Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rock climbing and philosophy?

On Tuesday, I had my first experience of rock climbing for many years, down at the Ledge climbing centre at Sydney University.
It turns out that climbing is disproportionately represented among members of the philosophy faculty at Sydney, and it prompts the question: what's the attraction?

Not being one to shy away from generalisations founded on metaphors, I came up with a couple of striking similarities between the practice of philosophy and rock climbing.

The first may be the most contentious, since it's based on distinguishing philosophy from science (differences which some philosophers are loathe to emphasise). Philosophy is to science, what rock climbing is to playing with rocks. Science tends to proceed by imposing theoretical or practical boundaries on the phenomena which it is interested in. That is, science tends to be concerned with a particular isolable system. It then pokes and prods that system in order to understand the thing by explaining the way it responds. What distinguishes philosophy, and what may explain the attraction to rock climbing, is that philosophy grapples with phenomena that it can't constrain, phenomena like the worldhood of the world (to borrow from Husserl), questions like why there is something rather than nothing, and so on. Climbers similarly find themselves grappling with a structure that seriously exceeds their control. What they try to do is hang on and slowly ascend, rather than isolating things and breaking them down.

Secondly, the kind of phenomena philosophers are interested in are those in which one can become hopelessly entangled - for example, consciousness or knowledge - phenomena which include the inquiry and the ones conducting the inquiry themselves. Philosophy is for this reason a precarious pursuit. It is very difficult to simply walk away from philosophical problems, unless one is relatively satisfied with the sustainability of their position, because one often feels that one's very connection with the world is at stake.

Third, the attraction might also throw light on the way philosophers argue with one another. There are rarely knock-down arguments in philosophy. Positions are rarely proven or disproven. What happens rather is that philosophers debate over the relative fruitfulness of a particular next move, or else they seek to retrace the steps of a predecessor looking for alternative, unexplored branches of thought. This resembles talk about climbing. Certain holds and positions have relative merit depending on how secure they are, and what further moves up the face they allow.

On the other hand, as Juzzeau pointed out to me, philosophical debate itself has a tendency to focus on minutiae. I think the rock climbing analogy makes this more intelligible as a consequence of grappling with a phenomenon that is a) beyond one's control and b) places one's existence in question, and engaging in an activity where c) the smallest differences in approach can be the difference between overcoming the problem and becoming trapped at a particular spot.

What I like about this third aspect of the analogy is that, like Juzzeau's tango philosophy, it opens up the possibility of talking about differences between philosophical positions and practices in terms of differences in the bodies of practitioners, and the particular challenges they struggle with on their small patch of the philosophical cliff-face.

Added 8th November:
Thinking about this a little more, I realise that one might be worried about how to conceive of the goal of philosophy as opposed to climbing - what's at the top of the mountain?
One can imagine an absurdist response - there is no goal, the task is meaningless. In that case, the philosopher starts to resemble Sisyphus, except that, instead of pushing a rock uphill, the philosopher pushes the rock below themself to make their way uphill.

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