Philosophy and Skiing

A new project that combines documentary film-making, extreme skiing, and philosophy, has been seeing some success.

The project is a short film called Comfort Zones. It was co-produced by Philip Ebert, a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and also one of the skiers featured in the film. The film also includes an interview with Laurie Paul, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University.

The movie, released earlier this year, has been positively reviewed (for example) and featured in a number of film festivals. It is just over ten minutes long. You can check it out at the end of this post.

I asked Dr. Ebert if he could say a little about the film. Here’s what he shared:

In April 2018, I found myself wearing my ski outfit and clipped into my skis in the middle of my hometown’s shopping centre staring down a slowly approaching camera. This was, arguably, the only time when I would have preferred being in my office marking philosophy exams than being involved in a ski movie. The rest was a blast: over six beautiful days that winter we gathered footage for a Scottish ski movie with film-maker Stefan Morrocco. The initial script was simple: trace the progression from a resort skier to an off-piste “steep” skier, while also highlighting the beauty of the rarely skied Scottish mountains.

Somehow, however, through our conversations driving to the mountains, the movie’s script started to change and we included more philosophical themes. So, for example, there is a widespread disagreement about the degree of risk and value pursuing mountain sports. Mountaineers and off-piste skiers are often perceived as “irresponsible” adrenaline junkies, an image further fueled by Red Bull-type advertisements and newspaper headlines. In contrast, most off-piste skiers put a lot of effort into developing new skills and competences to engage with these risks “responsibly”. However, these new competences will also make you look at a mountain in a different way: where some see a crazy risk, others see a beautiful line where, when the conditions are right, the risk can be rendered acceptable, or so many a skier may want to think….

In addition, while these different competences and skills can lead to different risk perceptions, risk-takers often find it to difficult to explain to outsiders the value of engaging in these sports. Maybe, or so we suggest, this could be because mountain experiences are distinct kinds of experiences which might make it difficult to assign a value to such activities without having actually experienced them? And, so during a visit to St Andrews, we interviewed Professor Laurie Paul to introduce the ideas behind her notion of a “transformative experience” for the movie—a concept that could help shed light on why some see mountaineers and skiers as more or less gratuitous risk-seekers, while others needn’t say more than the simple “because it’s there” to justify their actions. 

Naturally, in a 10 minute short movie aimed at a general audience about off-piste skiing in Scotland, you can merely touch on some of these issues. Nonetheless, from a film-maker’s and philosopher’s perspective, it’s been incredible rewarding to see that a ski movie that briefly dips into these philosophical themes has found a wider audience amongst skiers and mountaineers. The movie has so far been screened at a dozen International Mountain Film Festivals in Germany, Italy, UK, Switzerland, and other countries. And, while the philosophy of mountaineering and “extreme” sports is far from mainstream in academic philosophy, maybe some may also find it a field rich with a wide range of philosophical themes ready to be discussed (and, already discussed) by some philosophers, psychologists, and behavioral economists. 

Here’s the film:


It is also viewable here.

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