Think walking is void of philosophy? Nietzsche and Gros are here to say you're wrong.
- French philosopher Frederic Gros tells us that walking is a route to entirely being ourselves and experiencing the sublime.
- He has a bias towards the wondering hikes of Nietzsche and Kerouac but has a place for urban strollers too.
- His book reminds us that even something as mundane as walking can be a vital part of our lives when done for itself.
Walking is good for you. Regular walks can improve bone health, reduce blood pressure, and even prevent Alzheimer's. You're supposed to get in 10,000 steps a day, but millions of people across the United States don't manage that. The average number of strides an American takes daily is just 4,774. This has dire effects on our health.
But a book by French philosopher reminds us that there is more to walking than exercise.
Hikers in Slovakia pause to rest as they take in the beauty of the mountains. Gros tells us that they are getting more out of the trip than just exercise and a holiday.
(Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In his book A Philosophy of Walking, French philosopher Frédéric Gros explores the surprisingly philosophical act of walking. He doesn't mean the light exercise that people try to fit into their busy schedule or our pragmatic walking from point A to point B, but rather the long hikes in nature that give us a chance to escape the day to day.
For Gros, walking is a liberating act that allows us to reconnect with ourselves. Not ourselves as we are introduced at parties or as the face we put on to make it through a long day at the office, but our true selves liberated from worrying about time, social conventions, and our daily cares. A long walk through a forest allows us to connect with the sublime in a way that merely looking at it from a distance does not. Appropriately done, walking allows us to just be in a way that can be hard to come by in our modern, fast-paced lives.
He explains this in a very French manner when he says:
By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
And he speaks for many hikers when he explains how one can find more life in doing nothing than is often found in a hectic, event filled schedule.
Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.
As he does prefer hiking over going on a walk in the city park, he says that what urban dwellers out for a walk actually do is "stroll," explaining that:
The urban flâneur does experience walking, but in a way far removed from Nietzsche or Thoreau. Walking in town is torture to the lover of long rambles in nature because it imposes, as we shall see, an interrupted, uneven rhythm.
But even this has meaning for him. He invokes Walter Benjamin and declares the urban walker to be "subversive" with respect to the urban phenomena of "solitude, speed, dubious business politics, and consumerism" in that they relish the anonymity of the crowd, are going nowhere fast, and see advertisements and sales like everybody else but manage to stroll past them.
Even if you can't go hiking down a winding country trail regularly, walking can have a philosophical benefit for you by placing you both within and without the modern metropolis.
Plus, walking was a vital part of many philosophers' processes.
Professor Gros mentions several great thinkers who took long walks, explaining their habits and how it related to their work.
He opens with Nietzsche, who was an avid walker. Originally used as a way to avoid the crippling pain of his migraine headaches, Nietzsche later found that his thought was stimulated by the long walks he took past rivers, forests, lakes, and Alpine peaks. He found walking a vital part of his process saying,
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.
His walks were a source of inspiration, and it is no coincidence that his most productive era was when he lived Sils Maria and was able to hike through the Alps. He only ceased his walks when his physical and mental health deteriorated, and he was forced into a wheelchair.
Immanuel Kant was also a regular walker, with an emphasis on regular. He took his daily walk at precisely five every day, and his neighbors were said to set their clocks to his routine. He only deviated from this rigid schedule twice, once to buy a book and once to join a rush to a newspaper publisher to get news on the outbreak of the French revolution.
Unlike Nietzsche's hiking, however, Kant's walks were not a direct part of his writing process. They were instead part of his extremely fine-tuned routine that he credited for his philosophical output. The walking was for his physical health, which he took pride in, and a chance not to have to think for a few minutes. Given his incredible output, the breaks were well deserved.
Outside of philosophy, many geniuses have understood the benefits of walking. According to local lore, Beethoven regularly took long walks in the Vienna Woods when he lived in Mödling, Austria in search of inspiration, and he often carried pens and paper just in case he found it. Charles Dickens enjoyed a walk when he couldn't sleep and saw walking as a way to keep himself sane.
