My current research studies concepts of nature, life, and soul by focusing on the place of plant life. I develop an investigation into the foundational and ambiguous place of the vegetal in the history of philosophy and ultimately seek to recover from that history new possibilities for thought. My research focuses especially on ancient Greek and recent Continental philosophy (especially phenomenology and hermeneutics) in a way that complements contemporary discussions concerning nature and the environment.
The first stage of this project focuses on the ontology of vegetal life. Over the next two years, I will complete a book manuscript revising and expanding my dissertation research (see below). In the second stage of this project, my studies will turn from the ontological sense of vegetality in the history of philosophy toward ethical questions concerning plant life and human-plant relations. Beginning with the concept of vegetal hybris developed in my dissertation research, I will pursue an account of the ēthos of vegetal life, suggesting that plants offer an enriching challenge to traditionally anthropocentric forms of ethical thinking.
My dissertation develops an ontology of vegetal life through a study of ancient Greek and modern European philosophy. In Part One, I engage with Hegel, Goethe, and Nietzsche to situate the problem of vegetal life. For these philosophers, the essence of vegetal life is growth, conceived as perpetual metamorphoses belonging to an underlying activity of intensive striving. Nietzsche’s late notebooks radicalize this Goethean theme by identifying vegetal life with the will to power, but I argue that Nietzsche’s fundamental insight becomes clear only in light of his early work on the Greek concept of hybris, the play of surfeit at the heart of nature. In contrast with scholars who have interpreted hybris primarily in the contexts of law and tragedy, I draw attention to passages in Greek literature and philosophy that speak of the hybris of plants. In Part Two of the dissertation, I develop an ontological account of vegetal hybris through close readings of Plato and Aristotle. As it appears in these thinkers, plant life is characterized by both prodigal exuberance and measured proportionality. Vegetal hybris names the originary interplay relating, on the one hand, the difference between prodigality and proportion that characterizes vegetal growth and, on the other hand, the determinate existence which such a difference makes possible. Plant life is fundamentally neither an identity in excess nor a delimited prodigality; rather, it is a temporal movement relating such determination and indetermination in their difference so as to give shape to life.
This project will be of considerable interest to philosophers who will find in my research a case for the ontological importance of vegetality and the introduction of hybris as a novel philosophical concept. Those who study the environmental humanities will find in my work a resource for both making sense of and reevaluating contemporary discourses concerning vegetality, which tend to project humanistic concerns upon plants and take for granted the transparency of vegetal life to conceptual analysis. The past century has seen many attempts to “de-center” the human being in philosophical thinking and to complicating the human/nature dichotomy through an insistence upon animality. My work offers a different approach in which the question of the human being is displaced dramatically in favor of an ontology that takes its original impetus from the vegetal and finds therein novel approaches to understanding existence.