Don’t Overthink It

Are Enlightenment ideas messing with your head? Only if you don’t understand them.

Matt Dorfman

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.

But beyond his litany of peeves lurks a moral outrage and even something of a moral theory, since to be robbed of a hard encounter with the real—of the intimacy with the ungiving existence of things that, say, a master mechanic enjoys with the engines he services—is, for Crawford, not only an intellectual but an ethical failure. It urgently needs remedying, and at the core of the moral achievement he equates with “becoming an individual,” as his subtitle puts it, is the exact inverse: close attention to what is not oneself. “The clearest contrast to the narcissist that I can think of is the repairman, who must subordinate himself to the broken washing machine, listen to it with patience, notice its symptoms, and then act accordingly.” To attain our better selves and undo the damage of the Enlightenment, we have to count on different organs of cognition—our eyes and skilled hands—and put them back to work fixing appliances, flipping burgers, making stuff.

Part of Crawford’s argument is based on a philosophy of perception that was put forth in the 1970s by the psychologist James J. Gibson. Gibson and his disciples began with the fact that, as we move around looking at things, the optical input systematically changes. They then went on to make the case that we somehow perceive things “directly,” without mental representations. But Gibson’s theory never explained how we can think about what we see, and it has been marginalized by advances in cognitive neuroscience that have increasingly identified the mental representations Gibson insisted could not exist. Crawford, inheriting the Gibsonians’ lack of interest in language, reasoning, and memory—that is, all those cognitive capacities that use the input of perception—declares that reality is there for the taking. We don’t need to reason our way past the scrim of subjective representations fluttering between us and the world of things. We just need to engage with those things. Anyway, the whole idea of that subjective scrim was foisted on us by—you guessed it—the Enlightenment.

Crawford’s argument against the Enlightenment isn’t, to my knowledge, one we’ve heard before, since his rendition of the Enlightenment isn’t, to my knowledge, one we’ve heard before. So to prepare us to proceed further with his argument, a few words about what the Enlightenment actually was. A quick primer isn’t easy, because the movement was anything but the monolith that seems to loom behind Crawford’s diagnosis of our era of addled inattentiveness. There is an enormous diversity of views among Enlightenment thinkers, even on the role of reason, the topic most central to their concerns (though one would never guess this from reading Crawford, who barely mentions reason). For example, David Hume’s insistence on reason’s limitations—“reason is perfectly inert”—can be read as a rejoinder to Spinoza’s exuberantly rationalist project of deriving all of science and ethics from pure reason; in turn, Kant’s painstaking attempt to derive certainty from the very conditions that make thinking possible was his rejoinder to Hume’s far-reaching skepticism.

Nevertheless, despite the differences, the soul of the Enlightenment unmistakably lay in an endorsement of reason, though not necessarily a priori reason, since many Enlightenment thinkers were robust empiricists (but again, you wouldn’t know this from reading Crawford, who considers them all airy nonempiricists). They appealed to rational powers, which meant that only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy. Even tradition couldn’t stand merely on its longevity but had to justify its right to continue to exist.

The Enlightenment, in short, amounted to an assertion of epistemic democracy. Whatever can be known by one person can, in principle, be known by all, as long as they master the techniques for knowing that are relevant to a field. It’s no accident that the development of modern empirical science was intertwined with the Enlightenment. So was the emergence of modern political democracy: the American Founders were children of the Enlightenment. Another gift, rooted in the emphasis on our common humanity, was the various human-rights movements, including abolitionism and the first stirrings of feminism. Jeremy Bentham wrote an impassioned brief on behalf of homosexual rights. Cesare Beccaria, the jurist and philosopher, wrote a pamphlet presenting a case against harsh punishments that led to the end of state-sanctioned torture and capital punishment throughout Europe, and influenced the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. What the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has called “the expanding circle” of moral concern was given a mighty outward tug by Enlightenment thinkers. The starkly contrasting normative patterns we find in the world today reflect where the Enlightenment left its footprint and where it didn’t. Some might say that what we need at this moment, assaulted as we are by extremes of irrationalism, is a rededication to the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment.

