Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking (Marcher, une philosophie), first published in France in 2009, has had much success—certainly more than most books of philosophy targeted at a general audience these days. It was a bestseller in France. It would go on to be translated into English in 2014 and to earn a review in The New York Times. As an avid walker and philosopher, I was eager to read it. And I enjoyed it very much, especially since I encountered many of the authors celebrated during my youth in France: the walking habits of Rousseau, Rimbaud, Nerval are fêted as are those of other Western figures, such as Kant, Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Hölderlin. Yet, Gros’s glaring omission of women writers and philosophers irked me. In my view, Simone de Beauvoir, the twentieth-century French philosopher and writer, would have provided a perfect case study for him.
I’ve long wanted to sketch a Beauvoirian philosophy of walking, not merely as a rejoinder to Gros, but to reflect on a particular way of being open to the world through the senses, a way that, I believe, can offer a valuable contribution to our wellbeing. At the outset, though, I should be clear that I am not prescribing walking as a way towards cultivating this way of being. Walking was Beauvoir’s thing—that’s all.
Beauvoir began hiking in 1931, when she received a position as a philosophy teacher in a high school in Marseille. The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs, describes the excitement she experienced as she hiked long hours on her days off. She relished the feeling of physical exertion at the end of the day. Beauvoir says, “I had never practiced any sport, and therefore took all the more pleasure in driving my body the very limit of its endurance.” She also fell in love with the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes she discovered. Of her hikes around Marseille, she writes: “I followed all the coast guard’s tracks, too. Here, at the base of the cliffs…in the morning splendor [the Mediterranean] surged fiercely in the headlands, dazzling white, and I felt that if I plunged my hand in it it would be chopped off.” And a few lines later: [T]here came a day in spring, on the Valensole plateau, when I found almond trees in blossom for the first time. I walked along red-and-ocher lanes in the flat country, and recognized many of Cézanne’s canvases.”
Two elements of Beauvoir’s walking habits emerge from this picture. First, she became deeply attuned to her body—from the inside. She took pleasure in the bodily sensations she experienced during and after walking: soreness, fatigue. Second, she was open through her senses to her environment; she wasn’t caught up in developing outlines for her novels or ruminating over her teaching. The Prime of Life gives the impression that Beauvoir wasn’t “in her head,” but “in her body” (and “in the world”!).
As I see them, Beauvoir’s journeys through the Mediterranean Alps belong to a process of self-discovery and of self-affirmation. Self-discovery in the sense that Beauvoir was discovering a new part of herself—her body. Self-affirmation in the sense that she was developing a practice that fostered her growing independence from the customs into which she was born. In the first volume of her memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Beauvoir recounts how awkward she felt about her body during her childhood and puberty. In a gymnastics session, she bemoans her inability to perform various exercises, and envies the agility of other children. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter reads as a tale of the emergence of an independent intellectual woman. The contrast between Memoirs and The Prime of Life, then, is striking.
Beauvoir’s approach to walking is echoed in her philosophical writings. Those readers familiar with her name might have heard it in connection with existentialism in philosophy. Beauvoir’s own version of existentialism centers on the notion of ambiguity. The starting point of her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity is the recognition that we humans are ambiguous beings. Our ambiguity is multifaceted: it includes the fact we are born and die, that we are in some ways alone in the world, but in other aspects are part of communities. It also includes the fact that we straddle the divide between subject and object. On the one hand, being a subject means being free and capable of acting on the world. On the other hand, being an object means being perceivable by and open to the judgment of others. Beauvoir further notes that we are often tempted to deny one facet of our ambiguity. For instance, we either deny our existence as objects and think of ourselves as purely free, or, on the flip side, we conceive of ourselves only as objects Two years later, in The Second Sex, her landmark in feminist theory, Beauvoir observes that women are tempted, more often than not, to flee their ambiguity by turning themselves into sexual objects. In fact, in her chapter on narcissism, she describes how girls are first lured into identifying with objects such as dolls and, then, how they learn to see themselves through the eyes of men.
