298/4).
88 The Vegetative Soul
Only as a mature person, in recognizing that his childhood was the
only time when he unreflectively enjoyed the bounty of nature, does
Hyperion understand what it means to “turn back into the All of Nature
in blessed self-forgetfulness” (H 297/3). Here Hölderlin follows Schiller,
who in his account of the naive and the sentimental claimed that a child
could not really be considered naive, since naiveté presupposes a victory
of nature over art. Children, who have no real knowledge of art, can be
innocent but not naive. Hyperion’s childhood, therefore, can only be
described in recollection, with the retrospection of one who has become
an artist.
At the outset, Hyperion writes, “we only have concepts of that
which once went bad and then was made good again; of childhood and
innocence we have no concept” (H 298/4). Hölderlin links the forma-
tion of concepts and a particular kind of naming to destruction and
death. Again, Hölderlin seems to be responding to the third Critique,
which allows nature to be approached only as science or as art.
Hölderlin is also responding to the neo-Kantian philosophy of
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In a letter to his brother, written just before the
publication of Hyperion, Hölderlin provides a clear account of the
Fichtean-inspired philosophy that informs his novel, although at the
same time it fundamentally alters Fichte’s position.
There is within man a striving into the infinite, an activity that indeed does
not allow him any permanent barrier, no stagnation, but strives to become
increasingly widespread, free, independent; this drive to infinite activity is
restricted; the infinite drive to unrestricted activity is necessary to the
nature of a conscious being (of an “I,” as Fichte calls it), yet the restric-
tion of this activity, too, is necessary for a conscious being, for if the activ-
ity were not restricted, not imperfect, this activity would be everything,
and nothing would exist outside of it; if, then, our activity did not suffer
any resistance from the outside, then nothing would exist outside of us,
and we would know nothing, we would have no consciousness.
This passage recalls, in more theoretical terms, Klingsohr’s analogy
of Gemüt to light. Both require a restraining force in order to come to
full manifestation, and both presume an infinite striving (streben) as
source. This is not a coincidence; both Hölderlin and Novalis sat in on
Fichte’s lecture courses in Jena in 1794. Hölderlin’s objection to Fichte’s
philosophy begins with the words “yet the restriction of this activity,
too, is necessary for a conscious being.” Fichte defined consciousness
and being in terms of pure freedom and pure activity, and taught that it
is merely a fallacy on the part of natural consciousness to believe that
being is imposed upon by outside objects.
This primary “illusion” is
the belief that an external non-ego imposes itself upon the “I.” In reject-
ing such an illusion, Fichte tries to show that consciousness imposes
89 Gleaning
what is perceived to be the not-I upon itself.
In its effort to become pure
activity, the “I” wages a constant battle against what is perceived to be
the passivity of the not-I, which is really a passivity inherent within itself.
However, the deduction of the ontological status of the “I” and “not-I”
is not possible at a theoretical level, where it will always be confronted
with the not-I as an apparently incontrovertible fact. Although Fichte
insists on the role of limitation (Einschränkung), resistance (Widerstand),
and inhibition (Hemmung), especially in the later parts of the Science of
Knowledge, he always makes clear that this action originates in the
absolute ego, and not in an external world. Only at the practical level of
moral action, following Kant, does Fichte find the possibility of tran-
scending the limitations of natural consciousness. Fichte’s description of
moral activity is, however, much more violent than Kant’s: “Moral action
is, then, some sort of terror; it is an aiming by the finite ego at a pure and
always ideal unity that forces it to consider the non-ego as an obstacle,
against which violence is constantly required.”
According to Wilhelm
Dilthey, Alabanda, the character in Hyperion who advocates a violent
overthrow of the current order, is based on Fichte.
In emphasizing the finitude of the “I” and the “necessary restric-
tion” that must “come from the outside,” Hölderlin in effect rejects the
notion of the absolute ego that is the source of all being. Nature is no
longer the pure negative of the absolute ego, no longer merely a per-
manent and illusory obstacle to pure activity. Instead, nature becomes
a resource of humanity, for without the outside world there could be no
consciousness at all. In claiming that limitation or restraint in addition
to infinite activity is necessary for conscious being, Hölderlin rejects the
possibility of a pure unification of human consciousness with nature.
Indeed, as we will see, even the hopefulness toward the ideal of unifi-
cation displayed in Hyperion will wane in Hölderlin’s later works. At
the very foundation of consciousness there must be, for Hölderlin, a
mutual reciprocity of passivity or receptivity and activity or spontane-
ity; he accords no priority to pure activity. Passivity is not something to
be overcome. Hölderlin shifts the locus of the infinite back to desire,
since activity will never be able to achieve infinity. Consciousness can
then be explained as the infinite drive coming up upon the limitations
of human existence.
The theme of the necessity of both expansion and contraction—
or of unbridled desire tempered by restraint—as ontological principles,
can be seen in the major authors of German Idealism, as well as in
Goethe’s nature philosophy. In a revival of Neo-Platonism, Johann
Gottfried Herder and Franz Hemsterhuis argue that the proper articu-
lation of this movement between individuation and union, called Vere-
inigungsphilosophie, can be found through the figures of eros (Hem-
90 The Vegetative Soul
sterhuis) or friendship (Herder).
In Hyperion, Hölderlin criticizes the
simplistic form of Vereinigungsphilosophie without referring to any-
one in particular, saying that “philosophy is more than the blind
demand for a never-ending progress of the unification and division of
a possible substance” (H 369/68). Schelling and Hegel, too, incorpo-
rate the dynamic of expansion and contraction. For Schelling, Hem-
mung, or “inhibition,” is the way in which natural products are
brought forth out of the expansive infinite unfolding desire that is
nature’s original tendency. For Hegel, this duality of principle is intro-
duced within the sphere of human activity. If any living thing were
eternal or infinite, if it never died or had no limit in space, then its con-
cept could never be detached from its individual empirical existence.
For Hegel restraint is intimately linked to naming, language, and the
science and history that are based upon them, rather than referring to
a world-creating force.
The way a plant grows parallels Hölderlin’s discussion of the
movement between human striving for the infinite without barriers,
based on the Platonic eros, and the restraint that allows for the emer-
gence of consciousness. A plant, as Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of
Plants shows, grows through a series of expansive and contractive
movements that are very different from the formation of an animal.
Plants strive for the sun, but they must also grope in the dark for mois-
ture. They can seemingly expand indefinitely, but they are limited by the
presence of the natural elements that arrive only contingently. Hyper-
ion’s life moves back and forth between the extremes of utter exposure
and complete withdrawal. As Hyperion’s beloved Diotima—named after
the spokeswoman of Eros in Plato’s Symposium—tells him, “You would
never have known the equilibrium of beautiful humanity so purely if you
had not lost it to so great an extent” (H 373/72). The “equilibrium”
(Gleichgewicht) is the balance struck between the two poles of an
“eccentric orbit,” between infinite desire and resistance. It is not a bal-
ance struck by Hyperion himself, but a “ripening” that occurs as expe-
rience in both success and suffering.
Hölderlin links sublimity to time and death in his essay Das Wer-
den im Vergehen (“Becoming in Passing Away”), written only a year
after the publication of the second volume of Hyperion:
Dissolution as necessity, from the viewpoint of ideal memory, becomes as
such the ideal object of a newly unfolded life, a look back at the path that
had to be traversed from the beginning of the dissolution up to where out
of this new life a memory occurs of the dissolution, and out of that, as
the explanation and the unification of the hiatus and the contrast that
occur between what is new and the past, the memory of the dissolution
can follow.
91 Gleaning
This passage describes the trajectory of Hyperion exactly. The novel
traces the memory of a dissolution, the dissolution of Hyperion’s
beloved Diotima’s life and of everything that Hyperion has ever pro-
jected. In her death, Diotima becomes the ideal object (in memory) of
Hyperion’s newly unfolded life, a life that will unfold only after the
novel ends. Only in recollection can the hiatus between what was (a love
affair, heroic aspirations) and what was always already to have been
(dissolution, disappointment) be explained and unified. In life, Diotima
manifests more than any other finite human being the irreversible path
toward passing away, a destiny that becomes clear only after her death.
Hölderlin describes her as part of the plant world in order to emphasize
her imminent dissolution within the narrative of Hyperion’s life, and to
connect her with the “plant happiness” of youth, before one realizes the
separation from nature that growing older entails.
There are two levels to this union and dissolution, “two ideals of
our existence,” described in the language of plants in the original preface
to Hyperion.
The first ideal is the “condition of highest simplicity”
(called a Pflanzenglück or Pflanzenleben, “plant happiness” or “plant
life,” in other earlier versions of the work), a harmony found in the “sim-
ple life of nature,” without any contribution from human individuals. In
his theoretical essays on tragedy, Hölderlin calls nature prior to any
human intervention (even in the sense of philosophizing) “aorgic.” The
other ideal is the “condition of highest development” that humans are
capable of giving themselves, a condition that Hölderlin calls the
“organic” in those same essays. Hölderlin refers to both ideals, again in
an early preface that did not appear in the final version of the published
Hyperion, as two points between which the “eccentric orbit” (exzen-
trische Bahn) of all human life essentially runs. “Eccentric,” from the
Greek ekkentros, literally means “moving out from a center.” Like a
plant, which develops from a seed and continues to move outward in
indefinite metamorphosis and development, human subjectivity is shaped
by both a constructive or expansive effect of positive ideals, and a cor-
rective or contractive reverse effect of negative or painful experience.
The terminology of “aorgic” and “organic” refers to the polemical
forces of infinite drive and encapsulating figuration. Hölderlin under-
stands the central struggle of Greek tragedy to occur between the con-
flicting drives of the “organic”—understood as the peculiarly human
activities of “self-action” (Selbsttätigkeit), art, and reflection—and the
“aorgic,” defined as the “unconceivable, the unfeelable, the unlimited”
(GE 574/54). The aorgic is the unrepresented manifestation of nature.
The organic, on the other hand, from its root word organon, refers to
the realm of nature only insofar as it is structured through human
thought and activity.
92 The Vegetative Soul
In Hyperion the tension between the aorgic and the organic ideals
is played out between youth and maturity, or in plant terms, between
initial wild growth and eventual decay. Hyperion describes his youth in
terms of a wild plant: “I grew up like a vine without a post, and the wild
tendrils spread themselves aimlessly about on the ground”(H 301/7).
Before finding an older mentor, Hyperion recalls, he “grasped at every-
thing, was grabbed by everything, but . . . only for the moment, and the
unweeded powers exhausted themselves to no avail” (H 301/7). The
image of the wild plant is tied to the temporality of the moment, the
being that lives only for itself without thought of future or past, and
with an expansion or desire that meets with no resistance. When Hype-
rion first begins to mentally “awaken,” his heart is “like the young
plant, when it opens itself to the morning sun, and stretches its small
arms towards the infinite heavens” (H 299/5).
The name of Hyperion’s first teacher, Adamas, means “man” in
Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, and comes originally from the Hebrew
adhama, or “earth.” It is also the name of the first man, created by
God out of earth, whose story is told in the Old Testament and the
Koran. Hyperion says of Adamas, “Like a plant whose peacefulness
soothes a striving spirit and returns a simple sufficiency to the soul—
thus he stood before me” (H 302/8). Adamas provides the soil for the
seed that is the young Hyperion. Hyperion calls himself the “reverber-
ation of [Adamas’s] silent inspiration [Begeisterung],” and adds, “the
melodies of his being repeated themselves in me” (H 302/8). Both
descriptions work against the common theme of coming of age as a
process of individuation.
Hyperion’s first encounters with the world beyond his home coun-
try immediately result in a profound dissonance. In describing Hyper-
ion’s unease, Hölderlin juxtaposes animal images with those of cor-
rupted plants. Animal figures provide the shadows to make the world of
verdant nature stand out more vividly. Ruing the contemporary lack of
interest in the past, Hyperion says, “[I]t seemed to me . . . as if human
nature had disintegrated into the multiplicities of the animal world.” He
immediately reinforces this image with that of an unkempt garden or
ungleaned fruit: “As everywhere, here too men were particularly over-
grown and rotten” (H 310/15). Hyperion compares humans to “animals
that howl when they hear music”; they “laugh when the talk is of the
beauty of the soul and the youth of the heart”; they are wolves that run
away from fire when they “turn their backs like thieves” at the appear-
ance of “a spark of reason” (H 310/15). Hyperion expresses his own
impossible task as “seek[ing] grapes in the desert and flowers in the ice
field” (H 311/16). Various people in the narrative who believe that one
should live completely in one’s own time, and not in nostalgic memories
93 Gleaning
of the past, mock Hyperion’s idealism. Hölderlin compares the contem-
porary preoccupation with the present to a “howling northwind” that
“runs over the blossoms of our soul and buries them as they are bud-
ding” (H 304/9).
But upon his return to his homeland, Hyperion finds he can no
longer live as one with nature. Each thing in nature has become separate
and singular: “Now I no longer said to a flower, you are my sister! and to
the springs, we are of one kind! now, like an echo, I faithfully gave each
thing its name” (H 330/33). Here “naming” refers to a reductive nomi-
nalism, bestowing names as artificial and arbitrary symbols to things in
order to refer to them, and understanding universals and ideals simply as
products of language. Hyperion’s prior tendency to call the flower his sis-
ter and the spring “of his kind” coincided with a vision of the human
being as persisting on the same level as all other forms of nature, but pro-
viding, through its language, a means of manifesting beauty.
In The Birth of the Clinic, discussing the contrast between diag-
noses and treatments within roughly a one-hundred-year period, from
the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, Michel Foucault puts
forth the thesis that a “mutation in discourse,” a “semantic or syntacti-
cal change” took place, in which the individual body became the site of
subjective symptoms, replacing a perception of disease as a strange
locale of a sometimes fantastically imagined natural order of disease
superimposed upon the natural order of things. Foucault calls the older
manner of perceiving disease “a region where ‘things’ and ‘words’ have
not yet been separated, and where—at the most fundamental level of
language—seeing and saying are still one.”
Although it may seem an
exaggeration to compare this analysis to Hyperion, Hölderlin, albeit
much more implicitly, is making a similar point here. Foucault makes no
judgment of the relative merits of the two approaches. By contrast,
Hölderlin seems to mourn the transition to giving things their (“proper”
is implied) names, associated with the ascendancy of a new “empirical”
way of doing science, of which the particulars of the beginnings of con-
temporary medical science were one part. Interestingly, Foucault refers
to the older order of disease as one based on a “botanical model,” quot-
ing Sydenham quoted by Sauvages: “He who observes attentively the
order, the time, the hour at which the attack of quart fever begins, the
phenomena of shivering, of heat, in a word all the symptoms proper to
it, will have as many reasons to believe that this disease is a species as
he has to believe that a plant constitutes a species because it grows, flow-
ers, and dies always in the same way.”
The relegation of disease to the
individual body conceived of as an autonomous, self-enclosed, and yet
thoroughly classifiable as a type, parallels the move to situating truth in
the presence of a subject to itself.
94 The Vegetative Soul
Just after this description of the transformation in naming, Hype-
rion writes, “Like a river flowing past arid banks, where no willow leaf
mirrors itself in the water, the world flowed past me untouched by
beauty” (H 330/33). Only through Diotima does Hyperion feel reunited
(through love) with both the human realm and the beauty of the natural
world. In an earlier version of Hyperion, Hölderlin writes that the
moment of meeting Diotima is itself “like a peaceful Arcadia, where
blossoms and shoots sway in the eternal still air, where the harvest ripens
without the midday sultriness, and the sweet grapes flourish . . . where
one knows nothing of anything but the eternal spring of the earth.”
Hyperion and Diotima enter a kind of new Eden in which they are given
the chance to name every natural thing anew in a way that will reflect
the interrelatedness of all nature. The names they give link different
parts of nature together under the trope of vegetation, rather than
remaining singular, ostensive designations: “We named the earth one of
the flowers of the sky, and we named the sky the infinite garden of life”
(H 341/43). Here “naming” refers not to a reductive nominalism but to
a letting-things-appear as they are, in their infinite interconnectedness.
Naming is a “calling” (heißen) in Heidegger’s sense, a “letting-reach,”
or, in the original significance of the word heißen in Sanskrit (which Hei-
degger does not provide), an invitation.
If the divine calls things into
being, the human recognizes this calling in giving things names.
Unlike an animal, whose death is not visible on its countenance
until extreme old age, the short life of a flower, its fleeting moment of
flourishing, are so familiar that a newly-cut flower exudes the inevitabil-
ity of wilting, and the vision of spring flowers blooming makes us mind-
ful of the seasons. From the very moment that Hyperion and Diotima
kiss for the first time, she begins to wilt, as a flower will droop if its
petals are fingered. Diotima as flower (a comparison Hölderlin explic-
itly makes) must bear the brunt of the confluence of desire, resistance,
and love. Hyperion, at the height of love, sees with sudden lucidity the
inevitable dissolution of their union. Hyperion describes the moment in
terms of a shipwreck: “I see, I see how it must end. The rudder has
dropped into the tide and the ship, like a child caught by the feet, is
seized and flung against the cliffs” (H 362/62). The image again pro-
vokes a nightmare. One cannot help but picture the child, its feet
grasped by a violent adult, being flung against a cliff in an improbable
but strikingly visual evocation.
Hölderlin reacts against the tendency to separate the human mind
from the rest of nature, as if nature were an object over and against
human understanding. We are taught to see nature as something objec-
tive that we can study and from which we can distinguish ourselves.
Hölderlin implies that the human being outside the trellis of nature is
95 Gleaning
isolated, and that only through love can it truly become an individual,
that is, re-enter the natural world as a part that significantly contributes
and relates to the whole. The human’s privileged position as the posses-
sor of self-consciousness also makes it the most vulnerable of natural
beings. Hyperion mourns, “Nothing can grow, nothing so profoundly
wither away, as the human” (H 330/33), and further: “What is the
human? I could begin; how is it, that there is such a thing in the world,
that is like a chaos, ferments or decays, like a rotten tree, and never
flourishes to ripeness? How does Nature endure this sour one among her
sweet grapes?” (H 332/35). Precisely in separating itself off from the rest
of nature, the human being effects its own destruction. In plant terms,
this decay is called fermentation:
Humans began and grew up from the happiness of plants, and grew until
they ripened; from that point on they have fermented ceaselessly, from
inside and out, until now the human race lies there infinitely disintegrated,
like a Chaos that seizes all who still feel and see with vertigo; but beauty
flees from the lives of humans upward into Spirit; what was nature,
becomes ideal, and when the tree is withered and weathered all the way
up from the bottom, a fresh crown still emerges from it, and turns green
in the sunshine, as its trunk once did in its days of youth; Ideal is, what
nature was. (H 350/51)
Fermentation leads to Chaos, and Chaos to disintegration, the frag-
mentation of what was once whole. The trope of fermentation appears
again and again in Hölderlin’s poetry, most often as die gährende Zeit,
time gone sour or rancid, catastrophic time, but also the time of das Wer-
den im Vergehen, “becoming in passing away.” The beautiful parts of a
plant—its leaves, flowers, fruit, and stem or trunk—have a darker coun-
terpart in the roots, which hide underground in the darkness and thrive
on rot and excrement. In a letter to Hyperion, Diotima writes that the
plant that was Athens has now been turned upside down, that the roots
are now in the air and the flowers in the ground, that “the leaf has turned
itself,” and “the dead now go above, on the earth, and the living, the
divine, are under it . . .” (H 410/107). Humans are inverted trees with
respect to history.
While the “same” trees persist, for example, among
the ruins at Athens, human beings and their creations break and die. The
fragility of human being and happiness is manifest in the image of dessi-
cated roots choking in air and green leaves losing their color and fresh-
ness in the smothering soil. There is no escaping this fate, however, for to
be a human being is to be spiritually vulnerable, just as the plant is
absolutely subject to the contingencies of its environment.
Hölderlin may also be making a veiled reference to Aristotle’s De
Anima, where the roots of plants are said to correspond to the heads of
96 The Vegetative Soul
animals, so that the growth of plants is completely heterogeneous to that
of animals (416a1–10). Empedocles had explained both the erect head
of animals and the upward growth of plants by appealing to the natural
upward direction of fire, the element of the soul. If plants’ “souls” are
in their roots, which Aristotle says is the case “if we are to identify and
distinguish organs by their functions,” then plants are always inverted
with respect to humans. If Hölderlin is making reference to this passage,
then perhaps modern humanity is being called the inversion of the nat-
ural human order. Thus, to conceive of each human being as isolated
and identified primarily by the aggressive defense of its own perceived
boundaries is to kill the natural open-endedness of human subjectivity
and its vulnerability, its intimate relationship to the natural world and
to other human beings.
97 Gleaning
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The genuine philosophical act is suicide; this is the real beginning of
all philosophy, the direction in which all the needs of philosophical
devotees go, and only this act corresponds to all the conditions and
distinguishing marks of transcendental action.
—Novalis, Fragment (1797)
Initially, nothing seems more distant from the tragic insights of Hölder-
lin than the optimistic philosophy of Hegel’s dialectic. We will ultimately
characterize Hegel’s method as a repudiation of the vegetative soul, a
replacement of the unconscious vulnerability of the plant trope by the
cognitive vigor and aggressive self-preservation of the animal. In early
writings, however, Hegel surprisingly brings up many of the same
themes that we have been discussing with reference to Hölderlin. In con-
trasting Hegel’s obsession with Christ with Hölderlin’s equal enthusiasm
for the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles—both of whom are
described by these thinkers as figures of plantlike vulnerability—one
sees most clearly where the two thinkers began to take separate paths.
These paths diverge in the nuances of the motif of self-sacrifice as
opposed to that of suicide.
Thus, although in some respects Hegel’s
logic seems to follow the contours of the vegetative soul, ultimately, his
work embraces animal individuation, albeit on the grandest of scales.
Empedocles and the Tragic Christ
This chapter will serve to mark the contrast, arising from the closest of
proximities, between the embrace and the rejection of the vegetative
model of individuation and subjectivity.
In his 1910 essay on Hölderlin, Wilhelm Dilthey was the first to
show the connection between Hölderlin’s Empedocles and Hegel’s
depiction of Jesus Christ in the early essay that has been posthumously
entitled “Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal.”
Jamme’s study “Ein ungelehrtes Buch”: Die philosophische Gemein-
schaft zwischen Hölderlin und Hegel in Frankfurt 1797–1800 elabo-
rates on this connection in the work of Hegel and Hölderlin.
In 1797
and 1798, when both Hölderlin and Hegel were living in Frankfurt,
Hegel composed the fragments later collected by Hermann Nohl under
the title “The Spirit of Christianity and its Destiny” (1799)
Hölderlin wrote the first version of a tragedy entitled The Death of
Empedocles, which was subsequently never completed. Hölderlin
completed the second and third drafts in Homburg, near Frankfurt,
and it has been argued that in particular the third draft shows the
influence of Hegel on his work. Hölderlin arguably influenced Hegel’s
conception of the historical Christ in an equally significant manner.
Through a chiasmic transference, Hölderlin’s Empedocles takes on
more and more of the characteristics of Hegel’s Christ, while Hegel’s
Christ becomes a Greek, so that in the end neither figure resembles its
historical counterpart so much as it testifies to the themes that lie at
the heart of German Idealism.
In 1797 Hölderlin had already been serving as a tutor to the
Gontard family in Frankfurt for two years when through his connec-
tions he found Hegel a similar post with another family there. Letters
exchanged between the two friends bear witness to the great joy they
took in each other’s company. During the two years that Hegel and
Hölderlin both lived in Frankfurt they spent most of their time together,
and their thoughts recorded at the time are remarkably similar, although
Hegel presented his ideas as a study of the historical Jesus and Chris-
tianity, Hölderlin as a tragedy about the philosopher Empedocles.
According to Pöggeler, the philosophical encounter between the two
friends culminated in a new thinking of the phenomenon of beauty as a
tragic process.
At this period in his life Hegel came to consider Jesus to
be a tragic down-going figure in the same way that Hölderlin described
Empedocles. The historical figures of Christ and Empedocles share
many characteristics that Hegel and Hölderlin emphasized: both Jesus
and Empedocles proclaimed themselves to be divine or intimate with the
divine, both had a small loyal following but a greater antagonistic resis-
tance in the form of the power of a positive, tradition- and law-governed
religion, and both met untimely deaths, Jesus through a willing self-sac-
100 The Vegetative Soul
rifice at the hands of the government, Empedocles as a (rumored) sui-
cide. It is precisely the differences between these two figures, however,
that will set the tone for the sharp divergence of Hegel’s and Hölderlin’s
philosophy in later years.
The parallels between Hegel’s description of Jesus and Hölderlin’s
description of Empedocles are striking, although the differences, not
least among them Hölderlin’s pointed choice of a pagan figure in con-
trast to his seminary-colleague’s portrait of the historical Christ, must
not be overlooked. The progressive “graecification” of Hegel’s portrait
of Christ is in many ways more remarkable than the Christology of
Hölderlin’s Empedocles, considering that both Hölderlin and Hegel had
been brought up in pious Christian homes and had attended theological
seminary together. Both Hölderlin and Hegel expressed a strong dissat-
isfaction with Christianity as it was then practiced, but unlike Hölder-
lin, who, outside of some of his lyric poetry never directly addressed
Christian themes, Hegel consistently attempted to redirect the orienta-
tion of the contemporary study of Christ and Christianity. Although
Hegel was later to abandon his understanding of Christ as a tragic fig-
ure, the image of self-sacrifice endures and becomes the emblem of the
dialectical method. In fact, the nexus of life, death, and resurrection is
the figure of the logical Aufhebung, so the transition from Christ as
tragic to Christ as triumphantly resurrected parallels Hegel’s transition
to the dialectic that originated in the Jena Logic (1804–1805), and
marks the beginning of his detachment from Hölderlin.
Several themes appear repeatedly in Hölderlin’s three drafts of The
Death of Empedocles and in Hegel’s fragments on Christianity (which,
for the sake of ease of reference, we will refer to under Nohl’s title, “The
Spirit of Christianity and its Fate”), as well as the fragment known as
“Love,” all of which are dated from 1797 to 1799. These themes, which
do not follow particular divisions in any of the texts, but can be found
throughout, are (1) the question of bondage and mastery, which is
bound up with a particular understanding of positivity; (2) the descrip-
tion of the tragic figure, in this case either Empedocles or Christ; (3) the
nuances of the difference between suicide and self-sacrifice; and finally,
(4) the way in which individuation, as a product of a dynamic between
unity and separation, is understood.
The last theme, that of the cosmic alternation between unity (Vere-
inigung) and separation (Trennung), as we have already seen, forms the
basis for so much of the philosophical discourse in Germany in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most commentators agree
that Vereinigungsphilosophie was the focus of much of Hölderlin and
Hegel’s discussion during the two years they spent together in Frankfurt.
Hegel takes up Hölderlin’s plant metaphorics as a way of describing
101 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
unity in difference in the fragment “Love.” This fragment, generally
thought to be at the inception of Hegel’s dialectic, considers the rela-
tionship between love and human mortality. Like Hölderlin’s passage in
Hyperion, where Hyperion writes that he and Diotima were unified in
love as male and female are conjoined in the calyx of a flower (H
347/49), Hegel, too, describes love in terms of the plant. To say that
lovers are independent of each other, writes Hegel, means only that each
of them may die and thus they can think of the possibility of being sep-
arated through death; this does not imply an actual separation.
In the
same way:
To say that salt and other minerals are part of the makeup of a plant and
that these carry in themselves their own laws governing their operation is
an alien reflection and means no more than that the plant may rot. But
love strives to annul [aufzuheben] even this distinction [between the lover
as lover and the lover as physical organism], to annul this possibility [of
separation] as mere possibility, to unite [vereinigen] even the mortal ele-
ment, to make it immortal (L 380/305).
Hegel goes on, in “Love,” to describe the lovers’ attempt to over-
come their mortality through the creation of a child. The child repre-
sents the effort to nullify death. Here, aufheben is understood simply as
the removal of the alien or the external understanding, and not in the
sense of Hegel’s later dialectic.
Hegel continues with the plant
metaphor. The child is only a punctual unity, like a seed:
The lovers cannot allocate [the child] in such a way that a manifold will
be present in it, for in their union no opposition is worked out, it is free
of all division; everything through which the newly created child is a
manifold can have an existence, it must draw into itself, oppose to
itself, and unify with itself. The seed turns ever more and more toward
opposition and commences; each stage of its development is a separa-
tion, in order to recapture on its own the entire realm of life. And so
now is: the unified [das Einige], the separated [die Getrennten], the
reunited [das Wiedervereinigte]. The united ones [die Vereinigten] will
separate again, but in the child the union itself [die Vereinigung selbst]
remains undivided. (L 381/307)
The version of this essay included in the collection edited by
Hamacher includes a sentence referring to the seed, which Hegel later
struck from the paragraph. In this sentence, inserted immediately after
the first mention of the seed, Hegel writes, “[The seed] becomes plant;
from the most united [Einigste] it goes through the animal to human
life—the separable, however, returns to the condition of separability;
102 The Vegetative Soul
but the spirits [of the lovers] become more united than before, and that
which was still separated from determinate consciousness is com-
pletely shared; all points at which one had touched the other, or had
been touched by the other, in other words that had felt or thought
alone, are reconciled, the spirits are exchanged.”
Aside from the cryp-
tic significance of the rest of the sentence, the passage—within the
expression of love, the production of the seed—from plant to animal
to human prefigures Hegel’s mature philosophy of nature. Hegel’s
understanding of organic life will comprehend far more than a sum-
mary of the current scientific research. The plant is here understood as
“the most united” but also as that which cannot experience love, hav-
ing never known separation.
In “The Spirit of Christianity and its Destiny,” Hegel presents Jesus
as the incarnation of love. There is nothing un-biblical about this char-
acterization, but Hegel’s description contrasts with his earlier Kantian
interpretation of the teachings of Christ. Here Hegel understands love
precisely in contradistinction to duty: “‘Love has conquered’ does not
mean the same as ‘duty has conquered’“ (L 296/247). Love provides a
particular contrast to duty because one would never want to call a feel-
ing love if it had been commanded, if the feeling arose out of a sense of
duty. Love produces no imperative. Sounding very similar to Hölderlin
in Hyperion, Hegel writes, “[T]o love God is to feel oneself in the ‘all’
of life, with no restrictions, in the infinite” (L 296/247).
The comparison strikes one particularly when one reads Hegel’s
“The Life of Jesus” (TJS 73–136), written only three years earlier, in
which the practical philosophy of Kant is put into the mouth of Jesus,
and Christian morality is described as a version of the categorical imper-
ative. In “The Spirit of Christianity and its Destiny,” in contrast, Hegel
names the Kantian doctrine of morality, that is, giving the law to one-
self, as precisely what love, and thus Christianity, is not. Love itself is
incomplete in nature, Hegel writes: “Every reflection annuls love,
restores objectivity, and with objectivity we are once more on the terri-
tory of restrictions.” Representative thinking is restrictive and thus even
to think “love,” or “God,” which are infinite, is to restrict them; “the
infinite cannot be carried in this vessel [Gefäß]” (L 302/253).
The image of the vessel (Gefäß) is repeated in Hölderlin’s theoret-
ical essay “The Ground for Empedocles,” composed in order to expli-
cate his effort at writing a third version of his tragedy The Death of
Empedocles (GE 570–83/53–61).
Empedocles as tragic figure resembles
Diotima in Hyperion insofar as both are victims; Diotima becomes the
temporally and spatially limited (transitory, mortal) vessel in which love
is for a moment contained. This “vessel,” however, is in Hölderlin’s eyes
as necessary as it is inadequate, as he explains in the case of Empedocles:
103 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
Thus Empedocles was supposed to become a victim of his time. The prob-
lems of the destiny in which he grew up were to appear to resolve them-
selves within him, and this solution was to present itself as an apparent,
temporary one—as is the case with more or less all tragic personas, who
in their characters and utterances are all more or less attempts to solve the
problems of destiny, and all of whom negate themselves [sich aufheben] to
the degree that they are not universally valid, except in the case that their
role, their character and its utterances present themselves as something
transient and momentary, so that the one who seemingly resolves destiny
most completely also presents himself most clearly in his transitoriness,
and, in the progress of his attempts, as a victim. (GE 578/57)
Hölderlin wrote three unfinished versions of the Empedocles
tragedy, in the progression of which one can trace the growing influence
of Hegel on his thinking, as well as the progressive frustration Hölder-
lin was feeling in the question of the possibility of writing a “Greek”
tragedy at the turn of the nineteenth century in Germany. In the first ver-
sion of The Death of Empedocles, Pausanias, the son-like disciple of
Empedocles, cites love as the reason he might be required to denounce
his master: “No! By your magical spirit, man, I will not, do not want to
revile you, even if the necessity of love bade me do so, you loved one!
then die, and thus bear witness to yourself. If it must be” (TE 1, 520).
Love is also the restrictive vessel in which Empedocles ultimately cannot
be contained, although it is love for and from a whole people, not a sin-
gle lover. But love is not mentioned in the second or third versions.
Hölderlin describes the tragic writer’s choice of alter ego, of prin-
cipal character, in a striking way. He insists that it must be a “foreign”
subject matter, far from one’s own mood and world, yet “sufficiently
analogical” to be able to “preserve” the writer’s own sensibility “as in a
vessel [Gefäß].” The writer “conveys” his sensibility into the vessel of
the foreign matter and preserves it there, then moves away from his own
subjectivity (Ich-heit) entirely and expresses only the “deepest intensity.”
Only in this stark contrast can “destiny” express “its secret most
clearly” (GE 572/52). Hölderlin seems to suggest that somehow the infi-
nite can be captured, if only provisionally, within a vessel, but that this
vessel must be chosen explicitly for its foreignness. Only this distance
will allow for the momentary presentation of what otherwise could not
be brought to language.
Along with the notion of concealing oneself in the foreign, having
first safeguarded one’s sensibility within it, as in a vessel, and then mov-
ing away from any linkage to one’s own self, Hölderlin de-emphasizes
consciousness. Hölderlin writes that Empedocles will gain perspicacity in
losing consciousness “when he is less with himself [bei sich] and insofar
as he is less conscious of the fact that with and for him the speechless
104 The Vegetative Soul
gains speech, that with and for him the universal, the less conscious gains
the form of consciousness and particularity . . .” (GE 574–75/54–55).
The plant as an organism without consciousness becomes an appropriate
figure for this displacement.
Hölderlin recognizes above all the human tendency to try to
straighten things out, to make the world intelligible, yet he resists the
safety of this effort. In letters to his brother and his friend Neuffer, writ-
ten in 1798, Hölderlin contrasts the efforts of philosophy and poetry. To
his brother Karl, he writes, “Human beings ferment [gären], like every-
thing else that ripens, and the only thing that philosophy needs to con-
cern itself with is to make that fermentation proceed in a way that is as
neutral and passable and short as possible.”
Philosophy, according to
Hölderlin, can only neutralize suffering; it cannot create joy or even
reproduce passion. For this reason Hölderlin chooses to be a poet and a
novelist rather than a philosopher, for only in art can the essential defor-
mation that humans undergo through resisting nature be reproduced. In
his letter to Neuffer of November 12, 1798, Hölderlin writes, “Now
what mostly takes up my thought and my senses is what is living in
poetry. I can feel so deeply how far I still am from it, and yet my entire
soul aches for it and it often seizes me in such a way that I have to cry
like a child. . . .” But, he continues, “[t]here is indeed a hospital where
every unhappy poet of my kind can flee with dignity—philosophy. But I
cannot leave my first love and the hopes of my youth, and I would rather
perish without recourse than to part from the sweet company of the
muses. . . .”
Art requires both the proximity of devotion and a certain
distance: it may be tragic for Oedipus to go mad, but when Hölderlin
does, it is merely sad. When Hölderlin puts his thoughts into Hyperion’s
“recollections” or into Empedocles’ thoughts before committing suicide,
those “experiences” are transformative, like the plant that only returns
to itself as other. In early writings Hegel’s proximity to Hölderlin strikes
one doubly in view of the transformation (in light of Hegel’s more well-
known philosophical writings) we now know it will take.
As we have already intimated, however, this is not a straightfor-
ward case of one thinker influencing another, or of two thinkers mutu-
ally bringing their thoughts closer together. Rather, Hegel’s later frag-
ment, “Love,” is closest not to Hölderlin’s third draft of The Death of
Empedocles, but to the first, and Hegel’s description of love will be
structurally similar to Hölderlin’s first outline of Hyperion in the jour-
nal Thalia. Moreover, in the second and third drafts of The Death of
Empedocles, Hölderlin begins to emphasize the themes that also pre-
dominate in Hegel’s analysis of the history of Christianity and the rela-
tionship between Jesus and Judaism, namely, the positivity of tradition
and the master/slave relationship inherent in both religions. Finally,
105 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
Hölderlin’s Empedocles, over the course of three versions, changes from
a beloved but misunderstood and perhaps hubristic individual into an
aggressive opponent in a fight with tradition, as simultaneously the rep-
resentative of religion, the priest Hermokrates, takes on in a more and
more exaggerated fashion the role of the spokesperson of tradition and
the law. Hegel’s Christ, on the other hand, reverts from being an advo-
cate of the categorical imperative to the stance of a tragic figure who had
to die because of his opposition to the same kind of tradition and law.
It has already been argued many times that the third version of The
Death of Empedocles marks a definitive turning point away from the
Greeks and toward Christianity for Hölderlin. For example, Mark
Ogden argues that even Hyperion is latently more Christian than Greek
in emphasis, and tries to show that both Diotima and Empedocles are
Christ figures. Such a thesis does not explain why Hölderlin chose, even
after long discussions with Hegel, to present his ideas under the aegis of
Greek tragedy. Ogden takes Hegel’s great interest in Hölderlin’s work
during the Frankfurt years to be evidence of the Christianity inherent in
Hölderlin’s work, but one can also argue convincingly that Hegel’s writ-
ing of this period took on a decidedly Greek bent, particularly in the
revised description of Jesus.
Indeed, the changes in the Empedocles
drafts do suggest a turning in the way Hölderlin was thinking of Empe-
docles. The fact that Hölderlin’s last major work was the translation of
Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus, and that Hölderlin’s commentaries
on these works return to the same themes that are expressed in “The
Ground for Empedocles,” however, testifies to the limits of this thesis.
Certainly, one might argue that the second two versions of The Death of
Empedocles bear the mark of the Hegelian concerns of positivity and
servitude much more than the first.
In the Thalia-Fragment, the first published preface to Hyperion,
Hölderlin identifies two overwhelming desires of human beings that
manifest what is worst and what is best about human life: “The human
being would like to be in everything and above everything, and the epi-
taph on Loyola’s tomb: non coerci maximo, contineri tamen a minimo
can mean as much the all-desiring, all-subjugating, dangerous side of
humans, as the highest, most beautiful condition they are capable of
attaining. In what sense they should be valid for each person his free will
must decide” (WB 1: 440). Hegel’s “The Spirit of Christianity and its
Fate” is organized around a similar distinction. Hegel distinguishes three
stances that define the fundamental relationship between human being
and world within a religion. The first stance is a desire to dominate, or,
as Hölderlin would put it, a desire to be above everything. The second
stance is one of total servitude or bondage, the result of a positive reli-
gion. The third stance is that of love. In Hegel’s revised understanding
106 The Vegetative Soul
of Jesus, the demand of moral duty is seen to be insufficient. In Christ
there is a unity that goes beyond a promise or a demand that can be con-
cretely realized. In “Christ,” Hegel sees an analogy to the Greek concept
of beauty. As a historical person, Christ embraces both morality and
human weakness. However, the history of Christianity has developed
into something merely positive, by which term Hegel means that which
has a determinate content.
Hegel describes the relationship of human beings to nature in the
Old Testament prior to Abraham as a desire for mastery or domination,
and contrasts Noah to the Greek Deucalion and Pyrrah. Noah set him-
self over and against nature as something to be tamed, and thus his
relationship to the world was characterized by hostility: “Against the
hostile power [of nature] Noah saved himself by subjecting both it and
himself to something more powerful” (GCS 244/182), defending him-
self even against the rage of God. With Abraham appears the beginning
of the “fate” of the Jewish people, which Hegel identifies as uncondi-
tional submission to the stronger, that is, to the law of God. Abraham
“snaps the bonds of communal life and love” (GCS 185/246). Unlike
Cadmus and Danaus, who went in quest of a land where they might be
free and love, Abraham “wanted not to love, wanted to be free by not
loving” (GCS 246/185).
Hegel considers the second attitude, that of servitude or bondage
(Knechtschaft) to be epitomized in Moses, who retreats from Egypt with
his people in order to “vanquish without fighting.” Such a stance man-
ifests “thoroughgoing passivity” with respect to the world and destiny
(GCS 252/194). Hegel calls such an attitude “orientally beautiful” in
that it relinquishes itself to the threat of the loss of all pleasure and all
fortune: “He brought before the slavish spirit the image of itself, namely,
the terror of physical force” (GCS 253/195). Hegel connects this attitude
to Kant’s practical reason. The only difference lies in the fact that in the
Old Testament spirit, unquestioning adherents to a religion make them-
selves slaves to a lord external to themselves, while the Kantian listens
to his own command of duty, and thus carries his lord in himself. Both
are slave mentalities (GCS 266/211). This marks a sharp departure from
Hegel’s earlier adherence to Kantian morality and his former depiction
of Christ. At the same time, however, Hegel follows Kant in linking the
oriental and the passive.
Jesus, in Hegel’s post-Kantian “The Spirit of Christianity and its
Fate,” raised himself above morality (GCS 266/212). Christ preaches
pleroma, the fulfillment of the law. Pleroma indicates a correspondence
of one’s inclination to act with the command of the law, which Hegel
calls “an ‘is’ that is the complement of possibility,” or an “is” that is the
synthesis of subject and object. The law does not remain an opposition
107 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
between a particular subject and a universal command such that the par-
ticular is mastered by the universal; rather, law and inclination are no
longer distinguishable. The relationship is one of identity in difference,
and thus is called “fulfillment” rather than “correspondence.” This,
Hegel asserts, is “life and love” (GCS 268–69/215). The law is rendered
superfluous by the love that reconciles the dominant, positive content
with the possible action: “In reconcilability the law loses its form, the
concept is displaced by life” (GCS 269/215). For example, the com-
mandment “Thou shalt not kill” can be recognized as valid for the will
of every rational being, and thus can be instituted with the categorical
imperative. However, such a commandment is limited, for it can only
put forth an “ought” or a “should,” whereas what Jesus did was to
replace the “ought” with a higher modality, the “is” of loving virtue.
