Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Travel and Philosophy

A philosophy of pure thought is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point - Aye, it is still more impossible. --Kirkegaard.

PHAEDRUS: …you don't go away from the city out over the border, and it seems to me you don't go outside the walls at all.

SOCRATES: Forgive me, my dear friend. You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won't teach me anything, and the people in the city do. But you seem to have found the charm to bring me out. For as people lead hungry animals by shaking in front of them a branch of leaves or some fruit, just so, I think, you, by holding before me discourses in books, will lead me all over Attica and wherever else you please. --Phaedrus

I’m not sure that travel broadens the mind. But it does underline the narrowness of experience. -–Joe Bennett

To a philosopher, travel is unnecessary. To a philosopher, travel is also insufficient; and it may also be undesirable. Nevertheless, there is practice (I will it “active philosophy”) which resembles philosophy, and which is considerably advanced by the practice of travel. In the following I will discuss the relationship between philosophy and travel, and between standard philosophy and “active philosophy”, and in doing so I hope to shed a bit of light on all of those practices, and especially upon my reasons for doing a bit a travel here and there. Unfortunately, I will also find it necessary to rush across great areas of philosophical interest with a very hasty and weak sort of light. Hopefully, however, the overall effect is that I do more to illuminate these topics than to darken them.

The independence of philosophy and travel, as described in the first two sentences of this essay, seems to me to be true historically. My small knowledge of the history of philosophy suggests to me that philosophers qua philosophers feel no great need to stick their thumb out, so to speak, and wait to be driven over the horizon. One thinks of Plato, who seems disinclined to leave the city, at least in the above quote, unless he is tempted out of there by learned discourses. One thinks of Kant, shut up in Konigsberg; and of Descartes, huddled in his oven to write his Meditations. All of them embody a view of the philosopher as above or outside the world of travellers, or otherwise detached from it.

Descartes does offer a counterpoint to the general rule, because he seems to have benefited philosophically from his journeyings through Europe. But this is a weak counterpoint, because Descartes benefited from observing the thinking habits of other people, which is only one part of what travellers usually do; because Descartes observations on his travels surely played only a small part in his writings, acting as an initial stimulus to those writings rather than a thorough-going determinant of their nature; and because in the present-day world the travels of Descartes’ kind are redundant, since the kind of thoughts that Descartes found instructive to observe on his travels can probably be found today in any well-stocked library or well-stocked philosophy department.

Wittgenstein offers another weak counterpoint. He found it useful to travel to Norway and Ireland to produce some of his work. But one would not want to say that these movements through space had much effect on his current of thought. Those movements probably ensured that the current ran as swiftly and smoothly as possible, but I doubt that they had any effect on the direction in which it ran. I expect they were less like the movements of an archeologist, who goes to Africa to study the rocks there; and more like the movements of a mathematician, who goes from one room to another because he is sickened or distracted by the noise in the first room. So philosophers do travel for their philosophy, but they do so to find more stimulating colleagues or a more salubrious environment, and not much more.

Of course, one can make the same point without hiking through the pages of history. What can we learn about the nature of Substance, or the status of the a priori, by spending a week in Southern France? What can we learn about the is-ought gap in the Himalayas, that we cannot learn at a desk? What does the scenery of New Zealand have to tell us about Gettier cases and the corroboration of scientific theories? Very little, except in the sense of offering us a comfortable setting in which to think (and perhaps not even that). Just why this is the case is of course a matter for philosophical discussion, and an empiricist is likely to give a different answer than a Platonist, and both of those answers will probably differ from this one. Here it is enough to note that it is the case: philosophers don’t need to travel, and even if they did need to it would not be much help.

It may even be a hindrance. That is, a philosopher might regard travel as undesirable, especially if she is a Platonist. In that case she would ask: what would Plato have thought of the modern traveller, leaving home for the sake of spectacle and sensual enrichment, for craggy peaks and clear lakes and lying-back-in-the-sun-drinking-cocktails: passive, fat, delighting in pseudo-indigenous pageantry, travelling by pamphlet, facing the world through shaded glass. And she would answer in the obvious way. In answering that way she would probably point me towards one of the problems with talking generally about the activity of travel. For of course not all travellers resemble the person just described, and the more well-informed or adventurous or long-term traveller probably has a different relation with philosophy than all the other sorts of travellers. To save time, however, I won’t bother differentiating different kinds of travellers, and just use “traveller” to refer to someone who sits in between the tiki-tourist and the earnest cultural adventurer.

