If Plato’s philosophizing took place in the shadow of a plane tree, whose physical height was outdone by the immeasurably distant world of Ideas, then Martin Heidegger lets us in on another primal scene of philosophy: a thinker standing face-to-face with a tree. As Heidegger writes in What Is Called Thinking?:
“We stand outside of science. Instead, we stand before a tree in bloom, for example — and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these 'ideas' buzzing about in our heads.”
There is a sense of radical trans-human egalitarianism in the description of a common experience of facing a tree in bloom, which, we are told later on in the same book, is a well-shaped apple tree. It is an encounter in the most robust sense of the word, a meeting that is mutual, one where we stand before a plant and the plant stands before us, we face it and it faces us, we are and it is. What makes a full-fledged relation to the apple tree possible is that we share being (and, to some extent, the state of being alive) with it, even though a human and a tree have quite different styles of existence at their disposal. The simultaneous commonality and singularity of being, at once uniting us with and separating us from a tree, will be a nagging concern of Heidegger’s philosophy.
To take part in “the primal scene” of facing a tree, we are enjoined to abandon many of our preconceptions about the chemical composition, biological makeup, cultural symbolism, or the commonsense inconspicuousness of greenery. But how deceptive is the ease of standing before this tree without any sort of projections and representations that make of it what it is not! Such a stance must be earned by those patient enough to accomplish a tremendous work of phenomenological reduction, putting aside their expectations about what we experience. (Hence, the observation that the meeting is not “one of these ‘ideas’ buzzing in our heads.”) From the dusty sarcophagus of a library, Heidegger’s thought comes out into the field, or at least peers into the backyard, so as to encounter the tree in its own being.
In the history of Western philosophy, the plants themselves have been forlorn as they were supposed to point to a reality beyond themselves, ranging from Ideas to Spirit. The forgetting of the growing trees, herbs, or flowers corresponds to and stems from the forgetting of being in the midst of the various attempts to name it. Our ethical failures — be they in relation to other human beings, animals, or plants — are the direct consequences of this forgetting that consistently drives us out of this world and away from the material ground of our lives; that commits us to a “higher” reality; and that devalues everyone who and everything that surrounds us. Heidegger’s ontology, locating being in the beings themselves, is therefore fundamental also is this important sense: it is the ground for the ethics of respecting beings in their own being.
The ethics of ontological respect lies outside the purview of the “familiar realm of science,” blind to an apple as apple, a being in its being. The negative reference to science holds a clue as to why Heidegger elected this kind of tree and its fruit as an example. Newton’s apple might have hit the scientist on the head, but, instead of relating to it in its singularity, Sir Isaac dissolved the fruit in a mathematically configured law of physics, that is to say, in numbers. In Zollikon, his last seminar, Heidegger himself speaks of Galileo, who conducted experiments with the simultaneous falls of an apple and a melon from the same height. Galileo, he says, “disregarded the tree, the apple, and the ground in observing the fall of the apple. He saw only a point of mass falling.”
The tendency of modern science to see in objects and processes, in space and time, concrete expressions of mathematical principles is nothing new. The metaphysical history of philosophy viewed both beings and events as the dispensable and usually distorted reflections, expressions, or signs pointing toward a higher, ideal and true, reality. Already for the Pythagoreans, that reality was numerical, as all material entities were the materializations of numbers. Although modern science is (typically) not in the business of speculating about the questions of origins, it also translates beings into quantities, neglecting, as Heidegger complains, their qualities, such as the sweetness of an apple, which we can only experience by biting into it.
The root of the problem is that science, much of philosophy, and our common sense are rarely (if ever) satisfied with the given as given, or with beings as beings. We seem compelled to add something else to the given — its Idea, substance, thingness — or to subtract something from it — its perishable body, materiality, finitude — or, better yet, to perform both operations at the same time. An apple is never just an apple. It is a fruit handed by Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden; a conjunction of vitamins, carbohydrates, and acids holding a determinate number of calories; a mass falling from the height of the branch, on which it has ripened, and interacting with the mass of the earth through the planet’s gravitational field.
All this needs to be dropped overboard like unnecessarily heavy luggage, which has burdened thinking to a point of exhaustion. But what Heidegger prescribes is easier said than done since even our perceptions (say, of an apple) are tainted with the scientific, imaginary, or conceptual interpretations that have been accruing in human cultures for millennia. If Plato beseeched us to awaken to the radiance of Ideas from the apparent certainties of physical reality as though from a nightmare, Heidegger asks us to awaken from this very awakening, so that we could meet beings (whether human or not) for the first time on their own and our turf, in the sphere of existence. The apple that fell on Newton’s head did not interrupt his slumber but only deepened it. For all the buzz around the Enlightenment, we are still sound asleep; awakening would then mean accepting beings, including the apple and the apple tree, just as they are.