Aaron James (c) Skye Schmidt

APA Member Interview: Aaron James

Aaron James is a Professor of Philosophy at UC Irvine.  He studied with T. M. Scanlon and Christine Korsgaard at Harvard for his PhD, spent a year at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on an ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship, and has been a visiting professor at NYU and a visiting scholar at ANU.  He’s the author of a book about fairness in the global economy, Fairness in Practice, and a few popular books, all with Doubleday: the bestseller Assholes: A Theory, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, and most recently Surfing with Sartre. He blogs at OnAssholes.com and tweets at @onassholes.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

Either my book Fairness in Practice, or a 2005 journal article on Rawls (“Constructing Justice for Existing Practice: Rawls and the Status Quo,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs).  Or maybe my most recent pop book, Surfing with Sartre, where I really stretched myself creatively in pondering what surfing and philosophy have to do with each other.

Surfing with Sartre
Surfing with Sartre by Aaron James

So, you surf?

Yes, I’m a life-long, world-travelled surfer.

What excites you about philosophy?

The creative process and sense of discovery.  At first seeing fresh ideas in the obscure distance, and gradually giving them shape, until they crystalize into a public object that can be clearly communicated.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Just staying in the creative flow and seeing where it leads.  As in surfing, so also in work and life.

What are you most proud of in your professional life?

Having followed my own sense of what’s important, and being willing to look stupid in the eyes of the people I respect most, if that’s what it takes.

What are you working on right now? 

A paper on the future of work in light of AI and climate change.  I think they call for a shorter workweek, professionalized part-time work, and a basic income, among other big changes to domestic and international institutions.  This is the properly academic version of some arguments I gave in Surfing with Sartre.

What topics do you think are under explored in philosophy? 

The morality of risk creation and distribution.  Republicanism in political philosophy, especially its “left” versions.  The upshot of our embodiment for practical reason – a topic I’m hoping to write a book about.

Who is your favorite philosopher and why?

John Rawls, for his steady sense of deep philosophical purpose, and his willingness to learn from our greater forebears, while refashioning their insights for our time.

What’s your personal philosophy?

In how-to-live slogans: Be faithful in creative purpose.  Stay stoked about surfing, or music, or the arts, or other truly worthy activities.  Find ways to be of service to others in community.  Extend grace to oneself and to others.  Keep a firm sense of one’s good fortune.  And so celebrate aging, because you’re lucky to become old.

What three things are on your bucket list that you’ve not yet accomplished?



There’s a great surf spot in Micronesia called “P-Pass” that I haven’t yet been to.   I have three academic books planned, which make up a mutually supporting system.  I’d like to see the death rate drop significantly in the villages on Nias island, Sumatra, Indonesia, where I help out with water infrastructure and rehydration packs, etc., along with a local named Damien Wao.  (Our charity is at helpavillagewith.us)

What is your favorite holiday and why?

I go to Indonesia every year, usually to Nias Island, Sumatra.  The waves are unreal!  Being in Indo really revives one’s sense of the human condition.  I go to feel human again, to escape the trivial preoccupations of “advanced” society.

Name a skill that you have that others may not know about.



I dabble in painting large canvasses.  Art was the first thing I was good at as a kid.

What time of day are you most productive and creative?

In the morning, at least until late morning, when I want to go surfing.  I work in the afternoons as well.

What technology do you wish the human race could create right now?

Easy.  Super-efficient carbon capture and nuclear fusion.  So the warming problem disappears.

What is your favorite sound in the world?

A hollow wave “cracking,” as the lip line plunges into the wave trough.  It’s the sound of the sublime.

Find out more about Aaron here!

Image © Skye Schmidt.

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This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

 

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