If there is a book in the history of philosophy that I wish I would have written, it is this book, Frederic Gros’ s A Philosophy of Walking. It is humble– “a” philosophy of walking, not the philosophy of walking. It does not claim to lay bear the universal principle of Being as the great but now mostly ignored systems of classical and modern philosophy claimed to have accomplished. It does not expose the depth contradictions of our social order, the primary task (I would argue) left to philosophy now that its universe-comprehending efforts have been taken over by natural science. What it does do is draw attention to the beauty of the mundane- a minor function of philosophy (and the major function of poetry?) in such a way that unexpected depths are revealed in the very simplicity of the act of walking. Walking is not treated as metaphor, metonym, or symbol for something grander, but is allowed to reveal the multiple ways in which it is, in its very banality and corporeality, one element of what can make the life of finite embodied beings wonderful.
There is a mystery to the world of ideas. When one’s mind is intensely focussed on a problem it draws towards itself the work of previously unknown other minds who give perfect expression to some aspect of the problem one initially thought no one else had ever explored. Rather than professional jealousy (the response of the careerist, not the philosopher) the discovery that someone is thinking as you think produces a sense of intellectual communion: an anticipatory knowledge constantly confirmed of what the book is going to say next. Just as an objection formed in my head– but what about urban walking? is this a philosophy of walking of a philosophy of hiking? my concerns were allayed, and Gros came around to the proper pleasures of walking in cities. The almost exact doubling of one’s ideas still leaves room– and this is crucial–for work to deepen one’s own thinking and push it in new directions. Ultimately, this space means that there is never any repetition in the field of philosophical ideas, but growth.
A Philosophy of Walking is an elegant book. Its insights are not extolled over sentences as long as paragraphs and paragraphs as long as chapters, but in deceptively simple observations that the readers’ mind cannot leave hold of once they have been read: “Walking is a part of active melancholia” (p.151, in commentary upon Gerard de Nerval); “Boredom is immobility of body confronted with emptiness of mind” (in explanation of why walking, though monotonous, cannot be boring); “When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order,” (p. 37, in praise of the slowness of walking). The text alternates between commentary on famous literary and philosophical walkers and the author’s reflections on what his own walks have taught him. The commentaries– on Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, the Cynics, Gerard de Nerval, Kant, and Ghandi (with shorter discussions of Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Wordsworth) expose the different ways in which walking is essential to philosophical and poetic creation. Gros’s reflection on his own peregrinations testify to the simple goodness of being a sentient body in the world.
Considered from the perspective of its philosophical content, three truths are asserted rather than reached through argument. I call them truths in honour of the richness and depth of experience from which they have been drawn by careful reflection. Some truths are learned not by following arguments but by paying attention to the world, (which is a material system not a logical principle). The justification for these truths is not logical but experiential– to confirm them, one must undertake the experience from which it they have been drawn. If one undertakes the experience but does not derive the same truth, its universality is not thereby refuted. The absence of acceptance only proves that one is closed off to what the experience teaches (the truth is in the object waiting to be drawn out). Before the truth is definitively rejected, one must work harder to open oneself to the object whose truth one resists. In this struggle to open oneself to that to which one is initially closed consists human learning.
The first truth that Gros’s reflections disclose is that the slow pace of walking allows us to savour being alive amidst the things of the world. “Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall, one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.” (p.37). Like friendship, the encounter with the world in walking is an end in itself– we do not walk to learn about the world that which the scientist demands (abstractions, general forces, universal laws), but to allow it to reveal itself to us in its endless variety and specificity. Walking thus returns us, Gros claims, to the “realism” of childhood- the acceptance of material things as they show themselves to be in their concreteness: “It is children who are the true realists: they never proceed from generalities. The adult recognises the general form in a particular example, a representative of the species, dismisses everything else … The child perceives individuals, personalities. He sees the unique form … It isn’t a triumph of the imagination, but an unprejudiced, total realism. And Nature becomes instantly poetic.” (p.162). In becoming poetic, the Nature we encounter in walking is beautiful, sufficient in its mere presence, and ourselves, in response, joyful just to be for those few moments. “When we renounce everything,” Gros, quoting Swami Ramdas notes, “everything is given to us, in abundance. Everything: meaning the intensity of presence itself.”(p. 9). At root, what is the good of life other than this being here amongst the things of the world (everything, there is nothing outside of the whole world) and knowing that you are being here? Everything else is instrumental to some purpose, but beneath the particular purposes there must be goodness in being as such– otherwise, what justification for the struggles to achieve the purposes?