Since a command implies an opposition between a commander and
something resisting the command, its deficiency is immediately apparent
in contrast to a congruence of law and inclination that does not imply
such a positive, oppositional stance. Hegel showed that laws only gain
their force by assuming a particular that must bow to their commands.
The concept of fate, by contrast, implies the human being who
fights against it to exactly the same degree that law implies a particular
bowing in obedience to it. It is thus a thoroughly Greek rather than a
Hebraic concept. For this reason Hegel, under the influence of his dis-
cussions with Hölderlin, chose to present Jesus as a tragic figure rather
than as a commander of duty, and saw in this transformation the differ-
ence between law and pleroma. The characterization of Jesus as tragic,
far from casting him in a stronger role, makes him all the more vulner-
able. Nevertheless, it also presents Jesus as one who attempts to recon-
cile rather than one who commands subjugation to the law. In other
words, Christ does not struggle against fate in this desire to himself gain
the upper hand, for Hegel understood domination, as the inverse of
servitude, equally to imply the paradigm of slavishness:
Punishment represented as fate is of a quite different kind. In fate, pun-
ishment is a hostile power, an individual thing, in which universal and par-
ticular are united in the sense that in it there is no cleavage between com-
mand and its execution; there is such a cleavage, however, when law is in
question, because the law is only a rule, something thought, and needs an
opposite, a reality, from which it acquires its force. In the hostile power of
fate, universal is not severed from particular in the way in which the law,
as a universal, is opposed to the human or to his inclinations as the par-
ticular. Fate is just the enemy, and man stands over against it as a power
fighting against it. Law, on the contrary, as universal, is lord of the par-
ticular and has subdued this person to obedience. The trespass of the man
regarded as in the toils of fate is therefore not a rebellion of the subject
108 The Vegetative Soul
against his ruler, the slave’s flight from his master, liberation from sub-
servience, not a revivification out of a dead situation, for the person is
alive, and before he acts there is no cleavage, no opposition, much less a
mastery. (GCS, 280/228–29)
Fate differs from punishment for not following a law precisely
because it metes out its suffering without regard to guilt or innocence.
In describing fate, Hegel obviously refers not to a Christian, but to a
Greek, and particularly an Oedipal, sensibility:
But fate has a more extended domain than punishment has. It is aroused
even by guilt without crime, and hence it is implicitly stricter than pun-
ishment. Its strictness often seems to pass over into the most crying injus-
tice when it makes its appearance more terrible than ever, over and against
the most exalted form of guilt, the guilt of innocence. (GCS 283/232–33)
When the struggle against fate becomes overwhelming, and recon-
ciliation is impossible, the tragic hero has no choice but to withdraw in
unhappiness, since subservience to a determinate law does not remain an
option. Hegel refers to Jesus in this position as a plant, with the same
description he later uses to characterize the “beautiful soul” in the Phe-
nomenology of Spirit: “Like a sensitive plant, he withdraws into himself
when touched. Rather than make life his enemy, rather than rouse a fate
against himself, he flies from life. Hence, Jesus [Luke xiv.26] required his
friends to forsake father, mother, and everything in order to avoid entry
into a league with the profane world and so into the sphere where a fate
becomes possible” (GCS 286/236). Jesus possesses the highest freedom,
that of the possibility of renouncing everything in order to keep himself
intact, but Hegel interprets this retreat as a “loss of life,” for it implies
renunciation of all larger social and political ties, whether family or
larger community. This would be Hegel’s ultimate criticism of Hölderlin
himself, and Hölderlin’s life was one of the targets of the “beautiful
soul” critique in the Phenomenology of Spirit (W 3: 464f/PS 383f).
Hegel describes Jesus explicitly as “fighting against fate” in these
passages. The death of Jesus, like that of Empedocles, stems from a con-
scious recognition of necessity. Hegel’s portrait of Jesus’ fate could apply
equally to Hölderlin’s Empedocles:
The fate of Jesus was that he had to suffer from the fate of his people;
either he had to make that fate his own, to bear its necessity and share its
joy, to unite his spirit with his people’s, but to sacrifice his own beauty, his
connection with the divine, or else he had to repel his nation’s fate from
himself, but submit to a life undeveloped and without pleasure in itself. In
neither event would his nature be fulfilled; in the former case he would
109 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
sense only fragments of it, and even these would be sullied; in the latter,
he would bring it fully into his consciousness, though he would know its
shape only as a splendid shadow whose essence is the highest truth; the
sensing of that essence he would have to forgo and the truth would not
come alive in act and in reality. Jesus chose the latter fate, the severance
of his nature from the world, and he required the same from his
friends. . . . But the more deeply he felt this severance, the less he could
bear it calmly, and his actions issued from his nature’s spirited reaction
against the world; his fight was pure and sublime because he knew the fate
in its entire range and had set himself against it. (GCS 329/286)
Because Jesus’ life itself is not fulfilled, he becomes a tragic figure.
Hegel’s critique returns again and again to what he regards as the
most ignoble of positions, that of bondage with respect to a law or tra-
dition, acting merely out of unquestioning obedience, even if what one
does is virtuous. Hegel’s denunciation of Judaism rests entirely on the
law-centeredness of that tradition. Both sides of the relation of domina-
tion and of slavishness rest upon this positivity understood in terms of
blindly following the law. In “The Ground for Empedocles,” Hölderlin
writes something similar of Empedocles: “He was not capable of the
negative violent spirit of renovation that moves against the defiant anar-
chic life that will tolerate no influence, no art, that only strives by way
of opposition” (GE 581/60). Empedocles, too, seeks a unity that is not
simply the inverse relation to opposition. He does not seek to lead the
people so much as to become one with them through a demonstration
of the way in which art and nature can be reconciled. Hölderlin explains
the tension that exists between Empedocles’ expectations and the limited
understanding of the people he tries to convince:
They must see the unity between them and the man, yet how can they? In
that he complies with them to the utmost degree? yet in what? At the point
where they are most doubtful about the union of the extremes in which
they live. Now, if these extremes consist in the opposition of art and
nature, then he must reconcile nature with art before their very eyes, pre-
cisely at the point where it is most inaccessible to art. . . . He does [this]
with love and reluctance (for the fear of becoming positive must naturally
be his greatest, out of the sense that he will the more surely perish the
more truly he expresses what is most intense), gives up the attempt; now
they believe everything to be completed. He recognizes them in this. The
illusion under which he had lived, that he had been as one with them, now
ceases. He withdraws and their feelings toward him cool. (GE 582/60; the
words in italics are a footnote that Hölderlin wrote to the text)
Here we can see that Hölderlin perceived the tragic problem of
Empedocles to be very close to Hegel’s depiction of the struggle of
110 The Vegetative Soul
Christ, not concerning the question of the unification of nature and art,
but the perception of positivity as the greatest danger.
What Hölder-
lin calls “the fear of becoming positive” is the belief that “everything is
completed.” This is the same difficulty that Hegel perceived in the prac-
tice of Christianity. Rather than perceiving faith as an open-ended
process that needs to be constantly renewed, a positive understanding
of religion identifies truth with events that have already occurred, or
laws that have been inscribed. Empedocles, too, was reluctant to per-
form acts that would make the people believe in him for fear that the
act (of reconciling art and nature) would be considered accomplished
for all time. We recall that Hegel thought love to be the Christian ana-
logue to the Greek notion of beauty. What both Hölderlin and Hegel
considered to be the greatest danger facing a doctrine of truth, beauty,
or love, was the possibility of its movement beyond an exceedingly
fragile balance between unconcealment and discourse. The moment a
vision is transformed into a determinate doctrine, translated into state-
ments, laws, definitions, it loses its “intensity” (Innigkeit). If Christ or
Empedocles becomes a leader with a doctrine of positive, determinate
content, then his followers become slaves. Both beauty and love are
autonomous, determinate entities that can ever be fully described;
rather, like the growth of the plant, they are only in the process of their
metamorphoses, and the direction of their development can never be
prescribed or predicted.
Although the discourse of servility (Knechtschaft) is already pre-
sent in the first draft of The Death of Empedocles, with the subsequent
drafts it becomes a more and more prominent theme. The first version
includes a scene in which Empedocles, having determined that he will
leave Agrigento and go to throw himself into Mt. Etna, liberates his ser-
vants, telling them to disperse and not to seek to follow him, for if they
join him in opposition to the organized religion of the priests, they will
become slaves. This is meant in a double sense: not only will they be
returned to a life of servitude that they had never experienced in Empe-
docles’ household, but in taking a determinate stand (as “disciples”)
with Empedocles against the prevailing authorities, they will simply be
repeating the gesture of positivity that they are opposing. Hegel makes
the same comment about Jesus’ disciples after his death. They carry on
the rituals without preserving what the life represented.
In the second version of The Death of Empedocles, Hölderlin sets
up a much more immediately recognizable opposition between Empe-
docles and the priest Hermokrates, from the beginning of the drama.
Both sides speak aggressively. Hermokrates calls Empedocles an Abgott,
an “idol,” literally ab-Gott, “away from God” (TE 2, 533). Whereas in
the first version, the people first agree to take Empedocles back among
111 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
them, then beg him to stay, so that his departure appears to be a self-
willed act (though it may be commanded by the gods), in the second ver-
sion he is presented as a perceived enemy of the people. Hermokrates,
speaking to Mekades, makes the role of tradition and religion with
respect to the people explicit: “Thus we tie a blindfold around human
eyes, so that they may not feed too richly on the light” (TE 2, 527), and
says that Empedocles is too powerful (TE 2, 528). In the first version,
Hölderlin puts Jesus’ words (Luke 22:24), “Father! I will thank you,
when the bitterest is once more taken from me” (TE 1, 521), into the
mouth of Pausanias, Empedocles’ disciple. In the second version, how-
ever, Empedocles berates the gods for forsaking him: “Where are you my
gods? Woe! You have left me now like a beggar. . . . Alone! Alone!
Alone!” (TE 2, 536–37).
In the third, final, and likewise unfinished version, questions of
identity merge with the power struggle. In a negation of the Old Testa-
ment divine proclamation (Exodus 3: 14), Empedocles tells Pausanias
“I am not the one I am” (TE 3, 557, my emphasis). As if to emphasize
this point, Manes, the strange Doppelgänger of Empedocles, here
appears on the scene. Manes is an Egyptian, the Oriental opposition to
Empedocles’ Greek (as for Hegel the Jewish Moses contrasted to the
occidentalized Christ). Manes calls Empedocles a Trugbild, an “illu-
sion,” but in response to Empedocles’ “Who are you?” answers “I have
told you many things, on the distant Nile” (TE 3, 560). Already, both
time and space have entered a realm of confusion; the voyage Empedo-
cles urges Pausanias to take rather than sacrificing himself along with
him ranges from the Italy of the Roman empire to a visit to Plato. The
anachronisms forward and back can be explained by the words “every-
thing recurs [es kehret alles wieder]” (TE 3, 559–60). In his turn,
Manes asks Empedocles, “O tell me who you are! and who am I?” (TE
3, 562). Are you:
. . . the new savior [who] calmly seizes the rays of Heaven,
and lovingly
takes what is mortal to his breast,
And the strife of the world is mollified.
Between the gods and humans he mediates
And they again live nearby, as they did before.
And so that, having appeared, the son shall not be greater
than the parents
Nor the holy spirit of life remain bound
Forgotten over him, the singular,
So he turns aside, the idol of his time,
He breaks his own good fortune, too happy for him
112 The Vegetative Soul
So that through a pure hand the necessary may happen for
the pure
And returned what he possessed, purified, to the elements
That had glorified him.
Are you the man? the same one? are you this? (TE 3, 562)
Empedocles berates Manes for “tempting” him (recalling Satan’s
three temptations of Christ in Matthew 4) into thinking of himself as a
savior, as lord over the world. Yet Manes the omniscient’s words are
significant, particularly when he foresees that Empedocles (or Christ)
must “turn aside” in order that the following of the “son” shall not
acquire a positivity on Earth that would make him appear greater than
his parents, for as human he is only one (Einzige); he both encompasses
the entire unity in himself, and at the same time retains his origin and
his destiny.
Hegel makes a similar observation in “The Spirit of Christianity
and its Fate,” comparing the Trinity to a tree:
A tree that has three branches makes up with them one tree; but every
“son” of the tree, every branch (and also its other “children,” leaves and
blossoms) is itself a tree. The fibers bringing sap to the branch from the
stem are of the same nature as the roots. If a tree is set in the ground
upside down it will put forth leaves out of the roots in the air, and the
boughs will root themselves in the ground. And it is just as true to say that
there is only one tree here as to say that there are three. (TJS 309/261)
However, Hegel presumes the unity of the tree (although he chooses it
for its simultaneous capacity to be both one and many), and does not
take into consideration the fact that the plant may become fragmented
or multiple through cuttings or seeds that could isolate themselves
from the origin. Hegel insists that it is “just as true” to say that the
tree is one as three, unlike Goethe, who insisted that no plant can be
called an individual. Hegel recognizes the ambiguity of definition, yet
he clearly privileges the unifying gesture over that which would take
each branch to be one of a multitude. This marks a clear distinction
between Hölderlin and Hegel even in this most “Christian” or
“Hegelian” of the Empedocles drafts,
and foreshadows Hegel’s phi-
losophy of nature, for the conversation between Manes and Empedo-
cles at the end of the unfinished draft attests to the fundamental ambi-
guity Hölderlin felt about the possibility of redemption, and thus the
possibility of unifying what has become multiple. First, Hölderlin has
Empedocles set to cast himself, not into the arms of a heavenly Father,
but into the very earthly Father Aetna, also called the “dark Mother.”
113 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
Second, Empedocles tells Manes that the very positivity of Manes’
description of the savior itself has prevented Empedocles from being
able to carry out his suicide:
Manes: How is it with us? Do you see so clearly?
Empedocles: You ask me that? You who can see all things?
Manes: Let us be silent, o son! and always learn.
Empedocles: You taught me in the past; today learn from me.
Manes: Have you not told me everything?
Empedocles: O no!
Manes: So now you are going?
Empedocles: I am not going yet, O old one,
From this good green earth my eyes
should not depart without joy.
And I still want to think on past time,
The friends of my youth, the dear ones,
That now live in distant Hellas’ happy cities,
The brothers, too, who cursed me, so it had to be,
Leave me now, when the sun goes down over there
You will see me again. (TE 565)
Empedocles is uneasy with the description of one who “turns aside” so
that the “necessary may happen” and the pure “may return, purified to
the elements.” He refuses to commit suicide “without joy.” The suicide
is not an act in the interest of a final result; specifically, Empedocles is
not sacrificing himself for the sake of a higher unity. Though he
promises that he will be seen again, the reference is not to a second birth,
but to a temporary deferral of death.
In “The Ground for Empedocles,” Hölderlin explains tragic strug-
gle in terms of the inevitable struggle between nature and art that will
result if humans try to attain knowledge of nature (GE 715/53).
Through the interaction of nature and art (that is, all human working
upon nature, whether physical or theoretical), nature becomes “more
organic, through the forming, cultivating man,” whereas simultaneously
humans become “more aorgic, universal, infinite” (GE 715/53). How-
ever, “in the middle,” writes Hölderlin, “there lies the struggle and the
death of the individual, that moment when the organic discards its I-ness
[Ichheit], its particular existence that had become an extreme.” This
sounds suspiciously like a Hegelian moment of transition from particu-
lar to absolute, except that Hölderlin specifies that at the same time “the
aorgic must increasingly concentrate against the extreme of the particu-
lar and must gain a middle point and become the most particular” (GE
716/54). In other words, the movement is more of a turning inside-out
114 The Vegetative Soul
or a looping of endpoints back to a midpoint than a progression.
Hölderlin presents the death of the individual as a real, narrative event:
in Empedocles, the philosopher throws himself into Aetna, while in
Hyperion, Diotima perishes. Hölderlin writes of Empedocles, “[H]is fate
presents itself to him in a momentary union which, however, has to dis-
solve, though, in order to increase” (GE 718/55), and this is equally true
of Hyperion.
Hölderlin writes of the most intense, or intimate (innig) sensibility
(Empfindung), which is the sensibility of the tragic hero: “The most
intense sensibility is exposed to transitoriness [Vergänglichkeit] precisely
to the degree to which it does not deny the true temporal and sensuous
relations” (GE 572/52). On the one hand, this intensity is what will
make the hero stand out from everyone else (seeming to assure his
longevity, at least in terms of history). On the other hand, precisely since
it is the most intense sensibility, the sensibility of the hero is somehow
compelled not to deny “the true temporal and sensuous relations,”
which are, presumably, that everything becomes in passing away (“das
Werden im Vergehen”). In not denying these relations, the hero
“exposes” himself to “transitoriness” in the highest degree, that is, he
himself is most subject to the laws of transience (in despair flinging him-
self into the abyss, for example). At the same time, he becomes the sen-
sibility itself, which implies his destruction as individual in any event;
death simply confirms this event. The life of the most intense is the most
vulnerable. Yet this is not a pathetic observation, to be accompanied by
sadness or pity. The vulnerability comes through exposure to temporal-
ity and becoming, but is not separable from it by means of, say, a cul-
ture that appreciates art or philosophy—or recognizes prophecy—more.
Hölderlin understands the tragic hero to be out of joint with time, but
he also understands that time is ever out of joint with heroics.
However, there seems to be another resonance of this passage,
which suggests that the denial of the laws of time and space (causality,
succession) is sometimes precisely what is needed for art. Hölderlin writes
in parentheses at the end of the statement that it is also lyric law to deny
the true temporal and sensuous relations, if “intensity as such can be
maintained there [in the denial] less profoundly and hence more easily”
(GE 572/52). In effect, a crossing takes place in tragedy: that which is
most conscious (the individual human) loses consciousness, and in doing
so lends speech and consciousness to that which is normally mute and
unconscious, that is, to unorganized nature (the aorgic). Hölderlin writes
that insofar as Empedocles becomes more conscious of the fact that what
is being spoken becomes “unspeakable or not-to-be-spoken,” that is,
lends itself less and less to the possibility of determination and thus
becomes more and more universal, ineffable, and “unconscious,” the
115 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
contraries—organic and aorgic, consciousness and unconsciousness, par-
ticular and universal—come together in him and unite (GE 576/55).
However, in the process Empedocles himself, as determinate, conscious
individual, must perish, for he is “too intense, too singular.”
Hölderlin describes the opponent of the tragic hero as “tied to con-
sciousness,” one who “seeks to solve the problems of the time in a dif-
ferent, more negative way”: “His virtue is understanding, his goddess
necessity. He is destiny itself, only with the exception that the contend-
ing forces inside him are tied to a consciousness, to a point of separation
(Scheidepunkt) that keeps them facing one another in a clear and con-
trolled manner, that ties them to a (negative) ideality and gives them a
direction” (GE 583/61). Here it seems that Hölderlin could be describ-
ing either Kant or the later Hegel. In fact, however, this passage testifies
to the discussions Hegel and Hölderlin must have been having before
and around this time. Hegel’s chief concern in describing the historical
development of Christianity in “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate”
was to distinguish between the original message of love Jesus preached
and the positive doctrine created by the church over the years, a doctrine
Hegel thought made it resemble the Judaism it originally diverged from
more closely than the teachings of Christ.
The tragic Christ Hegel describes lives and dies on earth, and fails
in completing his task because of the opposition he finds in already
established religion. He is misconstrued after his death. The positivity
Hegel describes in the Christian religion results from the disciples “for-
getting” once they no longer have the man among them. Hegel mourns
Christianity as the possibility of a living religion, set apart from the dead
unity of a concept:
A living bond of the virtues, a living unity, is quite different from the unity
of the concept; it does not set up a determinate virtue for determinate cir-
cumstances, but appears, even in the most variegated mixture of relations,
untorn and unitary. Its external shape may be modified in infinite ways; it
will never have the same shape twice. Its expression will never be able to
afford a rule, since it never has the force of a universal opposed to a par-
ticular. Just as virtue is the complement of obedience to law, so love is the
complement of the virtues. By it all one-sidednesses, all exclusivenesses, all
restricted virtues, are annulled. There are no longer any virtuous sins or
sinning virtues, since it is the living interrelation of men in their essential
being. In it all severances, all restrictions, disappear, and so, too, the lim-
itations on the virtues cease to exist. Where could there be room for deter-
minate virtues when no right remains to be surrendered? (TJS 246)
Through the death of Christ this possibility evaporates for Hegel.
From the ashes of the tragic life of Christ, however, Hegel ultimately
116 The Vegetative Soul
retrieves the structure of resurrection, which, together with the phe-
nomenon of spirit manifesting itself externally, becomes the fundament
of dialectical logic. If early German Idealistic speculation is based on the
model of tragedy, only Hegel takes this trope to a further possibility that
redeems the tragic moment and gives the negative a function and an end
toward which to move. The movement from tragic Christ to resurrected
Christ in Hegel’s thought marks the transition to the dialectic, even in its
manifestation in the philosophy of nature.
The life of Hegel’s plant, like that of his Christ, is valued for its
structure and not for its earthly existence. Hegel regards Jesus’ life on
earth, in its tragic nature, as a failure. Jesus was not able to overcome the
positivity of the religious tradition of his time, he was not able to form a
community or have a family, in order to be able to exist with all the eth-
ical implications of a full life. Indeed, the proximity of Empedocles and
plant and Jesus and plant is not simply fortuitous. In the logic of Hegel’s
Philosophy of Nature, the plant is the middle term, just as Christ is the
middle term of the Trinity. The plant, too, will sacrifice itself for the sake
of the birth of spirit—yet in a manner altogether alien to the pre-suicidal
reflections of Hölderlin’s Empedocles. Unlike the fragility of Hölderlin’s
plant tropes, Hegel’s symbols will ultimately retain their metamorphos-
ing form while gaining the hardiness and tensile strength of the structure
of resurrection. Parallel to the development, in Hegel’s thought, from an
emphasis on the historical Christ to a retention of Christ purely as a
structure of Aufhebung as resurrection, the plant (and thus the human as
plant) goes from a living, concrete existence to the abstract form of
metaphoric metamorphosis. In doing so, it will take on the unyielding
configuration that we have called animal individuation.
117 Figures of Plant Vulnerability
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(December 19, 1798)
He runs in wide circles on the plain; we are his point of return;
He searches in the earth, he spots me, and soon gambols toward me.
Now where is he?
He has found playmates. They tease, flee, and search each other
The hunter becomes the hunted. But see, now they’ve run too far.
Come here! The word tears him free of his instinct and forces him
back to his master.
But a bitch pulls him off to the right again. Stop!
Come back! He doesn’t hear. The stick awaits you [deiner]. I don’t
see him any longer.
He is slinking back along the hedge, his bad conscience slows his
Come to me! You [du] circle me from a distance, wagging your tail,
he must—
Have you all [Ihr] never seen what Must means? Here you [Ihr’s]
will see it. He can’t do otherwise.
You [du] scream at the blows: obey the commands of the master.
—G.W.F. Hegel
The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
The poem with which we open is one of Hegel’s lesser known literary
efforts. It has none of the poignancy of “Eleusis,” dedicated to Hölder-
lin, nor the innocence of some of his more lyrical nature poems. One of
Hegel’s biographers describes the poem as an interplay of “playful free-
dom, natural necessity, estrangement of self and return to self.”
On this
account, the description of Hegel’s interaction with his pet poodle could
almost encapsulate the dialectical method for which Hegel would later
become famous. Both the poem and the explanation certainly have a
foreboding ring of what is to come; at the time of the poem’s composi-
tion Hegel had broached neither the philosophy of nature nor the dialec-
tical method. Perhaps it is not frivolous to see in this “playful descrip-
tion” an ominous sign of what would become Hegel’s attitude toward
nature in general in his mature works.
The poem describes a dog that runs about on a flat open space out-
doors, always returning to the master who is walking with his friends.
But the dog, a mere animal without language or rationality, is distracted
by other dogs, and, in particular, by a female dog who pulls him away
from the spiritual, human, cycle of the master that Hegel indicates is
higher than the natural, instinctual, sexual cycle that tempts the dog
away. The master shouts “Stop!” and “Come back!” The words “tear
[the dog] loose” from mere instinct, but he is weak, and the natural
drive pulls him away again. The master shouts, and awaits the dog with
a stick, determined to teach through pure force what could not be com-
municated rationally. Though the dog cannot understand the words, the
blows of the stick teach him the superiority of reason over pure natural
impulse. Hegel addresses his friends, inviting them to learn a lesson from
his actions. The plural pronoun Ihr, rather than the familiar du with
which he addresses the dog, indicates that when he asks, “Do you see
what ‘Must’ means? Now you see it,” Hegel is speaking to his compan-
ions. The “Must” Hegel refers to is the necessity of nature. Because the
dog acts according to nature, Hegel somewhat excuses him: “He cannot
do otherwise.” In spite of this, the dog is beaten, in order that he may
learn to obey his master.
One cannot help visualizing a patronizing young Hegel, his face
either calm and smiling or red with righteous indignation, repeatedly
beating his dog with a stick “for his own good” for not realizing that
heeding the master is spiritually higher than indulging in the pleasures of
the senses. The alternation of perspective within the poem, though prob-
ably the result of carelessness rather than explicit poetic intention, inten-
sifies the uneasy feeling the poem creates in the reader: in the moments
when Hegel speaks of the dog as “he,” he (Hegel) is distant and descrip-
tive, if utterly anthropocentric: “He runs in wide circles on the plain, we
are his point of return.” Yet as soon as he speaks directly as master to the
120 The Vegetative Soul
dog he becomes shrilly insistent upon the necessity of the lower animal’s
obedience and subservience (“You scream at the blows: Obey the com-
mands of the master”). At this moment the pet dog becomes a metonym
for nature itself, and the relationship of master and dog can serve as an
analogy to the way in which Hegel will approach nature.
If, as Mueller puts it, this poem illustrates the cycle of freedom,
natural necessity, estrangement of self, and return to self, then the “self”
of the dog is understood only in its relationship to a higher level of
nature, namely to the human being. As we will come to see, this is
indeed the case with every level of organic nature as Hegel describes it
in the later versions of the Encyclopedia. However, it is difficult to
understand the leap from the essays on Christ as a tragic figure that
Hegel wrote while still in Frankfurt to the philosophy of nature outlined
in the Encyclopedia, first published in 1817, without examining the
early philosophy of nature found in the lecture courses Hegel gave in
Jena in the years following his departure from Frankfurt.
Hegel’s philosophy of nature exhibits the imbrication of descrip-
tions of nature with assumptions about the nature of human being and
thinking and its place within the natural world. Purportedly providing a
neutral description of nature and its processes, the philosophy of nature
lectures ultimately provide implicit justification for spiritual hierarchies
ranking the place of men and women, Europeans and non-Europeans,
Christians and non-Christians within both history and contemporary
politics. Hegel’s lectures on nature thus provide important insight into
his understanding of subjectivity.
Hegel’s mature philosophy of nature ultimately subordinates all of
nature to the progression of spirit, a progression that culminates in
human subjectivity understood to be gained at the price of its natural
origin. In the hierarchy of Hegel’s philosophy of nature animals are
higher than plants and minerals, but each manifests a lesser degree of (at
least potential) spirit; together, they form part of nature as the history of
spirit. These are the three stages of organic development that Hegel
describes in the short section of his Philosophy of Nature entitled
“Organic Physics.” With Goethe and other contemporaries such as
Novalis and Schelling, Hölderlin believed that examining the human
relationship with nature can illuminate fundamental truths about
human existence, and that human being can be understood only in con-
junction with nature. For Hegel, by contrast, nature has a value only in
the process of understanding the primitive beginnings of what will
evolve into spirit, that is, into human thought and action. Hegel finds a
value in studying nature only as a means of understanding the history of
spirit, that is, of understanding a spiritual history or ancestry of life
forms leading up to the creation of the human being.
121 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
According to Hegel, all of nature is both necessary and contin-
gent; necessarily bound by the laws of physics and biology, but subject
to irrational changes of form that are the result of chance rather than
freedom. Nature cannot control the erratic birth of misshapen or mon-
strous exceptions to the general pattern, “intermediate and defective
forms” (W 9: 36/PN 1: 216), and this is what excludes it from a place
in the present progression of spirit. Nature is characterized by caprice
and disorder, irrationality and the impossibility of being conceptual-
ized, but none of these characteristics is to be confused with freedom.
Hegel calls this identification of natural caprice with freedom a “con-
fusion,” the result of “sensuous and unphilosophical thinking” (W 9:
35/PN 1: 215). Spirit is destined to be the master of nature. In the
introduction to the “Philosophy of Nature” in the Encyclopedia, Hegel
calls nature the Abfall, or the refuse, of spirit (W 9: 28/PN 1: 209).
this introduction Hegel emphatically contrasts nature with the products
of human reason and genius:
Every product of the spirit, the very worst of its imaginings, the capri-
ciousness of its most arbitrary moods, a mere word, are all better evidence
of God’s being than any single object. It is not only that in nature the play
of forms has unbounded and unbridled contingency, but that each shape
by itself is devoid of the concept of itself. Life is the ultimate that nature
in its existence drives toward, but as a merely natural idea life is given over
to the irrationality of externality. . . . If spiritual contingency or caprice
goes forth into evil, that which goes astray is still infinitely superior to the
regular movement of stars, or the innocent life of the plant, because that
which errs is still spirit. (W 9: 28–29/PN 1: 209–10)
Hegel repeatedly describes plants as “innocent,” presumably
because though they share a lack of consciousness with other organic
entities, they share life and practices such as nourishment, respiration,
and reproduction, with animals. Innocence remained an attribute linked
to the plant even after the influence of Romantic literature had waned.
Hegel’s attribution of innocence to plant life has broader implications
than might seem immediately obvious, as we will see when we examine
the degree to which his characterization of nature influenced his inter-
pretation of human culture. Stones are obdurate and ignorant, because
they do not even possess the possibility of life. Plants are naïve and inno-
cent, and as such will be compared to and symbolize the Orient, pagan
religions, and women.
According to Hegel, natural forms develop in a system of stages
(Stufen) that proceed one from the other, such that each is the “truth”
of the one that precedes it. This does not mean that he believes in a
strange evolution in which plants are actually created out of stone or
122 The Vegetative Soul
animals out of plants. Indeed, Hegel insists that the progressive model
of nature is not one that occurs in time, since it is a spiritual, rather than
a biological model. The concept (Begriff) is the substratum that persists
through these changes, and nature remains pure exteriority with refer-
ence to it. In other words, Hegel discounts natural time and natural
development, and gives importance only to the way in which nature
appears from the point of view of spirit.
Hegel specifies that metamor-
phosis can have value as an explanation only with reference to the con-
cept, since “only its alteration is development” (W 9: 31/PN 1: 212).
Metamorphosis in an individual natural entity, such as a plant or a but-
terfly, cannot be a principle of development but is limited to that exis-
tent individual alone. In his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel criticizes
Goethe for making metamorphosis the central explanatory principle of
nature for the reason that, according to Hegel, metamorphosis is an
account that relies on merely quantitative change. Hegel understands
metamorphosis as “a single idea which persists in the various genera and
in the same way in each particular organ, so that these genera and
organs are only reorganizations of the form of one and the self-same
type.” In the notion of metamorphosis, Hegel argues, difference is inad-
equately emphasized (W 9: 33). Hegel’s own account of nature, then,
emphasizes the qualitative leap that is accomplished in each of the three
stages he identifies in organic nature. Unlike Schelling, Hegel identifies
three distinct stages of stone, plant, and animal, forming three hierar-
chically distinct units in the development of nature that correspond to
the three moments of dialectical logic. This kind of thinking led to
Schelling’s criticism that Hegel’s philosophy gives up any claim to
knowledge of real existence and becomes purely negative, merely logi-
cal, or “logicizing.”
Hegel in turn sarcastically criticized Schelling’s pic-
ture of nature as “a night where all cows are black,”
referring to the
impossibility of knowing nature without contrasting it to the negative of
spirit, the vacuity (as Hegel saw it) of understanding nature itself to be
the absolute.
For Schelling (as for Goethe), the organic world exhibits the same
combination of finite product and infinite progression that human intel-
ligence does: “One may say that organic nature furnishes the most obvi-
ous proof of transcendental idealism, for every plant is a symbol of the
Ironically, Schelling’s positive choice of plant as symbol is
given for reasons that are nearly identical to Hegel’s reasons why plants
can have no true subjectivity:
For the plant, indeed, the material that it appropriates or incorporates into
itself under a particular form is already preformed in the natural environ-
ment; but whence, then, is the material to come to the intelligence, since
123 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
it is absolute and alone? Since, therefore, it produces the material no less
than the form from out of itself, it is the absolutely organic. In the origi-
nal succession of presentations it appears to us as an activity which is
unceasingly at once both cause and effect of itself; cause, insofar as it pro-
duces; effect, insofar as it is the produced.
Indeed, for Schelling, nature itself is intelligence, and thinks itself, not in
analogy to human thinking, but as nature. Schelling does not claim that
the human intellect works in the way that a plant grows, but rather that
the growth of a plant exhibits the kind of intelligence that nature is.
Nature itself is a visible manifestation of the ideal, a manifestation of a
power of reason that is not limited to human consciousness. In this
sense, Schelling is very close to Goethe.
Although Schelling’s ideas catalyzed Hegel’s interest in nature,
Hegel would ultimately take his philosophy of nature in quite a differ-
ent direction. Until he joined Schelling at the University of Jena in 1801,
Hegel had not concerned himself with the philosophy of nature in gen-
eral, concentrating instead on topics that concerned human nature—
religion, history, ethics—which would remain his priority throughout
his life. For Hegel nature remains a known, conceptualized nature, only
to be approached through the assumption that it has already been fil-
tered through the human understanding.
Schelling named intelligence
something that preceded and was a condition for the possibility of con-
scious human understanding. Hegel’s philosophy of nature in its mature
form might be called, rather than a metaphysics of nature, a metaphysics
of the compounded human knowledge of nature. Hegel’s account covers
an astonishing range of scientific theories and speculations, ranging
from Aristotle to Paracelsus, from Jakob Böhme to medieval alchemical
theories, from Goethe to Schelling, to an enormous number of contem-
porary scientific theories.
Hegel’s emphasis on speculative natural phi-
losophy, mysticism, and alchemy reflects his approach to nature, which
never pretends to be a strictly empirical or scientific one (in the way
many scientists today would understand that term), but rather seeks to
understand nature always from the way in which it has been taken up
by humans.
Hegel’s dialectic, however, is based at least partly on a plant model;
its ultimate symbol, that of Christ as God born in human form, dying
and being reborn spiritually, has appeared in almost every archaic reli-
gion under the form of the god of the harvest (some of its manifestations
are Dionysos and Adonis). Hegel presents the progression from stone to
vegetable to animal, mirrored by a parallel development in religion from
deities of light to deities of plant, animal, and finally to human-based
deities, as a hierarchy. I will argue that Hegel’s philosophy of nature
124 The Vegetative Soul
develops in a way that parallels his movement from an emphasis on a
tragic Christ to the formal logic of resurrection. In other words, nature,
for Hegel, has an importance only as the determinate existing reality
that provides a basis for a transcendent structure. As the Jesus who
failed his mission and died succumbs to the Christ who is reborn after
death, the plant succumbs to the animal, and, more importantly, the
open-ended form of plant metamorphosis will be incorporated by the
assimilating power of the animal organism. Thus, the development of
Hegel’s philosophy of nature, however unintentionally, provides an apt
figure for the transformation of the attempt at a “vegetative” subjectiv-
ity back into the more familiar Enlightenment (masculine) model that
ultimately prevailed after the decline of German Idealism’s influence.
This movement, in turn, will follow the all-important move from the
open-endedness of desire to the encapsulation of desire in an end.
Hegel’s reconfiguration of Kant’s teleology of nature illustrates the move
from a Hölderlinian plant-like nature that moves with the human being
in a constant rhythm—a rhythm of expansive desire and contractive
recognition of finitude—to a containment of desire within a definitive
structure. Although the first part of the Phenomenology of Spirit explic-
itly works against an animal-like understanding of desire, the form in
which spirit unfolds ultimately rejects the open-endedness and indeter-
minacy of the plant form in favor of the incorporation of the animal.
Indeed, Hegel’s story of nature is a fable presented as science, a
fable that ends in the self-sacrifice of the plant for the sake of the ani-
mal, and the sacrifice of nature as a whole for the sake of spirit. This
progression follows the same pattern that Hegel discerns in the replace-
ment of religions that worshipped powers of nature, such as the cult of
Dionysos, by religions that worshipped a transcendent god. In Chris-
tianity, particularly, the natural and living are transformed into spirit as
the symbolic and the (resurrected) dead. For Hegel, the difference
between plant and animal will be less something purely biological or
purely spiritual than part of the story of the gradual transition from
matter to spirit, a movement from one term to another of a whole series
of bipartite distinctions: from distance to proximity, from fragmenta-
tion to wholeness, from dependence to freedom, from multiplicity to
oneness, from passivity to activity, from positivity to negativity, from
weight to lightness, from rigidity to fluidity, from female to male, from
plant to animal, from oriental to occidental, from mere oscillation to
movement in time.
Hegel’s tripartite philosophy of nature does not remain, even in his
own corpus, the small, necessary, but hidden tail of the trajectory of
spirit. The division into rock, plant, and animal is only one metonymic
name for a structure that reappears in almost every area of spirit that
125 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
Hegel examines. But it is particularly powerful because it is taken to be
the description of a natural order; the hierarchy will then permeate other
hierarchies and provide their “natural” justification. The following pas-
sage demonstrates that for Hegel the plant provides an irreducible
metaphor in the sense of juxtaposing the natural and the cultural in such
a way that one not only illuminates the other but also provides its
implicit warrant and foundation.
The difference between men and women is that between animals and
plants. Men correspond to animals, while women correspond to plants
because their development is more placid and the principle that underlies
it is the rather vague unity of feeling. When women hold the helm of gov-
ernment, the state is at once in jeopardy, because women regulate their
actions not by the demands of universality but by arbitrary inclinations
and opinions. Women are educated—who knows how?—as it were by
breathing in ideas, by living rather than acquiring knowledge. The status
of manhood, by contrast, is attained only by the stress of thought and
much technical exertion.
Hegel employs the structure of nature as he has outlined it to justify
“naturally” (and thus incontrovertably) the hierarchies he draws in
human realms. The same technique will be used to delineate the history of
art and the history of religion. Not only women, but non-Christian and
non-European “orientals” will be placed on the side of the stone and the
plant. The progression of rock-plant-animal will provide the model, both
in terms of outward form and inward development, for the progression
(and progression is always a progress, from primitive to advanced, from
ignorant to enlightened) of spiritual forms. Time and again Hegel sees his-
tory repeating itself through these basic forms. The vegetable becomes the
form of woman, of onion domes and stylized lotus carvings, of passivity
and as yet unalleviated ignorance, of Judaism and Islam and Hinduism
and the East in its most blatantly generalized shape as Other.
Hegel conceives of nature prior to the intervention of human
understanding—perhaps because he began by studying geological
nature—as a congealed mass, a lump of lava or amber in which spirit is
preserved, to be freed only by the melting power of thought. Once, look-
ing at the starry sky, Hegel commented that it was “an immobile exhi-
bition, a formal model that represents an eternal past in mute hiero-
glyphics that can only be freed from its ossification through recognition
The spirit of nature is hidden, and can only be brought
out by the understanding mind that penetrates and melts the rigidity of
what is merely contingent in itself. Thus, nature prior to the penetrating
force of human thought somehow resembles the realm of earth before
anything that grows has sprung from it.
126 The Vegetative Soul
Indeed, much of Hegel’s early philosophy of nature has to do with
the sun and the earth as systems, and with more abstract notions within
physics and chemistry such as the breakdown into forces and elements.
While the 1803–1804 lectures contain references to plant and animal
life, what remains of the 1804–05 notes mention only sections dealing
with the “System of the Sun,” the “Earthly System,” the “process of the
material” and “physics.” Here, Hegel is almost exclusively concerned
with space, time, the formation of masses or bodies, and movement. In
his earliest lectures, Hegel seems to consider earth and rock to be inor-
ganic nature. The science of geology was just beginning to form at this
time, a fact that explains why Hegel did not include a section on geo-
logical nature within the study of organic nature until the later Ency-
clopedia. Nevertheless, from the beginning, “earth” is always the start-
ing point of organic nature in order to retain the tripartite structure that
is necessary according to Hegel’s logic.
The need to divide organic nature (as well as everything he stud-
ied) into three parts stemmed from Hegel’s growing conviction that the
dialectical method not only could be “applied” to nature but also actu-
ally manifested the structure inherent in all natural and historico-spiri-
tual progression or development. Moreover, if it could be shown that
nature, too, followed the tripartite movement Hegel had already studied
in human accomplishments, this would strengthen the dialectical thesis,
apparently manifesting it as a natural order. In the Science of Logic, in
the section that addresses the question of whether life can properly be
called a category of the science of logic, Hegel explains his principle of
division in the following way: in its first determination, life is the process
of the living implicit within itself; the second determination is the exte-
riorization of the first and its recognition of an other, and the third
determination is the unity of the first and second, self and other, in itself.
This structure follows the unfolding of God-Christ-Holy Spirit.
If we
understand every instance of the tripartite structure to repeat, however
distantly, the event of immediate presence/incarnation/resurrection, then
the figure of the plant parallels the figure of Christ, since both Christ
and plant—which Hegel describes between mineral and animal nature—
are middle terms, figures for the externalization of an implicit concept.
On another level, nature itself is the middle term of externalization
between logic and spirit.
Three sets of note fragments from Hegel’s Jena lectures from the
years 1803 to 1806 have been compiled. Of these, the 1805–1806 col-
lection is the most complete, and, as might be expected, the most devel-
oped. The 1803–1804 lecture notes contain a section on organic nature
entitled “On the Organic and the Philosophy of Spirit,” but the notes on
minerals, plants, and animals are combined, and the philosophy of spirit
127 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
soon overtakes them in emphasis. The 1804–1805 lecture notes as they
remain contain no mention of the organic.
