Surfing with Sartre

An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning
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From the bestselling author of Assholes: A Theory, a book that—in the tradition of Shopclass as Soulcraft, Barbarian Days and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—uses the experience and the ethos of surfing to explore key concepts in philosophy.

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once declared "the ideal limit of aquatic sports . . . is waterskiing." The avid surfer and lavishly credentialed academic philosopher Aaron James vigorously disagrees, and in Surfing with Sartre he intends to expound the thinking surfer's view of the matter, in the process elucidating such philosophical categories as freedom, being, phenomenology, morality, epistemology, and even the emerging values of what he terms "leisure capitalism." In developing his unique surfer-philosophical worldview, he draws from his own experience of surfing and from surf culture and lingo, and includes many relevant details from the lives of the philosophers, from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, with whose thought he engages. In the process, he'll speak to readers in search of personal and social meaning in our current anxious moment, by way of doing real, authentic philosophy.

Praise

"I surf, therefore I am: a good-natured exploration of some of the big questions philosophy raises, all while hanging 10. In this nimble set of essays on topics such as work and freedom, James... gives a fine if idiosyncratic account of how philosophers puzzle out the world—idiosyncratic because it's framed from the point of view of a surfer. Throughout, the book is provocative and less laid-back than it might appear at first glance. A 12-page glossary defines some surfing and philosophy terms alike. Heidegger as ho-daddy? The approach is unusual, but to fruitful—and entertaining—ends."
Kirkus Reviews

"Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning by Aaron James [is] a great book. James is a philosophy professor. He's written a beautiful book, essentially a dialogue with Jean-Paul Sartre about work and play. He's arguing that working less and playing more, especially in the surf, is not only an okay choice but a moral one. He makes a beautiful argument for why leisure and dedication to nature is a moral imperative at this time. It might sound like a stretch but he builds a case. The book also gives you a good excuse to surf a little more.
Jaimal Yogis, author of Saltwater Buddha

"Stacks of pop philosophy books, from the late Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on down, have sought to equate everyday activities with a deeper understanding of reality and self. In Aaron James' new book, Surfing with Sartre, he uses the surfboard as a vehicle of enlightenment. It seems, at first glance, like a simple task. "Go with the flow," after all, might as well be the mantra of both the surfer and the sophist. But there's much more to Surfing with Sartre than that. Erudite yet engaging, the book strikes a winning balance between waxing wise and catching waves... James is both a professor of philosophy and an avid surfer, and his passion is palpable on the page... For all its heady discussion of philosophy and the technical aspects of surfing, Surfing with Sartre is surprisingly lively. James cannily navigates the metaphysics of Leibniz and the point breaks of Malibu with equal ease...  he infuses Surfing with Sartre with just the right mix of personal insight and universal scope. The author himself playfully calls his book "comically grandiose," and it's exactly that, a work of both ambition and humility. Ultimately, it's as concerned with peace, fulfillment, and humanity's future as it is about the spray of salty surf on a summer's day. In fact, the two are the same. And his departing lesson is profound in its clarity: Surfing — like life — should be a thing of both pleasure and meaning."
—NPR.org

"What can surfing teach us about politics, work, and freedom of choice, everyday getting around in the world, and even climate change? Turns out quite a lot, according to Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the new book Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning. James is known for mapping philosophical inquiry onto cultural touchpoints in ways that make dense theory accessible to the lay reader (see his heady and often hilarious theory of social relations via “asshole studies” in Assholes: A Theory). Surfing With Sartre, however, is not only a fun and informative read, it’s also an important achievement in the way it draws together phenomenology and existentialism with a fresh look at some of the most serious ills plaguing modern life today—all told through a surfer theory of how to work less and be stoked more, and in so doing, make the world a more sustainable place. If it sounds silly, it’s not: Surfing With Sartre recalls the zen glories of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hubert Dreyfus's and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining with the uberdude axioms of Point Break and The Big Lebowski. This is Nietzsche on a surfboard, and it's an epic ride."
Sierra Club staff

Excerpt

1

What the Surfer Knows

A person who has a good nose for arguments or jokes may have a bad head for facts.

—­Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind

A wave rises from the deep, and a surfer surfs it, being carried along by the wave’s natural momentum.

When an ocean swell is mounting over shallowing sand or reef, its wave face will steepen and crest and then plunge into the wave trough. If the wave is any good for surfing, a sloping shoulder will pull up into the cresting curl, and a moving wave face will run along the beach, tracking the contours of sand or rock below. Assuming one is up and riding (no easy feat, and I’ll come back to tips for beginners momentarily), the surfer glides along the wave face, in or around the wave’s breaking curl. Then a lot of different things might happen. The wave may shift. Or shoulder. Or wall up. Or race along. Or tube.

Whatever is happening, the surfer has to sense it and adapt. The surfer has to sense what next moment is approaching and adjust as the coming moment asks, before the wave’s curl passes one by.

