Nonfiction Books » Travel

The Best Books on the Philosophy of Travel

recommended by Emily Thomas

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad by Emily Thomas

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad
by Emily Thomas


At its best, travel broadens our minds, expands our horizons and allows us to see the world we live in differently. But it has also played an important role in the history of philosophy. Emily Thomas, author of The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, explores the connections between her two passions—philosophy and travel—at a moment when most of us are unable to leave our houses: perhaps the perfect moment to reflect on travel's significance for human beings.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad by Emily Thomas

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad
by Emily Thomas


Before we discuss these books, I wanted to ask why you chose this topic, the philosophy of travel. It’s a very unusual topic for a philosopher to be interested in.

The simple answer is this topic brings two things I really love together. I’ve spent years of my life backpacking and I’ve always been a bit obsessed with travel. Having spent my entire adult life as a professional philosopher, I was suddenly gripped with the obsessional idea of writing something about philosophy and travel.

When I started, I wasn’t sure if I would find anything. It’s not a topic that’s talked about anywhere. I thought it was possible I would begin research and find that philosophers are just not interested in travel and that philosophy and travel have never interacted. Yet to my delight I found they’ve interacted a lot and there’s plenty to look at.

What sort of themes come out in your book, The Meaning of Travel?

So philosophy has affected travel in various unexpected ways. For example, we have the way that new theories about the philosophy of space affected mountain tourism…

Hang on, let’s stop at that one, because it’s not obvious. How could the philosophy of space affect people climbing mountains?

In the 17th century, philosophers were thinking about what space is. Up until then, it was generally thought that space was a product of the human mind or space was associated, even identified, with material things. For various reasons, philosophers like Henry More and Isaac Newton began arguing that space is ‘absolute’: independent of human minds and material bodies. Space is a thing in itself: a kind of giant container for the universe, and they associated that space with God. They figured that if space is infinite and unchanging and eternal, given that God is the only being that’s supposed to be infinite and unchanging and eternal, that space must be God in some deep way.

That sounds almost like Spinoza.

Everyone at that time was very anxious not to be like Spinoza.

Because if you are, you’re likely to be some kind of heretic?

Spinoza identified God with the whole of creation, whereas these philosophers are saying, ‘creation is separate to God, but God is identical to space.’ Any views that eroded the divide between God and creation was to be avoided.

How did that lead to a change in travel? I can see that the Newtonian view of space makes space a candidate for being God, but why go up a mountain?

Various literary scholars and historians have looked at the way that before the 17th century, in the Western world, we thought of mountains as ugly—warts or protuberances upon the Earth. Suddenly, from the end of the 17th century to the mid 18th century, you get this change when people begin talking about mountains as cathedrals or pillars to God. Scholars have argued—rightly I think—that what’s going on there is that people have begun to associate empty, large infinite-seeming spaces with God. As space now is God, these places aren’t empty wastelands anymore. They’re literally where God is in the world.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

So you go up the mountain to get closer to God. Literally. I love it. Can you give another example of how travel and philosophy intersect?

Travel has also affected philosophy in various unexpected ways. So again, back in the 17th century, John Locke was wondering what the nature of the human mind is. People like Descartes and other medieval and early modern philosophers had argued that human minds are born with various innate ideas. These are normally innate ideas about morality and God. So Descartes thought—this is his trademark argument—that each one of us is imprinted with a kind of stamp of God and that this idea we have of God is something that all human beings share.

“Before the 17th century, we thought of mountains as ugly—warts or protuberances upon the Earth. Suddenly, from the end of the 17th century to the mid 18th century, people begin talking about mountains as cathedrals or pillars to God”

John Locke does not want to rely on arguments made a priori through reason nearly as much as Descartes does. He says, ‘Well hang on. Let’s look at the evidence.’ So Locke begins collecting travel books and exchanges from all over the world, from anywhere he can get his hands on them. And what he finds is that there don’t seem to be any ideas about morality or God that are universal, that are shared by all human beings on the Earth. He uses these travel reports to mount an argument against innate ideas. And then he claims that there are no ideas that all human beings are born knowing.

So that’s one way that travel had a huge impact on philosophy.