The 1803–1804 lecture notes already show the direction the
1805–1806 lectures will take. As the middle term in every presenta-
tion—between logic on the one hand, and the philosophy of spirit on the
other—nature itself is in Hegel’s terms always the externalization or
alienation (Entäusserung) of the concept. For Hegel the term Äusserung
always indicates contingency and limitation. Only after nature has been
elevated into the realm of spirit, which occurs only when it essentially
burns, can it be considered as part of the necessary history of the pro-
gression of spirit. Within the presentation of nature, the plant is this
middle term or exteriorization: if the earth is inert, “implicit” nature (an
sich), the plant is the first externalization of what cannot even yet be
called potential in the earth, while the animal literally ingests the plant
in order to achieve a relative self-sufficiency the plant can never attain.
This relationship is already clearly presented in Hegel’s first lectures on
organic nature.
In the 1803–1804 fragment “So allgemein abgesondert von der
Erde . . .” Hegel begins by calling the earth a “jelly” in which nothing
is distinguished, an “absolute having-flowed into one” (JI 210). It has
the “seed of life” in it, but not the seed of any determinate life. It is “per-
meated by the absolute concept” (JI 210). Spirit is referred to as “the liq-
uid” or “the flowing” (das Flüssige), and “the flowing is the absolute
communication of that which itself, according to its nature as a being-
outside-of-itself, in which the absolute concept realizes itself and in its
absolute opposition, has its simplicity as existing” (JI 210). This
explains why Hegel uses the language of melting to describe the transi-
tion from nature to spirit; nature, for Hegel, refers to the rigid and the
determinate, to the object, whereas spirit is the realm of freedom. Thus,
the fact that plant and animal, unlike stone, contain fluids within them,
points to the greater spirituality of their existence.
From the characterization of earth as jelly, that is, as the most con-
gealed form of nature, Hegel immediately goes on to identify the chief
distinguishing feature between the plant and the animal as the fact that
the plant “cannot retain this fluid in itself,” and thus does not have a
unity of its internal and external world (JI 211). The animal, by contrast,
because of its self-enclosed (beschlossen) interior of circulating fluids
(principally blood) that do not pass from it into either the earth or the
air, carries the spiritual liquidity within itself. The universal fluid merely
flows through and then outside the plant, whereas the animal holds this
universal element within itself as a part of itself (JI 211). Here we see
explicitly the parallel drawn between self-enclosedness and spirituality,
and the linkage between “animal individuation” and subjectivity.
128 The Vegetative Soul
In the 1805–1806 lecture notes, Hegel expands the commentary on
vegetable nature considerably, although the extensive study of botanical
work such as that of Goethe and of Linnaeus that characterizes the descrip-
tion of plant life in the Encyclopedia is missing. In the course of time
between the first and the third series of early lectures Hegel strengthens his
argument for the deficiency of the plant by expanding the description of the
plant structure in detail. The emergence of the plant marks the first time that
the earth opens itself up to the growth of something higher than it is. Thus,
for the first time earth is as subject. Whereas “prior to” the emergence of
organic nature—earth seems to occupy a preorganic realm that is situated
between the inorganic and the organic—the earth tended toward the for-
mation of autonomous, completed, singular bodies, such as the sun, the
moon, and the comets, in nurturing the seeds of plant life the earth is sub-
lated into mere elements, into minerals that nourish the plant (JIII, 129). Just
as the plant will serve the animal, the earth here seems to serve the plant.
Since, however, the plant is nothing more than the process of these
elements that pass through it along with light, water, and air, the earth
cannot be said to be for the plant; rather, the earth is still immediately
one with the plant (JIII, 129). The plant is nothing more than an organic
extension of the earth. The plant is a specific kind of its own (Gattung),
but it cannot be considered an individual because it is never opposed to
itself. Rather, it remains a singular thing, since even collections of plant
“individuals” remain indifferent to each other, as an aggregation rather
than an integrated whole (JIII, 129, note 3). We recall that Hegel’s prin-
cipal objection to Hölderlin (and to Christ seen as tragic) was that
“beautiful souls” withdrew from society rather than becoming part of
an ethical community. Even the plant’s relationship to the earth is an
indifferent one—Hegel notes that plants can be nourished chemically
and grow equally well without their being sown in the earth. From
experiments such as these, Hegel believes that plants get no real nour-
ishment from the earth, but only from water and the air. Plants as seeds
are thus simply the “power of the earth,” giving the earth the potential
for growth (JIII, 130). At the same time, however, plants yearn for the
light in the way that solitary human beings yearn for the companionship
of lovers and friends. The beautiful soul is thus something like a potato
in a dark cellar that starts to sprout eyes at the sight of the tiniest crack
of light coming through a window high above (JIII, 132).
The plant in conjunction with the earth becomes pure possibility;
earth in itself is potency, but not in a determined, immediate sense. The
seed of the plant is essential power, the first transition to “life” (JIII,
131). This introduces a famous passage included in the additions
(Zusätze) to the Encyclopedia. Hegel describes the moment of germina-
tion from the seed in terms of a pagan mysticism:
129 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
This safeguarding of the seed in the earth is therefore a mystical, mag-
ical act—as the infant is not just this helpless human form that gives no
indication of reason, but is in itself the power of reason, something
quite other than this thing [dies] that cannot speak or do anything
rational; and baptism is precisely this solemn recognition of fellowship
in the realm of spirit. So putting, letting the seed [fall] in the earth is
this mystical act, [the recognition] that there are secret powers in it that
still slumber, that in truth it is something other than this thing [dies]
that is just there; the magician who gives this seed that I can crush in
my hand an entirely other significance—a sense like that which makes
of a rusty lamp a mighty spirit—is the concept of nature;
the seed is
the force that conjures the earth to serve it with her power (JIII, 131;
cf. W 9: 396/PN 3: 68).
The seed (in the earth) is to the plant as the (baptized) infant is to the
adult. The seed is, as Hegel puts it, “essential power,” pure potentiality
(JIII, 131). Nature is the “magician” who provokes the transition from
inorganic to organic nature through the invocation of the seed. Yet the
“magician” is no personification, but expresses a pure relationality
between earth and seed, the power that flourishes when the seed is
placed in the sympathetic environment of the earth. The relation
between a seed, a thing that is tiny and seems insignificant and can be
crushed easily between one’s fingers, and earth, which has no possibility
of bringing forth life on its own, is a relation of negation. The “magi-
cian” is the negating power of seed in conjunction with earth, the force
that allows the earth to bring forth life. The earth itself cannot be pos-
sibility in this early version of the philosophy of nature, for Hegel
equates organic life with possibility, and as yet he does not consider any-
thing other than plants and animals to be organic. Thus, the seed, unlike
any inorganic form, is never merely “this thing that is just here,” merely
existing in its present form. It always exceeds the realm of simple osten-
sive definition and thus has something mystical about it, like a rusty
lamp that when rubbed produces a genie.
However, Hegel emphasizes immediately that the plant’s capacity
to actualize this potentiality is limited. Unlike Goethe, Hegel does not
understand the metamorphosis of plants to be anything other than an
“increase” [Vermehrung], a growth, a getting-larger (JIII, 131). Using
Herder-like analogies, Hegel explains that every part of the plant could
serve as every other: for example, the root of a plant is nothing but an
inverted tree with its branches planted in the earth (JIII, 137). The plant
is a simple structure, its parts indefinitely repeated, an empty receptacle
for a constant streaming-in (Einströmung). It cannot regulate or oppose
this constant stream both in and out of it, thus Hegel calls it an
“unmediated” relationship to the external world (JIII, 131–32). The
130 The Vegetative Soul
only “negativity” in the sense of oppositionality in the plant is the fact
that it has a dual directionality; it both takes in and exudes water and
the gases of the air.
The plant also generates no warmth within itself. The animal car-
ries fire within itself in the heat of its blood, the excitability of its fever,
Hegel will say. Fire marks the extreme of natural proximity to spirit, but
fire must come from within, not be ignited accidentally and externally,
for heat is the product of conflict, inner opposition, which alone will
lead to spirit. However, the potential flammability of the plant (dead
plants, with their crystallized sugars, burn) marks its position on the
verge, teetering between spiritless stone and spirit-receptive animal. But,
says Hegel, the plant could go over into stone (in dying) as easily as it
could burn. We will soon see that there is another, less literal process
through which plants can also become part of the cycle of fire: their con-
version into food for animals, in which combustion is digestion.
Hegel differentiates the plant from the earth and from the animal in
terms of individuation. In the realm of earth and stone, there is no mean-
ing to the word individuation. There is no scientific basis on which to call
soil, stone, or even geological formation “one”; the divisions we make are
purely arbitrary. The case is similar for the plant, according to Hegel, for
it, too, is arbitrarily individuated (JIII, 137). Parts of plants can be broken
off and replanted, and there is never a time when one can say that a plant
has reached its full growth. Self-movement might be a criterion for indi-
viduation, but plants are incapable of this. This, of course, relates to the
observation that plants cannot come back to themselves as themselves, for
the term self becomes superfluous in light of the lack of individuation.
The process of sexual reproduction provides the ultimate test of
the possible spirituality of the different realms of organic life. According
to Hegel, there can only be a real sexual encounter between male and
female when one has a “doubled being,” two separate bodies (JIII,
139–40). The complete organic being reflects itself in action and reac-
tion to other, different organic beings. The process of reflection with
regard to nature refers literally to physical contact. Reflection, thus,
combines sensitivity (which distinguishes organic from inorganic life)
and reactivity to other elements of organic life. Hegel calls the repro-
ductive process of plants “only a representation [Vorstellung] of the sex-
ual relationship” (JIII, 139) because one cannot say that an individual
plant has contact with other individual plants through the reproductive
process. The plant is not permeated by sexuality, but has it only as its
surface, or in some detachable part of it. Unlike Hölderlin (as well as,
among others, Friedrich Schlegel in Lucinde), who saw in the inclusion
of the male and female within the flower’s corolla evidence of a higher
spiritual union, Hegel insists that the partners must be able to separate
131 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
physically in order to come together. The dissemination of pollen, for
Hegel, is no “spiritual anastomosis,” but rather an all-too-natural dissi-
pation of the possibility of true contact.
Nevertheless, Hegel sees the flower as a high point of plant devel-
opment. The color and the smell of the flower manifest fire in its most
ethereal form: “Colors of fire: cornfield yellow, cornflower (blue),
poppy (red)” (JIII, 141). But all these qualities are only for others, never
for the plant itself. In the same way, the reproductive functions of plants
must be seen as being as much digestive processes as much as they are
sexual, “or perhaps even more so” (JIII, 143). The animal’s digestive
organs work together as a coherent whole, yet cannot be thought of sep-
arately from the animal in which they exist; nor can they be considered
to permeate every aspect of the animal body. Similarly, the reproductive
organs of the plant are a system that is a part of, but does not permeate,
the flower; nor can it be said to be “for the flower” in terms of pleasure.
The first signs that the plant has manifested the concept can be
seen only with the emergence of the fruit, which occurs with the demise
of the flower and indicates the self-sacrifice of the plant: “Plants offer
themselves as food to higher organisms, to be eaten. This is their voca-
tion” (JIII, 144). Just as the scent, the color, and the reproduction of a
plant are for others, so the plant itself can be a manifestation of spirit
only—and thus, truly is only—in giving itself over in death to be eaten
by a higher organism. In the process of fermentation, whether within an
animal stomach or in the preparation of human food and drink, the
plant finally gives off its own heat and transforms light into fire (JIII,
145). The plant gives itself in sugar, wine, vinegar, and bread. This is its
downfall, but also its uplifting; it becomes part of “der Lebenslauf der
Toten,” the curriculum vitae of the dead.
Thus, the plant, like Christ, lays its life down for the sake of some-
thing. There is a fundamental difference between the figure of self-sacri-
fice that Hegel describes in both cases and Hölderlin’s examination of
suicide. Self-sacrifice implies the offering of oneself for the sake of the
progression of a larger whole. Suicide, on the contrary, at least for
Hölderlin, is an act of desperation or perhaps of atonement, but does
not expect to achieve specific results. For this reason, Hegel’s figure of
the plant comes more and more to resemble the resurrected Christ as
opposed to the tragic Christ. Even the products of the fermented plant,
bread and wine, are the symbols of the Eucharist. Bread and wine allow
Christ to be resurrected through their ingestion.
What we have called
an animal metaphorics of subjectivity implies this completion—this inte-
gration of all loose ends, including death itself, into a higher unity.
Just as Christ was born of a virgin, Hegel writes, “the fruit is not
the maternal body” of the seed (JIII, 146). The fruit of the plant
132 The Vegetative Soul
has the doubled principle in itself, the sugary, winey, the mealy, the
sticky—the potable and the edible—the former the spiritual, the latter
the bodily, the former the one that has most come into itself [selbsti-
gen], the latter the subsistent [bestehenden]. Neutrality, the watery,
becomes fiery; this spirituality is the highest degree to which the plant
can come into itself [höchste Selbstigkeit]; but this coming-into-itself
does not become the blood of the plant, but only its death—intoxicat-
ing drinks. (JIII, 146)
The equation of plant and the feminine as necessary for the progression
of spirit (as virgin, unadulterated matter) without herself being incorpo-
rated into it is implied. Hegel’s articulation of the subject excludes
woman from the state unapologetically; here we see its natural justifica-
tion. The register of terms that get aligned with the plant includes the
feminine, the oriental, the non-Christian, and even Christ insofar as he
is God in the body of a man. Thus, Hegel always remains in the logic of
resurrection, where to be reborn spiritually is to lose the body.
In his introduction to the Philosophy of Nature in the Encyclope-
dia, Hegel calls nature “spirit estranged from itself,” and as such “only
the corpse of the understanding.” Here Hegel explicitly draws the par-
allel between nature as middle term and Christ: “In Christ the contra-
diction [of the Idea in its infinite freedom and in the form of individual-
ity] is posited and overcome, as His life, passion, and resurrection:
Nature is the son of God, not as the Son, but as abiding in otherness”
(W 9: 25/PN 1: 206). Nature is to spirit what the son is to god insofar
as nature is the pure exteriority of the concept; nature is not “as” the
son, however, since it abides in otherness and never gets taken up into
spirit. In the following sentences Hegel identifies nature—as an area to
be examined by philosophy—with a human appropriation of nature,
namely with a religion that deifies nature. He calls nature (as an indirect
manifestation of spirit) a Dionysian entity. Nature is spirit which has
“let itself go” (ausgelassen), in the manner of “a Bacchic god unre-
strained and unmindful of itself” (W 9: 25/PN 1: 206). The identifica-
tion of nature with the Dionysian clearly indicates that Hegel relegates
any importance of nature to the deep past of spirit, to the prehistory or
the coming-to-be of spirit, as, for example, the living artwork.
Just as
the Dionysian, viewed from the point of view of spirit, is only one prepa-
ration among others for the manifestation of Christianity, nature is only
a preparation for spirit.
The juxtaposition of the two images of Bacchic reveler and
corpse seems strange only until one recalls the scene of Euripides’ Bac-
chae to which Hegel is surely referring, and specifically to the moment
when Pentheus, the skeptic who does not recognize the divinity of
Dionysos (or Bacchus), is ripped apart by ecstatic worshippers, among
133 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
them his own mother. In “Hegel, Death, and Sacrifice,”
Bataille points us toward another passage in Hegel, this time in the
Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, where dismemberment is also
the key image:
Death—if we wish so to name that unreality—is the most terrible thing
there is, and to uphold the work of death is the task which demands the
greatest strength. Impotent beauty hates this awareness, because under-
standing makes this demand of beauty, a requirement which beauty can-
not fulfill. Now, the life of spirit is not that life which is frightened of
death, and spares itself destruction, but that life which assumes death and
lives with it. Spirit attains its truth only by finding itself in absolute dis-
memberment. It is not that (prodigious) power by being the positive that
turns away from the negative, as when we say of something: this is noth-
ing or (this is) false and, having (thus) disposed of it, pass from there to
something else; no, spirit is that power only to the degree to which it con-
templates the negative face to face (and) dwells with it. This prolonged
sojourn is the magical force [Zauberkraft] which transposes the negative
into Being. (W 3: 36/PS 19)
Death is called an “unreality” because Hegel refers here not to the
bodily death of the philosopher contemplating spirit, which would effec-
tively bring an end to any investigation, but rather to the recognition of
the inevitability of death as what individuates humans and sets them
apart from the rest of nature. Most human beings rarely face death until
it becomes an unavoidable “reality” for them or someone that they
know. The knowledge of death as death (as my death) is what allows the
human being to see itself as a singular and irreplaceable being. Thus,
death differs fundamentally from all other negativities in that it is not
determinate, but absolute. The transformation of the human from a nat-
ural to a spiritual being occurs with a direct confrontation with this
recognition of absolute finitude.
Although dismemberment (Zerrissenheit) would seem to point
directly to the Dionysian or Bacchic, as Hegel states explicitly in the pas-
sage cited from the Philosophy of Nature, the continuation of this same
passage places the responsibility for the reanimation of the corpse on a
more Christian notion of resurrection through the human intellect:
Nature is, however, only implicitly [an sich] the Idea, and Schelling there-
fore called her a petrified [versteinerte] intelligence, others even a frozen
intelligence; but God does not remain petrified and dead; the very stones
cry out and lift themselves up to spirit. God is subjectivity, activity
[Tätigkeit], infinite actuosity, in which the other is only momentary,
remaining implicit within the unity of the idea, because it is itself this
totality of the idea. (W 9: 25/PN 1: 206)
134 The Vegetative Soul
What Hegel calls coming to life, however, will imply the death of nature.
In another surprising juxtaposition, Hegel next compares nature to Lucifer:
Nature is the negative because it is the negative of the Idea. Jacob Boehme
says that God’s first-born is Lucifer; and this Light-being [Lichtwesen]
directed his imagination inward onto himself and became evil: that is the
moment of difference, of otherness held fast against the Son who is other-
ness within love. The ground and meaning of such conceptions, which
occur wildly in an oriental style, is to be found in the negative nature of
nature [Natur der Natur]. (W 9: 30/PN 1: 211)
Such conceptions are called “wild” and “oriental,” and it is interesting
to note that Hegel will call plants, too, beings of light. Indeed, “wild,”
“oriental,” “light,” and “plant” all have connections to the Dionysian
as well.
Although Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, like many of his philo-
sophical writings, is tripartite in structure, it is only with the descrip-
tion of plant life that Hegel begins to make the series of normative
binary distinctions we referred to above. Hegel’s mapping out of the
transition from stone to plant to animal nature, in addition to per-
forming the structure of Aufhebung as resurrection, mirrors Hegel’s
description of the movement, in human history, from ancient Eastern
civilizations such as those of China, India, and Egypt (all of these are
generally treated as a whole) to the civilization of the ancient Greeks to
that of Christianized Western Europe. In other words, the fact that
Hegel took up the philosophy of nature after already having sketched
out a philosophy of history and human development takes on a more
and more prominent role in his articulation of the structure of nature
itself. Much of the vocabulary of plant development is mystical and
specifically refers to the Dionysian religion, especially in its pre-Greek
“Asiatic” history. Hegel effectively dismisses the history of humanity
until the time of the Greeks by regularly gathering Indian, Chinese, and
Arabian cultures together in a time that parallels the presentation of
stone, or geological nature. Such cultures remain so entirely identified
with the primitive past of humankind that Hegel regards them as fos-
sils. In the same way, nature as a whole will appear as a fossil in rela-
tion to spirit. Plant nature characterizes the transition from Eastern into
Greek civilization. Greek art and religion, according to Hegel, contain
the first glimmers of a symbolism that goes beyond a deification of the
potencies of nature. Hegel’s fascination with and ultimate dismissal of
what he will call “plant religion” and “plant nature” is linked to the
widespread preoccupation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
with the rebirth of interest in—and commitment to—ancient Greece
and its art, literature, and philosophy.
135 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
In his mature philosophy of nature, Hegel bases the first division
of his hierarchy between the three realms of organic nature on the capac-
ity to die in the bodily sense. The division between geological nature and
plant nature is based on this difference. Although geological formations
perdure immeasurably longer than do the lives of individual plants (and
animals), stones do not possess an internal contradiction that is capable
of destroying them. It is the possibility of sickness and death, along with
the necessity of sexual opposition, that privileges animate over inani-
mate nature and even over plants, which merely cease to live and never
have truly mated, for speculation subsists in the resolution of contradic-
tion, and resolution cannot occur when there is no interior contradiction
or opposition (W 9: 338/PN 3: 10).
Hegel distinguishes between the three realms of organic nature in
terms of their potential for self-reflective subjectivity, a potential that is
related to the possibility of death by virtue of the three moments that
characterize life, namely sensitivity, irritability or reactivity, and repro-
duction. All three of these capacities imply a finite entity that in some
way reaches out to others of its kind in a relation of desire. The stone
possesses none of these characteristics; it cannot propel itself; it resem-
bles a skeleton, and it is not divided from other stones as other. Even the
solar system is merely a “mechanical organism,” vulnerable to falling
victim to an external power rather than capable of dying. Hegel refers
to geological nature as “the realm of earth” with reference to the four
Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The plant, by con-
trast, particularizes itself in a sense, but cannot be truly differentiated
from other individuals, nor can one really say where a plant, as individ-
ual, begins or ends: in the leaf, the stem, the roots, all of these together,
or perhaps in the subsidiary nodes? The plant has “no power over its
members,” which can fall from it, die, or even become independently
growing plants, according to a seemingly arbitrary pattern. Thus, the
plant “is only able to maintain itself in the face of its mutation by leav-
ing what changes in a state of indifference” (W 9: 437/PN 3: 110–11).
Hegel calls plant life the “realm of water,” though he also refers to it as
dependent on light. The animal kingdom, however, is the “realm of
fire,” a domain in which the individual is easily separable from the
group, completely self-animated, and possesses sensation, defined as the
“faculty of finding oneself within oneself” (W 9: 341–42/PN 3: 13–14).
The section on “Plant Nature” in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature
begins by contrasting the plant’s body “articulated into parts which
are separate and distinct” with the uniformity of rock, but cautions
that this life form “is only the first, immediate stage of subjective vital-
ity” in which “the objective organism and its subjectivity are still
immediately identical” (W 9: 371/PN 3: 45). Hegel regards the plant
136 The Vegetative Soul
as something whose oneness is only a composite of a number of dif-
ferent “individuals” (bud, stem, etc.) rather than having a “subjective
unity of members [Gliedern],” in other words, as a collection of sin-
gularities rather than as an individual. The differences of organic parts
existing within the plant are merely the result of a “superficial meta-
morphosis,” according to Hegel (W 9: 371/PN 3: 45). Because of this,
the plant can only relate to an other that is identical to itself, namely,
to another part of itself. It can have no true subjectivity because it does
not and cannot come back to itself after departing from itself toward
an other that it recognizes as not-itself (as the animal will be able to
do): “The growth of the plant is an assimilation into itself of the other,
but as a self-multiplication, this assimilation is also a going-forth-
from-itself. It is not a coming-to-self as an individual, but a multipli-
cation of individuality, so that the one individuality is only the super-
ficial unity of the many. The individuals remain a separated plurality,
indifferent to each other . . .” (W 9: 374/PN 3: 47).
Nevertheless, the plant manifests the beginnings of spiritual life:
the plant in its growth through “unrest” (Unruhe) foreshadows the cat-
egory of desire that will determine the animal and be the defining char-
acteristic of the human. The insufficiency of this primitive “desire” to
make the plant (or any system based upon it) truly subjective (inward-
turning or reflective) is obvious in Hegel’s description, in The Phenom-
enology of Spirit, of the primitive “flower religion” as “innocent,” like
the beautiful soul. Hegel takes the fact that animals feed on and incor-
porate dead plants to be evidence of the provisionality of this religious
stage. As we have seen, the plant comes closest to spirituality when it
symbolically takes the place of the human body and blood in the forms
of bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The self-sufficiency of the plant’s expansion through metamorpho-
sis—its strength in the eyes of Goethe, Schelling, and Hölderlin—renders
it a mere series of (qualitatively identical) repetitions for Hegel. The
plant has no relation to itself as itself because its only relation is to an
absolute other that has complete power over it, namely, the physical
environment: “This outer, physical self of the plant is light, towards
which it strives, in the same way that the human seeks humans” (W 9:
374/PN 3: 48). Here Hegel’s description of the plant resembles that of
Abraham in “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate,” and of the orien-
tal in general. A human only attains self-consciousness in the struggle for
recognition (from other human beings), but the plant is not commensu-
rate with its environment in that its striving for light is blind; it is pulled
to light by a sheer necessity that has nothing to do with desire. The
plant’s striving for self is “rather being-drawn-out-of-itself, so that its
return into itself is a perpetual going-forth, and conversely” (W 9:
137 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
374/PN 3: 48). The plant is rooted to one spot, and cannot will itself to
change place; its element is space, and not time (W 9: 375/PN 3: 48). Its
motion and its place are never contingent in the sense of being free, but
always determined by the environment.
The plant’s relationship to the external world can never be inter-
rupted. Thus, for Hegel plants can never be used as symbols of intelli-
gence or of spiritual development. “The relationship of the plant to the
outer world,” writes Hegel, “could be an interrupted relationship only
if the plant existed as something subjective, only if, as a self, it had a
relation to its self” (W 9: 377/PN 3: 50). A plant is incapable of cutting
off its own relationship to earth, water, and light. It cannot move to a
new place, it cannot refuse to take in water or light, it cannot even tem-
porarily halt its infinite process of taking in and releasing, whereas the
animal capacity to delay eating, to refuse nourishment, even to kill
itself, manifests its relation to itself. This relationship is, on the most
fundamental level, a willing one, a relationship of desire that is satisfied
or frustrated in the outer world. Perhaps Hegel’s obsession with
intestines (among all the animal organs he most frequently specifies the
viscera, the innards, die Eingeweide) is linked to the fact that the length
of the animal digestive process, the coils and chemicals along the way,
allow the animal to rest between periods of ingestion and excretion,
giving it time to think and to have a feeling of lack (and thus desire),
leading to a relationship with itself.
The animal “transcends its
shape,” and does not have to “interrupt its growth in its digestive and
sexual process” (W 9: 437/PN 3: 110).
Contingency and interruption are the conditions of possibility for
subjectivity and spirituality. Hegel contrasts his own view to that of
Goethe in The Metamorphosis of Plants. For Goethe the fact that a
plant exhibits a miraculous multiplicity of metamorphoses while
remaining fundamentally identical both in idea and in nature is evi-
dence of its unity as a “spiritual conductor (geistige Leiter).” To Hegel,
however, this metamorphosis is “only a development of shape” and
thus “stands midway between the crystal of the mineral sphere and the
free, animal shape” (W 9: 393/PN 3: 65). The “shape” of the mineral
sphere is crystalline, dominated by the straight line, while the “shape”
of the animal is “oval, elliptical” (W 9: 393/PN 3: 65). If one examines
the interior organs of animals they are all rounded, and this is also the
form of the trajectory of self-consciousness. The “shape” of the plant is
a mixture of the two, combining the straight line of the stem with the
honeycomb of the cells and the spiral fibers. Hegel objects that these
seemingly curved lines do not develop “inwardly into a rounded
shape,” and that “in the leaf, surface predominates” (W 9: 393/PN 3:
65). The claim about the superficiality of plant metamorphosis is
138 The Vegetative Soul
defended with reference to its physical structure. A plant’s structure can
lead it anywhere, with no essential curvature backward, and thus no
absolute necessity for it to come back to itself. A part of the plant
changes into another; a stem can sprout roots even if it is plucked from
the top of the plant, can become another individual. This signifies, for
Hegel, utter contingency and open-endedness.
The “individualization” of plants, namely their sap, color, taste,
and smell, comes only from an external source, that is, from light. The
plant’s relationship to space is “merely abstract” since it has no mastery
over the placement of its parts in space. There is no contingent determi-
nation of place. Since the plant has no relationship with itself as pure
soul, that is, since it cannot entirely cut itself off from the sensuous, its
unity comes only from space, and “it is not yet pure time within itself”
(W 9: 375/PN 3: 49). Plant movement is mere “oscillation,” only the
beginning of self-movement that is never contingent. The human has the
possibility of willfully “annihilating” (vernichten) its place, and thus of
positing itself purely in time. Once again, time only is where humans are,
although in a later passage Hegel will call the circulation of sap within
the plant a “quivering of vitality . . . restless [unruhige] Time” (W 9:
404/PN 3: 76). However, the time of nature is essentially only in the pre-
sent (from a human point of view; for itself, nature has no time), for past
and future emerge with the subjective representations of memory and
fear or hope.
Hegel associates sensation or feeling (Empfindung) with the inter-
nal bodily processes that generate heat. Since the plant is unable to gen-
erate heat for itself, it must not be able to feel, and thus cannot “toler-
ate itself as other,” cannot “venture into conflict with other
individualities” (W 9: 378/PN 3: 52). As such, it does not return into
itself, and therefore has no self-feeling either. Indeed, Hegel will later go
so far as to say that it is only in decaying and fermenting, during which
processes they give off heat, that plants approach a passage to spiritual-
ity. In dying, plants can generate heat and thus become spiritual prod-
ucts such as bread and wine. The plant attains the threshold of spiritu-
ality only in sacrificing itself.
In the process of the formation of the plant, Hegel also objects that
the “collection [Zusammennehmen] of self-preservation in a unity is not
a merging [Zusammenschließen] of the individual with itself, but rather
the production of a new plant-individual, the bud” (W 9: 394/PN3: 67).
The new individual is an other to the plant, not a part of itself. In the
animal, according to Hegel, this development would lead to the visceral
process, but since the plant has no digestive organs, its development is
purely external, directed only outwardly. When the process of develop-
mental specification is turned outward instead of inward, rather than
139 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
the formation of specialized organs that would mediate the organism’s
relationship with the external world, there is simply a multiplication of
individuals, all of which are equally vulnerable to the elements. How-
ever, the plant does possess what Hegel calls “an essential side of [the]
organic process” in that “it infects, negates, and assimilates [zum Seini-
gen macht] what comes to it from outside” (W 9: 395/PN 3: 67–68).
Nevertheless, this process can never be deferred, and in the end the plant
is always at the mercy of the immediate environment.
The plant is regarded as deficient because of its unmediated rela-
tionship with the environment. A plant cannot but poison itself, if poi-
son is anywhere in its immediate environment, whereas animals feel
need, can sense a deficiency or an excess, and regulate their intake
accordingly. This distinction will have important implications for
Hegel’s criticism of Dionysian religion and the “oriental” tendency to
overflow limits and collapse in languidity. As Derrida puts it, also in
relation to Hegel, “subjectivity always produces itself in a moment of
Or, we might say, every moment of Aufhebung is an
occidentalization, since alleviation is always a lightening in the sense of
trimming the excess, setting boundaries, defining the individual by
excluding its other. Hegel calls emanationist models of nature, which
posit a unidirectional overflow from the divine into nature without the
return back into the ideal, “conceptions that proceed from wildly orien-
talizing tastes” (W 9: 30/PN 1: 211).
Like the animal, Hegel writes, “the plant . . . perpetually kills itself,
in that it sets up an opposition between itself and Being” (W 9: 408/PN
3: 80). In animals this gradual “suicide” is the formation of the skeletal
system, whereas in plants it is the buildup of woody tissue. Hegel com-
pares this process to “the diremption of the individual in the past into
vital activity as such [Lebenstätigkeit] that is external to it and into the
system of organic formations constituting the material substratum and
residuum of the process” (W 9: 408/PN 3: 80). Thus, Hegel links the
division of plants and animals into rigid structure and fleshy surface to
the cosmic process by which pure activity and materiality are separated.
Nature is nothing more than the “residuum” of this process; again,
Hegel compares nature to a skeleton or a corpse. The process of self-
destruction, in that it is a change effected from within rather than as a
result of external influences, is a sign of progress rather than deteriora-
tion when considered from the point of view of life in general. Death is
not possible for the stone—it already is death, if “death” as residuum is
the “calcareous” within the plant or animal. In death, the plant becomes
wood, which is “combustibility as potentiality of fire without itself
being heat” (W 9: 408/PN3: 80), that is, as potentiality of a union-with-
self without itself being the satisfaction of union. At the same time, the
140 The Vegetative Soul
plant is described as indirectly “satisfied” or “realized” when the animal
digests it, at which time the plant becomes heat or energy. Both the ani-
mal and the plant, then, carry death within them, the plant in its woody
substructure, the animal in its skeleton. Both are susceptible to disease,
which will render them progressively more rigid. Yet by virtue of their
capacity to maintain the tenuous equilibrium between rigidity and flu-
idity, disease and health, life and death, both the plant and the animal
are on the way to spirit. However, the animal is capable of individually
encapsulating this capacity and carrying it around with it.
For Hegel, the superiority of the animal over the plant is its possi-
bility of a return-to-self after the process of going outside itself in order
to satisfy desire, resulting in a notion of self as inner, subjective univer-
sality over and against externality. By contrast, the self of the plant
“does not maintain itself” after going outside itself (W 9: 412/PN3: 84).
Since the plant’s relationship to light takes the place of its relationship
to itself, it cannot unite with the universal, it cannot understand itself as
self, as plant, as “I.” It cannot even desire the “not-I,” as an animal can.
It merely “fashions itself into a light-plant.” It cannot become light, but
becomes in the light, so that its being is determined solely by something
external to it. Interestingly, Hegel links this inability to return to self
with the lack of sense perception. The lack of a self-like character means
that what in an animal would be sight, hearing, etc., becomes merely
color, light, and shape in the plant, that is, the external counterparts of
sense perception taken as qualities.
The animal organism, by contrast, recapitulates the whole of
organic nature, symbolizing the process of subjectivity defined as “self-
relating in the face of externality” (W 9: 435 /PN 3: 108). Only the struc-
ture of the animal body—which, unlike the plant’s body, allows for a
clear distinction between interiority and exteriority, as well as a distinc-
tion between what is essential and inessential (assimilation and excre-
tion), attached and detached, active or passive, transported or left
behind—allows the animal to be the symbol of subjectivity, of spirit, of
the vitality that will no longer have anything to do with life in the bio-
logical sense, since vitality and activity will be attributes of spirit, not
matter. Because of its structure, the animal body makes the rest of nature
revolve about it: “the animal organism is the microcosm, the center of
nature” (W 9: 435/PN 3: 108). Its capacity for spontaneous movement
and its self-enclosed body allow it to experience, to the greatest degree
possible within nature, the essential exteriority of nature. It becomes the
subject of an isolated existence, making of the rest of nature an object for
the purposes of its own existence. It no longer depends upon inorganic
nature, but feeds solely on lower organic forms, forms that have already
assimilated the inorganic into themselves. The animal appropriates
141 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
nature as exteriority into something “for itself.” Nothing else in nature—
other than its own instincts, other animals, and death—is capable of
resisting it, thus the animal becomes a kind of analogue to a “subject”
over and against nature as an object.
Hegel calls resistance the condition of subjectivity. The animal is
characterized by the presence of drives (Triebe), literally “pressures”
that push it in the direction of food, sexual activity, shelter, or strife. The
human animal possesses, beyond these natural pressures, the possibility
of suppressing the pressures, withstanding the impulse, interrupting the
natural thrust. Humans pass from sensation to conception only by
inhibiting their natural impetus, which is an inhibition of its own at the
The freedom of movement of animals is their counterpart to
human freedom. Plants, as we have seen, are too open to everything;
their lack of resistance leads to the impossibility of subjectivity.
Indeed, the conclusion of the section on vegetable nature in the
Philosophy of Nature makes it clear that Hegel regards the culmination
of vegetable nature to be the plant’s capacity to lay itself down for the
sake of animal nature, a self-immolation in the form of food, fuel, wine,
and oil. The processes of being digested, combusted, fermented, or dis-
tilled represent the only means by which plants can generate heat, con-
tributing in an indirect way to the animal realm, the realm of fire. The
moment of passage from stone to plant was a moment, if not of self-sac-
rifice, at least of unconditional surrender: “It [the geological organism]
overcomes [aufhebt] its rigidity, and unfolds into subjective animation.
Nevertheless, it excludes this animation from itself, and surrenders it to
other individuals” (W 9: 361). The moment of passage from plant to
animal is even more decisive. The fruit is a sign of the downfall of the
plant, for as fruit ripens it assures its own death.
Hegel’s final words
are unambiguous: “The plant is a subordinate [untergeordneter] organ-
ism whose destiny is to proffer itself to the higher organism in order to
be consumed by it. . . . [The] animal process, which is higher than that
of the plant, is its [the plant’s] ruin [Untergang]” (W 9: 429/PN 3: 101).
Georges Bataille’s study of the figure of sacrifice in Hegel’s work,
excerpted from a study on the thought of Alexander Kojève, sheds light
on the strange transition from plant to animal read as a kind of
inevitable self-sacrifice. Bataille writes, “The problem of Hegel is given
in the action of sacrifice.”
Hegel’s philosophy, Bataille argues, is a phi-
losophy of death in that it is death alone that separates spirit from
nature. Even more specifically, Aufhebung is always a figure of sacrifice.
Death alone, writes Bataille, “assures the existence of a ‘spiritual’ or
‘dialectical’ being, in the Hegelian sense.”
This is because through
knowledge of its (animal, bodily) death, the human carries an incompa-
rable negativity within it, which, though it causes it anguish, also allows
142 The Vegetative Soul
it to negate nature and in so doing see itself as somehow separate from
the totality of all natural things. This separation, of course, is the neces-
sary condition of knowledge of any kind, and its possibility rests on the
capacity for language.
Bataille’s observation takes as its basis Kojève’s linkage of language
and death in Hegel.
Kojève cites Hegel (in a way that both clarifies and
considerably simplifies Hegel’s language) in the Phenomenology of Spirit
as saying that all conceptual thinking is equivalent to murder, since lan-
guage cannot refer to a determinate living entity, but only to an abstract
Only that which is finite can be detached from its concept,
since if anything existed outside of time or eternally, its concept would
be that thing and not its counterpart in language. Bataille writes in a
similar vein: “For Hegel, it is both fundamental and altogether worthy
of astonishment that human understanding (that is, language, discourse)
should have had the force (an incomparable force) to separate its con-
stitutive elements from the Totality. These elements (this tree, this bird,
this stone) are in fact inseparable from the whole.”
Only language has
the “monstrous force of the understanding” that can negate nature, sep-
arate humans from the totality, and give things names. Yet although
humans possess the ability to negate nature in this fashion, they cannot
avoid the consequence that in so doing they also negate themselves to
the extent that they, too, are animals, or natural beings. Any kind of
human understanding is thus a form of (self-)sacrifice, predicated on
death. For it is only as a separate and irreplaceable being, that is, as the
object of its own knowledge, that the human can be terrified by death
and thus know itself as the one who can die: “The only true death sup-
poses separation and, through the discourse which separates, the con-
sciousness of being separated.”
Humans gain knowledge by sacrificing
the animal in themselves. Thus, Bataille sees sacrifice as the key to
understanding dialectic. And so, we may understand the plant’s self-sac-
rifice as following this prescribed pattern, in a nonconscious manner.
Indeed, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature as a whole concludes with a
scene of sacrifice. Hegel does not go beyond the tripartite division of
stone, plant, and animal to make the human a final stage of natural
development. As we have seen, with reference to the realm of nature,
human beings are animals. However, in order to make the transition to
spirit, nature must “become an other to itself” in order to “recognize
itself as idea”: “The goal of nature is to kill itself [sich zu töten] and to
break through its rind of immediate, sensuous existence, to consume
itself like the phoenix in order to come forth from this externality reju-
venated as spirit” (W 9: 538/PN 3: 212).
Bataille makes the point that humans can never be revealed to
themselves fully if one takes Hegel’s point to its natural conclusion, for
143 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
in theory it is the death of the natural, animal body that will allow for
this revelation. However, human beings cease to be at the death of their
bodies: “In order for man to reveal himself ultimately to himself, he
would have to die, but he would have to do it while living—watching
himself ceasing to be. In other words, death itself would have to become
(self-)consciousness at the very moment that it annihilates the conscious
This has been accomplished, historically and across cultures,
by means of the practice of sacrifice, Bataille argues. In the sacrifice, the
ones who perform the rite identify themselves with the animal that is
killed: “And so he dies in seeing himself die, and even, in a certain way,
by his own will, one in spirit with the sacrificial weapon.”
In his lectures on fine art, Hegel discusses the possibility of finding
beauty in nature, and concludes that nature itself cannot be beautiful.
Rather, only by understanding it as the “sensuous manifestation of the
concrete Begriff ” can nature be considered beautiful. Beauty depends,
then, on a presupposed conceptual unity. To illustrate exactly what he
means by this perception of a unity that is presupposed, Hegel gives the
example of the division of organic nature into three realms. He writes:
“When confronted with the variety of the external presentation in each
of these realms, the sense-perception surmises a controlling unity intelli-
gible to mind, a progress subject to laws of thought, visible no less in the
formation of mountain ranges than in the orderly succession of plant-life
and of the animal races.”
We may conclude from the existence of the
three realms of nature, “as already foreshadowed by its truth regarded
as a process rising from plane to plane, that there is an inward necessity
inherent in the conceptual articulation of its divisions, and do not con-
fine ourselves only to the purely imaginative conception of it as a world
conforming on its exterior side only to a final end.”
Hegel thus takes Kant’s technic of nature one step farther. The
division of nature into three realms is necessary not only transcenden-
tally in conformity with its preconceived logical structure (in concor-
dance with a subjectively presupposed final end) but immanently in the
way in which the movement from stone to animal unfolds. Indeed,
Hegel, as might be expected, asserts that the beauty of the animal
marks the culmination of the possibility of beauty in nature, just as the
animal realm, in Hegel’s construction of nature, is the highest develop-
ment of organic nature.
Hegel employs natural forms again and again as evidence of the
parallel unfolding of human development. For example, in the section
on architecture in his lectures on the philosophy of art, Hegel uses the
stages of nature as justification for the progression of art. He divides the
history of architecture into three successive stages: symbolic, classical,
and romantic. Beginning with the architecture of India and Egypt, he
144 The Vegetative Soul
writes: “The Pyramids, despite all the wonder they arouse of their own
accord, are really nothing but crystals. . . .”
