- In the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland:Walking with Whitehead
“Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think.”—Nan Shepherd (105)
Crossing a steep scree-field path demands concentration. The surface slips a little with each step and often, just a short way below, are large rocks or perhaps a cliff. Such experience is at some distance from the concentration intellectuals bring to the specifics of thought, the rigors of reason. Scree concentration works through feet and legs, hands and trekking poles. If it is thought, it is thinking with the body and the world traversed, thinking with surface, weather, time, and risk. I have walked thousands of miles as a long-distance backpacker and puzzled about this form of thinking which, because of the physical rigors, can be vague and fragmented but also brings glimmers of insight, unarticulated wisdom. Although he is not usually regarded as a philosopher overly concerned with embodiment, I have found Alfred North Whitehead’s work offers a set of concepts that opens up the domain of thinking as a process, one that includes risk, wonder, and a fundamentally different form of attention. Shifting the emphasis of the title of Isabelle Stengers’ monumental study (while at the same time using her as a guide), I want to think about thinking with Whitehead.
He was born in a country of walkers: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens and Woolf; Borrow, Clare, Thomas, and Fermor. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein describes her time with him at Lockeridge near the beginning of the Great War. For six weeks in 1914, they walked in “country still the same as in the days of Chaucer, with the green paths of the early britons that could still be seen in long stretches” (140). Whitehead’s was a walking family. Bertrand Russell, his former student and collaborator on Principia Mathematica, was close to his sons North and Alec, taking long excursions with them in the Lake District and Cornwall (Lowe 35). Lockeridge—the Whitehead’s country home in those years—is in Wiltshire near the Salisbury Plain, an area celebrated [End Page 48] for its many paths. Just to the north is Barbury castle, situated on the Ridgeway, which is considered one of the oldest roads in Europe and was surely one of the green roads visited that summer by the pilgrims Stein and Whitehead. Just a year earlier, in 1913, Edward Thomas published The Icknield Way, one of his many books detailing rambles about the old ways of England.1 He finished that walk on the Ridgeway without quite reaching the Wilterns. Nevertheless, Wiltshire is mentioned in the preface of that book and appears often in Thomas’s poems. Those walks gave Stein, Whitehead, and Thomas fresh air, a sense of a deep abiding past, but were also a form of thinking.
Thinking, Walking, Risk
Walking can be an act of solitude or companionship, but along with its human elements, even a short stroll down a well-trod green road brings a different awareness, including certain levels of risk, ranging from blisters or a soaking shower to encountering hostile humans or nonhumans, and, of course, getting lost. Ultimately, walking opens the possibility for many different forms of encounter. In her depiction of that summer, Stein describes how her understanding of Whitehead as a thinker and a human unfolded. Through the voice of her companion Alice B. Toklas, she places him in her pantheon of 20th-century geniuses, which includes Picasso and the ever-modest Gertrude herself. Their conversation unfolded on well-worn paths, a point that bears attention because of the physical disposition of the speakers. Unlike seated domestic talk in, for example, Stein’s atelier at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, walkers do not face each other, nor do they always look at the same features of the path or surrounding landscape. In addition, physical exertion produces a competition for breath—to oxygenate blood or vibrate vocal cords. Conversation is not a simple give-and...