Alejandro Strong runs Apeiron Expeditions, a Maine-based organisation that leads excursions into nature that offer opportunity for philosophical reflection.
I spoke to Alejandro to learn about how Apeiron developed and the unique possibilities philosophy in nature allows.
Alejandro Strong. Image by Simon Beckford.
Ciaran: Hi Alejandro, so to start could you tell me a bit about yourself?
Alejandro: So, I guess my background and sort of philosophic background is, I grew up in southern Florida. My father was from California and his family have been in the US for a long time. My mom was born in Cuba and came over in the 1960s. We spent a lot of time outside sailing and doing stuff in nature, but also learning about the culture of a place that I did not expect to go to. So, I think that cultural divide, of sort of being Cuban and American, this in between state... And Cubans, or white Cubans, are very much not a minority. So, my grandmother, without meaning anything racist by it, was very clear that she was a white person. She thought it was disrespectful to Afro-Cubans to say that she and them were the same. So, these common languages of "you are this" or "you aren't that" were very complicated for me, but not dangerous. Gloria Anzaldúa has this idea of the 'borderland' and I think a lot of my existences are border existences.
So that time in nature, this mixed identity, were things that I think I still see strands of in my thinking and what I have become interested in. I had an English teacher in high school, who, whenever we read literature, he would tell us about the philosophies behind things. I was amazed to learn that there's this thing, philosophy, which to me was this blend of the quest of science, of understanding the world, but with the openness of literature. I thought to myself: that's what I'm missing in science, and missing in the literature! So, I got to college, and I walked into the chair of the philosophy department and said, "I want to be a philosophy major!" He was so confused, he said "Well, you know, just be open, maybe it'll change" but I insisted that it's gonna happen.
I would spend my school year in class, reading books, doing the academic thing, and then in the summer I worked for Outward Bound, leading canoeing, backpacking trips for teenagers. They'd be two-to-three-week trips. Sure, we’d go outside, but it was really about taking teenagers and telling them that they have to form their own government, you know? They have to make their own rules, they are in charge of each other. So, I would sit there and say, "there's this guy, Jean Jacques Rousseau..." I would say the names quietly, and then say what their strategy would be, why don't you try this? Luckily, we don't have to use review boards for human subjects in that setting!
They were just by nature, or by circumstance, practicing philosophical debates. Then they'd start asking these questions, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to go into it with them. But they wanted to know about, say, freewill, or when is autocracy okay? All these things I was reading in class. I felt that, when we're sitting in class, we didn't have the experience to really deal with the question at hand. Then these 15-year-olds are coming up with the question without doing the reading! So, to talk about public philosophy and my angle on it, I think it comes from that back-and-forth experience of going back to the classroom but thinking, "I probably shouldn't talk about my 15-year-old students!"
I then went to a grad school that focused on classical American pragmatism; John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce. To me, at that point, that was the philosophy that most crossed that bridge of practicing philosophical debates. I was still going in my summers to work with teenagers in the woods, but I got sidetracked from the pragmatism and got more and more into Latin American philosophy. So, bringing back in the identity questions. It turns out I wrote my dissertation on someone my mum gave me a book by when I was 12! It was a book which I skimmed and thought "No, I don't care" at the time. Their name was José Martí, they were a Cuban poet and a revolutionary. He was exiled in the US, and he fomented successful revolution against the Spanish in the late 1890s. While he was in the US, he was reading Emerson and Whitman. So again, classical American philosophy, but he was focused on the questions of Cuban independence, trying to keep Cuba sovereign from the US. So, he's known as the great critic of the US, but he's also influenced by US thinkers. His politics is a naturalism, but it's also heavy-duty Idealism; transcendental naturalism.
Since grad school it's been a mix of regular academic teaching, but also still working occasionally with Outward Bound giving college semester programmes and now doing my own guiding company. Some of the trips are very much 'we're gonna do philosophy', and it's right out in the front of it. But a lot of them are more a case of, we're gonna go to a place to think and if you ask questions, I might notice a reference we can bring up and talk about, but they aren’t front-and-centre. I found that people are intimidated by philosophy. So, I'm trying to, not hide it, but I am a firm believer that if you don't like philosophy, it's because you had a bad teacher - and I am that bad teacher sometimes! Philosophy needs to expand to meet the interests of a person, rather than that the person should expand to 'be' philosophical. It's this constant experiment: how do we get people doing the activity of philosophy rather than them saying, "I want to be philosophical".
