PEN 2014: The Philosophy of Walking



Paris Street
Rue de Paris, Temps de Pluie (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte


[Read part one of this dispatch here.]


I had intended on discovering the literary scene in the Caribbean with only a slight side trip for the briefest of philosophy discussions, but the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray when one encounters Frédéric Gros.


As I had in my encounter with Sharon Leach at PEN World Voices Festival’s Literary Safari, I was the first to arrive at the apartment where Gros was to share his latest ideas with whatever random crowd appeared. The program indicated this French philosopher had written on war, Foucault, law, and psychiatry. “I’d like to speak about war,” I said, and he indicated the topic was fair game.


Quickly the room filled up, jam-packed really, without about 25 people in space sufficient for 12, and very quickly I discovered war was not going to be on the agenda. Also, my trip the Caribbean was canceled.


Turns out Gros is the author of a philosophical rumination, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso, 2014; Carnet Nord 2009), and he wanted to share why he thinks walking is so important for the practice of philosophy.


In literature, walking as a means to drive a plot or reflect a certain visual aesthetics (be they interior or exterior to the character) is a conceit to be found throughout the decades, most famously of course in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), but several contemporary examples (e.g., Teju Cole’s Open City, 2011; Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, 2011) suggest the trend is holding steady. The same holds true for film, be it the avant garde Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) to the more recent Gerry (2003).


According to Gros (and as translated to us; didn’t catch the translator’s name), walking is good for philosophizing, as it allows us to articulate (or problematize) three ideas:1


  1. Escapes from day-to-day demands of technology, speed, and the urban environs [which, of course, presuppose daily experiences of all three]
  2. To throw off social masks/social identity by intensifying presence in the world and oneself
  3. The renunciation of identity [The idea of the cultivated self or the one imposed by others?]


The short time allotted for this encounter did not permit deep engagement on any one of these, but I assume they are further investigated in his book. Even though our mini-salon was scheduled to last just thirty minutes we ended up crammed in that room thinking about thinking-while-walking for an hour.


Thinking (or philosophizing) while walking is not a new concept and Gros admits as much. (It’s not even new to The Mantle.) Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rousseau, Nerval, Rimbaud—all thinking walkers. Still, Gros was able to share a few shimmering ideas, though it’s difficult to tell if what he offers is new or a synthesis of ideas from other sources. (I did pick up a copy of his book on the way home, so this conversation is to be continued.)


Asked if being in nature was a requirement for his kind of walking-thinking, Gros suggests that no, nature is not required, but what you get when you walk amongst the mountains, lakes, and woods is a profoundly different experience than your sojourns through the urban landscape. Walking in nature is an aesthetic of being with things (organic life with deep natural history, I deduce), while walking in cities conjures an aesthetic of encounters, shock, collision, and disruption (not necessarily bad, but certainly disruptive of a continuous streaming thought).


Here I am reminded of a passage I came across recently from a book I bought while on a mindless walk through urban Seattle, a meander that brought me to a chance encounter with a bookseller:

Have you ever reflected on everything contained in the term “flanerie,” this most enchanting word which is revered by the poets…? Going on infinite investigations through the streets and promenades; drifting along, with your nose in the wind, with both hands in your pockets, and with an umbrella under your arm, as befits any open-minded spirit; walking along , with serendipity, without pondering where to and without urging to hurry … stopping in front of stores to regard their images, at street corners to read their signs, by the bouquinistes’ stands to touch their old books … giving yourself over, captivated and enraptured, with all your senses and all your mind, to the spectacle.2


The most beautiful thought Gros left me with was an analogy that seems to sum up his ideas on the philosophy of (or is it philosophizing when) walking. He says: walking inhabits landscapes like thinking inhabits a problem.


Think about that on your next stroll.


Follow all of The Mantle's 2014 World Voices Festival coverage here.


1. Gros's idea of walking presupposes "days of walking," an idea that was not further defined. 



2. Victor Fournel. Ce Qu’on Voit Dans les Rues de Paris (1867), as quoted in: Anke Gleber. The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature, and Film in Weimar Culture (Princeton, 1999).



Frédéric Gros, Nature, PEN 2014, Philosophy, Travel, Urbanism