Matthew Crawford is a one-time philosophy student who left the academy to work with his hands, as he described in Shopcraft as Soulcraft. The World Beyond Your Head is a follow-up, and billed as an argument against our accepting a virtual-reality like world of mental representations. George Scialabba and Rebecca Goldstein both have helpful reviews. Other reviews have placed Crawford’s writing at the center of a discourse of “manliness,” in which craft is associated with the workshop and work itself is seen as an attribute of the male. It was Goldstein’s review that encouraged me to pick it up, and it’s interesting but not exactly what I expected. I listened to it on audiobook (which means the notes were not included), and I think I’d buy the book itself to read again.
There’s not as much philosophy in it as you might expect. Crawford discusses Kant at some length, and later mentions Kierkegaard, and I think Nietzsche. Possibly the most interesting philosophical discussion in the book for me was a reflection on Kant, as Crawford had introduced him to that point, from Kierkegaard’s point of view.
The philosophical argument is, more or less, as follows: Kant, as the most important philosopher of the seventeenth century Western European Enlightenment, is the writer who most successfully elaborated the kind of person that we, in the modern era, now think of as ideal. This person is a person who is autonomous, who bows to no man and to no social grouping in the development of his own opinions, who rejects (what Francis Bacon had called) the idols of the tribe (and presumably all the other idols Bacon had identified). Further, this person develops ideas inside his own head, abstractly, without reference to a concrete physical world any more than to a social one.
This person is especially well suited for the world of the modern capitalist economy that was developing around the same time. The modern capitalist economy reduces everything to a cash value, abstracting people and values to numbers, and prevents the consideration of real values. The modern capitalist economy also, as it developed in the second half of the twentieth century into a consumer economy, is an advertising economy. People’s values, therefore, are increasingly created by corporate advertisers. But Kantian thought insists that values are created autonomously, by free individuals—or that they should be—and therefore, Crawford contends, such thought can have no defense against the idea of advertising: people should be able to defend themselves against it if they want to, and if they don’t want to, they have the right to submit themselves to it.
This results in horrific situations like gambling addition, and also in the destruction of older craft traditions, which are necessary not only to human flourishing but to the flourishing of human society. Crawford suggests, as he apparently also did in his earlier book, that individuals (admittedly these all seem to be men) can choose to submit themselves to a craft tradition, rather than to the economic world, and consequently counteract the harmful effects of capitalism and of the “Kantian” Enlightenment. (The similarities here to some of the writing of David Foster Wallace, in particular Infinite Jest, should be obvious.)
There are some gaps and loose ends in the argument. Crawford never entirely explains what he means by “representations,” or why they’re bad. My guess is that he’s picking up on the use of the term primarily in early existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, who criticized Kant and rejected many of his conclusions. But “representation” also has a meaning in cognitive science, which Crawford refers to a couple of times. (It has to do, roughly, with the question whether a model of the brain has to have a specific implementation for a concept, or whether thought can be based on a purely statistical model. Historically, the difference forms part of the debate between connectionism and Good Old-Fashioned AI.) And it also can have the meaning of “concept.” From reviews and blurbs, and from my second-hand knowledge of Crawford’s earlier book, I had gotten the idea that he would be criticizing the idea of thinking with concepts, instead of direct—physical or empirical—reality, but he never really gets into this. A criticism of “representations” in this sense would seem more obviously to favor autonomy and the rejection of language, which is instituted socially and therefore arbitrarily: the opposite of the tack actually taken.
The discussion of Kant was also confusing for me, with my half-remembered, long-ago coursework on Kant. There are three separate theories in Kant, covering the cognitive, the moral, and the aesthetic, respectively. Crawford treats them as if they were one, and he simplifies them drastically. I don’t think the book would make a good crib for a history of philosophy class.
I was able to recognize some sources of Crawford’s philosophical ideas in phenomenology (perhaps Charles Taylor) and in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, particularly the latter. MacIntyre was a Presbyterian, then a Marxist, and later a rather rightwing Roman Catholic, and he moved from writing about Marxism with a religious tinge to rejecting socialism in favor of a renewed Thomism (the Aristotelian-Augustianian synthesis developed in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas). Moreover, his earlier books, especially, combine ideas from epistemology (theory of knowledge) and philosophy of science with theorizing about the status of morality.
In particular, MacIntyre argues that the language we today have available for talking about morality and ethics is not in working order. He develops, in After Virtue, an elaborate metaphor comparing morality talk with a science that has degenerated into forgetfulness and superstition. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, he explains Aristotle by means of an example using craft work (bridle-making), the value of which lies in its use by a person other than the craftsman (a horseman, or warrior). In Three Versions of Moral Inquiry, he describes academic work (moral inquiry) in much the same terms, developing a set of requirements for any inquiry—which he calls a tradition of rational inquiry—to proceed successfully, and to be able to defend itself against rivals. MacIntyre contends that only Aristotelian thought, in its Thomist form, can adequately address these issues.
