Lines. A Brief History by Tim Ingold (Notes)

“Line making of one sort or another is as old as speech. For as long as people have been talking to one another, they have surely also been gesturing with their hands, and of these gestures a proportion will have left traces on surfaces of various kinds.” (Ingold, 2016, p.153)

The first book of the year to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Tim Ingold’s Lines. A Brief History. When I first opened the book, I was delighted and intrigued. The book, as you might expect, includes many illustrations of line drawings, including Richard Long’s well known work ‘A Line Made by Walking’, but also a number of beautiful line drawings from different cultures, such as the kolam designs from Tamil Nadu, South India. This reminded me of my own photos of kolam designs that I took when visiting Kanchipurum in 2012.

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I did at this point wonder what this book might have to do with education, since there is no reference to education in the index, but I speculated that it might have something to do with linear thinking, which it does, implicitly, but not explicitly, and this is not the main theme of the book.

So, at the beginning of January, I started reading the book with great enthusiasm, only to find it very hard work. This is not a bedtime reading book. I had to devote several hours to it, and made many notes, but even then, although I found it interesting, I just couldn’t seem to pull my thoughts about it together. It took the Philosophy of Education Reading Network zoom meeting (which is always held on the third Tuesday of the month) to begin to untangle my muddled lines of thought, although I suspect that the book is one of those that requires several readings to fully absorb.

Ingold starts the book with the question: ‘What do walking, weaving, observing, singing, storytelling, drawing and writing have in common?’ and answers it by saying that they all proceed along lines of one kind or another. ‘It takes only a moment’s reflection’, he writes, ‘to recognize that lines are everywhere. As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet – respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around – but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry’. (Ingold, 2016, p.1)

Chapter by chapter Ingold explores different types of lines. In the first chapter he explores the relationship between language, music and notation, the distinction between speech and song, the script and the score and the origins of musical notation. I found this a difficult chapter to follow, but Ingold uses eye-catching headings such as ‘How the Page Lost its Voice’, and ‘The Word Nailed Down by Print’, which help to capture the imagination and interest.

Through the following chapters Ingold develops his taxonomy of lines. There are:

Threads, filaments, such as a ball of wool, violin strings, whiskers, rhizomes, Threads have surfaces but are not drawn on surfaces. The making of threads is a human speciality.

Traces, such as two-dimensional drawings and surface decoration. A trace is any enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement, A trace can be additive (chalk on a blackboard, snail slime) or reductive (scratched into the surface, e.g., footprints, made with or without tools). Interestingly Richard Long’s line made by walking is neither additive nor reductive.

Cuts, cracks, and creases, made by rupture in a surface

Ghostly lines, e.g., survey lines, lines of longitude, latitude, line of the equator, and imaginary lines which form the constellations in the night sky.

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In writing, knitting, embroidery and lacework, threads may be transformed into traces, and traces into threads. ‘It is through the transformation of threads into traces (as in knotting, weaving, brocade and text) that surfaces are brought into being. It is through the transformation of traces into threads (as in mazes and loop designs) that surfaces are dissolved’. (Ingold, 2016, p.54)

There are also: Trails and routes and lines on cartographic maps, Storylines and Plots, and Genealogical Lines, and Ingold discusses the development of drawing, writing, calligraphy, printing and engraving in relation to lines.

Lines, Ingold tells us, can be active and dynamic flourishes, going where they will for movements sake, having no beginning or end. These lines take us on a journey. These are wayfaring lines, winding, irregular, and entangled.

Or lines can go from point to point. These lines are in a hurry. The line that connects adjacent points is static.

Over history the line has been shorn of movement. It is no longer a trace of a continuous gesture but fragmented into points. Wayfaring has been replaced by destination-oriented transport. Transport lines are straight and regular and intersect only at nodal points of power. Transport lines restrict movement and divide and cut the occupied surface into territorial blocks (Ingold, 2016, p.85).

Tim Ingold argues that over time the line has become increasingly linearized, fragmented and straight. The wayfaring line, which he believes to be the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human inhabit the earth, is no longer valued. Instead, in modern times, straight lines are ubiquitous. ‘The inhabitant is one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being, and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture.’ (Ingold, 2016, p.83)

Thinking about lines is to think about the world in terms of processes – of becoming rather than being.

So, what has all this to do with education?

Vicky Jamieson, who led the discussion in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s January zoom call, raised three questions for us to consider.

Is there space in education to teach children to attend, and to learn from what they observe and experience, and embrace the unfinished and incompleteness? And how might we as educators bring education out of the ordinary?

Ingold casts doubt over the contemporary way of life – life which often demands linearity in the pursuit of certainty, logic, and rigour. Chapter 6 explores the implications of straight lines: straight lines have a clear sense of direction (p.167). Education has just experienced a rupture in its ‘straight line’. How might this fragmentation and rupturing of the line be a passage for the future of education?

Ingold draws a distinction between the traveller and the wayfarer. He elevates the path of the wayfarer over that of the traveller. For Ingold, wayfaring is where life is lived where knowledge is forged along the way. As Ingold writes, ‘[i]ndeed the wayfarer or seafarer has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go’ (p.76). How might we, as educators, cultivate wayfarers?

These questions led to a fruitful discussion on what the implications of thinking about education as an open journey along an active and dynamic wayfaring line might be, as opposed to moving along a dotted line, from point to point. The group discussed whether learners can make their own lines, threads, and traces, and whether they can cope with the complexity of tangled and interconnected lines.

Whilst Ingold does not discuss education in his book ‘Lines. A Brief History’, he does briefly in this short video (10 mins).

Here he tells us that educators should lead novices out of their fixed positions and expose them to the world. We should learn to attend and respond to the things around us and become more attuned to the world around us, just as a skilled hunter is attuned to the properties of the environment. Not only is the world waiting for us to attend to it, but we should also be waiting for the world. We must push out into the unknown, being both prepared and unprepared. Human life is lived in this tension between mastery and the unknown, and between patience/waiting and responding to world as it is.

At the end of his book, Tim Ingold writes: ‘What matters is not the final destination, but all the interesting things that occur along the way’ (Ingold, 2016, p.174). If just this one sentence was embraced by educators, it would be a challenge to our current straight and dotted line approach to education.

 And the PhilofEd discussion was summed up on Twitter with the following thoughts:

‘Tonight’s meeting closed with two different, possible, difficult, beautiful entreaties – to be wayfarers, not knowing things together, and to write and spend time beginning with “I wonder…’


Ingold, T. (2016). Lines. A Brief History. Routledge

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