What is troubling about the narcissism that Beauvoir identified and that is still prevalent in our culture today is that it makes us to live our bodies from the outside. Many of us relate to our bodies through the image in the mirror, and the way we “read” this image is informed by the images we see in the media or the comments others have made about our appearance. We’re living not in our bodies, but in the “headspace” of our culture. This, I think, lies in the way of taking pleasure in our bodies.
What I find exciting about “Beauvoirian walking” is that it can offer an antidote to this pervasive alienation. Her inner awareness of her body, to its sensations, and her external awareness of her surroundings, to the sights and sounds around her, can inspire us to focus on our experience of our bodies from the inside, rather than on our appearance, and to shift our external awareness to the world outside of us. I try, as best I can, to cultivate this way of being when I walk. Beauvoir’s approach to walking is not exclusive to walking, though, and can be practiced through other means, such as meditation. In fact, I see an interesting convergence between her walking and certain descriptions of meditation. Stay tuned for the second part of “Out of Our Heads and Into Our Bodies,” which will be about meditation!
This academic year I am stationed in State College, PA, which unlike any of the other cities I have lived in (New York, Paris, Boston, and Miami) affords a nice view of the stars at night. Because I have lived in cities whose lighting prevented me from appreciating the stars, I am so unaccustomed to stargazing that I often forget to look up at the sky before going to bed. But when I do, I am filled with the “awe and admiration” that the philosopher Immanuel Kant so eloquently captures in his Critique of Practical Reason:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
I have loved this quotation ever since I encountered it in a course on Kant’s ethics, but it has become more personally significant to me of late. I won’t elaborate here on what Kant meant; instead, I want to depict the place that looking up at “the starry heavens” holds in my life.
Many of us—either through a personal brush with death or by witnessing someone else’s, or simply by becoming more aware of aging, come to worry about the meaning of our lives and the real significance of everyday concerns. (Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession best describes the kind of crisis that arises from such mid-life meditations.) For me, that’s where looking up at the night sky comes in.
First, at an intellectual level, I reflect on how vast the universe is and how long it has taken for light of these stars to reach me (the stars in the Orion Nebula have taken 1,344 years!). When I do this, I realize how tiny a speck of dust I am on the scale of space and of time. And this allows me to put into perspective all the petty little things (the slow-moving line at Starbucks, the dropped Internet connection) that irritate me daily. But it also puts my very existence into perspective. I have been here but a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the time of the universe, and whether I die in my 30s or 80s, there is little difference on a cosmic scale. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, expresses this idea better than I can:
What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep. Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature bring. (Meditations Book XII.32)
Like Marcus, I believe that the smallness of our lives—far from being a cause of despair—gives us reason to live with greater purpose. According to him, happiness meant living in accordance with one’s rational nature and being indifferent to things out of one’s control (like the line at Starbucks!). Although I don’t share all the principles behind his conception of happiness, at my best, I try not to waste a second since any one may be my last.
Second, in moments of fantasy, I personify the stars and imagine how they’d laugh at the little things that aggravate me. The stars of the majestic Orion Nebula (pictured here) don’t give a damn about my Internet connection. At most, they chuckle and shake their heads when they see me grumbling about my Wi-Fi. This is something like “the view from above” advocated by Marcus (now you know who one of my favorite philosophers is!):
Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of. (Meditations Book IX. 28)
In this exercise, Marcus imagined himself seeing all the events taking place on earth at that moment and put them in the perspective of all the generations that preceded him and of those that would follow him. This exercise helped him focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance). Placing myself in the perspective of the stars makes the exercise of viewing the earth from above even more powerful.
Third, returning to Kant, looking up at the night sky fills me with a mood of admiration that floods over and washes my anxieties away. Just as the sun is said to “chase the clouds away,” so too, the night sky dispels my earthly ennui. Letting myself experience this mood is as stirring as any intellectual or imaginative exercise. This mood is different from the feeling I experience looking down at a valley from the height of a mountain or viewing the sun setting over the sea. It’s more somber and more poignant.
One of the lessons I take from looking up at the starry heavens is this: to live more deliberately than I would otherwise, to not waste any time.
