Politics & Policy

The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew Crawford
Becoming an individual in an age of distraction.

‘We are living through a crisis of attention,” writes Matthew Crawford in his new book The World Beyond Your Head. If that sounds like the beginning of a diatribe against Twitter, it’s not. What Crawford — the philosopher-turned-motorcycle repairman whose 2010 Shop Class as Soulcraft surely counts as one of the most unlikely bestsellers in recent years — has produced is something far richer. Tracing the philosophical roots of our fractured mental lives to the Enlightenment and the modern liberal project, Crawford suggests that our very ability to become individuals is under threat — and likewise the possibility for genuine human flourishing. The World Beyond Your Head is a work of philosophy, and of urgency. Pay attention. — IPT

Ian Tuttle: Let’s start at the beginning, with the roots of our “crisis of attention.” In your chapter “A Brief History of Freedom,” you propose what some might consider a damning interpretation of the anthropology of modern liberalism that suggests that the desire of 17th-century thinkers to free themselves from political authorities led to a rebellion against all external authority. The end result is not just a political, but an epistemic one: Reality ends up being self-constructed; we end up trapped in our heads.

Your account starts with Descartes and his mind-body distinction, passes through Locke, and culminates in Kant. Does the modern political project we cherish — liberal, democratic, rights-based, etc. — and that those same thinkers developed necessitate the loss of genuine attention (and the consequent problems)? Or were there off-ramps along the way?

Matthew Crawford: This comes down to a question of how useful the history of philosophy is for understanding the present. It is generally thought to be in bad taste — too idealistic — to assert anything like a necessary connection between the history of ideas and cultural developments. And indeed there are so many determinants of culture that pure intellectual history misses: natural resources, demographics, sheer dumb accident, etc. But I think it is fair to ask how the fate of Enlightenment ideas in the wider society, where they have trickled down and become cultural reflexes, reflects back on the moment of their original articulation. Viewing the Enlightenment retrospectively in this way, we can discern the seeds of who we have become. We may then develop a fresh take on those thinkers, and new reasons to quarrel with them, ultimately for the sake of self-criticism.

My critique of the anthropology we have inherited from early modern thought has a couple of dimensions. The first is sociological, simply noticing how autonomy-talk is pretty much the only idiom that is available to us for articulating our self-understanding, and how inadequate it is for capturing lived experience. It is the idiom of commencement speeches, of daytime talk shows, and also of marketing: You’re In Charge, as the message on the handrail of the escalator at O’Hare puts it.

Living in a culture saturated with vulgar freedomism, you may develop a jaundiced view of the whole project of liberation inaugurated by Descartes and Locke. If you then revisit those thinkers, I think your irritation prepares you to see things you would otherwise miss. You are bringing a prejudice with you, but sometimes a prejudice sharpens your vision. Sensitivity to the present, and giving credit to your own human reactions to it, can bring a new urgency to the history of philosophy.

What stands out for me, and for other writers I have learned from, is that the assertions those enlighteners make about how the mind works, and about the nature of the human being, are intimately tied to their political project to liberate us from the authority of kings and priests. In other words, it is epistemology with an axe to grind, polemical at its very root.

Yet this original argumentative setting has been forgotten. This is important, because Enlightenment anthropology continues to inform wide swaths of the human sciences, including cognitive science, despite that discipline’s ritualized, superficial ridicule of Descartes. We need to be more self-aware about the polemical origins of the human sciences, because those old battles bear little resemblance to the ones we need to fight.

In particular, it is very difficult to make sense of the experience of attending to something in the world when everything located beyond the boundary of your skull is regarded as a potential source of unfreedom. This is, precisely, the premise behind Kant’s ideal of autonomy: The will must not be “conditioned” by anything external to it. Today we get our Kant from children’s television, and from the corporate messaging of Silicon Valley. Certain features of our contemporary landscape make more sense when you find their antecedents in serious thought, because the tacit assumptions that underlie them were originally explicit assertions.

