The Philosophical Life of Plants

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Politics, Internatl Relations & Philos


J. W. Goethe's Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen has been a significant reference point for recent developments in plant-thinking, philosophy of nature, historical botany, the environmental humanities, structuralism, phenomenology and the history of German Idealism. However, the sheer diversity of these receptions of Goethe's text is the problem that motivates this network, since they have always taken place at the fringes of different research fields, marginalising proper appreciation and evaluation of them.

This network - The Philosophical Life of Plants - will therefore bring together representatives from these diverse, interdisciplinary contexts to interrogate how plant life has determined, does determine and can in future determine thinking in philosophy and the environmental humanities - through a focus on the context, reception and contemporary significance of Goethe's Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (1790). It will do so by assembling Goethe scholars, experts in philosophy of nature, historical botany, history of philosophy and environmental humanities in the same room for the first time.

Building on existing collaborations developed through British Academy projects, AHRC training programmes and seeding workshops, the network will take the form of a five-way international collaboration between (i) experts in historical botany at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; (ii) Goethe scholars at the Goethe-Archiv, Weimar, and the Department of German, KCL; (iii) historians of philosophy and philosophers of nature at the Departments of Philosophy at Royal Holloway and UWE; and (iv) scholars in the contemporary theoretical humanities at the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Royal Holloway.

Research activities will be structured around three strands:

1. Strand 1: Two one-day workshops on the theoretical and botanical context to Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen, informed by the Goethe resources housed at the Weimar Goethe-Archiv and the historical botany resources at Kew Botanic Gardens' archives.

2. Strand 2: Two one-day workshops on the contemporary legacies of Goethe's encounter with plants in recent plant-thinking and the environmental humanities.

3. Project Culmination: combining the first two strands in (i) an exhibition at Kew Botanic Gardens with exhibits from its archives and from the Goethe-Archiv, Weimar; (ii) four public talks in the exhibition space by project partners, disseminating the findings of the first two strands; (iii) an exhibition catalogue further disseminating findings.

The varied nature of the disciplines involved - as well as the partnering institutions - will provide the network with a uniquely diverse range of perspectives. And - disseminated through workshops and impact activities - these innovative perspectives will impact on a wide range of academic and non-academic users interested in the way plants have influenced thinking over the last two centuries.

Planned Impact

The network comprises three types of impact activity: an exhibition, exhibition public talks and an exhibition catalogue. All three have the aim of exploring, with non-academic users, the various ways in which plants have determined theory since Goethe's Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen. Each mechanism is designed to ensure that the research undertaken in the academic workshops is developed, fine-tuned and disseminated in light of public discussion and feedback.

The audience for these activities will be for the most part determined by the vast range of visitors and public members of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where all of the activities will be hosted, and it will be supplemented by the contacts built up by the public engagement programmes of the Departments of Philosophy and Languages, Literatures and Cultures at RHUL, the Department of Philosophy at UWE and the Department of German at KCL. Potential non-academic users are therefore a diverse group interested in the history of botany; plant-theory; German literature, culture and science; and the history of philosophy.

The exhibition, Goethe, Philosopher-Botanist (Summer 2021, Kew Botanic Gardens), will highlight, in publicly-accessible fashion, the fertile interconnections that have existed and continue to exist between theoretical ideas and plants. It will consist of 3 exhibits loaned from the scientific collection of the Goethe-Archiv, Weimar, and c. 15 exhibits drawn from Kew Botanic Gardens' own extensive printed and manuscript archives of texts and drawings from the late eighteenth century, including its first-edition holding of Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen itself. Goethe will therefore form the centre-point for showcasing the links between botany, art and theory - through the curating of his own handwritten notes and botanical illustrations juxtaposed with contemporaneous manuscripts from Kew Botanic Gardens' archives. The aim of the exhibition is to thereby provoke the visitor into reflecting on the ways in which plants and botanical study have influenced and continue to influence the way we think.

The public talks accompanying the exhibition and delivered by the project partners will refer extensively to the exhibits, as well as deploying the research findings from the academic workshops to interpret them. Moreover, these talks will not merely disseminate findings, but also provide opportunities for users to reflect on the questions orienting the network through participatory and critical engagement. In other words, these talks will be a space for extended conversations concerning the influence of plants on theoretical ideas.

Finally, the exhibition catalogue provides a means for communicating the research findings to a wide, non-specialist audience in a way that will outlast the time-span of the project itself. It will include illustrations and details of all the exhibits, with an introduction and essays by the project partners on the context and legacy of Goethe's work and contemporary encounters between plants and theory. Kew Botanic Gardens have also agreed to consider its subsequent digitalisation to ensure the enduring legacy of the network. By these means, the catalogue will therefore appeal to a broad readership and provide - through both reproductions of the exhibits and accompanying accessible essays - a way-in for future users to many of the questions that motivate the network.


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Description *Showcased role of Goethe's Metamorphosis of Plants in histories of plant-thinking

*Brought together diversity of voices from plant-humanities, history of philosophy, history of botany and environmental humanities and begun conversation between these different groups

*Showcased Kew Botanical Garden's archives to Humanities researchers for further development

*Developed conceptual interrelation of structure and transformation in the plant sciences

*Considered the role of botanical illustrations and diagrams as both an aesthetic and scientific product
Exploitation Route *Further collaborative work between humanities and plant sciences on methodologies

*Enriching the plant humanities by showcasing diversity of possible positions
Sectors Education,Environment