But not Crawford. For him, the legacy of the Enlightenment wasn’t the democratization of knowledge. Nor was it the emphasis on our shared humanity and rights. Instead, Crawford equates the upshot of the Enlightenment with subjectivism, a retreat into our own insular interiority. The Enlightenment, in his view, did more than erect a veil of subjective representations between us and the world of things. He also believes that Enlightenment thinkers, in rejecting the old sources of authority, left every person with nothing to resort to but his particular point of view, muddling through both the “is” and the “ought” all on his own.

Such an extreme warping of Enlightenment ideas about knowledge is a bit like saying that the Catholic Church has just got to stop pushing its radical atheist agenda on us. The last thing the Enlightenment aimed to do was overthrow the very idea of intellectual and moral authorities. Rather, it was about insisting that any authority must be established by arguments that can be evaluated by others exercising their cognitive capacities—the antithesis of subjectivism. The Enlightenment thinkers set out to engage in precisely that endeavor; far from leaving it to every person to invent the wheel for himself, they wrote with the aim of earning their own authority.

Crawford assigns Immanuel Kant a major role in the grand theft perpetrated by the thinkers whom he accuses of entrapping us in our unanchored inner selves, inattentive to all else, and so rendered helpless captives of advertisers, technocrats, and manipulators of all kinds. (These manipulators, by the way, must be paying us quite assiduous attention in order to know how to work us so well. How, I wonder, have they escaped Kant’s baleful influence? And have they thereby achieved their better selves?) According to Crawford, Kant was so desperate to keep his will autonomous, unchecked by all the things that might condition it—which amounted to everything and everyone not identical with himself—that he consigned them all to a quasi-existence of ghostly abstractions. “Kant’s metaphysics of freedom is at the very core of our modern understanding of how we relate to the world beyond our heads,” Crawford writes. Kant’s free will, in other words, was purchased for the whopping price of dissociation from our material and social environment, and we’re all paying that price. Well, not all of us, but we who aren’t marching in Crawford’s parade of manually skilled workers and practiced athletes, or riding out the narcissistic age astride a motorcycle. They’re the few who escape the distracted blur to which Kant condemned us.

Yet if, as Crawford admonishes us, carefully training our attention on more than the surface of things is a moral necessity, then Crawford indicts himself. Instead of offering a few cherry-picked quotes, he might have paused to take a closer look at Kant’s categorical imperative—the centerpiece of his moral reasoning. Kant formulated the tenet in two ways. The first is that you must act only according to a moral law that you could universalize as a law for all others—a way of ensuring that you aren’t giving undue weight to your own interests, and at the same time a means of forcing you to hold yourself accountable to others. The second is that others must be viewed as ends in themselves, never as means to an end. Does that sound like the thinking of a man determined to let nothing obstruct his personal will? Does it sound like a worldview that has paved the way for our oblivion to the reality of others as we grope about in our daze? For Kant, it is the structure of morality that is autonomous, unconditioned by any facts external to itself. But that structure exists outside our heads, accessible to each of us through the exercise of our powers of thought—under guidance, of course, from Kant.

I agree with Crawford that serious engagement with the world beyond our blinkered selves is both an intellectual and a moral achievement. In making this point, Crawford leans heavily on quotes from the superb Iris Murdoch. But as Murdoch would have been the first to insist, the world that deserves to be understood on its own terms includes not only physical objects and other people. It also includes ideas. Of course, no ideas, including those of the Enlightenment, are immune from criticism; on this the Enlightenment itself was insistent. Still, it’s incumbent on a critic to do justice to those ideas, without distorting them for some polemical purpose.

There is more than one way to fail to engage with the world beyond one’s head.

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