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Surf and Philosophy


A Philosophical Sport?
"Perhaps there is no activity that is not potentially philosophical, but it has always seemed to me that the collision of (as Sartre would say) the in-itself (the wave) and the for-itself (the surfer), with all its possible outcomes of pleasure and pain (the wipe-out and the hold-down), and especially the tube-ride, with its narrative of being buried and then (ideally) re-born, naturally gives rise to a contemplative state." Thus Andy Martin comments in a blog post in The New York Times Opinionator. Is surfing a more philosophical sport with respect to other sports? And, if it is, why?

The Metaphysics of Waves
First of all, what is a wave? How can you tell a wave from one another? Learning how to see the shape of a wave is in and of itself a great exercise in metaphysics, as this famous passage from Italo Calvino’s Palomar aptly testifies: "Mr. Palomar sees a wave rise in the distance, grow, approach, change form and color, fold over itself, break, vanish, and flow again. At this point he could convince himself that he has concluded the operation he had set out to achieve, and he could go away. But isolating one wave is not easy, separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away; and it is no easier to separate that one wave from the preceding wave, which seems to drag it toward the shore, unless it turns against the following wave, as if to arrest it, Then, if you consider the breadth of the wave, parallel to the shore, it is hard to decide where the advancing front extends regularly and where it is separated and segmented into independent waves, distinguished by their speed, shape, force, direction [...] Since what Mr. Palomar means to do at this moment is simply see a wave--that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them--his gaze will dwell on the movement of the wave that strikes the shore until it can record aspects not previously perceived; as soon as he notices that the images are being repeated, he will know he has seen everything he wanted to see and he will be able to stop."

The Ethics of Surfing
Surfing has several ethical facets. Alike all sports, it imposes a good dose of discipline. There are rules in surfing, which you must abide if you do not want to put at risk your safety and the one of other riders.

But surf also incites the cultivation of some specific virtues. Courage is one of them, of course. Creativity is another: the leisure of surfing is to design trajectories along the water, patterns that leave no trace. Have you ever tried to draw in the air? That may be the sensation you want to aim for while surfing.

Of course, then, surfing (at its best) also elicits a deep connection to the sea and the surrounding environment. Thus, surfing is a great way into environmental ethics. Like hunters most often achieve a deep understanding of their prays and their environment, surfers come to establish a visceral connection with an ocean basin, its biological components and the effects that different atmospheric conditions produce upon it.

A Desperate Position?
We haven’t but scratched the surface of the philosophy of surfing, but I hope that these few remarks may inspire you to approach your surfer friends and prompt them to explain their surfing philosophy. More ideas to be posted soon!

Further Readings

  • Peter Kreeft. I Surf, Therefore I am. A Philosophy of Surfing. St. Augustines Press. 2008.

  • Jay DiMartino article on surfing at About.com.

  • An article by Andy Martin making some singular parallels between philosophical theories and ocean waves.

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