The World Beyond Your Head

The World Beyond Your Head May 19, 2015

Matthew Crawford, a philosopher who has found wisdom in being a motorcycle mechanic, is the author of an excellent book on vocation entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.  He now has another book that shows how the Enlightenment has given us a very distorted view of the self, one which insulates the inner mind from outside reality.  The new book has the felicitous title  The World Beyond Your Head.

After the jump, I excerpt and link to an extremely thoughtful and perceptive review of the book, one that interacts with Crawford’s ideas with great learning and insight.  I was stunned to see that the reviewer is Gracy Olmstead, a recent student of mine!  I can see Patrick Henry College’s classical liberal arts curriculum underlying her essay, as she draws on the “great books” that we have read and takes part in the “great conversation” of the history of ideas.  Note too the depth of her thinking and how she compares to other recent graduates that you might have encountered.  Sorry–I’m just proud of her, that’s all.

From Gracy Olmstead, Against Kant and Consumerism | The American Conservative:

Matthew Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic with a degree in physics and a Ph.D. in political philosophy. In Shop Class As Soul Craft, he surprised the world with a fascinating ethics of vocation—one that advocated manual work and blue-collar jobs, thus running counter to popular conceptions of what makes a job “good.” His unusual background enables him to marry abstract philosophy with technical discussions of skill.

The subtitle to his latest book promises a look at our “age of distraction.” There have been a plethora of articles on this topic of late—they bemoan our lack of “mindfulness” and diagnose the ills of our attention-deficit society. A book on this age of distraction would perhaps reflect upon the mind as affected and shaped by technology. It would consider televisions and smartphones, Twitter and Google. But in fact, Crawford’s book takes on an immensely grander project. The World Beyond Your Head isn’t about technological distractions, it’s about another kind of virtual reality and its deceptions—about the epistemological frauds we have believed since the Enlightenment.

The premise of Crawford’s book is that our distractedness is merely symptomatic of a deeper cultural defect, a misrepresentation of the self that has permeated our society. He traces this back to Enlightenment philosophy, especially the thought of Immanuel Kant. Enlightenment thinkers of the late 17th and 18th centuries presented a view of the person that contrasted drastically with medieval and ancient thought: they put unprecedented emphasis on the rational individual as separate from society or community. They posited new theories about freedom founded upon reason and self-determination, with epistemological roots in ideas such as Descartes’s famous claim that “I think therefore I am.” Kant believed that knowledge and ethics must necessarily be situated within the mind—that existence must be interpreted through the autonomy of the individual.

In advancing this claim, Kant built a “high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws,” writes Crawford. “Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is to remain pure, ‘unconditioned’ by anything external to it.” This has led to a society in which individuals can never fall back on real-world authorities, traditions, or supports. Rather, we are constantly striving to develop lives of meaning without any outside recourse. The soul is increasingly insulated from the world outside our heads. Whereas in the real world, Crawford writes, “we are subject to the heteronomy of things; the hazards of material reality,” what Kant has given us is our modern identification of freedom with choice, in which choice is a “pure flashing forth” of the individual will.

This association set the stage for today’s culture, in which choice “serves as the central totem of consumer capitalism, and those who present choices to us appear as handmaidens to our freedom.” Kant, by trying to secure the freedom of the will from outside influence, severed our minds from any causal relationship with the world. With this isolation comes fragility—the fragility of a self that cannot tolerate conflict or frustration. “When dumb nature is understood to be threatening to our freedom as rational beings, it becomes attractive to construct a virtual reality that will be less so, a benignly nice [reality] where there is no conflict between self and world.” Autonomy, instead of bringing freedom, makes us slaves to the comforts of an arbitrated reality.


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