Is It Entirely Unlikely?

I have always wondered whether visual experience was sui generis. It is well known that we humans are given to anthropocentrism. Dualism is hard to eradicate. We see our natural way to be, our consciousness, as unique in the world. We do not look kindly on the suggestion that we could discuss certain traits with this animal relatives, significantly less so with our more distant flower relatives.

I have even known philosophers strongly committed to evolutionary theory who also insisted that only humans can have aesthetic experiences. The pressing problem of whether pets can perceive beauty is interesting, but more interesting even, in a way, is the relevant question of whether vegetation can. Of course this would come under the broader question of whether plants can have any encounters at all! If they can have none of them then there is no seed looks. The most famous, and the only perhaps, advocate of plant aesthetics is Gustav Fechner.

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His book Nanna: For the Soul Life of Plants (1848) is available in German, but I do not read German unfortunately. However Not long ago I discovered an excellent translation of a part of it by Sebastian Olma, called “Teleological Grounds” found in Vital Beauty: Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature ed. Joke Bouwer, Arjen Mulder, and Lars Spuybrock (Rotterdam: V2 Publishing, 2012): 170-191. Vital Beauty itself is a fascinating volume.

Fechner begins by requesting whether a water lily could experience the sun shining on it and water where it was bathing. This does appear fanciful and pretty, as a science-minded atheist, I possibly could hardly go with the idea that character is a god-like entity that designs things for this function. But we could take this as a metaphor and a stimulus for some questions.

Could there be a pleasure analogue for the water-lilly? There is absolutely no evidence for this, but could it be impossible? Is it completely unlikely? Most would say that having less a nervous system makes any kind of experience impossible: but could this be a circular argument based merely on definition, privileging nervous-system based experience over almost every other possible kind of experience?

I acknowledge that a few of Fechner’s arguments are not too convincing as they are based on religious belief. This assumes that one may make some sense of “God’s breath.” (177) He even talks about God enjoying the feelings of all his creatures. Let’s just set that aside. If it is superstitious to think that humans have souls, it is equally so to think that plants do. But then again, if we can allow a religious aspect for the human being (given a standard science-based view of the world) then you will want to plants too?

Many would argue that this is just poetry or projection. Again, you can come to Fechner from the standpoint of a strong commitment for an ecological non-anthropocentric and Darwinian progression- structured view of the world. Interested in learning more? See my reserve: Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the normal: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.