Despite all of the above, there is of course considerable value in travel, and I do think that some of that value is of a roughly philosophical kind. By this I mean that there is an activity, a domain of thought and action, that is similar but not identical to philosophy, and which is advanced by travel, and is perhaps advanced to its fullest extent only through travel of some kind or another. For want of a better label, I will call this domain “active philosophy.” By contrast, “standard philosophy” is my label for the academic philosophy practiced in orthodox Western university departments). I propose that for each of the main branches of standard philosophy, there is a corresponding branch of active philosophy; and that although the correspondence is pretty rough, it would be misleading to ignore it.

One main branch of philosophy is epistemology. As mentioned above, for an epistemologist there is not much to gain by travelling the world. But for a person who is interested in acquiring knowledge of a practical kind quickly and independently and reliably, it is surely quite a good idea to spend a few months making one’s way about the world, especially about the more challenging parts of the world. Planning, haggling, negotiating, deciding here and now what to do here and now: all of these activities call forth the thinking faculty, and all of them are called forth by travel. Travel cultivates the faculty of practical awareness, of being alert to things in the immediate vicinity, of being alive to the world. This faculty has little to do with epistemology as usually practiced, in subject matter or in method, and a person who is competent at active epistemology is unlikely, by virtue of that competence, to be good at real epistemology. Nevertheless, epistemology is reflection upon knowledge; and one who has mastered this the practical faculty just described, has mastered one kind of knowledge. (Even this is a pretty weak connection. Fortunately, however, it is the weakest of the three that I will discuss)

And what about metaphysics? Do travellers gain a kind of awareness that corresponds to the kind of awareness that a metaphysician is looking for? I think they do gain such an awareness, though again the correspondence with scholarly metaphysics is loose. Scholarly metaphysics, I am told, is the study of the “fundamental nature of reality.” And although the “reality” to the traveller investigates is a bit different to that which the metaphysician investigates, I do think that the former, by virtue of their travel, achieves a kind of ontological insight. It is a less grand sort of insight than that phrase suggests, but it is insight nonetheless. It is insight concerning what human lives basically consists in. One stays at home, and becomes preoccupied by a particular set of problems and interests, whether they are personal or financial or philosophical. One goes abroad, and discovers that a lot of other people are preoccupied by problems and concerns of a completely different kind. One already knows this when one is at home, in a vague and impersonal sort of way: one only needs to look at a good atlas to see, say, that 57% or the world work in factories and the rest do not; or that 54% of the worlds population practices a religion. But one knows this sort of thing in a different way, a more intense and personal way, when one goes abroad. I won’t try to say what this different kind of “knowing” consists in, and how it differs from ordinary knowing; I’ll just say that, in my current opinion, it is an advance upon the good-atlas way of knowing about the basic constituents of human life.

The insight I have just mentioned can come in two forms, I think: the objective and the subjective. Objectively, one discovers something about what the majority of people do in their lives. Objectively, one also get a more precise awareness of how diverse the world is, how much those different ways of living vary; often, I suspect, the traveler, having gotten this more precise awareness, places the emphasis upon the difference. “I was reminded that the world is wide and full of difference,” writes Joe Bennett of one of his hitch-hiking experiences. And in being so reminded, he has gained renewed awareness of a state of affairs that may, without too much strain, be regarded as “fundamental” to the reality of the human world.

Subjectively, the traveler discovers something about which way of living is best suited to himself. One could think of this as an ontological discovery, since it concerns fundamentals: it concerns the basic units of one’s life around which the rest will be organized, whether the basic units are Work and Family, or Writing, or Other People. But probably it is better to think of it as an ethical discovery, since it concerns what one values most highly. And as an ethical discovery, it belongs in the next paragraph.