I can see that. Alison Gopnik wrote a fascinating article about how David Hume, in his views of the self, might have been influenced by Jesuits who had been to Tibet. The reason the Jesuits were going to Tibet and learning the language and learning about the culture and writing about it was to convert the Buddhists, having understood exactly what it was that they believed. There’s another example of a philosophy, or at least a religious belief, that motivated travel and then fed back into a view of the nature of the self. I can see how once you start looking there must be a lot of intersections between travel and philosophy. But is that a philosophy of travel or is it more philosophy and travel?

Areas within philosophy include ‘philosophy of science’ and ‘philosophy of art’, and they simply refer to philosophical topics within science or art. When I talk about ‘philosophy of travel’ that’s exactly what I mean. Philosophical topics within travel—like innate ideas or the way that Francis Bacon’s philosophy of science put travel front and centre. So I do think it is a philosophy of travel.

I can see too, for example, how the motivation for discussing moral relativism originated from a greater knowledge of other cultures. Travel stimulates a certain kind of philosophy and there is a two-way back and forth. People begin asking are these cultures really different from ours? Or is it just superficial and have we misunderstood them? The kind of travel involved in anthropology becomes a source for philosophy.

That’s a great way of putting it. Anthropology did become a source for philosophy. It led to various debates, some quite dark. So, for example, some philosophers thought that if there are people around the world who don’t have that Christian, innate idea of God then they’re not people. They’re just animals.

Then you have debates about what makes someone a person, which John Locke dives straight into with his argument that a person is a thinking thing. Locke, to his credit, rebuts the racist notion that other people across the world are not people.

You’ve written this book, The Meaning of Travel. I can’t think of any course that I’ve seen anywhere in a philosophy department that is on the philosophy of travel. Is your secret ambition that, just as you can today do a course on practical ethics or the philosophy of biology, one day students could take a course on the philosophy of travel?

Yes, I would absolutely love to see that happen. Many of the issues I’ve discussed are covered in other courses. Things like innate ideas you would find in a course on Locke, for example. But collecting them all together and showing how they interlink and the commonalities is something you could only get through a full-blown course. I would be delighted if that happened.

It’s interesting to take another perspective on familiar things, which is something that is allegedly the result of travel. You go somewhere else and then you look at yourself differently. But if you look at philosophy through the lens of travel, perhaps it takes on a different shape as well.

Anything that gives us new perspectives is good. Philosophy and travel can both aim to strike out into the unknown. Travellers do that when they seek to explore outer space or unexplored caves below the Earth or parts of the ocean. Philosophers also try to do that.

“If we could map all possible knowledge, huge swathes of the map would be blank”

If we could map all possible knowledge, huge swathes of the map would be blank. I don’t think humans know very much, really—on our own planet, biologists are still identifying thousands of new plants and animals every year. We are one species on one planet in an enormous universe, and we haven’t been around for that long. I think philosophers often try to map the stuff that we don’t know. They’re not even necessarily trying to provide us with answers. They’re saying, ‘Hey, here’s this whole area of thought no one has ever conceived of being a thing, but it’s a thing.’

In that respect I think philosophy and travel have a huge amount in common. They both share this desire to map unknown places. They have this deep motivation in common which is not obvious, but it’s very much there.

Which is curiosity, presumably?


One other thing: we’re having this conversation during a global lockdown, where it seems travel is just not available to most people. Obviously when you wrote the book, opportunities for world travel were there, but they may not be for years now. How should that affect how we think about travel?

When I wrote the book, travel was readily available to lots of people. It opens with me overhearing a couple having noisy sex on a train. At the time, that seemed like a problem. Now that pales into insignificance compared to the problems that we’re facing. The book is going to be read in a very different world to the one that it was written in.

Travel has always been a privilege. If you look at the history of leisure travel in the West, it started in the seventeenth century, the province of the extremely rich. In the late 19th century, it opened up to the masses and now many of us can enjoy the privileges of travel, of going out into the world and seeing things in an affordable way. We can expand our minds by seeing new things, meeting new people, and eating unfamiliar foods. Travel can broaden your mind and your experience of the world.

Books can open that experience vicariously. Most of us, most of the time, have learned about other cultures and other ways of living through books or films: not through direct experience.

Yes, travel is not the only way open to us for expanding our minds. Books, documentaries, even these outstanding online platforms where you can explore deserts and museums and the stars. I am so grateful that we have them, and I think that’s what we have to do during this lockdown. If one strategy isn’t open to us, we have to pursue another.

In a sense it might make travel writing more precious to us. When you can’t do something, anything that gets close to it is better than nothing.

