Immanuel Kant the, errrr, Walker?


Immanuel ‘the Königsberg clock’ Kant was renowned for his strict (and rather austere) daily routines. Having been born in Königsberg in 1724, he never left the small German city, dying there in 1804 aged 79 never having once gone further than the city’s limits. Yet despite his somewhat limited empirical knowledge of the world, the intellectual founder of the German Enlightenment had a lifelong passion for knowledge of all kinds. He gained much of his insight  into the world outside of Königsberg from his walks through the docks where he would discuss philosophy, politics, science and travel with Scottish merchants and tradesmen.

In the second of our extracts from A Philosophy of Walking, (the first one is here) Frederic Gros reflects upon the influence of walking for Kant’s life and thought. Following this, we have a short excerpt from a conversation between the great German playwright Heiner Müller and filmmaker, theorist and writer Alexander Kluge which shows that Kant’s daily life was perhaps a little less puritanical than often assumed, and that his passion for walking allowed him to indulge in more *ahem* exotic pursuits.


We know that Immanuel Kant’s life was far from adventurous. It is hard to imagine a drearier existence. He was born in Königsberg and died there. He never travelled, never left his native town. His father made saddles and harnesses. His mother was very pious and loving. He never heard an insult uttered at home, but lost both parents at an early age. He studied, worked hard, became a tutor, then a lecturer, then a university professor. At the beginning of his first book is the statement: ‘I have traced a path which I will follow. When my advance begins, nothing will be able to stop it.' 

Of medium height, with a large head and bright blue eyes, the right shoulder higher than the left, he had a delicate constitution. He had gone blind in one eye. His behaviour was such a model of regularity that some called him ‘the Königsberg clock’. On teaching days, when he emerged from his house, people knew it was exactly eight o’clock. At ten to, he had put on his hat; at five to, he had picked up his stick; and at dead on eight he stepped out of his door. He said of his watch that it was the last possession he would part with.

Like Nietzsche – although with different emphases – he was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to per- spire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat. 

Of neither can it be said that his health was perfect. We should note – without seeing it as physiologically symbolic of their respective philosophies – that Kant was consti- pated, while Nietzsche suffered from compulsive vomiting. Of fragile temperament, Kant liked to think that he owed his longevity (he lived to be eighty) to his inflexible life- style. He held his good health to be a personal achievement, the product of his iron self-discipline. He was passionately interested in dietetic medicine, which (he said) was an art not for enjoying life but prolonging it. 

In his final years, however, he claimed that an airborne electrical fluid had ruined his health, a current he also claimed had caused the death of an improbable number of cats in Basle at about the same time. He never had any debts, and said so very loudly to anyone who would listen. He couldn’t bear untidiness. Things always had to be in their place. All change was unbearable to him.

A student who regularly attended his lectures had always had a button missing from his jacket. One day he turned up with a new button, which bothered the professor terribly: he could not prevent his gaze from straying back to the new button on the youngster’s coat. Legend has it that Kant asked the student to remove the new button, adding that it is more important to learn a thing than it is to know, after learning it, where to classify it. He always dressed in the same way. He displayed no caprice or oddity.

His life was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper. He was awoken each morning at five o’clock, never later. He breakfasted on a couple of bowls of tea, then smoked a pipe, the only one of the day. On teaching days, he would go out in the morning to give his lecture, then resume his dressing-gown and slippers to work and write until precisely a quarter to one. At that point he would dress again to receive, with enjoyment, a small group of friends to discuss science, philosophy and the weather.

There were invariably three dishes and some cheese, placed on the table – sometimes with a few desserts – along with a small carafe of wine for each guest. Conversation lasted until five o’clock.

Then it was time for his walk. Rain or shine, it had to be taken. He went alone, for he wanted to breathe through his nose all the way, with his mouth closed, which he believed to be excellent for the body. The company of friends would have obliged him to open his mouth to speak.

