How skateboarding is teaching us about philosophy, whether we like it or not.
Words by Oliver Pelling.
Philosophy and skateboarding have a lot in common. One seeks to better understand the world we inhabit using questions, reason and logic – the other seeks to better understand the world we inhabit using four wheels. The parallels are obvious. And if you can’t see them yet, the next 1000 words or so are going to labour over them so hard that by the end of it you will never be able to un-see them.
Modern philosophy is often thought of as being reserved for the academic elite, but it shouldn’t be. Socrates and Gandhi, for example, both did away with wealth and material goods to just sit around and think about shit (and, in Gandhi’s case, lead the Indian independence movement and inspire countless generations thereafter. No biggie). Karl Marx and Confucius were born into poverty and remained in poverty their entire lives. The best philosophers throughout history – in this writer’s humble opinion – were outliers, renegades, troubled souls and loveable dickheads. Thales of Miletus, for example, was once so lost in thought that he fell into a well. Dickhead.
At its core, philosophy is about asking questions and challenging the assumptions on reality, existence and knowledge that humanity so readily takes for granted. These questions may be along the lines of: “What is reality?”, “What is truth?” or, for a skate-related take on it, “What is style?” It’s about thinking about shit on more than just a surface level, and most skateboarders I’ve met do this without even realising it. If you’re now sitting there thinking, “What the fuck is style?”, good. “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” wrote Plato. Apply that to skateboarding. All you’ve got to do to get to know another skateboarder is to turn up to the spot with a board at your feet.
By skating with someone, you’ll figure out what kind of person they are pretty quickly. The dude who exudes confidence on the board is the same dude who’ll likely exude confidence in all other aspects of his life. The dude who snakes your trick at the spot is almost certainly a dickhead (on and off the board). Etcetera. Epicurus famously quipped: “The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.” Think about all those tricks you battled with for hours, days or weeks. Would the make have been so sweet without the struggle? Fuck no. As skateboarders, we’re engaged in some kind of struggle every time we step on a board. Maybe it’s a trick, maybe it’s the haggard run-up, maybe it’s a security guard – strife is everywhere.
But on some level, we know that struggle makes skateboarding what it is and we relish in the struggle because of that. We then take that lesson into our lives. Consciously or unconsciously – we know the things worth having (that clean roll away, that trip you’re saving up for, that perfect job) don’t come easy, because for as long as we’ve been rolling, all we’ve been doing is chasing things worth having, failing, then trying again. We’ve taught ourselves (by way of broken bones, torn-up shins and wrecked knees) that to get anywhere you have to start, sometimes literally, in the gutter.
One of Socrates’ most famous quotes: “The unexamined life is not worth living”, can also be considered through the lens of skate culture. When we’re skating, all we’re doing is examining. We’re studying our surroundings, and scrutinising and testing our own capabilities. When we see a ledge or a wheelchair ramp, we don’t just see a ledge or a wheelchair ramp – we see possibility. And we carry this foresight into other areas of our lives. We can see the potential value in things that others perhaps can’t. At the very least, we see it with greater clarity. Shit. This is getting deep.
We can also draw from philosophy to help us treat one another, and the skate culture as a whole, better. John Stuart Mill once wrote: “To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” Which basically means: If you want skateboarding to thrive, try not to be a cock.
And then there are our own great philosophers: Skateboarders who have succinctly and profoundly summed up why our love for this four-wheeled vocation runs so deep. The late, great Jay Adams said: “You didn’t stop skateboarding because you got old, you got old because you stopped skateboarding” – touching on the idea that skateboarding can keep us in touch with, you know, having fun and shit. Jay wasn’t a Lord of Dogtown for nothing.
Philosophy – or at least the dictionary definition of philosophy – was born out of a human need to better understand the world. And on an individual level, that’s pretty much the same reason most of us would’ve picked up a board in the first place. When we first laid eyes on it, we saw the skateboard as an answer and a question all rolled into one – and we’ve been using it since to define who we are, what we believe and what we’ve done ever since.
Of course, there’s a chance I’m completely wrong about this whole thing. Maybe there are zero parallels between skateboarding and philosophy and I’m spouting a rare breed of horseshit. But that’s the beauty of philosophy – you can talk yourself round in circles for days without ever really getting anywhere. In fact, when you think about it, it’s kind of like skateboarding – you know?
This article was printed in Slam issue 203. Pick up Slam issue 210 to read about Oliver Pelling's visit to Christchurch five years on from the quakes – out now.
Illustration by Pigeonboy.