Perhaps it's time to stop looking at walking as a way to get from A to B or as a light exercise and start viewing it as something more fundamental — a chance to more fully connect with ourselves, nature, and take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. While not all of us can take five-hour treks like Nietzsche, most of us can find the time for a stroll in the park.
Once desire becomes suspect, sex is never far behind.
The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that human beings tend to be evil. He wasn’t talking about some guy rubbing his hands and crowing with glee at the prospect of torturing an enemy. He was thinking about the basic human tendency to succumb to what we want to do instead of what we ought to do, to heed the siren-song of our desires instead of the call of duty. For Kant, morality is the force that closes this gap, and holds us back from our darker, desiring selves.
Once desire becomes suspect, sex is never far behind. Kant implicitly acknowledged the unusual power of sexual urges and their capacity to divert us from doing what is right. He claimed that sex was particularly morally condemnable, because lust focuses on the body, not the agency, of those we sexually desire, and so reduces them to mere things. It makes us see the objects of our longing as just that – objects. In so doing, we see them as mere tools for our own satisfaction.
Treating people as objects can mean many things. It could include beating them, tearing into them, and violating them. But there are other, less violent ways of objectifying people. We might treat someone as only a means to our sexual pleasure, to satisfy our lust on that person, to use a somewhat archaic expression. The fact that the other person consents does not get rid of the objectification; two people can agree to use one another for purely sexual purposes.
But don’t we use each other all the time? Many of us have jobs – as cleaners, gardeners, teachers, singers. Does the beneficiary of the service objectify the service provider, and does the service provider objectify the recipient by taking their money? These relationships don’t seem to provoke the same moral qualms. Either they do not involve objectification, or the objectification is somehow neutered.
Kant said that these scenarios weren’t really a problem. He draws a distinction between mere use – the basis of objectification – and more-than-mere use. While we might employ people to do jobs, and accept payment for our work, we don’t treat the person on the other side of the transaction as a mere tool; we still recognise that person’s fundamental humanity.
Sex, though, is different. When I hire someone to sing, according to Kant, my desire is for his or her talent – for the voice-in-action. But when I sexually desire someone, I desire his or her body, not the person’s services or talents or intellectual capabilities, although any of these could enhance the desire. So, when we desire the person’s body, we often focus during sex on its individual parts: the buttocks, the penis, the clitoris, the thighs, the lips. What we desire to do with those parts differs, of course. Some like to touch them with the hand, others with the lips, others with the tongue; for others still, the desire is just to look. This does not mean that I would settle for a human corpse: our desire for human bodies is directed at them as living, much like my desire for a cellphone is directed at a functioning one.
But, one might object, don’t we do sexual things because we love our partners, and want them to feel pleasure? Of course we do. But if we did so when we didn’t want to in the first place, then we do not do it out of sexual desire. And if we don’t do it out of sexual desire, then the problem of objectification does not present itself. We can enjoy sexually pleasing someone else. But you can think of the other person as a sophisticated instrument: to give the maximum pleasure, we have to please it. Just because I have to oil and maintain my car for it to work does not mean it is any less of an instrument.
Sex doesn’t just make you objectify your partner. It also makes you objectify yourself. When I am in the grip of sexual desire, I also allow another person to reduce me to my body, to use me as a tool. Kant saw this process of self-objectification as an equally, if not more, serious moral problem than objectification directed outwards. I have duties to others to promote their happiness, but I also have a duty to morally perfect myself. Allowing myself to be objectified opposes this precept, according to Kant.
But really, what’s the big deal? Yes, we objectify each other in sex and let ourselves be objectified. Worse things have happened and will happen. At least with sex there is pleasure (if all goes well) and lots of it (if all goes really well). Whatever is wrong with sexual objectification can’t be that bad, surely?
But there’s a snag. The capacity to reason is what makes people ends in themselves, worthy of moral respect, according to Kant. And what’s objectifying about sexual desire is its ability to numb a person to reason, both in themselves and in others. Its power is such that it makes our reason its servant: our rationality becomes the means to satisfy its goals. It has been the downfall of kings and leaders; the ruination of relationships; the seedbed of lies in the pursuit of getting laid (‘Me too! I love atonal music!’). In my pursuit to fulfil it, I cheat, I deceive, I pretend to be not who I am – and not just to the other person, but to myself, too. I set aside the other’s rationality, and in doing so, set aside their humanity. That is not my concern; his or her body is.
