The peripatetic stage in our life comes with the emptying out of the nest so that we have no destination, no particular urgency in the walking, and nothing other than the pleasure of one another’s company and conversation. We have done the running, but life returns us to learning to walk.
The original Peripatetics walked with Aristotle and the walking, observing, and first order experience of Athens and its surroundings marked a departure from Plato’s static, otherworldly, forms. Plato, the broad shouldered, thick necked, sumo wrestler of a philosopher was all about remaining stationary, and through the Socratic dialogues the goal was to pin down one’s opponents. Aristotle’s philosophy is more about motion and less about standing firm. His is an exploratory, taking in the sights kind of philosophy. Peripatetic thought marks a form of thinking that accounts for the earth and mortality. Where Plato was dependent on the immortal soul’s ability to escape the body so as to arrive at the forms, the walking philosophers presume to find the forms in the walk.
It is the pleasure of the walk, taking in the sights, and allowing the natural environment to dictate the form, or lack thereof, of thought that marks our perambulating. For us, games and sports have never proven conducive to promoting this pleasure, mainly because they are both things which one wins by making the other lose. Monopoly, one of my favorite board games from childhood, does not produce pleasure in the others company so much as pleasure at taking her company and property – which never made for great harmony. Games are often an extension of work, at which one is trying to get ahead – get all the cash. I’m not sure one can either be a success or a failure at walking. Walking is not a competitive sport, at least the kind of walking we do. We can’t criticize one another’s walking, but we can walk together – and in the walking we discover what presents itself and we are present to take it in.
The walking philosophers and thinkers – Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Rousseau, Heidegger and Thoreau – represent no particular school of thought other than their departure from an established static order. Kant, whose walks were so regular (perhaps a hint of transcendentalism even here) that townsfolk claimed they could set their clocks by his passing, is very different in his thought and walks than Nietzsche, who ascends and descends the heights in a desperate need to walk so as to think and to rid himself of excruciating pain.
Thoreau and Rousseau would both walk into the wild but Thoreau revels in the solitude while Rousseau seems, even in his rejection of society to be desperately in need of it. His philosophy is the record of a man trying to make a departure from society, and perhaps in the final stage of life when he gives up on all social conquests, when the walking becomes an end in itself, he succeeds. Ironically, it is Rousseau’s influence through which the American transcendentalists seem to have filtered their very ‘American’ sense of nature, taken up in Thoreau’s Walking.
Wittgenstein is at once the most solitary and social of walkers – as exacting in his solitude as he is solicitous and frustrating in his social relations. His students, perhaps, failed to understand the point of the walk and the sometimes wandering nature of the conversation. His comments on the colors reflected in the wet pavement, remarked on by Drury as if they must bear some weight, are simply part of the form of life encountered in the walk. Wittgenstein’s binding of soul to body means that walking, as well as words, exercises the soul. The words do not bear any peculiar weight but the form of life which occasions them do.
It was for this reason that he did not want students to take notes during his lectures. Few of his students could find the point in his lectures as they were a performance of a form of life or a game for which their Platonic imaginations were unprepared. The boring, plodding work of definition and description was a first order work of philosophy that had already commenced and was being demonstrated, yet they were looking for some further point beyond the words.
Though Heidegger sets forth his thought in an imaginary walk in ‘Country Path Conversations’ his notion that ‘I will non-willing’ poses the question if he had enough will to propel him down a path of his choosing. Authenticity in Being and Time is commonly interpreted in terms of willful commitment and “resoluteness” (Entschlossenheit) in the face of one’s own death but is, by the late 1930s, reintroduced in terms of Gelassenheit, as a nonwillful way of dwelling that is open to the enigmatic emerging forth of beings, an openness that “lets being be.”
Heidegger, in Simon Critchley’s description, expresses a very similar idea to Wittgenstein in his notion of Dasein:
“If the human being is really being-in-the-world, then this entails that the world itself is part of the fundamental constitution of what it means to be human. That is to say, I am not a free-floating self or ego facing a world of objects that stands over against me. Rather, for Heidegger, I am my world. The world is part and parcel of my being, of the fabric of my existence. We might capture the sense of Heidegger’s thought here by thinking of Dasein not as a subject distinct from a world of objects, but as an experience of openedness where my being and that of the world are not distinguished for the most part. I am completely fascinated and absorbed by my world, not cut off from it in some sort of ‘mind’ or what Heidegger calls ‘the cabinet of consciousness.’”
Heidegger’s earthyness goes to the extreme and serves as a warning. His walks in the black forest would have been nicely off-set by a walk in Sherwood Forest or Yosemite, but the blood and soil of Germany dictate to him so that he becomes absorbed by the Dasein of the times. His support of the Nazi’s, to whatever extent, seems an inevitability of his philosophy. Habermas explains that his giving himself over to Dasein meant there was no room for criticism of Hitler and the Nazis: ‘[H]e detaches his actions and statements altogether from himself as an empirical person and attributes them to a fate for which one cannot be held responsible.’ The degree to which there is a reduction of nature or a reduction to nature is the problem of phenomenology but what the phenomenologists fail to account for is the ability to transmutate Dasein into a ‘fate’ that is pure evil.
Each of the peripatetic philosophers discovers a road, a form of thought grounded in earthly presence. This does not make them equal but the point of departure in each case seems to take in the reality of embodiment. The problem is that a philosophy grounded in embodiment would give itself over to the flesh – giving us Nazi philosophy. What is needed is an embodiment that allows for volition and freedom.