I think that’s true. Travel writing is wonderful. I’m reading lots of it at the moment. It’s a way of armchair travelling, of learning about new things and seeing different people’s point of view. And that’s great. We need it.

It’s a cliché that travel broadens the mind, but I’ve met people who have been narrowed by travel which just confirmed them in their prejudices. Those curmudgeonly travellers who hate foreigners. I don’t know if you’ve got a view on that?

I’ve absolutely met people like that. It’s important to say that travel can broaden the mind, but it’s not the case that it necessarily does. That’s the same in all things. There are people who read books and only take from them what they want to take.

Let’s get on to the books. What’s your first choice?

You asked for my five book choices about the philosophy of travel, but the philosophy of travel doesn’t exist in a coherent way. So, I’ve simply picked books about travel which engage with various philosophical issues. They are, if you like, thoughtful books about travel.

My first choice is a book by Marjorie Hope Nicolson called Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. It was written in the 1950s and it was the very first book, as far as I’m aware, that makes the argument that the philosophy of space had a huge impact on mountain tourism.

“In theory she was a professor of literature, but in reality she delved into science and philosophy and anything else that she fancied”

Nicolson was a literary scholar at Columbia University. In theory she was a professor of literature, but in reality she delved into science and philosophy and anything else that she fancied. This book is highly readable. She has a very pleasant, direct style. She makes it seem effortless, the way she weaves together the science and the philosophy and poetry.

She explores the ideas around absolute space we discussed earlier, and also absolute time. This is the idea that time is an infinite, eternal container, identified with God. People were also beginning to shrug off biblical ideas of creation as happening four to six thousand years ago. So she argues that people were getting a sense of geological time for the first time and she thinks that that also feeds into this fresh appreciation of mountains. They’re giving you a sense of the timescales that God is working at.

Was it in the Enlightenment principally that this began? Because before this conversation, I would have thought the reason that people were drawn to mountains was connected with the Romantic notion of the sublime. The sublime was all about being in awe of these huge, slightly threatening places, the immensity and the fear that was part of the experience, which gave a certain sort of intensity. Romanticism was all about going to sublime places. You might then have made the leap towards God, but it’s more about the effect on human beings—particularly in Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime, for instance. It’s about exercising your fight or flight mechanism.

This stuff actually comes first. The way that Nicolson describes it is that these philosophers of space and time are laying the foundations for an aesthetics of the infinite, for an appreciation of infinite-seeming things, like mountain ranges. The sublime comes quite a bit later. These absolute theories of space and time are all invented from 1650 to 1690 and she thinks they began to seep through into poetry and literature and then into travel around the early 1700s, so in the early 18th century.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

She picks on Thomas Burnett, who was a philosopher and a scientist. He wrote an amazing book called The Theory of the Earth that seeks to explain everything in the universe. It starts with the way our Earth was created and the way geology works, how mountains and seas form. She thinks that Burnett was a transitional figure. On the one hand, he’s picking up these ideas about absolute space and time and he seems to be applying them to mountains. He talks with awe about how big they are, how they are God’s handiwork on Earth. On the other hand, he’s still a bit repulsed by them.

She thinks that he is a midway point between these absolute theories of space and what would become the full-blown aesthetics that you get in poets like Byron, who are describing mountains as cathedrals.

It’s interesting because in Romanticism, the emphasis is on your own personal experience, but what you’re describing is the objective reality out there. The Romantic poets tended to be fascinated with their own reactions to stuff and not just the stuff out there.

Yes! For these guys, the emphasis is what’s out there, not their reactions to it.

Your second choice follows on quite nicely: it’s Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Can you remind us of who she was?

Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century English philosopher. She’s best known for authoring a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women where she argues that women should be treated equally to men, especially with regard to education.

When she was writing in the late 1700s, there was a widespread belief that women didn’t have the same mental capacities as men, that they weren’t suited to study things like mathematics or science or philosophy. She argued that wasn’t true—women just weren’t educated in these things. If we were all educated the same, women could participate as well as men. She’s best known as a philosopher and in particular as a feminist philosopher, but she also wrote this travel book.

The backstory to this travel book is the stuff that soap operas are made of. She had an affair with an American privateer, Gilbert Imlay. She was living in England and then she moved to Paris for a little while, which is where she met him. They had what appears to be a passionate love affair and she became pregnant. They were married (not legally but informally) so he described her as his ‘wife.’ Although it seems that he was unfaithful, she then went to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct some business. And it was revealed, in the late 20th century, that she was trying to get hold of some treasure of his that may or may not have been on a ship that had sunk.

