What’s your travel philosophy?

Cover for the book The Meaning of Travel

I have finally finished Emily Thomas’s short book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. I started this fun little read in the summer on my last trip to Kyoto, and held off on finishing it until I was back here, as I knew I would be coming to think deeply on why I travel (and why I write about it) — an important topic both for my book project, and an upcoming magazine piece I am working on.

This is not so much a review of the book, but I thought I would share my chapter summaries. Thomas uses each chapter to raise philosophical questions about various aspects of travel. Each chapter is a stimulating jumping off point for thinking about your own reasons for leaving your cozy world behind, or vicariously reading the accounts of others who did. Furthermore, each chapter actually introduces a particular topic or subdomain of academic philosophy. She doesn’t always come right out and label it, so I have included it in square brackets in my chapter summaries below. As an amateur philosopher, these are merely my best guesses. People in the know would be able to categorize these better I expect.

All in all, this is a great read, and if you are interested in travel, well worth it. Beyond asking the deeper questions she opens and closes the book with some excellent “vintage tips” for travelling well from famed philosophers of yore, including such nuggets as label your luggage legibly, do not hurry, or “Have you considered all the dangers… what if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?” (Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same, 1605); and my favourite: “No young person under forty is ever to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances” (Plato, Republic, 380 BCE).

Upon returning home is such pithy advice as “banish ‘all affectations, and apish tricks, and fashions of other nations’” (Thomas ‘The Travailer’ Palmer, An Essay of the Means how to make our Travailes, into forraine Countries, the more profitable and honourable, 1606.) as well as the very good advice of “do not bore people with travel talk.”

Read below for a short description of the content of each chapter, with some of my thoughts thrown in.


Ch1: Setting the groundwork: what is “travel”? She thinks the key is a feeling of “otherness” which is different from tourism, and much more difficult to attain in a globalizing/homogenizing world, especially when one is “cocooned” within familiar technology experiences.

Ch2: Some basic information on different kinds of maps, and their usage beyond showing us a picture of a place. She discusses how maps are used to define more than merely geographic factors, ie. the political usages of maps and how they distort perceptions. [Political philosophy?]

Ch3: The Baconian Method, and how travel is viewed as experimental: the gathering of data for the Enlightenment Natural scientists. I found this an interesting take: travellers are not just “explorers”, but are “scientists” engaging in observational experiments. [Natural philosophy]

Ch4: Descartes, Locke, and disabusing the philosophy that humans are born with innate ideas through travel. She shows how travellers brought back descriptions of other religions, cultures, etc that widened the perspectives of the philosophers “back home.” [Innateism] The result of widening one’s perspective to the diversity of humanity has always been one of my core values of travel.

Ch5: A little history of The Grand Tour — travel as education (and an opportunity for debauchery). “Leisure Travel” becomes a thing in the 17th C, and was popular for 150 years. They basically went the same places we do. Rousseau’s Emile and Thomas Cook’s Group Tours. The “collection” of experiences (sexual or otherwise) in addition to the collection of oddities from Ch 3. At the very end she discusses how travelogues in the 20th C take a turn to the “psychological” — travellers take both an EXTERNAL and INTERNAL journey. Often they are travelling as a way to process something traumatic in their lives, or even just a change. I thought: It me!

Ch6: Travel writing as thought experiment — or, thought experiment as travel writing. Good travel writing uses the techniques of fiction, and in some cases such as Robinson Crusoe, Utopia, or Blazing World. What better way to examine our own world, than by travelling to a fictional other world with entirely different cultural and moral traditions? It is an extrapolation of what happens during non-fiction travel. [Thought experiments]

Ch7: Metaphysics of physical space. The open area between objects is where God resides. Hence why mountains and oceans used to be scary things, then all of a sudden people saw beauty in wide open areas and mountain peaks: they saw God! All for a way to talk about why people started travelling to climb mountains in the 1700s and 1800s. [metaphysics]

Ch8: Traveling to overpower the senses, whether through aesthetic beauty or sheer terror. Aurora borealis, old cathedrals, the bombed out buildings of Hiroshima, or swimming with sharks. The sublime and the scary. [Aesthetics]

Ch9: Nature travel and solitude. Walden. What does isolation mean? Philosopher Philip Koch argues it has three characteristics: 1) physical isolation, there are no humans within sensing distance; 2) social disengagement, not looking to interact with anyone, not longing for or remembering anyone; 3) reflectiveness. Considering the challenges of achieving all three in the 21st century, can Isolation be a realistic goal for travel? I think most people think of isolation during travel means the lack of community responsibilities. [Solitude]

Ch10: Travel and male stereotypes. Gender theory basics. The disparity of female representation in travel writing. Highlights some of my favourite women travellers, and lists more for me to read. [Feminism]

Ch11: If visiting “at risk locales” furthers their degradation/disappearance, visiting them is unethical. Dilemma: do you stop tourism outright? Or figure out a more sustainable way of tourism, raising awareness of endangered locales and possibly saving them? Over tourism is one problem, but so is climate change. [Environmental ethics]

Ch12: Value placed on things, and how that value can change with travel. Opinions of “what’s best” can change with travel (or harden). Travel can also create a feeling of insignificance, especially when you return to your small pocket of the world. What about space travel? The earth is tiny, but it might be the only inhabited planet out of billions, which is very significant. [Value theory? Or maybe just all of philosophy in general? Not quite sure on this one…]

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