DO YOU THINK you have what it takes to make it through this entire review? Though it’s not long, it will require patience. And though it will be interesting, it will require concentration. It deals with important topics — technology, craftsmanship, philosophy, psychology — and big questions — What does it mean to belong to a community? How do we become individuals? What does it mean to be human? — that excite the imagination and captivate the intellect. At least, that’s what I think. You might agree, but I still doubt you’ll make it through the whole essay without distraction. Your phone will buzz or your email will ding or your Facebook will light up. Even if none of these happen, you’ll feel compelled to check if they did. Not that I’m immune: I’ve already checked my phone twice and paced around my apartment once before completing this paragraph. And I’m the guy writing this.
Matthew Crawford doubts if you’ll make it either. He doesn’t blame you, though, because he thinks we are living through an unprecedented crisis of attention. From the quotidian — the daily onslaught of emails, texts, tweets, and updates — to the innovative — the use of ambient perfume to market coffee, for instance — the world around us relentlessly colonizes our precious attention. Faced with unceasing interruptions that beget pernicious distraction, “what is often at stake,” Crawford writes, “seems to be nothing less than the question of whether one can maintain a coherent self.” Not only are we increasingly distracted, but we’re also increasingly distractible. “Our mental lives,” Crawford argues, have “become shapeless, and more susceptible to whatever presents itself out of the ether.” Unable to figure out what to pay attention to, we seek out distraction itself, chasing the phantom of fulfillment through the simulacrum of enjoyment.
This anxiety is nothing new. Philosophers from the ancient Greeks onward have worried that technological innovation would suborn the pursuit of truth and wisdom through ease, superficiality, and distraction. In Plato’s Phaedrus, no less a figure than Socrates lamented the invention of writing for its deleterious effects on memory, argument, and knowledge. Socrates imagined the Thamus, king of the Egyptian gods, chastising Teuth, inventor of the alphabet:
This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories … [Y]ou give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Late in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant identified excessive distraction as the enemy of an Enlightened mind. As he argued in Philosophical Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View:
If distraction is habitual it gives the human being who is subject to this ill the appearance of a dreamer and makes him useless to society, since he blindly follows his power of imagination in its free play, which is not ordered by any reason.
The source of this distraction, according to Kant, was a new literary technology: the novel. Kant worried that novels, with their admixture of coherence and digression, would “fragment” human thought and disrupt the “unity of understanding.”
While its philosophical trappings have largely fallen away, this critique persists today, albeit in an attenuated form that is often either nostalgic or pat. Consider, for instance, the novelist Gary Shteyngart’s view of the iPhone’s transformative powers. As Shteyngart wrote in an essay for The New York Times:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film.
Fragmented and shallow, ignorant and arrogant, bored and boring: from Socrates to Shteyngart, these are the qualities ascribed to the distracted human mind. What new insight can Matthew Crawford bring to such a crowded field? As it turns out, his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is less concerned with extending the terms of the critique than it is with restoring its proper philosophical content and full existential meaning.
Cast as a work of “political philosophy,” The World Beyond Your Head aims at nothing less than reopening the philosophical treatment of distraction and reevaluating the prevailing understanding of the human condition. No simple problem restricted to the contemporary mindset or modern technology, distraction signals a deeper crisis of attentional ethics: we’re so distracted, Crawford argues, because we have no ability to discriminate between things worthy and unworthy of attention; we have no ability to discriminate, in turn, because we have a misunderstanding of human action in and interaction with the world. On a somewhat more restrained view, the book is less magnum opus than philosophical provocation. Crawford’s greatest service is to spur our thought, to enjoin his readers to pay attention to the struggle of paying attention.
The arc of Crawford’s argument is easily sketched. Beginning with analyses of mundane activities — a short-order cook working the breakfast shift, for instance — Crawford argues persuasively that ours is a world structured by “ecologies of attention,” that the activities we undertake — whether determined by culture, employment, or choice — play a determinative role in shaping our experience of the world. Consider the cook, whose attention, Crawford argues, is both constrained by the physical environment of the kitchen and directed by the desires of his customers. Or think about the motorcycle racer, whose motions when hurtling down the track are shaped by an intuitive understanding of physics.
