Ain’t no mountain high enough: Philosophy and climbing


The year my department was hiring in philosophy of science, and I chaired the search committee, I learned a lot about contemporary trends and hot topics in philosophy of science but I also learned lots about climbing. I learned about bouldering and free climbing and ice climbing and sport climbing and indoor climbing. (For a quick taxonomy of the distinctions between different kinds of climbing, see here and here.) I also confirmed something I knew already as a cyclist, it’s pretty flat here in Ontario. No mountains to be found. Our local, artificial ski hill is dubbed the Boler Bump. It’s where we take our children to learn to ski and learn to mountain bike.

As academics reading this know, the last stage of hiring is the campus visit and the candidate spends a lot of time with department members at meals, visiting the city, and inevitably talking about his or her interests outside of work.

Of the three short listed candidates two were serious climbers. Enough philosophers of science are serious climbers that I don’t think there’s any confidentiality issues here. By the end of the search I found myself noticing forearms and thinking about mountains differently.

Climbing has always fascinated me. I like the outdoors, rugged landscapes appeal, and the technical challenges speak to me. But heights aren’t my thing, falling is even less my thing, and my lower body weight to upper body strength ratio isn’t where it would need to be to be a strong climber.

But I can certainly see the appeal–problem solving, physicality, and the beautiful landscape all speak to me. One philosopher of science puts the attraction this way: “I think some forms of climbing are like vertical dance combined with chess. Other forms pit you against the weather and the mountain in some kind of harrowing but lovely struggle.”

He’s not alone. A Google search for philosophy of science and climbing turns up dozens of web pages of academic philosophers whose passion outside of work is climbing. I’ve started to wonder about academics and our preferred sports and whether our preferences reveal anything about our disciplinary orientations. I mused about road cycling and analytic philosophy here.

Whether my suspicion is right, it sure seems there are lots of philosophy of science-climbers.

A list of Bas van Fraassen’s favourite climbs, and pictures, is here.

Bill Ramsey is a very well known and respected climber but he’s also a philosopher and you can read an interview with him here. He puts the connection between climbing and philosophy this way:

When I’m working on a philosophy paper, the process is very similar to working on a hard climb. I tinker with different parts of the problem, trying to see what works, figuring it out in stages, eventually trying to piece it all together. I find it very rewarding in both worlds. It is not surprising that so many climbers are mathematicians, physicists, engineers — analytically-minded people who really enjoy problem-solving. I like to say that a lot of climbers are nerdy intellectuals trapped in an athlete’s body.

He’s also written a piece on the ethics of climbing called Making the Grade. It’s excerpted here. He’s a bit of a legend, I gather, and is still setting records past the age of 50. You can watch him in action too. See Video: 51-year-old Bill Ramsey redpoints 5.14b .

I’m not the first person to have wondered about the connection between climbing and philosophy.

Here’s another blog post on the topic, Climbing and Philosophy

And of course there’s a Wiley-Blackwell Philosophy for Everyone book on the subject, Climbing: Because it’s There .