Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Uranidrome, MTSU's Naked Eye Observatory

For those who want to know more about one of the coolest spots (and peripatetic destinations) on our campus.

Use the comments section below to post anything you'd like to share about the course so far. Watch this space the day before each class to find and take the next scheduled quiz (and earn your first participation run of the day).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Let's introduce ourselves, Fall 2015 CoPhilosophy collaborators. (I'll tell you in class why I call my version of the Intro course "CoPhilosophy." But maybe you can guess, from the William James quote in the masthead.)

I invite you all to hit "comment" and reply with your own introductions, and (bearing in mind that this is an open site) your answers to two basic questions: Who are you? Why are you here? (in this course, on this campus, in this state, on this planet...)

Our first class meeting will consist mainly of introductions and a heads-up that this is an unconventional course in ways I hope you'll find delightful, instructive, and rewarding. If you don't like to move, breathe, and converse in the open air, this may not be the course for you. But if you don't especially like the conventional lecture-style academic model in which I talk and you scribble silently in your seats, it may be just what you're looking for.

We'll not go over the syllabus or get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of course mechanics on Day #1, there's plenty of time for those details later. But do peruse the blogsite and syllabus (linked in the right margin) before next class and let me know what's unclear. Meanwhile, read your classmates' intros and post your own.

I'm Dr. Oliver, aka (despite my best efforts to discourage it) "Dr. Phil." I live in Nashville with my wife, Younger Daughter, a dog (Angel) and a cat (Zeus). Older Daughter is a film student in another state.

My office is in James Union Building 300. Office hours are Mondays thru Thursdays from 1 to 2 pm, & by appointment. On nice days office hours will probably be outside in front of the library (in  the "Confucius" alcove, if it's available.) I answer emails during office hours, but not on weekends. Surest way to get a quick response:come in or call during office hours.

I've been at MTSU for over a decade, teaching philosophy courses on diverse subjects including atheism, childhood, happiness, the environment, the future, and bioethics.

My Ph.D. is from Vanderbilt. I'm originally from Missouri, near St. Louis. I was indoctrinated as a Cardinals fan in early childhood, so I understand something about religious zeal. My undergrad degree is from Mizzou, in Columbia MO. (I wish my schools weren't in the SEC-I don't approve of major collegiate sports culture or f
ootball brain injuries, as I'm sure to tell you again.)

My philosophical expertise, such as it is, centers on the American philosophical tradition of William James and John Dewey. A former student once asked me to respond to a questionnaire, if you're curious you can learn more about me there.

What you most need to know about me, though, is that I'm a peripatetic and will encourage you all to join me in that philosophical lifestyle as often as possible during discussion time. (If you're not sure what peripatetic means, scan the right sidebar or read the syllabus or ask me. Or look it up.)

I post my thoughts regularly to my blogs Up@dawn and Delight Springs, among others, and to Twitter (@osopher), and am planning to experiment with podcasting as a classroom tool this semester. Follow me if you want to.
But of course, as Brian Cohen said, you don't have to follow anyone. (Extra credit if you get that reference... and real extra credit if you realize that my "extra credit" is usually rhetorical.) However, if a blog or podcast link turns up with the daily quiz (which will always be posted on this site no later than the night before class), you might find it helpful to read or listen.
Enough about me. Who are you? (Where are you from, where have you been, what do you like, who do you want to become,...?) Why are you here? (On Earth, in Tennessee, at MTSU, in philosophy class)? Hit "comments" below and post your introduction, then read your classmates'... and bear in mind that this is an open site. The world can read it. (The world's probably busy with other stuff, of course - Kardashians and cooking shows and other examples of  what passes for "reality" these days.)

Please include your section number in your reply, and in all future posts on this site: #8-TTh 8 am, #12 MW 2:20 pm, #11-MW 4:10 pm - turns out I'm the one who was confused about the section #s. Sorry!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Opening deja-vu

Opening Day 2014! (8.25.14)

I've notched a few of these Opening Days on my blog-stick, enough to form a patterned schtick involving Douglas Adams' philosophical whale, Monty Python's non-argument, and a few other comic-gimmicky invitations to the philosophy dance. ("Oh no, not that again.") It's my eternal recurrence, my groundhog day, my season-opener. I love it.

