Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James, Professor of Philosophy at UC-Irvine, has written a new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. It addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosopher and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues because:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues are of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8) Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While most of us derive a sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject both and use our time more productively than for destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper-competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life … and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course, this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a super meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we would like heaven, maybe we wouldn’t. But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is already plenty of meaning in life.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.

James’s book is carefully and conscientiously crafted and deeply thoughtful. I would like to thank him for his contribution to the philosophical literature.

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1.  The philosopher Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

2 thoughts on “Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

  1. I really like the idea of shorter work weeks. People could readily adapt to a four-day work week, and this would open up new jobs in a world with ever-shrinking job opportunities due to computers and robots. I suspect that within ten years we’ll be facing the “jobs crisis” where there simply aren’t enough jobs to employ everybody. The biggest hit will come when we replace truck drivers. That’s 3.5 million people thrown out of work.

    Of course, the overall productivity of the economy will not go down. The trucks will still carry cargo, they’ll still deliver the goods, and the economy will keep going as it has. So we would think that, with fewer people required to generate the same GDP, the GDP per capita would go up and we’d all be richer.

    That would be wrong, because the benefits would go to the holders of the capital equipment — the people who paid for the computers that drive the trucks. They will of course have to share their cost savings due to competition, but they can still expect a decent return on investment.

    The French economist Piketty published a book, “Capital in the 21st Century”, that I really should get around to reading. Its basic message is that the economy is shifting to give more benefits to holders of capital (the rich) than to labor. This is not a healthy development and it can only be countered by increasing the progressiveness of income taxes. But the holders of capital are also the funders of political campaigns, so this will not happen. Instead, the social stress will build up until something breaks. Another book that I *am* reading, The Great Leveler, argues that inequality builds in every society until some huge violent disaster strikes, making everybody poor again. It could be war, famine, plague, or insurrection, but through the course of history, this has been the only way that the scales have been rebalanced. Not a nice thought.

  2. Thanks as always for contributing so much to the blog Chris. As for Piketty, I have a number of posts about his work if interested. And while I’m no economist from what I can tell Piketty has it about right on everything.

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