The Meaning of Travel (Emily Thomas, OUP, 2020)

Not often do I find a book that combines two of things that I love the most – thinking philosophically, and travel! So when I found out about this one on Twitter one day, I had it downloaded to my Kindle with a single click, and despite not having read it, thought it might be a good one to discuss with others – light enough philosophically to please the traveller but thought-provoking enough to engage the philosopher?

And to my delight, a bunch of others expressed interest and sought to join together on Saturdays each week for 6 weeks. One bravely getting up at 5am in the USA, one staying up later in Australia, one in the Middle East, and two of us in Europe – a diverse bunch in some ways.

Emily, an associate professor of philosophy at Durham University (England), takes us through 11 interesting philosophical ideas, conundrums or thoughts, posed by travel. Loosely shaping her thoughts round a trip to Alaska, the book is packed full of those who’ve travelled the planet before her, both philosophically and otherwise!

It opens with a lovely chapter on why we travel, including a later admission that what will follow is largely flowing from western philosophy of the last few centuries. Curiously, the book irked me a little by claiming that there were no other books on the philosophy of travel, no lectures and no conferences. But I was reminded of thoughts that I’d similarly had when I started writing a theology of travel, thinking that there was very little out there. Her constant referencing to philosophical and travel-related works, showed me that whatever Emily means by this, it’s not because she hasn’t come across other western works. This is indeed a field which needs more writing and thought.

(The following section is a more detailed look at each chapter. If you just want a paragraph summary – feel free to jump to the end!)

Flowing from the first chapter, are largely stand-alone nuggets on various topics, which to the philosophically astute are more connected that might first appear. The second chapter on a philosophy of maps, and how maps shape our reality and how we understand the world, can really help us see differently and realise the lenses we wear. The landscape architect amongst us was captivated, through the rest of us took a bit longer to flesh out what this was really like. Twitter accounts like this one below, put some flesh on the chapter, for those not willing to sit down and digest larger works like this recent bestseller.

Chapter 3 was to outline a relationship between philosophy, science and travel, through the life of Francis Bacon and others. So much of travel has been driven by a quest to find out more about the world whether through philosophical thinking or scientific experiment, and more-often than not, both! Understanding this chapter, might significantly help us all to not fall into the same trap as Bacon was said to have done – thinking scientific thought will progress us so much until the utterance of an apocalypse.

Such belief about human progression can be found both amongst the religious (eschatologically thinking the world is getting better and better until a Second Coming of Christ), but also amongst the fervently secular (thinking education will be the solution to all our woes, progressing us to nearly some point of enlightenment). These discussions raised by this chapter are foundational.

Chapter 4, brought me back into my first year at university for my core module that started off with Descartes and moved on to Locke. For the others in the group, the framing of their teaching through the travels they embarked on, did not make their teaching any easier to engage with!

Does travel suggest that innate ideas about God (that are thought to rescue us from the infamous ‘brain in a vat’ scenario), cannot be true because all peoples don’t believe in a god (or a particular god)? Philosophically, I could imagine I come to very different conclusions than the author on some of the related questions, but none-the-less, the travel conclusion – that travel can broaden our horizons and help us to learn from those with differing opinions – is one of the foundational reasons many will travel.

Standing on the edge of Europe, taking a diverse group round Ireland’s coast.

The fifth chapter brought relief to those not wanting more philosophy, considering the history of ‘The Grand Tour’ of Europe for education (and other on-the-side benefits). Travel can help us grow in all sorts of ways, though often it can also be abused and doesn’t necessitate growth!

The sixth chapter continued to display a rich education of varied things – this time would please anyone who enjoys fantasy and fictional literature – what is the boundary between truth and falsehood, reality and fictional worlds? Could such fantastical worlds, be just as real as the world we inhabit? For the traveller who perhaps enjoys intertwining travel tails with a modicum of exaggeration for entertainment, the chapter will be thought provoking. And for many of us who wrestle with what place imagination has to play in our thinking, lives and logic, it also raised many a question!

The seventh chapter I was looking forward to the most, given the topic of space is the one to which Emily specialises. Why did mountains appear fearful things? Why was there a change in terms used to describe previously fearful things? Emily tells us one reason is because of a change in how people viewed space – once an atomless existence – later thought to be an extension of the infinite divine (sharing many of ‘his’ properties). I’d love to see to what extent this change in language also correlates with humanity’s exploration and perceived ability to control nature?

