Insights and outings

"Until the 17th century, travel to and on the European continent was commonly the concern of missionaries and pilgrims. With time, it became codified, packaged; it could be visited and ticked off"

Graham Elliott

If, as Emily Thomas states, philosophy of travel is not “a thing”, it is her mission to make it one. Scrutinising the why, where and how of travel allows an immersion in a range of sometimes extraordinary accounts as recorded down the ages. This is not philosophy as epistemology or formal logic; rather, it is as a form of phenomenology—examining the states of being in the wider world and making sense of its perceptions and experiences.

Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration (1620) set out how man should acquire sovereignty over nature. In this Age of Discovery, the study of astronomy, meteorology, landmasses, combustion, sea currents and sea life would be opened up by travel. Ships had to sail beyond the limits of the known world to put to the test nec plus ultra.

The foundation of the Royal Society in 1663 built on this pioneering spirit. Natural philosophers, such as John Ray and Francis Willughby, returned from travelling and developed new, fuller taxonomies. Diplomats, merchants and naval captains were tasked by the Society to fill the gaps in its records on population sizes, commodities and navigation. Cabinets of curiosities required filling too: “Whether there be such little dwarfish men in the vaults of the Canaries . . . ?” Bacon was also alert to the value of data collected overseas from courts of justice, harbours and military training grounds. Travellers were urged to make copious notes. This bold new undertaking required a factual and unadorned writing style, as opposed to the fictitious and fanciful writings of earlier explorers: Marco Polo (Travels  c.1300) reported seeing unicorns in South East Asia; John Mandeville (Travels, 1356), probably somewhere east of Suez, described a race that had their skulls in their chests, and another with dogs’ heads.

Until the 17th century, travel to and on the European continent was commonly the concern of missionaries and pilgrims. With time, it became codified, packaged even. Providing that a country was not at war or a city state under siege, it could be visited and ticked off; typically, Paris, Geneva, Turin, Florence and Rome would be on a young nobleman’s itinerary. Some with more money and time could extend this to take in Greece or Egypt. The return journey might include Venice, Heidelberg, Dresden or Amsterdam. Such a venture was described in an English-French dictionary of 1702 as “a great Range (ramble, or jaunt) . . . un grand tour”. The young charges were guided by a priest or tutor known as a “bear leader” who led them like excitable animals on a leash. Hobbes, Locke and Berkeley worked at times in this capacity. To many young tourers, the appeal in foreign travel lay in the opportunities for uncurbed drinking, gaming and sex. The young James Boswell, when not seeking the acquaintance of Voltaire and Rousseau, was seeking familiarity with prostitutes, opera dancers, noble ladies and courtesans. His efforts were rewarded, but he picked up doses of “distemper” as a result. Laurence Sterne knew of what he wrote in A Sentimental Journey (1768): Yorick’s pursuits of filles de chambres outranked his visits to ornamental gardens and literary salons.

The author teaches at Durham University and is a learned guide to travel in philosophy. Her own peregrinations in Alaska are threaded through the book. It is a harsh land, indifferent to short-lived and tiny humans; a place that Edmund Burke would assign to the sublime, that is to say, immense, powerful and perilous. Think of an avalanche, a tornado or a huge waterfall.

Before Ruskin conceived of mountains as “Great cathedrals of the earth”, they were regarded as shadowy, menacing ructions in the landscape. Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) characterises mountains by their “warts and pock-holes”. Nature at the extremes retains a wildness where we do not have dominion. This prompts transcendental notions of living simply; sustainability; and peaceful engagement with nature. All of these, championed by Emerson, Thoreau and the Scots-American pioneer naturalist John Muir, thrive today. Many of us draw strength from the awe of the mountains—and then return to our everyday lives; but a fearless or reckless few have been compelled to embrace the wilderness fully: Christopher McCandless, Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard have perished in recent years in the beautiful but dangerous wilds of Alaska, either from starvation, poisoning or the depredations of bears. 

The byways and highways of Thomas’s subject are well-illuminated. Delineating, direct and droll by turns, she reports on her own observations and feelings as a traveller and philosopher. So, is philosophy of travel a “thing”? Of that I know not. Novelty, knowledge and insight can be found in travel. It can make us wiser as well as better-informed, can it not? After having read this book, I am now both. 


The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad
By Emily Thomas
Oxford, 256pp, £14.99

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