Attention, this is to say, isn’t ours to direct freely. It is, in his words, erotic; it pulls us out of our heads into the world around us. Giving in to attention’s pull can be an exhilarating experience. Thinking about the cook’s feeling of success after a difficult service or the racer’s excitement at entering “the zone” during a race gives credence to Crawford’s description of attention’s erotic quality. It’s also important to remember, he urges, that this erotic quality is born out of constraint. Consider here the joy of a young musician who succeeds at playing a difficult piece of music that demands her full attention. For Crawford, getting outside your head brings real fulfillment because it allows us to face, tackle, and overcome challenges.
Part of Crawford’s argument is to show that we’re less and less likely to feel attention’s erotic pull. Since the Enlightenment, he argues, we’ve been beholden to the pernicious philosophies of liberalism and individualism, with their fallacious view that human freedom consists in autonomy, in independence from external constraints. Crawford reads the founders of modern liberalism — he names Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and, above all, Immanuel Kant — as having transposed the argument of autonomy from politics to epistemology to morality. Because it was wrong for individuals to be beholden to external political authority, it became, mutatis mutandis, wrong for them to be beholden to any and all externalities. Modern, liberal man was to be politically independent, epistemologically self-reliant, and morally autonomous.
The 20th century has seen the culmination of these Enlightenment tendencies. Our recent emancipation from seemingly restrictive cultural identities has set us free into a liberal paradise, a world without constraints. But, Crawford argues, this lack of constraint entails a lack of direction. Though it is addressed less explicitly here, Crawford’s argument in his first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, complements this claim, showing how the growth of industrial production deskilled labor and denuded work’s meaning. Taken together, these arguments paint a bleak picture of modern times. We’re not real individuals, Crawford holds, but “autistic monads” living in a “virtual reality” that mistakes “mass solipsism” for real individuality.
When we undertake activities that pull us beyond our heads, when we cultivate attention’s erotic pull, we begin the process of becoming authentic individuals. These activities have internal standards of excellence that demand confrontation and struggle with the world around us; they undo the Enlightenment’s pernicious illusion of an autonomous individual free from external constraint and replace it with a more correct understanding of the subject as embedded in society and history and constrained by culture and nature. These activities are also always-already social. At a bare minimum, every musician requires a maestro, every cook learns from a chef. Becoming an excellent cook requires external approbation; it requires that one cook recognize another as excellent. This, for Crawford, is the source of authentic individuality: the recognition by another that I am outside my head, that I am engaged in the world.
There are intimations of a potentially rich social theory here — one stretching backward to the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and forward to thinkers like Robert Pippin, Nancy Fraser, and Axel Honneth. Crawford imagines a world structured by these sorts of practices — in essence, craftwork and tradecraft — in which we throw off the mantle of false individualism and others escape the shadow of anonymity. Together we would become individuals by working towards excellence and recognizing each other when we do so. Guided by traditions, shaped by material constraints, we’d embrace the challenges of confronting the world and rediscover the joys of innovation, modification, and success.
Some of The World Beyond Your Head’s individual chapters approach true excellence. In two back-to-back chapters, Crawford mines the children’s television show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for insight into the processes of magical thinking in which we raise children, and then analyzes video gambling as sites of the thanatotic self-negation created by a world devoid of true agency. Deep in its insight and considered in its analysis, this sequence, which is part of Crawford’s argument about the individual autism and cultural solipsism produced by false conceptions of agency, is nevertheless approachable, economical, and entertaining. It is a remarkable combination.
Take, for instance, Crawford’s analysis of video slots and virtual poker. He argues that gambling’s malevolence lies not in the misplaced hope for the once-in-a-lifetime jackpot it inspires, but in the illusory sensation of skillful development each wager fosters. Playing a machine that comes closer and closer to a winning combination with each pull, the gambler feels that he’s gaining the upper hand on the one-armed bandit. But the odds are rigged in more ways than one: the exercise of the will is, at best, a “pseudo-action;” a simulation of autonomy, experience, and mastery in a carefully managed environment. Gambling alternately fosters and frustrates autonomous agency, sending the modern ego into fits of directionless anger and self-loathing that spiral into destruction. It is the antithesis of real skill and the gambler is the inverted craftsman: endlessly feeds quarter after quarter into the slot, he is searching for some dark nirvana, for the total sublimation of the active, thinking self in the emptiness of automatic routines.
