Archive for the ‘Philosophy Walks’ Category

“We must cultivate our gardens”

May 31, 2013

My wife has many talents I do not share, including the proverbial master gardener’s “green thumb.” I’ve never tried to compete, have in fact evaded and tried to escape the whole earth-scratching, seed-planting, weed-yanking, endless-summer-watering routine. I’ve pretty much ceded that turf to her, with an Emersonian shrug. My version of transcendental domesticity also craves mobility and freedom, leaving the nurture of non-sentient life to better hands.

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

And yet, for reasons still mysterious to me, this spring I decided I’d try and tend a tiny plot of earth. Don’t know why. But it was with real pleasure and anticipation that I stooped to the work of preparing the ground near my back porch and the old shed to host a pair of petunia plants, one white, one purple. “To garden well,” as Michael Pollan says, “is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness.”

I’m trying.

Wish I’d taken a picture, before the ravenous rabbits arrived to devour my work.


Daunted but not defeated, I’ve gone to a hanging basket of impatiens. So far, so good.


But if my garden fails to grow I’ll be philosophical about it and just walk away.

Then I’ll walk back in an hour, to the pool.

And then to that hammock.

Where I’ll write a book this summer.

Nice work if you can get it.

Wag more

May 24, 2013

When you talk dogs and philosophy you really have to begin with Diogenes of Sinope, don’t you?

DiogenesSolvitur ambulando* (“it is solved by walking”) is often attributed to him. Don’t know why canes is typically omitted from the phrase, since the philosopher whose full nominal designation (“D. the Cynic”) practically means dog, knew the  ultimate solution almost always involves a second or third set of appendages. Preferably a quadra-set, and canine.

(Actually my Latin teacher, Ms. Google-Translate, prefers *solvendum est per ambulationem canes. Write that on the board a hundred times! Tense is tricky. But cynics do not cavil over convention.)

Unless they’ve been “trained”, dogs and Cynic philosophers do what it occurs to them to do when it occurs to them to do it, without regard for local custom or popular propriety or (especially) the presence of commanding authority. Diogenes told Alexander to step out of his sunlight. We’re told Alex was impressed. The dog was not. But why does that make either Diogenes or his dog a “cynic”?

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

AngelPupMy dogs are actually much sweeter and more compliant than that. They’re waggers, not barkers. They don’t even hassle fundamentalists or Platonists. (Squirrels & chipmunks are another story.) One’s an “Angel,” not a “Cynic,” thanks to Younger Daughter’s inspiration at the puppy pound. But wouldn’t Cynic and Diogenes be perfect names for a pair of pups? Their eventual successors perhaps, should I live so long.

But not so fast, they’d say if they could. These two are still fabulous walking companions and they’re infinitely patient. I won’t keep them waiting another moment.


Pedagogue dogs

May 23, 2013

That dog gazing uncomprehendingly (yet agreeably) at that treadmill reminds me, as most everything does, of something William James said:

We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.

This is James in speculative mode, towards “whatever [we] may consider the divine.” I prefer to keep the divinity (and cats) out of it myself, but I think the point still sticks: our experience merely brushes up against realities, most of the time, if and when it encounters them at all. So a little more good-natured humility, curiosity, and patient anticipation is in order. And unconditional loyalty. That’s what our dogs can teach us.

Books have been written on this theme, of course. Inside of a Dog and What’s a Dog For? are both on my list. And Rousseau’s Dog.

Schopenhauer was inexplicably partial to poodles. When they misbehaved he berated them: “Bad human!” Meanest insult he could imagine.

So, there’ll be a chapter in PW on walking the dogs. Rousseau did it, Schopenhauer did it, I do it daily.

Anhedonic treadmills

May 22, 2013

“I can stay on my feet a whole day, and I do not weary of walking… My walk is quick and firm.” Montaigne in Motion

I’ll bet Montaigne would have enjoyed Susan Orleans’ treadmill, on those days when weather (meteorological or internal-psychological) trapped him in his tower. Slight but perpetual motion is what we need. Bodies in motion are so much healthier than at rest.

But if you’d just as soon tread in place, at your elevated “work station,” as pad the actual ground and sniff the open air, then you’re not really a Walker. Don’t tread on me. Motion of limb is only one component of this activity. Geographic exploration, changing panoramic vistas, space to roam both physically and mentally, shifting proprietary territoriality, little epiphanies of insight, new discoveries in familiar places, chance encounters, etc. etc., are missing from this picture. And yet…

The skies were threatening here yesterday morning, so I ducked into the Vandy Rec Cernter, climbed onto the platform, set my speed for 4.2 mph, and enjoyed myself. A Platonic cave-wall of muted shadowy images provided the visual backdrop: ESPN on one channel, Montel (I think) on another, amateur cell-phone video of the Oklahoma tragedy on a loop on CNN on a third. It was diverting for awhile. For thirty minutes. And then the skies cleared.

So I climbed down, went home, and walked the dogs. So much more diverting, rewarding, real. I think the dogs would agree.

Einstein always walked

May 21, 2013

Que sais-je?” And what do I know about Einstein? He said “there is one thing we do know…”

And,”everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And, I know he was a walker.


“Yes, I saw Einstein often walking on Mercer Street… sweater hanging down, sandals… We heard that his stepdaughter wanted to give him a car, but he preferred walking.”

“He was very friendly. It seems as though it was almost every day… He always walked.”

And did you know that Einstein loved to smoke? So if he visited our campus, having no car, he’d have nowhere to indulge. We’re too good for him. (Maybe we need to rethink that policy, President McPhee?)

As he walked between his house and his office at Princeton, one could often see him followed by a trail of smoke. Nearly as part of his image as his wild hair and baggy clothes was Einstein clutching his trusty briar pipe. In 1950, Einstein is noted as saying, “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” Although he favored pipes, Einstein was not one to turn down a cigar or even a cigarette.

One more thing I know about Einstein: he loved to ride.

So he’ll be in Philosophy Walks’ sequel, Philosophy Rides.

The sufficient moment

May 17, 2013

In 1870 a young and previously-irresolute William James confided to his diary,

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Within the decade, the vacillating, self-doubting, despairing young man had given way to the confident philosopher who would vigorously defend “the sentiment of rationality,” a diverting phrase that was really his own masked synonym for happiness.

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,–this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,–is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.

Just as I am, sufficient unto the moment: it’s a condition and a state of mind an honest and ambitious person can’t reasonably hope to sustain indefinitely, but James learned and taught that it can be recaptured frequently and regularly throughout a lifetime. Different strategies serve different people. One of mine, like James, is to walk.