Leibniz’s Blades of Grass: The Philosophy of Plants, Difference as the Wellspring of Identity, and How Diversity Gives Meaning to the World

Nearly a century prior to Walt Whitman led us to see that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Immanuel Kant declared that there will never be a Newton for a blade of turf. There may not be a Newton, but there is a Leibniz.

One otherwise common day in 1685, the lavish lawn of Princess Sophias palace in Hanover was strewn with the extraordinary sight of frocked, corseted, and coiffed aristocrats kneeling and flexing and squinting at the grass, covertly relishing the childish wonder beneath the grand grownup experiment they were carrying out– the quest to discover 2 similar leaves of yard in order to refute among the 7 essential ontological principles laid out by the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (July 1, 1646– November 14, 1716): the identity of indescribables, merely referred to as Leibnizs Law, mentioning that there can be no two different entities that have all their properties in common. A gentleman in the party had disagreed with Leibnizs concept in the Princesss presence, upon which she had merely challenged him to refute it by discovering two blades of grass exactly alike.

Lawn by Maria PopovaLeibniz, who a years previously had actually developed calculus independently from Newton, seen with satisfaction as the gentleman “ran all over the garden for a very long time” prior to finally quiting. This funny crash of empiricism and logic provided among the pillars of Western philosophy, fomenting our disquieting sense that nevertheless excitedly we may push our minds against physical truth, nevertheless eagerly we might lance our fingertips on its blade, we live mostly in a consensual imagined truth of abstractions. A year after the garden experiment, Leibniz himself affirmed this insight in an essay he entitled “Primary Truths”:

Never ever do we find two eggs or 2 leaves or more blades of lawn in a garden that are completely comparable. And thus, perfect resemblance is discovered only in abstract and incomplete ideas.

A decade after thinkers Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitmans exceptional query into how we believe with animals and a generation after John Bergers landmark meditation on how looking at animals clarifies us to ourselves, thinker Michael Marder explores how we clarify our own minds by taking a look at and believing with plants in The Philosophers Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (town library). Reaching into the lawn to wrest from it Leibnizs more comprehensive “protest versus the pretentious universal perspective without point of view that goes under the name of neutrality,” he analyzes the most essential questions of uniqueness, incompleteness, diversity, and difference that color every aspect of our lives:

Only mathematical or geometrical notions differ in magnitude and in no other regard; matter, on the other hand, presupposes a predifferentiation and non-numeric determination well in advance of its concretization in things. At the limit of the modern period, the garden is transformed into the arena of worthy philosophical resistance to the mathematization of the world, where everything can be assigned its corresponding quantitative value on a consistent spatiotemporal grid of coordinates. And plants, in spite of being traditionally understood as insufficient or deficient things, are at the forefront of this resist the incompleteness of philosophical and mathematical abstractions.

Passionflower from The Moral of Flowers (1833) by poet and painter Rebecca Hey. Readily available as a print.Because Leibniz honored the absolute uniqueness of each blade of lawn, and because he recognized that what makes it unique from every other blade of grass is the particular place and confluence of conditions in which it grew, at the root of his concept is a vibrant defiance of John Lockes design of the soul as a blank slate. Marder writes:

Acceptance of the conclusion that “no two individual things might be completely alike,” he argues, “puts an end to the blank tablets of the soul, a soul without idea, a compound without action, empty area, atoms, and even to parts of matter which are not really divided,” amongst other things. The Leibnizian universe, similar to his writing, resembles a baroque painting or a baroque garden, where area is filled to the optimum, in an intricate imitation of vegetal excess. Emptiness and nondifferentiation– the mind as a blank slate– have no location there; their real home is the sterilized sphere of mathematics and of modernitys desire to force reality into quantitative molds.

Marder considers the blade of grass as the specific fulcrum for Leibnizs concepts, its particularity itself significant, and proposes a branch of phenomenology particularly originated from the consideration of vegetable life: phytophenomenology. In a passage evocative of the late, excellent physicist Freeman Dysons insistence that variety is the judgment law of the universe, Marder discusses:

Phytophenomenology might be encapsulated in the thesis that plants have their own take on life and on the world, their growth and recreation being the lived and enacted procedures of analysis … Each species has its special viewpoint, as does each private specimen making up the types and each part of any given plant. The distinction between two blades of yard come down to a divergence, nevertheless minimal, between embodied orientations to and lived interpretations of the environment. The world, moreover, is nothing outside of a nonmathematical amount, or a confluence of these distinctions. Presuming that 2 blades of lawn were totally similar, they would have represented one viewpoint, one life, one piece of being, one blade of grass … In that case, the world would be poorer– or, even better, it would not be– given that it thrives only in and as the variation among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it “worlds.”.
[…] Even 2 almost similar (though not quite!) blades of grass present 2 faces of the world; they are the real variations on the theme of a possible blade of lawn, which, in and of itself, is abstract and incomplete, doing not have in realization. The foundation of Leibnizs monadology is this wedge of difference, responsible for the separation among viewpoints on the world … Each blade of lawn has its enough reason, illuminating the requirement of its existence just the way it is, regardless of the endless selection of possibilities for it being otherwise.

Lawn by Maria PopovaLeibniz, who a years earlier had established calculus separately from Newton, seen with satisfaction as the gentleman “ran all over the garden for a long time” prior to lastly providing up. Offered as a print.Because Leibniz honored the outright individuality of each blade of grass, and since he acknowledged that what makes it distinct from every other blade of grass is the particular place and confluence of conditions in which it grew, at the root of his concept is a vibrant defiance of John Lockes design of the soul as a blank slate. The distinction between two blades of grass boils down to a divergence, however negligible, in between embodied orientations to and lived analyses of the environment. Presuming that 2 blades of lawn were completely similar, they would have represented one perspective, one life, one piece of being, one blade of lawn … In that case, the world would be poorer– or, much better yet, it would not be– given that it flourishes just in and as the variance amongst the beings that comprise it. The backbone of Leibnizs monadology is this wedge of distinction, responsible for the separation amongst point of views on the world … Each blade of lawn has its enough factor, elucidating the requirement of its presence just the method it is, in spite of the inexhaustible variety of possibilities for it being otherwise.

Leafing by Maria Popova. Offered as a print.Complement The Philosophers Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, an intellectually coruscating and thoroughly initial read in its entirety, with The Moral of Flowers– 19th-century poet and painter Rebecca Heys detailed encyclopedia of poetic philosophies from the garden– then review the impressive modern science of what trees feel and how they interact.