Philosophy for Passengers

Philosophy for Passengers

By Michael Marder reviewed by David Bruce
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2022. 222 pp., paper, $15.95.

When I first saw the title of this “travel” book, I thought of the phrase in the Gospel of Thomas: “Be passersby.” That is what being a passenger is really all about: passing by and occasionally stopping.

Most of us are familiar with the experience of being a passenger. Usually it entails allowing someone else to be in control of the transport mode, giving us the freedom to be observers and daydream about our travels, including where we’re going and where we’ve come from.

Michael Marder, a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, seems to have experienced much travel through different modes, and tracks the process from ticketing to preboarding and the various stops along the way. As I read the book, I was drawn back into the many airplane trips I’ve made over the years, always sitting in the window seat, where I could view the expanse of land that stretched out below.

While we can die using any form of transportation, it seems that flying most often holds passengers in the grip of the fear of death. Of course, as Marder points out, “Any passenger experience may turn out to be a one-way ticket. But what is the difference between dying at home, ‘in my house,’ as [Jacques] Derrida writes, and on a trip?”

Transportation modes are obsessed with safety and security, which have two distinctions, as Marder notes: safety is primarily “a technical issue,” while security “is a social one.” One only has to look at the past two years to know this, as trains, busses, airplanes, and even taxis have been mandated to keep us safe by wearing a mask. I have been told to stay safe hundreds of times during those years, but given the thousands of means of my demise, I doubt that safety and security have much meaning.

Neither safety nor security is promised us as passengers on this little blue planet. In fact the Buddha promised that life in samsara is anything but safe and secure; ultimately we come to our final destination in one of these thousands of ways. “Passengers are traveling without either foundational security at the beginning or the certainty of arrival at the end,” writes Marder. True enough, but we know that the end is certain.

Marder draws on several Enlightenment philosophers as well as modern science to unveil our perception of time, noting that “human mobility has structured our thinking of time. As passengers we are also observers—observers of the people around us as well as of the world passing by us or beneath us.” He cites the observer effect of quantum mechanics and how “the act of observation” affects the “reality it registers.”

Passengerhood generally implies a destination, and Marder notes the similarity between destination,destiny, and fate. “Destiny is tailormade for each; fate is the same for all,” he writes. “Destiny is the path; fate is the destination. . . . Destinations are among the few things through which the meaning of destiny still shines.

“Destinations, then, are fresh points of departure, keeping alive the hope that our destiny has not led us here, to the place where we are or toward which we are heading at the moment, as to our very last stop.”

We often speak of our lives as a journey, which makes us all passengers, whether we are using a mode of transportation or just traveling in our imagination through life.

“I am transported, I transport myself, and I am the means of transport: passenger and cargo, train and conductor,” writes Marder.  “Transportation gives us the assurance (the pledge, really) that what lies beyond is reachable, that the beyond has been and will be reached.”

Many people have bucket lists of places they would like to visit; thus passengerhood plays a role in our dreams as we travel through our lives. Marder tells us that as we read through Philosophy for Passengers, “you are welcome to extract random passages from the book, rearrange them to fit your mood, tailor them to your needs or the time and place when and where you are . . . But remember that, as a passenger, where you are now is where very soon you will no longer be.”

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death: Mind, Consciousness, and Eternal Being, was reviewed in the spring 2022 issue of Quest.