Tuesday 21 April 2020

The Meaning of Travel

Today's blog is by Emily Thomas, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and Honorary Fellow at ACU’s Dianoia Institute of Philosophy. She is the author of Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics (OUP, 2018) and The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad (OUP, 2020). She tweets @emilytwrites.

The Meaning of Travel has been reviewed in The Spectator, and Literary Review. Emily has written about the connections between travel and philosophy in The Conversation, and about the philosophy of walking for OUP's blog. She has been interviewed about the book on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week, and BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking.

You might think travel and philosophy don’t have much in common. Travel involves flights, bad sandwiches, train tickets. Philosophy is all about books and bearded Greeks. The Meaning of Travel argues that, despite appearances, they have a lot in common. Travel and philosophy share long, tangled histories, and each have effected the other.

The book explores their history. For example, it explains how philosophers became interested in travel around the Age of Discovery. It looks at what Descartes thought travel could do for us; and the role that travel played in the debates about philosophy of science between Francis Bacon, the Royal Society, and Margaret Cavendish. It explores the effect that Henry More’s theory of space, and Henry Thoreau’s Walden, had on mountain tourism and wilderness travel.

The book also looks to some of philosophical issues facing travel today. For example, it asks whether ‘last chance to see’ travel, to ‘doomed’ places like glaciers and coral reefs, is ethical. It argues that ‘travel’, and ‘philosophy’, are male concepts: this helps us to understand the under-representation of women in these fields, and the way women travellers have traditionally been treated. The final chapter looks forwards and upwards - to space travel.

This is a popular book, and the writing is quite different to my previous, scholarly book on early modern metaphysics. It’s loosely assembled around a travelogue, a trip I took to Alaska. That means it’s written in the first person, and I am much more in the book than I’m accustomed to. It was a lot of fun to write, partly because it offered the opportunity to collect ideas I found amusing.

For example, Plato’s Republic has the following pieces of advice for the (male) traveller. On returning home, Plato writes he must report to a council of state where, if the traveller has become ‘appreciably better’, he will be rewarded with higher recognition. However, if the traveller has ‘returned corrupted’, he must talk to no one ‘young or old’. If he later meddles in some educational or legal question, ‘he must die’.

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