Bruce Baugh. Philosophers’ Walks. London: Routledge, 2022; 252 pp. ISBN: 978-0367333133.

Reviewed by James Crooks, Bishop’s University 

Bruce Baugh’s Philosophers’ Walks aims at analysis of a diverse group of thinkers—Descartes, Gassendi, Breton, Sartre, Beauvoir, Coleridge,Woolf, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. He accomplishes this aim by the novel means of retracing their walks, that is, by reconstructing and often actually repeating the rich variety of country hikes and urban strolls recorded in their works or attributed to them in biographies, letters, diaries, and other forms of commentary. While articulating and enacting these reconstructions, Baugh also weighs the activity of walking itself as an embodied mode of thinking. The result is a book with many moving parts—philosophical arguments, travel diaries, bits of biography relevant to the main players, and personal reflections. It is a credit to the author’s talent as a writer and his maturity as a philosopher that he conveys their complex interactions so seamlessly.

The story begins with a reflection on Baugh’s own habits as a walker. He takes us on a tour of some of his regular jaunts in Kamloops, B.C. (Chapter 1). This exercise culminates in two seminal insights. First, for the attentive walker—the embodied thinker—every neighbourhood is wondrous. Baugh finds as much food for thought in crossing the boundary between the old town and its suburbs or in the modes of selfhood projected by Wendy’s and Walmart as in the objectively more attractive nature trails that run through and divide the city’s human settlements. “Invested by social meanings,” he observes, “inhabited, vital space is never merely a set of coordinates that can be plotted on a map” (13). Secondly, the wonder of the Kamloops neighbourhood provides a foretaste of the dimensions of philosophers’ walks to be developed in subsequent chapters. The introductory remark concludes: “With these investigations of my home ground, we have already glimpsed some key themes of this book…The trail-markers are in place” (13).

It is a clever strategy with an impeccable philosophical pedigree. The scene Baugh constructs strolling the streets of Kamloops lets him preview more in-depth analyses of the walker’s embodied encounter of the environment, of walking’s wide range of affective states, of its capacity for invoking the powers of memory, of its back-stretched connection to the work of imagination, and its allied tendency to carry us to places we did not originally intend to visit. As with a Platonic dialogue, there is a sense, reading Philosophers’ Walks, in which the most important thematic material is there from the beginning; that subsequent argument or development amounts to saturating intellectual spaces already available in Baugh’s hometown—and, by implication, ours too.      

What forms does that saturation take? In the chapters that comprise the body of the work, Baugh serves up a feast of philosophical commentary in seven courses. Walking a trail near the now abandoned village of Roche-Rousse (Gassendi’s hometown), for example, he reflects on the mind-body problem at the centre of Gassendi’s disagreement with Descartes (Chapter 2). The hike itself acquires the form of a deliberation—beginning in error and ending in disclosure. Baugh literally sees things coming back down the trail that he missed on the way up. Interpreting those sights and insights, he inhabits the positions of Descartes and Gassendi. Eventually, driven by the vivid and undeniable experience of his own embodiment as a walker, he sides with the latter. Here, walking becomes a decision rendered against rationalism (at least as widely conceived). It provides a grounded point of departure for thinking in contrast to the abstraction of the ego cogito—sufficient, perhaps, for someone snoozing in front of his fireplace but not for philosophy put on its feet.  

Or, to take a contrasting second case: Prowling around Copenhagen (Chapter 6), Baugh tries to evaluate the Kierkegaardian art of hiding in plain sight, of “gadding about on the streets and being a nobody…while thoughts and ideas were working within [him]” (Kierkegaard 217). As with the forest path deliberation on mind and body, Baugh’s city walks lead him directly to a main intersection of his subject’s philosophy. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ideal spiritual life in terms of a movement—a walk, a dance—at once outwardly plain or unassuming and inwardly marvelous. His Knight of Faith turns out to be precisely the person capable of expressing the sublime in the pedestrian. Digesting this lesson and its attendant writerly responsibilities, Baugh arrives at what is, in my view, the central question of Philosophers’ Walks: How do we repeat a movement the substance of which is a kind of inward, spiritual transformation? Or more pointedly, perhaps: How, retracing the footsteps of Kierkegaard and other philosophical pilgrims, do we avoid a scholarship that is mere tourism? I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.

