Matthew Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic, dividing his time between the University of Virginia and his motorbike workshop. As you might expect, this unique combination gives rise to a philosophy that is rooted in material things, a counter-cultural perspective that elevates manual work and craftsmanship. Crawford has a writing style to match, highly intelligent but firmly grounded in everyday life. His examples and analogies are as likely to come from the garage as they are from the library.
In his previous book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, Crawford explored how a manual skill can draw us out of ourselves into the real world. Unlike office work, we can see the difference we are making there in front of us as something takes shape, a broken item is fixed, or a person is served. We can have confidence in our worth, and will find our work engaging and rewarding.
The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction builds on this, moving from the world of work to the broader theme of attention. What we choose to pay attention to defines us as people, and we should value our own attention more highly. We might not recognise it as a resource, Crawford notes, but others do. Advertising, which is increasingly pervasive in modern culture, is all about securing our attention.
The book’s starting point is to raise the issue of distractibility, and how our focus can be disrupted by claims on our attention – Crawford calls distractibility “the mental equivalent of obestity”. (This includes the issues of public space and an ‘attentional commons’ that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.) But the book then takes us somewhere else. Rather than looking critically at our cultural landscape, the author drills down a layer deeper, to our understanding of individuality.
We have a certain conception of ourselves as rational thinking people who process information in our heads and then act. We prize autonomy and the right to form our own opinions. But we should be wary of this conception, Crawford argues. Our understanding of the ‘ideal self’ can be seen as “the sedimented result of a history of forgotten polemics.” We have an anthropological heritage of writers and philosophers who have concerned themselves with liberty, out to free us from tyrants, or the church. This has given us a picture of ourselves as independent, free-willed agents. It’s all come from the right place – countering oppression and claims to special knowledge – but we have come to idolize our own individual mental lives.
The problem with this is that our idea of progress is linked to ever greater disconnection from the material world. Crawford identifies a “fetish of automaticity and disconnection… the deep tendency of a culture that connects the upward march of human freedom and dignity to an ever greater abstraction from material contingencies.”
To put it another way, centuries of liberal thought have pushed us too far into our own heads, and now we need to be coaxed back out.
The most obvious implication of this is in the area of education, and interestingly, the outdoor learning movement that I mentioned last week is arguing exactly the same thing in completely different language. Crawford hints at the ramifications for the way we do economics or politics too.
How do we call ourselves out of our own heads? Like its predecessor, the book explores a series of real world examples – a cook working in an ordered kitchen, an ice hockey player controlling a puck, a motorcyclist riding at speed – to show how we live embedded, embodied lives. We are at our best, at our most human, when we are engaged powerfully and attentively in the material world. This the heart of the book, and Crawford’s conception of human flourishing through meaningful work – people “working at full song” – is an attractive one.
One of the things I like about Crawford is that he doesn’t wrap up his thoughts and try too hard to apply them practically. There’s no manifesto for change, or policy recommendations or how-to in the final chapter. Nor does he seek to thoroughly explain the big picture trends, preferring to pick out “a few topographical features of modern culture, and suggesting we see them as a part of a larger landscape.” He sums up his arguments, but it’s up to the reader to keep thinking about it. It’s not that things are unresolved or left hanging, it’s more of a handover.
To make the point, the book concludes in unexpected fashion with a thirty page description of organ making. “I can assume in the reader only so much tolerance for the history and technical details of Baroque pipe organs” he wisely surmises before he launches into it, but I found I had more tolerance for such things than I thought. The organ makers that Crawford observe at work are absorbed in a craft, in service of a musical “inheritance”. They are aware of where they stand in the tradition, but able to innovate around it and put their personal stamp on their instruments.
It’s a bold way to finish a book, but if you’ve got that far through it I expect most readers will find that it resonates and sums up the book’s arguments. But you will have to go away and reflect on it.
The World Beyond Your Head is a tougher read than The Case for Working With Your Hands, sometimes meandering into the philosophical woods. It has profound insights about our consumer culture, nuggets that are all the more valuable because you’ll have to do a little digging to get at them. If it’s anything like its predecessor, I suspect that I will keep thinking about it for months to come.