Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning

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Jean-Paul Sartre once declared waterskiing to be “the ideal limit of aquatic sports.” Aaron James, who is both an avid surfer and a professor of philosophy, vigorously disagrees. In these pages, he presents his surfer’s worldview as a foil to Sartre’s, along the way 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’s philosophy, he draws from surf culture and lingo—and engages with philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein. In the process, he speaks to those of us in search of personal and social meaning—particularly in our current anxious moment—by way of real, authentic philosophy. In or out of the water.


“Erudite yet engaging . . . strikes a winning balance between waxing wise and catching waves.” —NPR

“A marvelous analysis.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[James] is a bell-clear writer . . . and, here, takes home the gold.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Illuminating. . . . A clear and well-informed guide.” —The Philosopher

“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.” —Jaimal Yogis, Tampa Bay Times

“Incredibly intelligent and compelling. . . . Provocative and pure. . . . Render[s] complicated ideas easily comprehensible by way of a context of surfing attitude.” —The Maine Edge

“Thoughtful and life-affirming. . . . Funny, enthralling and above all wise, Surfing with Sartre offers fresh insights into the human condition that will interest the academic theorist, the casual surfer and everyone in between.” —Shelf Awareness

“Carefully and conscientiously crafted and deeply thoughtful. . . . Addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosopher and former surfer.” —Reason and Meaning

“Provocative. . . . Entertaining. . . . [A] nimble set of essays on topics such as work and freedom.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] thoughtful meditation on surfing and philosophy. . . . Even for nonsurfers, James convincingly illustrates the ways in which catching a wave can change how people understand the world and try to make meaning from experiences.” —Publishers Weekly

“Intellectually bracing. . . . Philosophy stoked with the adrenaline rush of riding one gnarly wave.” —Booklist

“[James] knows how to make us think deeply in a fun way. . . . The idea of having a University of California, Irvine, philosophy professor explain key concepts like freedom, being, and epistemology from a surfer’s perspective is way too cool.” —Library Journal

About the Author

Aaron James holds a PhD from Harvard and is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Assholes: A TheoryAssholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, and Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy and numerous academic articles. He was awarded a Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and spent the 2009-10 academic year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He’s a skilled, lifelong surfer and lives in Irvine, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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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