Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013
Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.
While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.
Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.
Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.
In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.
While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.
Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity. Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.
As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.
Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.
He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.
While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.
Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing. Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).