Ciaran: I've definitely encountered this assumption that public philosophy has to be about putting the philosophy right in front of people's faces. What you’re saying reaffirms that that doesn't really work, and why should it be done like that anyway, isn't it better to just let it emerge? If someone has a question to ask then great, but otherwise it can be a natural function of an activity. How do you go about preparing for a trip?
Alejandro: So 'Apeiron' in Apeiron Expeditions means 'the boundless'. While the pre-Socratics were trying to identify the basic element of the world - you know, is it water, is it earth - one suggestion was it is the boundless, which is the sort of the infinite, the everything. So, there's two levels to the name. One is that I'm doing less 'Outward Bound', so I'm boundless! But the other is that, to me, nature - we can get into the wilderness debate if we want to - but these places that are less human managed are places of the boundless. They're places where people can experience more. I think that it's any of these experiences of 'more-ness', whether it's nature or elsewhere. You read a book, for example, and it gives you a new idea: that's the moment where people become open to doing philosophy. I'm always looking to find a way to bring people to that experience.
Something I'm very intentional about in any trip, is I think there's been a habit in outdoor recreation to associate hardness and difficulty with the source of meaning. Most wilderness stories are stories of an individual overcoming something and I mean, I like challenges, I do really hard things, but I actually find them less meaningful than just a general experience of being in a different situation. So sometimes, the challenge can bring it on, but I don't think it's the only way. So, I often am looking to create pleasant experiences. Yes, it's still challenging because you're in a new place. A lot of people have not spent time alone outdoors in the way we do; some trips can be four days in a row without seeing a car. So, to live out of a bag, when people are dealing with say, it being the longest they've been without talking on the phone with their children, their spouse... And that's not me saying you shouldn't do it, it's just we're in a place where you can't do it! So, it's not pure luxury. But I really want to take out the focus on 'challenge', so we can just focus on how this experience is different than another one. I think challenge is so personal, it's: 'I am being challenged right now and to be honest, I have chosen this challenge'. It can be, 'I was tricked into being challenged!' of course. But either way, it's such a human focus. The whole point of going to the woods is to get your focus out elsewhere.
Whatever the trip is, the goal is to create that moment of sensing more, sensing the boundless and then whether it's that there's an artist there, there's an author there, there's, you know, a group from a podcast, there's whatever, that [moment] then becomes the tools we use to have a conversation. Because if we all go stare at the boundless, we're gonna be like, "uhhh..."! But if we have an artist there, for example, then they can go into "here's how I'd try and paint that, here's how I deal with creativity". And then everybody's excited to talk about creativity because it's part of a possible solution to this new experience. The trip, the setting, is meant to bring on an experience and then the reading, the subject, is a vehicle to have a conversation through it, where we don't all have to be a mystic to make sense of it. We can go there of course, we can bring a mystic!
Really to me, I don't know what the answer is when you face that [boundlessness], but I'm amazed at where people come to. Once someone starts talking in that way though, I remember a million things I read that are related. So, it's really nice to be there and be able to then say this is what somebody a lot of people thought is smart said in this situation. The good thing is the people taking part in the trip have at that point put their theory out. They're already elevated to a level where they don't have to think about it as responding to their understanding of a hard piece of reading. They're learning about that reading as something that builds up or pushes their own view. So, it's very different to a presenting the trip as, "we're here to learn books". I think that's a great way to do philosophy and become better philosophers. But I don't know that it is philosophy. It's creating these moments of participation, that might be one way to see what is common to all the trips.
Image by Simon Beckford.
Ciaran: Has doing your expeditions changed the way that you think about what it means to do philosophy? Or did you already have, from doing Outward Bound work before, quite a firm picture?
Alejandro: I think it's still very much in development. Outward Bound did emphasise for me this idea that philosophy is about actual life, so that's still very much a part of it. But something that's come about more from doing Aperion trips is moving away from this idea - which I got very excited about in grad school - of the philosophy of activity, and a need to understand things as activities. I'm moving more to an idea of the philosophy of participation. I think it's not enough just to talk about activities, but to talk about what we participate in. Something I took from the philosophy of activity is a focus on culture, and of understanding group identity. In trying to bring these together, the word that kept coming out is 'participation'.