I always want to convey to students on Day 1 the simple message that philosophy is for everyone (or at least it can be... No it can't... Yes it can... Oh look, this isn't an argument...), that it's at once sublime and ridiculous, frivolous and profound, serious and fun. Serious fun. When you start asking questions, all kinds of things can happen. You never know for sure what's rushing to meet you, or whether it will be your friend. That's why you philosophize, as Professor James professed more than a century ago in the lectures that would become Pragmatism:
I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.

Right: you're all individuals, all citizens of the cosmos, all with your own way of seeing and feeling and talking. So let's introduce ourselves and get talking, CoPhilosophers. For, "Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use."

Nor the westernized philosophizing student intellect, either.

But of course we do know there's a hard terminus awaiting this journey called life. Is it finally terminal, or a gateway, or a release? That's a great philosophical question. Should we live as though we knew the end to be THE END? Another good one. Different philosophers have offered different answers. We should consider them. We will.

But lots of students, even some of the "best" students, don't. A review in yeterday's Times of William Deresiewicz' Excellent Sheep indicts some Ivy League overachievers for underselling themselves, not asking big questions, not giving themselves the thrill and the mind-expanding experience of philosophizing while they're still young enough for that activity to alter them in constructive ways. "Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they’re no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. Too busy to read or make friends, listen to music or fall in love, they waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls on building their résumés."

 "The faculty could and should push these gifted obsessives to slow down and ask big questions." That's my cue. We're not in the Ivy League, but we've all got our gifts and our obsessions. We've all got questions to ask and minds to expand and souls to build. So let's get busy!
Who's your favorite philosopher? (8.27.14)

That's the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can visit What is Philosophy? first. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, btw, from a perky Scot called Cogan on my first day of Grad School back in 1980. Not the last. It was already an old joke.)

We don't all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we "Americanists," amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students once threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). Almost made 'em watch the Argument Clinic. "An argument isn't just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes," etc. etc. But I don't want to argue about that.

Maybe a round of Bruces would be welcome today, simultaneously introducing several stars of philosophy, teaching us how to pronounce "Nietzsche" (and mispronounce "Kant") and disabusing anyone who falsely presumes our subject to be overly sober and serious about itself. If any doubt about that persists, just drop in on the Philosophy Club's Thursday Happy Hour - not that I'd want to reinforce the spurious conceit that philosophers are drunks. G'day.

I don't have a "favourite"... but my favorite (as I've already told my classes, on Day #1) is of
course William James.I don't always agree with him, but I almost always want to know he'd say about the topic du jour.

Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. SPP

My favorite living philosopher is John Lachs. He came for a visit last year, to my CoPhi classes.

It's no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They're all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell (who definitely knew the value of philosophy).

I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.

No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don't win wide favor across the pond. (But I hear the Rawls musical has been a hit with the Brits.)

I did hear an English philosopher praising James once, on the BBC's excellent "In Our Time." But generally they prefer William's "younger, shallower, vainer" (and more Anglophilic) brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep, and the branches of reciprocal influence spread wide. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays ("On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," "What Makes a Life Significant") and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

Honestly, the best explanation for why I became a lifelong student of, and stroller with, WJ may just be that little moment in the Vandy bookstore back in my first year of grad school - the moment when my new mentor John Compton noticed me browsing the McDermott anthology o fThe Writings. John's warm and enthusiastic familiarity with "Willy James" hooked me. Thank you, John.

The thing James said that's stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I'm not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos.
Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.

We're also looking today at Nigel Warburton's introduction to Philosophy: The Basics (5th ed., 2013), in which he quite rightly points out that while philosophy can help you think about who you are and why you're here - about the meaning of your life - it isn't an alternative to other fields of study. "It is important not to expect too much of philosophy," to the neglect of literature and history and science and art, et al.

That's right. But it's equally important not to expect too little of yourself, and to think you're not up to the challenge of an examined life. To repeat Professor James's empowering declaration: "I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds." If you don't all know that yet, CoPhilosophers, we'd better get to work. Serious fun, dead ahead. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The college game

Opening Day is rapidly approaching. Time to re-assemble some reminders of why we play this college game, and some motivation.

