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!