Interview: Climbing and Philosophy

Stephen E. Schmid is the author of Climbing – Philosophy for Everyone: Because It’s There. Stephen is also Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Wisconsin–Rock County.  His current research focuses on motivation in sport and education.  In the philosophy of sport, he has published and presented on the role of motivation in the conception of play.  Stephen has been rock climbing and mountaineering for more than 20 years.

Why did you decide to edit a book on climbing and philosophy?
I had the idea to pursue the climbing and philosophy book for a year before I approached Wiley-Blackwell with the idea.  The book idea seemed like a great way to merge my two passions.  In addition, I had started to pursue some research in the Philosophy of Sport and examples from climbing proved relevant to the problem I was pursuing.  The merging of climbing and philosophy seemed like an obvious move.

What are some of the central concerns of the book, and why are they important?
There are three central themes in Climbing.  The first theme addresses the inherent risks involved in most types of climbing activities.  Is the fun of climbing worth the risk to life and limb?  Can a climber justify his or her actions when a mistake on the mountain will require rescuers to face equally perilous risks?  And, what about those who are left behind when a climbing accident results in death?  Is there something about human nature or human society that draws many toward risk-taking activities?  While the risks associated with climbing lead to ethical concerns and considerations, there are also questions about human nature and a coddling, risk-averse society that may explain and justify what climbers do.  Climbing ethics is the second theme and it arises, in part, from the risks of climbing, as in the case of free soloing (climbing without protection from a fall).  In addition, ethical concerns about altering pristine alpine terrain and chipping the rock when developing a climbing route are issues of immediate concern to climbers. While none of the essays answers whether one ought or ought not climb, many of the essays provide challenges to widely accepted claims about the ethics of climbing and dare the reader to ponder these issues more rigorously.  The third theme arising in many of the essays addresses the character of the climber.  What makes for a “good” climber?  What types of character traits might one discover in or cultivate through one’s climbing activities?  As crazy as it might sound to non-climbers, many who climb find in the activity a sense of self-understanding and awareness. With only one’s self-sufficiency and zen-like focus to get one home from the edge of some precipice, much about one’s life and the world at large is rendered into focus.
And what is it that draws you (personally) to this topic?  How are you involved in climbing?
I love being in the mountains and climbing.  For me, being in the mountains elicits a sense of freedom and comfort—I feel at home.  My love of mountains and vertical terrain started in the mid-1980s when I was an undergraduate at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs.  It was during that first year in the Springs that I hiked alone to the top of my first mountain over 14,000 feet, Pikes Peak.  While I spent the next few years playing in the Colorado Rockies, life events took me from the mountains for several years.  When I started graduate school at University of Wisconsin, I found myself back in the mountains every summer.  I eventually got involved with the UW Hoofers Mountaineering Club and escalated my commitment to rock climbing and mountaineering.  While I’m still in the Madison area, I try to go climbing and/or mountaineering in the western U.S. at least a couple of times a year, in addition to climbing locally on the steep, slick quartzite cliffs at Devil’s Lake.
What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
There is a long and rich climbing literature addressing the nature and ethics of climbing in all its various forms.  One of my objectives of this book was to respectfully add to this literature.  I hope the reader recognizes this contribution and gains some insights into climbing from the contributors’ informed, thoughtful, and authentic reflections.  In the end, I hope the book is recognized as a valuable and provoking contribution to mountain literature.
Did anything in particular strike you through the process with working with the contributors to the book and with the material they produced (things you learned, surprises, etc.)?
Editing Climbing was a humbling experience in many respects.  First, there was overwhelming interest in this volume.  The number of philosophers and academics who climb is pretty impressive.  Second, the contributors’ thoughts and reflections on climbing were illuminating.  I learned much about climbing, historically and philosophically, in the process of editing this volume.  Throughout the editing process I kept saying to myself, “What a cool way of thinking about climbing.”  Third, in addition to being humbled by the contributors’ philosophical chops, I was overwhelmed by their climbing skills and achievements.  I thought my climbing achievements were decent, but many of the contributors climb at a level I will never achieve and some have summited the highest and most difficult mountains and rock faces in the world.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
I have written a couple of papers in the Philosophy of Sport on the nature of play.  I am considering extending the core ideas in these papers to a book on the subject.  Also, I am currently working on a research project on faculty motivation with a colleague.  While this project is not strictly philosophical, there are issues of motivation and theory construction that have significant philosophical roots.  I’m also learning how to train my new puppy.  Perhaps there’s a book in this — Dogs & Philosophy?
If you weren’t a philosopher, what would you be?
If I had been asked that question 20-25 years ago, I would probably have responded by saying I wanted to be a professional athlete.  While I was good at sports, I was never gifted.  Academically, if I had to go back and pick a different path, I’d probably choose to be a biologist studying viruses or proteins.
Climbing Philosophy for Everyone was recently shortlisted for the 2010 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, the premiere international award for mountain literature.  Did you have any idea that the book would receive this kind of recognition?
While I knew about this award, it wasn’t on my radar when producing the book.  I was very proud of the book and the collective efforts of all those involved when it went to press.  That the book has been recognized by the climbing community as a finalist for this award is a great honor.  But, the honor is really directed toward the 19 contributors who poured their thoughts, reflections, and insights into the essays—they are the heart and soul of the book.  As editor, it’s been a pleasure being on this journey with them.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

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