Matthew B. Crawford’s first book, the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), established him as a polemical champion of the superiority, mental and moral, of manual labor over the kind of employment typically sought by college graduates, including any work done on a computer and in a cubicle. For some readers, the fact that the author had earned a doctorate in political philosophy and also owned a motorcycle-repair shop lent a certain kick-ass authenticity to his enterprise. Now ensconced at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Crawford is back with a heady argument against headiness, and to aid him he invokes as models a couple of artisans and an array of regular guys—short-order cooks, hockey players, and, of course, any dude who knows his way around a Harley. In The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, he doesn’t just herald the soul-cleansing properties of skilled craftwork. He indicts the philosophical tradition that he believes has robbed us of the world beyond our muddled, misdirected minds. Crawford calls this tradition the Enlightenment, though his description of the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries distorts it almost beyond recognition.
Crawford’s basic beef with the Enlightenment is that it so loosened our grip on reality, plunging us into the wishy-washiness of our own subjectivities, that we lack the grit to resist the usurpation of our “attentional environment” by all the aspects of contemporary life that tick Crawford off. His peeves range widely, from “mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data”; to “creepy children’s television”; to the “creeping substitution of virtual reality for reality”; to the diabolically designed slot machines that co-opt our dopamine circuits so that we succumb to gambling addictions; to the emo music that comes out of the ceiling of the university gym where Crawford lifts weights; to the college kid working at the gym who refuses to take it upon himself to change the music even after Crawford gives him a hard time about it.