Tuttle: Relatedly, there are certain modern thinkers who have attended to (sorry) the problem you explore — you quote, for instance, Heidegger and Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch — but are there pre-modern thinkers whose thought is particularly relevant or instructive?

Crawford: Iris Murdoch is under-appreciated. I haven’t read her fiction, but her philosophical essays are one of the richest sources for thinking about attention in its full human context. She stresses that to see the world clearly is a rare moral accomplishment, because it requires getting free of the self-absorbed fantasies that we routinely project out onto the world. She suggests that this is what good art does — it shows us the world as viewed by somebody who has succeeded in doing that, at least for a spell.

Speaking of pre-modern thinkers, in the book I set up a quarrel between Murdoch and the novelist David Foster Wallace and suggest it parallels a quarrel that may be found between Stoics and Epicureans on the question of how to escape the hell inside your own head. I think Murdoch and the Epicureans offer a more promising therapy: It is not by “constructing meaning” tailored to our own psychic needs that we escape our grumpy self-centeredness; it is by joining ourselves to the world, latching onto external objects that provide a source of positive energy. What this comes down to is an erotic disposition, as opposed to an ascetic one. You need both, actually. Only by excluding all the things that grab at our attention are we able to immerse ourselves in something worthwhile, and vice versa: When you become absorbed in something that is intrinsically interesting, that burden of self-regulation is greatly reduced.

Tuttle: To the present-day consequences. The first, and perhaps most obvious, consequence is a moral one, which you address in your harrowing chapter on machine gambling: “If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents.” To modern ears that sentence sounds alarmingly paternalistic. Is the notion of “the good life” possible in our age? Or is it fundamentally at odds with our political and/or philosophical commitments?

Crawford: Once you start digging into the chilling details of machine gambling, and of other industries such as mobile gaming apps that emulate the business model of “addiction by design” through behaviorist conditioning, you may indeed start to feel a little paternalistic — if we can grant that it is the role of a pater to make scoundrels feel unwelcome in the town.

According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention.

My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate.

And this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about how our thinking is captured by obsolete polemics from hundreds of years ago. Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual.

TUTTLE: Is there a balance to be struck between moral considerations and a free market? Are you subtly advocating Wendell Berry and Wilhelm Ropke?

Crawford: Not that I know of. But I suspect a genuinely free market has natural limits of scale, and limits on how far wealth can be concentrated before you have to call it something else. I don’t know if there has ever been a free market, but what we have does not fit that description, unless you are willing to stretch the term beyond credit. We have a corporate economy, and the corporation is a curious animal, a hybrid of public authority and private wealth.

Apparently the corporate legal form was invented as a charter granted by the crown to a group of investors to carry out some well-defined public purpose, such as building a road or sending a ship across the sea. It was granted certain privileges, such as limited liability, to make it easier to raise capital for risky yet publicly necessary ventures. Today the corporation is legally and culturally untethered from any notion of a public purpose, yet still enjoys those public protections, without which it would not exist.

Another thing to notice is that capital has gotten concentrated to the point that it acts in quasi-governmental ways, abetted by ever more powerful information technology. I appreciate the freedom-loving spirit of libertarians, but I think they take too narrow and old-fashioned a view that is blind to new settings in which we are subject to various kinds of rule. If some credit rating bureau like TRW makes a mistake that requires six months of my own hard labor to get corrected, well, that’s what makes me think, “Don’t tread on me!” I am happy to pay the IRS my share, if it will help the government maintain its monopoly on coercive power. I want the Federal Trade Commission to fight TRW on my behalf.

While we’re at it: The Republican Party in 2012 seemed to take as one of its most important tasks the clouding of the difference between small business and those who are positioned to orchestrate the movement of vast sums, so as to be able to attach the moral valor of the entrepreneur to enterprises that primarily capture wealth.