 She was on a treasure hunt?

Yes. She went to Scandinavia with her young baby and a maid. She left them behind in one of the cities while she travelled inland through Sweden, Norway and Denmark alone. It was a hell of a thing to do for a woman back then.

She wanted money because she wanted independence from Imlay. So she began writing her Letters. The book is presented as a series of letters to a friend, but of course they’re not regular letters—it’s an extremely well-crafted piece of work.

But they’re published together as a book?

Yes, it’s an epistolary book. It’s important in a number of ways. One thing that happened in the 17th century was Francis Bacon developed this new philosophy of science. He said that we can’t find out about the world by sitting in an armchair; we have to go out and bring back information about it. After Bacon’s death, the British Royal Society carried through this project. They began paying sailors, travellers and merchants to bring back all kinds of information about minerals, animals, flowers—whatever they could think of.

That’s more or less what Aristotle did as well, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Aristotle did that and then the whole process was abandoned. There was a lull of more than 1500 years and then Bacon picked it up again.

Something that went hand in hand with this project was that they asked travellers to write in a straightforward, factual style, which had a massive impact on travel writing. Lots of travel writing before this period was frankly made up. If you read books like The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, he’s happily writing about unicorns and men who have the heads of dogs. Separating fact from fiction in travel writing was a problem.

“Francis Bacon said that we can’t find out about the world by sitting in an armchair; we have to go out and bring back information about it”

So everybody began writing in this dull, third-person, scientific style. It’s the sort of thing that you still see in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle or Captain Cook’s Journals. The tales themselves are gripping, but the writing is often boring. Mary Wollstonecraft was well aware of this. Back in London, she had worked as a writer and an editor for a magazine and read and reviewed dozens of travel books. So in her own travel writing she sets out to do something different. She explains at the start of this book, ‘I couldn’t help but make myself the hero of every little tale. I realize that this is contrary to what normally happens, but I’m going to do it anyway.’

She goes on to describe, in the first person, her own reactions to mountains and glaciers and lakes. She’s knee-deep into the philosophy of the sublime and there’s been some literary scholarship over the last five years in particular that’s shown she wasn’t just a pioneer of travel writing about the sublime—she was a leader.

But Kant wrote on the sublime, and Burke before him.

She wasn’t the first person to come up with the theory of the sublime. She was the first person to apply that seriously to travel writing, this feeling of pleasurable terror that you get from looking at a sublime scene.

Is it a good read, or is it just interesting historically?

It’s a lovely book to read. She’s a really engaging writer. She reads as a very modern writer, despite the fact it’s a few centuries old. It’s also shot through with her observations on the stage of women in these countries. She’s furious at the way some women are treated, and she has a cutting pen.

What’s your third choice?

My third choice is Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I think Walden is the least readable of the books that I’ve chosen, because it starts with a long, rambling passage about what he thinks about the state of politics and economics. It includes his famous line “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

He’s saying that people are locked into a capitalist system, where they have to borrow money to make their farm work and then they get in debt and have to work even longer hours . . .

You’re right that it’s important, but it’s hard going. Once you get past that, then suddenly you’re into these beautiful and inspiring descriptions of nature.

He lived in Concord, near Walden Pond, and he bought a hut which he rebuilt next to the lake and lived in, in semi-isolation, for a couple of years, partly to see how much you need to be able to survive, but partly as a reaction to his brother’s death. His brother—with whom he used to go on long walks in the countryside—cut himself shaving and had a septic reaction; he died very quickly. So that was part of the stimulus for Thoreau leaving society. He wrote very eloquently about his engagement with nature and what it’s like living in that hut on subsistence farming and buying the minimum that he needed to get by to live. He was a proto eco-warrior. It’s interesting, because he didn’t travel very far, it was just a couple of miles from where he lived.

Thoreau did a fair amount of travelling, outside of Walden. In his other books he goes on these long hikes.

Like many philosophers, he absolutely loved walking and he was very much in touch with the seasons, with the wildlife, with the plants.

This book is really about travelling into wilderness. I don’t think that travelling need involve going very far. You could travel within a few miles of your house. What’s crucial is to put yourself in unfamiliar surroundings. And I think that’s what he manages to do. There are these amazing, elegant, long passages where he describes sitting in the doorway of his cabin, lost in the sunshine and the birds flitting around the trees. Or where he’s looking out at the pond and describing the way the ice is frozen and the crazing of the cracks. It’s enchanting and it has inspired swathes of travel nature writing—as well as people going off and building their own cabins in the wilderness.