They say it’s good to “go with the flow,” in walking a city street, in a work project, in the day’s tasks, and as a general way to live, with less anxiety, less striving, and a certain graceful success. “Going with the flow” is a pleasing metaphor for something—­but what? The surfer literally goes along with a flowing natural phenomenon, often on a daily basis, in a way of life devoted to just that activity. So if we wanted a better sense of what truth lies behind the metaphor, we could do worse than look to what the surfer knows.

How to Surf

As an ocean swell approaches, mounting over shallow reef or sand, you’ll want to catch it before the wave face peaks and pitches. With careful positioning, you paddle yourself under the vaulting peak, so as to be caught up and carried along by the wave’s natural momentum. Then quickly move to your feet, pushing yourself up, pulling your body into a sideways upright posture, all while keeping a crouch and low center of gravity.

As you drop into the wave’s quickly steepening face, suddenly picking up speed, you can start sensing how the wave might develop, how it might shift or inflect. Then try to respond as the wave is asking, pausing if it is shouldering or becoming less steep, or instead racing ahead if the face is walling up, because the wave section is about to pitch and crash. You keep adapting in each new moment, with a keen eye for the wave’s next offer or request. With enough practice, you’ll eventually be carried through from each moment to the next, flying along the whole wave’s length, linking wave sections together, with effortless speed, fluent power, and stylish fluidity.

The beginner will wonder about basics. “Respond” how? What maneuvering might be “asked” of you? In which “moments”?

Unfortunately, here philosophy can’t provide a definitive answer. It is much as Aristotle said of moral virtue, which he likened to an exercise of skill in sports. What to do next depends entirely on the wave situation before you, which can only be known in practice. Even on waves of the most machinelike predictability, there are just too many possible wave moments, each with its own apt reactions, for any rules or principles to tell you ahead of time how to go on in any definite way.

Still, one could come into a general sense of the variety. So consider a few key surfing moments.

PUMP: Sometimes you have to hurry down the line of the wave, and so you’ll pump the surfboard up and down like a steam engine, because the wave face is walling up and might leave you caught behind a breaking section.

FADE: Or maybe the wave section is slowing, but about to rebuild, in which case you have to downshift, like hitting a downbeat note in a jazz riff, by fading back into the curl of the wave, in order to be well positioned as the wave steepens again.

SNAP: Unless you’re already in exactly the right position, in which case you just unload your best turn! If the wave face is steep and hanging there for you, like an eager dance partner in waiting, you can place the surfboard right up in the wave curl’s pocket, vertically, and snap it back to six o’clock, while pushing the surfboard’s tail through the rotation.

CUTBACK: If you’re in a mellower mood, you might just project out onto the wave’s sloping shoulder and lay down a long, carving turn, burning your speed, gradually unloading your strength, as you track through the arc of the turn, like a bar of soap slipping around in a bathtub.

ANTICIPATION: In any case, when you’re in transition out of one of these other maneuvers, you want to be ready for the next section, sowing seed for the next harvest. While keeping an eye on what’s going on down the wave’s line, you quickly get back into a low, tight crouch, out of which you can spring into the next moment of release.

TUBE RIDE: Most important of all, if you’re lucky, or the waves are just really good on that day in particular, the wave lip might suddenly be throwing out, while the wave trough is sucking up. You then tuck yourself under the curl in a balling crouch as the pitching curtain engulfs you in a spinning, roaring, snarling cylindrical vortex. Inside the tube, don’t get too excited. But do go fast. Watch the lip line out in front of you so as not to get clipped when you could have tightened your crouch and kept going. Keep your weight forward. Pump or ease forward if you’re getting drawn too deep in the tube, so as to sustain your momentum. Don’t get caught up on the foam ball behind you, which can lift your surfboard fins and spin you into whitewash oblivion. And otherwise just wait for a chance to exit, which might well come, if the wave gods are showing you favor.

So, you know, like that. Depending on what is happening, you respond as the wave asks, which is to say, appropriately.

That is still not especially helpful. Appropriately how? Appropriately when? Those are the questions you’d have to know how to answer to actually surf a wave, and you can’t answer without having a wave actually before you, which is telling you what move comes next.

If a complete book of surfing’s rules could be written, it wouldn’t necessarily help unless you could also learn the “know-­how” that comes in faithful practice. You could read and understand all of its instructions, grasp them intellectually, and still not know how to put any rule into action. As a new wave situation presents itself, you have to know how to go on in the next moment. To borrow from Ludwig Wittgenstein, the enigmatic early-­mid-­twentieth-­century philosopher, if rules were all you had to go by, they couldn’t tell you how to “go on” from what came before, even with suggestive coaching. Given only rules, with no further sense of how to apply them in a fresh particular moment, you’d have to look to further rules to tell you which rules to follow and when. But then you’d also need rules for applying those rules, and so on, without end, ad infinitum, all the way up. Which is absurd, or impossible, or just not what we do in learning to surf.