Ever craved watching the Northern Lights, or stood overlooking a sight that takes your breath away? The eighth chapter is on Burkean ideas of the ‘sublime’ and the difference between that and beauty. What is it that we’re feeling in light of some of these sights? Is there a difference between fear and awe? Can human creations evoke such things? What about the catastrophe’s we have caused – why do we flock to such sites with such similar feelings?

Are mountains fearful? If so, why?

Closely connected to what had gone before, the next chapter (9) considers wilderness and connection to humans and why we have a strange fascination with escape to wild places. It had us all googling our favourite cabins and wild places to go and sharing them! Although fascinating and one of the chapters enjoyed most by lots of us, I’m not sure any of us followed her reasoning that because we are part of the world around us, we should care for it! Without knowing it, the Humean “ought” could not be found here. All the readers had vastly other motivation for caring for our environment and some thought the current drive to save our world was hard to philosophically ground.

The tenth chapter, I let someone else take the lead in discussing, given I was the only male in the group, and chapter was on whether travel was a male concept! Being brought up with Dervla Murphy being the archetypal traveller in Ireland, and having an adventurous, travelling sister (and similar female, ultra-running friends), I’ve never really found the history of travel being more male dominated (as many things were) to be a thing that has stopped many around me. And nor did my fellow book readers.

It was helpful to be reminded of society’s old gender roles, and saddened by some of the unwanted remnants of that. But I struggled with this chapter because I know that guilt is a bad motivator. So making me feel guilty of my being a male, because of past generations gender constraints, is not going to motivate me to act better. It might in the short-run, but not in the long-run. Guilt, I believe, does not drive action in a healthy way.

But it is also difficult for the female to travel in many places because of current gender roles in some cultures and societies. Should the west colonise these places and enforce their gender norms on others by with-holding aid and trade agreements? Or what is the objective standard of equality that we refer to that ought to transcend culture? It was a chapter that left me with more questions, from quite a simplistic take on the topic.

The penultimate chapter (11) was on ‘Doom Tourism’ and very helpfully lined up the chief problem that the travel industry worldwide will face in the coming years – climate change. The desperation of people to get to sites which will soon disappear (ice caps, coral reef, limited resources, small islands etc) may well cause further danger to those sites.

In fact, in a step further than Emily wrote, if the NPCC and others are right about climate change, flying anywhere for our own pleasure alone may not be the wisest thing for the climate. The credibility of pointing fingers at the structures in society, without doing anything ourselves in our personal lives, is a bit too easy for my liking. Far more questions could be asked that perhaps some publishers may not like adding to travel books, for fear of losing an audience. Perhaps in a theology book (like mine) or a philosophy book (like this one) isn’t the best place to debate science, but we do need to create space somewhere!

A recommended, fun starter book on carbon footprint and climate change.

The last chapter is a reflection on space travel and whether we (humans) have significance or not. Again, I found the philosophical arguments here to be interesting but not greatly rigorous and too easy to object to. Bertrand Russel arguing that size does not make for significance – thus the size of space should not be bewildering or make it significant. And Guy Kahane arguing that life is more valuable than non-life because a world with life seems to be preferable to a world of craters. Both philosophers I’m sure may make sense in context, but were far too quickly passed over to follow what their logic is, and how it stands to quite simple objections. Still, it was enough to raise my curiosity to go off and explore the arguments more.

This review may make the book appear deeper and harder to engage with than it is, as I find it easiest to engage with some of the philosophical content that the author helps us understand. May the travel-hungry reader be assured that there’s much in the travel narrative to enjoy and discuss, even if the philosophy is harder for the novice to grapple with. However, “I’m glad I read this book with friends – I don’t think I would have done otherwise” was the response of at least two of our group for this reason.

But for me, I’ve loved engaging with it, and will happily recommend such helpful thinking to everyone, as I lead discussions in universities and community spaces wherever I travel in future. I dearly hope that it will get further discussion going especially in Coronavirus days (of limited travel), about the philosophical underpinnings and relevance of travel to the world to come. Because how each of us live and travel, whether we realise it or not, is deeply influenced by the philosophy we hold to. And each of us, whether we realise it or not, is deeply affecting many others in this world by those views we hold too as well.

Given the great dearth of books and material on the topic, does this mean that this book is greatly significant?!! I’ll let you read the book and see.

More info about the book can be found on the publisher’s website here.

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Travel (Emily Thomas, OUP, 2020)

  1. Pingback: Travelling to find Transcendence | al-jabr

  2. Pingback: Travel Resources from 2020 | al-jabr

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