Chapters 2 through 6 fill out a kind of template present at every stage of Baugh’s discussion. He goes to the site of his subject’s hikes or strolls in order to uncover, re-walking their paths, a dimension of embodiment that might otherwise remain concealed. The fruits of this consistent practice are surprisingly various. Revisiting the spaces of Breton’s novel, Nadya (Chapter 3), Baugh finds himself haunted by the Paris of 1926. To walk in any neighbourhood or on any path, he learns, is to absorb the traces of past generations still present there. Contemplating Sartre’s few reluctant ventures into the mountainous French countryside (Chapter 4), Baugh finds a model for the vertigo so essential to his account of existential anxiety in Being and Nothingness. At a certain height, the destabilizing abysses of the human heart are powerfully externalized; the temptation to plunge into them real and terrifying. Following the Coleridge Way from Nether Stowey to Porlock (Chapter 5), Baugh ponders the back-stretched connection between the walker’s gait and the poet’s meter. Both measures, as it turns out, frame the work of imagination, and, in Coleridge’s case at least, the former is an indispensable propaedeutic to the latter. 

It is in Chapter 5, that the issue of tourism I tagged above (commenting on the treatment of Kierkegaard) makes a first, significant appearance. Baugh’s walk on the Coleridge Way begins at the poet’s house—now a National Trust museum renovated and preserved in a state its most celebrated inhabitant might barely have recognized. The subsequent hike is marked by wrong turns and apparent dead ends that frustrate and interrupt the attempt to reconstitute Coleridge’s exercises in imagination. Near the end of his journey, Baugh observes: “[Coleridge’s] mind and his feet were free to wander, hovering in that medium and mediating position between sensory receptivity and active thought occupied by the poetic imagination. My mind, by contrast, was very much preoccupied with the practical aims and cognitive tasks involved in following a path laid down by someone else” (93). He then asks, rhetorically: “Had the whole thing been a cheat? Wasn’t the Coleridge Way just some inauthentic, contrived tourism promotion?” (93).  

Here, as throughout the book, the challenges of walking mirror those of thinking.   Philosophical scholarship, too, runs the risk of simply “following a path laid down by someone else”—of simply looking on at what Descartes or Kant, Rousseau or Nietzsche, Woolf or Beauvoir accomplished. For me, the most compelling dimension of Philosophers’ Walks is its embodiment of this temptation and its resistance. There are moments in his book where Baugh seems very much the philosophical tourist sunk in “the practical aims and cognitive tasks” involved in repeating the walks of others; summarizing and clarifying philosophical backgrounds like the tour guide every professor of philosophy must play, to some extent, in the classroom; making of biography a kind of map on which to plot the location of philosophical and literary monuments. But these touristic elements are always, at the same time, undermined and surpassed by the book’s capture of the indomitable spontaneity of walking itself. Indeed, Baugh qua narrator is at his best when things don’t go as planned: when he gets lost or discovers something by accident. The reason for this is that walking can be embodied thought in the truest sense precisely because it is, in its very nature, open to discovery, reversal, epiphany, and chance; because it harbours, as a possibility of its very nature, an inward transformation, a movement from the consumerist pleasures of tourism to spiritual fulfillment of pilgrimage. Just shy of the midpoint of his walk with Coleridge, Baugh gathers all of this up beautifully in a statement that might be a one-paragraph epitome of his project as a whole:

“Time and time again, I would lose my way literally or metaphorically, often failing to find what I was looking for: some idea, some insight into the person in whose footsteps I was walking, some way of connecting my walking with their thinking. Yet it also seemed that this process of going astray, doubling back, regaining the path, sometimes gaining the perspective I was seeking and sometimes not, was exactly what it means to be on a philosopher’s walk: a walk that is open-ended, exploratory, and follows thoughts where they lead, even if that is not to a conclusion” (89). 

My own sense is that this spirit of exploration will appeal to a wide and diverse readership. Philosophers’ Walks is a substantial addition to the literature on pilgrimage and other modes of reflective walking. It opens up, from that angle, new perspectives on the life and work of virtually all the philosophers and writers treated—and so contributes to the scholarship in those subfields. Most importantly, perhaps, it makes walking itself—its discipline, its irreducible physicality, its open-endedness, its risks and unexpected epiphanies—a model for thinking.



Kierkegaard, Søren. The Corsair Affair, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 1992