Another factor is that a few years ago I got to give this presentation on my research method. There were historians, geographers, all these different people in our College of Arts and Science describing what they do. I was going on a solo canoe trip and I wanted to argue that it was research. It felt odd but then I thought, "I'm just gonna do this, it doesn't matter, I'm an adjunct - they're not really gonna fire me they'll just let me go one day!" So I wondered, how do I explain this? I was gonna go on this trip with a question, and I was gonna try and sort of 'experience' that question. The question was, can we find a way to tell stories of our trips in the wilderness that are not stories of separation, but are stories of connection? This goes back to how we have stories that focus on difficulty in nature: they are primarily stories about [the difficulty of] separation, and the overcoming of nature. But how do we get past this? There's that whole dualism of the human versus the natural, do we dissolve that or keep it? So, it was in participating in this trip that I explored this. I would tell nature stories about a place where I was alone and so I could test these questions in an actual activity. I kind of presented it as a joke in the presentation drawing on the idea of participatory journalism. I think his name is Plimkin, he wanted to write about the NFL, so he became an NFL kicker! So, I just thought it was a funny, similar thing. But as I used it, I realised ‘participation’ is the right word here.
People often debate what is public philosophy. Am I doing public philosophy if I take a small group into the woods? For a while, early on, I was really concerned with explaining how this is public and I had this long story that looked like trickle-down economics! Which was not where I wanted to go with it. What I'm now saying I do and saying is an important part of philosophy is reflection on participation. I see my trips as setting people up to participate in ideas, and in turn, my philosophy is the reflection on actual things we participate in.
So, when I'm teaching introduction philosophy, I also have this idea of getting them to engage with activities that they're doing. I try and convince my soccer players to write about the experience of time. They look at me strange but I'm fine with that, I guess I'm cultivating that look! Another example: we read Bruno Latour and some semiotics, so we went out and walked around campus, and the students had to explain what a thing was doing into the world. We stared at a speed bump for a while, and we had to make sense of it. So, we can talk about engaged philosophy, we can talk about philosophy of life, philosophy of the public. But the word that I keep coming back to is participation. Are we actually participating in the ideas we’re discussing? I find that a lot of the people who have a story of hating their intro to philosophy class, felt that way because they were not participating in the ideas. It was just something that had to be learned, taken in, and they just couldn't figure out why you would do this.
Ciaran: I love this, I guess, autobiographical or journalistic way of getting people to engage: "I know that you play soccer, so go do some philosophy of soccer!" One of the things public philosophy has led me to be interested in is the question of what the space for reflection in society is today. I'm particularly interested with the work you do because it's very literally putting philosophy into a very different kind of space. Are there things that have come out of doing the expeditions that have made you think differently about the space for that kind of reflection?
Alejandro: People love talking about nature, whether they're in the woods or not, so the topic definitely comes up in life. But where that conversation goes is usually not... You know, we're not out there [on the trips] reading Thoreau and discussing the fine details or going through the Romantic poets. We end up talking about politics, society. What happens if you go into nature is you gain this new angle to look at your actual life. People ask themselves questions on the expeditions, like, "why do I have this job?" And I have to say, "Oh, I'm not a counsellor I can't help you with that!" But we can talk about, say, the value of work. I've done trips with families, with young children and their parents, and the children are asking these really deep questions about, for example, what is it about us as a family that we can do this? Why don't other people do this? So, they're getting into value questions. Yes, it's a privilege that people can go, and I try everything I can to make it as affordable as possible, but people still need to have time to go. So it makes it a segment of the population. But we're talking about society more than we're talking about nature, we're talking about humanity.
I think one thing is that people get to talk about society in a different way, because they have a different lead into the conversation. Normally we start with a complaint, like, "why is that other group putting up those signs? How could anybody vote to leave the European Union?" It's often from crisis we start thinking [about society]; again, this is where we have the stories of separation. Crisis has a role in philosophy, but I think that if we don't find ways to get into philosophical reflection, that are not primarily complaint or crisis, we're cutting off a portion of philosophy. This isn't me saying don't do crisis philosophy, but I want to add in this new realm, or regain this realm of ‘appreciation philosophy’, ’reflection philosophy’. Then I want us to bring them together and note that human experience has crisis and appreciation.
What I've noticed is the people that are on a trip, who now have a different angle to ask their question, they're crisis thinkers! They spend their whole life crisis thinking, but now they're participating in a new setting, which gives them a new reflection. My hope is that then they can go back and realise crisis isn't the only mode. Nature isn't the only place for this. One of the interesting things about art is that it can give you an appreciation-based reflection. Sure, there's crisis art too. It's the same for sports too. There's so many things we interact with, where you occasionally have the space to say, "Wow, humans are doing something amazing, or ridiculous, or funny". Not only have the space for that idea to come to you, but also have the space to say it and not be worried that you're going to sound like an idiot. To me, it's often scarier to say an appreciative thing then a crisis thing. If someone questions your crisis thing you can say, "well, you're just not looking hard enough"; you're tougher than them.
