If walking is the most philosophical way of getting around, solitary strolls in nature won’t cut it. You have to choose who to march alongside.
Ways of getting around come with their own outlooks on the world. Cars, Americans are told again and again, mean freedom and comfort. Yet they can just as well be a burden, from the social costs of car-dependent communities to the way cars turn drivers into isolated individuals raging at the world outside their little metal box. Public transit can feel frustrating, involving lots of waiting and plodding routes. But there’s a solidarity that emerges on the subway or bus, the feeling that we’re all in it together, that makes it feel democratic. Whereas walking, trusting your own two feet, can mark one out as an interloper. It’s the mode of the solitary thinker, the flâneur, the backpacker. Yet it can be just as much a communal activity – from the solidarity of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to the crowd at a demonstration, people are on their own two feet together. The ambivalence of walking, which makes room for solo saunters and mass marches alike, has made it attractive to quite a few artists and thinkers.
For Frédéric Gros, a Parisian professor and Foucault specialist, walking is also the most philosophical way of getting around. In A Philosophy of Walking (originally published as Marcher: une philosophie in 2009), Gros expounds a view of the world in which walking is the cure for all modernity’s indignities. Setting off on a walk is self-liberation, discarding drab duties or even rejecting a “rotten, polluted, alienating, shabby civilization” for an ascetic freedom. Given his interest in Foucault, one might expect Gros to see the aimless, rambling walk as an evasive countermeasure against surveillance and discipline. But his emphasis is more on the philosophical, timeless value of wandering. He brings home the extent to which walking, practically the simplest activity there is, has been made almost peculiar in most societies. Yet his fundamentally Romantic sensibility leads him to an odd vision of the practice—so caught up in the sublime and lofty that it misses what’s at its own feet.
I was just thinking last night about how my walk is my best feature.