Surfing with Sartre: by Aaron James

Surfing with Sartre: by Aaron James

James is clearly a gifted prose stylist and here offers a book for every reader, even those who have never so much as touched a surfboard.

Surfing with Sartre: by Aaron James

3.5 / 5

Surfing with Sartre is an entertaining book and its author, Aaron James, a skilled writer who fluently shifts the tone of his writing from sarcastic to serious, from erudition to silliness. The book makes a bold and worthwhile argument and does so fairly convincingly; it manages this even while also being self-aware about its seeming lack of seriousness. At times, James’ desire to be both a persuasive academic arguer and a goofy, it’s-all-good-pal surf bum is a bit disconcerting and confusing, but in general, Surfing with Sartre effectively balances these shifts and remains engaging and convincing.

The basic premise of Surfing with Sartre is two-fold. First, James provides a philosophy of surfing and surfer culture, broadly-speaking. Second, he uses this philosophy to argue that a viable and efficacious response to climate change is to further expand the leisure revolution of the early 20th century (that is the technical name for the labor movement to standardize the 40-hour work week). Basically, surfing burns much fewer fossil fuels than most types of employment, so if everyone worked fewer hours and spent that extra time in near-zero-carbon-output recreation, such as surfing, global carbon emissions would significantly drop, which is a positive response to the threats of climate change. To sum it up in a single sentence: we need to work less and play more, for the sake of the planet.

The central narrative tension of Surfing with Sartre is apparent right there in the summary: this is both serious stuff and tongue-in-cheek. James, for the most part, walks the line between those two tones with aplomb. He excellently mixes in surf lingo throughout the book, which does much to set the mood. There are misfires, however, such as calling the book “a comically grandiose rationalization for skipping school or work” in the final paragraph. The idea that this is a “comically grandiose” anything does not come through in the much more staid and straightforward early sections of the book. This is James reaching a bit too far—he wants too much to be both funny and taken seriously. There are, fortunately, few of these instances, but they are concentrated mostly in the final 50 pages or so, meaning that they stay in the reader’s memory.

In the text, James calls himself a moral and political philosopher. This is readily apparent. Surfing with Sartre is divided into three sections: epistemology, metaphysics and political philosophy. The third section is by far the strongest, rhetorically, and where James seems most comfortable (hence the problem of him getting a bit loose with the jokey tone). This is not to dismiss the first two sections. The epistemology chapters are particularly worthwhile, as they present something of a phenomenology of surfing—an intellectual breakdown of the physical act of riding a wave—and link this phenomenology to the rest of being alive. The metaphysics chapters drag a bit, but that probably has something to do with metaphysics being a sub-discipline of philosophy that itself drags a bit; it may not be James’ fault that the metaphysics of surfing are too technical and rather boring, because metaphysics is too technical and rather boring no matter what it is the metaphysics of.

Aaron James is a popular press author, but he is also an academic, with a PhD and a professor position at a major research university. This book is supposed to be engaging to the broad reading public, but it is also an attempt at genuine philosophical inquiry. In this vein, James links his idea with many of the leading continental philosophers of the 20th century, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre (obviously), Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. But, head-scratchingly, he leaves out a few luminaries whose ideas would seem to overlap with his philosophy of surfing. Specifically, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics may mesh well with surfer knowledge and attitudes towards flow, which are major topics of the book’s first half. Secondly, Hannah Arendt, particularly her philosophy of human activity—her labor-work-action system—is absent from the book, except in reference to her lover-turned-Nazi (Arendt was a Jew), Heidegger. Arendt’s distinctions between labor, work and action would fit in perfectly with James’ arguments about society and work in his Political Philosophy section and her absence there is both strange and disappointing.

Surfing with Sartre is a good read, persuasive in its broader aims, if not on all the details—can we, should we, really save capitalism?—and quite fun in both tone and diction. James is clearly a gifted prose stylist and here offers a book for every reader, even those who have never so much as touched a surfboard.

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