It’s a hot July afternoon in the French ski resort town of Vaujany, and the group of 20 hikers have gathered in a narrow strip of shade at the edge of a field. Snow-capped peaks emerge behind us, and in the distance, a waterfall pours down the side of a mountain. On the grass at our feet, our guide has laid out a series of pictures of philosophers and anthropologists. Among them are Michel Foucault, Nastassja Martin, and Henry David Thoreau. “Take a look at these characters and pick the one that will be your friend for the day,” says author and philosopher Simon Parcot. “Every 10 minutes or so I will stop to introduce them.”
We’re on one of Parcot’s “philosophical walks,” a guided two-hour hike through forest and fields in which he encourages participants to reflect on concepts such as nature, wilderness or the act of walking itself—all the while admiring the surrounding landscape. Today’s theme is “pastoralism” and after five minutes down a path, we’re invited to share our thoughts on the occupation of shepherding. “Imagine you have been hired by a breeder to look after their flock. What are three things that would lead you to accept?” asks Parcot. “Working with animals,” says a man in his 50s carrying two walking poles. “Living in a peaceful setting, surrounded by nature,” says the woman beside him. What about the disadvantages? “Too much loneliness,” says the woman. “And then there are the wolf attacks,” says another.
“I had never really thought about a shepherd’s relationship to life and nature,” Anne Joubert tells me as we continue walking. She lives in Paris and is here on holiday with her two teenage nephews. “I don’t know much about anthropology or sociology, so this is a nice way of learning.”
Though he is probably the only philosopher hosting this kind of event in France, Parcot says he hasn’t invented anything new. The connection between walking and thinking is ancient, dating back at least to the time of Aristotle’s peripatetic school, named from the Greek verb peripatein—to walk or stroll about—after its founder’s habit of pacing whilst teaching. Socrates strolled with his students, Jean-Jacques Rousseau liked to hike just a bit further north from here near Chambéry, and Nietzsche walked for up to eight hours a day in line with his conviction that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
And, of course—long before Western philosophers—Indigenous people have nurtured holistic and active educational practices that combine movement, learning, and nature, strengthening creative thinking and fostering connections with communities and the land in the process.
“We need to break this image of philosophy belonging in university lecture halls where the teacher facing the students is supposed to hold all the knowledge,” says Parcot. This is what he aims to achieve with the philosophical hikes, which he started for fun four years ago when he quit his job as a high school philosophy teacher in Nantes and moved to a village in the Écrins National Park where he spent his summers as a child. After studying in Paris, Parcot spent a year hiking across Europe and the Himalayas, so this was a way of bringing together his passion for philosophy, walking, and teaching. His enthusiasm is palpable from the start—he talks energetically and with almost theatrical gestures, making jokes, and encouraging debates. “I suggest we resume our walk now, and we will call on thinkers to help us dig into the philosophical issues of the day. Shall we?”
Charles Dickens once wrote that “it is not easy to walk alone in the country without musing upon something.”And it’s true. Walking has been shown to optimize the inner workings of the brain, promoting new connections between brain cells, improving memory, and increasing the size of the hippocampus. In the same way that songs with a high tempo can help us move faster, the rhythm of our feet on the ground can help organize our thoughts, preventing distraction, and boosting creativity. As opposed to sitting in a chair, moving the body can help stimulate the mind.
“This is the logic behind my philosophical walks,” says Parcot. “Take the body outside, and use it not as a tool but as a companion, a friend, to make thought more alive, more dynamic. Just as the Greeks did.”
Where we walk is also important. Spending time in green spaces such as parks, forests, and mountains has been shown to reduce blood pressure and muscle tension, improving our mood and overall mental health. As urban populations grow, access to green and blue spaces is a privilege that not everyone enjoys equal access to, and as extreme weather such as heat waves, droughts, and floods intensify the world over, spending time outdoors has also become more precarious in many parts of the world.
But while walking in a city requires us to be constantly alert, walking through a forest or along a river relieves mental fatigue because it doesn’t require our full attention. We can enter a state known as “soft fascination,” in which we focus on a less stimulating activity so that our mind is free to wander. “Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Wunderlust: A History of Walking. “And walking travels both terrains.”
Walking has been shown to optimize the inner workings of the brain.
After five minutes up a steep hill, the group is grateful for another pause and a sip of water in the shade. Here, Parcot tells us about his discussions with local shepherds, who struggle with the destruction caused by wolves. Some want to abolish the species altogether, while others consider it a necessary part of the local ecosystem. There are also conflicts around land use—the region is increasingly exploited for ski resorts, which put excessive pressure on the region’s environment and climate, and much of it belongs to national parks where agricultural activities are strictly regulated.
Discussions about climate change and environmentalism are always at the heart of Parcot’s walks. His catalog now includes around 15 different hikes on themes such as what is travel? and why do we climb mountains? “The topics I choose to discuss are directly related to nature and our relationship with nature,” says Parcot. His walks are attended by a mixed crowd, but many are urbanites who are already very conscious of the climate crisis. The walks don’t aim to educate in the traditional sense but instead “allow you to put concepts or sensations into words,” said Parcot, in turn “deepening [these] thoughts.”
Throughout the walk, we are introduced to the thinkers who can help us reflect on our relationship with the environment—almost all of which are French and male. Rousseau, for example, wrote that “you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to us all, and the Earth itself to nobody.” Parcot also cites Henry David Thoreau, who declared that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world,” and anthropologist Philippe Descola, who argues that nature simply “doesn’t exist.”
Philosophy has played an important role in French society since the Enlightenment and is a compulsory subject up until the age of 18. High school students must learn to respond to existential questions such as is a work of art always meaningful? or am I what my past has made of me? before they can apply to university. This may partly explain why Parcot’s walks have been so successful. Last year, he guided two to three groups each week during the summer, and he is in constant demand from associations and local authorities seeking to expand their cultural offering.
“Take the body outside, and use it not as a tool but as a companion, a friend, to make thought more alive, more dynamic.”
Philosophy is often seen as elitist, which is why Parcot presents the hikes as an opportunity for adults to learn about the subject in a way that is more accessible. The walk today is free: Parcot has been hired by the local council and most of the participants signed up after seeing it in the town’s activities brochure.
“I want people to leave the hike with a smile on their face, with the pleasure of having met new people and being intellectually stimulated,” he says. “And secondly, I want to take them somewhere unexpected. For me, that is the goal of philosophy. It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience: people come with an idea about something and I am going to completely turn it around. But when people say ‘that’s not what I thought’, then I know it worked.”