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The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas

Stephen Leach discovers the meaning of travel without moving from his desk.

“The philosophy of travel isn’t a thing,” says Emily Thomas, “but it should be.” Having read The Meaning of Travel, I agree with her.

She points out that recently, travel books have come to be often intertwined with tales of a personal, often vaguely spiritual, quest for meaning. It might also be pointed out that, conversely, a story that is primarily a quest for meaning has sometimes been intertwined with the story of a physical journey – for example, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Meaning of Travel is a little bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in that it intertwines meditations on philosophy and, in particular, the relationship between travel and philosophy, with the story of an actual physical journey.

The book is lightly written, deliberately so, for it is making only a modest (albeit novel) suggestion, that travel is worth thinking about, philosophically. However, although it is lightly written it is not lacking in philosophical interest. Deliberately restricting her focus to western philosophy, the author persuasively argues that there has long been a connection between philosophy and travel. We should not be misled by the counter-examples of Socrates and Kant, both of whom were relatively stationary.

She agrees with Montaigne that the benefit of travel, for the philosopher and anyone else, is that we are forced to confront “new and unknown things.” We may do so in ways that are fearful – Albert Camus argued that what gives value to travel is fear – or enticing. She claims that the lure of sex had much to do with the popularity of the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century. However, I think it was not, as she suggests, that procuring prostitutes was easier in Rome than in London but rather that “new and unknown things” had an exotic appeal.

Thomas points out that, although many people still associate Montaigne with home life in his famous chateau, his essays are in fact riddled with reflections on travel. He travelled as a diplomat and to visit spas for the sake of his health. Another early reason for travel was, and still is, pilgrimage. On this subject she might have mentioned the adventurous journeys of the medieval mystic Margery Kempe. (I imagine that one of the pitfalls of writing such a book is that regrets about what might have been included are almost inevitable.)

Of more recent philosophers she discusses Descartes and Quine. Of course, Descartes was not always determinedly self-isolating but neither Descartes nor Quine is usually associated with travel. However, in both cases, although their journeys left few tangible traces, travel may have, somehow, shaken them out of old and familiar mental habits. The book also contains interesting discussions of Henry More, Margaret Cavendish, and Thoreau. Then, when we reach the present day, there are discussions of space travel and the ethics of visiting the Antarctic.

The author moves deftly from one aspect of travel and philosophy to the next and her delight in the subject is well conveyed. The only philosophical point with which I would disagree is the claim that in the first century Strabo included those “looking for the meaning of life” among those addicted to “mountain roaming.” She is here using an old and misleading translation of Strabo. According to the research carried out by James Tartaglia and myself ‘the meaning of life’ in anything like its modern sense only goes back as far as 1797-98. However, in relation to the book’s main argument, that is a minor quibble.

The book does not claim to be an exhaustive compendium. It is more like an old map, an invitation to adventure which might take the form of travel or philosophy or, preferably, both. I recommend it especially to those with a strong faith in universal common sense, for travel and philosophy can sometimes disturb any such notion.

© Dr Stephen Leach 2020

Stephen Leach is senior honorary fellow in philosophy at Keele University and co-editor, with James Tartaglia, of The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers (Routledge, 2018).

The Meaning of Travel, by Emily Thomas, OUP, 2020, 256 pages, $18 hb, ISBN: 978-0198835400

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