An extraordinary legacy (from Aug.14, 2014)

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying."

I didn't know Robin Williams, nor apparently did he know himself well enough when he said bad times always awaken us to "the stuff you weren't paying attention to." But I know how inspired I was, first time I saw him in this role. Extraordinary. Carpe Diem (YouT)... EmzaO On Robin Williams

We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You've walked past them many times. I don't think you've really looked at them. They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlmen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary. Dead Poets Society

A new leaf (8.18.14)

It's Older Daughter's first day of class at her new school, a vicarious Opening Day for me. (My own is just a week away now.) Day 1, a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a rising sun. September in August.

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air ... Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year's mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” Wallace Stegner

"Football in the air" doesn't resonate for me as it does for most, this time of year. But I suspended my Holy Crusade against the game Malcolm Gladwell likens to a dogfight long enough to enjoy the spirited post-New Student Convocation pep rally in the Heartland the other afternoon. Go Dawgs. But, behave yourselves off the field and remember that a student-athlete is a student first.

 The rally was only overtly and ritually and superficially about the game. What matters is the camaraderie, the sense of a shared collaborative project, a mutually supportive singular identity, a common cause. It's jarring to begin all over again, in a new place. But it'll be more than comforting to come back to that place again and again, in years to come, with the old slate wiped clean.

That's precisely what I love so much about my own daily pre-dawn ritual, this game I play every morning. I'm not here to beat anyone, though. I'm just trying to feel the pep and channel it, like old Arnold Bennett who said "you can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” Every dawn seems the steadier pace, for me.

Pretty good sheep (8.22.14)

It's Fall Faculty Meeting day at my school this morning, the annual inaugural summons to congregate in Tucker Auditorium to be alternately cheered and chastened by our leader. Classes begin Monday.

It's Move-in Day for students and their box-hauling families, too. I'll warn them, the schlepping and hauling never really stops. Older Daughter phoned home just yesterday with an urgent request to bundle and ship a bunch of stuff we missed.

With the academic year thus underway, and anticipating another talk from the top recycling the refrain that we need to get 'em in and get 'em out, thoughts turn again to the big question of what it is we're supposed to be doing here.

A new critique of elite higher ed called Excellent Sheep calls out the ivy league for producing conformists instead of freethinkers and leaders. That's the buzz, anyway. I haven't read it. I have read reviews like this one, in the form of an open letter to author William Deresiewicz.

"You trace academe’s troubles to "the Gilded Age," when colleges became engines of social stratification as wealth was created in the Industrial Revolution. But these conflicts about educational purpose in bourgeois societies are cyclical—already in prospering Athens, Socrates and Protagoras were arguing about education as soul-searching skepticism in service of personal and civic virtue, versus education as learning to get ahead in the world by giving the right answers."*

True enough. But excellent sheep at least do the reading and look for answers themselves. The current factory model we've been urged to deploy at our large public university, I fear, falls short even of that faded ideal. We're just supposed to get students out into the world, credentialed for employment. Whether they develop soul enough to engage in constructive questioning seems not to be our charge.

But it will always be mine. I will always tell my students that if they can get both a degree and a sense of self and a life-direction in four years, go for it! But if they need to do what I did, to take a little longer, to switch majors in mid-stream and thus discover an avocation as well as a vocation, and can find a way to fund that exploration, then my board of regents and administrative overlords should have nothing to say in opposition.

In short, my mission is to subvert the factory model. That's what I take "student-centered" learning really to mean.

