Philosophy, Running, and Life Beyond Justification

The question "what is philosophy?" is perhaps most expressive of the temperament and ambitions of philosophers. We are simultaneously proud of our ability to ask this question and ashamed that we have to ask it. We are proud of the question because it shows that we take critical inquiry so seriously that we apply it even to the very task of critical inquiry. And we are ashamed of the question because it implies that we don't really know what the heck we are doing, that philosophy is simply an expression of confusion. Which, of course, it is.

Like most questions, this one has many different answers. Speaking personally, I love reading and engaging in philosophy because it gives me a chance to think newly and differently. So, I tend to think of the task of philosophy as primarily imaginative and speculative. My favorite philosophers challenge ordinary ways of seeing, and give us new ways of approaching problems. This has probably been apparent in my writings on this blog.

The view that philosophy is about argumentative justification is more common among professional philosophers. This mode of philosophy is also creative, but it puts a higher value on conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor. It sees philosophy as an attempt to justify the way we think about things through clear argumentation and reason giving.

Obviously, good thinking requires both clear-headed and rigorous exchange of reasons as well as creative insight and intuition. In the very best philosophers profound and world-altering insights are delivered in a clear and graceful style that does not shirk the work of justification (Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche come to mind as exemplary in terms of balancing creativity and argumentative rigor.) But most of us workaday philosophers tend to err on one side or the other -- so much so, in fact that intradisciplinary squabbles about which is the "real" or "true" form of philosophy occupy too much philosophical bandwidth. (Ah, but we love that question, "what is philosophy?" AND, even more, we love to argue!)

All of this is familiar and not too insightful, I imagine, for professional philosophers. These squabbles over the meaning and most basic values of philosophy have a long history and are also influenced by forces from outside philosophy -- i.e. the prestige and influence of math and science, and the more general ways that academics have to justify their own funding, etc. These are larger topics for a different audience.

At any rate, I was prompted to return to these questions on the nature of philosophy and what it might have to do with running when I ran across this advertisement for a conference on the philosophy of running and realized that I hardly wrote about any of the questions that they briefly posed.

Why run? How would I reply to this? Does my running require justification? Well, sometimes it does -- like when I should be doing something else.

What sort of value does running have? Here we get into the reasons for the first question -- Enjoyment comes to mind, first. Psychological stability. Health. Friendship. And then vaguer and more suspicious reasons: control, competitiveness, obsessiveness. Most of the value that running has is directly individual, but there are also community aspects: the race, the friends, even the simple act of being out in public spaces and on sidewalks seems to me to have social/political implications.

What does running tell us about intentions and effort? There are fascinating crannies to explore here. Marathon training and racing is an ongoing lesson in the limits of intentionality and goal setting. And runners are connoisseurs of effort--one of the great pleasures of running is in sampling different efforts and playing with them, as if the body were wine, and we were tasters!

What is philosophically distinctive about running? There is a lot to say here (this topic needs its own blog post), but I think the answer boils down to the fact that running is a freely chosen activity. I think for this reason, we see running as something we are -- we are runners -- rather than something we simply do. We don't run out of necessity, and running is not useful, and yet we choose it anyways.

This takes us back to the first question. What exactly is philosophical inquiry? I think it is best expressed as freedom of thought. This freedom forces certain responsibilities--that we practice it well, that we do it clearly, and that we respect the rights of others to think. But thinking is also like running. There is a dimension of the pure freedom of thought that pushes beyond justification, responsibility, necessity, and usefulness. To my mind, it's this dimension of thought -- a dimension that is itself exceedingly difficult and rewarding to think -- that we indicate by the concept of philosophy. We know we are in a philosophical dimension when our thoughts get confused and jumbled, but also appear new and alien.

Perhaps thinking philosophically and running are analogous activities. Though they each have positive and useful effects, they are activities that are not primarily useful and resist justification. But we choose them anyways, quite freely, despite their dubious use-value, and perhaps in doing so express something about the nature of human freedom. When Socrates said that "The unexamined life is not worth living," he drew a straight line connecting free inquiry and the value of life itself. But there is a subtler thought there as well. If the value of life is in the inquiry, it is also in the part of life that is not yet settled, not yet justified, still to be explored, not quite determined.

Time for a run.


  1. wow! Good piece as ever, but I'm really commenting to thank you for the conference heads-up.

    1. Thanks, James! I would love to go, but England is quite a trip.

  2. Hm. Interesting.
    There are two types of thinking while running. Running thought and other thought.
    On some runs, I try only to think about running. On other runs, I try to think about anything but running. Either way, a good run ends with me thinking, "That felt good, and it feels good to be done".
    Not very deep, but it's nice to be able to either detach from it all, or focus entirely on the task and the perfection of it. I like both.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Thanks for the thought. May you have many thoughtful and thoughtless runs.

  3. I am a runner who is slightly obsessive-compulsive. If you've heard of the "hedonic treadmill", I'm sure that my running falls largely into this category, as it's something that I naturally gravitate back to even in spite of extraneous life changes. It's difficult to justify, because for me, running falls somewhere between pleasure and grueling effort, and can vary in each direction daily or even mid-run. I still haven't worked it all out.


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