Broad expanse of sky behind a tree-covered summit

A Summer of Philosophical Exploration: From London to Paris and the Mountains of Southern France

Posted on November 30, 2023

The following “Behind the Scenes” post was written by Duke undergraduate and Project Vox team member Frank Mercer IV.

This summer I traveled to England and France to explore the lived experiences of the philosophical figures I have researched on the Project Vox team, to place philosophical ideas in the context from which they emerged.

View of green garden with historic house in background
View of the Chelsea Physic Garden (Chelsea, London, UK). Photo credit: Frank Mercer (2023). Used with permission.

My trip began with a visit to The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Old Church, where I stood next to the statue of Sir Thomas More and snapped a picture. Next was a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden with 350 years of plant science and the workplace of Mary Astell. A warm welcome awaited me from a remarkably friendly English woman, eager to offer her assistance. Embarking on a personal tour, I explored the garden, seeking traces reminiscent of Mary Astell’s tenure. Meandering through a lush landscape of edible and medicinal plants, I discovered a tapestry woven with both history and beauty. The glasshouse was perfect for reflection. I sat on a bench in the garden and thought about Astell’s work. I felt deeply connected to the space and its history. The garden was peaceful, and there were many philosophical figures’ names on various benches and works.

London gave me the perspective to reflect on philosophical ideas. Whether I was riding the tube, visiting a church, eating a meal, or just walking the streets of London, I was thinking about the interconnection of my life with the figures I studied. At the end of each day, I felt more connected with who I was and how I wanted to do more to have an impact. This journey through London’s philosophical landmarks offered me not only a deeper understanding of my studies but also a profound connection to the legacy of those who shaped the intellectual landscape I had explored.

people sitting at tables outside a Parisian cafe
Scene outside the Cafe de Flores (Paris, France). Photo credit: Frank Mercer (2023). Used with permission.

I embarked on the Eurostar from London to Paris, the rhythmic hum of the train providing a tranquil backdrop to my journey. As I stepped off the train, my ears attuned to the beats of Dave, a British rapper, I merged into the bustling crowd. Paris, the birthplace of existentialism, greeted me with a vibrant display of individuality. It is this distinctive sense of self-expression that, I believe, imparts Paris with its inherently romantic ambiance. Amidst the city’s intellectual atmosphere, I found myself in a philosophers’ cafe, observing a couple sharing a meal while taking turns reading aloud—a simple yet profound display of unity in individuality. The charm of Parisian cafes captivated me, and at Les Deux Magots Cafe, seated on the outdoor patio, I delved into Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Sipping tea, I indulged in the rich tapestry of human interactions, an integral part of the Parisian cafe experience. A visit to the historic Cafe De Flores, where Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre once kindled their unconventional love, became a source of inspiration. In contemplating their story, I marveled at how their philosophical ideas not only shaped their love but also allowed them to maintain their individuality within the relationship.

Paris, with its fusion of intellectual fervor and romantic ambiance, encouraged me to reflect on the delicate balance between shared experiences and the preservation of one’s unique identity. The city became a canvas where individuality and love intertwined, leaving an indelible mark on my understanding of both philosophy and the human experience.

I ended my summer of exploration at a yoga meditation retreat in the mountains of the south of France. I was one of only two men, the youngest participant by 10 years, and one of the few non-German speakers. The participants were fascinated to hear the life story of a twenty-year-old American student and the journey that led me to the retreat. I was flattered and exhausted by their inquiries.

View of a summit behind stucco houses in foreground
View of the summit in southern France, which the author climbed as part of a yoga retreat. Photo credit: Frank Mercer (2023). Used with permission.

On our inaugural day, we embarked on a challenging hike to the summit of the mountain, a journey that not only tested our physical endurance but also provided a unique opportunity for profound conversations with fellow retreat participants. As we traversed the trails, the day’s duration allowed us to transition swiftly from icebreakers to more introspective inquiries. I vividly recall a moment when one participant questioned another about the apparent stressfulness of her job. The response was intriguing: she revealed that the very stress that made the job demanding was what anchored her to it. Her explanation echoed the sentiment of finding significance in the challenging aspects of life, akin to imagining Sisyphus smiling as he labors to push the boulder up the hill. This philosophical notion resonated particularly as we approached the summit, the metaphorical pinnacle of our physical and conversational ascent. Yet, the mystery of her specific profession lingered, prompting me to ponder whether, faced with the uphill battles of her occupation, she would indeed maintain that optimistic image of Sisyphus as the boulder rolled back down. It was a thought-provoking reflection that seamlessly connected with the diverse experiences and philosophical musings encountered on this remarkable retreat, adding yet another layer to the tapestry of shared perspectives and individual contemplations.


Frank Mercer IV is a junior Robertson Scholar at Duke University from Virginia Beach, VA, majoring in Philosophy and studying Economics, Russian, and Chemistry. He first joined the Project Vox team as a tutorial student, was a researcher and lay reader on the images team for the entry on Nísia Floresta, and is a researcher on the upcoming entry on Madame de Staël.