There’s a craze right now for ‘cabin porn’—if you Google it, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find. So many of the articles about it reference Thoreau’s Walden.

He was a really unusual figure and very much a philosopher reflecting on the nature of what it is to be human within a society. He’s famous for his writing on civil disobedience as well, and whether you should refuse to pay taxes to an unjust government, for example. So I imagine, probably like Wollstonecraft, that the fact that he’s so immersed in philosophy means that that’s the filter through which he describes everything. He’s not a simple nature writer describing what he sees, he’s reflecting on it in terms of what it means for humanity.

There’s very much an underlying metaphysics—theory of reality. So where his friend (and senior tutor, if you like) Emerson is in love with nature and for Emerson nature is a symbol or a representation of God, for Thoreau nature is God. There’s no remove for him. When he’s looking into the ice at Walden Pond, he’s looking into God’s creation. The whole book, these beautiful nature passages, they feel very strongly anchored in this underlying philosophy of how the world is.

There’s also the story of seclusion. You see Wittgenstein going off to live in a hut by a lake in Norway. Rousseau also went to live in a forest at one point in his life. In order to think clearly, some people believe you have to get away from not just the assumptions other people have but from other people’s physical presence.

With Thoreau I don’t get the vibe that he wants to be solitary in order to think. Rather, he wants to be solitary in order to be closer to nature. It’s a variation on the theme, but certainly seems very different to Wittgenstein, who wanted to be a solitary genius working out ideas without anyone to bother him.

Though both of them had social contact. Thoreau often gets criticized because he took his washing home and went to have meals with people occasionally, but he never said he was going to live in complete isolation. He was experimenting with how little he could live on.

Yes, it’s an experiment, though if I’m honest, I personally am much less interested in the social aspects of it. I’m more interested in the engagement with nature. That’s what I really love about the book. It’s okay that other people like aspects of it that I don’t. That’s allowed.

Your fourth choice is Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, published back in 2002. Tell us about it.

It’s a thoughtful account of de Botton’s engagement with artists about travel. He focuses on painters and novelists with a view to asking what light they can shed on why we travel, and picking up titbits from them for our own travels.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

One of my favourite examples he discusses is Edward Hopper. Hopper painted places like bus stations, petrol stations, the sorts of in-between places that normally we disregard when we think about travelling. They’re not places we usually think about visiting. We’re thinking about seeing cathedrals or mountains. Hopper is painting all these in-between places that would never occur to us to pay attention to and de Botton asks, why? He asks why they’re good for us and he reflects on the fact that he quite enjoys spending time in motorway cafés, for example, or airport waiting lounges.

Do you believe that? I can’t really imagine him in a motorway café. Can you?

Honestly no, I can’t. But it makes for a good couple of paragraphs. For him, these are places where it’s okay to be lonely and that’s the appeal of them.

That’s interesting.

He thinks that’s what Hopper captured. That’s one of the ways that he’s looking at artists who have engaged with travel. He’s thinking, ‘What can I take away from this?’ He uses Hopper to explain why he enjoys being in these sorts of in-between places.

Do you mean it’s okay to be lonely or it’s okay to be alone? Because solitude and loneliness aren’t the same thing. Often the best writers travel alone. Someone like Bruce Chatwin seems to be always on his own.

Paul Theroux has a chapter in his Tao of Travel arguing that although many travel writers appear to travel alone, they don’t—including Bruce Chatwin. His wife doesn’t appear in the books, but apparently there is a long tradition of travel writers doing this: pretending to be travelling alone when in fact they have their partners with them.

I think of Hopper as the painter of disconnectedness, but being in solitude is not the same as being lonely. It’s an interesting question, people travelling alone. The times I’ve done it I found it particularly satisfying in terms of engaging with people and the places because you are completely in control of where you loiter and where you don’t.

There’s a lovely quote from Ella Maillart on this. Reflecting on a 3,500 mile trip from Beijing to Kashmir, she writes that she prefers to travel alone because “a companion is in himself a detached ‘piece’ of Europe. When I have a companion by my side, together we build a foreign cell, a ‘resistance’ which can only with difficulty blend into new surroundings”. I think that’s true. I’ve done almost all of my travelling alone and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I’ve had more varied experienced as a result. It’s also been harder, which I think has added to the value for me.