*'What Ails Elite Education? - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Postscript, August 2015. An alarming, eye-opening sequel from Deresewiecz: "How College Sold Its Soul to the Market"-an excerpt:
As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
Sadly on target.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Reflecting on Your Life"

That's the name of Harvard's freshman seminar, as described in the Times Education Life supplement. The seminar prods first-years to ask themselves some pretty basic philosophical questions:
What does it mean to live a good life? What about a productive life? How about a happy life? How might I think about these ideas if the answers conflict with one another? And how do I use my time here at college to build on the answers to these tough questions?
So, "how to live wisely?" For one thing, "don't be afraid to take classes that challenge your suppositions." You've come to the right course, CoPhilosophers!
The same supplement has sound advice on selecting a major:
Most people are unsure when they're starting out. Where they end up isn't a direct result of their major; it's the result of a meandering process... Most advice about majors includes the admonition "Follow your passion." But passion is something you discover over time, by finding an interest, however small, and nurturing it. There's no epiphany; it's a collection of small decisions that move you step by tiny step.
If you can make all those decisions and take all those steps in four years, good for you. (I didn't.) But Tip #15 may be for you too: "I wish I had spent five years in college." If you can spare the time and expense, go for it. Our slogan entreating you to "finish in four and get more" sounds catchy but may not be your wisest choice. It may not get you the "more" you need.

