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Assholes: A Theory Hardcover – October 30, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Hot on the heels of Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word (2012) comes another discussion of assholes and what to do about them. Actually, that’s a bit too glib: James, a philosophy professor, takes a slightly different approach than Nunberg. Where Nunberg focused on the history of assholism (with side trips into such subjects as the difficulties in writing about assholes without censorship), James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them. The author addresses some fundamental questions—such as whether assholes are born or made, a sort of nature-versus-nurture debate for the asshole crowd—and rigorously avoids what must have been a strong temptation to go for the cheap laugh (although it must be pointed out that this is definitely a lighter book than Nunberg’s more academic study). --David Pitt

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Praise for Assholes: A Theory:

A New York Times bestseller!

"James neatly does what philosophers must do: he defines his terms, organizes and codifies, declares his own loyalties; he locates himself on the spectrum of assholery and suggest origins both psychological and sociological. The result is a delightful combination of the demotic and the technical."—Jane Smiley, Harper's Magazine


"James’ 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 asshole. The author’s enthusiasm for the subject makes it possible to get through the book quickly.... [T]here 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


“Aaron James provides us with a delightful philosophical romp through the world of assholes. I was especially tickled by his analysis of different types: smug assholes, royal assholes, the presidential asshole, corporate assholes, the reckless assholes, to name a few.”
 
—Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss
 
  
“Aaron James explores a very rude term that many now find unavoidable in the description of an alarming human type. His witty and accessible study of the personal and social problems the asshole creates draws on his lucid and brilliant accounts of the best in contemporary moral and political philosophy. James’s analysis of asshole capitalism is a tour de force of philosophically astute political analysis and criticism. This is a book that should appeal equally to the general reader and the philosophical specialist.”
 
—Marshall Cohen, founding editor of Philosophy and Public Affairs and university professor emeritus, University of Southern California

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385535651
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385535656
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (143 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #311,779 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a philosophy professor (details below) who thinks, writes, and teaches in ethics and political philosophy.

I mainly write for academics (in professional journals and in a recent book on fairness in the global economy). I have plans for a book on social practices and global justice, and grander intellectual ambitions, for the long haul, that run across my research areas of moral theory, political philosophy, and the foundations of ethics.

All of this can be strenuous, so I've also begun to dabble in popular writing, in hopes of contributing to public life in more direct and (if I'm lucky) more entertaining ways. I wrote a book about assholes. I've got ideas for a book about surfing and what it shows about the human condition, how to live, and capitalism. (I've been an avid surfer since my early teens, so a book about surfing and philosophy would join my life's two more central preoccupations.)

Academic details: Ph.D. in Philosophy, Harvard University; Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Irvine; awarded the Burkhardt Fellowship by the American Council of Learned Societies, spending the 2009-10 academic year at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Visiting Professor at NYU for Fall 2013.

Photo credit: James Hammack

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

172 of 187 people found the following review helpful By TChris TOP 500 REVIEWER on October 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
[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.
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77 of 85 people found the following review helpful By GRiM on November 27, 2012
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.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Cam on February 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
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?
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Lisa Fahey on April 8, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book was recommended to me by a coworker. I thought it was an interesting idea, but there was not enough substance to the book after introducing the initial idea. The theory portion was interesting because it seemed to explain pretty well the mindset of some of the utterly frustrating people you run into and why they might not change/conform to more generally accepted behavior. After that though, the arguments seemed scattered - almost a flow of consciousness and not engaging. Not only that, but the number of times they used the "A" word was so excessive to the point of being gratuitous - made you wonder if this book was for real or intended to be a joke.
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