In Crawford’s skillful hands, such examples are far more than irreverent illustrations of philosophy by pop culture; they are illuminations from within of the many — and often surprising — connections between philosophy and ideology. When it comes to justifying its existence, Crawford rightly argues, the gambling industry has no problem turning to the very same discourse of individualism that its operations so clearly unmask as hollow. Such arguments bear some resemblance to the Western-Marxist tradition of critical theory. Theodor Adorno saw fascism reflected in slippers and capitalism embodied in automatic doors; Crawford sees liberal individualism instantiated in slot machines. Both unite cultural and philosophical critique in analyses of the strange collusion between industry and entertainment in the creation of a fragile modern subjectivity. And though Crawford’s critiques of, inter alia, the rise of antidepressants and the advent of identity politics would make the likes of George Will and Allan Bloom proud, they wouldn’t necessarily be out of step with some of Adorno’s own mandarin sensibilities.
But Crawford isn’t Adorno. Indeed, it is one of The World Beyond Your Head’s greatest shortcomings that it never gives voice to the trenchant critique of capitalism that lies just beneath its surface. Crawford repeatedly comes right up to the precipice but always hesitates and ultimately retreats. Adorno conjured fiery images of “the cogs and levers of industry” and the “colossi of production” stamping out subjectivity and mass-producing pseudo-individuality. Crawford, by contrast, offers anodyne allusions to “corporate forces” and “systems” that “monetize” our attention, stepping in when we “cede the field.” After uncovering the evidence and preparing the exhibits for a full-throated indictment of the capitalist system, Crawford demurs, offering an ethic of individual responsibility as a kind of plea-bargain.
Readers of The World Beyond Your Head will certainly want to spend considerable time with the last of its three sections, “Inheritance.” Here, in the section’s sole chapter, “The Organ Makers’ Shop,” Crawford offers his finest and most extended example. Drawing on interviews with the organ makers, restorers, and repairmen of a Shenandoah Valley workshop, Crawford develops a more subtle and sophisticated account of the interaction between skill, tradition, and community in the furthering of excellence and the fostering of individuality. Laying his analysis on top of the craftsmen’s voices, Crawford argues that tradition is best understood as “an ongoing quarrel about how to realize certain functional ends;” it is “a living conversation, concretely expressed in action.” Crawford continues:
The conversation has a point, and moves along. To participate, an interlocutor must have good manners: he must listen well, contribute with tact, and have the sense of shame that helps you recognize when you have been refuted.
Though it isn’t explicitly framed as such, this hermeneutic understanding of tradition — as an evolving conversation that guides practice — serves as a kind of summa for his overall argument. Originating in the past but oriented towards the future, tradition is a pliable jig that marshals and directs our attention; it pulls us out of our egotistic heads and towards the world around us. By embracing shared traditions we stand a chance of reclaiming our individuality.
The discussion of the organ makers’ workshop is rewarding, at least in part, because it evokes the rustic charm and achieves the plainspoken eloquence that made Crawford’s first book such a breakout success. Readers who responded to that book’s accessible structure, personal voice, and plucky arguments will doubtless find the current project disappointing — except, perhaps, in this final section. Crawford’s surer footing here is doubtless due to the fact that the material on organ makers was originally intended for Shop Class as Soulcraft. Though it is unclear why this chapter didn’t make it into the earlier volume, it is clear that its function as the capstone of the present volume invites questions about Crawford’s latest book. Is The World Beyond Your Head a kind of sequel to Shop Class as Soulcraft? Or is it a separate project, meant to stand on its own? Is Crawford refining earlier arguments or formulating new claims?
Considered in a mercenary light, The World Beyond Your Head could be read like material cut from a draft of Shop Class as Soulcraft. Encouraged by the sorts of sensationalist literary journalists who proclaimed Crawford “one of the most influential thinkers of our times,” feckless publishers keen to capitalize on trendy topics like boredom, technology, and craftwork might easily rush such a manuscript to press. Read more charitably, The World Beyond Your Head might be considered something of a philosophical appendix to Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford’s earlier success affords him the opportunity to turn, in this book, to the nitty-gritty work he calls political philosophy. If there is overlap or revision, so much the better: having caught Crawford in the process of working, we’re able to watch the craftsman at work, repairing old arguments and fashioning new ones.
