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Assholes: A Theory [Hardcover]

Aaron James
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Nov 2012

What does it mean for someone to be an a**hole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Try as we might to avoid them, a**holes are found everywhere at work, at home, on the road, and in the public sphere. Encountering one causes great difficulty and personal strain, especially because we often cannot understand why exactly someone should be acting like that.

A**hole management begins with a**hole understanding. In the spirit of the bestselling On Bullshit James gives us the concepts to think or say why a**holes disturb us so, and explains why such people seem part of the human social condition, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. These concepts are also practically useful, as understanding the a**hole we are stuck with helps us think constructively about how to handle problems they present. We get a better sense of when the a**hole is best resisted, and when he is best ignored a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 1 edition (1 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857885937
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857885934
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 447,735 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


This is a book that should appeal equally to the general reader and the philosophical specialist. James's analysis of a**hole capitalism is a tour de force of philosophically astute political analysis and criticism. His witty and accessible study draws on his lucid and brilliant accounts of the best in contemporary moral and political philosophy.
Marshall Cohen, University Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California

Aaron James provides us with a delightful philosophical romp through the world of a**holes. I was especially tickled by his analysis of different types: smug a**holes, royal royal a**holes, the presidential a**hole, corporate a**holes, the reckless a**holes, to name a few.
Robert I. Sutton, Stanford Professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers The No A**hole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss

James's research is both thorough and imaginative; his impressive source list ranges from obscure philosophy books to popular websites to Rudyard Kipling to Kanye West, hip-hop's greatest a**hole. The author s enthusiasm for the subject makes it possible to get through the book quickly.... There are moments of great insight and outright hilarity.
Kirkus Reviews

James's volume is equal parts philosophical meditation and historical survey, but its true value lies in his attempt to precisely define the term. Joe Keohane, New York Magazine

"A delightful combination of the demotic and the technical... James gives us some practical advice for confronting a**holes, for maintaining self-respect and social position in a world full of them"
Harpers Magazine

'Currently in love with a book called A**holes, A Theory'
Bette Midler

"The thrust of James' thesis is timely. Energetically argued and provoking...well worth the discomfort; not least for Aaron James's magnificent 'Letter to an A**hole', which ends the book."
Literary Review


About the Author

Aaron James holds a PhD from Harvard and is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. Aaron has published in several professional journals, including Philosophy and Public Affairs and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , and has given numerous lectures at universities both in the US and abroad. He was awarded the Burkhardt fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, spending the 2009-2010 academic year at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He s an avid surfer...and he s not an a**hole.

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0 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A recommendation from a well read friend 15 May 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A three star rating 'Its okay' because I'm still reading it. I hope that I will fully understand all the comments
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  78 reviews
134 of 145 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Naming names: a philosopher's view of [censored] 30 Oct 2012
By TChris - Published on
[Apparently the robotic censors that patrol the reviews will not allow a review to post that actually uses the title of this book. This review will therefore use A-holes to represent the book's title, and a-hole to refer to the singular form of that word.]

Aaron James took a break from the philosopher's customary search for the meaning of life to ponder a more burning question: What does it mean to be an a-hole? I have the sense that James wrote A-holes so he could share his complaints about surfers who behave like a-holes, particularly Brazilians. Whatever his motivation, and despite his earnest attempt to subject a-holes to scholarly thought, much of A-holes is enjoyable simply because the topic is so appealing. Everyone, after all, has an opinion about a-holes.

A-holes consistently cut in line, interrupt, and engage in name-calling. They do not play well with others (in James' language, they are not fully cooperative members of society). Many (perhaps most) people occasionally behave like an a-hole without becoming an a-hole. As a theory of the a-hole, James posits that an a-hole is a person who enjoys "special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people." Although I think "a-hole" is pretty much self-defining, in the sense of "I know one when I see one," I like James' definition. I think it's a definition rather than a theory, but I'm probably just quibbling about semantics (which is pretty much the philosopher's job description, making it a battle I can't win). Whether it is a theory or a definition, after he finishes parsing it, James politely suggests that it is up to the reader to decide whether to agree with it. James is plainly no a-hole.