So there must be a different way of engaging one’s situation, which isn’t simply dictated by knowing rules, but somehow the basis for following and interpreting them. Here Wittgenstein says, “If there has to be anything ‘behind the utterance of the formula’ it is particular circumstances, which justify me in saying I can go on—­when the formula occurs to me.” And so one must have a way of knowing what one’s situation is. There must be a different, more “intuitive” way of knowing how to sense and adapt to a new moment, which isn’t simply grasping a rule’s content intellectually.

For Martin Heidegger, the early-­mid-­twentieth-­century German philosopher who revived Aristotle’s appreciation for the ordinary, our basic orientation to the world is not that of knowing things to be true by thought, reason, or perception. It is that of “handiness,” of knowing how to use things: “The nearest kind of association is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather, a handling, using, and taking care of things which has its own kind of ‘knowledge.’ ”

His central example is a hammer. You “know” it not by thinking about it, or staring at it, but by using it. You know the object as “for-­hammering,” with a sense of how to pick it up in your hand and pound a nail. And so it is for nearly all of human experience, which is made up of all manner of ordinary know-­how, supplied by the material culture that organizes all of our choices.

So life is less thought than action, or rather thought in action, without too much thinking. Philosophy, as the saying goes, doesn’t bake bread. So of course it can’t teach you to surf. Surfing, in a word, must be lived.

This might explain certain dissatisfactions with modern routinized work and why it is often contrasted with living. Following Heidegger, Matthew Crawford explains, based on his own experience in motorcycle maintenance, that “craft knowledge” in our ever-­refined division of labor is broken down into “minute instructions” that replaced experience, “animated by the worker’s own mental image of, and intention toward, the finished product.” This contrasts with the older way of the tradesman:

The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. . . . The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.

The intuitive know-­how of trades work goes beyond mere “knowledge that” because, much as with surfing, it’s “always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.” A machine such as Deep Blue, the chess-­playing computer that beat the grandmaster Garry Kasparov, only simulates the tacit, intuitive knowledge of an embodied, living person. Because this living know-­how is the source of work’s human meaning, to replace it with narrow rule following is to degrade a person’s work, to compromise or corrupt its value. There is still genuine and enthralling knowledge work, but it is increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-­smaller elite. Even in white-­collar work, dealing in the stale abstractions of routinized spreadsheets and cost-­benefit calculation is not the same as thinking. And at low or medium wages, “creative” work is mainly an illusion cultivated by upper management, who tend to “push details down and pull credit up.” (Think of “employees” versus “associates.”) Crawford thus encourages a return to trades work. In chapter 9, I’ll suggest a different upshot: we should move to a shorter, more flexible workweek that leaves more time for engaged leisure, whether in surfing or motorcycle repair.

Surfers Do Know Something

Surfing came into its own as a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s, when it became iconic of and to the counterculture. Surfers seemed to be onto something, something that exposed the limitations of a stagnant conformism. Timothy Leary, the 1960s-­era acid-­dropping, hippie-­boosting psychologist, tried to explain. Surfers, he said, are “truly advanced people” who are “evolutionary” for their general appreciation of waves and change. “Many, perhaps most, surfers have become almost mystics,” he claimed. For the surfing act is “almost Taoist poetry. Almost Einsteinian.”

Only “almost,” but even that may be a lot to expect from profoundly vague contemplation over tacos. Very few surfers are completely oblivious, let alone disrespectful and constantly stoned. And few are hippies nowadays; most work, and anyway aren’t after the sort of freedom that licenses anything whatever, while going wherever. The times, they are still a-changin’, and Leary’s “question authority,” “turn on, tune in, drop out” countercultural era has passed. Change brought the triumph of capitalism over surf culture or, rather, enterprising surfers into big business, the surf industry, with clothing and wet suit sales, branding, and professional surfing. These days, most surfers are neither neo-­hippie heroes nor deadbeats but conformists, more or less. Just as many non-­surfers live for their work, serious surfers live in dedicated pursuit of excellence in a particular exercise of skill, by way of faithful daily practice, before or after work.

Surfers do know something, even if they couldn’t be consulted for the oracular wisdom of the Stoic sage or the Zen master. The main preoccupation of the surfer is not wisdom but waves and surfing them, and the last swell, and the swell coming in the next days, whatever this might ultimately mean. A few surfers are charming and silver-­tongued, like Shaun Tomson, a former world champion. And of course there’s Kelly Slater, the undisputed best surfer ever, who despite two decades of win-­if-­I-­feel-­like-­it competitive dominance, his nth world title, and steady progression into his forties, long after most pros retire, also happens to be a thoughtful, articulate, nice guy. Yet zoologically speaking, the global tribe of surfers is motley and carnivalesque. It’s a mix of kids, professionals, beach people, and working-­class types, united only by the zealous love of waves, with varying interests and aptitudes in everything else.

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