Crawford seems to understand his task in this second sense. He notes in the acknowledgements, friends and scholars helped him to see that The World Beyond Your Head centers on an extended debate with Immanuel Kant. Reading Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Crawford writes, “I felt I was reading a crystallization, or rather an over-the-top parody, of the psychology of freedom I had been criticizing. That book also revealed the deep connection between our stance toward the world of things and the kind of moralism that flies the flag of the self.” Impressed with a new sense of his project’s philosophical weight and moral seriousness, Crawford felt that he had “no choice but to seat [Kant] at the head of the table and allow him to speak.”
Though Kant speaks only a handful of times in The World Beyond Your Head, it is nevertheless clear that what Crawford finds objectionable is a Kantian “metaphysics of freedom” that requires human autonomy so radical that it is, in fact, absolute autarky. Crawford takes Kant to have argued that the truly free will is unconstrained by reliance on or interference from externalities. The Kantian man is an isolate, a maroon, an extraterrestrial in the most literal sense. Exogenous influences constrain his will and circumscribe his freedom; they strip him of his humanity. Crawford believes that his account not only runs counter to Kant’s thesis, but also reveals it to be a hollow argument, a “lawyerly” trick that evades rather than confronts reality. Kant’s “fantasy of autonomy,” Crawford claims, is built on this solipsistic rejection of the world and “comes at the price of impotence.”
I’m no Kant scholar, but this seems to be a partial account and fragmentary account of Kant’s philosophical project. Crawford is certainly right to claim that Kant held fast to the existence of autonomy as a principle of moral life and political action. Enlightened modernity, Kant famously wrote, began with mankind’s emancipation from its “self-imposed immaturity” — that is to say, its move from a condition of dependence to one of autonomy. But Crawford would do well to delve deeper into Kant’s critical philosophy, into his epistemology and metaphysics. Here the matter seems much less clear. Experience — knowledge of the world beyond our heads — was the origin of thought, but not its determinant. “[A]lthough all our cognition commences with experience,” Kant wrote in the introduction to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, “yet it does not on that account all arise from experience.” Indeed, the aim of the first Critique might be summarized as Kant’s attempt to discern the structures of thought and laws of perception that enable experience as such. This is to say that Kant’s critical philosophy sought not to decouple subject and object but to figure out how the human mind encountered, experienced, and acted in the world. In his epistemology, Kant found it necessary to go into our heads to push us into the world beyond them.
Instead of fighting this battle, Crawford would have done well to direct his efforts to the real confrontations that bear directly on his anthropology of attention and theory of tradition. Consider, for instance, the varied arguments for a physically embedded, socially embodied human condition put forward by, inter alia, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Polanyi, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Charles Taylor, and, perhaps most radically, Derek Parfit. These philosophers deserve more than the cursory treatment they receive or total neglect they suffer in The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford, it seems, subscribes to a narrowly circumscribed philosophical canon.
Certainly the most striking omission from this canon is Martin Heidegger. Crawford’s belief that we encounter our world as laden with pre-given meanings and significances, his claim that we act in the world through the pragmatic use of skill in the pursuit of projects, and, above all, his argument that true individuality consists in both the rejection of the dominant opinion of an anonymous public and the authentic embrace of tradition — in short, the entire scope of the book’s argument — relies heavily on the recondite philosophical anthropology the young Heidegger developed in Being and Time. Moreover, Crawford’s dim evaluation of the dominant philosophy of the subject — as a sovereign self at once isolated from the world yet imperiously demanding authority over it —resonates deeply with the later Heidegger’s trenchant critique of Western metaphysical thought and its concomitant humanistic worldview. Modern technology, Heidegger argued, encapsulated this view of man as an all-powerful subjectum, a tyrant who orders, manipulates, and controls the things of the world. Heidegger urged a clearer thinking that would abandon this position in favor of a humble view of man — of human being — as subordinate to the larger sway of Being. Though couched in a poetic idiom foreign to The World Beyond Your Head, this line of thought must, I believe, be the inspiration for Crawford’s complaint about the autonomous Kantian subject and advocacy for an embedded human condition.
But Heidegger’s thinking, an occluded polestar for Crawford’s arguments, does not point toward Kant. True, Heidegger took Kant to be a powerful interlocutor. But Heidegger’s thought points in this instance to another source: to the ancient Greeks and, in particular, to Aristotle.