He then proceeds to the
description of the development of architecture toward the classical style,
and remarks particularly on the column, whose natural organic form is
the tree, “plant life generally, a stem, a thin stalk which strives upwards
in a vertical direction.” Other plant forms can be found in the decora-
tion of Egyptian architecture: the ear of corn, the flower, the shape of an
onion, a “reed-like efflorescence of leaf from the bulb.”
these plant forms are entwined with shapes of animal and even human
figures. The column, which emerges out of these imitations of nature,
“originates in the natural form,” but then “submits to the uniformity
and scientific precision of form,”
in the same way that spirit emerges
out of the ashes of nature.
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel addresses the
popular characterization of genius as plant-like, growing out of the
roots of unconscious inspiration. Herder, Goethe, Hölderlin, and
Schelling are the best-known adopters and adaptors of this view, but
Hegel most likely addresses his critique to the general popularity of such
a notion. Hegel’s chief objection to the description of genius as plant-like
is that spirit can be attained only as a result of a diremption followed by
a unification of the opposing forces. The “unity” of the plant, as we
have seen, is one that is never broken or interrupted:
Plants are in this condition of unbroken unity. The spiritual, on the con-
trary, is not in immediate unity with its nature; the truth rather is that in
order to attain to the return to itself, it has to work its way through its
infinite dualism or division, and to win the state of accomplished recon-
ciliation by wrestling for it. This is by no means a state of reconciliation
which is there from the outset, and this true unity is attained to by spirit
only by separation from its immediate character.
Hegel delineates a similar progression in The Phenomenology of
Spirit with regard to the history of religion, a progression, in this case,
from the worship of light to religions with plant and animal deities. As
Derrida has observed, plant self-sacrifice repeats itself precisely three
times in the history of the progression of religion as chronicled by
First, the innocent flower religion gives way to the warring ani-
mal religion. Then animal religion is followed by Bacchic cults that
imbibe the fermented fruit. Finally, wine becomes the symbol of Christ’s
blood along with that other product of fermented plant life, bread, the
symbol of Christ’s body. Hegel writes:
The silent essence of self-less nature in its fruit [Frucht] attains to that
stage where, self-prepared and digested, it offers itself to life that has a
145 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
self-like nature [dem selbstischen Leben]. In its usefulness as food and
drink it reaches its highest perfection; for in this it is the possibility of a
higher existence and comes into contact with spiritual being-there. In its
metamorphoses, the Earth-spirit [Erdgeist] has developed, partly into an
autochthonous, powerful [selbstkräftigen] substance, partly into a spiri-
tual fermentation [geistigen Gährung]: in the first case it is the feminine
principle of nourishment [weiblichen Prinzip der Ernährung], in the other
the masculine principle, the self-impelling force [sich treibenden Kraft] of
self-conscious being-there.
Of course, the “masculine” principle that can impel itself recalls the dis-
tinguishing mark of the animal, its self-driven nature. The reference to
the Erdgeist comes from Goethe’s Faust. The digestion of bread and
wine by human beings marks the attainment of the highest possible stage
for plants.
Goethe, upon reading Hegel’s description of plant life, wrote in a
letter to Eckermann:
By chance a passage from the preface to Hegel’s Logic
came into my
hands. It goes as follows: “The bud disappears in the bursting forth of the
blossom, and one could say that it was refuted by it; in the same way
through the fruit the blossom is revealed as a false existence, and as its
truth, it takes its place. These forms suppress each other as incompatible
with each other, but their fluid nature makes them, at the same time
moments of organic unity, in which they not only no longer struggle
against each other, but one is as necessary as the other; and this same
necessity first creates a life out of the whole.” It is really not possible to
say anything more monstrous. To want to destroy the eternal reality of
nature through a poor sophisticated game [schlechten sophistischen Spaß],
seems to me unworthy of a rational man.
Goethe, like Hölderlin, was interested not so much in the differences
between the three realms of nature—which he, too, distinguishes—but
in the spaces between them. Goethe emphasized that what he strove for
was “to linger at the points where the different realms meet each other
and appear to turn into each other [ineinander überzugehen
What Hegel saw as the contingency and conceptlessness of
the physical world, Goethe (and Schelling) understood as the willfulness
and freedom of nature. Whereas Hegel complained of the deficiency and
irrationality manifest in the deformities of nature, Goethe insisted that
the rule and its exception are intimately related. Hegel deplored the
plant-like “leakage of nature into singularity [Einzelheit],” while Goethe
saw in the same an endless creativity manifesting the infinite. What was
for Hegel a mindless combination of accident and necessity, was for
Goethe evidence of an infinite volition within the realm of law.
146 The Vegetative Soul
Goethe was not the only thinker to find Hegel’s philosophy of
nature “monstrous.” Schelling, in On the History of Modern Philoso-
phy, writes:
However commendable one must find Hegel’s impulse to recognize the
merely logical nature and significance of the science which he found
before him, however commendable it is, in particular, that he revealed as
logical relationships the logical relationships which previous philosophy
concealed in the real, one must yet admit that his philosophy, as it is really
carried out (precisely because of the pretension to objective, real signifi-
cance), has become a good deal more monstrous than the preceding phi-
losophy ever was . . .
What made Hegel monstrous to Goethe and Schelling and presumably
to Hölderlin was his conception of nature as nothing more than an
incarnation of the Begriff. This is a monstrous incarnation in that it
reduces nature to a passing moment of spirit, to a body whose meta-
morphoses have been duly tracked and noted down, a body whose tem-
porality, retrospectively, is locked in the past- and future-lessness of a
scientific object. Human subjectivity, insofar as it believes it can over-
come its plantlike fragility, loses sight of its connection to the life-and-
death rhythms of nature and its provenance in the unconscious.
147 The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
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The human being knows the world to the degree that he knows him-
self, i.e. its depths unveil themselves to him to the degree that he is
astounded by himself and by his own complexity.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente
We are dizzy at the thought that perhaps the will, in order to come
to art, poured itself out in these worlds, stars, bodies, atoms.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente
It might initially seem surprising to include Nietzsche in a discussion
about the philosophy of nature and its effects on historical conceptions
of subjectivity. Yet Nietzsche is as well known for his critique of the ego
and of the primacy accorded to consciousness as for his indictment of
modern science and of uncritical assumptions of teleology in nature, and
all of these themes play important roles in the broader examination of
the relationship between studies of nature and of the human being. Fur-
thermore, Nietzsche in fact did study Kant’s Critique of Teleological
Judgment and consider it with reference to Goethe’s philosophy of
nature. For these reasons and because Nietzsche provides probably the
most radical nineteenth-century attempt to rethink subjectivity, individ-
uation, and the place of the human being, his work is a fitting culmina-
tion to the consideration of the vegetative soul.
The Ivy and the Vine
Curt Paul Janz, Nietzsche’s biographer, cites the following letter
from Nietzsche to Paul Deussen in 1868:
The realm of metaphysics, as well as the province of “absolute truth,”
have been irremediably lowered to the ranks of poetry and of religion.
From now on, whoever wants to know something will have to accommo-
date himself to the relativity of all knowledge: thus, for example, all the
great naturalists. Metaphysics may be, for some, one of the needs of the
soul, it is essentially edification; on the other hand, it depends on art,
notably the art of the composition of ideas. It turns out that metaphysics
has no more to do with what one calls “the true, or the thing in itself”
than religion or art.
Besides, when you receive my doctoral dissertation at the end of the
year, you will find in it numerous passages where this question of the lim-
its of knowledge will be explicated. I have chosen as my subject “The Idea
of the Organism in Kant,” half philosophical, half natural science. I have
almost finished my preparatory work.
Although Nietzsche eventually gave up the dissertation topic on the idea
of the organism in Kant as unsuitable for a philological project, one can-
not deny the impact Kant must have had on Nietzsche from early on.
The choice of Kant as the subject of a dissertation at a time when Niet-
zsche had already discovered and read Schopenhauer—and precisely the
notion of the organism in Kant, a subject Schopenhauer hardly mentions
in The World as Will and Representation—shows us that the well-
known picture of the early Nietzsche as entranced by Schopenhauer, and
familiar with Kant only through Schopenhauer, is not entirely accurate.
Indeed, a set of notes and drafted paragraphs entitled “Zu Schopen-
hauer,” written some time between October 1867 and April 1868 attest
to Nietzsche’s early critical stance toward Schopenhauer. In these notes
Nietzsche criticizes Schopenhauer for attempting to explain the world
according to only one very particular assumption, such that “the thing-
in-itself takes on one of its possible forms” (my emphasis), an attempt
that Nietzsche immediately and decisively evaluates as “unsuccessful”
(HKG 1:3, 118). However, he later adds, “The errors of great men are
worthy of respect, since they are more fruitful than the truths of smaller
ones” (HKG 1:3, 353).
Nietzsche’s critique of the centrality of the organism in the natural
science of his day, and the resulting anthropomorphism of scientific
depictions of nature, perhaps surprisingly agrees with and extends,
rather than attempting to refute, the organic-centered philosophy of
Kant and Goethe, even though they would most likely have disapproved
of the extremes to which he takes their views. Nietzsche employs the lan-
guage of force in order to counter atomistic or mechanical world pic-
150 The Vegetative Soul
tures that reduce being to a collection of present-at-hand entities and to
explain how it is that in a world composed of fluctuating energies, we
perceive things as interrelating objects. The understanding of nature
against which Nietzsche aims his critique still characterizes some con-
temporary scientific standpoints. Nietzsche would argue that each of the
“building blocks” of biology, such as the organism, the gene, or the
strand of DNA, for example, is an objectivized fiction. Nietzsche agrees
with Kant that it is the constitution of the human intellect, the categories
of the understanding and the forms of intuition, that gives the impres-
sion of discrete objects that perdure in space and time, but called this
capacity a weakness and a limitation of human cognition:
We must always remain skeptical with regard to all of our experiences,
and say, for example: we can assert the eternal value of no “law of
nature,” assert the eternal persistence of no chemical quality; we are not
finely tuned enough to see the supposed absolute flow of becoming: the
perdurant is there only thanks to our unrefined organs which summarize
and display that which really does not exist at all. The tree is something
new at every moment: we assert form because we are incapable of per-
ceiving the most precise absolute movement. (KSA 9, 554)
Although from his earliest notes on nature on Nietzsche’s critique
takes Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgment as its point of departure,
he uses Goethe’s scientific writings as a way of adapting Kant’s view to
his own perspective. Specifically, the debate that Nietzsche sets up cen-
ters around the question of whether one chooses to understand nature
traditionally in terms of a kind of hierarchical progression that ranks
different stages as organic forms or broad categories that encompass
qualitatively different contents, or, alternatively, whether one describes
natural becoming as the coincidence of force and restraint such that nei-
ther implies an originary source or a priority over the other. For Niet-
zsche, something like a “thing in itself” cannot be thought of as the con-
dition for the possibility of human cognition, nor can the constitution of
the human mind be thought of as prior to the forms that it perceives. For
Nietzsche, “form” and “individuation” are other names for “energy” or
“excess” perceived in particular ways, names that developed historically
out of a need for survival. The organism itself is a name for the most for-
tuitous coincidence of excess and individuation, the organization of
forces most conducive to survival. In addition, “organism” for Niet-
zsche does not coincide with “individual” in the sense of the animal
body, for, as Nietzsche notes early on, citing Goethe against Kant, no liv-
ing thing is really an individual. This caveat works both spatially, in the
sense of there being no definitive individual, and temporally, in the sense
of the tree being something new at every moment. Nietzsche writes in
151 The Ivy and the Vine
1872, “[T]here is no form in nature, for there is no inner and no outer”
(KSA 7, 465). For Nietzsche, what we describe as “nature,” as much as
culture, reflects strategic priorities.
The critique of teleology and the organism in Kant, in typically
Nietzschean fashion, plays itself out in his later thought in multiple and
nonsystematic ways. On the one hand, Nietzsche continues to be fasci-
nated with the idea of the organism, both as an idea of self-regulating
purposiveness and self-sufficiency that regulates the way in which we
desire and indeed, in Kant’s sense, to which we require the natural world
to conform, and as an obstacle to a force-centered ontology of will to
power. On Nietzsche’s view, the fiction of the organism, understood as
the natural individual par excellence, formed the basis of the modern
account of how consciousness developed and the subsequent belief in
the substantiality and individuality of the human ego. Thus, Nietzsche’s
critique of the organic and of teleology cannot be separated from his dis-
cussion of consciousness and of language, which he alternately blames
for its creation and perpetuation of a subject-centered metaphysics and
excuses for merely manifesting the effects of an already existing concep-
tion of subjectivity based on the form of our animal bodies. From the
beginning Nietzsche links the Western metaphysical history of the doc-
trine of individuation (both physical and spiritual) with the perception
of organic form, caring little that individuation as a philosophical issue
predates any discussion of the organism. Organism, for Nietzsche, can
be included in a more general category of substance, or atomism, or any
doctrine that divides the world up into self-enclosed forms. In addition
to criticizing the unreflective conflation of the self-enclosed form of the
animal or specifically the human body with individuation, Nietzsche
proposes alternative figures for more accurately conceptualizing indi-
viduation in order to avoid reification. He invokes a metaphorical regis-
ter that links madness, plant growth, and the feminine as transgressive
figures for individuation.
In 1873, Nietzsche spent some time studying Goethe, specifically
the Conversations with Eckermann, but also Goethe’s writings on nat-
ural science, which he had begun to read as a student in Leipzig. One of
the passages in the notebook reads, “Goethe, then, is exemplary: tem-
pestuous naturalism that gradually becomes rigorous dignity. As a styl-
ized person, he rose higher than any other German. . . . One reads Eck-
ermann and asks oneself if ever any person has come so far into a noble
form in Germany. From there to simplicity and greatness is indeed a big-
ger step; however, we must never believe ourselves capable of leaping
beyond Goethe, but must rather, like him, always begin anew” (KSA 7,
686). A notebook dating from the summer and fall of 1873 contains
many references to Goethe, and Goethe’s name appears in the second
152 The Vegetative Soul
Untimely Meditation as well.
Nietzsche writes, among a series of seem-
ingly unconnected notes: “The sense of history: a metamorphosis of
plants. Example” (KSA 7, 485). Tracing the background of such a note
necessitates an examination of Nietzsche’s comments on metamorpho-
sis, on anthropomorphism in studies of nature, on consciousness, on
plants themselves, on the organic, and on individuation in general.
Nietzsche’s respect for Goethe’s insights into nature can be seen
over the years in passages quoted from Goethe’s scientific writings. In
his notes for a proposed dissertation in 1868, Nietzsche uses Goethe to
argue against Kant. In 1871 Nietzsche’s notebooks are full of references
to Goethe, particularly when Nietzsche is remarking on the power of
particular representations of nature. For Nietzsche, Goethe embodied
the capacity to see nature simultaneously with the eye of the philosopher
and with the eye of the artist. Nietzsche grants the greatest power to the
capacity to see nature aesthetically, a power that Goethe above all pos-
sessed: “The cult of nature. That is our most truthful artistic feeling. The
more powerfully and magically nature is presented, the more we believe
in it” (KSA 7, 305). Nietzsche is always concerned with the representa-
tion of nature, which in turn informs the way in which human beings
look at themselves and their position in the world. For the most part this
is an unreflective process. In a notebook written in from late 1873 to
early 1874, Nietzsche laments, “We are all thoughtless naturalists, and
that indeed with full knowledge” (KSA 7, 741). Despite the proliferation
of “knowledge” about natural phenomena, or perhaps as a result of this
plethora of data, we tend to think less and less about the way in which
we represent nature. The discourse of modern science is a quantitative
one that seeks always to increase the number of natural phenomena that
it can explain. The will to knowledge in the form of science increasingly
cuts the human being off from its history, both natural and cultural:
Now this is how the modern German believes in the aeterna veritas of his
system of education, of his kind of culture: and yet this belief would
crumble away, as the Platonic state would have crumbled away, if the nec-
essary lie were for once countered with a necessary truth: the truth that
the German possesses no culture because his education provides no basis
for one. He wants the flower without the root and the stem: consequently
he wants it in vain. That is the simple truth, a coarse and unpleasant truth,
truly a necessary truth. It is in this necessary truth, however, that our first
generation must be educated; they will certainly suffer the most from it,
for through it they will have to educate themselves, and in opposition to
themselves moreover, to a new custom and nature and out of an old and
first nature and custom: so that they could say to themselves in old Span-
ish: Defienda me Dios de my, God guard me from myself, that is to say
from the nature already educated into me. (KSA 1, 328/119; my italics)
153 The Ivy and the Vine
The old Spanish saying, which echoes a passage from Meister Eck-
hart’s sermons that Nietzsche also esteemed,
indicates the potential of
human knowledge to conceal as much as it reveals. Nietzsche invokes
the prayer to God to protect me from myself as an act that must con-
stantly remind one of the provisionality of any explanation of nature or
of culture, or, as is more plausible here, of subjectivity. The root and
stem of the flower represent the historical context that informs the way
in which knowledge is represented. Knowing a flower without taking its
root and stem into account resembles addressing a disease by attacking
its symptoms rather than its cause. Nietzsche does not suggest a search
for origins here, however. He accepts Kant’s dictum that “things in
themselves” cannot be known. Rather, he enjoins the scientist to become
aware of historical, social, and cultural factors that affect the ways in
which nature is described. In praying, “God guard me from the nature
already educated into me,” the philosopher, Nietzsche writes, following
Goethe, “does not seek truth, but rather the metamorphosis of the world
in human beings” (KSA 7, 494).
After reading Goethe’s scientific writings in 1869, Nietzsche
adopts the terminology of metamorphosis. The overwhelming presence
of the god Dionysos in all the notebooks written around the time of The
Birth of Tragedy and beyond attests to the importance of the idea of
metamorphosis for Nietzsche. Dionysos is the god of metamorphosis,
whose symbols, the mask, the ivy, and the vine, all exhibit the plant-like
characteristics of indefinite sequentiality and unpredictable transforma-
tion. Walter F. Otto describes the Dionysian plants in the following way:
The vine and the ivy are like siblings who have developed in opposite
directions and yet cannot deny their relationship. Both undergo an amaz-
ing metamorphosis. In the cool season of the year the vine lies as though
dead and in its dryness resembles a useless stump until the moment when
it feels the renewed heat of the sun and blossoms forth in a riot of green
and with a fiery elixir without compare.
What happens to the ivy is no less remarkable. Its cycle of growth
gives evidence of a duality which is quite capable of suggesting the two-
fold nature of Dionysos. First it puts out the so-called shade-seeking
shoots, the ascendant tendrils with the well-known lobed leaves. Later,
however, a second kind of shoot appears which grows upright and turns
toward the light. The leaves are formed completely differently, and now
the plant produces flowers and berries. Like Dionysos, it could well be
called the “twice-born.”
In a passage entitled “Goethe’s Attempt,” from his 1868 disserta-
tion proposal, Nietzsche links the structure of metamorphosis to the sep-
aration of the concept of growth, development, and transformation
154 The Vegetative Soul
from the idea of an originary source. Nietzsche writes that the theory of
metamorphosis derives the organism from a cause that is undiscover-
able, and adds, “[T]his precisely proves that it is the correct human
path” (HKG 1:3, 380). Nietzsche uses Goethe to approach and modify
Kant’s position. Kant inaugurated what Nietzsche refers to as “tragic
philosophy” in forever cutting the knower off from the thing-in-itself.
Like Kant, Nietzsche recognizes the power of the drive to ascertain ori-
gins and the need that science and philosophy have to account for the
emergence of beings; Nietzsche follows Kant in the conviction that such
an explanation reflects the structure of human inquiry rather than any
essence of being. Using Kant’s language from the third Critique, Niet-
zsche writes in a notebook: “The philosopher’s description of nature: he
knows insofar as he poetizes or fictionizes [dichtet], and poetizes insofar
as he knows” (KSA 7, 439). Metamorphosis as Nietzsche understands it
improves on the Kantian technic of nature in that it circumvents the
issue of source by positing a constant transformation of everything into
everything else.
This perennial self-transformation of becoming, the eternal recur-
rence of the same, the principle of metamorphosis, and the provisional-
ity of any theory of individuation, all reflect the register of self-over-
coming values that Nietzsche evokes in his discussion of the organism
since Kant. From early on Nietzsche assumes that each individual exis-
tence is a transformative mask for the manifestation of an eternally
repeating temporal becoming. A passage from an early notebook states
that “every hero is a symbol of Dionysos” (KSA 7, 156). For example,
Nietzsche writes, “Socrates is at the same time Prometheus and Oedipus,
but Prometheus before he stole the fire, and Oedipus before he solved
the riddle of the sphinx. Through him a new mirroring of both repre-
sentations was inaugurated” (KSA 7, 228). Nietzsche emphasizes what
Socrates lacked that Prometheus and Oedipus possessed, namely their
tragic nature. This is to say, Socrates embodied the same explanatory
power that Oedipus and Prometheus did, but with a completely differ-
ent tonality. Oedipus before he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and
Prometheus before he stole the fire have none of the mythic and tragic
proportions they took on after each of the experiences for which they
became known. Socrates took away an essential wonder from the
description of the human condition, a wonder of which Oedipus and
Prometheus are not proponents so much as victims. Socrates imposed
the law of truthfulness and singularity upon a multiple mythical nature,
whereas Oedipus and Prometheus perished in the reinforcement of that
mythology. Kant, in initiating the first modern tragic philosophy, carried
through the final implications of that truthfulness “against” modern sci-
ence. The following fragment makes this explicit:
155 The Ivy and the Vine
The person who doesn’t believe in the truthfulness of nature, but rather
sees overall metamorphoses, coverings-up, masquerades, gods in bulls,
natural grounds full of wisdom in horses, nymphs in trees—now, if he
himself imposes the law of truthfulness, also believes in the truthfulness of
nature against him. (KSA 7, 482)
In this veiled reference to Kant, who denied the possibility of
knowing the truthfulness of nature as thing-in-itself, Nietzsche rejects
the moral imperative that Kant’s imposition of the human law of under-
standing onto nature nonetheless implies: “Not in knowledge, but in
creating lies our recuperation. In the most elevated of appearances, in
the noblest of confusions lies our greatness. If the universe has nothing
to do with us, then we want to have the right to despise it” (KSA 7, 459).
The imperative to “save” knowledge in the face of the limitations Kant
placed upon it strikes Nietzsche as the modern-day version of a Christ-
ian injunction to love one’s neighbor despite his or her contemptibility
or pettiness.
Nietzsche sides with Goethe against Kant in the attack on anthro-
pomorphism, even though Goethe understood his own position to be
very close to Kant’s. While Goethe recognized the radicality of Kant’s
efforts to limit the anthropomorphic aspirations of teleological natural
scientists of the day, Nietzsche ultimately judges Kant the most anthro-
pomorphic of all scientists, not in having assigned purposes to natural
things that serve human beings, but in something much larger: in that,
having forever severed human knowledge from the real essence of being,
Kant still insisted that the entire universe conform to the laws of human
cognition and bend to the imperatives of human morality.
Nietzsche notes with appreciation that “Goethe took the place of
human beings in nature and surrounding nature itself to be more myste-
rious, more puzzling, and more daimonic than his contemporaries did”
(KSA 7, 684). Nietzsche was aware of the prevailing practice in eigh-
teenth- and even nineteenth-century studies of nature to assign purposes
to natural things; in addition, he knew of both Kant and Goethe’s critique
of teleological science’s tendency to trace all purposes back to utility for
the human being’s needs. Nietzsche admired Goethe for both his acqui-
escence in the mysterious and impenetrable in nature, for the fact that he
was not only a scientist but also and at the same time an artist, and for
Goethe’s self-reflective complication of Kant’s anthropocentrism.
These later notes reflect those in the draft of Nietzsche’s disserta-
tion proposal, composed, as we have already noted, during his student
years in Leipzig, sometime in 1868. Nietzsche entitles the draft “Teleol-
ogy since Kant.”
A twenty-page series of notes and drafts of paragraphs
shows that Nietzsche did read Kant’s Critique of Judgment, as is indi-
156 The Vegetative Soul
cated by a full bibliographical reference and page numbers as well as
numerous direct quotations from the text. Apparently the Critique of
Teleological Judgment was of primary interest to the young Nietzsche.
Nietzsche begins with a reading list, presumably one he had read prior
to what he wrote, since another reading list, with the heading “to be
read” follows the unfinished essay. The initial reading list includes
Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Kant’s Critique of
Pure Reason and Critique of Judgment, as well as Kuno Fischer’s com-
mentary on Kant (HKG 1:3, 371).
The first section, “On Teleology,” begins with the observation that
optimism and teleology go hand in hand. This theme resurfaces in The
Birth of Tragedy, where modern science is linked to post-Socratic
“Greek cheerfulness.” In the published work, Nietzsche speculates that
the Greeks became more and more optimistic and superficial with the
dissolution of their culture; he pairs logic and science in general to the
equation of knowledge with progress. The sole weapon one could wield
against the doctrine of purposiveness, Nietzsche writes in 1868, would
be the discovery of a proof of something that is not purposive. This dis-
covery would prove that even the highest reason (Vernunft) has been
only sporadically effective, and that there is thus room for multiple
lesser “reasons.” Nietzsche accepts Kant’s conclusion that purposiveness
is part of the human understanding of (specifically organic) nature
rather than anything objectively inherent in nature itself. But, he says,
the existence of things that are not purposive demonstrates that there is
no unity in the teleological world (HKG 1:3, 372). He then proposes an
“Empedoclean point of view” in which the purposive is just one case
among many, the purposive being the exception rather than the rule.
Among other things, “Empedoclean” science will presuppose that any
underlying “truth” about nature will remain hidden from human under-
standing, and that the components of nature are erratic and arbitrary
impulses that can only sometimes be interpreted as rational purposes.
The truth of nature thus reveals itself as fully irrational, even if it can
occasionally be represented as rational (HKG 1:3, 372).
Nietzsche begins “Teleology Since Kant,” the next section, by
quoting Kant’s assertion that the purposiveness of the organic as well as
the lawfulness of the inorganic are brought to these phenomena by
human understanding rather than inhering in nature. After an introduc-
tory set of paragraphs, Nietzsche abruptly switches to a polemical mode:
“There is no question that is necessarily solved through the assumption
of an intelligible world” (HKG 1:3, 373). What Nietzsche most objects
to is the hierarchizing of purposes. Even if we can assign purposiveness
to a thing, the most we can conclude is the existence of reason, but we
have no right to judge it as either a higher or a lower reason, or to
157 The Ivy and the Vine
appeal to a purposiveness that is beyond sensibility. While delegitima-
tizing claims of purposiveness in nature, Kant nevertheless continues to
privilege the thing-in-itself. This Nietzsche sees as implied in Kant’s cri-
tique of teleological judgment when Kant makes the illicit move toward
ranking purposes.
Nietzsche then quotes Goethe to the effect that every living thing is
no individual, but rather a multiplicity. Even insofar as it appears to us
to be an individual, it remains a gathering (Versammlung) of living being
(Wesen) (HKG 1:3, 376). Kant makes a leap, according to Nietzsche, in
proceeding from the definition of the organized body as that thing whose
parts are purposively connected with each other to the notion of the
organism as a purposive being per se (HKG 1:3, 378). Nietzsche argues
that mechanism linked with causality could provide the same explanation
for the organism, and that this in itself is enough to set Kant’s definition
aside (although not enough to embrace a mechanical picture of becom-
ing or any other definitive explanation of the meaning of the organism
and of life). What Kant claims, Nietzsche says, he does only out of his
prior conviction that there is nothing comparable to the purposive rela-
tionship of the organism; thus, Kant begins with an implicit judgment
that already ranks the organism highest in terms of purposiveness.
The purposive, Nietzsche argues, arose as a particular case of the
possible. In other words, life, the root of purposive explanations,
evolved as one configuration out of infinite mechanically composed con-
stellations or possibilities of constellations (what Pierre Klossowski
might call, commenting on Nietzsche’s later work, fortuitous encounters
of forces),
among which countless others could have been capable of life
(HKG 1:3, 379). Kant denies that life could have originated out of
mechanical forces, but, Nietzsche writes, what we can know is only the
mechanical, even if our understanding organizes itself according to pur-
posiveness. What lies beyond our concepts (Nietzsche, following Kant,
considers concepts to be “mechanical”) is fully unknowable by Kant’s
own claim. In terms of our own organization the only knowledge that
we are conditioned to understand would indicate a mechanical origin of
all things. Thus, the purposive explanation involves a creative leap, as
well as the elimination of countless accidental details in order to reach
the simplicity of the unified and self-enclosed individual.
What we call “individuals” are actually multiplicities. In reality
there are no individuals, or rather, Nietzsche writes, “individuals” and
“organisms” are nothing but abstractions. In the section entitled
“Goethe’s Attempt” Nietzsche writes, as we have already noted, that
metamorphosis sees the organism deriving from a cause that is undiscov-
erable, and that for this reason metamorphosis must be the correct expla-
nation of nature (HKG 1:3, 380). One does not try to seek the final cause
158 The Vegetative Soul
of inorganic nature because here one can see no individuals, only forces.
This means that since, on Nietzsche’s view, everything can be traced to
the inorganic (i.e., to “blind forces”), one can no longer believe in pur-
poses. By “blind forces” Nietzsche here refers not to anything determi-
nately inorganic (since “force,” too, will be called a fiction—although a
privileged one—imposed by human understanding onto the fundamen-
tally unknowable) but to what cannot be individuated except “mechani-
cally,” that is, through concepts. What is capable of life is formed only
through “an endless chain of failures and half-successful attempts”
(HKG 1:3, 381). Since in nature only inorganic forces prevail, things that
appear to be purposive are only appearances, and their purposiveness is
“our idea” (HKG 1:3, 381). Organisms manifest only forces that work
blindly. Face to face with the unknown, human beings have no recourse
except to invent concepts, but these concepts can only bring us to a col-
lection of apparent qualities that will not ever make the leap to a living
body (Leib). This applies equally to the notions of force, substance, indi-
vidual, law, organism, atom, and final cause (HKG 1:3, 383).
To derive the general origin of organic life from observing nature’s
means of providing for and preserving organisms would not character-
ize the Empedoclean way of doing science, Nietzsche writes. It is, how-
ever, the Epicurean way. By “Epicurean way,” Nietzsche is referring to
the atomic understanding of being, in which a whole can be derived
from a sum of parts, and which allows for an end-point in the endless
process of dividing matter. Such an understanding takes an isolatable
body (what we have called an “animal” form) as its point of departure.
Nietzsche’s line of reasoning proceeds as follows:
The question is precisely, what “life” is, whether it is just a mere principle
of order and form (as with the tragedy), or whether it is something entirely
different: against this it must be conceded that within organic nature in the
relationship of organisms to each other no other principle exists that does
not also exist in inorganic nature. The method of Nature in the treatment
of things is equal, she is an impartial mother, equally severe towards inor-
ganic and organic children. (HKG 1:3, 385–86)
This passage both echoes and reverses the fragment “Die Natur” that
was thought to have been written by the young Goethe. This fragment
contains many passages like the following: “[Nature’s] children are with-
out number. From none does she withhold all gifts, but upon her favorites
she lavishes much and for them she sacrifices much.”
In inorganic
nature, as we have already noted, “individuals” do not exist except as
abstractions. If Nature is equally severe toward her inorganic and her
organic “children,” then the organism, too, is a fiction created to explain
life purposively in a way that will allow human beings to feel important.
159 The Ivy and the Vine
Nietzsche now returns to the question as to whether the force that
creates the thing is identical to the force that preserves it. To elaborate
on what he has characterized as an “Empedoclean” way of understand-
ing nature, he asks, what is “organism” other than formed life? But if
the organism’s parts are not necessary to it, in other words, if forms
other than the organic can be thought of that would equally support life,
then one cannot argue that the essence of the organic lies in its form;
purposiveness is not reducible to form. On the other hand, one also does
not want to say that the organism is mere life without form. Thus, Niet-
zsche concludes, life has as many different purposivenesses as forms
(HKG 1:3, 386–87). This relates to Nietzsche’s perception of Empedo-
cles’ doctrine of movement. Empedocles posited a cosmic vortex, “the
contrary of ordered movement” (KSA 7, 552). In the same way, given
Nietzsche’s understanding of the relationship between space and time,
the organism cannot simply be the result of a single, linear, ordered pro-
gression of forms. The polemic against Kant is directed not toward
Kant’s ultimate conclusion, that purposiveness is brought to nature by
human understanding, which Nietzsche agrees with; rather, Nietzsche
objects to the assumption that the form organisms have taken follows a
singular purposiveness, that we assume that nature was created in the
best possible way (even if one admits that this assumption is only a
structure of our way of thinking about nature).
In this claim Nietzsche follows Goethe, who was already aware
that nature is not independent of the way in which it is approached by
the human observer. Goethe had insisted that scientific discoveries con-
ceal as much as they reveal, and advocated a metamorphosis of the sci-
entist parallel to the observed metamorphosis of natural phenomena.
Nietzsche got his idea of “multiple purposivenesses,” multiple possibili-
ties for understanding nature’s tendencies, from reading Goethe. The
notion of a whole, in the end, can only be constructed from the point of
view of the observer in his or her capacity to synthesize, but this whole
has none of the implications of stability over time.
Life is possible under an astounding number of forms, then. Each
of these forms is purposive in a sense, but there are as many types of pur-
posiveness as forms, not one overarching teleology. Nietzsche objects to
“rationality” defined as the principle of sufficient reason—the greatest
possible narrowing down of a field of possibilities. He writes, “In human
life we make a progression in the purposive: we only call it ‘reasonable’
[vernünftig] when a very narrow choice is available. When a person finds
the only purposive way in a complicated situation, we say that he is act-
ing rationally. However, when one wants to travel all over the world and
follows any old road, one is acting purposively but not rationally.” This
reductive notion of rationality cannot even begin to touch on the expla-
160 The Vegetative Soul
nation of life: “When we speak of purposive concepts and causes, we
only mean: out of a living and thinking thing a form is intentionalized
[intentionirt], in which it wants to appear” (HKG 1:3, 387). In other
words, “form” always implies a reduction or abstraction of life.
The scientific grasp of life rests ultimately on nothing but static
forms conceived as unitary and monolithic individuals. These forms do
not comprehend the “eternally becoming” (ewige Werdende) that life is.
“Forms” are analogous to “individuals,” for both words are used to
describe organisms conceived as unities in the sense of purposive centers.
However, there are unities only for our intellect: “Every individual has an
infinity of living individuals in itself” (HKG 1:3, 387) This observation is
taken directly from On Morphology, where Goethe writes: “No living
thing is unitary in nature: every such thing is a plurality. Even the organ-
ism that appears to us as individual exists as a collection of independent
living entities.”
Here Nietzsche also explicitly links the notion of individ-
uation to the perceived unity of the animal body: “It is merely an unre-
fined [grobe] perspective, perhaps first taken from the body of the human
being” (HKG 1:3, 388).
Nietzsche’s statements here are very similar to
later claims that he makes at the time of writing The Gay Science, such as
the one with which we began.
Nietzsche, like Goethe, will ultimately
privilege the figure of the plant for the ramifications it introduces into the
facile notion of organism as individual. If the organism is not an individ-
ual, nothing can be, for as Kant showed, nothing more coherent and cohe-
sive exists naturally than self-motivating and self-regulating organism.
Finally, Nietzsche asks whether human beings need final causes to
explain that something lives. He concludes that teleology is not necessary
to account for life, but only to justify it. We do not need final causes to
explain the life of a thing, for “‘life’ is something that is entirely obscure,
that we can shed no further light on through final causes.” Moreover,
purposiveness is no absolute notion, but only relative to perspective
(HKG 1:3, 388–90). Nietzsche thus agrees with Kant that purposiveness
lies only in human reflective judgment, but objects along with Goethe to
the assumption that purposiveness is the only form under which humans
can cognize nature. He ends the passage with a question: If “life” as a
concept is linked to human consciousness, then what in nature brought
about human existence? Did a lack of self-consciousness cause the con-
cept of “life” to arise? Was the notion of life conducive to the formation
of self-consciousness, did it induce human beings to reflect on their posi-
tion? Humans are unable to approach “life” in general from anything
other than a human perspective, in analogy to human life. The division
into organic and inorganic, then, arises out of human observation of
what is similar to and alien to the human being, and the subsequent
demand for an explanation that arises from such an examination.
161 The Ivy and the Vine
In the second Untimely Meditation Nietzsche again addresses the
issue of the purposiveness of nature directly and in a way that recalls
Goethe’s diatribe against the teleologists of the early nineteenth century:
To what end the “world” exists, to what end “humankind” exists, ought
not to concern us at all for the moment except as objects of humor: for
the presumptuousness of the little human worm is the funniest thing at
present on the earthly stage; on the other hand, do ask yourself why you,
the individual, exist, and if you can get no other answer try for once to
justify your existence as it were a posteriori by setting before yourself an
aim, a goal, a “to this end,” an exalted and noble “to this end.” Perish in
pursuit of this and only this—I know of no better aim of life than that of
perishing animae magnae prodigus [careless of life], in pursuit of the great
and the impossible. (KSA 1, 319)
In a notebook he used from late 1870 to early 1871, Nietzsche quotes
Goethe: “the human never grasps how anthropomorphic he is” (KSA 7,
103). The quest to explain the origin of the human species struck Niet-
zsche as humorous given the utter lack of attention paid to its possible
demise through apathy and cynicism. Nietzsche’s barbs are not aimed
solely at contemporary popular philosophy in this respect, but also,
again, at the natural sciences, and particularly at the growing popular-
ity of the theory of evolution, which he took to be the height of anthro-
pomorphic fantasy:
Contemplation of history has never flown so far, not even in dreams; for
now the history of mankind is only the continuation of the history of ani-
mals and plants; even in the profoundest depths of the sea the universal
historian still finds traces of himself as living slime; gazing in amazement,
as at a miracle, at the tremendous course humankind has already run, his
gaze trembles at that even more astonishing miracle, the modern human
himself, who is capable of surveying this course. He stands high and
proud upon the pyramid of the world-process; as he lays the keystone of
his knowledge at the top of it he seems to call out to nature all around
him: “We have reached the goal, we are the goal, we are nature per-
fected.” (KSA 1, 313)
All the hidden implications for the importance of the human
being as the purpose of nature strike Nietzsche as what is insidious
about theories that purport to approach nature “neutrally,” yet which
explain the evolution of human beings as the pinnacle of nature. Nev-
ertheless, Nietzsche advocates an attentive anthropocentrism that
does not reduce the human being to self-evident platitudes rather than
suggesting that it is possible to practice science without being anthro-
pocentric. In the year 1872–1873, Nietzsche’s continuing concern
162 The Vegetative Soul
with the critique of the self-serving implications of research into
nature is reflected in the following note: “All natural science is just an
attempt by humans to understand the anthropological: or, to be more
correct, always to return, after vast detours, to humans. The inflation
of humans to a macrocosmos in order to say at the end, ‘you are, at
the end, what you are’”(KSA 7, 449). All natural science, then, is just
a garrulous method of describing the human being. Such an effort,
however, assumes from the outset the self-evident nature and the
explicability of the human being.
For Nietzsche, by contrast: “The human being knows the world to
the degree that he knows himself, i.e. its depths unveil themselves to him
to the degree that he is astounded by himself and his own complexity”
(KSA 7, 456). An excessive focus on singular origins that tends to priv-
ilege the unambiguous, the individual, and the unified, leads to an equal
neglect of the question of the meaning and the complexity of the posi-
tion of the human being in the natural world. Nietzsche mocked natural
science’s belief that it can circumvent world views, subjective projection,
theological assumptions, and the like through carefully controlled obser-
vation and strictly empirical methods.
Another notebook entry lists all the pre-Socratic philosophers as
having an anthropomorphic explanation of being (KSA 7, 456–57), and
Nietzsche also recognized that metamorphosis itself, at least in Ovid’s
sense, is an anthropomorphic mythology that sees all of nature solely in
its connection with the human being. In this sense Nietzsche is very close
to Kant: teleological explanations are never demonstrable, yet they are an
inevitable characteristic of any human explanation of nature by virtue of
the very obvious fact that they are produced by humans. The notion of
objectivity is simply one of many metamorphoses of the human story
about nature. Nietzsche advocates a transformed anthropomorphism
that would recognize the complexity of this being called human as well
as the utter impossibility of coming upon a single universal explanation
of what we are. This revised anthropomorphism involves the recognition
of the necessary use of masks in explaining any natural phenomenon, not
the attempt to do away with masks or a lapse into despair:
The philosopher of desperate knowledge will be absorbed in blind
science: knowledge at any price.
For the tragic philosopher the fact that metaphysics only appears
anthropomorphically completes the image of existence. He is not a skeptic.
Here is a concept to create: skepticism is not the goal. The drive to
knowledge, having reached its limits, turns itself against itself, in order now
to proceed to a critique of knowing. Knowledge in the service of the best life.
One must oneself want the illusion—therein lies the tragic. (KSA
7, 428)
163 The Ivy and the Vine
Here, “wanting the illusion” refers to a complicated recognition of the
provisionality of all individuation, combined with an acknowledgment
of the need for masks in order for what would be otherwise ineffable to
come to representation.
Nietzsche’s critique of the primacy accorded to consciousness is
much more well known than his discussion of teleology and the organ-
ism, yet these discourses form parallel critiques. This is because what
Nietzsche criticizes in the privilege accorded to consciousness is the same
anthropocentric teleological ideology he sees hidden within it that priv-
ileges the human being as the final purpose of the organic. The basis of
this hierarchy within the organic, as Nietzsche understands it, is the clas-
sification that distinguishes between non-living organic material (miner-
als), living but unconscious organisms (plants), conscious but not self-
conscious organisms (animals), and self-conscious organisms that
possess the capacity to articulate their self-consciousness (humans).
Nietzsche’s critique of consciousness in The Gay Science, pub-
lished in 1882, is well known. Here he writes:
Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence
also what is most unfinished and least powerful. . . . If the conserving
association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if
it did not serve the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish
of its misjudgments and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thor-
oughness and its credulity—in short, of its consciousness; rather, without
the former, humanity would have long disappeared! Before a function is
fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and
it is good if for that time it is heartily tyrannized! Thus consciousness is
properly tyrannized—not least by our pride in it! One thinks that it con-
stitutes the kernel of the human being; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate,
and most original in it. One takes consciousness for a determinate magni-
tude! One denies its growth and its intermittences! Takes it for the ‘unity
of the organism’! (KSA 3, 382–83/GS 84–85)
Nietzsche uses the vocabulary of “tyrannization” (tyrannisiren) to indi-
cate the imposition of a unified structure upon something that is not
inherently a unity. The passage goes on to say that the importance
humans accord to conscious thinking has the advantage of hindering a
precipitous development of consciousness (since it is assumed to already
have reached the height of its powers); such a restraint effects the
appearance of unity. The illusion of unity, in turn, functions as a pro-
tective mechanism in the development of the organism.
