Rebecca Solnit: A History of Walking


The history of walking goes back further than the history of human beings, but the history of walking as a conscious cultural act rather than a means to an end is only a few centuries old. (Solnit, 14).

While the contemporary walker sees walking as a mode of transportation, old thinkers and philosophers saw walking as a catalyst for creative thinking. In the book Wanderlust: A History of Walking[1], Rebecca Solnit explores the origins of wandering by tracing its roots back to Ancient Greece.

First with the Sophists who believed in the mobility of ideas – they were philosophers who went from one place to another delivering ideas and talks to various audiences. They believed that the movement of knowledge was more important than their loyalty to a certain space and later Aristotle carried this peripatetic thinking forward.

Aristotle is known to have taught in the Peripatetic school – a school that gets its name from the Peripatos, which is a colonnade or walkway that Aristotle used to walk in while giving his lectures. The word ‘Peripatetic’ itself means “one who walks habitually and extensively.” Therefore the name of the school itself links thinking with walking and this association is evident in ancient Greece where even the architecture accommodates walking as a social activity.

This association between walking and philosophising later became widespread with philosophers like Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche who all used the walk as something that aided their thoughts. But there were few philosophers who thought about walking and Rousseau was the pioneer in this field.

Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much, never have I been so much myself – if I may use that expression – as in the journeys I have take alone and on foot. There is something about walking that stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. (Rousseau, 124). [2]

Rousseau was a radical walking thinker, he believed that science and knowledge had taken humankind away from its natural state; insisting that a walker was devoid of all these worldly attachments and hence the act of walking was pure and untainted by the ravages of technological advancement.

Rousseau’s ideal walker of history would be one who relied just on bodily strength to get from one place to another. Sauntering for Rousseau meant going into the wilderness. However the complex urban design of contemporary society does not allow for such a walker to exist in today’s times. Therefore one must realise that since spaces are no longer what they used to be, this means that one’s interaction with these spaces has also changed. And while wandering aimlessly through the woods is an exercise in meditative contemplation, the contemporary walker has to adapt themselves to the changing landscape of their existence. Therefore it is fascinating to see what walking means in a contemporary urban setting.


Associations Made During Walks

 The history of both urban and rural walking is a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure. (Solnit, 173).

Spaces may have changed but walking still serves the same purpose as before. Urban cityscapes offer anonymity, refuge and variety – letting the contemporary wanderer explore and notice small details like a flickering traffic light, or a child crossing the road – while this may seem like the complete opposite of Rousseau’s definition of walking it still stays true to the idea that a walk provides the walker with information that helps him or her make associations.

These associations tend to connect walks with memories, emotions and the past. Drawing from environmental cues that trigger contemplative conversations about one’s view of the world. A walk feeds us information as we try to make associations between quantifiable data such as the passage of time and sensory perception with more qualitative data such as the perception of memory and emotion during a walk.


Figure 1: Associations Made During Walks
Figure 1: Associations Made During Walks


Perception of Time

A walk through a known space brings the past, present and future together. This is because as one wanders through a space one constantly remembers past experiences that occurred in that place – while simultaneously creating a present as they head towards a future.

 Each walk moves through space like a thread through fabric, sewing it together into a continuous experience – so unlike the way air travel chops us time and space. (Solnit, xv).

In this way a ruminative walk changes our perception of time. We not only feel connected to the past but also relive it through the path of our feet. At the same time we experience emotions that are characteristic of reminiscing. While the past seems like a distant memory, the future seems like an exciting possibility. Our feet take us through time as we walk through space. This moment where everything exists simultaneously is a rare marvel in today’s sauntering however it was in this moment that the philosophers ideated and the artists created.

From my experience a walking down the same road can be seen as a positive and a negative experience. One experiences pain, nostalgia, ignorance and fondness while thinking of the past as s/he walks through a known space. At the same time one experiencing anxiety and optimism while thinking of the future, which always seems nearer than the past.


Figure 2: Emotions Experienced When Taking a Walk Down the Same Road
Figure 2: Emotions Experienced When Taking a Walk Down the Same Road



Thoreau: Walking

Henry David Thoreau talks extensively of walking and the act of ruminating that accompanies it. Walden is a reflection upon humble living in natural surroundings wherein Thoreau confined himself to a cabin that he built for two years, two months and two days while he wrote the book Walden that shows human development via the four seasons of a year. Thoreau’s need to isolate himself from the humdrums of everyday life while living in the wilderness is an ode to the human condition of seeking solitude in spaces of comfort. In his essay Walking [3]: Thoreau talks about the act of sauntering, which is defined as walking in a slow and relaxed manner. He says:

 The word from sans terre without land or home, which, therefore, in good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. (Thoreau, 8)

This makes one question the idea of belonging to a space that one can call home, and begs the question: Does a wanderer have a home? If so does his/her sauntering begin and end at the familiar place that is home? This is a question that drives this project – one that leads us to try and understand how the past, present and future display themselves to a wanderer who essentially belongs no where and is sans terre. Thoreau says:

 Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (Thoreau, Chapter 8).

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