One of Heidegger’s earliest ambitions was to overcome Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronēsis). Aristotle understood practical wisdom not simply as a technical skill (technē), but as a capacity to undertake actions oriented towards ends, and, crucially, an ability to reflect on the consonance of means and ends with the good life. Though the practices essential to the exercise of phronēsis — arts, sciences, games, politics — were therefore conducive to virtue, Aristotle ultimately argued for the superiority of theoretical wisdom. The Nicomachean Ethics leaves little room for doubt: the contemplative life of sophia, Aristotle argued, is the truly excellent life. In a series of early lectures and books devoted to Aristotle, Heidegger claimed that this valuation of sophia was the source of modernity’s perverse metaphysical subjectivism. Further, Heidegger used Aristotle’s own texts against him, arguing that phronēsis was the higher calling. Heidegger called this kind of argument an Auseinandersetzung: a word meaning, literally, “quarrel” and denoting, more figuratively, a form of philosophical reading that aimed not only to explain but to transform the text at hand.
It seems to me that Crawford’s aim, too, might be described as an Auseinandersetzung with Aristotle. Like Heidegger, Crawford wrestles with Aristotle’s division of wisdom into philosophical and practical components. Like Heidegger, Crawford disputes Aristotle’s conclusion, arguing instead that it is practical, rather than theoretical, wisdom that orients us towards virtue and makes us truly human. Aristotle’s ethical philosophy subtends Crawford’s argument for the development of virtue through practice; his political thought corroborates Crawford’s model of a community of shared ends. All of this is to say that it is Aristotle, rather than Kant, who stands at the center of The World Beyond Your Head. Aristotle has, of course, been here all along. But Kant casts a long shadow, precluding Crawford from realizing his Auseinandersetzung.
If you’ve managed to pay attention this long, you might be left wondering who cares? Does it really matter that Crawford mistakes the origins of this philosophical tradition? Why, above all, take the time to interrogate a book that falls somewhere between philosophy and self help?
There’s more at stake, I believe, than the critic’s bitter pleasure of unmasking the middlebrow or the academic’s jealous indictment of the non-professional. The World Beyond Your Head deserves careful analysis and detailed criticism because Crawford takes himself to be “doing political philosophy.” Like the artisans whose art he traces, he, too, is a craftsman seeking to meet criteria of excellence established by the practice and judged by the community. Has Crawford produced such a work of political philosophy? Perhaps not. But maybe that was an over-ambitious goal, a too-strict standard. After all, this is only a second book — maybe it is better to consider him a journeyman rather than a master.
What Crawford has done is awaken his readers — albeit obliquely — to the philosophical problems and theoretical arguments entailed in the cultural problematic of attention. Beginning with a problem that many understand to be culturally urgent, historically recent, and technologically contingent, Crawford leads his readers on a tour of modernity’s dominant philosophies and prevailing ideologies. A neat bait-and-switch, The World Beyond Your Head could easily lure any cultural pessimist into considerations that pass beyond the symptoms, deep into the causes of our present ills.
And lure readers The World Beyond Your Head no doubt will. Crawford’s books command a serious audience: Shop Class as Soulcraft topped editor’s-choice lists on both sides of the Atlantic, from The Financial Times to Popular Mechanics. There’s little reason to think that his second book will prove much less popular. Crawford’s even something of a media star: The New York Times profiled his unique fusion of philosophy and craftsmanship this past March. But Crawford and his books are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. He stands within a rich critical tradition — a tradition populated by the likes of Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and Barbara Ehrenreich — that has made the pernicious effects of post-industrial capitalist production and consumption on the self its object of inquiry and critique. At root, these thinkers give voice to a persistent unease about the constellation of society, politics, and morality in modernity itself.
This, ultimately, is the reason The World Beyond Your Head deserves the attention and warrants careful criticism. Books like this gather strands of individual experience, cultural malaise, and philosophical reflection, weaving them together to form braided rope whose tensile strength has the power to lead readers forward, onward, and downward — from the personal to the cultural to the political by way of the social. Put differently, Crawford’s new book may not always be right in discussing the world beyond your head, but it is certainly useful in getting us beyond our own heads.
Charles Clavey is a PhD candidate in the Department of History working broadly on the history of European ideas and intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries.