"The World Beyond Your Head" by Matthew B. Crawford. A Review

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
Matthew B. Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374535919; $ 15.00; 04/05/2016

5 Stars out of 5: Artful and Astute

I have tried for years to fathom where we are in our present-day location. As I look beyond the geopolitical commotions to the normal, day-in-and-day-out state of affairs, I find it alarming how easily distracted we’ve become, and the ways disruption has taken over our mental, visual, and audio space. Why is that, how did we get here, and is there a viable way forward? Matthew Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, fabricator of components for custom motorcycles and established author, addresses all of this and more in his recently published 320 page paperback, “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.”

The overall theme of “The World Beyond Your Head” has to do with seeking out authentic individuality in a social context and culture that is awash in a flattened-out democratic autonomy. The author describes the book’s aim in this way, “I hope to arrive at something like an ethics of attention for our time, grounded in a realistic account of the mind and a critical gaze at modern culture” (7). There is an urgency in this volume since the author sees that presently there “is a crisis of self-ownership: our attention isn’t simply ours to direct where we will, and we complain about it bitterly” (5). We have “allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want it back you’re going to have to pay for it” (12).

To map out the trajectory of how we got here, Crawford reaches back to the Enlightenment, looking at how Kant’s program underpins the American ideal of autonomy and freedom. This is a program that reaches out for a disembodied will that floats “free of all natural necessities” (74), where to be rational is not “to be situated in the world” (76). In other words, to become the autonomous self one must be “free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior” (17). The outworking of this Kantian “fantasy of autonomy” is that we become impotent (77), pliable to the architects of choice (117), succumbing to a fragility that can’t “tolerate conflict and frustration” and therefore is disposed to give ourselves and our cash to those who manufacture comfort and the best experience to “save us from a direct confrontation with the world” (77). It’s a rather chilling diagnosis that uses the gambling casino as a sample of these symptoms.

Next the author aims “The World Beyond Your Head” deeper into the present situation. Three of the most important trajectories of the Kantian “fantasy of autonomy” come through load and clear. In the structure of Kantian autonomy is the rise of the sovereign self that lives in the culture of performance “in which you have to constantly marshal your internal resources to be successful” (162); where the new ideal is no longer a settled identity but the “ideal of being flexible (. . .) of reinventing yourself at any time, like a good democratic √úbermensch” (163). This leads to a “weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self” (165).

A second arc is the playing out of subjectivism, where right-and-wrong comes from me, the subject, and only applies to me, the subject. Crawford rightly points out how subjectivism can’t make sense of the experience of achieving greater clarity in one’s ability to understand moral consequences, and it can’t adapt to the idea that there might actually be a real right-and-wrong out there that applies to us and originates outside of us instead of originating from our own sovereign-self idiosyncrasies. Crawford calls this inability “the dogmatic inarticulacy of subjectivism,” which he goes on to define as a “moral autism” (184).

The final direction of the Kantian program is “the ideal of autonomy” that “prepares the way for massification” (196). This is the trend to cast off our situatedness, history, and inherited traditions and to self-identify along the categorical lines mapped out by social sciences (200) and social surveys. By absorbing these social sciences categories as our identity we become the decontextualized citizens and the homogenized residents bowing at the idolatrous shrine of the legacy-rejecting present: “When the sovereignty of the self requires that the inheritance of the past be disqualified as a guide to action and meaning, we confine ourselves in an eternal present” (205).

In “The World Beyond Your Head” Crawford also offers a remedy to the Kantian project: an antidote of embodiment and situatedness and a regimen of encountering things and other people. First the book the author brings out the value and virtue of being recognized as an individual which “seems to be possible only in the context of genuine connection with others, with whom one is locked into some web of norms – some cultural jig – that is binding, yet also rich enough to admit of individual interpretation” (160). Next, he illustrates situatedness and embodiment by picturing the short order cook who has come to inhabit the kitchen and the motorcyclist who experiences cognitive extension. Finally, he also spends a considerable amount of time and ink on the exemplary organ maker’s shop where “a readiness to rebel – against the self-satisfaction of the age – seems a prerequisite to discovering something you judge worthy of reverence. To affirm something in this way, freely and with discernment, is surely one element of what it means to be an individual” (225). It’s from within this “dynamic of reverence and rebellion” (236) one inhabits an inherited legacy, thrives in it, and becomes truly forward moving and progressive; “his own inventiveness as a going further in a trajectory he has inherited” (243).

In Crawford’s diagnostic and remedial blueprint, “The World Beyond Your Head,” we not only meet with Kant, but we also converse with Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Polanyi, as well as a few more modern thinkers. The discussion can, at times, get a bit heady, but in the end the author is able to hold the reader’s attention. Though Crawford simply wants to build a case for constructing “an attentional commons: a concern for justice in the sharing of our private yet public resource of attentions” (251), nevertheless the book will take readers into different places to reflect on other tangents that are worth their time and thoughtfulness: the gambling industry, craftsmanship, education, social surveys, Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Reports, historical norms and tradition.

“The World Beyond Your Head” is quite the stimulating read that makes philosophy – especially political philosophy – and epistemology easily comprehendible to reflective, non-technical readers. It would make a worthy addition to any university or seminary library. The volume will also make for good discussion and interaction in classes on philosophy and worldview. But even for anyone not engaged in academia, this manuscript is a must read to equip one for more reasonable and discerning engagement with the current era. I highly recommend this book!


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