Tuesday, 8 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Surfing with Sartre (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 1 Spring/ Summer  2017

Review article* 
By Martin Cohen

Now I’m all in favour with popularising philosophy - but surfing? It doesn’t auger well. Surfing and philosophy seems to go together like... chalk and cheese. Of course, there is a very broad kind of philosophy of life that well, surfers could be said to symbolise - but against this small justification is the uncomfortable fact that surfing is a physical sport which has very little to do with philosophy. Indeed, Sartre was writing in the years before surfing became a mainstream leisure pursuit. It really doesn’t help, as here, to suppose that ‘had’ he known surfing he would have liked it.

In fact, it turns out that there is very little in Sartre that does fit with Aaron James’s surfing philosophy, so it is clearly more a marriage of convenience than of substance. Nonetheless, James does manage to use surfing to provide a framework to explore big Sartrean (better, ‘existentialist’) issues such as freewill, determinism, and of course, the meaning of life. James even goes so far to say:
‘It would be an exaggeration to say that the whole meaning of human existence could be continued in one moment, in a single act of riding a wave, yet is it as though the whole meaning of human existence can be contained in one moment, in a single act of riding a wave. ‘
And, philosophically speaking, Surfing with Sartre is a clear and well-informed guide, whose choices of examples are often illuminating.
‘This is a book of philosophy. It asks whether the surfer might happen to know something about questions for the ages, about knowledge, freedom, control, flow, happiness society, nature and the meaning of life. It’s a book about surfing, but also not, or not just, because the surfer knows, or at least sense, without necessarily caring, turns out to be of world-historical moment, for nothing less than the future of work, the planet, and human civilization.’
Paddling his board out further, James even suggests that the surfer is ‘a model of civic virtue’. This is partly because, if we all worked a lot less, say a 24-hour week, ‘the climate crisis would be less terrible’. James notes that, of course, not working could include other activities than surfing such as gardening or ‘spending time with the kids ‘. (That might offend some moms – and he doesn’t include being a philosophy professor in the ‘not really working’ category)

‘The question is one of ethics’, he continues firmly. Surfers are revolutionaries. Leisure revolutionaries. Speaking of revolutions reminds him of Sartre, who was of course a Marxist. Marxists used to link work with identity, but James argues that this is old thinking and that instead, surfers are ‘on the side of history’ by creating their identity though their leisure pursuit.

He explains a bit more about this by saying that surfing is not about imposing your will, but transcending it. To surf a wave is described thus:
1. To be attuned to a changing natural phenomenon,
2. so as to be carried along by its propulsive forces by way of bodily adaptation,
3. where this is done purposefully and for its own sake.
In this is a ‘kind of freedom, self-transcendence, and happiness’.

‘I realize this might sound like some mash-up of surf camp musings and philosophical blathering’, says James apologetically, in a rare moment of doubt - and for me, he’s not far wrong!

Indeed, rather vainglorious accounts of how to surf dominate the book. Learn how to fade, snap, cutback, anticipate and tube ride. This last maneouvere, it turns out, is surfer nirvana. If you want to know more about it - buy the book. If you want to know more about Sartre, the same advice does not apply.

James briefly reports that both W. V. Quine and Peter Strawson - ‘the two towering figures who later did the most to undo logical empiricism’ - ‘dabbled’ in surfing. However, more space is given to John Rawls who James crowns ‘the 20th century’s most influential philosopher’. What, not Sartre? Or any others from a whole range of non-surfing thinkers including Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein? Nonetheless, both of these get regular nods here.

James examines the different kinds of freedom possible.
‘Freedom for the surfer isn’t radical self-determination but a kind of achievement, in adaptive attunement. It’s a way of being efficacious without control, precisely by giving up any need for it.’
Think of the kind of freedom described by John Locke with his example of the man in a locked room. The man is not truly free, even if he has no with to leave the room - even if he does not know the door is locked. But no, it is not this kind of freedom. Surfers exhibit freedom, but it is more than ‘freedom from’ - it is freedom to do something. Is it then more like that offered by Sartre’s compatriot and fellow existentialist, Albert Camus? He reinvented the tale of Sisyphus in order to have the hero pushing the rock up the hill - for eternity- in an act of defiance.

Indeed, James says radical freedom, Sartre’s kind of freedom, isn’t necessary. A person can ‘be carried along by necessity, going along with the flow of the universe and yet be free’. Noting that the ‘concept of control sweeps away the workings of fate and fortune’, the surfer’s answer is that we have less control that we usually imagine.