James tells us that a-holes are morally repugnant but not truly evil. If you're interested in standard philosophical discussions of moral behavior and moral responsibility with references to the likes of Aristotle, Kant, and Buber, you'll find them here. Those of us who needed strong coffee to make it through our philosophy classes are probably hoping for something more fun than a rehash of Martin Buber in a book titled A-holes. We're looking for the author to name names. Happily, James does so (although not without some preliminary hand-wringing about whether calling out a-holes is something only an a-hole would do). From Simon Cowell to Mel Gibson, from Donald Trump to Steve Jobs, from Ann Coulter to Bill O'Reilly, James finds a-holes in every walk of life. James even suggests that book reviewers can be a-holes (oh my!) although he does so in the context of academia.

Consistent with his definitional/taxonomic approach, James classifies a-holes by type, including the boorish a-hole (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore), the smug a-hole (Richard Dawkins, Larry Summers), the a-hole boss (Naomi Campbell), the presidential a-hole (Hugo Chavez), the reckless a-hole (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld), the self-aggrandizing a-hole (Ralph Nader), the cable news a-hole (Neil Cavuto, Keith Olbermann), and the delusional a-hole (Kanye West, Wall Street bankers). James covers the spectrum from liberals to conservatives in his search for a-holes and applies his test with, I think, a nonpartisan outlook. Of course, some readers will be displeased that he has called a political favorite an a-hole, but again, James rather politely invites disagreement and urges readers to apply the test as they see fit.

James' approach to categorization lends itself to party games. You can make up categories James overlooked, like the sports a-hole (George Steinbrenner, Michael Vick), or you can add names to the categories he's invented. Don't worry, there are plenty more a-holes identified in the book -- the names I've cherry-picked are illustrative only -- as well as some categories I haven't mentioned, but you'll easily think of more. The book is short and the world is filled with a-holes.

Returning to the realm of philosophy, James considers whether a-holes are morally responsible for being a-holes, which leads to a discussion of whether a-holes have free will. James' conclusion is at odds with the answer you would get from a neuroscientist like Bruce Hood, but whether you blame a-holes or accept that they can't help being who they are, you're still stuck with them. James reasons that a-holes are generally male because they are shaped by the culture of gender, although I think he puts too fine a point on it when he draws subtle distinctions between a-holes and beetches (another word I altered to avoid the censor, but you know what I mean). I also think he's a bit naive when he argues that, for cultural reasons, American men are more likely to be a-holes than Japanese men, a proposition with which many Southeast Asians (not to mention the surviving residents of Nanking) would disagree.

James includes a chapter on how to manage a-holes (short version: you really can't, but you can try to make yourself feel good) and a chapter that suggests how capitalist societies (which encourage the sense of entitlement on which a-holes thrive) can deteriorate when the a-hole ethic takes root (short version: greed isn't good, Gordon Gecko notwithstanding). The concluding chapter tells us how to find a peaceful life in a world full of a-holes (short version: reconcile yourself to the things you cannot change while hoping for a better world). These chapters give James a chance to apply the thoughts of Plato and St. Augustine and the Stoics and Rousseau and even Jesus to the topic of a-holes. Heavy thinkers will probably enjoy those discussions. Lightweight thinkers, like me, will enjoy the name naming while looking forward to the party games the book inspires.
60 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breezy but insightful 27 Nov 2012
By GRiM - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First, this book is really funny. It's quite a page turner for a philosophy text, even a mass market philosophy text. Of course, the frequent repetition of the word a-hole appeals to those of us with a low sense of humor.

Dr. James begins by attempting a definition of the a-hole. He then, amusingly, names a variety of people he considers a-holes in public life. While Dr. James is a self-described liberal, he's pretty even-handed in apportioning a-holiness to the left and right. (He reserves particular distaste for Fox News, which he regards as the "gold standard" of a-holiness; desipte being a conservative myself, I find it very hard to disagree with him). He goes on to offer classifications of various types of a-holes.

