Tuesday 24 June 2014

Review: A Philosophy of Walking

I've always been a person who thinks best while I am walking. When I was at university and living in a house by the sea, I used to go for long walks along the path next to the beach while mulling over ideas for essays. I found the rhythmic process of walking, with the sound and sight of the sea around me, helped me think. Nowadays, I still find going for a walk - especially on a sunny day - inspires ideas for writing. It seems I am not alone - apparently some of the world's greatest thinkers were also great walkers.

A Philosophy of Walkingby Frédéric Gros, is a book that is partly about the walking of philosophers. Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Nerval and Kant were all keen walkers - or rather long-distance ramblers. Their initial reasons for embarking on journeys by foot might have been very different, but they all found that it helped - or even formed - their philosophical thinking.

Interspersed with chapters detailing the biographies of philosophers and their perambulations are chapters looking at how walking gives us a sense of freedom, helps us appreciate the world around us in a way that is quiet and peaceful. Walking alone, we set our own pace, and are alone with our own thoughts or a simple sense of being present in the moment. Walking can help us hear our own soul and find the essence of who or what we truly are, says the author. Walking can also help us get in touch with nature and can be a spiritual activity, from pilgrimages to shamanic journeys.

As the name suggests, A Philosophy of Walkingputs forward the idea that walking is essentially a philosophical activity rather than purely a physical exercise. The author seems horrified at any suggestions that walking should be considered as a sport.

I actually bought this book because I am doing research for a talk on psychogeography that I've agreed to give at the Pagan Federation London Conference in August. Psychogeography is primarily about city walking. One definition, given by early psychogeographyer Guy Debord in 1955 is that it is a study of the "effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals." It is an urban stroll with philosophical and visionary intentions.

Frédéric Gros plainly prefers the countryside to the town  but, although most of the walks detailed in A Philosophy of Walkingare country walks, one chapter does look at the urban flaneur in 19th century Paris, who was the predecessor of the psychogeographer. Frédéric Gros says that the flaneur "bypasses the awfulness of the city to recapture its passing marvels, [he or she] explores the poetry of collisions, but without stopping to denounce the alienation of labour and the masses. The flaneur has better things to do: remythologize the city, invent new divinities, explore the poetic surface of the urban spectacle." The perfect type of walk for a city witch, in my opinion.

Publisher Verso Books says on its website: "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. Brilliant and erudite, A Philosophy of Walking is an entertaining and insightful manifesto for putting one foot in front of the other."

I only hope that my talk in August is as entertaining and insightful.

Links and previously related posts
A Philosophy of Walking

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