Nietzsche’s critique of consciousness predates The Gay Science,
however. Nietzsche’s notes from both before and after the publication of
The Birth of Tragedy show that consciousness was an early target of cri-
164 The Vegetative Soul
tique, specifically with regard to the distinction between the Apollinian
and the Dionysian aesthetic impulses. As Nietzsche makes explicit in
certain passages, “Dionysian” refers to the chaotic mass of impulses that
only come into some semblance of order and possibility of articulation
through the intervention of “Apollinian” forms of imagistic representa-
tion and language. Much of this aspect of the Apollinian/Dionysian dis-
course originally stemmed from Nietzsche’s reading of Schopenhauer in
a way that amplifies Kant’s technic of nature through a consideration of
those aspects of human thought that are not present to consciousness.
While the unconscious force of nature passes through the human being
only in the form of vegetable genius, according to Kant, for Nietzsche
this process characterizes all of human cognitive activity.
Schopenhauer’s discourse on the problematic nature of the word
I (connected with consciousness), which he calls the seat of the “great-
est equivocation” (WWR II, 224), was one of his most long-lasting
legacies in Nietzsche’s thought. Schopenhauer pinpoints the locus of
human perplexity as the traditional placement of the “I” or “ego” in
consciousness, in that “I” is insolubly linked to individuation (to the “I
think” of Kant). According to Schopenhauer, the real essence of human
nature lies in the unconscious will, not in the consciousness, and the
human will is distinctive precisely (and only) in that while it, like all
things, is subordinate to the unindividuated Will (Schopenhauer’s
thing-in-itself), it can know itself to be so. Knowing this (self-con-
sciousness) is not the apex of being, but merely the edge that is accessi-
ble to human cognition. What we refer to as “I” is equivocal by virtue
of its position between two distinct senses of self, according to
Schopenhauer: on the one hand, “I” belongs to the phenomenal realm,
but at the same time it experiences itself as a part of the noumenal
realm, that is, of the unindividuated Will. Thus, the meaning of “I”
changes with reference to the aspect of being to which one is referring.
For example, Schopenhauer believes that depending on which way one
looks at “I” one either understands bodily death to be one’s complete
end, or one realizes that one’s personal phenomenal appearance “is just
as infinitely small a part of my true inner nature as I am of the world”
(WWR II, 491). For Nietzsche, the meaning of “I” is irreducibly
ambiguous rather than limited to these two determinate possibilities
that define themselves solely in opposition to each other. Indeed, Niet-
zsche complains that the predicates that Schopenhauer attributes to his
will are too determinate for something that is supposed to be unthink-
able and unknowable, and that they thus must be derived simply in
opposition to the world of representation. Here, Nietzsche has a better
grasp of Kant than Schopenhauer does, since for Kant the move to
describing the thing-in-itself would be illegitimate.
165 The Ivy and the Vine
Schopenhauer attempts to avoid this oppositional structure by
describing the “I” of consciousness in terms of a plant metaphor. The
“I” would be the mediating structure between the representation and the
realm of the unrepresentable:
We can consider the plant as such a symbol of consciousness. As we know,
it has two poles, root and corona; the former reaching down into dark-
ness, moisture and cold, and the latter up into brightness, dryness and
warmth; then as the point of indifference of the two poles where they part
from each other close to the ground, the collum or root-stock. The root is
what is essential, original, perennial, whose death entails the death of the
corona; it is therefore primary. The corona, on the other hand, is the
ostensible, that which has sprouted forth, that which passes away without
the root dying; it is therefore the secondary. The root represents the will,
the corona the intellect, and the point of indifference of the two, namely
the collum, would be the I, which, as their common extreme point,
belongs to both. (WWR II, 202; my emphasis)
For Schopenhauer, the “I” is the point of indifference by virtue of
belonging both to the will and to the intellect, and thus by virtue of its
capacity for both unity and multiplicity with reference to the separate
realms of the noumenal and the phenomenal. This identification of the
will with the root as “what is essential, perennial,” and the corona with
what is merely “ostensible” uses the figure of the plant to perpetuate a
metaphysical distinction into sensible and intelligible by playing on the
root’s concealedness to explain the connection between the two realms.
The human intellect, then, would be nothing but the mediating structure
between the phenomenal and the noumenal realms. Again, Nietzsche
would object that such a characterization gives the will determinate
characteristics by simply describing it in opposition to the corona. Such
an opposition perpetuates the traditional equation of the plant with the
“inverted animal.” Nietzsche, by contrast, would define the “I” as indif-
ferent only in the sense of pure potentiality, the possibility of becoming
excessive with reference to the physical individual, the potential to
become multiply other while remaining itself. In other words, the plant,
for Nietzsche, becomes a privileged metaphor not because it is half
revealed and half concealed, with the concealed half responsible for the
life of the whole, but because the plant, unlike the animal, does not man-
ifest itself as an individual. This possibility of excess derives from the
impossibility of ever definitively representing or giving determinate qual-
ities to the Dionysian.
For Schopenhauer, like Kant, the “I” of the artistic genius is analo-
gous to the organic body, but in a more specific way: “Only the genius . . .
is like the organic body that assimilates, transforms, and produces. For
166 The Vegetative Soul
he is, indeed, educated and cultured by his predecessors and their works;
but only by life and the world itself is he made directly productive
through the impression of what is perceived; therefore the highest culture
never interferes with his originality” (WWR I, 235). The imitators in art,
on the contrary, are like “parasitic plants” that “suck their nourishment
from the works of others,” or even “like machines that take what is put
into them and mince it very fine and mix it up, but can never digest
it”(WWR I, 235). Plants are images of parasitism because of their con-
nection to the source from which they receive nourishment, and because
of the traditional equation of the vegetative with the passive. Nietzsche,
by contrast, profoundly mistrusts the equation of the “I” with the indi-
viduation of the organic. In a later notebook, Nietzsche writes tersely:
“The I—not to be confused with the organic feeling of unity” (KSA 9,
446). We recall the passage cited above in which Nietzsche criticized the
organic feeling of unity as coming from a “crude” or “unrefined” per-
spective, originating out of the human’s proximity to its own body (HKG
1:3, 388). Here, Nietzsche echoes Kant’s claim that the human being
most effectively and aesthetically unifies its conception of itself through
reflective judgment patterned after the form of the organism, yet criticizes
the human tendency to limit that unification to the crude outlines of its
own body. The animal organism, as Schopenhauer had demonstrated in
great detail, manifests decay and waste as much as grace and beauty.
Schopenhauer was concerned with the self-regulating functions of
the organism, which naturally include both excretion and death. When
material is excreted, it has been excluded from a necessary role in the
perpetuation of the embodied entity, has been designated as other than
the individuated thing itself, in opposition to the part of the food that
has been assimilated within the cells of the living being. Only with the
notion of an organism, which must excrete waste in order to regulate
itself, does the concept of excess come into play, as Nietzsche observes
in a much later notebook (KSA 9, 509–10). Plants live in constant con-
tiguity with their own excess, perhaps taking it in again in other forms.
Of course, the same is true for animals—and Nietzsche’s point is that no
organism is an individual—but the analogy is less striking. Schopen-
hauer explicitly links nourishment with life, and excretion with death,
claiming that they differ only in degree from each other (WWR I, 277).
The organic is superior to the inorganic because it can get rid of excess,
and the animal is superior to the plant because it can leave its excess
(i.e., to a certain degree, its death) behind.
For Nietzsche, a reification of any particular set of boundaries that
defines itself in opposition to excess or waste is problematic. Nietzsche
was still thinking about the limitations of seeing the organic as the cen-
tral metaphor for science and for art in 1881:
167 The Ivy and the Vine
I am always astounded when I think about going out into the open air,
how everything acts upon us with such marvelous [herrlichen] determi-
nateness, the forest thus and the mountain thus, and that there is no con-
fusion and oversight and hesitation in us with respect to our sensations.
And yet at one time it must have been somehow chaotic and utterly unset-
tled; only over immense stretches of time can everything be bequeathed so
definitively; people who felt essentially differently about spatial distances,
light, color, etc., were forced out and could only reproduce with difficulty.
This kind of feeling other must have, over many thousands of years, begun
to be perceived as “madness” [Verrücktheit] and avoided. One no longer
understood; one let the exception fall to the side and perish. (KSA 9, 531)
The “marvelous determinateness” with which everything acts
upon us is the consequence of a selective imposition of boundaries based
on the notion of the organism as individual and in the imperative notion
of sustaining the life of the individual. The word herrlich contains the
root Herr, or “master.” We see things as bounded into individuals based
on the perception of our bodies as self-enclosed things as opposed to
other self-enclosed things. The mountain is seen as separate from the
valley, from the plateau on which it rests, from which it rises up. We
think of a forest as an entity—but where are the lines drawn that bound
its beginning from its end? We perceive things as separate, and we
believe that these delimitations are universal, but, Nietzsche wonders,
was there a time, perhaps a time before language was inscribed, in which
the boundaries did not exist, when the world was chaotic, when the lim-
its between things were mutable and unfixed? The perception of objects
as perduring in space and time gradually arose as a shield against the
abyss. The passage continues:
A monstrous cruelty has existed since the beginning of everything organic,
eliminating everything that somehow “felt other.”—Science is perhaps
only a continuation of this process of excretion; it is completely impossi-
ble unless it recognizes the “average human being” as the highest “mea-
sure,” to be preserved by every means.—We live in the remnants of the
sensibilities of our ancestors: likewise in the petrification of feeling. They
composed and fantasized—but the decision as to whether particular com-
positions and phantasms should remain alive was made through the expe-
rience of whether one can live with them, or whether they destroy one.
Errors or truths—if only life were possible with them! Gradually an
impenetrable net has formed. We come to life entangled in it, and science
too cannot disengage us. (KSA 9, 537)
Nietzsche posits a slow evolution of our representations of space
and time, a flux that is moving at a rate too slow to be perceived, just as
he speculates that the absolute becoming of the world occurs at a rate
168 The Vegetative Soul
too fast for our unsophisticated organs of sensation to perceive. One
might cite the differences between languages that give many words for
what in another tongue would be named as one thing, or that gather
together under one name what another language would name as distinct
entities as evidence for the adaptation of individuation to environment.
Nietzsche tries to think the thoughts of people who “feel essentially dif-
ferently about distances in space, light, color, etc.” This is the vocabu-
lary of the artist, who plays with perspective, shading, and tone to make
these things somehow mysterious and prominent, who pulls us out of
the ordinary way of seeing things to make the ordinary uncanny. It is the
selective process of the organism that makes the notion of excretion,
excess, waste—and thus the delimitation into things that are self-
enclosed on the one hand, and whatever overflows or is not necessary to
the whole on the other—possible. Organic unity is the origin of the
notion of otherness. This notion of otherness extends within the cate-
gory of the organic to the subdivisions of animal, plant, and mineral.
Perhaps reflecting Schopenhauer’s division of being into chaotic,
irrational will and ordered representation, Nietzsche also refers to this
otherness that is the condition of possibility for individuation, separa-
bility, hierarchy, and ultimately knowledge, as a “madness” at the very
edge of representation. Representation, which is fundamentally provi-
sional, must present itself as constant and coherent to be the basis of
knowledge, prediction, and calculation, the fundaments of survival.
Nietzsche equates “madness” with a radical transformation in one’s way
of looking at spatial distances, light, and color. This understanding of
madness has its origin in the relationship he describes in The Birth of
Tragedy between Apollinian and Dionysian aesthetic forces. The
Dionysian, though it is associated with a relaxation of the borders of
individuation, never manifests itself as pure lack of boundedness. It is
the between, the border at the edge of individuation, the transformative
force that most easily can be understood with reference to the phenom-
ena of intoxication, ecstasy, and madness, physical experiences that
allow human beings to recognize the provisionality of individuation.
Nietzsche describes “madness” not as mental illness but as an
essentially different way of considering spatial distances, light, and
color, a possibility that is at the very origin of the emergence of
determinate or enduring ways of perceiving. In The Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche uses the word “lunacy” (Wahnsinn or Wahnvorstellung) to
indicate a fundamentally other way of looking at individuation. This
understanding of madness has its origin in the Dionysian celebration,
which, as is well known, involved intoxication, ecstatic possession
by the god Dionysos, and a feeling of unity with nature. Specifically,
in this state the Dionysian worshipper experienced a relaxation of
169 The Ivy and the Vine
the ordinary bounds of individuation. Much of the discussion of the
Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy centers around the description of this
process. In a series of (sometimes fragmentary) notes from 1870 to
1871, Nietzsche meditates on the nature of this madness.
He begins by distinguishing between “higher” and “lower” forms of
consciousness. The “lower” form of consciousness is what we ordinarily
refer to as consciousness, whereas the “higher” form refers to a Dionysian
awareness of the provisionality of sensory individuation. The higher form
of consciousness recognizes both the provisionality of individuation and
its necessity, as Nietzsche articulates in a rather bizarre fragment:
In the highest forms of consciousness unity is restored: in the lower [forms]
it constantly shatters. Elevation or weakening of consciousness is thereby =
individuation.—Consciousness, on the other hand, is only a medium for
the continuing existence of individuals. Here is the solution: lunacy [Wahn]
commands as the means of seeing the intellect. (KSA 7, 163)
Nietzsche associates consciousness with a shattering of unity into
representation. Each representation is engendered by a Wahnvorstel-
lung, a “mad representation,” in that it is the result of the suppression
of countless equally viable possibilities.
As Martin Heidegger notes in
his essay on the poetry of Georg Trakl, wana, the original root of Wahn,
means ohne, or “without.”
As a philologist, it is very likely Nietzsche
used this word in full understanding of its etymology. Thus, a Wahn-
vorstellung would be that which is “without representation,” that to
which no representation can be commensurate, though it may only come
to consciousness as represented. Literally all conscious representation,
then, is mad. However, Nietzsche uses Wahn in two senses: both as the
“elevation of consciousness,” and its weakening. The first sense of mad-
ness is mania as Plato discusses it in dialogues such as Ion and Phaedrus,
the madness that inspires poets and other artists, and the madness
evoked by the worship of Dionysos. The second sense of madness refers
to the forgetting of the process of coming into representation such that
the provisionality of the representation becomes concealed in its seem-
ingly static nature.
Nietzsche understands the evolution of individuation to be a
process that has nothing to do with consciousness. When he talks of
“madness” he refers to that which cannot be fully grasped by or
explained with reference to consciousness. Both Kant and Schopenhauer,
according to Nietzsche, made the mistake of understanding individua-
tion as the product of consciousness (KSA 7, 111). The organs of cogni-
tion, such as the categories of the understanding, whether in animals,
plants, or people “are only the organs of conscious cognition” (KSA 7,
170 The Vegetative Soul
111). Whatever consciousness of “real individuation” there could be
would have to be recognized as a Wahnvorstellung with respect to ordi-
nary cognition, that is, as remaining outside the limits of ordinary cog-
nition, and even outside the limits of language (which is why, in naming
it, one can only call it “mad” or “without”). As soon as a Wahnvorstel-
lung is recognized as such, it becomes a part of conscious thought, and
at that point the will must create another:
As soon as the madness is resolved as such, the will—if it wants us to con-
tinue differently—must create a new one. Education is a continual
exchange of one madness for another, nobler one, i.e. our “motives” in
thinking become ever more spiritual, belonging to a larger generality. . . .
(KSA 7, 117)
In this sense the Wahnvorstellung somewhat resembles a Kantian reflec-
tive judgment, which creates a singular universal out of a particular,
which thus can never be determinate, neither subsumed under a concept
nor fixed in language. Eventually, however, it gives rise to determinacy,
and insofar as it does, new forms must be created in the logic of
metaphoricity that Nietzsche outlines in “On Truth and Lies in an
Extra-Moral Sense.”
Nietzsche also calls madness “the (self-) revelation of instinct in
the form of conscious spirit” (KSA 7, 98). “Madness” names the possi-
bility of a different way of dividing up consciousness, a possibility that
is no longer given any credence, except, perhaps, in the realm of art.
Nietzsche continues, “art is the form in which the world appears in the
madness [Wahnvorstellung] of its necessity” (KSA 7, 98). “Madness”
also refers to excess, in particular to a plant-like blossoming that exceeds
the bounds of “organic” unity. Another trope for the Nietzschean trans-
formation of the ordinary understanding of individuation is the recon-
stitution of Zagreus after his dismemberment by ecstatic Maenads. The
refitting of the Dionysian after it has been subjected to fragmentation
results in an individual that is always open to the indeterminacy of the
future, and that can never be re-subsumed under previous forms of unity
and universality. In “Disgregation of the Will,” Hamacher expresses this
phenomenon as the “disunity of unity and the possible but never-
achieved unity of the differentiated.” This is an individuality that is
opposed to the forms of consciousness and of history heretofore, “it too
is subject to the principle of (dis)articulation.” It recognizes that it, too,
is always on the verge of dissolution, it is perpetually exposed to an
unknown future: “If the Dionysian finds deliverance from the affliction
of individuation, it is only in the fleeting forms of interpretation, appear-
ance, and therefore, yet again, individuation.”
171 The Ivy and the Vine
A passage taken up into the collection The Will to Power illus-
trates how the question of the priority of organic unity and its linkage
to consciousness relate to Nietzsche’s critique of individuation, and how
Goethe’s plant becomes a trope for a new conception of individuation.
Although the formulations have changed from the earliest notes for his
proposed dissertation, Nietzsche still considers the way in which natural
science and human endeavor have mutually influenced each other and
created unreflective axioms that have come to be taken for the truth.
Nietzsche’s critique is directed equally at assumptions about the knowl-
edge of nature as pursued by the sciences, supposedly distinct from
human projections upon it, and at truisms about human nature. The
themes come together in the meditation about power as that which is
common to both nature and culture:
How does it happen that the basic articles of faith in psychology are one and
all the most arrant distortions and counterfeits? “The human strives after
happiness,” e.g.—what in that is true? In order to understand what “life”
is, what kind of striving and tension life is, the formula must apply equally
well to trees and plants as to animals. “What does a plant strive after”—but
here we have already invented a false unity that does not exist: the fact of a
millionfold growth with its own and quasi-its-own initiatives is concealed
and denied if we posit a crude unity “plant.” That the very smallest “indi-
viduals” cannot be understood in the sense of a “metaphysical individual”
and atom, that their sphere of power is continually changing—that is the
first thing that becomes obvious; but does each of them strive after “happi-
ness” when it changes in this way—? (KSA 13:52/WTP 704)
Nietzsche clearly considers no organism to be a unity, and he uses
the plant to illustrate this claim. This comes directly from his disserta-
tion proposal, but continues to be present as a claim in a notebook
dated from 1887 to 1888. Likewise, Nietzsche continues to insist that
even the smallest of atomic particles cannot be understood in terms of
a “metaphysical individual” but must be taken as a useful fiction. The
passage continues:
But all self-expansion, incorporation, growth is a striving against some-
thing that resists [etwas Widerstehendes]; motion is essentially tied up
with conditions of displeasure; that which is here the driving force must
in any case desire something other if it desires displeasure in this way and
continually looks for it—for what do the trees in a primeval forest fight
each other? For “happiness”?
—For power!
The human has become master over the forces of nature, master
over his own savagery and licentiousness; the desires have learned to obey
and to be useful.
172 The Vegetative Soul
The human in comparison with a pre-human—presents a tremen-
dous quantum of power—not an increase in “happiness”! How can one
claim that he has striven for happiness? (KSA 13:52/WTP 704)
To contest the organic individual statically conceived Nietzsche
employs the language of individuation continually under the threat of
being overcome by excess. Using Goethean science, he perceives that the
organic can best be used against itself, in a move from the organism
understood as a self-enclosed, self-regulating contained form to the
organism as metamorphosing and self-overcoming. The plant can repre-
sent, as it most often has, the passive and easily cultivated or the source
of necessary nutrition, but it can also symbolize the beauty of finitude
and the wonder of metamorphosis. The body of the plant expresses the
recalcitrance of the natural, its resistance to the language of isolation
and self-enclosure, the impossibility of capturing all phenomena within
the vocabulary of determinate individuation.
In a note from 1870–1871, Nietzsche calls for a cultural transfor-
mation in the form of a “new generation of individuals” that will rede-
fine the individual as transgressive of its own apparent bodily form.
Nietzsche now describes this transformed individual not only in terms of
madness, or as a plant, but also as feminine. All three characterizations
remain imbricated in various notes.
In order for woman to complete the state, she must have the power of div-
ination. In the highest sense, Pythia; where this ability arises elsewhere, it
is a sign of the “individual” [“Einzelne”]. Blind Tiresias as seer, Pythago-
ras Lycurgus as symbol: originally properly Apollinian births. Evidence
that one feels this: one builds shrines to Sophocles (as the genius of heal-
ing). Individuals [Einzelnen] should be the mothers of a new generation of
individuals. (KSA 7, 147–48)
This note occurs in the context of the discussion of Wahnvorstellung. If
we are to understand madness as the very attempt to disclose what is
beyond determinate representation precisely through representation,
that is, through language, what is the status of this linkage of the femi-
nine with a new sense of individuation, namely, the encapsulation of the
excessive through a provisionary, metamorphosing individual? What
does it mean to assign the delimitation of individuals to the “mothers”
of being? In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche names these “mothers” as
madness (Wahn), will, and woe (Wehe), perhaps referring to Pythia,
Antigone, and Cassandra.
In the same notebook Nietzsche goes on to ask: “Why did culture
not become feminized?—in spite of Helen, in spite of Dionysos?” (KSA
7, 146). The question arises out of Nietzsche’s observation that “the
173 The Ivy and the Vine
voice of nature speaks out of [women]” in ancient Greek culture. He
gives as evidence the name Pythia, the priestess of the Delphic oracle
(and the prime example of one who speaks in “mad representations,”
the madness of her speech resulting both from the fact that she is pos-
sessed in mediating the oracle, and in that she translates what is essen-
tially not commensurable to human understanding into language). Both
Helen and Pythia disrupt a linear structure; Helen’s abduction disrupts
the political history of the Greeks and provides one of the great narra-
tives by which subsequent history defines them, and Pythia, as the
mouthpiece for the gods, provides divine answers to questions that can-
not be answered by human beings.
Antigone stands for another way of understanding the tragic indi-
vidual, namely, by contrasting it to the individual as determined by its
place within a human hierarchical structure such as the state, the con-
temporary political counterpart to the overarching universal that gave
the medieval individual its identity. Such an individual, as described, for
example, by Hegel, would be thoroughly determined by the totality of
its logical, historical and social conditions such that no genuine force of
determination can be attributed to the individual by which it might dis-
tance itself from the teleological movement dictated to it. Hegel ascribes
the political status that allows for self-determination to man alone.
Woman, in this structure, has no voice other than as the mouthpiece of
the family or divine law. Nietzsche here suggests a new understanding of
individuation beyond this division:
The individual [Einzelne] of the state’s purpose—now, however, comes the
individual of the world’s purpose, a mass of individuals [Individuen] melted
together, the human as work of art, drama, music. . . . Here is the higher
possibility of existence, also in the destruction of the state. (KSA 7, 148)
Because Dionysian worship involved an ecstatic overcoming of bodily
individuation and a feeling among the worshipers of fusion with the rest
of nature, Nietzsche takes it to be exemplary for his transformed
description of art. In defying the logic of affiliation to the laws of the
state, Antigone transcends ordinary individuation. At the same time,
however, as a clear spokesperson for the law of the family that leads her
to defy the state, Antigone represents the Apollinian individual. Niet-
zsche regarded Sophoclean tragedy as the highest point that Greek
tragedy reached (KSA 7, 81), so that Antigone embodies the integration
of the Dionysian into the Apollinian.
Nietzsche aligns the mad and the feminine in their transgressive
power: “The madness of women is other than that of men: culture has
something masculine or feminine to it according to which of them dom-
174 The Vegetative Soul
inates in upbringing [Erziehung].” He continues, “[T]he correct position
of women: dismemberment of the family”; then, “[W]oman has to bear
children, and thus is there for the best vocation of human beings, to live
as a plant” (my emphasis). “Living as a plant” indicates a passive yet
fecund existence, embodying “power” in the sense of the “possibility”
that fulfils the highest vocation of human existence. Yet how does bear-
ing children lead to a “dismemberment of the family”? Nietzsche always
aligns the figure of the mother with Dionysos. Recall Agave, who aided
in the dismemberment of her own son, Pentheus, in Euripides’ Bacchae.
The image of the mother, as Derrida has shown,
is not a straightfor-
ward one, and Nietzsche allies this image with that of the plant. If cul-
ture has not developed in a feminine way, Nietzsche implies, it is to the
detriment of human existence, which thereby is deprived of nature’s true
voice. Dionysos is placed on the side of the feminine; in The Birth of
Tragedy, Dionysos is called the “eternally creative primordial mother
[Urmutter], eternally impelling to existence” (KSA 1, 108).
When the
Dionysian breaks the spell of individuation “the way lies open to the
Mothers of Being [Müttern des Seins]” (KSA 1, 103).
Nietzsche seems to choose the plant for the same reason he speaks
of the possible feminization of culture: for its fragility and vulnerability,
and yet at the same time what he calls its “excess of power” symbolized
by its beauty and its tenacity for survival in the face of existence:
The plant, that in ceaseless struggle for existence only brings forth blos-
soms that will wilt, looks at us with the sudden eye of beauty after it is
relieved of this struggle through a fortunate disaster. . . . Nature exerts
itself to come to beauty: if this is somehow achieved, then it concerns itself
with the reproduction of the same: to which purpose it employs a highly
artistic mechanism between the animal- and plant-world, when it is a mat-
ter of perpetuating a single flower. (KSA 7, 167–68)
One can, of course, only speculate as to what Nietzsche means in these
admittedly sketchy notes. Nietzsche points to the feminization of culture
and links it to the beauty of the plant in ways that will only be fleshed
out in subsequent philosophy. Yet clearly Nietzsche links madness, fem-
ininity, contingency, and vegetative growth in a metaphorical register
that is intended to destabilize the rhetoric of the philosophy of nature
and of individuation heretofore.
The plant is put forth in analogy to the “mad representation” and
to the feminine because of the fleeting nature of its bloom. Any repre-
sentation is “mad,” because it turns consciousness away from “reality”
and toward “illusion” or the mask; yet since the representation is arbi-
trary, to the extent that one recognizes its provisionality it also turns
175 The Ivy and the Vine
consciousness toward the awareness of the inadequacy of the mask and
the impossibility of naming anything “behind” it. The relationship
between beauty and death that we see in nature should provide insight
into the nature of art, an insight that humans prefer to overlook. This
insight is present in the Critique of Judgment, and implicit in Kant’s
tragic philosophy in general, but Kant withdraws from the implications
of his own description. This absolute finitude corresponds to our knowl-
edge of the world, for we are tied to a limited perspective: “For the plant
the whole world is plant, for us, human” (KSA 7, 469). Nietzsche echoes
Kant while substituting “measuring subject” for “knowing subject”:
The statement: there is no knowledge without a knowing subject, or no
subject without an object and no object without a subject, is quite true,
but the most extreme triviality.
We can say nothing about the thing-in-itself because we have pulled
the perspective of the one who knows, i.e. the one who measures, out
from under our own feet. A quality exists for us, i.e. is commensurate
[angemessen] to us. If we take away the mass, what then is the quality?
What things are, however, is only to be proven through a measur-
ing subject placed next to them. Their qualities in themselves only concern
us insofar as they have an effect upon us.
Now we have to ask: how did such a measuring being originate?
The plant is also a measuring being. (KSA 7, 468)
The vocabulary of measuring and adequation or commensurate-
ness (Angemessenheit) is familiar from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and
evidently, from the reference to the “thing-in-itself” and the impossibil-
ity of knowledge of things independently of their relationship to a mea-
suring subject, Nietzsche is responding to Kant here, although it is to
Kant in general and not specifically to the third Critique. Nietzsche takes
up the question that Kant brackets, that is, the question of how the
human came to be the sole measuring being to which knowledge is cal-
ibrated. Nietzsche emphasizes the act of measuring, and not the mea-
surement. He departs from Kant in his reinterpretation of measure and
of organism, and this departure can be seen in the naming of the plant
as a measuring being.
Like a plant, the new individual requires a conducive atmosphere
in order to flourish. In a short piece that Nietzsche calls “Fragment of
an expanded version of the ‘Birth of Tragedy,’” (KSA 7, 333–49), Niet-
zsche speaks of both a “double art,” which refers to ancient Greek
tragedy, and to a “double genius.” Nietzsche calls the “double genius”
a “mysterious connection between state and art.” The ancient Greeks
cultivated the right atmosphere for the birth of genius through alternat-
ing periods of war and peace:
176 The Vegetative Soul
With this mysterious connection between state and art, between political
craving and artistic creation, between battlefield and artwork, of which
we have a presentiment here, we understand by “state,” as we have said,
no more than the iron shackles that compel the process towards a society:
while without the state, in the natural bellum omnium contra omnes, soci-
ety cannot put down roots in greater units and over and above the sphere
of the family. (KSA 7, 344)
While the formation of a stable community is a prerequisite for the
coming-into-being of art, it also leads to fierce warfare. But with the cre-
ation of the “state,” power becomes concentrated in a particular spatio-
temporal configuration, and it is this power that is required for the cre-
ation of art. Thus, in the intervals between wars, when power has time
to accumulate, “the effects of conflict that have been inverted and com-
pressed are given enough time to germinate and ripen, so that as soon as
there are several warmer days, the brilliant blooms of genius will be
allowed to sprout forth” (KSA 7, 344). Here genius is explained through
the fortuitous encounter of favorable forces that results, again, in vege-
tative growth that does not know its why.
If every individual is the result of a chance encounter, this means
not only that its formation is beyond its own control, but also that it is
preceded and will be succeeded by a flow of forces that will always
exceed its boundaries. It is in a receptivity to this excess, a welcoming of
its indeterminacy, the absolute openness to its future, that the produc-
tivity of the individual lies. This “productivity” lies closer to the quality-
less freedom described by Meister Eckhart than to the economically
informed notion of productivity by which we judge “individuals” in the
technological age. In the second Untimely Meditation, we recall, Niet-
zsche refers to this notion as a saying in old Spanish, Defienda me Dios
de my, or “God guard me from myself” (KSA 1, 328). This is another
formulation of Meister Eckhart’s “I pray to God to rid me of God” that
Nietzsche cites in The Gay Science (KSA 3, 533). In asking “God” to
protect “me” from “myself,” and in praying to “God” to rid me of
“God,” one appeals to the overthrow of determination, one rejects the
reductiveness of assigned qualities in favor of the openness of ambigu-
Nietzsche describes this freedom in terms of the cultivation of a
garden that is very different from the sublime English garden, in another
passage, this time from The Dawn:
What remains free for us. One can act like a gardener with one’s impulses,
and, as only a few know, cultivate the seeds of wrath, sympathy, deep
thought, vanity, to be as fecund and profitable as a beautiful fruit on a
trellis; one can do this with the good and the bad taste of a gardener, as it
were, in a French or an English or a Chinese style; one can also let nature
177 The Ivy and the Vine
prevail and only look after them here and there for the sake of a little dec-
oration and cleansing; finally, one can also let the plants grow up accord-
ing to naturally favorable conditions and hindrances, and without any
knowledge or reflection, let them fight out their own battles—yes, one can
take pleasure in such a wilderness and can will precisely this pleasure, if
one gets what one needs from it. All of this remains free for us: but how
many of us know that it remains free for us? Don’t most people believe in
themselves as faits accomplis? Haven’t the great philosophers still left their
seal on this prejudice, with their doctrines of the unalterability of charac-
ter? (KSA 3, 326)
Nietzsche uses the word freedom here in Meister Eckhart’s sense,
not as a freedom to do something but freedom as indetermination. In a
notebook from 1872–1873, Nietzsche speculates on the origin of the
notion of Eigenschaften. This word, which can be translated as “quali-
ties” or “properties,” is also sometime translated as “possessiveness,”
especially in Meister Eckhart, because of the etymology of the word,
which includes the word eigen, meaning “own.” Nietzsche is very vigi-
lant in keeping the original meanings of words in mind, and so his cri-
tique of Eigenschaft has resonances for his critique of subjectivity, and
of the human tendency to see itself as the ultimate individual. Nietzsche
writes that human beings believe that their qualities (Eigenschaften) lead
to action, when in fact it we infer qualities from actions. We assume that
there are qualities because we see actions in a determinate way. Thus,
first there is an action that we subsequently link to a quality. The word
for a quality emerges from the word for an action—and this relation-
ship, carried over to all things, is what we call causality: “First ‘seeing,’
then ‘face’” (KSA 7, 483). This leads to a language of being and not
becoming, an ontology of objects rather than events. It is interesting to
note that Meister Eckhart also considered actions, including “good
works” such as helping the poor, donating money, etc., to be “qualities”
that had no meaning in and in fact hindered the relationship to the
For Meister Eckhart and other medieval mystics, to give “God”
determination even to the extent of bestowing the name of “God” was
to reduce the divine to the level of a conceptually accessible entity. This
would extend, at least for Nietzsche, to the words me and myself.
The individual’s orientation toward an uncertain future means that
as language, as mask, it will always remain on the verge of metamor-
phosis, at the limit of determination: “It knows no other and recognizes
no God who could betoken its determinate destiny.”
The organism is
the primary example of the place where the individual is in most danger
of being reified. Even our bodies are nothing more than fictions, appear-
ances generated by a momentary encounter of forces. The figure of
Dionysos, represented, as he/she most often was, as a kind of scarecrow,
178 The Vegetative Soul
a column with clothes wrapped around it and topped with a mask that
hides what has always already just slipped away, yet which continues to
hold the constant promise of being reborn under another metamorpho-
sis, symbolizes the monstrous individuality that Nietzsche finds under
the rubric of tragedy. Walter Otto describes the mask of Dionysos in the
following way: “The mask is pure confrontation—an antipode, and
nothing else. It has no reverse side—‘Spirits have no back,’ the people
say. It has nothing which might transcend this mighty moment of con-
frontation. It has, in other words, no complete existence either. It is the
symbol and the manifestation of that which is excruciatingly near, that
which is completely absent—both in one reality.”
Thus, we have come full circle, from the constraints of the English
garden that exhibits itself to be wild and naturally growing within the
constraints laid down by a skillful gardener, to the vigilant receptivity of
the tender who knows that he or she is free to let the undetermined
remain ambiguous, to let the plant spread where the environmental con-
ditions are favorable, without knowing in advance what direction its
growth will take. In Getting Back Into Place, Edward Casey calls the
garden that place with the greatest “capacity to exhibit a range of rela-
tions between the naturally given and the intentionally cultivated.”
Gardens, like the plants that grow in them, are characterized by both
“liminality and transitionality,”
at the border between nature and cul-
ture, and at the limit of their mutual transformability. Nietzsche’s pro-
ject mirrors Kant’s deformatively, turning the imperative toward totality
and unity into an open-ended vegetative growth.
179 The Ivy and the Vine
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The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms
It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.
—Angelus Silesias
Nineteenth-century German literary and philosophical thought sowed
the seeds of the displacement of binary metaphysical oppositions and
the questioning of the atomistic conception of the subject that became
such important focal points for twentieth-century Continental philoso-
phy. The twentieth-century critique of subjectivity, which starts explic-
itly with Nietzsche and continues through the philosophical schools of
phenomenology, genealogy, deconstruction, and French feminism,
among others, builds indirectly on Kant’s critique and the massive
reworking of metaphysics into an organic, living growth by German
Idealism. The concern that links these movements is a search for the
assumptions or presuppositions that underlie classical metaphysical
tenets, particularly modern metaphysics, which grounds truth in the
rational self-transparent subject. Martin Heidegger for example, using
a plant metaphor, writes:
The Legacy of the Vegetative Soul
in Twentieth-Century Thought
Descartes, writing to Picot, who translated the Principia Philosophiae into
French, observed: “Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree: the roots
are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the
trunk are all the other sciences.” Sticking to this image, we ask: In what
soil do the roots of the tree have their hold? Out of what ground do the
roots—and through them the whole tree—receive their nourishing juices
and strength? What element, concealed in the ground, enters and lives in
the roots that support and nourish the tree? What is the basis and element
of metaphysics? What is metaphysics, viewed from its ground?”
Here, a tree, a form of plant, is likened to an individual, to philosophy
considered in its entirety. Clearly there is no one model for plant growth,
and clearly one might challenge the metaphor of plant growth on the
basis of the tree, which appears, especially as Descartes describes it, to
be a self-sufficient individual in the same way that an animal is. Yet Hei-
degger’s point is to ask about the surrounding environment upon which
the tree is dependent and in which it is fixed. The roots of a plant in this
image, which must remain enclosed by a concealed ground in order to
allow the rest of the plant to flourish, reflect the silent ground that meta-
physics rarely questions, the unspoken assumptions that make it possi-
ble. The aspect of modern metaphysics that Heidegger, Foucault, Der-
rida, Irigaray, and others question is the assumption that this ground can
be found in the metaphysics of presence, and in particular in the animal-
like configurations of the thinking “I,” the rational subject, whose
boundaries are known to itself and defensible. This is certainly where
Descartes found the roots of metaphysics to be securely grounded. At
the same time that they trace the assumptions that metaphysics makes,
however, the critiques of these thinkers do not seek an alternative uni-
vocal origin; displacing the fiction of this origin is one of the things the
plant-like reading seeks to achieve. Heidegger speaks of the “groundless
ground” of Being with reference to the rose, which is “without why,” in
the words of the seventeenth-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius.
Heidegger’s interest in this line from a poem occurs in the context
of his study of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, which states that
nothing is without a why, without grounds. Heidegger considers how a
rose can simultaneously be grounded—insofar as it becomes an object
for human cognition, as we can deduce the causal mechanism at the ori-
gin of its blooming—and be without why—insofar as it does not explic-
itly take itself into consideration, does not “insert itself in between its
blooming and the grounds for blooming, thanks to which grounds could
first be as grounds.”
Heidegger goes on to interpret the fragment as say-
ing that “humans, in the concealed ground of their essential being, first
truly are when in their own way they are like the rose—without why.”
For Heidegger, heeding and uncovering this concealed ground of human
182 The Vegetative Soul
essential being, that which is prior to calculative thinking, causal deter-
mination, and human action considered in terms of explicit conscious
agency, is philosophy’s task in confronting the hegemony of the modern
subject which has been characterized in just such ways.
To trace a linear history of influence between the thinkers whose
work we have been considering and what has been called postmodern cri-
tique would be to configure the history of thought in the manner we have
called animal lineage, as a straightforward heritage linking bodies of work.
The thought of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, and to a lesser extent Goethe
and Hölderlin, has been disseminated in twentieth-century Continental
philosophy and feminist theory in a manner that more resembles vegetable
growth, as political intervention and transformative interpretation. As
Jacques Derrida writes in “Otobiographies,” his reading of Nietzsche:
We are not, I believe, bound to decide. An interpretive decision does not
have to draw a line between two intents or two political contents. Our
interpretations will not be readings of a hermeneutic or exegetic sort,
but rather political interventions in the political rewriting of the text and
its destination. This is the way it has always been—and always in a sin-
gular manner—
Here Derrida refers to the appropriation of Nietzsche’s work for both
fascist and anti-fascist purposes, and the same argument might apply to
his own appropriation and transformation of Heideggerian critique. A
straightforwardly hermeneutical reading seeks to uncover univocal roots
of meaning of a work, to analyze its origins and codify its meaning. Such
a reading would kill a plant, if indeed a text is a plantlike growth. The
transformative style of thinkers like Derrida, Luce Irigaray, and Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari, by contrast, envisions texts and interpreta-
tions as vegetative growth, untraceable to singular or determinate ori-
gins, disseminating and productive rather than reducibly polysemic and
analytic. Derrida’s notion of dissemination, Deleuze and Guattari’s artic-
ulation of the rhizome, and Irigaray’s trope of efflorescence all explicitly
perform what we have called a plant-like reading. A disseminating read-
ing of texts recognizes that interpretation is always productive or fecund
rather than simply investigative and analytical. It resists totalization and
subverts any attempt to master a reading definitively. A rhizomatic read-
ing emphasizes nonlinearity and a genealogical refusal of unique unified
sources or meanings. Efflorescence complicates the notion of the atom-
istic subject and the singular, phallic reading, while subverting and trans-
forming the tradition with a metamorphic, ivy-like growth.
In the preface to Dissemination, Derrida draws our attention to
the metaphorical register in the history of philosophy that encompasses
Nature conceived as a book, the notion of logos spermatikos, and the
183 Conclusion
equation, most explicitly articulated by Plato, of writing with strewing
seed, speech with animal insemination. Dissemination, understood as
the multiple, antisystematic fecundity that occurs when seed is blown to
the wind rather than the reductive, purposive insemination of animals,
is described by Derrida as “the heterogeneity and absolute exteriority of
the seed” which “constitute[s] itself into a program, but . . . a program
that cannot be formalized . . . [which] does not take a form saturated
with self-presence in the encyclopedic circle.”
Aligning itself most
explicitly against Hegel, but also against the onto-theological project of
the history of metaphysics in general, Derrida calls dissemination a resis-
tance to the “effacement of seminal difference through which the left-
overness of the outwork gets internalized and domesticated into the
ontotheology of the great Book.”
The “great Book” is Nature, conceived by medieval thinkers to be
God’s book, written in such a way that it is representative and true, an
ordered totality that gives the reader a structured idea of the seemingly
chaotic logos scattered like seed among its forms, articulated retroac-
tively as the origin of all its diverse forms. Derrida then turns to Novalis,
who, in his philosophical fragments entitled “Pollen” (Blüthenstaub)
envisioned an Encyclopedia that would “complete” Nature as it
inscribed it. Derrida asks how one can think the identification of Nature
with a Book if the book is what completes it, and what is signified about
completedness as such by the fact that Novalis never finished this Ency-
True to the vision of the nineteenth-century vegetative soul we
have been considering, Derrida speculates that the Novalisian Encyclo-
pedia signifies that which goes beyond the “always-already-constituted-
ness of meaning and of truth within the theo-logico-encyclopedic space,
of self-fertilization with no limen.”