The later chapters are more philosophical. He inquires, for example, why a-holes tend to be male, and why they tend to be produced more frequently in some cultures rather than others. For example, he considers Italy, Israel, Brazil and the US to be particularly prone to a-hole generation, while regarding Japan as almost incapable of producing a-holes. I'm not sure I agree with him here - I think the interactional style of Israelis (with whom I work pretty extensively) tends to lead others to believe they're a-holes when they're not. And I suspect (although I have little direct experience to validate this hypothesis) that Japanese interactional styles lead Americans to conclude that Japanese are never a-holes when in fact some of them probably are - we likely just don't understand when a Japanese a-hole is being an a-hole to us.

The question of whether a-holes are begotten or made is further explored - Dr. James concludes that there is some genetic predisposition to a-holiness but that society plays a critical role in forming a-holes. He also comments on a-holes in positions of power. Discussed but left insufficiently explored, in my view, is whether a-holes naturally ascend to those positions, or whether the positions turn individuals into a-holes. This distinction becomes important for the political turn the book takes in the chapter "a-hole capitalism."

Dr. James' thesis is that an a-hole is characterized by feeling entitled to special advantages. In discussing a-hole capitalism, Dr. James turns his sights on those who could be viewed as directly or indirectly exploiting others; those who feel entitled to an ever-greater share of the pie. While not ever quite explicitly saying so, he clearly has the rich in mind, although I don't think he means to imply that being rich necessarily makes one an a-hole. And as I look around myself, I can clearly see that sense of entitlement among some of the powerful.

But interestingly enough, I think Dr. James' focus on entitlement strikes at the heart of the current political division in the United States. The left views conservatives as a-holes because conservatives feel entitled to the rewards they have earned through market mechanisms, even if those mechanisms have given them rewards that are disproportionate to any common sense justification. The right views progressives as a-holes because progressives feel entitled to lay claim to things that they have not themselves earned in the market. So in fact, each side views the other as a-holes because each feels the other is laying an unfair, "special" claim to entitlement.

Does this suggest a solution? No, not really. These competing views of entitlements are subject to quite a lot of analysis in academia, in the press, and around water coolers. But perhaps a good starting point for discussion would be with the injunction, "Don't be an a-hole."

All in all, I found Dr. James' book both amusing and thought-provoking, which is all I could hope for. He brings together some of what I've recently read of Stiglitz on inequality and Tomasi on free market fairness in a way that is arguably more coherent, and certainly funnier, than either of them.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important common ground 16 Feb 2013
By Cam - Published on
The first part of this book describes what an a-hole is and how one differs from a psychopath or an abrasive personality. I applaud the author's decision to use a colloquial term we all grasp intuitively for the pathology.

The second part of the book discusses dealing with a-holes, one-on-one and in a group dynamic. That there are no simple formulas for this serves as testament to the basic intractability of the a-hole.

The book makes a case that a-holes operate to the ultimate detriment of society. Hopefully the term a-hole (in its technical sense) becomes part of our common lexicon, for it appears that only as a social group can we counter a-holes.

As I write this review I see the spectrum of opinion is flat over the "hate it" to "love it" range. Reading the opinion of SOME of those who didn't like the book, I was struck by the vehemence of their dislike. The language employed by these pundits would seem to qualify them as a-holes. I wonder whether an a-hole would typically perceive the book as a personal attack and would perforce respond with unwarranted hostility?
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Ten Most Important Books That I Have Read 13 Feb 2013
By John B. Levine MD - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An important study of moral philosophy as applied to borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and corporate culture. Useful as a field guide; a coded signifier for the eponymous ones; and as a self help book to warn oneself not to fight the subjects on their own terms. The perfect complement to Bakewell's recent biography of Montaigne. I particularly appreciate James's observation that there are better things to do with one's life than to struggle with these vexatious people all of the time. Wish I had read this book earlier in my career.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do not forget that this is a work of humor 14 Aug 2013
By Adam C - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
While this book is provocative in it's thinking, it is still rather funny. It is a catalog of personality traits of figures you and I should both know in history in life and society. Whether your pet peeve is censorship, or even a heartless methodical character like Nicollo Machiavelli's mystical prince this book will provide you not only the details to spot the behavior, but strategies to defeat it or avoid it. Refer to the Amazon editorial review!
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