Is it possible to have sex without objectification? Of course. Prostitutes do it all the time. So do many long-term couples. They have sex with people whom they do not desire. And with no desire, there is no objectification. Not even love can fix it. When the desire is high, when the sexual act is in full swing, my beloved is a piece of flesh. (Though love does lead to occasional cuddling, which is nice.)
I agree with Kant that sexual desire and objectification are inseparable, and a force that morality must reckon with. Sex is like any good dessert: delicious but with a price.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Are noble 18th-century norms fit for 21st-century life? Especially when, as Yuval Harari says, liberalism’s “factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.”
1. All Americans are liberals. The Founders declared (original) liberalism the self-evident centerpiece of the American deal. Let me explain, while spotlighting three flavors of liberalism: rational, romantic, realist.
2. Liberal (from Latin for “noble”) first meant “befitting free people” ~1500, then "free from prejudice, tolerant” ~1700, favoring “freedom and democracy" ~1801, and opposing conservatism ~1832.
3. Historian Dennis Rasmussen discerns two Enlightenment liberalisms: “pragmatic” and idealistic. Relabeling these “realist” and “rationalist” underscores unresolved strains in liberalism’s logic.
4. The rationalists were “highly idealistic” logic-loving axiomatic-system builders—Locke’s natural law contracts, Kant’s universal logical duties, Bentham’s greatest good for the greatest number.
6. Realists, like Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, were “critics of reason in the… Age of Reason.” Seeing reason’s evident limits, they took a “more realistic, moderate, flexible” approach “grounded in experience and empirical observation …[not] abstract standards.” Liberal realists were quite conservative favoring “gradual, piecemeal reform.”
7. Hume called Locke’s contracts "implausibly individualistic" (imaginary “offers” you couldn’t refuse). Anthropologists, evolutionists and parents all know no alternative self-sufficient “state of nature” really existed.
8. Kant’s high-concept abstractions can fail trivial tests. For instance, you shouldn’t lie to assassins about a target’s whereabouts? Beware oddball geniuses who aspirationally project their rare rigor onto others.
9. Bentham’s “pig philosophy” confuses pleasure with happiness. And fans of one-trick-minded calculus of consequences seem easily steamrolled, e.g., infamous “trolley problems” derail with a loved-one at stake (see “relational rationality”).
10. Yuval Harari’s big-picture patterns suggest the third kind, “romantic liberalism.” The core “liberal package” turns our gaze obsessively “inwards,” enthroning feelings as “the supreme source of meaning” and authority.
12. Note art’s role as way-of-life preacher. As Wilfred Pareto said, "The most universal religion of the West… is the sex religion; the novel supplies… its doctrine.”
13. Idea-faith and cognitive-style issues abound. For instance, free-market-obsessed neoliberalism mixes rationalism and romanticism, but lacks realism. The neoclassical versus behavioral economics struggle rests on realer rationality limits (see Adam Smith was a behavioral economist, and “behavioral politics“).
14. Life-shaping ideas demand regular realistic reassessment, not blinkered (enlightened-seeming) faith. As philosopher Anna Alexandrova notes, liberal faith that “only the individual is an authority on their own well-being… flies in the face of facts.”
15. Harari agrees, "science is undermining… the liberal order." Liberalism’s “factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.” For instance, individualism is a “WEIRD” sampling error (with art-configured ups-and-downs), presuming true inner selves risks the “fundamental attribution error,” and feelings often mislead.
16. "New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods," says Harari. Likewise sacred ideas.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
Can philosophy give you true understanding about life, the universe, and everything? Sometimes it Kant.
Philosophy provides a new way of looking at the world and exploring ideas that otherwise might be too heavy, or too big, to comprehend. It's a lot better than the alternative—which is willful ignorance and throwing your hands up in the air and saying "I guess it's all part of a masterplan!". And while this incongruity between the philosophically minded and the more deity-inclined can create some major cultural hiccups, there's at least some semblance of both sides searching for the same thing. Philosophy, Kitcher argues, may not ever give us the ultimate solutions to all the big questions in life. But it does put us in the driver's seat and give us control.
Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
As mankind raises its eyes to Mars and asks, "How do we get there?", we might need to ask, "Should we go?". Carl Sagan said we may not be entitled to visit a potentially inhabited planet.
Mars has captivated humanity since the time of ancient Babylonian astronomers. In the modern era, the idea of life on Mars has been a focus of such great minds as H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, and David Bowie. As Big Think has mentioned in the last week or two, plans are underway to take humanity to Mars within the next two decades. President Obama has even channeled John F. Kennedy in his recent endorsement of sending a person to Mars and “returning them safely to the Earth”.
There is no shortage of people who want us to get to Mars, but less noticed among them are the people who ask, “Should we go?”. While the reasons that would compel us to go to Mars are many and substantial there is a vital question that must be considered.
What if there is already life on Mars? Should we still go if there is?
Suppose for a moment that we discovered tomorrow that there was life on Mars, most certainly it would be limited to microscopic life, but it would still be life. It would be the most significant discovery in the history of science. Would mankind be entitled to colonize Mars in this case? Could we claim it was still moral to do so?
One of the greatest advocates of space exploration in the 20th century, Carl Sagan, said no. In the chapter 'Blues for a Red Planet' in his book Cosmos, he discusses the idea fully: "If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” When he wrote that in 1980, inconclusive evidence on such life being on Mars from the Viking landers made his statement incredibly relevant.
While we might consider the idea of life on Mars less likely than he did, the question he tries to answer remains important. Especially when mankind moves beyond Mars and towards other candidates for life harboring worlds such as Europa, Titan, or Enceladus.
Sagan was opposed to anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are exceptional or otherwise extremely significant, both on Earth and in the universe. In defending the rights of Martian microbes to their planet, Sagan suggests that all life has great value and that our ability to get to Mars does not constitute a right to colonize it. His position was reflected here on Earth through his support of the Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as their faculty advisor.
On the other hand, the argument could be made that the life we are most likely to find on Mars, if any, would be microbial and thus perhaps not entitled to any special rights. After all, who cares for the rights of microbes on Earth?
Consider a few methods of deciding who has certain rights in modern philosophy. They tend to run into the issue of anthropocentrism, and find it difficult to protect the rights, if any, of non-human life. Microbes get left out entirely.
James Griffin’s idea of human rights is based on the notion of Normative Agency, our ability to design and act on a plan of life, and could only be fully applied to humanity at this time. Even if you were to scale rights down with the ability of an animal to use said agency, microbes would be left with nothing.
Kant’s notion of Autonomy is also difficult to apply to anything less intelligent than a human. While it would be possible to support a maxim that respects all life rather than just humanity using his ethics, Kant still relies on the ability of a moral agent to reason, which we generally don’t consider microbes to be able to do. John Rawls, in his Kantian masterpiece A Theory of Justice, excludes animals from having “rights” because of this. In all of his works, he never suggests we owe non-human life anything more than a guarantee to avoid cruelty. His concern for microbes could be considered minimal.
John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism perhaps demands that we do invade Mars, as he places the happiness of a human at a much higher value than that of a lower life form. Stating in his classic text Utilitarianism: "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." The promotion of the total happiness then, calls for us to ignore the risks to microbial life on Mars.
Of course, the opponents of anthropocentrism could point out, perhaps accurately, that humans have a tendency to place high value on traits that they have a monopoly on. When happiness is discussed, we even claim access to a higher form of it. Perhaps we are biased towards our own virtues and value. After all, wouldn’t intelligent eagles value the power of flight and keen vision over having thumbs?
So, should we go to Mars? Or is Mars for the Martians, if any? The question of if there ever was life on Mars to begin with must be resolved first. When it is resolved, we are still faced with the issue of life on other worlds we desire to travel to. Should we invoke the Prime Directive of the Federation when exploring the heavens, or brush aside the bacterium of the cosmos? The philosophical jury is still out.