Deleuze and Guattari expand upon the various kinds of “plant
structures” that different kinds of philosophical and literary efforts
employ. In “Rhizome,” the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus,
Deleuze and Guattari sketch three general figures of a book: the root-
book, the radicle-system or fascicular root-book, and the rhizome-
The root-book, exemplified in the world of plants by the tree,
traces the image of the world, the roots of the book imitating the
“world-tree.” Deleuze and Guattari ask, “How could the law of the
book reside in nature, when it is what presides over the very division
between world and book, nature and art?”
The root-book or tree-book
constitutes itself as the reflection of nature, as the One that becomes
two. We might add that this root-structure, explicitly seen in Descartes’
analogy of metaphysics to the roots of a tree, is the method of individu-
ation based on the animal body as well. Deleuze and Guattari argue that
“in nature, roots are taproots with a more multiple, lateral, and circular
184 The Vegetative Soul
system of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one.”
The root-
book opens upon all classification according to binary logic: nature and
culture, natural reality and spiritual reality, literature and philosophy,
annual and perennial plant. This system of classification lay at the heart
of botanical research, epitomized by the Swedish botanist Carl von
Linné (Linnaeus), in the time of Goethe. Think of the family tree, the
charts of families of languages, which begin at point X and proceed by
dichotomy. Binary logic rules the classical book, according to Deleuze
and Guattari, and still dominates psychoanalysis, linguistics, structural-
ism, and, of course, computer technology and information science.
The second figure of the book, in Deleuze and Guattari’s intro-
duction, is that of the fascicular root, or radicle system. When the prin-
cipal root of a plant has been aborted or its tip destroyed, an indefinite
multiplicity of secondary roots appear on it, and the plant as a result
undergoes an intensified growth. This description parallels an experi-
ment performed by Linnaeus that Goethe describes in The Metamor-
phosis of Plants, in which a young tree was placed in a pot that was too
small for it. Obviously the smaller pot would not allow the primary
roots to expand to their normal degree, and so secondary, smaller roots
took over the process of nourishing the plant. Linnaeus based his theory
of prolepsis on the immediate flourishing of the plant that resulted as the
tree bore blossoms and fruit very quickly, long before its usual six years
of development. The theory posits that the plant anticipates many years
of development at once by compressing the successive stages through
time. This phenomenon also resembles the gardens of Adonis described
in Plato’s Phaedrus. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, in this case the pri-
mary root’s unity still subsists in the form of potentiality: its past or
future may be unified, or at least the promise of unity remains since its
structure is a fragmentation of a former whole. They give the examples
of William Burroughs’s cut-up method (folding one text into another),
Joyce’s shattering of the linear unity of language, and Nietzsche’s apho-
risms. Such a structure does not really break with the root: “The world
has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world: radi-
cle-chaosmos rather than root-cosmos.”
The third book-type, and also plant-type, is that of the rhizome.
Rhizomes grow horizontally rather than vertically, putting out a mul-
tiplicity of small roots and shoots without any one central root or
stem. Rhizomes connect any point to any other point, and have no
identifiable beginning or end, but are always in the middle, on the
way: “When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimension, it neces-
sarily changes in nature as well, undergoes a metamorphosis.”
zomes have no territory; they may spread with the wind and cover any
amount of ground, since they grow outward rather than upward. They
185 Conclusion
are acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying, “all manner of begin-
Deleuze and Guattari cite the diary of Franz Kafka, who
wrote, “Things . . . occur to me . . . not from the root up but rather
only from somewhere in their middle. Let someone then attempt to
seize them, let someone attempt to seize a blade of grass and hold fast
to it when it begins to grow only from the middle.”
Deleuze and Guattari, like Goethe and Hölderlin, emphasize the
adaptability of the transplanted shoot of a plant, the fact that a broken-
off part can reattach itself and from the point of adaptation take up fur-
ther stages of metamorphosis: “[A] new rhizome may form in the heart
of a tree, the hollow of a root, the crook of a branch.”
Hegel calls this
ability of the plant a kind of monstrosity, but Goethe counters that such
an adaptation manifests flexibility, not monstrosity. Goethe’s observa-
tion seeks to refute the metaphor of the seed as self-enclosed and pur-
posive, a metaphor that plays into the depiction of the plant as homol-
ogous to an animal, and thus a deficient animal.
Deleuze and Guattari also connect the arboreal structures of tech-
nical production with the West, and rhizomatic growth patterns with the
East: “The East presents a different figure: a relation to the steppe and
the garden (or in some cases, the desert and the oasis), rather than for-
est and field; cultivation of tubers by fragmentation of the individual; a
casting aside or bracketing of animal raising, which is confined to closed
spaces or pushed out onto the steppes of the nomads.”
This account is
a reversal, in terms of approbation, of the traditional binary oppositions
Detienne traces in The Gardens of Adonis between “superficial, light-
weight plants” with no roots and no fruit, and “serious, solemn, rooted”
plants, the former associated with women and the East, the latter with
men and the West. Goethe was deeply interested in the plant culture of
the East, and his West-Oestlicher Divan (1819) has much to say on this
theme. In Europe in the nineteenth century, the Turkish “language of
flowers,” used to pass secret messages between lovers,
seized the pop-
ular imagination. The “language of flowers” came to signify any secret
code of writing that did not follow the rules of ordinary discourse, in
precisely the sense of the multiple significations and nonlinear branch-
ings-out described by Deleuze and Guattari.
In spite of the fascinating analogies Deleuze and Guattari draw
between the different kinds of plant growth and various styles of writ-
ing, and in spite of the obvious value of challenging the received under-
standing of the proper way of writing, it seems necessary to question any
pairing that relies—as Deleuze and Guattari’s account ultimately does—
on the traditional definition of metaphor as a lively description that illu-
minates the structure of another reality that lies behind it, in this case,
the description of plants that stands in for the description of writing.
186 The Vegetative Soul
Instead, here metaphor might be understood as an intertwining that
reads two things in terms of one another in such a way that no priority
can be drawn, no implication that one figure represents, or stands in for,
the other.
While a productive metaphor brings two things together, it does so
in such a way as to still remind one of the provisionality of such a jux-
taposition and the space between the terms of the juxtaposition. As
Sarah Kofman puts it in her study of Nietzsche and metaphor:
On the one hand there is no metaphor without a stripping away of indi-
viduality, without masquerade and metamorphosis. To be able to trans-
pose, one must be able to transpose oneself and one must have conquered
the limits of individuality: the same must partake in the other, must be the
other. At this level metaphor is founded on the ontological unity of life
represented by Dionysos. But if there is metaphor it is because this unity
is always already in pieces and can only be reconstituted when symboli-
cally transposed into art. Beyond individual separation, symbolized by the
dismemberment of Dionysos, metaphor allows for the reconstitution of
the originary unity of all beings, symbolized by the resurrection of the god.
On the other hand metaphor is linked to the loss of the proper understood
as the essence of the world, which is indecipherable and of which man can
have only representations which are quite improper.
This understanding of metaphor allows the possibilities of represen-
tation itself, the hiatus between the terms, rather than one particular read-
ing or representation, to come to presence. The “loss of the proper” is an
absolute loss, without the possibility of recuperation, rather than being a
plenitude which, though unknown, supplements and fulfills the provi-
sionality of the metaphorical bond. The difference between a “living” and
a “dead” metaphor would lie in the fact that one still experiences the
rhythm of the new metaphor, creating the impression of living growth
(physis) that Aristotle declared to be the quality of the best metaphors.
For Aristotle, of course, metaphorical speech supplements non-
metaphorical discourse, adding interest and liveliness rather than con-
tent. Irigaray uncovers a less generous reading of plant growth in Aris-
totle’s theory of the soul. In De Anima Aristotle introduces the notion of
the vegetative soul as one component of the irrational part of the soul,
namely that component responsible for simple growth and alteration.
This soul, unlike the sentient soul (the other part of the irrational soul),
is shared by both plants and animals, hence its name. The nutritive or
vegetative soul is also associated with reproduction, particularly with
the womb and fetation. The vegetative soul reappears in discussions in
the Nicomachean Ethics, Generation of Animals, and Politics to indi-
rectly bolster, among other things, claims about the role of women in
187 Conclusion
political life.
The explanation of the Aristotelian vegetative soul—
which gained force in its adoption by medieval Scholasticism—con-
tributes to an argument dispersed through various works of Aristotle
justifying the inferior political status of women. The part of the argu-
ment that concerns us here rests on the claim that since the vegetative
soul predominates over the rational soul in women by virtue of their
capacity for bearing children, women by nature are not suited to rule.
Irrationality is thus directly linked to the perceived primacy of the repro-
ductive capacity in women via the vegetative soul. Western philosophers
from Aristotle to Hegel have repeated the analogy of men to animals and
women to plants by virtue of their (perceived) respective characteristics
of activity and rationality, on the one hand, and passivity and lack of
rationality, on the other.
In works spanning her intellectual career, Irigaray takes up the
metaphor of the plant again and again, both to criticize the negative
way in which it has traditionally been used to characterize the onto-
logical status of woman, and, increasingly to subvert the traditional
metaphor in the productive notion of efflorescence. In doing so, Iri-
garay gives an indication as to the language in which a feminine sub-
ject, as opposed to a “concept of femininity,” might be couched. In
“How to Conceive of a Girl,” Irigaray considers Aristotle’s analogy of
women to plants. She writes:
The substance of the plant, like that of any (female) being, cannot move,
or move beyond, the ontological status assigned to it. Once and for all. It
is not capable of any less or any more.
Woman is supposed to have an essence that defines her as woman, once
and for all. She is relegated to the status of nature or matter, and in this
sense can do no more than assist or ground man in the actualization of
his subjectivity.
Irigaray’s project of performing a subversion of a traditional
metaphor such that it turns into a productive metonymical structure
takes the German nineteenth-century discourse on vegetable genius as its
productive ground. Critique does not exhaust the philosophical scope of
Irigaray’s effort; she attempts to move beyond simple historical critique,
as important as this activity is, toward a positive feminist philosophy. In
The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, and even more explicitly in
Elemental Passions, Irigaray uses the rhetorical configuration of “efflo-
rescence” to designate a blossoming or blooming forth that cannot be
enclosed within the traditional boundaries of embodiment and philo-
sophical discourse. Efflorescence—a figure that implies metamorphosis
and indefinite individuation—forms the positive facet of Irigaray’s cri-
188 The Vegetative Soul
tique of Aristotle and of the history of metaphysics. This critique can be
read as aimed at the primacy of traditionally “animalistic” metaphors
that emphasize self-enclosedness, self-preservation, and strict identity
over time, qualities that among other philosophical constructs, could be
predicated of the fiction of the (masculine) subject.
Among other contemporary feminist critics of the articulation of
subjectivity in the history of metaphysics, Irigaray stands out in her
attempt to reconsider the Enlightenment conception of the atomistic
subject (the Hobbesian man) through her use of specifically natural, yet
nonhuman and even non-animalistic forms to think sexual difference
and feminine subjectivity. Irigaray’s use of the trope of efflorescence
reminds us that the flowering subject is always a sexed subject, a multi-
ple subject, and a subject-in-becoming. Irigaray’s work stands out
among other twentieth-century critics of the history of the way in which
subjectivity has been configured in that she envisions the possibility of
another kind of subjectivity. She does not assume, as others upon whose
work she builds do, that the subject qua subject necessarily is constituted
according to the model of the animal, and thus must be left behind. Her
politics of subjectivity, motivated by an interest in the ethical and polit-
ical empowerment of women, does not rest content with dissecting and
critiquing the history of metaphysics, but grafts a positive vision onto
the destructive insights of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and decon-
struction. Irigaray proposes a feminine model of subjectivity, one that
returns to a close connection to the philosophy of nature, and in partic-
ular to the figure of the plant. In doing so Irigaray is not suggesting that
a return to unmediated nature—in itself an impossible task—would
bring about a meaningful change for women. Rather, she implies that a
return to and reworking of the symbolics of nature might be a place
from within the social or symbolic order from which to retroactively
restructure the ways in which women’s embodiment, natural role, and
passage into subjectivity are thought, and thereby to effect a real change
for women in the cultural order. By “real change” I mean that such a
restructuring would not merely manipulate the existing conception of
subjectivity in order to make room for women, thereby leaving its
implicit masculinity intact, but would make room for sexual difference.
This distinguishes her philosophy and makes her the heir to nineteenth-
century Naturphilosophie, a title we must recognize that she might well
not wish to claim, especially given her critique of Hegel’s philosophy of
nature and its link to his treatment of the feminine.
Yet Irigaray herself explicitly links women to the vegetable world.
Irigaray transforms the negative association of woman with plant into a
positive possibility, first by recalling pre-patriarchal cultures where god-
desses were associated with the vegetable world:
189 Conclusion
One might well wonder if women are closer to the vegetable world than
to the animal world, as was claimed by certain ancient philosophers, and
particularly by female cultures, although, it is true, in different ways.
Could it be that in this proximity there lies an accurate explanation of her
relation to passivity? Woman’s receptivity would not be restricted to her
relation to man alone but would extend to the natural economy, especially
the cosmic one, with which her equilibrium and growth are more closely
associated. Her so-called passivity would not then be part of an active/pas-
sive pair of opposites but would signify a different economy, a different
relation to nature and to the self that would amount to attentiveness and
to fidelity rather than passivity. A matter, therefore, not of pure receptiv-
ity but of a movement of growth that never ultimately estranges itself from
corporeal existence in a natural milieu. In which case, becoming is not cut
off from life or its placing. It is not extrapolated from the living nor
founded in a dead character. It remains attentive to growth: physiological,
spiritual, relational.
Irigaray associates plantlike growth and the feminine with nature,
much in the way these figures have traditionally been linked, but with a
different agenda. For Irigaray, there is a grave danger in the fact that
nature has been appropriated by an approach that seeks to harness and
utilize it without recognizing the loss such a process involves. This loss,
in her view, includes an occlusion of the bodily and its intimate rela-
tionship to the spiritual, the forgetting of the rich ground of possibility
in favor of the certainty of the actual and the conceptual. The narrowly
scientific and technological world view leaves no room for nature as
excess, as that from which human beings arise and over which they ulti-
mately have no absolute control, an excess that guarantees the possibil-
ity of change in the depiction of sexual difference. As Margaret Whit-
ford analyzes it, nature, for Irigaray, is that which is symbolized as
nature (as opposed to culture or the symbolic), but, more explicitly, it is
“those parts of himself that the male imaginary has split off and pro-
jected—into the world, on to women.”
Nature, as we have emphasized
in other contexts, is not a pre-symbolic, untouched realm to which one
can retreat, from which one flees, or which one can symbolize at will.
For Irigaray, one might add, nature is not an essentialized, fixed nature
attached to a sex, but is part of a hierarchized system (as we have seen
most clearly in Hegel’s philosophy of nature) that is legitimized by virtue
of being presented as natural and inevitable. At the same time, however,
I would argue that for Irigaray “nature” also represents the possibility
of transformation of that order through a restructuring of the feminine
imaginary (thereby effecting the possibility of a feminine subjectivity) by
way of reworking the symbols of nature.
Whitford quotes Irigaray in
saying that according to Hegel, women remain in the plant world rather
190 The Vegetative Soul
than acceding to the animal, as part of the “in itself” rather than “for
itself,” interpreting this as merely a claim that women need to move
beyond the “natural” into the “social.” However, in other places Whit-
ford shows how Irigaray uses existing symbols of femininity to trans-
form the symbolic order, which I believe is precisely what she is doing
with vegetal figures as well. “Nature,” then, signifies the exhilarating
possibility that ideas and traditions may be either recouped or trans-
formed. Irigaray writes in Sexes and Genealogies: “Once the natural,
familial, female, or, if you like, nocturnal spirit, is sacrificed, the dark
rootedness of nature is rejected in favor of a sightless era of concepts.
This sightlessness seems to consist in the unconsidered, unconscious
destruction of our senses.”
A tendency toward metonymical profusion (itself characteristic of
vegetative growth) rather than either blind conceptual language or
metaphorical substitution characterizes Irigaray’s strategy of transforma-
tive mimesis. Rather than simply pointing out the flaws of traditional
philosophy’s linkage of the feminine with the earth or nature, Irigaray
focuses on the redemptive possibilities inherent in the very metaphors
that have been used to reduce the feminine to the silent, concealed ground
of Being, just as a “plantlike” reading transforms its textual object in a
metamorphic growth. Plant growth provides one of the most striking and
pervasive examples of such a guiding principle in Irigaray’s work. The fig-
ure of efflorescence functions not simply as one of many poetic figures,
but as a privileged figure in Irigaray’s work, as the metaphor, as it were,
for metonymy, the underlying structure of language that metaphor pre-
supposes. A metaphor for metonymy would repeat its displacing function
endlessly, so that, in spite of its privilege, the very nature of plant meta-
morphosis would make it impossible for this figure for femininity to take
over as a metaphor for woman in a substitutive logic that would simply
replace the phallus with veiled lips, or the measured and autonomous ani-
mal with the interconnected and vulnerable plant. Rather, the figure of
efflorescence provides support for Irigaray’s imagining of a feminine sub-
ject through an open-ended inquiry into and transformation of thinking
about language, becoming, and individuation.
Irigaray criticizes Aristotle for allowing everything he says about
nature to be “already co-opted by prescriptions that direct or interpret
his findings.”
But in a stranger turn, she goes on to write:
The plant may indeed conform to her own purpose, but an other has to
certify this. And that other must speak, and speak, moreover, as a philoso-
pher. She may be fully herself, and in herself, but an other has to declare
that this is the case. Thus, her development is subject to definitions com-
ing from an other.
191 Conclusion
Without any specific declaration on Irigaray’s part, the plant moves
from an analogy to woman to a metonym for woman, such that the cri-
tique of the philosophy of nature becomes a critique of the architectonic
of philosophy, which restricts woman to a prescribed category defined
in terms of an other that alone can be actualized and affirm her purpose
in her place.
I have repeatedly used the word metonymy rather than metaphor
to characterize Irigaray’s use of figurative language, and this shift in
vocabulary is significant. In an essay entitled “The ‘Mechanics’ of Flu-
ids,” Irigaray, in the context of critiquing “science” (always placed in
scare quotes) for its neglect of fluidity in favor of the study of solids,
links this neglect with psychoanalysis’ neglect of feminine sexuality,
which is fluid. She writes:
And if anyone objects that the question, put this way, relies too heavily on
metaphors, it is easy to reply that the question in fact impugns the privi-
lege granted to metaphor (a quasi solid) over metonymy (which is much
more closely allied to fluids).
Irigaray’s critique is aimed at Jacques Lacan’s discussion of
metaphor and metonymy in “The Agency of the Letter,”
which, she
implies, privileges metaphor over metonymy in much the same way that
phallocentrism neglects the feminine. Lacan’s understanding of metaphor
and metonymy, drawn from Roman Jakobson’s linguistic theory, aligns
metaphor with the vertical substitution of one signifier for another, and
metonymy with horizontal contiguity, in a way that recalls the contrast of
tree and rhizome. Jane Gallop suggests a metonymic or “feminine” read-
ing of Lacan which, by “supplying a whole context of associations” that
are present in the text, yet not explicitly combined, form an argument in
favor of aligning the privilege accorded to metaphor with the hegemony
of the masculine in psychoanalytic theory.
Gallop warns against the
“temptation” of “misreading” Lacan’s text as a straightforward neglect of
metonymy (and of the feminine), and observes instead, in a very Iri-
garayan manner, that metonymy functions in the manner of a dark, latent,
ground upon which metaphor depends and indeed is grounded. Her argu-
ment persuasively shows that although to read the tradition as perpetuat-
ing a straightforward neglect of metonymy would be to misread it, never-
theless, metonymy’s role has historically functioned in a way that
strikingly parallels Irigaray’s critique of the role of the feminine in the his-
tory of philosophy. Lacan writes, for example, that “metonymy is there
from the beginning, and it is what makes metaphor possible.”
Irigaray’s claim is that the feminine, insofar as it has been a part of
philosophical discourse and formulated as part of an ontological struc-
192 The Vegetative Soul
ture, has always played the role of ground, of source, of that which is to
be contained, but in such a way that a making actual of feminine possi-
bility paradoxically involves its own negation. To the extent that woman
is granted an autonomous identity, she receives this status only thanks
to an assimilation into a masculine conception of subjectivity, much in
the way that the concealed ground feeds the roots of the tree. As Irigaray
puts it in The Forgetting of Air, “[T]he other is nothing more than the
assimilation of the mourning of the other, projected into the ‘free.’”
reviving metonymy Irigaray seeks to avoid the substitutive logic of
metaphor, refusing to erect feminine metaphors in the place of over-
turned masculine metaphors of subjectivity.
The mourning of the other Irigaray refers to here resonates with
her discussions of Antigone and of the story of Demeter and Kore-Perse-
Both Antigone and Kore are entombed under the earth, rele-
gated to a silent subterranean existence, though both also provide a
silent (unacknowledged) propagating force. Antigone’s defiance of the
law of the state, at least in Hegel’s interpretation, upsets the feminine
configured as spiritualizing force. She buries her brother to assure his
entrance into the public realm of memorial, and thus his subjectivity, if
only in memory, but her own transgression results in a burial that has
no immediate positive outcome, that seems merely disruptive, but that
also signifies the possibility of transformation. Kore’s ingestion of pome-
granate seeds ensures the necessity of her remaining underground for the
winter months of every year, yet it is her very annual appearance at the
end of this exile that provides for the blossoming, fruitfulness, and har-
vest upon which human life depends. The feminine in both cases can be
interpreted as a vehicle for blossoming forth who does not herself
achieve the liberation and autonomy presupposed of a (Western, mas-
culine) conception of subjectivity, but who nevertheless marks the possi-
bility of another kind of subjectivity.
We recall that Hegel distinguished between the plant and the ani-
mal by noting the fact that the plant “cannot retain . . . fluid in itself,”
so that it is incapable of maintaining a unity between its internal and
external world (JI 211). Because of its self-enclosed interior of circulat-
ing fluids, the animal carries spiritual liquidity within itself. The univer-
sal fluid merely flows through and then out of the plant, whereas the
animal holds what Hegel calls the “universal element” within itself as a
part of itself (JI 211). This explanation informs Hegel’s analogy of
woman to plant and man to animal: woman can be, at most, the uncon-
scious vessel of subjectivity, the in-itself and not for-itself, a vessel
through which spirit flows and which nourishes the animal, just as the
feminine provides the spiritualizing capacity for the masculine, exempli-
fied in Antigone’s burial of her brother, Polynices.
193 Conclusion
Irigaray recognizes the precariousness of her chosen metonymics
of vegetative growth, precarious in its very proximity to the tradition it
seeks to critique and transform. In her famous discussion of Hegel’s
Antigone in Speculum of the Other Woman, “The Eternal Irony of the
Community,” Irigaray begins with two epigraphs from Hegel’s Philoso-
phy of Nature. She consistently draws a connection between the philos-
ophy of nature and Hegel’s discussion of Antigone in the Phenomenol-
ogy of Spirit. Such a connection is at first consideration not at all
self-evident, but, as we have seen, Hegel clearly draws a connection
between the feminine and the vegetative, one that contrasts strikingly
with Irigaray’s own intertwining of the two, but in which she neverthe-
less discerns redemptive possibilities:
Clearly, according to Hegel, the dead man is the one who finally finds
peace. He is no longer internally split, no longer in constant polemos. But
it might be possible to have another peace: that of living plant growth.
The ensemble of the Hegelian system, apart from a few errors and
uprootings, in fact resembles this. Could the secret model for his philos-
ophy overall be the plant? But, within the system, as it unfolds on the
conscious level, it seems that one can escape from singularness only
through the order of death or of the dead man. This idea or conviction
seems linked to the split of body and spirit that is established following
the sacrifice of the female to the State and man’s access to citizenship and
to a neutered culture.
The difference Irigaray notes between “living plant growth” and
the plant that is associated with death recalls the logic of sacrifice
according to which Hegelian nature unfolds in its progression from
plant to animal. The split between body and spirit that results, epito-
mized in the discussion of the plant that in laying itself down ferments
into communion fare of bread and wine, reminds us that despite his own
description of his system as a metamorphosing plant, Hegel’s model
remains that of Deleuze and Guattari’s tree-book, a tree that does not
consider its nurturing ground.
Irigaray notes the problematic aspects of the (Hegelian) discourse,
yet reads it beyond its intention, in what Elizabeth Grosz calls the “vis-
cosity” or superabundance of the text, its resistance to ownership.
garay’s implicit argument seems to be that if the very phallogocentricity
of the tradition perpetuates itself through concealed metaphorical struc-
tures, it is exigent for feminist philosophy not just to reveal and dis-
mantle these metaphors, but also to engage and displace them produc-
tively according to the logic of metonymy. The scientific and
philosophical tradition has prided itself on being separate from rhetoric,
has defined itself in denigrating “literary” language. Irigaray subverts
194 The Vegetative Soul
traditional metaphors as a rhetorical weapon against the tradition that
has worked to exclude and at the same time to assimilate women. In
refusing to simply reject metaphors that have historically been associ-
ated with women, Irigaray makes a statement against the politics of
assimilation which masks phallogocentrism with the veneer of neutral-
ity. As Patricia Huntington explains in Ecstatic Subjects, “Metaphorical
transference entails evoking new images of women’s autonomy from the
‘surplus of meaning’ of the metaphor ‘Woman’ as represented in patri-
However, as she is quick to remind us, “The feminine utopian
moment, though concerned with the future, does not erect the ‘feminine’
as a new transcendental signified.”
It is important to note that the
“new” images that are invoked are culled from the “surplus of mean-
ing” of the metaphor “Woman” as represented in the patriarchy. This
explains why Irigaray chooses a metaphor, that of the plant, that has tra-
ditionally been associated with the devalorization of women. Irigaray
recognizes that one must not naively believe that it is possible to simply
start anew, as if it were easy to reach a vantage point outside of the sym-
bolic order. However, because there is an excess, or surplus of meaning
onto which the imaginary opens up, because this excess is that which
will always exceed any finite symbolic system, it is possible to subvert
traditional metaphors productively while retaining a connection to their
source. As Whitford puts it, Irigaray focuses on the imaginary of the his-
tory of metaphysics, that is, its repressed, unacknowledged foundation
in the unsymbolized maternal-feminine. Yet the imaginary is a structural
and not a developmental or chronological stage, so that “symbolic and
imaginary form a system, in which we cannot understand one without
the other. . . . Change in the imaginary must bring about change in the
symbolic and vice versa.”
Imaginary and symbolic are contiguous, and
Irigaray chooses to strategically address the imaginary by echoing and
transforming existing symbols of femininity. Whitford emphasizes that
Irigaray’s work deliberately takes on male metaphors that describe fem-
ininity in order to effect “a possible restructuring of the imaginary by the
symbolic which would make a difference to women.”
This process
draws on the rhizomatic displacement of metonymy rather than the sub-
stitutive logic of metaphor.
In a continuation of the critique of Hegel in which she contrasts
the Hegelian, sacrificial use of plant metaphors with “living plant
growth,” Irigaray writes, in a way that echoes Goethe, “In fact it is pos-
sible to go beyond singularness by obeying growth, by sharing in the
universal natural rhythm. This sharing is indeed more universal than a
single death. Obviously, the universality of nature is complex, but it is
ceaselessly a figure both complete and changing, finished and open,
globally peaceful in its achievements,” a figure like that of the plant. She
195 Conclusion
goes on to critique the Hegelian sacrifice of nature to spirit: “Because it
refuses any debt to nature, the return to nature can only be of the order
of death.”
Not content with a simple destruction of the concept of subjectiv-
ity, Irigaray considers the invocation of a feminine transcendental, a
feminine universal, or a feminine subjectivity to be a central part of dis-
placing the way in which women’s desire as well as interpersonal rela-
tionships among each other have been historically mediated through the
masculine. However, although the feminine subject is not to be under-
stood in terms of atomistic or self-preservational identity, she is equally
not to be associated with a kind of indefinite fusion or chaotic origin. To
posit the feminine subject as formless would be to leave the traditional
equation of the feminine with matter, with undifferentiated origin,
intact. As Irigaray writes in The Forgetting of Air:
She, she-of-ever, older and newer than every history, stays within begin-
ning’s awakening. Inborn infancy. A passage never completed between
inside and outside, night and day, midnight and midday, permanent dawn,
she joins these in the portal chink of her awakening. . . . She is never
closed, never open. With neither the defined contours of a completed
development nor the gaping openness of a chaos from which everything
can issue. Ever being born: the living female one.
The opposition of atomistic individual versus undifferentiated exterior
itself must be subverted. This is where the individuation characteristic of
plant metamorphosis (never completely inside, nor completely outside)
becomes important for Irigaray. Irigaray’s claim is that the possibility of
a different relationship to the transcendental can only emerge if the fem-
inine is granted its own specificity in its relation to language. As Irigaray
writes in the preface to the Japanese edition of Elemental Passions, “The
paradigms of masculine transcendency, which is sometimes considered
neutral or bisexual, must be modified in order to establish a feminine
Such a specificity, like the organism of the plant in
contrast to that of the animal, would “reject all closure or circularity in
discourse—any constitution of arche or of telos.”
The articulation of a
feminine subject, likewise, must render any attempt to co-opt it into pre-
determined structures of “neutral” subjectivity problematic.
In Elemental Passions, Irigaray asks a question of a presumably
masculine interlocutor:
[D]o you want the flower to open only once? The unveiling of the open-
ing would then belong to you. The beauty or truth of the opening
would be your discovery. Proposed and exposed in one definitive blos-
soming. The nightly closing of the flower, its flooding back into itself
196 The Vegetative Soul
would not take place. Either it would not yet know the sun and would
be in the oblivion of sleep, or you would already have unveiled it and
it would never return to the shadows. Its becoming would be arrested
when you revealed it by day. Growth suspended in ecstasy, the ideal
flowering for you.
Here Irigaray seems to be discussing reading and interpretation as much
as fixation in an essentialized identity. “Woman,” as part of the histori-
cal metaphorical register that includes, as we have seen, both “plant”
and “nature” in its range, marks that moment that cannot be decided,
which always destabilizes in advance the possibility of fixing its ground.
Real flowers open and shut, unfold and then withdraw, have a temporal
existence. To appropriate this unveiling would be to freeze blossoming
into an eternal present, an ideal flowering that reflects the solidity of
metaphorical appropriation. The “return to the shadows” is as neces-
sary a facet of the metaphor of growth, metamorphosis, and blossoming
as is expansion and disclosure. Here again Irigaray makes a plea for an
understanding of nature that does not ultimately refer back to an atom-
istic subject or self that controls, subdues, and ultimately kills or fixates
its natural movement. The flowering must not, in other words, be assim-
ilated into a dialectic that would make it constantly available. At the
same time, as Whitford reminds us, for Irigaray, “If multiplicity is to be
celebrated, it has to be after sexual difference and not . . . by simply
bypassing it.”
We tend to dismiss flowers as rhetorical flourishes, but Irigaray is
doing more than decorating her text. A flower opens up more than once.
Its “unveiling” is not a definitive, univocal one, but is periodic, episodic.
In The Forgetting of Air, Irigaray writes:
Indefinitely open and closed, she unfurls this strange world where outside
and inside unite in a light embrace. Never set out, the contours wed each
other in overflowing growth that never quits the medium that gives rise to
it. That never abandons the body that gives it life. That does not set itself
up with the haughty affirmation of a form that draws its vigor from that
from which it parts. It rather abides in the delicate entwining of all dimen-
sions: horizontal efflorescences.
The horizontal efflorescences combat the vertical, hermeneutical
reading style that seeks to expose the root, a structure that mimics the
erect posture of the tree or the animal, in particular the human animal.
We have seen that vegetative imagery has been used to connote exactly
the contrary of the kind of reading promoted here, through metaphors
of grounding and rootedness. This is why Deleuze and Guattari are so
careful to distinguish between different kinds of “plant” readings. Thus,
197 Conclusion
at the same time that Irigaray uses positive images of efflorescence to
connote what she in other places calls a “sensible transcendental,” a
kind of Kantian universal in the sense of reflective judgment that arises
out of and cannot be separated from the sensuous particular, she also
uses the language of “blooming” to indicate a certain masculine usurpa-
tion of the feminine ground for the sake of its own fecundity. In The For-
getting of Air, she uses the French verb s’épanouir to indicate this tumes-
cent, appropriative blooming, and efflorescence to refer to a feminine
blossoming that overcomes the ontological status assigned to it by the
history of metaphysics.
She asks: “Do the installations put into place by man to position
himself as man cloak the fact that he makes his own nature bloom only
at the price of squaring up and masking nature?”
And further: “Must
letting-be be understood as letting man’s thinking be unfolded/deployed,
or as letting nature bloom?”
This secondary blooming is a source that
conceals the ground from which it arose, the “whole” (gendered femi-
The secondary source comes about only by the masculine appro-
priation of the feminine into what Irigaray calls a creation of physis out
of techne,
which she associates with Heidegger’s work. The expansion
of the concept of physis as bring-forth, to render the distinction between
physis and techne problematic, is akin to the expansion of masculine
subjectivity to make room for the feminine in a process of assimilation.
What Irigaray here calls a “forgetting of air” is a forgetfulness of the
silent ground out of which all conceptualization arises, the unconscious
ground of nature for which Heidegger himself searched fruitlessly, that
is, the feminine as it has been figured in the history of metaphysics.
“Saving” this ground from oblivion involves not a total rejection of the
rhetoric that has structured it, but rather a subversion of that rhetoric’s
privileged metaphorics in a way that will reveal the strength of the con-
cealed feminine within.
Efflorescence privileges the gesture of an opening at the very source
of philosophizing, one that by virtue of its very open-endedness forecloses
the possibility of a stable grounding. By using metaphors of plant growth
Irigaray emphasizes the indefiniteness of individuation and the possibility
of multiple, simultaneous origins. Efflorescence opens up roots and routes,
advocating movement over stasis, temporalizing over eternity or timeless
origins. In identifying the purposive with the human mind’s interaction
with nature, Kant gave the history of philosophy an invaluable means of
complicating the simple binary distinction between universal and particu-
lar, between conditioning rule and conditioned or determined situation,
between necessity and freedom. Irigaray follows the third Critique by tak-
ing the product of reflective judgment, the figure of the plant conceived
out of the observation of metamorphosis, grafting, and perennial fecun-
198 The Vegetative Soul
dity, as the basis for a provisional universal that enunciates the importance
of sexual difference for grounding any ethics.
Irigaray reacts against the totalizing, colonizing power of hege-
monic philosophical narratives, such as the Hegelian one, that make
every outside an inside, every other the same, by proposing, as Hölder-
lin had, an alternative structure of alterity in metamorphosis and germi-
nation. Rather than negating difference, efflorescence is productive of
difference. For Irigaray, efflorescence marks the break that inaugurates,
but cannot be reduced to, language, symbolics, identity, and order. This
break might be seen in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, which, as we have
already noted, Irigarary reads through Hegel’s appropriation of it in the
Phenomenology of Spirit. In his discussion of Antigone Hegel aligns the
masculine with subjectivity, the polis, and freedom, and the feminine
with the family, the private sphere, blind adherence to the divine law,
and the repetition of the cyclical time of reproduction. As such, woman
is described as acting “unconsciously,” in the sense of the genius, whose
unconscious channeling of nature’s forces makes her unable to articulate
the rules for the production of her art. Antigone is unconscious, accord-
ing to Hegel, because she follows the law of the family, which is also the
divine law and hence the law of nature insofar as it pertains to human
beings. Her lack of consciousness stems not from her refusal to question
the authority of the law of the family, but from her incapacity to articu-
late her reasons in terms of a decision.
Yet Antigone does not withdraw, unlike the “beautiful soul” criti-
cized by Hegel, or the purely unconscious artist in the tradition of veg-
etable genius. Her proscribed intervention into the political marks the
withdrawing ground of sexual difference. Irigaray critiques Hegel’s read-
ing as manifesting Western metaphysics’ tendency to reduce the feminine
to the unconscious, silent ground, or to a negating force. Antigone’s
position is somewhat different, and Irigaray focuses on her as a woman
who stands between the two laws. Irigaray views Antigone as neither a
free citizen who refuses to submit to the law of the state nor an uncon-
scious vessel for the divine law, but rather as the very moment of the
possibility of transformation or displacement rather than dialectical sub-
sumption of this binary opposition. In transgressing Creon’s edict
Antigone expresses Kant’s reflective judgment, by constituting her pur-
pose from a particular rather than subsuming a particular act under a
law. She marks the fragile possibility of a third path between the
absolute determinism of law and the unreflective conception of freedom
presupposed by the discourse of rights.
Irigaray thus complicates her reading of the place of the feminine
configured as silent ground in the history of metaphysics by emphasiz-
ing efflorescence as both a non-originary or nondeterminate origin (an
199 Conclusion
origin that withdraws from articulation), and as that which inaugurates
subjectivity. As particular, the plant represents the claim that the subject
is sexed and finite and thus the impossibility of conflating masculinity
with neutrality or universality. As indefinitely individuated and often
dually sexed, it resists any possibility of recuperation in a single mode.
As such, the metonym works productively to multiply readings and sig-
nifications. Its signature precludes the temptation to closure, resists an
end that will never come.
Books do come to an end eventually, however. What this study has
sought to do is both to investigate a facet of nineteenth-century Natur-
philosophie and its antecedents that has been too little studied except as
a literary trope, and to suggest that the figure of vegetable genius trans-
formed into the “vegetative soul” might provide a fruitful alternative to
the recently much-denigrated figure of the modern subject. It is interest-
ing to me that the critique of the configuration of the subject was
already in place as early as the nineteenth century, and that even though
we might want to insist that German Idealism remains a metaphysical
system based on the primacy of the subject, we must also concede that
the form of that subjectivity has little in common with the atomistic sub-
ject found in Descartes and Hobbes, among others. It is appropriate to
conclude with a suggestion toward another beginning, another opening,
since that is what a plantlike reading does. Contemporary Continental
philosophy, with its figures of dissemination, rhizomatic growth, and
efflorescence, clearly has discerned the possibilities in the language of
vegetative growth.
200 The Vegetative Soul
1. In The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen
Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1989), 48–53.
2. Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Lan-
guage, Gender, and Science (New York: Routledge, 1992), 116.
3. Ibid., 93f.
4. Ibid., 96–97.
5. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1953).
6. In “White Mythology,” Jacques Derrida discusses this description
of the relationship between metaphor and metaphysical language with refer-
ence to Anatole France’s The Gardens of Epicurus (210–18). In Margins of
Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
1982), 209–71.
7. In Plato I (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus), trans.
H. N. Fowler, ed. G. P. Goold (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, The Loeb
Classical Library, 1914), 264C. Hereafter cited by section number in parenthe-
ses within the text.
8. Of course, one must introduce the caveat here that the animal body
valued by Plato is admired for its compactness and self-sufficiency, its “mem-
bers” and its “tools,” not for its materiality and its sensuality.
9. Marcel Detienne, “The Seed of Adonis,” in The Gardens of Adonis,
trans. Janet Lloyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 102.
10. Ibid., 107.
11. It should be noted that in this statement and what follows I am refer-
ring to the perceived qualities of plants (and, for that matter, animals) from the
point of a nonspecialist, those observable characteristics of plants that lend
themselves to being incorporated into metaphors of vegetative growth. I am not
suggesting that a botanist could not find counterexamples to every description
of plants I include here.
12. See Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science
and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Madison: The
University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 37.
13. See Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks
to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).
14. For more on this debate, see M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the
Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1953), especially chapter VII, “The Psychology of Literary Invention:
Mechanical and Organic Theories.” Chapter 3 will address Hölderlin’s figura-
tion of nature.
15. Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1985), 20.
16. Martha Nussbaum, “Love and the Individual: Romantic Rightness
and Platonic Aspiration,” in Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individ-
uality, and the Self in Western Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1986), 262.
17. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Modern Library,
1921), 110.
Chapter 1. Kant: The English Garden
1. The Mirror and the Lamp , 184–225.
2. Ibid., 201–13.
3. Ibid., 198–204.
4. “Einwirkung der Neuern Philosophie,” GA 16, 875/“The Influence of
Modern Philosophy,” SS, 29.
5. Jacques Derrida, “The Sans of the Pure Cut,” in The Truth in Paint-
ing, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press, 1987), 85.
6. All references to the first, longer, introduction that Kant wrote for the
third Critique, an introduction that is not included in many standard contem-
porary German editions of the Critique of Judgment, will be indicated by a
prime after the page number. This introduction can be found in Volume 20 of
the Akademie edition of Kant’s works.
7. See KU 197’f.
8. Immanuel Kant, (Ak I), 356/Universal Natural History and Theory of
the Heavens, trans. Edmund Jaki (Edinburgh: Scottish Academy Press, 1981),
9. Ibid.
10. Edward Young, “Conjectures on Original Composition,” in The Com-
plete Works, Poetry and Prose, ed. James Nichols (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Ver-
lagsbuchhandlung, 1968), 552.
11. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Ak. V)/Critique of Judgment,
trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987),§50.
12. The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation, and Com-
munity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
202 The Vegetative Soul
13. Ibid., 69–70.
14. (X:165). English translation by Mary J. Gregor, Anthropology from a
Pragmatic Point of View (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974), 42.
15. Pluhar’s rendering of the title as “How the Principle of Universal
Mechanism and the Teleological Principle can be Reconciled in the Technic of
Nature” is quite misleading. There is no question of a struggle between con-
flicting forces that will then become reconciled with each other. Rather, as I have
attempted to show above, the drive towards unification, an actual merging
(Vereinigung) of the two principles, is at stake.
16. The question here is of the legitimacy of the assumption of final
causes, not the deduction of the necessity of causality in general. In the Critique
of Pure Reason, Kant is concerned with deducing causation from pure a priori
principles. In the third Critique, Kant is not discussing the limits of causality in
general, but rather the assumption that everything in nature was created for a
specific purpose, usually for the sake of some human activity.
17. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant first makes the distinction
between conceptus ratiocinati (rightly inferred concepts) and conceptus ratioci-
nantes (pseudo-rational concepts) (KrV A 311 = B 368); hence, the distinction is
a negative one. Later, Kant allows that an ens rationis ratiocinatae is posited
“only problematically . . . in order that we may view all connection of the things
of the world of sense as if they had their ground in such a being [a divine being]”
(KrV A 681 = B709). In the Critique of Judgment Kant uses the “being of rea-
soning” in the latter, positive sense, with the emphasis on the as if.
18. I have retained the translation of dichten by “fiction,” as rendered by
Pluhar. On the second sense of dichten as “thickening” or “thick-ing,” see
Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding
of the Place-World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 253–54.
19. Embodied Reason, 258.
20. In Novalis, Werke, Tagebücher und Briefe, Band 1: Das dichterische
Werk Tagebücher Briefe (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1978), 204–5. See the
epigraph to the next chapter for a similar description from Novalis’s Heinrich
von Ofterdingen.
21. Abbé du Bos, Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music,
trans. Thomas Nugent (London, 1748), II, 32.
22. “Of Gardens” (1625), in The Genius of the Place: The English Land-
scape Garden 1620–1820, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis (Cambridge:
The MIT Press, 1988), 55.
23. From The Spectator, No. 414, 25 June 1712. Reprinted in The Genius
of the Place, 141.
24. Schiller, On the Sublime, 203–4.
25. Ibid., 90.
26. See, for example, John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, Introduction to
The Genius of the Place, 39. This volume gathers theoretical writings on gar-
dening of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and shows the influence of
Burke’s concepts of the beautiful and sublime, in particular, on English land-
scape gardening. The authors argue that the English garden was both a result
and expression of a new relationship between man and nature, becoming a sym-
203 Notes
bol for a harmony between inward and outward, mind and nature, very much
in the same spirit that animated Kant’s Critique of Judgment. See also Basil Wil-
ley, The Eighteenth Century Background (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1941) for an excellent description of the eighteenth century in England,
particularly the first chapter entitled “The Turn of the Century.”
Chapter 2. Goethe: The Metamorphosis of Plants
1. MP, §113.
2. Emile Benveniste, “The Notion of ‘Rhythm’ in its Linguistic Expres-
sion,” Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral
Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971), 281–88. Cf. the accounts of Thrasy-
bulos Georgiades and Heidegger discussed in David Farrell Krell, Lunar Voices,
chapter 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 57f. Heidegger praises
Georgiades for translating rhythmos as “coinage,” “imprint,” or as chains and
fetters such as those that bind Prometheus to his rock. Rhythm thus understood
“suggests measure and order rather than the uninterrupted and unpunctuated
flux of the Heraclitean panta rhei” (62).
3. Benveniste, 285–86.
4. “Die Absicht eingeleitet,” GA 17, 13–14/“The Purpose Set Forth,”
from On Morphology, SS, 63.
5. Ernst Cassirer, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays, trans. James
Gutmann, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall Jr. (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1945). Cassirer’s comments on the relationship
between Goethe and Kant are treated in the second essay of this book, “Goethe
and the Kantian Philosophy,” 61–98.
6. “Einwirkung der Neuern Philosophie,” GA 16, 875/“The Influence of
Modern Philosophy,” SS, 29.
7. Ibid.
8. SS, 118–19.
9. GA 24, 459.
10. SS, 118.
11. See KU, §75. See also James L. Larson, Interpreting Nature: The Sci-
ence of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant (Baltimore and London: The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1994), 181–82.
12. I am indebted to James L. Larson’s discussion in “The Scale of Diver-
sity,” Interpreting Nature, 85–91, for this account.
13. “Versuch einer allgemeinen Vergleichungslehre,” GA 17, 226–27/
“Toward a General Comparative Theory,” SS, 53.
14. Kant, too, of course, argues against all naïve teleology. See for exam-
ple KU, §82.
15. J. G. Herder, “Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen
Seele,” in Sämtliche Werke, VIII, 223, 226. Cited by Abrams in The Mirror and
the Lamp, 205.
16. Ibid. Herder, 175–76; Abrams, 204.
204 The Vegetative Soul
17. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century: From
Montesquieu to Lessing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 137–38.
18. “Glückliches Ereignis,” GA 16, 867–68/“Fortunate Encounter,” SS,
19. “Das Unternehmen wird entschuldigt,” GA 17, 11/“The Enterprise
Justified,” in SS, 61.
20. “Bildungstrieb,” GA 17, 176/“The Formative Impulse,” in SS, 36.
21. “Anschauende Urteilskraft,” GA 16, 878.
22. See Johannes Hoffmeister, Goethe und der deutsche Idealismus: Eine
Einführung zu Hegels Realphilosophie (Leipzig: Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1932),
23. See Elizabeth von Thadden, Erzählen als Naturverhältnis—“Die
Wahlverwandschaften”: Zum Problem der Darstellbarkeit von Natur und
Gesellschaft seit Goethes Plan eines “Roman über das Weltall” (Munich: Wil-
helm Fink Verlag, 1993), 54–55.
24. “Causes of Natural Phenomena,” in Plutarch’s Moralia, 11, trans.
F. H. Sandbach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 149.
25. See Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud,
26. Sigmund Freud, “The Sexual Aberrations,” in Three Essays on the
Theory of Sexuality (New York: Harper Collins, 1962), 2–7.
27. “Die Absicht eingeleitet,” GA 17, 15/“The Purpose Set Forth,” SS, 64.
28. Linnaeus, Sexes of Plants [1760], aphorism 146. Cited in Ritterbush,
29. Ibid., aphorism 147.
30. For a detailed account of this argument, see “Kant and the Critique of
Teleology,” in Larson, Interpreting Nature, 170–82.
31. “Die Absicht eingeleitet,” GA 17, 14/“The Purpose Set Forth,” from
“On Morphology,” SS, 64.
32. GA 19, 686/Letter to Carl Windischmann (1812), quoted by Douglas
Miller in the introduction to SS, x–xi.
33. R. J. Hollingdale, Translator’s Introduction to J. W. von Goethe, Elec-
tive Affinities (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 13.
34. “Erläuterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz ‘Die Natur,’” GA 16,
925/“A Commentary on the Aphoristic Essay ‘Nature,’” SS, 6.
35. See Johannes Hoffmeister, Goethe und der deutsche Idealismus,
36. See Hoffmeister, sections on Schelling and Hegel.
37. GA 9, 39/Elective Affinities, 50.
38. Faust (bilingual edition), trans. Peter Salm (New York: Bantam Books,
1962), 32–33.
39. Ibid.
40. Blumenbach was a German anatomist, physiologist, anthropologist,
and zoologist who wrote Über den Bildungstrieb (On the Formative Impulse,
1781). See KU, 424. Goethe’s own essay “Bildungstrieb” (“The Formative
Impulse,” from On Morphology, 1820) (GA 17, 174–76/SS, 35–36) criticizes
Blumenbach’s theory of epigenesis.
205 Notes
41. “Bildungstrieb,” GA 17, 174–76/“The Formative Impulse,” SS,
42. See Rudolf Steiner, Einleitung in Goethes Naturwissenschaftliche
Schrifen (excerpt) in Goethe, J. W. von, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen
(Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1992), 14.
43. MP, 21.
44. GA 1, 523.
45. The double reading is probably intentional; thanks to David Krell for
pointing out the alternate translation.
46. GA 24, 681.
47. Ibid., 680.
48. Italienische Reise III, GA 11, 413.
49. Maxims and Reflections, SS, 303.
50. See Rudolf Steiner, note to MP, 50.
51. “Über die Spiraltendenz der Vegetation,” GA 17, 154/“The Spiral
Tendency in Vegetation,” SS, 106.
52. For a discussion of the contrast between the time of nature and the
time of art in the late eighteenth century, see Von Thadden, Erzählen als
53. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 139.
From Abraham Trembley, Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire d’un genre de Polypes
d’eau douce . . . , 1744.
54. Dichtung und Wahrheit, GA 10, 840. See also Walter Benjamin,
“Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” trans. Stanley Corngold, in Selected Writings Vol-
ume 1 (1913–1926), ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1996).
55. “Bedeutende Fördernis durch ein einziges Geistreiches Wort,” in GA
16, 879/“Significant Help Given by an Ingenious Turn of Phrase,” SS, 39.
56. Maxims and Reflections, SS, 307.
57. “Vorwort,” Zur Farbenlehre, GA 16, 11/Preface,” Theory of Color,
SS, 159. See also “Erfahrung und Wissenschaft,” GA 16, 869–71.
58. I am referring, of course, to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
and the revolution that this work generated in the philosophy of science in the
59. “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Subjekt und Objekt,” GA 16,
844–55/“The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject,” SS, 11–17.
60. Frederick Amrine, “The Metamorphosis of the Scientist,” in Goethe
Yearbook, Volume V, ed. Thomas P. Saine (Columbia, SC: Goethe Society of
America, 1990), 202.
61. Ibid., 202.
62. Ibid., 194.
63. J. W. von Goethe, “A General Observation, “ SS, 42.
64. “Einfache Nachahmung der Natur, Manier, Stil” (1789), GA 13, 66.
65. Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” 307.
66. GA 24, 359.
67. GA 9, 29/Elective Affinities, 40.
68. GA 9, 198/Elective Affinities, 218.
206 The Vegetative Soul
69. Benjamin, 304.
70. GA 10, 840. The English translation is based on that of John Oxen-
ford in Goethe: The Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Volume 2
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 422–23, with some modifications.
71. Benjamin, 316.
72. Ibid., 341.
Chapter 3. Hölderlin: Gleaning
1. The fragment is written in Hegel’s hand, but contains ideas more often
associated with Schelling or Hölderlin; it has variously been attributed to all
three writers. Translated as “The Oldest Program Towards a System in German
Idealism” by David Farrell Krell, Owl of Minerva 17:1 (Fall 1985): 8–13.
2. Ibid., 12–13.
3. Novalis, Werke, Tagebücher und Briefe Friedrich von Hardenbergs,
ed. Hans Joachim Mähl and Richard Samuel, 3 vols. (Munich: Carl Hanser Ver-
lag, 1978), 1: 237–413/Henry von Ofterdingen, trans. Palmer Hilty (Prospect
Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1964). Translation modified.
4. Françoise Dastur, Hölderlin: Tragédie et Modernité (Paris: Encre
Marine, 1992), 94.
5. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Fragmente von Hyperion” (WB 1: 442). In
Hölderlin’s later work, The Death of Empedocles, the question of transience
comes to the fore.
6. This interpretation could be contested with reference to a letter from
Hölderlin to his friend Neuffer in September 1792, where Hölderlin expresses
some of the vegetable associations we have discussed above in the following line:
“You will laugh that the idea came to me, here in my plant-life, of composing a
hymn to audacity. Indeed, a psychological riddle!” (WB 2: 807).
7. In Hyperion Hölderlin uses Vernunft (Kant’s “Reason”) and Verstand
(Kant’s “Understanding”) interchangeably.
8. Friedrich Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry, trans. Julias A. Elias
(New York: Felix Ungar Publishing Co., 1966), 91.
9. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Letter to His Brother (April 13, 1795), Essays
and Letters on Theory, 128–29.
10. My account of Fichte’s philosophy here is indebted to Jacques Tamini-
aux’s article “The Young Hölderlin,” in Poetics, Speculation, and Judgment,
trans. Michael Gendre (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993),
11. See, for example, the Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre,
where Fichte engages in a lengthy polemic against other philosophers of his day
for not recognizing that finitude and restriction are attributes of the reflecting
self, and not the result of the imposition of something external. Johann Gottlieb
Fichte, Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) with First and Second Intro-
ductions, ed. and trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (New York: Appleton-Cen-
tury-Crofts, 1970), 58f.
207 Notes
12. Ibid., 102. Taminiaux also quotes a passage from Jules Vuillemin, a
preeminent twentieth-century commentator on Fichte: “Moral action in Fichte
is the fire that devours the moments of time and individuals. Being is in the ashes
remaining after the struggle. The ashes testify that there was a struggle, but it
belongs to the dead to bury the dead. Fire, which is pure act and ungraspable
[element], only asserts itself in the absolute nothingness of every determined
being. Loving nature and finitude does not devolve on us.” Jules Vuillemin,
“Fichte,” in Les philosophes célèbres, ed. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Paris:
Mazenod, 1956).
13. Wilhelm Dilthey, “Friedrich Hölderlin,” in Poetry and Experience,
Volume 5 of Selected Works, ed. Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1985), 340.
14. See Dieter Henrich, Hegel im Kontext (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Verlag, 1971), 9–16.
15. “Das Werden im Vergehen,” WB 2: 643. The title was given to this
essay by a publisher, not by Hölderlin himself.
16. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Das Thalia-Fragment,” WB 1: 439–40.
17. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical
Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), xi.
18. Ibid., 7.
19. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Fragment von Hyperion,” WB 1: 439–60.
20. Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray
(New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 117.
21. Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. W. S. Hett (Cambridge: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1995), 89.
Chapter 4. Figures of Plant Vulnerability:
Empedocles and the Tragic Christ
1. In addition to other sources cited, see also Dieter Henrich, Hegel im
Kontext (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971); Johannes Hoffmeister, Hölderlin und
Hegel (Tübingen: Mohr, 1931); Ernst Cassirer, “Hölderlin und der deutsche Ide-
alismus” in Idee und Gestalt (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,
2. Wilhelm Dilthey, “Friedrich Hölderlin,” in Poetry and Experience,
Volume 5 of Selected Works, ed. Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1985), 360f and 367f.
3. Christoph Jamme, “Ein Ungelehrtes Buch”: Die philosophische
Gemeinschaft zwischen Hölderlin und Hegel in Frankfurt 1797–1800,” Hegel
Studien 23 (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1983). See also Christoph Jamme, “Hegel and
Hölderlin,” Clio 15:4 (Summer 1986): 359–77.
4. A reminder that all citations from these fragments are taken from Her-
man Nohl, Hegels theologische Jugendschriften (Frankfurt a. M.: Minerva,
1966); trans. T. M. Knox in Hegel, Early Theological Writings, ed. T.M. Knox
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948). The Nohl edition not
208 The Vegetative Soul
only groups together fragments under a title not chosen by Hegel, giving the
impression that they are a planned whole rather than a collection of unfinished
pieces, but also does not distinguish between the first and second versions of the
writings. The fragments in their original form are collected along with a book-
length commentary by Werner Hamacher in Pleroma—zu Genesis und Struktur
einer dialektischen Hermeneutik bei Hegel (Frankfurt a. M.: Verlag Ullstein,
1978), together with previously unpublished fragments from the Frankfurt
period. For ease of reference, we will cite from Nohl’s edition, hereafter TJS with
pages first from the German, then the English translation.
5. Otto Pöggeler, Hegels Jugendschriften und die Idee einer Phänome-
nologie des Geistes (Habilitation, Heidelberg, 1966). Referred to by Jamme in
“Hegel and Hölderlin,” 363.
6. TJS, 379/305.
7. See Jamme, “Ein Ungelehrtes Buch,” 275.
8. Hamacher, Pleroma, 364–65.
9. Beißner and Schmidt date the essay as written the earliest in August or
September 1799, thus probably after the composition of the second version, and
just before beginning the third version.
10. “Letter to his Brother,” 4 July 1798, WB 2: 877–78.
11. “Letter to Neuffer,” 12 November 1798, WB 2: 880.
12. In The Problem of Christ in the Work of Friedrich Hölderlin (London:
Modern Humanities Research Association, 1991).
13. Of course, the choice of tragic figure still divides Hegel and Hölderlin
irrevocably, especially with reference to the question of art. It is not as though one
could be substituted for the other. Yet both figures were healers and soothsayers
whose followers eventually turned against them and precipitated their deaths.
14. Jamme contends that the third version of The Death of Empedocles
reflects Hegel’s influence on Hölderlin. See “Ein Ungelehrtes Buch,” 354f. This
is also the view of Pöggeler in Hegels Jugendschriften 146f. Ogden argues that
all three Empedocles drafts are inherently Christian in orientation.
Chapter 5. Hegel: The Self-Sacrifice of the Innocent Plant
The epigraph is cited in Karl Rosenkranz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegels Leben (Berlin, 1844), 83. My translation. Rosenkranz assumes from the
form that Hegel meant this strange piece to be a poem, a set of distichs.
1. Gustav Mueller, Hegel: The Man, His Vision and Work (New York:
Pageant Press, 1968).
2. Upon the death of his father, Hegel received a small inheritance, enough
to go to Jena and enlist the help of Schelling, who was already a professor there,
to become a Privatdozent at the university. Hegel taught three lecture courses as
a Privatdozent from 1803 to 1806, fragments of which have been preserved from
Hegel’s own manuscripts and those of his students and put together as the Jenaer
Systementwürfe. We will be examining the first and third sets of these notes,
omitting the second since there are no remaining notes to indicate that Hegel lec-
209 Notes
tured on organic nature. After Hegel moved to Jena in 1801 and began lecturing
at the university, he lived and worked closely with Schelling; it is generally
assumed that Hegel’s turn to the philosophy of nature—an area of philosophy
that had not concerned him, at least thematically, prior to 1801—was a result pri-
marily of his association with Schelling. From his Jena period onward Hegel ori-
ents both his attention and his critique toward the Schellingian philosophy of
nature. From the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) to the mature
“Philosophy of Nature” in the Encyclopedia, Hegel is manifestly extricating him-
self from what he considers to be the lack of rigor of Schelling’s views.
3. Petry translates “Abfall,” euphemistically and evasively, as nature’s
“falling short of itself.” For further commentary, see Johannes Hoffmeister,
“Hegels Naturphilosophie,” in Goethe und der deutsche Idealismus: Eine Ein-
führung zu Hegels Realphilosophie (Leipzig: Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1932), 79.
4. See Nicolai Hartmann, Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus (Berlin:
Walter de Gruyter, 1960), 485.
5. F. W. J. Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans.
Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 133.
6. W 3: 22/PS, 9.
7. F. W. J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter
Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978), 122.
8. Ibid.
9. Of course, it is important to remember that the System is an early
work, written while Schelling was still strongly under the influence of Fichte.
Nevertheless, the System elucidates a methodology that Hegel was to perfect in
the Phenomenology of Spirit, the path from the individual consciousness to the
objective social order, so it seems not unfair to contrast Schelling’s views at this
point with those of Hegel between the Phenomenology and the Encyclopedia. In
Schelling’s own words, what he sought to perform in the System was the clarifi-
cation “of that which is utterly independent of our freedom, the presentation of
an objective world which indeed restricts our freedom, through a process in
which the self sees itself develop through a necessary but not consciously
observed act of self-positing.” See the “Introduction” to the System of Tran-
scendental Idealism by Michael Vater, Ibid., xi–xv.
10. See Hoffmeister, Goethe und der Deutsche Idealismus, 62.
11. Ibid., 64.
12. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Chicago and
London: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), 134. Addition to §166.
13. Hegel, cited in Hoffmeister, Goethe und der Deutsche Idealismus, 72.
14. See Vittorio Hösle, “Pflanze und Tier,” in Hegel und die Naturwis-
senschaften, ed. Michael John Petry (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holz-
boog, 1987), 381.
15. The editors note that the meaning of the phrase “der Begriff, der
Natur” is somewhat ambiguous. The fact that the article of “Natur” is in the gen-
itive case seems to indicate “the concept of nature,” but the comma between the
two terms could indicate a meaning such as “is the concept, is nature.” The stu-
dent notes from which this was taken were corrected from die to der, so although
the editors chose the former meaning, what Hegel actually said is unclear.
210 The Vegetative Soul
16. Thanks to David Farrell Krell and Niklaus Largier for their help with
this translation.
17. This passage bears a striking similarity to, and therefore was probably
heavily influenced by, Jacob Boehme’s account of the relationship between seed,
plant, and earth in “On the Divine Intuition.” For example, Boehme writes in
chapter 3 of this work, “So that when I see a herb standing, I may say with truth:
This is an image of the Earth-spirit, in which the upper powers rejoice, and
regard it as their child; for the Earth-spirit is but one being with the upper, out-
ward powers.” Jacob Boehme, “On the Divine Intuition,” in Six Theosophic
Points and Other Writings, trans. John Rolleston Earle (Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 1958), 198.
18. For a discussion of the importance of the symbols of bread and wine in
Hegel’s philosophy, see John Sallis, “Bread and Wine,” Philosophy Today 41: 1, 4
(Spring 1997): 219–28. See also the Phenomenology of Spirit (W3: 527/PS, 438).
19. “The moving impulse is, however, the many-named light-being
[Lichtwesen] of the sunrise and its tumultuous life, which, as soon as it is
released from its abstract being, first enters into the objective existence of the
fruit, then, surrendering itself to self-consciousness, attains genuine actuality in
it—now roams about as a band of frenzied women, the unrestrained revelry of
nature in its self-conscious form” (W 3, 527/PS 437–38). Translation modified.
20. Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” trans. Jonathan
Strauss, Yale French Studies 78 (1990): 9–28.
21. Cf. Plato’s Timaeus, 73A. Plato writes, “The gods set the ‘abdomen,’
as it is called, to serve as a receptacle for the holding of the superfluous meat and
drink; and round about therein they coiled the structure of the entrails, to pre-
vent the food from moving through quickly and thereby compelling the body to
require more food quickly, and causing insatiate appetite, whereby the whole
kind by reason of its gluttony would be rendered devoid of philosophy and of
culture, and disobedient to the most divine part we possess.” Plato, Timaeus,
Critias Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles, trans. The Rev. R. G. Bury, Litt.D.
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), 191.
22. See Hartmann, 489.
23. Jacques Derrida, Glas, trans. John P. Leavy and Richard Rand (Lin-
coln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 239. In Glas, Derrida
creates columns that oppose the arborescent logic of Hegel to the cryptogammic
structure of Genet’s literature. The cryptogam sheds its spores throughout the
text without ever appearing, on the surface, as a supporting structure of the text.
Rather, the cryptogam signifies a pervasive growth and a decay that Hegel can-
not prevent from setting in, a growth that will ultimately bring down the
columns to their tombs.
24. In this paragraph I follow Jacques D’Hondt, “Le Concept de la Vie,
chez Hegel,” in Hegels Philosophie der Natur: Beziehungen zwischen
empirischer und spekulativer Naturerkenntnis,” ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and
M. J. Petry (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1986), 138–50.
25. See Derrida, Glas, 25.
26. In Glas, Derrida writes: “Heating signifies life in general, organic life
and spiritual life, the consuming destruction of life. Natural life destroys itself in
211 Notes
order to relieve itself in(to) the spiritual life. Heating permits assimilation, diges-
tion, nutrition, interiorization, idealization—the relief. The Aufhebung is a fer-
mentation (fervere, fermentum) in nature and in natural religion, a fervor when
religion interiorizes or spiritualizes itself. In coming back to itself in the heat, in
producing itself as self-repetition, spirit raises itself, relieves itself, and like gas
or effluvium holds itself in sublime suspension above the natural fermentation”
(235). Thus, the death that the fruit signals also signifies a preparation for self-
sacrifice in the interest of the production of spirit.
27. Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” 18.
28. Ibid., 12.
29. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. Allan
Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols Jr. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1969), 140f.
30. Kojève refers very generally only to Chapter VII of the Phenomenol-
ogy of Spirit, but the following passage at the end of the section “The Revealed
Religion” seems to be the exact place that he is interpreting Hegel: “The death
of the mediator as grasped by the self is the supersession of his objective exis-
tence or his particular being-for-self: this particular being-for-self has become a
universal self-consciousness, just because of this, and the pure or non-actual
spirit of mere thinking has become actual” (W 3: 571/PS 476).
31. Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” 14.
32. Ibid., 16.
33. Ibid., 19.
34. Ibid.
35. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art, 4 Volumes, trans. F. P. B.
Osmaston (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975), Vol. I, 178–79.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid., Vol III, 53.
38. Ibid., 59.
39. Ibid., 61.
40. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, trans. from
the second German edition by the Rev. E. B. Speirs, B.D., and J. Burdon Sander-
son, in three volumes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: The
Humanities Press, 1974), 279.
41. See Derrida, Glas, 233–34.
42. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, CC. VII B. b. The translation is that
of the translators of Glas, 234, with modifications.
43. I assume Goethe means the Phenomenology of Spirit.
44. Cited in Hoffmeister, 82.
45. Cited in Hoffmeister, 43.
46. See Hoffmeister, 81–82.
47. Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, 136.
Chapter 6. Nietzsche: The Ivy and the Vine
1. Letter to Paul Deussen, early May 1868, quoted in Curt Paul Janz,
Friedrich Nietzsche: Biographie (3 volumes), (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag), 1, 239.
212 The Vegetative Soul
2. “We have recently been informed that, with his eighty-two years,
Goethe outlived himself: yet I would gladly exchange a couple of Goethe’s ‘out-
lived’ years for whole cartloads of fresh modern lifetimes, so as to participate in
such conversations as Goethe conducted with Eckermann and thus be preserved
from all and any up-to-date instruction from the legionaries of the moment. In
relation to such dead, how few of the living have a right to live at all!” (KSA 1,
310/UM1, 106).
3. “Ich bitte Gott, dass er mich quitt mache Gottes!” (I ask God to rid
me of God), in Sermon #52, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commen-
taries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard
McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 202.
4. Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult, trans. Robert B. Palmer
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), 153–54.
5. The Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe editors give the date of the
unfinished essay, “Die Teleologie seit Kant,” as no later than May 1868. Niet-
zsche’s own account of his student years in Leipzig, which goes through Easter
1868, does not mention the work, although he notes a study on Schopenhauer
that comes immediately before the teleology essay in the volume. Thus, the notes
on Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft and the unfinished essay were probably written
sometime in the spring of 1868 (HKG 1:3, 371–93).
6. Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux, 52f.
7. Goethe copied the passage, actually written by Georg Christoph
Tobler, into a notebook found in GA 16, 921. In 1828 Goethe rediscovered the
fragment and could not recall having written it, although he comments that it
“reflect[s] accurately the ideas to which my understanding had then attained”
(GA 16, 925).
8. GA 17, 14/SS, 64.
9. Cf. KSA 13, 52/WP, 704.
10. See in particular notebook M III I (KSA 9, 441–575).
11. The reading list for the future that follows Nietzsche’s essay on teleol-
ogy includes Schopenhauer’s essay “Über den Willen in der Natur,” Schelling’s
Ideen zu Einer Philosophie der Natur, and Schelling’s System des Transcenden-
tal Idealismus. It is unclear whether Nietzsche ever read Schelling after this.
12. “Where Kant distorts, marginalizes, and obscures the thought of the
unconscious, Schopenhauer emphasizes and develops it.” See Nick Land, “Aes-
thetics in Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche,” in Nietzsche and Modern
Thought, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (New York and London: Routledge, 1991),
13. Nietzsche’s earliest writing on Schopenhauer, an essay “Zu Schopen-
hauer” composed some time between October 1867 and April 1868, around the
time of his very first reading of The World as Will and Representation, calls
Schopenhauer’s work a “failed attempt,” declares that it is “riddled with contra-
dictions,” and states that Schopenhauer “[t]akes predicates from the world of
appearances to describe the will rather than leaving it indeterminate.” Schopen-
hauer “allows human (and thus not at all transcendental) characteristics to char-
acterize the unity of the will wherever he feels like it” (HKG, 1:3, 352–61). Niet-
zsche continues, “the errors of great men are worthy of reverence because they
213 Notes
are more fruitful than the truths of the little ones” (HKG 1:3, 353). As the third
Untimely Meditation shows, Nietzsche continued to value Schopenhauer for hav-
ing revealed his own vocation to him and as the model of an educator, not
because he agreed entirely with the content of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. For an
account of Nietzsche’s early sustained critique of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, see
John Sallis, Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1991), 60ff. These notes, as Sallis argues, demonstrate conclu-
sively that even at the time of the composition of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche
was critical of Schopenhauer, and thus the work is not thoroughly determined by
Schopenhauerian metaphysics. See also Michel Haar, Schopenhauer et la force du
pessimisme (Monaco: Éditions de Rocher, 1988). It is unclear why Nietzsche
repeats some of the errors he accuses Schopenhauer of, namely the attribution of
human characteristics to the will, in The Birth of Tragedy, but perhaps it was
designed to appeal to the ardent Schopenhauerian, Richard Wagner.
14. According to Hans Vaihinger, in Die Philosophie des Als-Ob (Ham-
burg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1986), the discourse on madness comes directly from
Wagner’s theoretical writings. However, Nietzsche also quotes Goethe on nature
in a notebook: “Gesetzt es wäre wahr—dann fehlt der Wahn: bei grossen Din-
gen, die nie ohn’ ein’gen Wahn gelingen” (KSA 7, 666).
15. Martin Heidegger gives this etymology, and relates “without” to being
“away.” The “madman” is the one who has “departed,” one who has chosen
another path. This concords with Nietzsche’s understanding of the mad repre-
sentation as one that articulates in language what cannot be captured in deter-
minate form by indicating its own provisional nature. See Heidegger, “Die
Sprache im Gedicht: Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht,” in Unterwegs
zur Sprache (Stuttgart: Verlag Günther Neske, 1959), 53.
16. Werner Hamacher, “‘Disgregation of the Will’: Nietzsche on the Indi-
vidual and Individuality,” Reconstructing Individualism, ed. T. C. Heller, M.
Sosna, and D. E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 114.
17. See Spurs, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978), and “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics
of the Proper Name,” trans. Avital Ronnell, in The Ear of the Other: Otobiog-
raphy, Transference, Translation, ed. Christie McDonald (New York: Schocken
Books, 1985).
18. We recall that Kant used the same expression (Urmutter) in the Cri-
tique of Judgment to describe the limits of the teleological fantasy, which yet is
the necessary form under which human understanding must approach nature,
embracing it as an Urmutter who gives birth to all the various individual species
(KU §80).
19. See Meister Eckhart’s Sermon #52 in Meister Eckhart: The Essential
Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, 202.
20. See Meister Eckhart, Sermon #2, 177ff.
21. This is also the spirit in which Robert Musil named his master work
The Man Without Qualities. The passage from The Dawn, above, was an
important one for Musil, who read Nietzsche as very close to medieval mysti-
cism. For more on this topic, see Dietmar Goltschnigg, “Die Bedeutung der
Formel ‘Mann Ohne Eigenschaften,’” Musil-Studien 4 (1973): 325–47.
214 The Vegetative Soul
22. Hamacher, “‘Disgregation of the Will’: Nietzsche on the Individual
and Individuality,” 128. Hamacher goes on: “Indeterminate it remains, despite
the most various determinations it may experience, open to all futurity and with-
drawn from the constatation of the propositional discourse” (128–29).
23. Dionysus: Myth and Cult, 91.
24. Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Under-
standing of the Place-World, 168.
25. Ibid., 169.
Conclusion. Dissemination, Rhizomes, Efflorescence
1. In “The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics,” trans. Walter
Kaufmann, in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann
(New York and London: Penguin Books, 1975), 265.
2. Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 35ff.
3. Ibid., 37.
4. Ibid., 38.
5. Jacques Derrida, “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the
Politics of the Proper Name,” in The Ear of the Other: The Teaching of Niet-
zsche and the Politics of the Proper Name, 32.
6. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1981), 53.
7. Ibid., 45.
8. Ibid., 52.
9. Ibid., 53.
10. My suspicion is that in Goethe’s writings on botany and his impatience
with the botanical classification system of his time, we can see the glimmerings
of the idea of the rhizome-book, the book that would not follow the slow-grow-
ing tree with clearly observable stages of growth and clearly distinguishable
organs. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Introduction: Rhizome,” in A Thou-
sand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapo-
lis and London: Minnesota University Press, 1987), 3–25.
11. Ibid., 5.
12. Ibid.
13. “Introduction: Rhizome,” 6.
14. Ibid., 20.
15. Ibid., 21.
16. The Diaries of Franz Kafka, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh (New
York: Schocken, 1948), 12. Cited in “Introduction: Rhizome,” 23.
17. Ibid., 15.
18. Ibid., 18.
19. Different flowers as well as their positions or various other manipula-
tions were assigned meanings, so that a bouquet sent to a lover would have a
signification, from invitation (“come tonight”) to question (“Is your husband
215 Notes
home?”) to affirmation (“You are beautiful”). In France, in particular, many
treatises “explaining” this practice were published in the nineteenth century.
Goethe’s West-Oestlicher Divan includes poems on secret writing using flowers
and fruit. See “The Secret Language of Flowers in France,” in Jack Goody, The
Culture of Flowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
20. Sarah Kofman, Nietzsche and Metaphor, trans. Duncan Large (Stan-
ford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 14.
21. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1410b, 12.
22. See De Anima (415a 15–416b 30); Nichomachean Ethics (1102a 33);
Politics (1254a 35–1254b 15) and (1260a 5–30); Generation of Animals
(736a 25–737a 30) and (787a 26–30).
23. Luce Irigaray, “How to Conceive of a Girl,” in Speculum of the Other
Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 163.
24. Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History,
trans. Alison Martin (New York: Routledge, 1996), 38–39.
25. Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (Lon-
don and New York: Routledge, 1991), 95.
26. In the final chapter of Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine,
Whitford uses the language of social contract, specifically the philosophy of
Rousseau, to clarify an argument she is making about Irigaray’s philosophy. She
argues that Irigaray’s philosophy can be conceptualized as saying that “women
are still, symbolically, in the ‘state of nature’ and need to be brought into the
social contract” (170), assimilating social order and symbolic order. Whitford’s
aim is admittedly to bolster her cogent argument that Irigaray’s apparently biol-
ogistic remarks about the female body and about nature are in fact statements
about the adequacy or inadequacy of the symbolic order and the place allotted
therein to women. Indeed, conceptualizing the difficult synthesis of the termi-
nology of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectic used by Irigaray in
terms of social contract theory does render it considerably clearer. I nevertheless
find it problematic to describe Irigaray as a contract theorist, since, as Whitford
acknowledges, she draws much more often on Hegel, who is an anti-contract
theorist, for good reasons, it seems to me, most prominent among them the
problematic status of the subject and its relation to the social order in social con-
tract theory. I am not sure it is even conceivable to reconcile Irigaray’s concep-
tion of the feminine subject with social contract theory.
27. Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 113.
28. “How to Conceive of a Girl,” 163.
29. Ibid., 162–63.
30. Luce Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” in This Sex Which is Not
One (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 109–10.
31. Jacques Lacan, (crits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1977), 146–78.
32. Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985),
33. Lacan, Le Séminaire III: Les Psychoses (Paris; Seuil, 1981), 259. Cited
in Gallop, 129.
216 The Vegetative Soul
34. Luce Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, trans. Mary
Beth Mader (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 23–24.
35. See, for example, The Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans.
Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 110–16; Sexes and
Genealogies, 110–15; “The Eternal Irony of the Community,” in Speculum of
the Other Woman, 167; and “How to Conceive of a Girl,” 214–26.
36. Sexes and Genealogies, 112–13.
37. Elizabeth Grosz, “Irigaray and the Divine,” in Transitions in Conti-
nental Philosophy, ed. Arleen Dallery et al. (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1994), 118.
38. Patricia Huntington, Ecstatic Subjects, Utopia, and Recognition: Kris-
teva, Heidegger, Irigaray (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998),
39. Ibid.
40. Philosophy in the Feminine, 76.
41. Ibid., 89.
42. Sexes and Genealogies, 112–13.
43. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, 107–108.
44. Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions, trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still
(New York: Routledge, 1992), 4.
45. “Questions” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 153.
46. Elemental Passions, 31–32.
47. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, 84.
48. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, 106.
