Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Must the Philosopher Walk Alone?

or, Families that Cite Together Stick Together

One of my favourite places to walk; copyright mine.

[EDIT: Just a few hours after posting this, I have realized one way in which I was unfair to Gros, because his discussion does reflect some of my own views on the world, and one very serious error that Gros committed and I forgot to bring up; I'll maybe need to write a second post, but until then read this thing I wrote for one of my tumbrls, which will suggest where I was unfair.]

I am trying to read Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. I found it in a Chapters, reading the blurb:
In A Philosophy of Walking, a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us. 
Gros draws attention to other thinkers who also saw walking as something central to their practice. On his travels he ponders Thoreau’s eager seclusion in Walden Woods; the reason Rimbaud walked in a fury, while Nerval rambled to cure his melancholy. He shows us how Rousseau walked in order to think, while Nietzsche wandered the mountainside to write. In contrast, Kant marched through his hometown every day, exactly at the same hour, to escape the compulsion of thought.

I had thought this would be a creative and intellectually rigourous account of the way these different philosophers thought about walking, and I looked forward to it. Instead, A Philosophy of Walking has turned out to be a litany of generalizations and unfounded claims in praise of walking.

I’m only about halfway through, but I think I’m starting to understand where Gros is going wrong. Consider this passage:
Many others have written their books solely from their reading of other books, so that many books exude the stuffy odour of libraries. By what does one judge a book? By its smell (and even more, as we shall see, by its cadence). Its smell: far too many books have the fusty odour of reading rooms or desks. Lightless rooms, poorly ventilated. The air circulates badly between the shelves and becomes saturated with the scent of mildew, the slow decomposition of paper, ink undergoing chemical change. […] Other books breathe a livelier air; the bracing air of outdoors, the wind of high mountains […]. These books breathe. They are not overloaded, saturated, with dead, vain erudition.
He is parroting Nietzsche here, but these ideas are not Nietzsche’s alone. In a later chapter, he describes the sorts of book which he likes, to which I’m sure he aspires:
Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. Not the commentary on another book, not the exegesis of another text. The book as witness … but witness in the sense of the baton in a relay race.* Thus does the book, born out of experience, refer to that experience. Books are not to teach us how to live (that is the sad task of lesson-givers), but to make us want to live, to live differently: to find in ourselves the possibility of life, its principle.

A book that makes us want to live differently sounds great, but it is strange to think such a book could only come out of one’s own direct experience of life. I would argue that there’s something more troubling behind his dislike of scholarly books and argument; Gros also seems hostile to community. Let’s go back to the bit about books written in response to other books: “They are born of a compilation of the other books on the table. They are like fattened geese: crammed with citations, stuffed with references, weighed down with annotations. […] They verify, specify, rectify; a phrase becomes a paragraph, a whole chapter.” The jeremiad against verification, specification, and citation do not just discount careful thought, but also exhibit a skepticism toward conversation, toward engaging with other people’s thought. This appears in a directly stated preference for walking with no more than four people; “with no more than that, you can still walk without talking.” And this is the logic of those philosophers he esteems: Nietzsche, who sought solitude for the sake of his “freedom: no explanations to give, no compromises to stand in his way,” and who stands on the mountain, above the other people, from which vantage he can see through their vain moralities and conventional pieties; Rousseau, whose lonely walks through peaceful, domesticated woods taught him what both humans and nature are like; Thoreau, for whom authentic living is solitary and for whom society consists of three people.

And, indeed, there are glimpses of the book I wanted to read in this one; if Gros is right that Rousseau walked into the woods, away from all people, to learn what people are like, then that gives us some good insight into Rousseau’s failed project. The woods are not pre-civilized nature, and you can’t learn what humans in nature are like by visiting them. It becomes possible to see how Rousseau’s approach to the project went wrong from the start. But Gros is not interested in critiquing Rousseau; the books he critiques are always generalized, shown in the abstract. The ones he mentions directly, he always agrees with. And this is also strange, since Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Kant are hardly good playmates. Critique would likely seem too like the citations and specifications Gros despises, however.

All of this means that Gros gives the impression that he would be indifferent to this critique I am writing, not just because I am no one, just some blogger, but also because my critique is of the order of citation, of libraries, “overloaded with quotations, references, footnotes, explicatory prudence, indefinite refutations.” (The irony, of course, is that Gros’s refutations are the indefinite ones, since he will not quote those he disagrees with.) Perhaps he did not mean to, but Gros immunes himself from criticism at the same time that he cuts himself off from community.

I do like walking, though I do it less than I ought to; I understand Gros’s joy in leg muscles and trails and trees and rocks and scents carried on the fresh air. And I think while walking, to be sure; but, as everyone does—as Gros must do to—I carry conversations, culture, society with me when I walk, and when I get back it is to take part in the conversation again. Sometimes I find a walk necessary to free myself from the terms another person has set on the discussion, but that is in the service of coming back to the discussion. And, indeed, life experience can improve walking, can enrich the literary and philosophical traditions one has learned. But there is not the split that Gros suggests: without a personal engagement in the world, indeed citation and reference might be vain parroting, but that engagement need not be solitary, and without community you cannot open yourself to correction, to further learning, to others' experiences. And so I found A Philosophy of Walking a disappointment.

Again, I have not yet finished the book. If I find more worth discussing, I’ll come back.


*The footnote given reads thus: “The French word témoin, meaning witness, has the subsidiary meaning of baton passed between runners in a relay race [translator’s note].”


Pedro said...

I'm not sure if walking helps or not to philosophize, but one thing that is good for me is walking to think when I need to make a major decision or when something particularly annoying happened.

I think I took this from Scrooge McDuck worry room.

Christian H said...


Yeah, since I wrote this I have started to think of ways walking might help a person to do philosophy; I suppose it might just be nice if Gros backed up his claims empirically (or even logically) rather than just assuming his experience was universal.

Pedro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pedro said...

"rather than just assuming his experience was universal." - you are right. It's not universal. Just look at "The Thinker" sculpture of Rodin, I saw it some years ago and I was wondering how someone can think like this.

For me walking on the beach (I was born in Rio de Janeiro) is the best for thinking, and when you live in an always summer country walking is a natural thing to do.

I have a friend, who edits a philosophy magazine, that told me that for him the best thing is driving hours in a road (it burns fuel...)

One empirical-anedoctal evidence to back up Gros's claim is the number of people who take the Route of Santiago de Compostela.

I developed one personal explanation to the effect of walking in thinking, maybe it's useful: walking and exercise in general stimulates endorphin production and the mild euphoria created by exercise can help creative thinking. Also walking reduces anxiety in many people and anxiety is one thing that can disturb the thinking process (some, like Kierkegaard are exceptions to this).

I hope you don't mind this long comment, but I find this subject very interesting.

Christian H said...

He actually does include the route of Santiago de Compostela as an example in his chapter on pilgrimage.

I finished the book, so I'll likely have a second post up soon.

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