Ethics is concerned with evaluating competing courses of action. Travel both causes a person to discover courses of action that were previously hidden from him, and to discover new reasons for favoring courses of action that were previously unappealing to him. One discovers new ways of living, as mentioned above; one also discovers new manners of being, new ways of holding oneself or behaving oneself or new ways of interacting with others. One discovers personality types that had never occurred to one as possibilities (not that one would have denied their possibility, if someone had asked about them; just that one did not have the experience or the imagination to conceive of them, and to ask the question of oneself). Perhaps one has always tended to favour introverts, not having known any appealing extroverts; and then one travels, and begins to see how certain shades of extroversion, which were previously clouded in one’s mind by the unattractive shades of this characteristic, are actually attractive. Perhaps one has always thought of religious people as rather foolish and confused, and their claims to spiritual superiority as just so much folly and confusion; and then one travels, and discovers that certain people do possess a kind of calmness, an honest, well-grounded, desirable sort of calm, that seems to be a result of their religious sort of life. Discoveries of this kind are certainly aided by travel. They may also be aided by detached philosophical reflection, but I do not think that they can be fully discovered solely in that abstract manner, since they have a large empirical component to them: to know them, we need to know something about our responses to certain kinds of person or activity. These discoveries are beyond abstract thought in a way that resembles the way in which our attitude towards vanilla icecream is beyond abstract thought.

The above paragraph is concerned with ethics insofar as ethics is a matter of deciding between competing courses of action. But ethics might also be a matter of acting in accordance with those decisions. I say “might” because success in ethics, in the scholarly version of that discipline, is by-and-large independent of a persons success in acting ethically; and I avoid saying “is not” because it is plausible to think that this independence of thought and action represents a failure to be properly philosophical. That debate is irrelevant to the claim I want to make here, however, which is that active ethics (by which I mean the practice of acting in accordance with ethically sound beliefs) is a practice which is, firstly, closely related to scholarly ethics, and secondly, that is advanced by travel. I take it that the first claim is obvious (though precisely what is the nature of close relation between ethics and active ethics, is not so obvious. I will discuss that relation a bit later on). The second claim is supported by the fact that travel can furnish us with practical skills that enable us to act ethically. One such practical skill is intellectual, and has already been discussed (under the label of active epistemology). Other practical skills are social. Through travel we learn to communicate with other people, tolerate their eccentricities, appreciate their virtues, and generally to be agreeable to them; and without these skills, our chances of living a fully moral life are lessened. (Though I am not sure just what sort of moral negligence would be involved, if someone failed to cultivate these skills. Are we morally obliged to be charismatic? I think I’ll discuss that kind of question in another post.) And practical skills, of the kind that are developed through travel, can influence our ability to live well in other ways. If we want to devote our lives to some sort grand, ethically driven program of reform, whether in politics or in education or in science, usually we will need a greater amount than usual of eloquence and charm and facility with people; and surely travel can help to cultivate these qualities as well.

At this point I should acknowledge that nothing I have said here is new or surprising. Indeed, the practices that I have grouped under the label of “active philosophy” are so well-known as to be easily summarized by cliches. What I mean by a facility in “active epistemology” is really just what people mean when they talk about being able to “think on one’s feet” and “keep your wits about you.” And what I mean by a facility for “active metaphysics” is really just what people mean by “having a sense of perspective,” or a “strong sense of identity.” Perhaps “active ethics” is less easily summarised in commonplace terms. But even there one does not have to grope around for too long to find an everyday approximation to my newly-invented term: being an active ethicist is more-or-less the same as being a good bloke. Nevertheless, I think there is some genuine value in doing what I have just done: there is value, that is, in trying to clarify and re-describe concepts that we usually treat, lighthandedly, as cliches.

There is also value in trying to describe the relationship between standard philosophy and the main elements, just described, of active philosophy. One could interpret Kirkegaard as trying, in the quote given at the start of this post, to give such a description. This might be a faulty interpretation: it may be wrong, for example, to think that Kirkegaard’s “philosophy to exist in” is my “active philosophy.” My purposes here are not to accurately describe the thoughts of a past philosopher, however, so any misreading of Kirkegaard I commit is beside the point. The point of presenting Kirkegaard’s metaphor is to suggest one way of describing the relation between active philosophy and standard philosophy. The suggestion is that standard philosophy is useless when it comes to succeeding at active philosophy; and the reason for this is the coarseness of the information that standard philosophy gives us about the best way to think and to behave in the world. Standard philosophy is good for certain kinds of large-scale navigation, perhaps, but it is useless in any practical situation.

It would be nice if I could now go on to give a detailed, reasoned account of my attitude towards this view. However, I cannot do that. For one thing, the question of how active philosophy stands in relation to standard philosophy is complicated by the vagueness with which both of those relata are defined, and the fact that the relation may vary over the different branches of each. For another thing, the question about the relation between these two kinds of activity is one version of the question: what is the relation between philosophy and life? And that is the sort of question that you answer over a lifetime, not over a few paragraphs.