49. Ibid., 18.
50. Ibid.
51. Ibid., 44.
52. Ibid., 87.
217 Notes
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Abraham, 107, 137
Abrams, M.H., 4, 20, 40
Achilochus, 47
Addison, Joseph, 43
Adonis, 124, 186
Aeschylus, 47
Agave, 175
“Agency of the Letter, The” (Lacan),
Alchemy, 124
Allegory: of natural processes, 5; of
nature, 1
Anacreon, 47
Analogy, 32; of art and technic of
nature, 36; as decorative device,
80; emphasis on similarity in, 56;
of experience, 36; indirect presen-
tation of ideas and, 32; inference
and, 32; metaphysics/tree roots,
184; plant morphology/spiritual
development, 70; purposiveness
and, 38; use in natural science, 81
Anastomosis, 65; spiritual, 67, 75,
Anaxagoras, 56
Animal life: activity and, 2; as center
of nature, 141; culture and, 33;
differentiation in, 8; digestive
process, 138; dominance of, 57;
freedom of movement in, 142;
humans as result of development
of, 51; individuation in, 8, 32,
128; masculinity and, 2; origin in
womb, 51; as privileged figure of
organization of speech, 11; procre-
ation and, 7; purposiveness pro-
jected onto, 32; as realm of fire,
136; self-enclosed aspect of, 128;
self-preservation of, 99; self-pro-
pelled qualities of, 7; self-sufficien-
cy of, 201n8; specialization in, 8;
spirituality of existence of, 128;
suppression of desire by, 142; as
symbol of subjectivity, 141;
warmth generated by, 131
Anthropocentrism, 54, 156, 162
Anthropology (Kant), 28
Anthropomorphism, 150, 153, 156
Antigone, 173, 174, 193, 194, 199
Antigone (Sophocles), 199
Apollo, 18
Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister,
The (Goethe), 63, 74
Architecture, 144–145
Aristotle, 4, 9, 28, 47, 96, 97, 124,
136, 187, 188, 189, 191
Art: analogue of, 37–38; children
and, 89; of composition of ideas,
150; creation of, 81; determinative
judgment and, 38; distance and,
105; double, 176; as fiction, 36;
human, 38; human creation of,
29; imitators in, 167; inner life of,
48–49; judgment of, 41; knowl-
edge of, 89; metaphysics and, 150;
nature and, 13, 14, 21, 22, 27, 31,
36, 89, 111, 114, 176; physiology
of, 15; principles of, 14; progres-
sion of, 144; proximity of devo-
tion and, 105; refinement of, 33;
science and, 21, 80; state and,
176; technic of nature and, 32, 40,
53; teleology and, 33; union with
science, 80, 81; “wild,” 42
Atomism, 152; Enlightenment con-
ception of, 189
Atonement, 132
Aufhebung, 102, 140, 142, 211n26
Bacchus, 133
Bacon, Francis, 3, 43
Bataille, Georges, 134, 142, 143, 144
Beauty: death and, 176; distance and,
26; fictions of, 26; judgment of,
28, 29, 31, 34; love and, 111; in
nature, 26, 144; in objects, 36;
reason over, 86; structure of
nature and, 31; unity and, 144; in
views, 36
Begriff, 147
Being: absolute ego and, 90; annihila-
tion of, 144; anthropomorphic
explanation of, 163; concealed
ground of, 16, 191; conscious,
144; emergence of, 155; ground-
less ground of, 182; imperfect, 88;
moral, 52; mothers of, 173; natur-
al, 54; noumenal, 52; organized,
38; rational, 38
Benjamin, Walter, 45, 74, 76
Benveniste, Emile, 47, 48, 62
Bildung, 48, 77
Birth of the Clinic, The (Foucault),
Birth of Tragedy, The (Nietzsche), 3,
154, 157, 164, 169, 170, 173, 175
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, 63
Boehme, Jacob, 124, 135, 211n17
Bondage, 101
Botany, 72
Boundaries: of embodiment, 188;
existence of, 168; imposition of,
168; lack of, 169
Caesura, 14
Casey, Edward, 179
Cassandra, 173
Cassirer, Ernst, 48–49
Causality, 26
Cause: efficient, 28; final, 32–44, 46,
48–49, 51, 54, 56, 159; material,
Chaos: disintegration and, 96; fer-
mentation and, 96
Christ: comparison to Empedocles,
100, 101; death of, 109; as God in
human form, 124; morality and,
107; portrayal by Hegel, 15; rec-
onciliation and, 108; resurrected,
15, 117, 125, 132; self-sacrifice of,
132; temptations of, 113; tragic,
15, 99–117, 125, 132
Christianity: history of, 105; notion
of resurrection in, 134
Chromatics, 72
Cognition: achieving, 29–30; con-
scious, 170; determinate structures
of, 22; directionality of, 29; empir-
ical, 22; human, 5, 42; individua-
tion and, 24; of natural objects,
35; of nature, 23, 34; ordinary,
171; particulars in, 29, 30; power
of, 29; through making systems,
24; unity and, 30
Conceptus ratiocinantes, 36, 37,
Conceptus ratiocinati, 36, 37,
Conjectures on Original Composition
(Young), 20, 27
Consciousness: de-emphasis on, 104;
defining, 89; development of, 152;
ego and, 165; elevation of, 170;
forms of, 170; foundation of, 90;
“I” of, 166; individual, 210n9;
234 The Vegetative Soul
Art (continued)
individuation and, 170; as infinite
drive on limitations of existence,
90; as last development of the
organic, 164; levels of, 170; limits
of, 16; losing, 104; madness and,
171; natural, 89, 90; the not-I in,
89–90; plant, 86; primacy accord-
ed to, 164; of purpose, 86; repre-
sentation and, 170; technic of
nature growth without, 42; tran-
scendence of, 90
Conversations with Eckermann
(Goethe), 45, 64, 65, 152
Creativity, 146; human, 26; realm of,
51; relationship with nature, 5
Creon, 199
Critique of Judgment (Kant), 13, 20,
21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 36, 38,
40, 41, 48–49, 50, 51, 75, 80, 81,
86, 157, 176, 203n26
Critique of Practical Reason (Kant),
Critique of Pure Reason (Kant), 20,
22, 24, 30, 36, 157, 203n16,
Culture: animal life and, 33; defining,
9; defining nature, 4; discipline
and, 33; dissolution of, 157; emer-
gence of, 5; feminine development
of, 175; Greek, 157; nature and, 6,
11, 185; pre-patriarchal, 189; skill
as requirement for, 33; teleology
and, 33; transformations in, 11
Darwin, Charles, 63
Dastur, Françoise, 84
Das Werden im Vergehen (Hölderlin),
Dawn, The (Nietzsche), 177–178
De Anima (Aristotle), 96–97, 187
Death: beauty and, 176; of Christ,
15; as death, 134; deferral of, 114;
excretion and, 167; formation of
concepts and, 89; of the individ-
ual, 115; of plant life, 15; possibil-
ity of, 136; recognition of
inevitability of, 134, 136; as self-
conscious, 144; self-sacrifice and,
143; sublimity and, 91; threat of,
3; as unreality, 134
Death of Empedocles, The
(Hölderlin), 14, 15, 100, 103,
105, 111, 112
Deconstruction, 189
De Interpretatione Naturae (Bacon), 3
Deleuze, Gilles, 16, 17, 183, 185,
186, 197
Demeter, 193
Democritus, 47, 48, 56
Derrida, Jacques, 16, 17, 21, 140,
145, 175, 182, 183, 184, 201n6,
211n21, 211n26
Descartes, René, 37, 182, 184, 200
Desire, 91; containment of, 125;
encapsulation of, 125; open-end-
edness of, 125; realms of organic
nature and, 136; suppression of,
Destiny, 107
Detienne, Marcel, 7, 186
Deussen, Paul, 150
Dialogues Concerning Natural
Religion (Hume), 157
Dichtung und Wahrheit (Goethe), 76
Dilthey, Wilhelm, 90, 100
Dionysos, 124, 125, 133, 154, 155,
169, 170, 173, 175, 179
Diremption, 67
Discontinuity: exclusion of, 53
Discourse: mutation in, 94; of the
organism, 9; organization of, 6;
philosophical, 101; quantitative,
153; of science, 153; of servility,
Disease: botanical model, 94; natural
order of, 94; perception of, 94;
susceptibility to, 141
“Disgregation of the Will”
(Hamacher), 171
Dismemberment, 134
Dissemination, 183–184; non-
metaphorical, 187; philosophical,
du Bos, Abbé, 42
235 Index
Eckhart, Meister, 154, 177, 178
Ecstatic Subjects (Huntington), 195
Efflorescence, 183; as blossoming, 16;
function of, 191; implication of
metamorphosis, 188; indefinite indi-
viduation and, 188; positive images
of, 198; productive notion of, 188;
rhetorical configuration of, 188
Ego: absolute, 90; consciousness and,
165; critique of, 149; individuality
of, 152; substantiality of, 152
Einheit, 30
Elective Affinities (Goethe), 59, 60,
61, 63, 74, 75
Elemental Passions (Irigaray), 188, 196
“Eleusis” (Hegel), 120
Empedocles, 99–117; comparison to
Christ, 100, 101; doctrine of
movement, 160
Encyclopedia (Hegel), 121, 122, 127,
129, 133, 209n2
English gardens, 19–44, 179, 203n26
Ens rationis ratiocinantis, 36, 37
Ens rationis ratiocinatae, 36
Epicurean way, 159
Epigenesis, 63
Equilibrium, 91
Eros, 90–91
Eucharist, 132, 137, 145
Euripides, 175
Eurydice, 1
Evolution, 3, 63
Existence: eccentric orbit in, 92; final
purpose of, 54; of god, 37; highest
purpose within, 35; ideals of, 92;
knowledge of, 123; limitations of,
90; origin of, 161; as plant meta-
morphosis, 14; purpose of, 52
Experience: analogy of, 36; negative,
92; unity of, 36
“Experiment as Mediator Between
Subject and Object, The”
(Goethe), 72
Fate, 85, 108; defining, 109; punish-
ment and, 108, 109; struggle
against, 109
Faust (Goethe), 62, 146
Fear, 139
Feminine, the, 28; alignment with pri-
vate sphere, 199; configured as
spiritualizing force, 193; individu-
ation and, 173; irrationality and,
188; linked to earth, 191; madness
and, 174; neglect of sexuality of,
192; as passive recipient, 28, 175;
placid development of, 126; plant
life and, 2, 16, 17, 126, 133, 152;
principle of nourishment, 146;
reduction to silent, 16; role of
ground in, 192–193; subjectivity
and, 16, 189; symbols of, 191;
transformation of individual and,
Feminist theory, 183, 188; vegetative
soul and, 5
Fermentation, 96, 105, 139
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb, 89, 90,
Fiction, 36; about nature, 42; art as,
36; Kant on, 40; of the natural
world, 39; of the organism,
38–39; teleology of nature as, 37
Fire: natural proximity to spirit of,
131; potential flammability of
plants and, 131, 140–141
Fischer, Kuno, 157
Force: anthropomorphizing, 63;
blind, 159; creative, 160; inorgan-
ic, 159; matter and, 63; preserv-
ing, 160
Forgetting of Air in Martin
Heidegger, The (Irigaray), 188,
193, 196, 197, 198
Form: as analogy to individual, 161;
energy and, 151; natural, 22, 48,
144, 152; organic, 39; possibility
of life under, 160; purposiveness
of, 160; as resting point, 39; spiri-
tual, 126; static, 161; system of
stages in, 122
Formation: as basis of natural
growth, 59; of organisms, 63
Forster, Georg, 52
236 The Vegetative Soul
Foucault, Michel, 94, 182
Fragmentation: individual, 186; ten-
dency toward, 39, 83
Freedom: human, 20; of imagination,
27; as indetermination, 178; of
movement, 142; purposiveness
and, 23; realm of, 128; spirit and,
Freud, Sigmund, 57
Friendship, 91
Galen, 57
Gallop, Jane, 192
Garden: artificially pruned, 24; craft-
ed, 31; cultivated-to-look-wild,
19–44, 43; English, 19–44, 179,
203n26; French classical, 43; land-
scape, 43, 203n26; liminality of,
179; sublime, 21; technic of nature
as, 42; transitionality of, 179;
Versailles, 43
Gardens of Adonis, The (Detienne),
7, 186
Gay Science, The (Nietzsche), 161,
164, 177
Geist, 28, 82
Gemüt, 82, 84, 89
Genealogy, 181
Genetics, 3, 4
Genius: artistic, 166; as channel for
forces of nature, 27; defining, 42;
equated with vegetable nature, 53;
Kant on, 20; origin of, 20; as
plant-like, 145; poetic, 86; as rela-
tionship of creative mind to
nature, 4–5; vegetable, 4, 10–11,
21, 22, 27
George, Stephan, 74
“German Theories of Vegetable
Genius” (Abrams), 20
Gestalt, 39, 77. See also Form
God: existence of, 37; inseminating
spirit of, 28; law of, 107; love of,
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1,
45–77, 145, 146, 147, 183, 195;
animalization of plant life by, 65;
on anthropocentric purposes, 54,
162; on art, 21; emphasis on
process of growth, 69; on final
causes, 54, 56; foundational dis-
course of, 14; on human superiori-
ty, 51; imposition of individuation
and, 57; influenced by Kant, 45,
46; literary works, 59, 80; on
magnetism, 60; on meaning of ori-
gin, 46; on metamorphosis, 8, 11,
14, 45–77; mistrust of use of anal-
ogy in science, 81; in natural sci-
ence, 21; on noumenal nature of
humans, 55; objective thinking
and, 14; on observation, 72;
organic-centered philosophy of,
150; on plant life, 11, 13; princi-
ples of art and, 14; process of for-
mation in nature and, 14; on pur-
posiveness of nature, 46; rhythm
of vital power and, 14; scientific
achievements of, 50; scientific
method of, 73; separation of
realms by, 56; theory of nature,
59; views of Linné, 56, 57, 58
“Goethe’s Attempt” (Nietzsche), 154,
Grafting, 60
Grosz, Elizabeth, 194
“Ground for Empedocles, The”
(Hölderlin), 103, 114
Growth: basis of, 59; natural, 20, 59;
plant life, 66, 67, 68, 69
Guattari, Félix, 16, 183, 185, 186,
Gundolf, Friedrich, 74
Hardenberg, Friedrich von. See
Harmony, 34
Hazard, Paul, 53
“Hegel, Death, and Sacrifice”
(Bataille), 134
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 6,
13, 17, 91, 119–147, 183, 193,
195, 209n2; alignment of mascu-
line with subjectivity in, 199; atti-
237 Index
tude toward nature, 119–147; on
Christianity, 15; criticism of
Goethe, 123; on death, 134–135;
debates with Hölderlin, 85;
denunciation of Judaism, 110;
description of love, 102; dialectical
method of, 99, 120, 127; dissatis-
faction with Christianity, 101;
domination and, 108; on fate,
109; in individuation of plant life,
131; on innocence of plants, 74;
interpretation of culture, 122;
interpretations of teachings of
Christ, 103; mature philosophy of
nature, 103; on natural time and
development, 123; obsession with
intestines, 138; philosophy of
nature, 15, 121, 127; on plant
deficiency, 129, 140; on plant life,
11; on polarity, 61; portrayal of
Christ, 15, 99, 100; relationship
with Hölderlin, 100, 104, 105;
repudiation of vegetative soul by,
99; on sensation, 139; on sexual
function, 131–132; on subjectivity,
121, 142; understanding of organ-
ic life, 103
Heidegger, Martin, 95, 170, 181,
182, 183, 198, 204n2
Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Novalis),
79–80, 81
Helen, 173
Helios, 18
Hemsterhuis, Franz, 90
Heraclitus, 48
Herder, Johann Gottfried von, 20, 53,
56, 60, 90, 145
Hermes, 1
Herodotus, 47
Hippocrates, 67
History, natural: pursuance of, 48
Hobbes, Thomas, 17, 200
Hölderlin, Friedrich, 6, 13, 79–97,
145, 183; criticism of excessive
analysis in science and philosophy,
87; debates with Hegel, 85; on
discourse of the organism, 9–10;
dissatisfaction with Christianity,
101; intellectual life, 84; interest in
Empedocles, 99, 100; isolation of
being outside nature and, 95–96;
metamorphosis as figuration of
life, 84; on poetry, 86; on relation-
ship of soul to nature, 84; rela-
tionship with Hegel, 100, 104,
105; rhythm of life and, 14; on
structure of plant life, 83–97; on
systems of receptivity, 84; trope of
fermentation and, 96; use of “aor-
gic,” 40, 92, 93, 114; use of
“organic,” 40
“How to Conceive of a Girl”
(Irigaray), 188
Human: ability to recognize
inevitability of death, 134; action,
121; art, 38; capacity for great-
ness, 20; capacity for language,
143; creation of art, 29; creativity,
26; as creature of highest purpo-
siveness, 51; as dark being, 75; as
final cause of nature, 51; as final
purpose of creation, 36; as final
purpose of existence of the world,
54; as final purpose of organic,
164; freedom, 20; identity, 84; as
irreplaceable being, 134; judg-
ment, 31; knowledge, 32, 51, 82;
as last stage of creation, 52; limits
of consciousness and, 16; as “Lord
of Nature,” 33; nature and, 16;
noumenal status of, 51, 52, 55;
place in world, 16; position within
natural world, 81; projection of
own desires, 75; reason, 21, 24,
28; relation of soul to natural
world, 81; as result of develop-
ment of other animals, 51; self-
knowledge, 74–75; subjectivity,
147; as technician, 42; thought,
121; as users of nature, 39; vul-
nerability, 96
Hume, David, 157
238 The Vegetative Soul
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Huntington, Patricia, 195
Hyperion (Hölderlin), 14, 80, 84, 85,
86, 87, 88, 92, 93, 105
Idealism, 13, 23; aorgic, 93; German,
28, 81, 82, 83, 90, 100, 117, 200;
organic, 93
Imagination: apprehension of, 26;
comprehension of sublime by, 42;
evil and, 135; freedom of, 27;
judgment of beauty and, 31; pre-
sentation of rational ideas and, 42;
reason and, 42; sensory, 21;
understanding and, 31; under-
standing observances, 31
Impotence, 7
Individuation, 2, 71; adaptation to
environment, 169; “animal,” 15,
24, 32, 99, 128; arbitrariness of,
131; beyond consciousness, 84;
borders of, 169, 170; cognition
and, 24; consciousness and, 170;
end of, 15; energy and, 151; evo-
lution of, 170; the feminine and,
152; indefinite, 188; lunacy and,
169; madness and, 152; metaphor
for, 4; metaphysical history of,
152; necessity of, 170; organism
and, 151; organized, 46; otherness
and, 169; overcoming bodily, 174;
plant life and, 139; provisionality
of, 155, 164, 170; self-movement
and, 131; sensory, 170; subject to
metamorphosis, 5; thinking about,
191; transcending, 174; under-
standing, 101; union and, 90;
unity of animal life and, 161;
unity and separation in, 101; vege-
tative model, 100–117; of vegeta-
tive soul, 5
Inhibition, 90, 91
Innocence, 89
Intellect: limitations of, 87
Intellectus ectypus, 56
Intersubjectivity, 4
Intuition: aesthetic, 30; of nature, 31;
spontaneity of, 29
Inversion: in classification systems,
56, 57
Irigaray, Luce, 16, 17, 182, 183, 187,
195; feminine symbolization of
nature, 4; images of efflorescence
in, 183, 198; linking of women to
vegetable world, 189–190; on
nature, 190; on politics of assimi-
lation, 195; politics of subjectivity
of, 189
Irritability, 136
“Italian Journey” (Goethe), 66
Jakobson, Roman, 192
Jamme, Christoph, 100
Janz, Curt Paul, 150
Judaism, 107, 110
Judgment: aesthetic, 23, 24, 30, 41,
46, 80; analogical relationships
and, 32; of art, 41; of beauty, 28,
29, 31, 34, 86; critique of, 41;
derivation of, 24; determinative,
22, 23, 34, 38; human, 31; mak-
ing, 32; mechanistic, 42; power of,
30; of purposiveness, 34; reflec-
tive, 22, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32, 34,
38, 41, 45, 47, 52, 58, 161, 199;
roots in sensation, 24; self-reflec-
tive, 32; of the sublime, 31, 42; as
sublimity, 29; technical, 25, 41;
technic of nature and, 41; teleo-
logical, 23, 24, 30, 34, 36, 41, 42,
48–49, 158; transcendental utter-
ance of, 30; unifying empirical
laws and, 30
Kafka, Franz, 186
Kant, Immanuel, 6, 13, 17, 90, 158,
183; anthropocentrism of, 156;
articulation of genius, 20; critique
of natural sciences, 13; on culture,
33; defining organism by, 38;
describing natural world, 22; des-
ignation of beauty by, 31; on
determinate purposes, 54; discus-
sion of fiction, 40; doctrine of
morality of, 103; elimination of
239 Index
the natural by, 24; final causes
and, 33–34, 46; foundational dis-
course of, 14; on genius, 20, 27;
human freedom and, 20; impact
on Nietzsche, 150; judgments of
beauty by, 86; liking for symmetry,
19; natural beauty and, 21; on
natural purposes, 34; on nature as
system, 29; nature as thing-in-itself
and, 156, 176; organic-centered
philosophy of, 150; philosophy of
nature, 15; on propositions of per-
formance, 25; on purposiveness of
natural forms, 21, 22; on rational
decisions, 25; representation of
nature by, 14; on symbolization,
40; technic of nature and, 34–44;
on teleological judgment, 24; tran-
scendental utterance of judgment
and, 30; understanding of aesthet-
ics, 36; understanding of organic,
40; use of organic metaphor by,
Keller, Evelyn Fox, 3
Klossowski, Pierre, 158
Knowledge: at any price, 163; of art,
89; determinate, 80, 81; domi-
nance of animal life on, 57; drive
to, 163; empirical, 30; human, 32,
51, 82; limits of, 32, 150; mechan-
ical, 158; of nature, 13, 22, 30,
80, 81, 82, 83, 124; philosophical,
86; physiology of, 15; potential to
conceal, 154, 160; progress and,
157; representation and, 169; sav-
ing, 156; scientific, 15; of self,
149; systems of, 24; will to, 153
Kofman, Sarah, 187
Kojève, Alexander, 142, 143, 211n30
Kuhn, Thomas, 72
Lacan, Jacques, 192
Language: of abstract terms, 6, 143;
of “blooming,” 198; capacity for,
143; conceptual, 191; of con-
frontation, 4; conventional scien-
tific, 3; deliberate planting of seeds
and, 7; describing nature, 4;
expression of aesthetic ideas and,
42; figurative, 6, 192; of flowers,
186; of force, 150–151; imagistic,
165; of isolation, 173; linear unity
of, 185; literal meanings in, 6; of
melting, 128; metaphorical use of,
4, 6; metaphysical, 201n6; of non-
sensory concepts, 5; primitive, 6;
of science, 17; of self-enclosure,
173; of self-preservation, 4; think-
ing about, 191; universals as prod-
ucts of, 94; of vegetable genius, 22
Law: bondage and, 110; divine, 199;
fulfillment of, 107; of God, 107;
inclination and, 108; judgment,
30; natural, 35; of nature, 34, 35,
41; pleroma and, 108; of the state,
193; subjective, 41; superfluous,
108; of time and space, 115; tran-
scendental, 58; of transience, 115;
unifying, 30
Leaves of Grass (Whitman), 11
Lectures on the Philosophy of
Religion (Hegel), 145
Leibniz, Carl von, 60, 182
Leucippus, 47
Life: end of, 15; rhythm of, 14; as
series of metamorphoses, 14
“Life of Jesus, The” (Hegel), 103
Light, 80, 81, 83; and crystal, 83
Limitation, 90
Linnaeus. See Linné, Carl von
Linné, Carl von, 54, 56, 57, 58, 70,
129, 185
Literature: mechanistic models, 10;
organic models, 10
Logic, 128, 157; binary, 185; dialecti-
cal, 117, 123; of metaphor, 193;
of sacrifice, 194; substitutive, 193
Logos spermatikos, 183–184
Longinus, 19
Love, 106–107; beauty and, 111; in
The Death of Empedocles, 104;
duty and, 103; entry to natural
world and, 96; expression of, 103;
240 The Vegetative Soul
Kant, Immanuel (continued)
of God, 103; incomplete in nature,
103; meaning of, 6; mortality and,
102; as restrictive vessel, 104;
superfluous law and, 108
“Love” (Hegel), 102, 105
Lucifer, 134
Lucinde (Schlegel), 80
Madness, 152; conscious representa-
tion and, 170, 171; defining, 169;
the Feminine and, 174; mania and,
170; nature of, 170; as self-revela-
tion of instinct, 171; understand-
ing, 169, 173
Magnetism, 60, 63, 66
Manes, 112, 113, 114
Masculine, the: as active principle,
28; correspondence to animal life,
126; science as, 17; self-conscious
being-there, 146
Mastery, 101
Maxims and Reflections (Goethe), 66
Meaning: of “I,” 165; of love, 6
“Mechanics of Fluids” (Irigaray), 192
Memory, 139
Metamorphosis: alterity inscribed
into identity in, 9; constant, 50,
85; contingent, 63, 64; as correct
explanation of nature, 158–159;
cosmic phenomena and, 66; devel-
opment of natural world and, 55;
as development of shape, 138;
existence as, 14; expansion/con-
traction and, 60, 61, 63, 65, 67,
71, 84, 85, 86, 90, 91; as explana-
tory principle of nature, 50; extent
of, 11; grounded in nature, 55;
importance of leaf in, 70; inability
to be contained, 55; individuation
subject to, 5; of intellect, 56;
intensification and, 60, 61; irregu-
lar, 63, 64; multiplicity of, 138;
organisms and, 48–49; as phe-
nomenological event, 48–49; plant
life and, 8, 11, 45–77; polarity
and, 60; process of, 66; productive
juices and, 65, 66, 67, 69, 70; pro-
gressive, 63, 124, 125; quantita-
tive change and, 123; regular, 63;
retrogressive, 63; science and,
48–49, 72, 73; simultaneity and,
71; stages of, 68–69; superficial,
137, 138–139; terminology of,
154; undiscoverable cause and,
155; wonder of, 173
“Metamorphosis of Animals”
(Goethe), 51
Metamorphosis of Plants, The
(Goethe), 8, 9, 13, 14, 21, 45–77,
91, 185
Metaphor, 192; animalistic, 189; con-
stitutive, 32; “dead,” 5, 187; as
decorative device, 80; defining, 5,
187; early, 5; feminine, 193; for
individuation, 4; living, 187; male,
195; of metaphors, 11; metaphysi-
cal language and, 201n6; for
metonymy, 191; organic, 20; for
organization, 7; for passivity, 16;
redemptive, 16; rhythm of, 187; of
subjectivity, 193; subversion of,
188; understanding, 80; for unity,
7; vegetative, 19
Metaphysics, 150; absolute truth and,
150; analogy to tree roots, 184;
history of, 189; of presence, 182;
reworking of, 181
Meteorology, 73
Metonymy, 192; metaphor for, 191;
for woman, 191
Mimesis: transformative, 191
Mirror and the Lamp, The (Abrams),
Morality, 32; Christian, 103, 107;
refinement of, 33
Mortality: creation of child and, 102;
love and, 102; overcoming, 102
Moses, 107, 112
Mysticism, 124
“Naive and Sentimental Poetry”
(Schiller), 43
Naming, 94, 95
Nancy, Jean-Luc, 40
241 Index
Nature: allegory of, 1; alternative
conceptions of, 17; anthropomor-
phisms of, 3; art and, 13, 14, 21,
22, 27, 31, 36, 89, 111, 114, 176;
articulation of, 6; assumptions
about, 58; beauty in, 26, 144;
caprice and, 122; changing
descriptions of, 9; classificatory
system and, 22; cognition and, 23;
condition of highest development
in, 92; condition of highest sim-
plicity in, 92; contingent, 122;
continuum of, 56; cult of, 153;
culture and, 4, 6, 11, 185; domi-
nant form of understanding in, 11;
final causes in, 13, 21, 32, 33–44,
46, 48–49, 51, 54, 56, 159,
203n16; form and, 48, 152; geo-
logical, 136; as “great Book,”
184; Hegel on, 15; hierarchical
schematization of, 57, 123, 190;
human framing of, 34; human
projection onto, 10; human under-
standing of, 29; inability to
explain completely, 51; inner, 82;
inner life of, 48–49; irrational
changes in, 122; Kant on, 15;
knowledge of, 13, 22, 30, 80, 81,
82, 83, 124; laws of, 30, 34, 35,
41; magic in, 59; mechanical views
of, 10, 35; mechanisms of, 25;
metaphysics of, 124; metonyms
for, 121; as morality, 32; nature
of, 41, 135; necessity of, 120;
noumenal, 41, 47, 51; as object of
research, 83; observations of, 32;
organic, 2, 10, 13, 39, 48–49,
121, 127; as organized being, 23,
40; origin of, 46; as other to itself,
143; poetry and, 39, 120; power
of, 42; predictability in, 22; as
prehistory of spirit, 15; progres-
sive model, 123, 124, 125; pure
experience of, 6; purposiveness
and, 21, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36, 46,
47, 48–49, 52, 58, 158, 162; race
and, 52; as reality, 85; reductionist
view of, 3; regularity in, 22; rela-
tionship with creativity, 5; repre-
sentations of, 2; resistance to, 105;
as resource of humanity, 90; sepa-
ration from, 87–88, 88, 92, 94,
96; simplicity of, 46; speculation
about, 85; spirit and, 122; as spirit
estranged from itself, 133; studies
of, 80, 81; subjective conceptual-
ization of, 13; subjectivity and, 14;
superiority of human mind over,
31; symbolized, 4, 11; as system,
26, 29; taming of, 5; technical
structure of, 31; technic of, 13, 22,
25; teleology of, 32, 33, 37, 42,
149; time and, 139; transforma-
tion of, 10, 59; transition to spirit,
128; transparent, 79, 82; truthful-
ness of, 156, 157; unification of,
50; union with, 88
Naturphilosophie (Hegel), 15, 17
Neo-Platonism, 90
Newton, Isaac, 71
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 6, 13, 149–179,
183; anthropomorphisms of
nature and, 3, 153, 156; on
Apollinian/Dionysian aesthetic
impulse, 165, 169, 174; on art,
15; on consciousness, 152; critique
of consciousness, 164; critique of
ego, 149; critique of natural sci-
ence by, 15; defining organism,
151, 152; on Epicurean way, 159;
fascist/anti-fascist uses of work,
183; on form, 151; indictment of
science, 149; on individuation,
149, 151, 172; madness and, 152,
169, 170; on metamorphosis, 153,
154–155; metaphor and, 187; on
perspective of animal body, 3; on
physiology of knowledge, 15; on
plant life, 8; on purposiveness, 36,
160; references to Goethe,
152–153; on Schopenhauer, 150,
213n13; on subjectivity, 149
Noah, 107
Nohl, Hermann, 100
242 The Vegetative Soul
Nominalism: reductive, 94, 95
Novalis, 39, 79–80, 81, 83, 99, 184
Nussbaum, Martha, 11
Obedience, 121
Objectivity, 163
Oedipus, 155
“Of Gardens” (Bacon), 43
“Oldest Program Towards a System
in German Idealism, The” (1796),
On the History of Modern
Philosophy (Schelling), 147
“On the Knowing and Feeling of the
Human Soul” (Herder), 20, 53
On Morphology (Goethe), 161
“On the Organic and the Philosophy
of Spirit” (Hegel), 127
“On a Pet Poodle” (Hegel), 119
“On the Sublime” (Longinus), 19
“On the Sublime” (Schiller), 43
“On Truth and Lies in an Extra-
Moral Sense” (Nietzsche), 171
Organic: consciousness as last devel-
opment of, 164; defining, 9; desig-
nating human activity, 9–10; form,
39; as human activity of self-
action, 92; humans as final pur-
pose of, 164; material nature of,
62; as metaphor for science and
art, 167–168; in natural world,
40; nature as, 13, 48–49, 121;
unity, 27, 169, 172; wholeness
and, 8
Organism: as abstraction, 158; atom-
ism and, 152; as coincidence of
excess, 151, 167; components of,
3–4; defining, 9, 38, 39; develop-
ment of, 164; discourse of, 9; dis-
covery of, 15; establishment as
primary metaphor for wholeness,
70; formation of, 63; as formed
life, 160; functions of, 70; in
Greek science, 7; as individual,
161; individuation and, 151; inter-
action with environment, 73;
invention of, 2; metamorphosis
and, 48–49; perpetual motion of,
48; purposiveness within, 23, 38,
152; reductionist view, 10; rhythm
of life-forces and, 47; self-regula-
tion and, 152, 167; shaping, 63;
as stamped by technical, 40; struc-
ture of, 38, 39; technic of nature
and, 37; temporality and, 70;
undiscoverable cause for,
158–159; visible, 3
Organon, 9, 39
Oriental: linked to passive, 107; plant
life and, 137
Orpheus, 1, 18
Osteology, 73
Other: asassimilation of mourning of
the other, 193; relation to self and,
3; transcendent, 88
Otherness, 169; individuation and,
“Otobiographies” (Derrida), 183
Otto, Walter, 154, 179
Ovid, 163
Paracelsus, 67, 124
Passivity, 2, 16, 28, 107, 167, 175
Pentheus, 133, 175
Perception: sense, 30, 55; as thinking,
71; unity of experience and, 36
Persephone, 193
Phaedrus (Plato), 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 185
Phallocentrism, 192, 195
Phenomenology, 181, 189
Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel),
28–29, 80, 109, 125, 134, 137,
143, 145, 194, 199, 209n2,
210n9, 211n30
Philosophy: architectonic of, 192;
beginning of, 99; change in, 2;
configuration of organism and, 2;
Continental, 183; creation of, 81;
feminist, 188; hyperrational, 87;
levels of, 24; mechanistic views of,
10; of nature, 121, 209n2; need to
account for emergence of beings
in, 155; neutralization of suffering
by, 105; principles of, 24; sensu-
243 Index
ousness in, 80, 81; speculative nat-
ural, 124; of spirit, 127, 128; trag-
ic, 155, 176; trajectory of, 46
Philosophy of Nature (Goethe), 69,
121, 123, 133, 134, 135, 136,
142, 143, 194
Plant life: actualization of potentiality
in, 130; as aggregation, 129; ani-
malization of, 65; axial tendency
of, 68; as beings of light, 135;
botanical terminology and, 80;
capacity to form new life, 84;
changes in inner constitution, 84;
classifications, 185; as collection
of singularities, 137; comparisons
to animal life, 56, 57; compression
of stages of growth, 185; con-
sciousness of, 86; Eucharistic sym-
bols and, 132, 137, 145; evolution
of parts in, 8; extent of metamor-
phosis in, 11; feminine nature of,
2, 16, 17, 126, 133; fragility of,
11; fragmentation in, 113; fruit as
sign of downfall of, 142; grafting
capacities, 60; growth of, 66, 67,
68, 69; images of parasitism in,
167; individuation and, 131, 139;
as inferior to animal life, 56, 57;
innocence of, 74, 122; intelligence
and, 124; interiorization in, 69;
lack of consciousness in, 105; lack
of consciousness with other organ-
ic entities, 122; lack of differentia-
tion in, 136; lack of individuation
in, 8; lack of resistance in, 142;
lack of warmth in, 131; metamor-
phosis and, 8, 11, 29; metaphor of
growth for subjectivity, 5; as
metaphor of metaphors, 11;
moment of flourishing in, 95;
“monstrosity” of, 11, 69, 147,
186; morphological adaptation in,
8, 186; movement beyond sexual
opposition, 11; multiple models
for, 182; open-ended future of, 61,
125; oriental links, 2; origin of,
48–49, 50, 63; pagan mysticism
and, 129–130; passage to animal
life, 142; passivity and, 2, 16, 28,
167, 175; perennial/annual, 69,
70, 71, 185; perpetuation of, 75;
potential flammability of, 131,
140–141; provisionality of mor-
phology in, 11; as realm of fire,
142; as realm of water, 136; recep-
tivity of, 83–84; regular/eruptive
emergences of, 47; relationship to
external world, 138; relation to
environment, 61, 65, 96, 140; role
of earth in, 129; root systems,
185; seed as essential power,
129–130; self-sacrifice and,
119–147, 125, 132, 142, 145; sex-
ual function, 9, 57–58, 67,
131–132; shape and, 138; spiral
tendency of, 67–68; spiritual
nature of, 64, 128, 137; subjectivi-
ty and, 123–124, 137, 142; tem-
porality of development in, 47;
tenacity of, 11; transformative
metamorphoses of, 51; transfor-
mative possibility of, 17; truth
and, 14; unfolding of, 10; unity
of, 63, 145; vulnerability of, 15,
17, 99–117, 175; yearning for
light by, 129
Plant religion, 135, 137
Plato, 6, 7, 9, 11, 15, 47, 56, 91,
185, 201n8, 211n21
Pleasure, 46; loss of, 107
Pleroma, 107, 108
Plutarch, 56
Poetry, 51; as beginning and end of
philosophical knowledge, 86; as
friend of nature, 39; metaphysics
and, 150; nature, 120
Polarity, 60, 62, 66; intensification
and, 60, 61; spiritual nature of, 60
Positivity, 101; danger of, 111; of tra-
dition, 105
Power, 2; cognitive, 29; of concepts,
30; generative, 28, 63; of judg-
ment, 30; of nature, 42; of the
244 The Vegetative Soul
Philosophy (continued)
soul, 80, 81; spatio-temporal con-
figuration, 177; of thinking, 81;
transgressive, 174; will to, 152
“Primal Words, Orphic” (Goethe), 64
Principia Philosophiae (Picot), 182
Procreation: characteristics of, 7
Prolepsis, 70, 185
Prometheus, 155, 204n2
Propositions: empirical, 25; moral
precept, 25; a priori, 25, 27, 41
“Purpose Set Forth, The” (Goethe),
Purposiveness: absolute, 23; analogy
and, 38; brought to nature by
human understanding, 160; as
case of possible, 158; of form,
160; Goethe on, 46; independent
of nature, 31; intentional, 63; as
intentional relationship of human
to nature, 53; judgment of, 34; as
lawfulness of the contingent, 35;
multiple, 160; natural, 21, 22, 31,
32, 33, 34, 36, 46, 47, 48–49, 52,
58, 158, 162; of organisms, 23,
38; as “our idea,” 159; as part of
human understanding of nature,
157; projected onto animal life,
32; reflective judgment and, 52,
161; relation to perspective, 161;
self-enclosed, 32; self-regulating,
152; spontaneity and, 23; theories
of, 54
Pythia, 173, 174
Race, 52
Rationality: as principle of sufficient
reason, 160, 182; reductive notion
of, 160–161
Reactivity, 136
Reality: creation of, 48; natural, 185;
nature as, 85; objective, 37, 38;
reflection of, 48; spiritual, 66, 185
Realm: of creativity, 51; of earth,
126, 136; of fire, 136, 142; of
freedom, 128; of nature, 4, 85, 92;
noumenal, 47, 165, 166; phenom-
enal, 165, 166; of water, 136
Reason: analogue of, 32; architecton-
ic, 24; being of, 36; existence of,
157; hindered by sexual desire, 28;
human, 21, 24, 28; imagination
and, 42; limitations of, 87; over
beauty, 86; sufficient, 160, 182;
superiority of human mind and,
31; totalizing power of, 27; under-
standing in relation to, 13
Redemption, 113
Reductionism, 3, 10
Reflection, 131
Relationships: analogical, 32;
art/artist, 20; atmosphere/organ-
ism, 64–65; beauty/death, 176;
cause/effect, 26–27, 32; cogni-
tion/nature, 23; Goethe/Kant, 21;
human/nature, 16, 23, 24, 83,
107; human/world, 106; ideal,
75; love/mortality, 102;
nature/culture, 6; nature/human
thinking, 42; philosophy/art/sci-
ence/nature, 80; plant/space, 139;
soul/nature, 84; space/time, 160;
unity/final causes, 35; world/intel-
lect, 83
Religion: history of, 145; interioriza-
tion of, 211n26; metaphysics and,
150; natural, 211n26; plant, 135,
137, 145
Representation: consciousness and,
170; knowledge and, 169
Resistance, 90, 91, 142
Restraint, 91, 151, 164
Resurrection, 117
Rhetoric, 4, 6
“Rhizome” (Deleuze and Guattari),
Rhizomes, 183, 185, 186
Rhythm: defining, 204n2; as determi-
nation of form, 47; meaning of,
47; of metaphor, 187; of waves,
Rilke, Rainer Maria, 2
Rock-plant-animal progression, 126,
127, 128, 135, 136, 138, 140
Romanticism, 13, 23
245 Index
Sacrifice, 15, 144; logic of, 194
Schelling, F.W.J. von, 24, 56, 60, 61,
80, 91, 123, 124, 134, 145, 146,
147, 209n2
Schiller, Friedrich, 43, 54, 82, 89
Schlegel, Friedrich, 80
Scholasticism, medieval, 188
Schopenhauer, Arthur, 19, 21, 24, 31,
150, 165, 166, 167, 169
Science: aesthetic dimension of, 20, 42;
art and, 21, 80; blind, 163; classifi-
catory system and, 22; as continua-
tion of process of excretion, 168;
creation of, 81; critiques of, 192;
empirical, 72, 83, 94; feminist cri-
tiques of, 17; language of, 17; as
masculine, 17; mechanistic models,
10; metamorphosis and, 72; need to
account for emergence of beings in,
155; neglect of fluidity in, 192;
organic models, 10; purposiveness
in nature and, 21; quantitative dis-
course of, 153; revolution in
method, 71; systematic aestheticiza-
tion of, 31; union with art, 80, 81;
utility for human needs and, 156
Science, biological, 3, 4
Science, botanical: classification in,
13; morphology in, 13
Science of Logic (Hegel), 127
Science, natural, 46; centrality of
organism in, 150; final causes and,
54; as garrulous method of
describing the human, 163; obser-
vation of living body in, 2; organ-
ism as focus of, 2; as unreflective
practice of, 88; use of analogy in,
Scientific method, 3
Self: conception of, 3; relation to
other and, 3
Self-consciousness, 74, 87, 96, 138,
161, 165
Self-destruction, 140
Self-knowledge, 80, 81, 82
Self-movement, 131
Self-organization, 26
Self-preservation, 18, 99, 139, 189
Self-sacrifice, 99, 101, 132, 142, 143
Self-sufficiency, 152, 201n8
Self-transformation, 155
Sensitivity, 136
Separation: from mother, 88; from
nature, 87–88; from the source, 88
Sexes and Genealogies (Irigaray), 191
Sexual function, 136; in humans, 9;
inversion theory in, 57; of plant
life, 9, 67; roles in, 28
Shell, Susan Meld, 28, 39
Silesius, Angelus, 181, 182
Simultaneity, 71
Slavishness, 109, 110, 111
Socrates, 6, 7, 155
Sophocles, 199
Soul: comparison to light, 81; ele-
ments of, 97; humans as crystals
for, 82; nature and, 81; rational,
188; refraction and, 88; theory of,
187; as unity of inner life, 82
Space, 127; expansion of, 71; laws
of, 115; plant relationship to, 139
Speculum of the Other Woman
(Irigaray), 194
Speech: animal body as privileged focus
of organization, 11; metaphorical,
187; superiority to writing, 9
Spinoza, Baruch, 34
“Spiral Tendency in Vegetation, The”
(Goethe), 1
Spirit: animal life as symbol of, 141;
bodiless, 37; conscious, 171;
degrees of, 121; Earth, 62; fire as
proximity to, 131; as flowing,
128; historical, 29, 121; insemi-
nating, 28; as interdependent rela-
tionship, 28; as master of nature,
122; nature as passing moment of,
147; philosophy of, 127, 128; pre-
history of, 15; progression of, 121;
in realm of freedom, 128; rejuve-
nation as, 143; self-conscious, 87;
thinking, 37; transformation into,
125; transition from nature, 128;
transition to, 143; unity of, 103
246 The Vegetative Soul
“Spirit of Christianity and its Destiny,
The” (Hegel), 100, 103, 107, 113,
137; doctrine of morality and, 103
Spontaneity: in cognitive powers, 23;
of intuition, 29; ontological
ground of nature and, 28; purpo-
siveness and, 23
Steiner, Rudolf, 63
Subjectivity, 121, 128; alignment with
masculine, 199; animal life as sym-
bol of, 141; contingency and, 138;
critiques of, 17; depiction of, 4;
describing, 13; Enlightenment, 17,
23; feminine, 4, 16, 189; historical
conceptions of, 149; human, 4, 10,
33, 92, 121, 147; interruption and,
138; masculine conception of, 193;
metaphors of, 5, 193; modern cri-
tique of, 181; nature of, 33; occi-
dentalization and, 140; of plant
life, 11, 17, 123–124, 137, 142;
politics of, 189; positive ideals and,
92; production of self in, 140; rela-
tion to nature, 14; resistance as
condition of, 142; rethinking, 149;
self-reflective, 136; theory of, 4;
vegetative model, 100–117, 125
“Sublime Offering, The” (Nancy), 40
Suffering, 109
Suicide, 101, 114, 132; as genuine
philosophical act, 99
Symposium (Plato), 91
System of Transcendental Idealism
(Schelling), 80
Technic of nature, 22, 25, 30, 81,
165; art and, 29, 32, 36, 40, 53;
defining, 25; as false interpretation
of nature, 32; form in, 45; as gar-
den, 42; growth without con-
sciousness, 42; harmony and,
34–35; judgment and, 41; nature
as is/ought to be, 31; as paradox,
36; a priori concept of, 41; Ur-
mother and, 51
Teleology: art and, 33; injustice and,
33; judgments of, 23; justification
for life and, 161; natural, 23, 32,
36, 37, 149
“Teleology Since Kant” (Nietzsche),
Temporality: existential, 14
Theory of Color (Goethe), 59, 72
Thinking: aesthetic judgments and,
80; about becoming, 191; begin-
ning of, 39; calculative, 183; con-
ceptual, 39, 55, 143; conceptual-
ization of, 80; conscious, 164;
dominance of animal life on, 57;
equivalence to murder, 143;
human, 81; about individuation,
191; about language, 191; objec-
tive, 73; as perception, 71; power
of, 81; sense perception and, 55;
speculative, 55; as vigilant recep-
tivity, 71; wishful, 25
Time, 127; as continuum, 14; con-
traction of, 71; cyclical, 199; laws
of, 115; natural, 123; nature and,
139; sublimity and, 91
Touch, 88
Tragic hero, 115, 116
Trakl, Georg, 170
Truth, absolute, 150
Unity: beauty and, 144; breakdown
of, 82; of chemical substances, 63;
of the differentiated, 171; as discur-
sive concept, 73; disunity of, 171;
eternal, 80; of experience, 36; of
feeling, 126; final causes and, 35;
ideal, 90; individuation and, 101;
of inner life, 82; for intellect, 161;
metaphor for, 7; in natural entities,
7; organic, 27, 169, 172; of plant
life, 145; punctual, 102; pure, 90;
reflection and, 46; science and art,
80; of spirit, 103; of the tree, 113
Universal Natural History (Kant), 27,
Universe: Cartesian picture of, 48–49;
mechanistic model of, 31; observa-
tions of, 39; as viewed by humans,
247 Index
Untimely Meditation (Nietzsche),
162, 177
Ur-mother, 50
Urphänomene, 50
Ur-phenomenon, 46, 51, 56, 63, 76
Ur-plant, 48–49, 54, 56, 66
Vegetable genius, 4, 10–11, 21, 22,
Vegetative soul: appearance of, 187;
Aristotelian, 4, 188; characteris-
tics of, 5; as component of irra-
tional part of the soul, 187; cri-
tique of modern subject, 16;
grounding of, 23; “I” of, 85,
165, 182; individuation of, 5;
interdependence and, 18; in mod-
ern thought, 181–200; nature as
collection of mutually transform-
ing vital forces, 59; predomina-
tion over rational soul in women,
188; promise of life and growth
in, 5; as theory of subjectivity, 4;
transformative possibility and,
18; vulnerability and, 18; in
women, 188
Vereinigungsphilosophie, 90–91, 101
Vernunft, 82
Verstand, 82
“Von den verschiedenen Rassen der
Menschen” (Kant), 52
Von Thadden, Elizabeth, 70
Whitford, Margaret, 190, 191, 197
Whitman, Walt, 11
Wholeness: metaphor for, 70; represen-
tations of, 88; temporality of, 70
Will: human, 165; identification with
root, 166; to knowledge, 153; to
power, 152; unconscious, 165;
unindividuated, 165
Will to Power, The (Nietzsche), 172
Windischmann, Carl, 59
Women: alignment with vegetative
life, 16; autonomous identity of,
193, 195; change in cultural order
for, 189; devalorization of, 195;
empowerment of, 189; essence of,
188; irrationality and, 188;
metonym for, 192; in political life,
188; reproductive capacity in,
188; vegetative soul in, 2, 188. See
also the Feminine
World as Will and Representation,
The (Schopenhauer), 150
Writing: strewing of seeds and, 7
Young, Edward, 20, 27
248 The Vegetative Soul
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