The terms and concepts MacIntyre uses appear pretty much verbatim in The World Beyond Your Head, and I was pleased to see them combined in this way, which seems to me a natural one. But it’s not one, apparently, that MacIntyre himself endorsed, and Crawford only gestures toward it in a way that feels insufficient.
There were periodic discussions of material taken from the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, and these were not as misleading as I’d expect from a popular book written by a philosopher and a critic of AI. At one point, Crawford argues that AI can’t work, ultimately, unless it’s based on interactions between the AI and the physical world. In fact, this idea isn’t a new one to the AI and cognitive science communities. (It makes an appearance at least as early as the publication of John Searle’s Chinese Room experiment, where it appears as the Robot Reply in Searle’s discussion of the responses to his paper.) I’m sure the footnotes would show that, but the way the text is written, it suggests that this is a new idea that most scientists wouldn’t have thought of, if phenomenological philosophers hadn’t first suggested it. On the contrary, it seems to me that few philosophers are interested in phenomenology as it might relate to cognitive science, and that phenomenologists would see an attempt to combine the two as having missed the point.
The World Beyond Your Head, ultimately, is a work of popular non-fiction. It collects and displays a number of disparate things in an interesting way. It contains aspects of memoir, reporting, philosophy, references to works in the sciences (especially psychology), and polemics on issues of current interest (especially consumer culture and the effects of increased Internet use). A reader may find a further argument suggested by the words, but the argument isn’t in the book and it isn’t Crawford’s. I like the idea of thinking about it almost as a novel, or as the kind of replacement for the novel that David Shields has envisioned. I thought there would be quite a lot more about representation itself—language—as an obstacle obscuring our vision of the world, than there was. The argument I did find, about how modern-day science is not a tradition in good working order, because American science has never understood the European tradition of apprenticeship and learning through interacting with a community, and moreover because academic science in the US is too beholden to the Kantian Enlightenment, was not at all convincing, not least because it was completely disconnected from any actual history of science.
Some of the narratives Crawford relates are themselves interesting, and pleasingly told. What many readers will open the book looking for is descriptions of men who do craft work. The middle contains a somewhat dull account of some college professors who do elaborate, artistic glassblowing on the side, but two other examples are especially worth noting, I think. Crawford develops a richly elaborate argument, covering multiple chapters, about how tools—especially motorcycles and automobiles—change the way we perceive the world; and he discusses the relationship between the motorcycle repairman and the rider. Later, he relates a lengthy story about a group who repair old pipe organs (describing them, in MacIntyre’s terms, as engaging in a tradition of rational enquiry, in attempting to think the same way their predecessors did). He hints that there is a significant difference in the satisfaction available to the first of these, who has a personal relationship with the individual riders who use his product, that is not available to the latter, whose work is somewhat constrained by the dictates of musical and liturgical fashion. This was more interesting, I think, than his laments about how much people get their ideas from professional idea-mongers, rather than direct confrontation with the real. After all, those organ-makers do in fact use a different language than the rest of us do—one that puts Crawford through a great deal of effort, in order to make it understandable by us. He might have considered whether this is a good thing, or whether it unnecessarily separates those who engage in it from the social world, in which the rest of us spend the bulk of our time.
Too bad for the rest of us, the author might say; work with one’s hands is good (especially for men, as reviewers have noted), and if the rest of us can’t understand this, it’s probably because of the distortions in our thinking, which we can trace to Kant. It’s an interesting idea. But I don’t think the criticism of intensive craft thought can be dismissed so quickly. Crawford discusses David Foster Wallace at some length, and many connections between The World Beyond Your Head and Infinite Jest are easy to see—not least the title, which recalls an imaginary film described in the novel, in which a man spends a great deal of time looking at Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa, but instead of the artwork, what the filmgoer mostly sees is the back of the man’s own head. But if Infinite Jest confirms Crawford’s ideas, another novel might seem to trouble them. The adult fantasy novel The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, imagines a school of magic, like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, but as a university instead. At one point in the story, the students work so hard at studying that they forget their usual orientation towards the real world; and they are rewarded by being turned into geese, changing their own orientation for that of a flying animal. Grossman suggests that intensive work is in some way dehumanizing, despite the benefits it provides—and those benefits would seem to include a very non-Christian reliance on pagan magic. I’m not sure Crawford has a response to this argument, beyond, perhaps, that if we got rid of Kantian Enlightenment thinking, we’d see that Grossman’s attitude to it all is just wrongheaded. I don’t accept all of Grossman’s stance myself—I don’t think that initiation into a subcultural tradition is itself necessarily alienating. Crawford’s, however, is not the book that’s going to prove him wrong.