Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Walking to think and write

"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books," said Nietzsche, "it is our habit to think outdoors." Do you find your own indoor thoughts more bookish, your outdoor thoughts more natural and free? Do we need more practice during class, to notice the difference?

Don Enss

            According to Solnit, Rousseau “laid the groundwork for walking” not pacing back and forth, but the walking that took Nietzsche out into the landscape. While Rousseau walked, he read and decided that man was better being ignorant than informed. The idea that ignorance brings happiness is a romantic one which does not help when you are crossing the desert and not understanding that the water ahead is a mirage or when you are in Rio for the Olympics quenching your thirst with cesspool water.
            Walking is physically beneficial because exercise helps to improve blood circulation, some of which goes to the brain as well as the muscles. Being outside is usually more beneficial because you are getting fresh air and sunshine, unless you are in Delhi, India, Karachi, Pakistan, Lanzhou China, or even in some cities in the USA.
            I like going outside to sit or walk just to give my eyes and ears a chance to experience and absorb sights and sounds: bees and butterflies alighting on a cone flower, doves cooing, rosters crowing, clouds floating in the sky, dogs barking, and birds singing. I enjoy looking at the trees as the wind ruffles their leaves and feeling the gentle breeze on my skin. These are moments to reflect on life and like Nietzsche spoke about writing, “An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; (referring to using hundreds of books to write another book) his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, not weighted with the thought of others.”

            While walking is ideal, it is not essential. Someone confined to bed or in a wheelchair can derive the same benefit of being outside, pausing to be one with nature. We live in such a stressful, productivity-oriented society that we seldom have time to enjoy these precious moments before reality calls us back inside.


  1. "better being ignorant than informed. The idea that ignorance brings happiness is a romantic one" -

    It's one of the worst romantic ideas. The bliss of permanent ignorance is not sustainable for a civilization, though some individuals may get away with it for a time. But I've found that aiming on my walks to achieve at least a few daily moments of what Wm James called the joy of "thinking of nothing and doing nothing" is actually productive of greater insight and perspective. In the long run I think it makes for more knowledge and intelligence, definitely more wisdom.

    But you're right, Don, those who've lost the use of limbs must not write themselves off. I've wondered what I'd do if I woke up one morning without mobility. In my case I'm still gonna have to move it, with motor assistance if necessary. It wouldn't be the same, but it would still be real.

  2. Hemingway has a quote that says, "Happiness in an intelligent person is the rarest thing I know." Probably because those who are intelligent spend most their time wrestling with problems that no one else wants to think about. Intelligence is bitterly lonely. I know from studying philosophy so in depth and then not having another person to talk to about it can be saddening in and of itself. Another reason intelligent people might be sad is because of the adversity they have faced that has made them intelligent and wiser.
    Biologically, I think that sunlight makes us feel better because that is our natural evolutionary environment, the human body isn't meant to sit under artificial light for long amounts of time. Are bodies are designed to move and be around the noises of something other than a printer.

    1. Papa Hemingway took his own life despite huge literary success and a world at his feet. Very sad. But I don't agree with him, I've known happy people who used their intelligence to leverage their happiness. I think that's one of our great opportunities in life, and it's why I teach a "Philosophy of Happiness" course. My mentor John Lachs was, is a wonderful exemplar of how and why to do it. Going back a bit, so was David Hume. And so was William James, on his good days.

      But you're right of course, our surrounding culture does not value the philosophical form of intelligence to the extent that it could. Your generation is so much more fortunate than mine was, though - you can find like-minded cophilosophers the world over, from the comfort and convenience of your keyboard.

      You're also right to note that we're wired to flourish in our natural evolutionary environment. Maybe "natural" will expand to include future generations of cave-dwellers, but I hope we never lose that impulse to get up and out.

    2. And one more thing... losing yourself briefly, daily, in some non-thinking activity is in my opinion a crucial skill for intellectuals. I achieved that this morning again while walking the dog, during which (as always) I listened only to the ambient sounds of birdsong and (unfortunately) the muted distant roar of internal combustion on I40. And I'm sorta doing it right now, with one part of my awareness: the part that's watching the Cards cream the Cubs, on their way to a series sweep!

      So my unsolicited advice is, walk (or bike, or hike, or something...) AND find something cosmically unimportant to care about, and "follow" it. But remember, you don't HAVE to follow anyone or anything.