The Gymnasiums of the Mind

Christopher Orlet wanders down literary paths merrily swinging his arms and pondering the happy connection between philosophy and a good brisk walk.
If there is one idea intellectuals can agree upon it is that the act of ambulation – or as we say in the midwest, walking – often serves as a catalyst to creative contemplation and thought. It is a belief as old as the dust that powders the Acropolis, and no less fine. Followers of the Greek Aristotle were known as peripatetics because they passed their days strolling and mind-wrestling through the groves of the Academe. The Romans’ equally high opinion of walking was summed up pithily in the Latin proverb: “It is solved by walking.”
Nearly every philosopher-poet worth his salt has voiced similar sentiments. Erasmus recommended a little walk before supper and “after supper do the same.” Thomas Hobbes had an inkwell built into his walking stick to more easily jot down his brainstorms during his rambles. Jean- Jacques Rousseau claimed he could only meditate when walking: “When I stop, I cease to think,” he said. “My mind only works with my legs.” Søren Kierkegaard believed he’d walked himself into his best thoughts. In his brief life Henry David Thoreau walked an estimated 250,000 miles, or ten times the circumference of earth. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.” Thoreau’s landlord and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized walking as “gymnastics for the mind.”
In order that he might remain one of the fittest, Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier. Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.”
None of these laggards, however, could touch Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Rising at dawn, Nietzsche would stalk through the countryside till 11 a.m. Then, after a short break, he would set out on a two-hour hike through the forest to Lake Sils. After lunch he was off again, parasol in hand, returning home at four or five o’clock, to commence the day’s writing.
Not surprisingly, the romantic poets were walkers extraordinaire. William Wordsworth traipsed fourteen or so miles a day through the Lake District, while Coleridge and Shelley were almost equally energetic. According to biographer Leslie Stephen, “The (English) literary movement at the end of the 18th century was…due in great part, if not mainly, to the renewed practice of walking.”
Armed with such insights, one must wonder whether the recent decline in walking hasn’t led to a corresponding decline in thinking. Walking, as both a mode of transportation and a recreational activity, began to fall off noticeably with the rise of the automobile, and took a major nosedive in the 1950s. Fifty plus years of automobile-centric design has reduced the number of sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly spaces to a bare minimum (particularly in the American west). All of the benefits of walking: contemplation, social intercourse, exercise, have been willingly exchanged for the dubious advantages of speed and convenience, although the automobile alone cannot be blamed for the maddening acceleration of everyday life. The modern condition is one of hurry, a perpetual rush hour that leaves little time for meditation. No wonder then that in her history of walking, Rebecca Solnit mused that “modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness,” which seems the antithesis of Wittgenstein’s observation that in the race of philosophy, the prize goes to the slowest.
If we were to compare the quantity and quality of thinkers of the early 20th century with those of today, one cannot help but notice the dearth of Einsteins, William Jameses, Eliots and Pounds, Freuds, Jungs, Keynes, Picassos, Stravinskys, Wittgensteins, Sartres, Deweys, Yeats and Joyces. But it would be foolish to suggest that we have no contemporaries equal to Freud, et al. That would be doing an injustice to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Edward O. Wilson, James D. Watson, and the recently departed Stephen J. Gould. But as to their walking habits, they varied. Gould, a soft, flabby man, made light of his lack of exercise. Edward O. Wilson writes that he “walks as much as (his) body allows,” and used to jog up until his forties. Watson, the discoverer of the DNA molecule, frequently haunts the grounds of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, particularly on weekends, and is said to be both a nature-lover and bird-watcher.
There seems no scientific basis to link the disparate acts of walking and thinking, though that didn’t stop Mark Twain from speculating that “walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by, and to keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active.” Others have concluded that walking’s two-point rhythm clears the mind for creative study and reflection. Though not every man of letters bought into this. Max Beerbohm, in his essay ‘Going Out for a Walk,’ found walking to have quite the opposite effect:
“My objection to it is that it stops the brain. Many a man has professed to me that his brain never works so well as when he is swinging along the high road or over hill and dale. This boast is not confirmed by my memory of anybody who on a Sunday morning has forced me to partake of his adventure. Experience teaches me that whatever a fellow-guest may have of power to instruct or to amuse when he is sitting on a chair, or standing on a hearth-rug, quickly leaves him when he takes one out for a walk.”
And while Einstein may have been a devoted pedestrian (daily hoofing the mile-and-a-half walk between his little frame house at 112 Mercer Street and his office at Princeton’s Fuld Hall), the inability to walk has not much cramped Stephen Hawking’s intellectual style.
There is also reason to suspect that creative contemplation in the solitude of one’s automobile may be as beneficial as a walk in the woods, though considerably more hazardous. J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to think so intensely while driving that he would occasionally become a danger to motorists, pedestrians and himself. He once awakened from a deep academic reverie to find himself and his car resting at the top of the steps of the local courthouse.
While the intellectual advantages of walking remain open to debate, the health benefits are beyond doubt, though you would never know it by the deserted American streets. Here, where the average citizen walks a measly 350 yards a day, it is not surprising that half the population is diagnosed as obese or overweight. Despite such obscene girth, I have sat through planning commission meetings and heard civil engineers complain that it would be a waste of money to lay down sidewalks since no one walks anyway. No one thought to ask if perhaps we do not walk because there are no sidewalks. Even today, the typical urban planner continues to regard the pedestrian as “the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement.”
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, walking remains for me the best “of all exercises.” Even so, I am full of excuses to stay put. My neighborhood has no sidewalks and it is downright dangerous to stroll the streets at night; if the threat does not come directly from thugs, then from drunken teens in speeding cars. There are certainly no Philosophers’ Walks in my hometown, as there are near the universities of Toronto, Heidelberg, and Kyoto. Nor are there any woods, forests, mountains or glens. “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and the woods,” said Thoreau. “What would become of us, if we only walked in a garden or a mall?” I suppose I am what becomes of us, Henry.
At noon, if the weather cooperates, I may join a few other nameless office drudges on a stroll through the riverfront park. My noon walk is a brief burst of freedom in an otherwise long, dreary servitude. Though I try to reserve these solitary walks for philosophical ruminations, my subconscious doesn’t always cooperate. Often I find my thoughts to be pedestrian and worrisome in nature. I fret over money problems, or unfinished office work and my attempts to brush these thoughts away as unworthy are rarely successful. Then, again, in the evenings I sometimes take my two dachshunds for a stroll. For a dog, going for a walk is the ultimate feelgood experience. Mention the word ‘walkies’ to a wiener dog, and he is immediately transported into new dimensions of bliss. I couldn’t produce a similar reaction in my wife if I proposed that we take the Concorde to Paris for the weekend. Rather than suffer a walk, my son would prefer to have his teeth drilled.
In no way am I suggesting that all of society’s ills can be cured by a renaissance of walking. But maybe – just maybe – a renewed interest in walking may spur some fresh scientific discoveries, a unique literary movement, a new vein of philosophy. If nothing else it will certainly improve our health both physically and mentally. Of course that would mean getting out from behind the desk at noon and getting some fresh air. That would mean shutting down the television in the evenings and breathing in the Great Outdoors. And, ultimately, it would involve a change in thinking and a shift in behavior, as opposed to a change of channels and a shift into third.
Christopher Orlet is an essayist and book critic. His work appears often in The American Spectator, the LondonGuardian, and Salon.com. Visit his homepage at www.christopherorlet.net.