The Crisis of Attention from Enlightenment to iPad

Review: Matthew Crawford, ‘The World Beyond Your Head’

• August 2, 2015 5:00 am


Recently, my father, who has worked in technology education for a long time, texted me a picture from an airport restaurant in which he was eating. In the picture, a waiter stood at a table waiting for a family of six to finish looking at their iPads. Each person had bent his or her head to stare at the iPad screen, ignoring one another and the waiter.

According to Matthew Crawford in his wonderful new book The World Beyond Your Head, we now face a cultural crisis of attention, an inability to focus on the things beyond our heads. While it may at first appear that this crisis has been caused by technology, Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, traces the genealogy of this crisis to a source that some readers might find surprising: Enlightenment philosophy—specifically its attempt to free human beings from dependence on external authority.

Crawford’s explanation begins with John Locke, who, in his Two Treatises on Government, attempted to free man from the coercive exercise of power by a political sovereign. In order for man to be free, however, he must be able to govern himself. To govern himself he must be intellectually independent, that is, capable of forming his own judgments reasonably. In Locke’s time, few thought this possible. The reigning view was that man depended for direction on authoritative teachings from tradition – especially theological teachings. Locke thus proposed a new theory of human knowledge, according to which man could only know truth by his own efforts, independent of external influence. Crawford, interpreting Locke, explains:

Political freedom requires intellectual independence… Following Descartes, [Locke] calls on us to be free from established custom and received opinions, indeed from other people altogether, taken as authorities.

Kant, Crawford tells us, expanded on this theme, building "a high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws. 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." Kant believed that man’s thoughts are tainted if influenced by any external authority. If a man allows external authorities to influence his thoughts, however slightly, then he is not free. Kant therefore sets a very strict criterion for human freedom: man cannot rely on any other man for knowledge. Knowledge comes only from oneself.

In Crawford’s view, contemporary Kantian man is fragmented because there are so many things pulling on his attention simultaneously. But as a product of Kant’s theory of human nature, he has no way of evaluating the quality of the things outside of himself—the stuff outside his head. Thus, he does not focus his attention on any of them and finds himself governed by all of them. He therefore does not govern the relationship between himself and the world. Crawford sees in this "an ethical void" in which man has "no basis on which to resist the colonization of life by hassle." Furthermore, contemporary man finds himself open to being constantly hassled by those who want to shape his experience. As someone who has no way of evaluating which experiences are good and which bad, he finds himself the pliable consumer of crafted experiences by major corporations, who increasingly make their products an "experience," not an object.

As a solution, Crawford suggests paying attention to objects, other people, and tradition: the three domains of stuff outside our heads. Paying attention to these and acting in relation to them helps us to be "situated" in the world rather than outside of it, as is Kant’s ideal man.

Sketching Crawford’s argument in brief does him a disservice. Crawford’s writing is not academic nor, at points, even particularly formal. As in Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford is motivated not by academic concern but by a need to make sense of his own experience as a human being. "Philosophy is, among other things, an attempt to understand one’s own experience," he writes. One example of this is his terrifying discussion of slot-machine gambling addiction. Crawford talks about his daughter’s Leap Frog Learning Table. Turning the toy off "would produce rage and hysterics in my daughter. My initial thought was that this thing was like crack cocaine for toddlers. But the analogy didn’t quite hold up."

Crawford often shares anecdotes from his own life or presents vignettes drawn from observations of pop culture. He quotes at length a piece from The Onion because, he says, it is the best illustration of mental fragmentation in our contemporary culture. I take Crawford to be doing this not to make his academically rigorous points more palatable to his reader, but rather because he is equally interested in Kant and America’s Finest News Source.

Crawford’s informal style, and his appreciation of the mundane, personal phenomena, mirrors perfectly his larger theoretical effort: attention is not a matter of removal from, but rather of immersion in, the world. Summarizing Crawford’s work misses what is unique and beautiful about this book. Crawford has included large sections on organ making, hockey, short-order cooking, as well as his first love, motorcycles. To read about these things is to emulate the kind of wonder and attention that the author himself brings to the world beyond his head.

It is sometimes dizzying for the reader to go from a theoretical argument about the Enlightenment to a poetic description in half a page. Those who hold on despite the dizziness will see the unity between the ethereal heights of philosophy and the rich, messy ground on which we live—a unity that is Crawford’s special gift to show.

Published under: Book reviews