Walking and Philosophy: Thinking in Motion
How does an activity as simple as walking become emblematic of an age or a school of philosophy? From the peripatetics of ancient Greece to the paradigmatic urban wanderer of nineteenth-century Europe—the flâneur, a boulevard stroller immersed in the throng of human traffic—philosophers have been walking and thinking, alone or among the crowd, amidst an asymmetrical organization of gazes, at once observing and being observed. The freedom—of movement, of time—that accrues to the contemplative walker is also theorized as a freedom of thought: the cobblestones traversed by the flâneur parallel the byways that walking opens in the mind. This (specifically male) figure of the thoughtful urban walker also has its bucolic counterpart, where, for Henry David Thoreau, walking in the “absolute freedom and wildness” of the natural environment becomes an occasion to meditate on the nature of civility. Similarly, for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the outskirts of Paris open up exquisite horizons of moving meditation on plants, education, and political philosophy. How, and under what conditions, have the particular pleasures of pedestrianism become attached to specific modes and ways of thinking? How is the practice of walking experienced differently, across time, bodies, and environments? Can walking be done wrongly? And what happens when aimless wandering is transformed into an act of protest?
In this course, we’ll explore the long history of walking as a contemplative practice. Through careful readings of Thoreau, Rousseau, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, we’ll ask: what does it mean to walk amidst the public—and to escape it? To walk in solitude or with a companion? Reaching back in time, we’ll consider the modern flâneur as heir to the peripatetic pupils of Aristotle, and, updating the category, we’ll examine Lauren Elkin’s proposal of the flâneuse – a challenge to the distinctly masculine figure of privilege and leisure. Looking to the twentieth century and beyond, from Gandhi’s Salt Marches to the March on Washington, we’ll examine walking as political practice and, with Trisha Brown’s “Walking on the Wall,” as performance art. What, in the twenty-first century, are our modes of walking, and how do they speak to other kinds of social, political, and philosophical practice?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 08 — June 29, 2023