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The Inertia

Editor’s note: This episode of CREATORS was made possible by Toyota RAV4 Adventure Grade.


Professor Aaron James has built a life for himself that by all accounts is worthy of envy. The Harvard-educated philosophy professor has essentially navigated two parallel, seemingly disparate paths in life, pursuing both with an unquestionable and unabashed devotion.

The first, a dedication to philosophy – more specifically, ethics and political philosophy. James is a prolific writer whose academic papers have been published in numerous journals and law reviews.

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The second, and more relatable given this is a website that covers surf, is a relentless search for perfect waves.

Being a bit of a philosophy nerd myself, to sit down with James at UC Irvine – where he currently teaches in the philosophy department – to unpack the dense philosophical principles he outlines in his newest book, Surfing with Sartre, was a treat. It’s a text that pits the surfer’s intrinsic philosophical understanding of the world around him or her against the theses of various continental philosophers about existence, work, beauty, etc.

But James explained to me that his new book was really the first time his parallel pursuits, that is, philosophy and surfing, had ever really intersected in a meaningful way. That’s not to say that both surfing and philosophy don’t have key similarities.

“Both really are the intrinsic value of the process, you know, as something worth doing for their own sake,” says James.

Understandably, the upper echelons of the Ivory Tower have very few ambassadors in local lineups. And so, work for James is often kept neatly divided from play and vice versa.

When we wrapped our interview on camera, standing in a small library in UCI’s philosophy department, surrounded by busts of Socrates and Plato, the conversation quickly turned surf shop speak. “So what do you typically ride?” “Where do you surf mostly?” “What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to surf?”

When we hit that last one, James pulled out his phone and flashed me a few videos of himself getting properly slotted in rifling green Nias tubes. I was blown away.

As it happens, summer break is the best time to head for Nias – a pilgrimage James has recently begun doing frequently.

He also mentioned that this semester he was on sabbatical – which, for a surfing professor means time spent chasing waves around the world.

It was then I revisited a time in college I shied away from declaring myself a philosophy major. A college friend of mine who took that leap would often joke that he was looking forward to his future career as a Starbuck’s barista. I’m sure that had something to do with my hesitation. But to see the life Aaron James has forged for himself makes me wonder – maybe it’s philosophy professors who, in more ways than one, have this life business all figured out.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for a holiday read for you or a friend, have a gander at Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into the Meaningo of Life here.