Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Constantly Prevented Falling

My son Elliot is learning to walk. He seems oddly unmoved by the preposterous gravity of this development. This is not the mere acquisition of a skill, like drinking from a cup, but a change of substance, a form of generation or coming to be. If Heidegger was right to hold that there are kinds of being, being-pedestrian is one of them.

The parallel claim is often made in the case of speech, as the onset of reason. But to my mind, the contrast is overdrawn. Each transformation corresponds to one of the classical definitions of man: as rational animal and as featherless biped. (The shedding of the feathers is an equally miraculous event, though somewhat more disturbing.)

Walking is the paradigm of human activity, the principal object of action theory, the prime example of normativity allegedly found in the very fabric of things:

'Put one foot in front of the other' is a norm of walking […] And yet, you can try to walk, fail to put one foot in front of another, and trip […] Although these norms are constitutive, they are still norms, and not mere descriptions of the activities in question. And so there's room to ask why you should follow them: if you don't put one foot in front of the other you will not be walking and you will get nowhere […]
What Korsgaard wants is the idea of standards for walking that follow from the bare idea of what it is to walk – not just that you can try to walk and fail, but that you can try to walk, succeed, and do so badly by a canon contained in the nature of walking itself. The thought is more controversial than she suggests. If someone is not putting one foot in front of the other, he is failing to walk, not walking badly. Beckett supplies a more nearly persuasive illustration of her claim:
Watt's way of advancing due east […] was to turn his bust as far as possible toward the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible toward the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down.
What makes this parody of action so affecting is that Watt is trying to get somewhere. His digressions would be innocent enough if he were merely taking a stroll.

Walking without a purpose: this too is not another skill, perhaps not even separate from the power of rational thought. It is an attempt to think. Or it is an attempt to silence thought, to quiet the incessant "Why?" In his delightful essay, The Walk, by which this post was inspired, Jeff Robinson quotes the following passage from Thoreau:

At length, as we plodded along the dusty roads, our thoughts became as dusty as they, all thought indeed stopped, thinking broke down, or proceeded only passively in a sort of rhythmical cadence of the confused material of thought, and we found ourselves mechanically repeating some familiar measure which timed with our tread.

Thinking while walking is contemplation. Having no end beyond itself, it is absolutely final, completing itself in pleasure like the bloom on the cheek of youth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. (And hi!) Sunday's NYT story about the French turn to American-style politics ends with a really interesting bit about the significance of the new president's penchant for jogging over walking. French philosophers are all akimbo because running, to them, is "body management" while walking is contemplative, cerebral. But tell that to Elliot!

12:18 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

Ah, but can one not also hop on two feet?

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regard to the question of the relation between walking, talking, and the onset of reason, I thought you might enjoy the following passage from the "Anthropology" section of the third volume of Hegel's Encyclopedia. It's a bit long, but the most charming bit comes at the end:

"The transition from childhood to boyhood is marked by the development of the child's behavior to the outer world; the child, in reaching a feeling of the actuality of the outer world, begins to become an actual human being himself and to feel himself as such; but in doing so he passes on to the practical inclination to test himself in this actual world. The child is enabled to make this practical approach to the world by growing teeth, by learning to stand, to walk, and to talk. The first thing to be learned at this stage is to stand upright. This is peculiar to man and can only be effected by his will; a man stands only so long as he wills to stand. When we no longer will to stand, we collapse. Standing is, therefore, the habit of willing to stand. Man acquires a yet freer relation to the outer world by walking; by this he overcomes the asunderness of space and gives himself his own place. But speech enables man to apprehend things as universal, to attain to the consciousness of his own universality, to express himself as 'I'. This laying hold of his ego-hood is an extremely important point in the mental development of the child; at this point he begins to reflect himself into himself out of his immersion in the outer world. To begin with, this incipient self-dependence expresses itself in the child's learning to play with tangible things. But the most rational thing that children can do with their toys it to break them."

1:12 PM  

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