I came across a post the other day at Philosophy by the Way entitled, "Thinking with your legs", that reminded me of something I was thinking about last week, and which I now figure might be worth sharing. The subject matter of the above post is the relationship between exercise and cognition -- specifically, recent research indicating that exercise improves cognition. There is also, as I understand it, recent research indicating that mind-wandering is good for creativity.
The reason I find this stuff interesting is that it occurred to me the other day that just about all of the good philosophical ideas I've ever had came to me not while I was reading philosophy or thinking explicitly about it, but rather pretty much out of the blue: when I've been in the shower, or taking a swim, or throwing the ball for my dog Tex at the dog-park, or out on my daily walks/runs with him, etc. Indeed, the more that I've thought about it, the more that I've noticed a very strong historical relationship with the "alone time" I've given myself and my philosophical productivity. Allow me to explain.
I have to confess that I had long been puzzled about the course of my philosophical career. As long-time readers will know, I've made it no secret that I've been through seem pretty big ups and downs over the years. I started out my graduate career doing metaphysics at Syracuse. In my two years there, I thought I came up with some pretty good philosophical ideas (some of which I still think are good). Then, when I transferred to Arizona, I went through a prolonged draught that spanned several years. I just didn't come up with much that impressed anyone, least of all myself. Then, when I got my first job (at UBC), I still didn't come up with much. But in the past few years at Tampa, I've come up with a lot. All of this really puzzled me for a long time...until I was standing at the dog park the other day and two new peper ideas popped into my head. I realized: when I was at Syracuse, I commuted every weekend four hours (each way) to visit my girlfriend at the time. When I was Arizona, I was always doing stuff: either reading philosophy or playing rock-n-roll. And when I was at UBC I was glued to my desk like a fly to fly-paper trying my darnedness to come up with good paper ideas, reading journal article after journal article in vain. But then, when I came to Tampa, I got a dog...who I started taking for daily walks and dog-park hangouts. See a pattern? Historically, at least, I've been the least productive the more chained I've been to philosophy books, articles, and my computer, and the most productive when I was either forced to drive several hours (Syracuse) or take daily walks (Tampa) -- in other words, when I've been in situations to let my mind wander.
Anyway, I thought I'd share all of this because it might be helpful to someone. I know how infuriating it can be to scour article after article trying to come up with a good idea, and to sit in front of a computer hacking away in vain at terrible paper drafts. Maybe, just maybe, if you're facing these problems -- writer's block, philosophers' block, etc. -- the answer isn't to work harder; it is to get out, get some fresh air, and take long daily walks with a pair of headphones on. Just a thought. :)