A few months ago, an English translation of Frédéric Gros’s book ‘A Philosophy of Walking’ came out, which prompted me to think about what walking means to physiotherapists and whether some of the more recent philosophies of walking might help us think about what walking means to us as practitioners, philosophers of movement, and walkers.
Walking is a subject that hasn’t received a lot of philosophical attention. Like movement, posture and function, they are ideas we, as physiotherapists, claim some ownership over. We certainly teach a lot about these concepts and do a lot of research into aspects of these phenomena, but do we don’t really know what we mean when we say physiotherapy is about ‘movement for life‘? Do we have a sophisticated understanding of these ideas – sufficient to claim that walking, movement, and the like, are central to our professional identity? I set out to read three related books to find out. The first was Frédéric Gros’s ‘A Philosophy of Walking’
Gros is a well-known continental philosopher but his writing is neither dense nor unreadable. On the contrary, this book is beautifully written. The book takes the reader through 25 short chapters – some only a few hundred words – and each one presents a meditation on an aspect of walking. Some of the themes will be familiar (like the role of walking in creativity and solitude), and others less so.
Common to all three books, Gros intersperses his writing with the work of others who have contemplated the value of walking. Thoreau, Kerouac, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Emerson, Proust, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Debord and Gandhi, all feature prominently, and all are handled with a lightness of touch that means the book could easily be read by people who might claim to know nothing about philosophy.
The focus of the book seems to me to be a digestible contemplation on the importance of walking to our human spirit and the essence of what makes us human. There is a strong philosophy of embodiment that runs through the text (Gros sees the separation of body and mind as a redundant, western concept), which resonated strongly with me as a physiotherapist.
I loved the book and would recommend it to anyone who wants to ask some fundamental questions about the meaning of walking.
Geoff Nicholson’s 2008 book is a different beast altogether. Part memoir, part literary biography, the book addresses philosophical questions: “a walk inscribes space in the same way that words inscribe a text” (p.33), but concentrates more on the relationship between walking and art (as the name of the book would suggest).
The book moves between life in the USA and UK with hundreds of cultural references in between. It deals more personally with Nicholson’s own walking experiences and follows a metaphorically circular journey through the text.
It’s a very funny book. Nicholson is a very accomplished writer, not that different to Bill Bryson in the easy manner he conveys his ideas. So although the book runs to nearly 300 pages, it never feels laboured. It would even make an alternative summer holiday read – but this might be too much like a busman’s holiday.
The book includes a really useful Walking Biography at the end and apart from showing the breadth of Nicholson’s research, points to other writings on walking that a scholar might find useful.
I also loved this book, but for very different reasons than A Philosophy of Walking. It pointed to a (literary) world that I might now do a lot more reading into. I’m certainly going to read J. G. Ballard differently in the future!
Wanderlust is different again, and by far and away the biggest book of the three. Where Gros’s book took me a day to read. Nicholson’s a week. Solnit’s book took me a month.
To begin with, the book is older than the other two – having been written in 2001 – but it is also much weightier. The shear volume of research that author Rebecca Solnit put into this book is staggering. Every one of the 300+ pages of tightly packed text, for example, has a running footnote at the bottom which includes a walking-related quote, that includes material from Freude, Goethe, Merton, Pope, Wachusett, and hundreds of others.
So you have to be committed to a lengthy exposition on walking if you’re going to read it. Having said that, the writing is superb. Scholarly yes, but always engaging. Solnit, like Nicholson, puts a huge amount of her own experience of walking into the text and uses her own ‘journey’ (God, I hate that metaphor!) as a subplot in most of the chapters.
Every page includes historical, literary, philosophical, sociological allusions to other works, and each reference is handled with careful thought. The book is a weighty masterpiece that has been repeatedly referenced ever since its first publication. Beware though, it is a huge meal to digest.
The book includes a very comprehensive index and additional resources and would make a fabulous resource for someone doing more in-depth study into walking – even someone doing a quantitative study on gait that wanted to put the rationale and significance of their study into context.
It’s important to note that none of these books deal with the evidence that walking reduces knee pain after total knee replacement, or addresses the validity of the Six-Minute Walk Test. These books deal with what walking means, and so they point to a bigger world than can ever be contained within a clinical trial. For that reason alone, they could make an important contribution to a profession that claims to be so much about walking. It would be nice to see books like this edging out the dry, salty fare that we currently feed our students, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.
If I were to recommend any one of these books as a first reader, it would be Frédéric Gros’s ‘A Philosophy of Walking’. It’s easily digestible and beautifully written. All three are fine books however, and well worth reading in their own right.
References to the book versions I read:
Gros, F. (2014). A Philosophy of Walking. London, Verso.
Nicholson, G. (2011). The Lost Art of Walking. Chelmsford, Harbour.
Solnit, R. (2014). Wanderlust. London, Granta.