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A Misguided Philosophy of Travel

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Earlier this summer, New Yorker magazine published an opinion piece with the title The Case Against Travel.

As someone who loves to travel, I was intrigued.

What is the most uninformative statement that people are inclined to make? My nominee would be “I love to travel.” This tells you very little about a person, because nearly everyone likes to travel; and yet people say it, because, for some reason, they pride themselves both on having travelled and on the fact that they look forward to doing so.

That opening statement (insult?) comes from a philosophy professor who derives the thesis of this essay from the writings of a “small but articulate opposition team” that includes heavyweights like Socrates and Kant.

But how do these great thinkers, and their modern-day conduit, define “travel”?

To explore it, let’s start with what we mean by “travel.” Socrates went abroad when he was called to fight in the Peloponnesian War; even so, he was no traveller. Emerson is explicit about steering his critique away from a person who travels when his “necessities” or “duties” demand it. He has no objection to traversing great distances “for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence.”

One sign that you have a reason to be somewhere is that you have nothing to prove, and therefore no drive to collect souvenirs, photos, or stories to prove it. Let’s define “tourism” as the kind of travel that aims at the interesting—and, if Emerson and company are right, misses.

In other words, those of us who travel because we want to enjoy new experiences that are outside of our everyday culture (and maybe take a few pictures) are nothing but “tourists”. A phrase that, I’m assuming, should be vocalized with as much bile and contempt as one can muster.

Tourism is marked by its locomotive character. “I went to France.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” That is, before quickly moving on: apparently, many people spend just fifteen seconds looking at the “Mona Lisa.” It’s locomotion all the way down.

It’s pretty clear, the writer is trying to convince the reader to accept the idea that if travel is not going to be life-changing, why bother?. Which is a pretty narrow, and rather cynical, approach to the topic of travel, or even tourism.

Very few people take a trip under the illusion that simply going would alter their approach to life. The trip certainly won’t result in the kind of philosophical alterations she seems to be demanding. Maybe if I moved to a location for years at a time “for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence”, the result would be different.

Anyway, at the risk of challenging the great thinkers of western civilization (and the author of this essay), I do not accept the idea that substantial “change” is the only purpose for travel. And I reject that anything is wrong with going as a “tourist”, if that’s your choice.

What about curiosity? Or the simple desire to explore an unfamiliar city? Maybe learn something about a culture you’ve only read about?

My personal approach is to travel as an observer, with my primary goal to learn more about life, culture, and history of the area I’m visiting. That’s one reason why I always bring a dedicated camera (in addition to my phone), spending lots of time looking around and documenting what I see.

In brief, that’s my case FOR travel.


Eating Dutch pancakes on a cool spring morning in Amsterdam may not be life-changining, but it was a lot of fun. As was talking to the gentleman at the grill.

If you want to read the whole article, know that The New Yorker has a rather picky paywall that may prevent you from clicking through to the article. Try using a browser you don’t normally use, after first clearing the cache. I also add almost all articles I want to use to my Instapaper account. That service strips out all the formatting and ads from the page and also seems to get around many paywall blocks. It’s an inexact science but give it a try.

1 Comment

  1. Doug Johnson

    Like you, Tim, I am an inveterate traveler – and find it is core part of make-up. But I’ve not much questioned the “why” of travel. Do we need to justify those things which bring us joy, interest, or challenge? Do we question why people go to ballgames or out to eat or read trashy novels? Can we not be labled tourists without also being branded ugly Americans?

    I will say that in light of the environmental impacts that travel may have, I think more often about I can reduce this part of my carbon footprint (or whatever) without coming up with very good answers.

    Thanks for the post. Keep writing.

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