I think when we're in in the classroom, or taking part in an academic setting, we're often artificially creating the space of reflection. It doesn't mean it's wrong, but because we're trying to induce reflection, we have tools at hand, and I think crisis is a stronger tool, a faster tool, it has more leverage than appreciation. I find myself doing this. I'm teaching an ethics class now and at the end of class I think of the spur of the moment examples I came up with, and I realise, "wow, I'm a negative guy!" It's always violence! Why can't we do an ethics class that is just all good stuff, or at least half and half. If we all went back and rated the positives and negatives in our ethics classes, I bet you they're ninety-five percent negative. Even virtue ethics, where we're trying to get across how to be a good person, we quickly move to murder, death. I'm as guilty of it and to be fair, those situations, in some ways, are your strongest tool to get people to think, "Oh, let me rethink this". Or maybe we're just afraid that our students will think we're soft! There's a lot of other dynamics here.
If you take things outside it can change this. I should add, going outside doesn't have to mean driving hours and hours, it can be going to a meadow, going on a walk; if there's a bird or a squirrel there, that can get us going. Even when I can talk a group of students too that moment of reflection, it can happen inside, we can get speculating without a crisis, but there's a leap of faith in talking about it. One they really like when we talk about phenomenology and semiotics is a scenario of figuring out whether someone is seeing an autumn leaf blowing across a road, or a squirrel going across a river. That's a reflection that they can get in on and we can avoid the squirrel death part of the story! That moment where you thought it was the squirrel and now it really is a leaf. That's an openness to reflection that doesn't have to be about the terribleness of politics or the selfishness of humans. It's just a weird thing to perceive!
"It's often from crisis we start thinking [...] Crisis has a role in philosophy, but I think that if we don't find ways to get into philosophical reflection, that are not primarily complaint or crisis, we're cutting off a portion of philosophy."
Ciaran: Your point about the role of crisis in reflection is fascinating, I'd never thought of it in that way.
Alejandro: I started asking a question when I was in grad school, and I thought I have to be really careful how I asked this. I would ask professors and other students, can philosophy start without a problem? I was at a school of pragmatists, so the answer was a hard “no”. It was essentially, John Dewey has laid out the steps of investigation: problem leads to inquiry. There are pragmatists that are open to non-crisis philosophy. But there still needs to be this kernel, perhaps of doubt at least, that is the starting point. To me, I really think that's too strong a statement. Even in Dewey, we can find places where he is not starting with a problem. But when you hear someone say what philosophy is, so much of the time it's that there's a problem and we're working on it. Some people think we can solve it, some don't. Some think it holds the clues to the universe and everything. I tend to think, you know, I'm just gonna step over here and you can have your problems! Part of me thinks, am I giving up philosophy? Am I going into, like, appreciation studies or something?
Image by Simon Beckford.
Ciaran: Well, even in the squirrel/leaf example you gave with your students, you could call that a problem but it would seem like a very odd way of describing what's going on! But to me, it's still hugely philosophical.
Alejandro: Exactly. And if you call it a problem, the conversations over, right? It becomes, "Oh, I made a mistake". Well, I think you did something a lot more complicated than a mistake! Don't judge it yet. Let's just talk about how it's interesting. Sure, it's a problem of perception that got us into it, but I don't know if the problem is the philosophic part. It's the unknown [that matters]. Yes, not knowing can be a problem but if I look at a painting and think "I don't know how this painting can affect me in this way", my not knowing is not problematic – it is awesome! Just to be able to theorise how a two-dimensional object can make affect you to me is a wonderful gift that was given to me. Inquiry as a gift. Now I'm getting real hokey! I'll be quoting Saint Teresa of Ávila. I guess it's what nature people are like!
Ciaran: When you think about the future of public philosophy, what would be the ideal for you?
Alejandro: I've been really excited to sort of watch from afar the movement from philosophy 'of children' to philosophy 'with children'. When I first found out about it all I was so excited, I had no criticism. That was the philosophy of children movement, which was philosophers speaking to children; it was like, you know, the philosopher is the expert here. I then did other things, hadn't paid attention for a while, and when I found it again now it's this movement to do philosophy with children. It's less directive and it's more about getting them engaged in a question and seeing where it goes. It's been democratised. They're philosophers, we’re now saying. I think that this broader idea of philosophy with the public, some of it still to me is at that level of 'the philosopher is the expert' and these people are starving of insight. Children would just walk away in that scenario, right? And, also, they're so engaging, when they're given the space, that you can't miss it; there's no ambiguity.