He always took the same route, so consistently that his itinerary through the park later came to be called ‘The Philosopher’s Walk’. According to rumour he only ever altered the route of this daily constitutional twice in his life: to obtain an early copy of Rousseau’s Émile, and to join the scramble for hot news after the announcement of the French Revolution. On returning from his walk, he read until ten o’clock, then went to bed (he only ate one meal a day), falling asleep immediately. 

That low-key walk, without any big mystical union with Nature, that walk without pleasure, but taken as a hygienic necessity, that one-hour walk, but taken every day, every single day without exception, brings to light three important aspects of walking.

The first is monotony. Walking is monotonous, severely monotonous. The great walking narratives (from Rodolphe Töpffer’s ‘zigzag journeys’ to Michel Vieuchange’s ‘travel logs’) can only maintain our interest through their account of misadventures, sudden encounters, painful hard- ships. In these epics of pilgrimage or exploration, there are always many more pages devoted to halts than to the travelling itself. Events are never part of the walking, they are interruptions. For walking is monotonous by itself. It isn’t ‘interesting’, and children know it. Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer draws from its inertia the vague vertigo of an endless spiral. In a state of boredom one is always seeking something to do, despite the obvious futility of any activity. When walking, there is always something to do: walk. Or rather, no, there’s nothing more to do because one is just walking, and when one is going to a place or covering a route, one has only to keep moving. That is boringly obvious. The body’s monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that or like this or like that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.

The second aspect pivots around regularity. What impresses in Kant is his iron discipline. Every day that same walk, the accompaniment and symbol of the hours spent working each day. Every day a page to write, a thought to develop, a proof to add, a demonstration to perfect. And at the end of it all, a gigantic oeuvre. Of course, he also had to have something to think and say in the first place. But what impresses here is the output, the idea of a gigantism produced through repeated effort, a small repeated action: a discipline. The work was not produced in a flash of inspiration suspending time, but built up stone by stone. As when, after three or four days’ walk, you look back from the top of a pass and make out in the far distance your point of departure. That distance, that remoteness stolen by the tiny distance of a stride, one stride after another, with unending perseverance. Discipline is the impossible conquered by the obstinate repetition of the possible.

The third and last aspect has to do with the inescapable. It was known that at five in the afternoon he was going to come out and take his walk. It was like an immutable ritual, as regular and fundamental as the sunrise. What the idea of the inescapable adds to that of regularity is inevitability, but a mastered inevitability that one imposes by means of. Through discipline it can happen that one becomes one’s own destiny. There is a sort of threshold of the will, which, at the end of twenty, thirty or forty years, bends our efforts towards a necessity that would hang over us, almost, if we were not preoccupied with its construction.

The inescapable is there to show that discipline is not only a passive habit. It makes us feel a destiny of will, through which Nietzsche defined freedom. The inescapable thing about walking is that once started, one is forced to arrive. There is no other way, one has to progress. And at the end of the fatigue and the road, one always arrives, it’s enough to add up the hours and think: Let’s go! It was written, unchangeable. When you are on foot, to arrive you must walk. Will as destiny.

And the extract of the conversation between Müller and Kluge, taken from Cornell Universities transcipts of the entire fascinating conversation series (available here).

I have, in any case, a troubled relationship to Kant, because at age ten I read Kant for the first time - my father had that lying around - it was the Metaphysics of Morals. And naturally the first chapter I read was the one on onanism. And that disturbed me deeply, because he considered it completely reprehensible and in every respect the worst and the most undignified thing that exists . . . 

What's his argument for that? 

It's against the laws of nature, against God's will . . . 

If nature has given human beings the power to procreate, then it's reprehensible not to use it. 

Exactly, that troubled me deeply at that time. And then I was so happy when, years later, I read an anecdote to the effect that Kant supposedly masturbated once a week, or even more often, on the same oak tree in the park where he always took his walks. That reassured me. And from then on I was no longer very interested in Kant. 

He had been refuted. 

He had been refuted, yes.

- Extract taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

This book is 50% off until Friday 1st May as part of our Guide to Political Walking. See the full reading list, here!

Read a second extract from A Philosophy of Walking on Rimbaud's famous teenage treks across Paris, here.

As part of our Walking week, we have an extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London on our blog. Read more here.