The second truth that Gros reveals is that walking, as the most basic coordinated movement of the body, connects us to our finite materiality and the earth– it teaches us what we really are at base– bodies. Bodies that think, yes, but bodies: “What dominates in walking, away from ostentation and showing off, is the simple joy of feeling your body in the most primitively natural activity … When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which your body is made for this movement, the way it finds in each pace the resource for the next.” (p. 143) This joy of simple movement simultaneously frees the mind from its mundane concerns, the demands that work and life pile upon it, so that thoughts can come. The real thought, the idea that contains some insight, something previously unthought, in contrast to the explication and the proof, does not come hunched over at one’s desk, but when one is not expecting it, when one is not searching deliberately for it. Walking untenses the body and opens the mind: when the mind is open, ideas flood in, uncalled for: “The body’s monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that or like this or like that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface, or take shape.” (p.157). As with the good of sheer being, the letting arise or take shape of ideas is the presupposition and validation of the hard work of putting them to work in arguments. The impoverished content of much of the philosophy of our age is perhaps a consequence of the fact that philosophers are mostly paid academics– too much time indoors, at desks and conferences, arguing about the same old ideas and not enough moving in space letting ideas for which there are as yet no supporting arguments arise.
The third truth can be understood as a synthesis of the first two. Walking allows us to encounter the reality of the things of the world and free our own thoughts from the social forces that weigh them down. It thus constitutes a form of resistance– (Gros calls it “subversion”) of the competitive, technological, money-driven form of social life coming to dominate the planet. (p. 178). The simplicity of walking, the fact that the body is ready-made to walk without any need for technological supplementation (not even shoes, if you choose not to wear any), the fact that everyone teaches him or herself to walk without any need for expensive lessons, that it can only be enjoyed at a measured pace (speed walking is a contradiction in terms), and that it is best done alone, makes it paradigmatically free: it costs nothing and we can undertake a walk anytime we choose. Reflecting on Ghandi’s use of walking in his campaigns, Gros observes that a determined political march requires dignity, discipline, and courage. “Walking is the right speed to understand, to feel close. Apart from that, you depend on yourself alone to advance. Given that you are up to it, your will alone is in charge, and you await only your own injunction… Gandhi promoted through the marching movement a dimension of firmness and endurance: to keep going. That is essential, because walking calls for gentle but continuous effort.” (p.201) Contrast this steadiness of purpose with the panicked fleeing of a riot in retreat from a police charge: the rioters succumb to the superior violence of the state; the calm walkers refuse to engage on the level of state violence, and simply keep going, determinedly, towards their objective.
Techno-capitalism is trying to colonise every second of lifetime and every square centimeter of life space. In the space time it controls, ever-accelerating activity is demanded. Hence the pace of walking (and the refusal to respond to society’s demands which is sleep, as Jonathan Crary argues in his short masterpiece, 24/7) is a revolt of the human body and a demand to reclaim life:
“These discoveries and joys can only be given to those who stroll with an open mind … they will come spontaneously to one who, summoned by spring sunshine, joyously abandons his work just to get a little time to himself … Only thus- with no expectation of a specific profit from the outing, and with all cares and worries firmly left behind in desk drawers– will a stroll become the gratuitous aesthetic moment, that rediscovery of the lightness of being, the sweetness of a soul reconciled to itself and the world.”(p.166).