Bill Ramsey has long been a fixture on the American sport climbing scene sending many 5.14s after the age of 40. What most don't know is that he is a tenured professor, starting his career at Notre Dame and moving recently to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, in the demanding field of of philosophy. He is a serious academic as well as a serious climber. Bill took some time out of his packed schedule (and this time of the semester, speaking from my own experience, is definitely packed) to talk to mountainsandwater.com.
1. How long have you been climbing and what has made it so compelling over time?
I've been climbing for about 33 years. Some of the things I love about it that keep me coming back are the people, the combination of physical and mental challenge and problem-solving, and the fact that you do all this in stunning locations.
2. How did you get interested in working in philosophy and what fields do you specialize? What kind of links between philosophy and climbing?
I've always had philosophical ideas and thoughts, but until I got to college I just thought I was weird. My main area is the intersection between philosophy and cognitive science. A lot of questions neuroscientists and psychologists ask are also questions philosophers have been thinking about for a really long time. Questions about how something like the brain can be conscious, or have thoughts about something else or make a free choice. I prefer cross-disciplinary work because people from different backgrounds can teach each other more.
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.
I also find teaching to be rewarding in both areas. A lot of undergraduates, or people in general, initially don't see the point of philosophy, so showing them where and how it matters is fun. And after 33 years, I have a pretty good sense of how to train and how to climb something at your limit. Last year, I think I got more gratification out of helping friends get up hard climbs than I did from climbing my own projects.
3. How did you balance the demands of establishing an academic career with high-end climbing?
During certain stages of my career, I've had to put climbing on hold -- like when I finished my dissertation or got tenure. The time was a worthwhile investment, but when I'm climbing the juggling act is still demanding. People see me at the cliff two or three days a week and they think I have a cushy job. What they don't realize is that after climbing, I'm often working until midnight, and that on the days I'm not climbing I'm putting in a 14-hour day, including the weekends. Even when I'm climbing or training 3 days a week, I'm probably putting in a 50+ hour work-week. As an academic, you always have deadlines and commitments hanging over your head -- you need to write and do research, review articles, prepare classes and do lots of administrative work. But the good thing is that those work hours are flexible, so you can design a schedule that allows you to do something else at a high end. Some professors are accomplished musicians, others write fiction or poetry. I think combining an intellectual life with an athletic life is an excellent ideal, a good path to what Aristotle referred to as "eudaimonia" -- a kind of human flourishing.
4. What advice do you have for other academics who want to resolve the career/climbing dilemma?
Don't let the university or dept. chair or anyone else define for you what counts as a good life. As universities become more like corporations, there is a constant and growing pressure to think only in terms of a productive career -- you know, are you publishing enough articles or books, or is your research project going to bring big $$ into the university? They want you committed to scholarship 24/7. Some people are into that, and to them I say go for it. But the reality is that for most of us, our research is not going to change the world. Especially in the humanities, the most important and valuable thing that most of us do is teach. My articles and books might have an impact on a few other specialists and academics, but every time I walk into my large introductory class I have the power to change 200 lives. That's important. Moreover, the best teachers are often people who have significant lives outside of academia; people with interesting life experiences. Don't feel guilty about pursuing climbing; in the long run, it might make you better at the thing the university should care most about.
Having said all that, I do believe academia can be a good career for those who want the freedom to do other things. We typically have 3 months "off" in the summer, a spring break, a winter break, and many of us teach only 2 or 3 days a week. Of course, we don't really have all that time off because of all the commitment I just mentioned. But many of these things -- especially the writing, can be done at a time of our choosing, freeing up other time to climb and train. By the way, I find that after a day of climbing I'm far more productive because I feel intellectually refreshed.
5. What projects do you have planned for the future, both in climbing and in philosophy?
I'm sort of between big projects in both areas. In climbing, I just did a hard (for me) route (a 14.b) that took quite a bit of work, and in philosophy I just published a book with Cambridge. I'm currently working on improving my trad. skills and getting on some longer things, and I'm also thinking of trying some more hard sport routes over the summer. Academically, I'm co-editing two books in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, I'm working on a paper on our conception of bigotry, another on the nature of mental representation, and I'm starting to look into another book project. Actually, now that I think about it, I guess I've got a lot on my plate! Good thing summer is around the corner.
Thanks again for a great interview Bill!
Watch this space for a discussion of Ramsey's "pain box" theory, which seems to me at first glance a reworking of Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean to direct the subject towards the eudaimonistic state of being that we all strive for. I will be talking more with Bill about his theory, its origins, and most of all, its applicability.