So, to me - and I don't have the answer - the question that I would have, for anybody who says they're doing public philosophy is, how do you do it with people? How do you get them engaged? What's the mechanism or space you're creating, to create engagement? Because, to me, public philosophy is a lot more challenging than academic teaching. Academic teaching, we have a forced audience, and we can tell them the school has chosen these outcomes, so you have to meet them. And yes, teaching goes beyond that. But we are handed this practice: we look at books and interpret them, we try and bring our experiences in, it's 4,000 years old. So, most of the successes in the classroom that I've had, if I really think about it, it's not me. I had them do a reading, I asked them a question that I’ve probably heard before, maybe I used the right amount of wait-time, but it is a method that is succeeding there, or sometimes succeeding.
So now, if we're like, let's throw away the classroom, they don't have to do readings beforehand, and let's just do philosophy. I need help figuring out what are these methods and spaces of engagement that we can create. I think it can happen anywhere. You know, this set a table up, Ask A Philosopher approach. Maybe it’s also, set a table up, have a philosopher ask you! There's also this element of fun, right? Because the public's not going to show up unless they want to be there. So how do we keep them there? Which is to me, such an interesting pedagogical question. I don't know that philosophy can always be fun. If I think of the philosophy I've done a lot of it was not fun, it was hard work, but it was meaningful. So yeah, philosophy with the public, figuring out that gives me a lot of hope and interest.
Ciaran: That brings to mind your point about our assumptions that you have to have a 'hard' experience of overcoming something when in nature. That can be fun but as you said, our experiences with nature can also be about having a pleasant experience. And obviously that is going to be more engaging for lots of people as well. A lot of my questions so far have been premised on you doing the expeditions as - not the philosopher telling people what to do - but still the de facto philosopher in the room, so to speak. Has your work with Aperion affected you personally in any way though?
Alejandro: I have - it's always funny how to word this - a fair number of 'learning disabilities', is what they called them when I was going growing up. So, ADD - attention deficit disorder, without the hyperactivity, dyslexia, a number of other things like that. It took me a very long time to learn to read, I wrote backwards for a long time. Sometimes still when I'm up at the board with my students, I have relapses. I had an essay exam in college that, unknowingly, I wrote backwards. It had not happened to me in ten, fifteen years. I thought I had forgotten how to read when I tried to read it! So, this narrow view of philosophy as a practice of reading and writing, that is our skill, that is our method, that is our whole field of academic philosophy. Our presentations, our reading... Yes, we're trying to get away from it and I don't want to bad mouth that; it is beautiful to read well-written philosophy. I skimped through graduate school, I wrote a dissertation and thank God I had an advisor who was willing to edit, edit, edit. Though I still go back and find errors!
I've also chosen to do a lot of things besides pursuing an academic career. I've moved for things besides academics, I've refused to move for jobs. I have a partner, that's very important to me, and I cannot make sense of putting them through this whole travel for a year thing - she also has a much better, much more secure career than I do! But starting to figure out my version of philosophy with the public, it moved it from this decision of, am I giving up on philosophy? To, can I find a new way to do philosophy, one that I actually find is based on my strengths? My weird intelligence works better this way. I'm not a details person. I'm a conceptualise structures person. If philosophy was just writing and reading what people have written, it would be worthless to interview me! But because public philosophy exists, there's something that I can continue to contribute to the field.
So, I think that we're at a moment in philosophy, where people are fighting to get beyond writing as the sole medium of doing philosophy. Whether I agree, or like how others are doing public philosophy, I'm so excited that all of it is happening. And really, it's not disagreement, it's more a case of, "Oh, that's not my approach". Which is also awesome - it's kind of like we're throwing stuff at the wall and it's gonna stick if that person does it, because it's their thing. So, yeah, I think, for me, what public philosophy has allowed is for me to remain a philosopher. And also to feel confident to say that. It still feels a little scary to make the claim. Without public philosophy, I would say I studied and I read and I tried to write about philosophy and it went okay. So, getting to go to intellectual places with people, whether they're on a trip, or talking about a trip, is to me this great sign that I can do philosophy and that people are actually interested in it. People that aren't interested in writing, are still interested in reflection.
Ciaran: That’s a really valuable perspective that I hadn't considered about this whole moment for public philosophy. It's true. Thank you for your time Alejandro!
Alejandro: No worries!