This is all pretty basic. But if you’re like me and forget to put things into perspective, then step outside and have a look at the stars at night. Or feel their presence beyond the blue sky during the day. Let them fill you with awe and admiration.
The movement to promote public philosophy in the United States has gained momentum recently, especially amongst academic philosophers responding to Trump’s election. Groups such as the New England Public Philosophers have formed. Awards recognizing excellence in public philosophy have attracted an increasing number of contributors (Marc Sanders Public Philosophy Award and Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest). And the American Philosophical Association has expressed its commitment to public philosophy (APA Statement on Public Philosophy).
This movement, to me, marks a positive change. Public philosophy contributes to making philosophy relevant to present-day concerns and promises to reach larger audiences than academic circles and undergraduates enrolled in philosophy courses. Yet, I worry about a certain tendency to highlight and reward public philosophy that is done in writing more than other forms of public philosophizing. Who is the “public” that reads the pieces published in op-eds? I’d venture that the readers of The New York Times’s “Stone” column are already disposed to take the writings of academics seriously and to be open to learning from them. But what of a wider public?
This post contains my musings on the many ways in which academic philosophers are making philosophy public outside of written interventions.
In my eyes, one of the main ways for reaching a broader audience is through our undergraduate teaching. And by this, I mean not only attracting and teaching a diverse undergraduate student body in the philosophy classroom, but also encouraging students to practice philosophy outside of the classroom. I have been heartened to learn that some of my students have discussed class material with their parents and friends. This is one reason why it’s so important to teach topics in ways that are accessible and exciting to college students! I also know from having spoken with (other) formers members of The Harvard Review of Philosophy that undergraduate philosophy clubs promote lifelong learning in philosophy. So, for those of us teaching at colleges, I would encourage you to support your undergraduate philosophy clubs and to ensure that they are inclusive of a diverse range of students. On a similar, but perhaps more critical note, I would like to (personally) rethink the way in which I teach writing in philosophy, so that students learn to write essays whose style will fit in more naturally with non-academic writing than the traditional undergraduate philosophy paper does. (Stay tuned!) Last, but not least, I think that we should keep an open mind to teaching philosophy to online students, since we can reach a wider audience than we might in traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Related to undergraduate teaching are other venues for formal instruction in philosophy, such as teaching philosophy pre-college (here is a link to some APA resources on teaching philosophy pre-college) and teaching philosophy in prisons (here is a link to a piece on Daily Nous about teaching philosophy in prison). I have not had first-hand experience with these, but I have corresponded with a subscriber to The Harvard Review of Philosophy who was in prison and whose reading of the Review contributed a great deal to his self-education in philosophy. So, I hope that we will continue reaching students beyond the college classroom.
And beyond formal instruction in philosophy, here are four other ways of making philosophy public.
First, I believe that we can make a meaningful impact in our local communities by forming philosophy groups or connecting with existing ones. In Boston, I participated in and briefly led a meetup.com group devoted to Stoicism. We discussed some recent books that have popularized Stoicism, but more often we just bounced around Stoic ideas about how to live better lives. Because of my positive experience with the Stoic meetup, I have just founded a meetup.com group called “The Philosophy Collective” in State College, where I am based this year. With this group, I am not looking to lead a philosophical conversation as I would in a formal seminar, but to philosophize collectively. Meetup.com is a great place to create or connect with local philosophical groups. Other community-based ways of philosophizing include “Ask a Philosopher” stands, such as those held at farmer’s markets in NYC by the Brooklyn Public Philosophers, or conventions led by philosophers, such as Stoicon.
Second, those of us who are creative and philosophical in our art (whether in fiction, music, visual art, or other forms) should make their work known. Please send me links to the work of philosopher/artists to include here!
Third, let’s continue speaking on the radio and on TV, and let’s be sure to advertise our public interventions widely. Here is one of my favorite podcasts in philosophy: The Unmute Podcast with Myisha Cherry.
Fourth, if you are contributing to public philosophy online, make it known on social media—beyond your personal Facebook page. I’ll try to keep up with public philosophy on Twitter, so follow me!
In the United States, where there isn’t as robust a tradition of public philosophy as in other countries, making philosophy (more) public is an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be won!