A philosophical look at the multifaceted phenomenon of surfing


Gunnar Brevik
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


Daniel Brennan
Surfing and the Philosophy of Sport
187 pages, hardcover.
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2021 (Studies in Philosopy of Sport)
ISBN 978-1-7936-4078-9

Philosophy of sport was introduced as a sport scientific discipline in the early 1970s. Since then, the philosophy of sport has become a well-established research area. Recent developments have included more narrow approaches focusing on specific sports such as football, running, cycling, and climbing. David Brennan from the Bond University in Australia has added surfing to the list of specialized approaches. Brennan is a philosopher with a special interest in social and political philosophy, but he is also a dedicated surfer and knows his subject very well from his practice. Brennan’s book is not about the philosophy of surfing in the strict sense but presents philosophical perspectives on surfing and discusses its historical, social, and cultural ramifications. Even if Brennan is teaching general philosophy, he is well-read in the sport philosophical literature. By using his first-hand experiences from surfing and combining it with a discussion of relevant sport philosophical and surfing literature he gives the reader an excellent introduction to discussions about what surfing is, has been and can become.

In the first chapter, Brennan focuses on the nature of surfing and what kind of sport surfing is. While there are many forms such as bodyboarding, bodysurfing, longboarding, standup paddleboarding, Brennan limits his discussion to the most well-known shortboard surfing, which is now included in the 2021 Summer Olympics. A common understanding is that surfing is primarily an aesthetic encounter with nature where the point is to draw beautiful lines on water while being exposed to the dangerous forces of big waves. With its Polynesian background, surfing has a mythology that tells us something about the human condition where we must adapt to nature while fighting to master it, such as surfers do when on water. In addition to this species-epic character, surfing has a strong counter-cultural background from the postwar area, with surfers developing alternative lifestyles and the dream of a free life on the beach. This culture is in many ways and ego-centric, macho, and sexist, and thus stands in stark contrast to the Olympic ethos that surfing must adopt if it is to become a successful Olympic sport. We see here the same tension as in snowboarding, skateboarding, and other counter-cultural sports. In addition to its mythology and counter-cultural background, surfing also has a strong element of risk typical for problematic action sports or nature sports. Brennan refers to Hemingway, who thought that only dangerous sports such as bullfighting, motorsport, and mountaineering were admirable. Big wave surfing belongs to this group of risky sports.

But is surfing really a sport? After showing us some interesting interpretations of surfing’s history and background, Brennan turns to analytic philosophy and the Suitsian definition problem of sport. According to Suits, sports are competitive physical games where participants must overcome unnecessary obstacles to reach a specified goal by adhering to specific rules. However, there are no unnecessary obstacles in surfing; the surfers try to use the most efficient boards to perform their feats. Furthermore, in recreational surfing, there are usually no formal competitions. In competitive surfing, there is no fixed arena; every wave is unique. Moreover, a third brand of surfers, professional free surfers, are not competing at all but try to impress the public and earn money by producing videos and media coverage of their breath-taking stunts. So, a broad concept of sport is needed if one wants to include all the different forms of surfing into the concept of sport. This is where Brennan, with some technicalities and digressions, seems to end up.

I even tested myself in the big waves at Ho’okipa Beach on Maui, with little success but with a new respect for the immense forces in breaking waves.

In the second chapter, Waves and Wipeouts in Utopia, Brennan discusses how the idea of a life filled with leisure and surfing is attractive for surfers and non-surfers. The mythology of the early Polynesian surfing culture and the popular descriptions of the counter-cultural lifestyle on the beach after World War II can give background to the idea of an endless summer in work-free Utopia. Brennan sets out to test this idea by discussing Bernard Suits’ famous book The Grasshopper. The idea is that a Utopia must be filled with autotelic hedonic pursuits, such as games. Brennan dismisses this idea and finds meaning and attraction in such an idea only in contrast to heterotelic activities, such as work.

In chapter three, Brennan focuses on the aesthetics of surfing. He takes his point of departure from a book on cricket-playing and argues that surfing like cricket can throw light on the society in which it develops. Brennan disagrees with David Best’s contention that sport can never be art and argues that a sport like surfing not only has aesthetic qualities but can be art. The concept of art should be broadened to see not only painting, dance, and sculpture but sports such as surfing as aesthetic practices where a sense of beauty is intrinsic to the activity.

Chapter four discusses surfing and technology and argues that advancements in board technology have made the boards, hence the moves of the surfers, more advanced. Even a simple nature-contact sport like surfing is technology-based. The introduction of pools with artificial waves poses a more negative problem since it eliminates the variability and uniqueness of waves and imposes regularity and control, and moves surfing towards traditional sports. Brennan follows up on this in chapter five on surfing as an Olympic sport. Surfing may then be pushed further in the direction of becoming a pool sport. Most of the chapter discusses how surfing can live up to the idealized Olympic norms and virtues with its partly counter-cultural background. Brennan is here optimistic and thinks that the Olympic ideals may serve surfing well by introducing values that are worthwhile to pursue for surfers.

The sixth and last chapter, Surfing like a Girl, takes up a problem that has been addressed at several points earlier in the book. In the traditional beach surf culture, girls were treated like babes but without respect as potential top surfers. This has gradually changed, but there is still a way to go. Brennan comes up with an interesting suggestion. Female surfers have the potential to ride the biggest waves and to develop their unique flexible physique and thus be able to reach the same level as men.

I liked Brennan’s book. It looks at surfing from many different angles, introduces interesting literature, novels, articles, and monographs, and invites readers to further explorations. I am no surfer. But many years ago, I was fascinated by Kent Pearson’s book about two different subcultures in Australia and New Zealand. On trips to Hawaii with friends, we tried out surfing but soon found out how difficult it is. I even tested myself in the big waves at Ho’okipa Beach on Maui, with little success but with a new respect for the immense forces in breaking waves. Brennan has given me new insight into the fascinating and many-sided world of surfing.

Copyright © Gunnar Brevik 2021

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