Personal geography: Walking

Lake Silvaplana

Lake Silvaplana

In Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols), Friedrich Nietzsche writes that his best ideas come from walking:

On ne peut penser et ecrire qu’assis [One cannot think and write except when seated] (G. Flaubert). There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.

An important example of this for Nietzsche was his concept of the eternal recurrence of the same events. It occurred to him while he was walking in Switzerland in the woods around Lake Silvaplana, when he was inspired by the sight of a large, pyramidal rock. His inner life as writer and philosopher could not be separated from his embodied life as a person who spent hours walking in beautiful spots in Europe.

Why does it require the direct connection reached through walking to embrace an idea like eternal recurrence? Why not just use a map? Reading a book, map, diagram, photo, movie, etc. can be a powerful experience. Why can’t we have the same insights without being there? And what is the relation between reading a text  about a phenomenon and experiencing it more directly?

A philosophy of walkingJohn Dewey addresses this dichotomy in The Child and the Curriculum:

The map is not a substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey…But the map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result. Through the map every new traveler may get for his own journey the benefits of the results of others’ explorations without the waste of energy and loss of time involved in their wanderings–wanderings which he himself would be obliged to repeat were it not for just the assistance of the objective and generalized record of their performances.

Sunset on the Dardanelles

Sunset on the Dardanelles

I’ve been thinking along these lines while reading, A Philosophy of Walking, by Frédéric Gros. The book is a pleasure to read (though not while walking). It intersperses Gros’s observations with accounts of other great walkers such as Rimbaud and Nietzsche. Gros writes,

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … 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.

Curiously, the anomia and ahistory of walking, its “freedom,” is what allows the walker to connect to a greater degree with history, geography, and ideas in general. This has become even more evident to me during our stay in Turkey.

To be continued…


Neither mock it nor lament it

spinoza1aEmily sent me a postcard from Germany with a quote from Baruch de Spinoza: “Man soll die Welt nicht belachen nicht beweinen sondern begreifen,” which could be translated as “one should neither laugh at nor lament the world, but only understand it.” I like the sentiment, which reminds us to avoid the tendency to categorize and judge other people or ideas. Instead, it calls for an openness to learning, akin to what Jane Addams calls “affectionate interpretation” in A modern Lear.

I’ve admired Spinoza since being introduced to him by Radoslav Tsanoff, a professor at Rice. Spinoza also inspired Marx, Wittgenstein, Einstein, and many others. His rejection of dogma and insistence on reason set the stage for the Enlightenment. Thinking about the quote sent me off to learn a bit more.

The quote (originally in Latin) is from his Tractatus theologico-politicus, but the general idea recurs throughout his Ethics. It’s actually not so much a “should” as it is Spinoza’s attempt to describe his own method–what he’s endeavored to do through his philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche picks up on Spinoza’s method in The joyful wisdom (La gaya scienza). He emphasizes that the issue is not to replace emotions with reason, but actually to build reason upon the emotions:

What does Knowing Mean? Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere! says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this intelligere ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event.

This is consistent with Spinoza’s own rejection of the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. Much later, John Dewey proposes a related notion, that inquiry is reconstructive experience: The experiences, and our emotional responses, come first, but knowing is the reflection and articulation of those experiences, which leads away from simple judging.

This post necessarily glosses over the sublteties in the “sed intelligere” idea. But even so, I think it’s a useful phrase to remember, particularly as we encounter unfamiliar people or ideas.