Throughout human history, the tree has inspired some of our deepest philosophical and scientific insights, from the tree of knowledge to Newton’s falling apple. As the infamous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote:
“I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy’”. (On Certainty, p.61e)
All too often, Wittgenstein is misread here as challenging the foundations of philosophy. According to his expositors, Wittgenstein believes the tree cannot ultimately be defined in a logical sense and that philosophy therefore stems from the misuse of language. They are certainly correct in one respect, that Wittgenstein believes trees can never be defined in a logical sense. Where they err, however, is in the claim that Wittgenstein thereby rejects philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth! What Wittgenstein is actually doing (not saying) in this quote is pointing to one of the most timeless sources of philosophical mystery, namely the tree. All of us have, at some point, asked ourselves the fundamental question – what is a tree? – and none of us have ever reached a final answer. That will be, in part, the task of this humble blog post.
We live in a postmodern world and it’s mostly dreadful. By dreadful, I mean something like “rather under cooked.” The problem is, we have abandoned the idea that words have fixed, singular meanings. The tree is, perhaps, the best example of this meta-slippage. Just consider the proliferation of syntax trees in contemporary linguistics or, better yet, the foundational work of 20th Century linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who represents the basic nature of meaning with the following diagram.
Saussure did more than any other scholar to pluck, so to speak, the philosophical fruits of trees. He was the first to formalize the fact that words are not trees. What is more, he showed that pictures of trees are neither words of trees nor trees themselves! Foucault makes this point in his commentary on Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe, which concerns the use of a device, made from trees, to smoke things that also, on occasion, come from trees. The recursivity inherent in trees is vital to their philosophical fruitfulness. I suspect that this was not unknown to Magritte, given the recurring theme of fruit in a number of his paintings.
Furthermore, I suspect that I am not alone in my deductions. Cunning street artists have produced the following interpretation of Magritte’s painting.
If neither words nor pictures of trees are trees, then what, in the words of Bob Ross, makes trees such devilish little rascals? (Please acquaint yourself by clicking these words). This, in essence, is our problem. The reason why traditional philosophy has failed to advance on this topic is that it tries to explain why trees can’t be defined by defining how and why they can’t be defined. This is what Wittgenstein was both saying and not saying. So are we condemned, as Wittgenstein dreams, to remaining silent in the face of such arborous (cough, arduous) quandaries? The answer, I believe, is no.
As this is my first official blog post, I think it is necessary to make explicit the methodology I will occasionally adopt when addressing philosophical problems. The methodology is part poetry and part science. My method involves experimentally changing the positions of objects in the world and/or my position relative to them, and then observing how their meanings change. It is beyond the scope of this blog to explain how this leads to scientific knowledge, but for now I direct the reader to James Maxwell’s essay “Are there real analogies in nature?” and its companion, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I think it is better to show than describe my method, as I’m sure Wittgenstein would agree. Allow me to demonstrate, in this case, through an act of basket weaving concerning a house plant, specifically my lost house tree named Arbor.
I once adopted a house tree named Arbor. I brought him home and tried desperately to keep him healthy, but he was slowly dying. Then I went to Hiroshima and discovered the existence of the Hibakujumoku, a group of trees that survived the atomic bomb. How come Arbor was dying amidst such a pampered life while the Hibakujumoku were able to survive the wall of fire? I was particularly struck by the tourists who lined up only to quickly snap a photo and proceed along the march of memorials. Was anyone actually listening to the Hibakujumoku and their story? This compelled me to write a poem, in a different poetic voice, called Hibakujumoku. I invite you to read it. It’s also on my website under the ‘art’ tab. In this poem, I grapple with the shifts of meaning that take place when the tree is transformed into a human exhibit, through its arrangement alongside buildings and concrete memorials. These reflections helped me to see that I had been treating Arbor like a light fixture or an old chair. Then the network really began to unwind. All along, I had been spending my mornings eating factory apples and sitting on wooden chairs right next to Arbor. How morbid! Without even knowing it, I had been falling into the age-old pitfalls of arm-chair philosophy!
I returned from Japan with a mission. I would free Arbor into the wild and witness his character unfold, and thus a method was born. Once he regrew, Arbor and I would collaborate in a lifelong project of living sculpture. My patient trimmings would follow his gradual adaptations, and overtime we would manifest a dynamic and intermediary form. You can then imagine my profound guilt when, upon my return, I discovered that Arbor had escaped. My apartment was locked and everything was untouched, except for a slightly cracked window and the absence of Arbor. Having been left alone for weeks, no doubt thirsty for water and recognition, Arbor must have come to his senses and fled the house in search of his true roots. It has been days now, and I am still searching for him. I’ve hung up the following posters notifying the residents of West Philadelphia of my lost tree.
While I will do everything to find him, I must be realistic. I tell myself that perhaps Arbor hitch-hiked to New York to dine on gourmet light in Jonathon Keat’s photosynthetic restaurant; or maybe, I tell myself, he escaped off into the Pocono mountains. I know these possibilities are just convenient fictions, but at this time they are my only hope.