In the mid-seventeenth century, the problem of vegetable philosophy was very much debated inside the Hartlib Circle. Samuel Hartlib, the center of a wide circle of correspondents, acted as a publicizer, sharing, printing, and even budgeting a significant number of interesting and novel ideas, and in this way helping the wider dissemination of inventions and ideas. In 1650 Hartlib turned his attention from ecclesiastical and pedagogical projects to husbandry and vegetable philosophy.

What exactly is vegetable philosophy? And what is its relation with the tradition of husbandry? This field of study does not have a place in today’s classification of knowledge. It is not botanic, because its objectives are diverse (metals, stones, natural ores). It is not just agriculture, because it has a manifested inclination for alchemical experiments. And, to complicate things even further, it is not simply natural philosophy, because it has a practical and operative side, concerned with technological advancement and amelioration.

Vegetable philosophy emerged inside the Hartlib Circle and has been used to define a new field of interest, which could connect alchemical interests, extraction of metals, natural magic, cultivation of the land, the Baconian tradition of experimentation and dedication to the open character of knowledge and benefit of mankind. Vegetable philosophy is essentially technological and anti-speculative, experimental and operational, orientated towards production of specific results, recipes, and technologies transferable form one situation to another and even from one domain to another.

The concept of vegetable philosophy has been first used by Ralph Austen:

‘The Learned, and incomparable Author Sr Francis Bacon hath left unto men such Rules, and helps in all kinds of Learning, that they will be much wanting to themselves, if Arts, and Sciences improve not, very much above what they have been in former ages: And as the foresaid worthy Author was eminently seen in all Arts and Sciences, so his delight was especially (as is recorded of him) in Vegetable Philosophy, which was as it were, his darling delight, having left unto us much upon Record in his Naturall History; some part whereof referring to Fruit-trees, Fruits, and Flowers, I have, (by encouragement from himself) endeavoured to improve unto publique profit, according to what understanding, and experience I have therein … And seeing I perceive (since you have been pleased to honour me with your acquaintance) that your Genius is towards things in nature, to promote them, in order to the Common good, and that I have encouragements in my labours thereabout, (both as to the Theory and Practise) I humbly, present these following Observations into your hands, and am (for all your favours).’[1]

Which is the relation between husbandry and vegetable philosophy? Is vegetable philosophy just a sub-domain of husbandry (along with other sub-domains such as botanic, agriculture, metallurgy)? Or knowledge of husbandry is a prerequisite for vegetable philosophy?

[1] Austen, R., Observations upon some part of Sr Francis Bacon’s Naturall History, as it concernes fruit-trees, fruits, and flowers …, Oxford, Hall for Thomas Robinson, 1658, Dedication To the honourable Robert Boyle Esq. sonne to the Lord Boyle of Corke.