Saturday, August 12, 2017

Surfing to explain philosophy? Yep, yep, yep, Aaron James talks about Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning

How could I ever resist a book with this title? So I didn't. And then I loved the book so much, I asked Aaron if he would come on the blog. Aaron James is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine,and the author of Assholes: A Theory, and I'm delighted to have him here. Thank you, Aaron.

Why do you think that surfing lends itself to philosophizing?

I think surfing is all about what I call bodily “adapative attunement” to the changing movements of a wave, and the ocean and coastline that creates and shapes them in certain way.  Whether you are thinking about it or not, this often brings a deep appreciation of the sublime and the beautiful, drawing you out of yourself, in awe, respect, and wonderment.  In that way you naturally transcend the mundane, even on the most ordinary day, often with a profound sense of fortune, or even gratitude, that the circumstances of one’s life have coalesced as they now have.  Which is already a kind of reflection of a philosophical sort.  But then ideas can be sublime, or even beautiful, as well.  And being attuned to them through skillful philosophical thought or discussion is also a way of transcending the drab or the blah in the mundane, a way of being more attuned to what’s wonderful or curious or puzzling in ordinary life.  So although surfing and philosophizing draw on different skills, to me at least, the enterprises are valuable in much the same general way.

I love the title, though the idea of Jean Paul Sartre surfing is delicious—and maybe that’s part of the delight of your essays, getting us to think about things in a new and fun way. Care to talk about this?

It is really fun that, deep in his long masterwork _Being and Nothingness_, Sartre has these long passages about snow skiing and freedom.  He writes in this excited rush, as he often does, just enthralled with looking at skiing in a deep, fresh way.  I thought I should do something like that with surfing, picking up from Sartre’s comments about waterskiing, which he thinks of as even better than skiing.  So I’m trying to do phenomenology in something of the way Sartre understood it, in hopes of looking at things in a new way and discovering what would otherwise be obscure, which is delightful and fun in itself.

What was it like writing these essays? Any snags along the way?

To me the idea of the book was exciting for its scope and ambition.  It could be like an olden style treatise of the sort you can’t write in specialized academic philosophy these days.  The general reader might want to just see big connections, so I thought the book should “surf” through any and every big issue in philosophy that surfing might illuminate.  But it took me a long time to figure out how all the topics and parts might fit together, with some sort of progression that adds up to a grand picture.  It helped a lot when I realized the chapters could mainly be general, single-word topics, like Freedom, Control, Flow, Being, Transcendence, Society, Nature, Work, etc..  Then I could just focus on the ideas that seemed to develop that particular topic, and stack the topics across the chapters so that they build upon each other over the course of the whole book.

I’m curious if your personal philosophy ever changes—and why?

Well, I think of myself as constantly learning.  A lot of the time you feel like you’re gradually understanding more fully what you were already inclined to think, what you previously had a bare grasp of, or saw dimly, in the distance.  But the new learning also gradually shifts other things you feel like you might have mostly sorted out.  In working on the book I became much clearer for myself about what exactly I have always loved about surfing.  And in reading around all the various areas of philosophy, which go beyond my usual specializations, I was led into some new research interests.  I now think professional philosophers haven’t really appreciated certain connections, which I’m hoping bring out in my academic writings.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m tacking back to some of my core interests in political philosophy at the moment, planning what will be another academic book on international socio-economic issues.  I’m also thinking more about a pop book that joins asshole and surfer theory by offering ideas about how to get from our present culture of assholery to a more leisurely, less competitive kind of capitalism.

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