It also might be that tourists thin out where it gets tougher. So the kind of clichéd tourist who’s going to form an opinion for you is not alongside you by the time you get to the top of the hill.

I also think local people are far more willing to talk to you if you’re alone—they feel sorry for you, and you’re clearly not a threat. I’ve particularly found that, when I’m alone, other women approach me happily.

Could you give me another example of an artist from Alain de Botton’s book?

John Ruskin, the painter. Ruskin is all about these incredibly intricate, realistic drawings of nature. He painted many different things but this is what de Botton focuses on. Ruskin, in his view, shows that painting is one way of absorbing your environment, almost of capturing it.

One way to think about it today is using mindfulness. If you are looking at something so intently that you are capturing every line and curve, then you are paying mindful attention to it. You have to be focused on that thing. De Botton, again, uses this as a way of saying, ‘this is one of the things we should do when we travel: we should pay attention to the world around us. And then take that back home with us, take these observations home.’

If you believe in the theory of predictive processing—that what we notice is change in our environment, not what’s actually in front of us, most of the time: we make best guesses and then when something changes we suddenly notice it, if we’re lucky—that fits. Because what travel often does is jolt you into a position where you’re almost overloaded with information. You have to make a series of hypotheses about what’s going on. Whereas most of our lives, we rely quite usefully on assumptions about what’s going on.

I went to Thailand recently and the first day I opened the curtains. I was looking out at a paddy field and the birds and the noises and smells and seeing somebody on a bicycle in the distance. Just taking it all in was almost impossible. I had to sit for 20 minutes and gradually let it come into focus. I’ve had that experience in Italy as well. You’re suddenly in a different place and perception becomes apparent to you in a way that it doesn’t at home where, without even looking, I know where to turn left and where to turn right and nothing surprises me too much.

Yes, I agree and it can be invigorating to know how little you know. In our everyday lives we can complacently think, ‘I know lots of things.’ As soon as you’re somewhere unfamiliar you realize, ‘Gosh, I know almost nothing.’ You can’t speak the language. You can’t read the signs. You don’t understand the cultural cues that you’re surrounded by. You don’t know what the birds are, what the plants are. I think that’s useful as an experience for humans to have regularly.

Also something that strikes me when travelling is how willing people are to help a traveller, even though they don’t know you and don’t have any vested interest in you. You might get your wallet stolen in some places, but there are also a lot of people who give you a meal or take you to the place you ask where to go to. They’re incredibly warm and generous and it’s kind of gratifying that that exists. For me, that’s quite a surprise because my instinct is to be cautious in a new place, and think, ‘Oh God, someone’s going to mug me.’ But actually the default seems to be, ‘You’re a traveller, you’re a human being like me and you might need help.’

Which is amazing. It’s a good feeling to go somewhere and people are pleased that you’ve arrived, that they want you to see their home.

Alain de Botton is somebody with an interest in philosophy who’s approaching questions about travel, which is unusual. How does your book differ? How did your approach differ from his?

The most obvious difference is that de Botton is interested in artists. He’s looking at what novelists and painters can tell us. Every now and then he brings in a philosopher, but the book is focused on novelists and painters, which is very different to what I’m trying to do, with my focus on what philosophers can tell us about travel. So the people we’re looking at is one of the differences.

Also, what I’m interested in is telling the story of philosophical engagement with travel since the Age of Discovery, which is when philosophers got interested in travel. It’s not comprehensive, but I’m picking out the biggest episodes throughout that history. That’s not something that de Botton is doing.

Why would somebody want to read his book?

He’s a brilliant writer, so it’s an extremely easy read. It’s enlightening. It’s not about philosophy, but it’s very good.

Incidentally, de Botton’s book shares a title with The Art of Travel by Francis Galton. This book is also entertaining, but for different reasons. It’s got lots of advice for the would-be explorer. Galton was a Victorian explorer and he often travelled with servants because although he was intrepid he was also very rich. So, for example, he warns you that if you are sleepy or deaf, you should never travel without your manservants.

What’s your last book choice on the philosophy of travel?

How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been by Pierre Bayard is perhaps the least philosophical of my choices. It’s about the importance of armchair travel. It’s written by a literary professor and it’s a tongue-in-cheek, extended argument as to why armchair travel can be even better than real world travel.

That might be a particularly popular book now . . . 

