The Cognitive Value of Walking

9 January 2011


When Thoreau said, “I have traveled widely… in Concord,” I have always assumed that he meant that he walked a lot around Concord. In the same spirit, I could say, “I have traveled widely… in Brownsmead.” And so I traveled in Brownsmead today, walking in the woods of rural Clatsop County, Oregon. I know the area in that intimate way that you can only know a piece of ground if you have walked over it for more than forty years. Philosopher and historian Darren Staloff referred to William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land as “beaver dams over the longue durée,” and while Cronon concerned himself with the land of New England, I have come to a similar appreciation from the perspective of the Pacific Northwest.

Last May, when I was riding in Argentina, I wrote The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding, about the meditative character of bumping along on the back of a horse, slowly taking in the scenery as it passes by at a modest pace. There is also a cognitive value in walking. Rousseau and Nietzsche were at one in the cognitive value of walking. Nietzsche said of walking, in response to Flaubert’s remark, on ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis: “There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” (Twilight of the Idols, section 34) And, in a more damning aside, in a remark that I have carried with me throughout my adult life: “The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm: usually because they could not walk.” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 189) I would not want to be a poet who presented thoughts that could not walk on their own two feet.

Rousseau devoted an entire book to walking, his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I read this many years ago; indeed, it was among the earliest books of my self-education. I recently re-read the book, last summer I think. It is one of Rousseau’s later works, more mature and meditative than his earlier books, which have about them the restlessness of a “young man in a hurry.” It is easy to dislike Rousseau’s somewhat overwrought literary persona, but the Rousseau of Reveries of a Solitary Walker is a bit more likable, and one can imagine walking with Rousseau on his rambles. I suspect that Rousseau would have been a better friend out of doors than in. Rousseau was not really at home anywhere, but I suspect he was more at home out walking than in any other pastime.

It is not difficult to imagine the judgment of Nietzsche or Rousseau upon Descartes, who, while in winter quarters, shut himself up with a stove, away from the world, and attempted to think through that same world, entire, ab initio, all within the confines of a single room. This is, even more than Shakespeare’s sly take on Marlowe’s unfortunate end, “a great rec-koning in a little roome.” It is the reckoning of the world, and different thinkers have reckoned differently.

The Enlightenment aphorist Lichtenberg wrote that, “I have remarked very clearly that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up” Life can be like this; our posture may well influence our thought. Moreover, sedentary thought has a particular character. I have written about the sedentary thought of societies in Settled Life, Settled Thought. We could think of this as the phylogeny of sedentarism, and once we are thinking in these terms we can immediately see that there would also be an ontogeny of sedentarism. Sedentary thought is static, immobile, almost involuntary, and this is Platonism. Peripatetic thought is vital, dynamic, directed outward, and this is Aristotelian.

It is an irony of history that Plato is the more vital writer, while Aristotle is dry to the point of dessication. It is another irony of history that Plato referred to Aristotle’s home as “the house of the reader,” implying a certain bookishness to Aristotle’s disposition and pursuits, and further implying Plato’s own approach to scholarship, which was more embedded in discussions at his Academy — an essentially social enterprise. I suspect that these historical ironies are interrelated, and that Plato’s irrepressible personality, that comes through so vividly in his dialogues, must have outshone the less colorful Aristotle on several levels, literary and social among them. But while Plato’s milieu was discussion at the Academy, as the milieu of Socrates was the marketplace, Aristotle’s milieu was the world itself. Aristotle is supposed to have lectured to his pupils at the Lyceum while walking, which is why we still use the adjective peripatetic to describe all things Aristotelian as well as to describe all things rambling. Although the Allman Brothers wrote the song, Aristotle was the original Ramblin’ Man. Who knew that they were singing about Aristotle?

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