TUTTLE: You write, “The ecology of attention that prevails between persons in a liberal public culture is one of polite separation.” What’s so bad about being polite?

Crawford: Let me clarify. I speak up for reticence and reserve, and suggest that these are rooted in awareness of difference, the kind that may impress itself on you when you are alert to another individual. I borrow the phrase “polite separation” from Kierkegaard, who talks about a “leveling” that occurs when we regard ourselves as representatives of a generic category, “the public.” This puts us in a limbo where neither reverence nor rebellion is possible. He has some very funny passages: A student is no longer in fear of his schoolmaster; instead he and the schoolmaster discuss the question of how a good school should be run. We “go meta” and become third parties to ourselves, as well as to others. Human connection is attenuated.

TUTTLE: Your book is political philosophy, but you are not above engaging the grubby world of politics. Both Left and Right (libertarians, Tea Partiers, and Mitt Romney) come in for criticism. While we often hear about the polarization of American politics, it seems you might be suggesting that both sides share troubling philosophical commitments. Is that right?

Crawford: There do seem to be some affinities. Both invoke “choice” as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

Here’s another. The ongoing “creative destruction” of capitalism celebrated on the Right clears away settled forms of social life. Cultural progressives find their work made easier by this; they get to re-engineer the human landscape with less interference. They do this by moving the threshold of offense ever lower, creating new sensitivities and then policing them. The institutions of civil society (universities, corporations, etc.) then scramble to catch up with the new dispensation and demonstrate their allegiance to it — by expanding their administrative reach into ever more intimate corners of the psyche. This dynamic has given us a stunning expansion of coercive power over the individual, but it has nothing to with “the government.”

While we’re scrambling ideological divisions, allow me to make a suggestion: Marx is due to be discovered by conservatives. Seriously. Not the positive, utopian program, obviously. But the critical part. Arguably, Marx was a conservative, initially. Read the 1844 Manuscripts — much of it is straight out of Aristotle. I am not the first to notice this. His account of what we require to flourish is rooted in the idea that there is a distinctly human form of activity, one that answers to our “species nature.” We’re the kind of creatures who need to see our own thought manifested concretely in the world, through productive activity. It may well be that no viable form of large-scale economic organization can take this as its guiding insight, but I think the perspective Marx offers is timely, and can cast new light on what we are doing to ourselves. With the Cold War now decided, I think we can safely start to ease our way out of certain intellectual habits that arose from our defensive posture against the Soviet threat, and take a more cold-eyed look at the trajectory of our own economy. In thinking about economics, conservatives would do well to recover the more tragic view of the human condition that is part of their tradition, and a more pessimistic take on history, as against triumphant neoliberal enthusiasms.

TUTTLE: Re-engaging with “the world beyond our heads,” you contend, can put democracy on a firmer foundation. How so?

Crawford: That’s in the final pages where I suggest that an aristocratic ethos needn’t be thought threatening, that it can in fact strengthen democratic solidarity and place it on a more real psychological footing. Our attraction to excellence — our being on the lookout for the choicer manifestations — may lead us to attend to human practices searchingly, and to find superiority in unfamiliar places. For example, in the embodied cognitive finesse of the short-order cook, or the intense intellectual labor that may be required in work that is dirty, such as that of the mechanic when he is diagnosing a problem. With such discoveries we extend our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard, and find them admirable. Not because we heed a moral demand such as the egalitarian lays upon us, but because we actually see something admirable. Our openness to superiority is what connects us to others in a genuine way, without a screen of abstraction.

By contrast, egalitarian empathy, projected from afar and without discrimination, is more principled than attentive. It is content to posit rather than to see the humanity of its beneficiaries. But the one who is on the receiving end of such empathy wants something more than to be recognized generically. He wants to be seen as an individual, and recognized as worthy on the same grounds on which he has striven to be worthy, indeed superior, by cultivating some particular excellence or skill. We all strive for distinction, and I believe that to honor another person is to honor this aspiring core of him.

– Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

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