The best I can do here is to say that I disagree with Kirkegaard’s view, and to discuss very briefly what thoughts motivate this disagreement. For what it is worth, I propose that Kirkegaard’s metaphor can be improved by just a little tweaking: by replacing the map of Europe with a large-scale map of Denmark; and adding in a particular sort of map to represent the kind of guidance that is given by active philosophy: that particular sort of map is, I think, a map of the natural terrain of Denmark, a topological map perhaps. This is an improvement on Kirkegaard’s view because it does justice to the guiding role that standard philosophy can play for active philosophy; and because it recognizes that the two kinds of philosophy really are of different kinds. I will discuss these points a bit more in the paragraphs below.

The first point that standard philosophy can play a “guiding role” in active philosophy. By “guiding role” I mean the role of giving course-grained but widely applicable recommendations about how a person should pursue their active philosophy. Standard philosophy can play such a guiding role, I think, at least in relation to some of the branches of active philosophy. In ethics, for example, our actions can be guided in an obvious way by our philosophizing: by philosophizing, we reach conclusion about how to act, and then act in accordance with those conclusions. And this guiding influence is not just present in this or that region of active philosophy. Rather, it is present in all regions: we are guided by our philosophising (at least potentially) in our long-term projects, our short-term projects, our social actions, out political and our intellectual actions. This is not to say, of course, that standard philosophy is omniscient, that it leaves no room for “play,” no extra work for active philosophy to do. Its influence is general, but it is also course-grained: our philosophising may give us the concepts of “introversion” and “extraversion”, and it may help us to recognize and evaluate the lessons that active philosophy puts forward for us; but it is not in the power of philosophising to encounter those lessons, to come across the attractive extrovert or to live for a while with the inspiring devotee of religion (it may be in the power of the imagination to come across these things; but that is another story).

My second point is that the content of active philosophy differs from that of standard philosophy. The former is made up primarily of a set of clearly articulated beliefs and inferences. Although it refers to the world of action and of things, the procedures of standard philosophy take place entirely in the minds of the philosopher, in such a way, ideally, that its products can be entirely represented in words. Active philosophy, on the other hand, is made up primarily of a set of practical skills: the procedures by which active philosophers pursue their discipline, and the products that come out at the end of those procedures, are actions and sensations rather than thoughts and sentences. One becomes a good active epistemologist mainly by getting practice at “thinking on the spot”; and one shows that one is a good active epistemologist by putting this practice to use in real situations. Similarly with the practical skills that are the domain of the active ethicist. Even active metaphysics, as mentioned above, produces a kind of knowledge that is (in some way that I have not clarified) “different” from ordinary philosophical knowledge. This difference in kind, between active philosophy and standard philosophy, invites us to tweak Kirkegaard’s image in the way I have suggested above: to imagine standard philosophy as a large-scale map of Denmark’s roads, and active philosophy as a map of the country’s natural landscape. The former is one kind of thing, a system of objects whose natures and interconnections can be clearly delineated; and the latter is another kind of thing, a less orderly but more detailed kind of thing than the former. And if we want to go widely and safely through the terrain of life, we need maps of both kinds.

In summary, I have described an activity called “active philosophy.” This activity can be described in correspondence with the activity referred to here as “standard philosophy”; and I have outlined the correspondence as it applies to the three main branches of philosophy. My main purpose here was to say that the orthodox philosopher cannot gain any real benefit from travel; but that the active philosopher can do so. My secondary purpose was to try to say something sensible (though of course not comprehensive) the relation between active and standard philosophy, and I used Kirkegaard’s metaphor to help me in this attempt.

Now, these two purposes have taken up far more time and far more space than I intended them to take up, and as a result my overarching purpose may have been lost: that is, I may not have given a very clear account of my interest in travel, and my reasons for writing about it. (For one thing, I have not given an exhaustive account of my reasons for travelling: I have only given an account of why a philosophically inclined person might have reasons to travel). I have three excuses for my wobbliness of subject-matter and long-windedness of expression. First, there’s some value discussing the relation between travel and philosophy, and about active philosophy, even if this discussion leads one into one or two sidetracks. Second, I do intend to write a shorter and more palatable post about my travels, which I hope will fill in the gaps that are left by this one. (For example, it will give an account of why a literature-inclined person might have reasons to travel.) Thirdly, I did not force you to read this (but thank-you very much if you have, and I wait enthusiastically for your comments, however minor they might be).