Yes, I don’t know when we will be able to real world travel again, but in the meantime, this is a great humorous take on why we should all be armchair travelling.

Is it just humorous, or is it serious as well?

It’s written to be funny, but it’s packed with lots of serious material on the nature of armchair travel. The serious material is not tongue-in-cheek, but throughout the book his thesis—that armchair travel is always better than real world travel—is, I think, meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

Is it because in real travel, you might be disappointed when you arrive in a place that doesn’t live up to your expectations—whereas you are never going to be disappointed from your armchair?

That’s a theme that you find in de Botton. Earlier, you asked about differences between my book and de Botton’s. Here is another one. I once read a Guardian review of The Art of Travel that complained de Botton doesn’t seem to like travel very much. I get that feeling too—it comes across in his discussions about the expectation of travelling being better than the reality. I hope, in my book, it comes across that I love it.

Bayard is concerned with a number of things including the fact it’s much safer to travel by armchair than in the real world. There’s none of the inconvenience, you can remain sleeping in your own bed, you don’t have to faff around with porters or train tickets and endure long and uncomfortable journeys. It’s a lot easier, you don’t run into difficulties and you can learn much more about a place by reading about it than by visiting. And he goes on to provide lots of examples.

“Something that I loved learning about is the history of travel writing. I hadn’t appreciated, for example, that it really exploded in the 17th century”

These include, for example, a French travel writer called Chateaubriand. He wrote lots about visiting the United States and large chunks of it seem to have been made up. There are rivers in his books and places that move around when he’s describing different locations in the States—but that doesn’t seem to matter because it’s as though he’s captured the essence of the places, even though he never visited.

The book is brilliant—very funny. He uses his own system of notations that say things like ‘NV’ for never visited. He covers the Marco Polo controversy. Marco Polo in theory travelled widely through Asia including China, yet lots of scholars think he never got any further than Constantinople. But perhaps he didn’t need to.

It’s the difference between knowledge by acquaintance or knowledge by description. Those are two ways of writing about travel. I suspect any traveller has to do a bit of synecdoche, the part standing for the whole, because they only experience a tiny time-slice and a tiny geographical slice of the place they visit, and they then usually generalize from that about the place and its people.

I think you could run a Mary’s Room thought argument about this. Mary is sitting in a room, with guidebooks about Japan. If she is then transported to Japan, does she learn anything new?

What’s your view? Surely that she does? Isn’t the experiential thing important, the qualitative experience of the place part of what you’re advocating? Whereas some of the people you’re discussing are more literary travellers in a sense, they’re interested in the idea of travel, not in actually traveling so much. It’s more about how it’s represented, how it’s described, what its historical importance is, its artistic and literary connections. That’s not travel itself.

Yes. I certainly think Mary would learn something new where she to step out onto the streets of Japan. But I do think she could learn an awful lot from books as well. I love books as much as I love travelling.

For me it’s a bit like painting. You can have a portrait of somebody where you don’t know who they are and don’t really care who they are, but it can be an amazing painting. It’s not just about what’s represented but it’s about how it’s represented, the kind of formal qualities, the beauty of the thing. It’s true that as a genre travel writing has been very significant. Thoughtful writing about going somewhere else is a major part of the great legacy of humanity. Whether or not it’s accurate about the place, and whether or not it takes you to the place, as a genre of writing there are so many brilliant examples.

I think so too. Something that I loved learning about is the history of travel writing. I hadn’t appreciated, for example, that it really exploded in the 17th century. I thought it would have been around in quantity for a lot longer. The Age of Discovery blew the whole thing up. I suspect the printing press also had something to do with it. Travel to far flung places was easier and books were more readily available.

Is there anything you want to add to what you’ve said about Bayard’s book?

The book is not obviously raising philosophical issues, though if you run something like the Mary’s Room thought experiment, you can make it philosophical. But one of the issues simmering below the surface of the entire book is, ‘what is the relationship between fact and fiction?’ That is hugely philosophical, the relationship between the world inside our heads and the world out there. That runs like a thread through the whole book and I think it’s fabulous.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

April 10, 2020

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and spent several years as a postdoc at the University of Groningen. In 2018 she published two books: Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics, and Early Modern Women on Metaphysics. Her latest book is The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. Follow her on Twitter @emilytwrites.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and spent several years as a postdoc at the University of Groningen. In 2018 she published two books: Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics, and Early Modern Women on Metaphysics. Her latest book is The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. Follow her on Twitter @emilytwrites.