James segues to consider toilets, which he rightly sees as marvellous things and wrongly insists we only have thanks to the emergence of probability theory and statistical analysis. (I still haven’t worked that one out yet… )
‘In sum, then the surfer wisdom for success as a person is this. Take it easier. Accept. Persist. Focus, Leave time. Don’t compare. And mix things up.’
Mix things up? But yes. Freedom means that the ‘average Joe ‘can strike up a conversation with a pretty girl lying on the beach’, muses James. On the other hand, it does seem to mix things up to say that by ‘the light of surfer reason’, it is not permissible ‘to lie in bed when the waves are pumping.’ Not here the transcendence of surfers. Nor indeed is there much evidence of transcendence in an imagined surfer dispute: ‘You snaked me, bro! No way, you go fuck yourself, bro. Let’s take it to the beach, bro!’

But, okay, let’s do that, let’s take it to the beach. Because, in fact, I’ve done quite a lot of swimming with surfers, and while I’m sure they’re generally very nice chaps (they are nearly all men) frankly, I don’t share James’s glorification of the project. The surfers I see are sitting on the their boards for hours on end just chatting and waiting for a middling swell to come in, at which point they may or may not balance precariously on their boards.

Secondly, and more substantially, in my observation, surfing is all about the gaze of the other. This is indeed a great existentialist theme, first discussed, not only by Sartre, but by his partner of many years, Simone de Beauvoir, who being a woman barely rates in surfer philosophy.

Surfing is indeed distinctive in the importance attached to the image of the ride on the wave: it is not enough for the one surfer to have the pleasure and the thrill all alone. Often surfers are accompanied by their own cameraman/ woman who sites placidly on the beach waiting, maybe for hours, to immortalise their glorious moment. But even if there is not camera, is it not significant that surfers do prefer to operate in company, and if they cannot do that, to be within the gaze of humble beach dwellers?

In all these ways surfing may indeed tell us something about the relationship of the individual and their milieu. But I ‘m not sure it is anything very much. It is thus for Aaron James to convince us that Surfing with Sartre is more than a personal conceit, more than an ornate folly constructed by an academic philosopher who happens to be a keen surfer.

Surfing and philosophy do seem to me, despite his protestations, to be completely different kinds of activities. That’s not to discount the value of surfing though. James disagrees with Mill’s division of higher and lower pleasures without appreciating that his specific target was ‘pushpin’, a kind of gambling, and there’s no reason to think that Mill would not have appreciated the aesthetics of life on the ocean wave – just as he appreciated the noble landscapes of the English Lake District. I think Mill might have appreciated body surfing, but been suspicious  of hours spent waiting for a tube roll. And I suspect Mill would, unlike James, have thought that the poet Baudelaire was on to something when he wrote that: ‘to reduce everything to a single truth, work is less boring than pleasure’.

Sartre tells us that we are condemned to absurdity. That view would perhaps seem absurd to a surfer. Indeed, James favours the ‘surfer-friendly’ conclusion ‘that we face *too much* meaning. There are too many things worth doing!

On the contrary, generically, as Sartre wrote in a digression in his novel Nausea (1938), life doesn’t make sense. This ‘bad faith’ is its ‘secret power’. What else do we have in life other than the ‘spurious meanings’ that we invent?
‘Descartes shut himself in an egocentric cage, and like Sartre he struggled to escape. But the door was always open, if one puts the body first. To perceive is to know how to engage what lies beyond one’s head. Perception is not simply located in the brain.’ 
 True knowledge comes, for James, anyway, from the existential feel of those tube rides.

*Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning
By Aaron James
Doubleday, 2017
ISBN-10: 0385540736

The Philosopher’s verdict: Intriguing, but still not really suitable for the beach.


  1. I wonder if Bertrand Russell, and his notion of ‘zest’, might have served as well as Jean-Paul Sartre in grounding the sport of surfing in philosophy. Perhaps it’s by triggering all the senses, with happy abandon, that surfing promotes the exhilaration experienced by athletes who devote themselves to pursuing the activity, going back time and again to take on the trial of towering waves. The dopamine rush one might associate with Russellian zest seems more in tune with surfing than is Sartrean existentialism.

  2. The idea of Bertrand Russell surfing is even more bizarre than that of Sartre! But thanks for the idea.

  3. I have recently started to study Philosophy and I loved your article as I was able to relate to it. Kindly write basic philosophy articles too.