No One Asks To Be Buried with His iPad

Do you ever wonder what it means to really live? Matthew Crawford, this generation’s leading philosopher-cum-motorcycle-repairman, has a pretty definite answer. For him, it is to be entangled with the physical challenges presented by the world as it is.

To be living and to be free, as Crawford sees it, consists of “skillfully engaging” with the obstacles and frustrations of reality, as when playing musical instruments, repairing engines, raising children, or sailing boats. In his first book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Crawford detailed his own migration from a life of think-tank paper-shuffling to motorcycle repair. He prizes entanglement with the real, because that, he says, is how we really experience magnificence. “To encounter things in this way is basically erotic,” he writes in his new book, “The World Beyond Your Head,” for “we are drawn out of ourselves toward beauty.”

Many of us are probably inclined to agree with this, at least at some level. Luxury vacations—meant to be an idealization of life—typically involve a retreat to a more primitive environment, like a beach or a jungle, paired with decently challenging activities, like snorkelling, yoga, golf, or fly-fishing. Yet even as we crave such challenges, we seem bent on reprogramming our daily lives to remove most of them. We want lives that are fresh and stimulating, yet we also demand easy living—instant cooking, painless travel, and frictionless human relationships—without realizing the inherent contradiction.

I’ve wondered about this paradox for some time. Crawford, in his new book, explains it in an unexpected way: he blames the Enlightenment. To be more precise, he believes that we have become unknowingly enslaved by a particular ideal of abstract freedom that he associates with Immanuel Kant. It may sound like a joke to blame Kant for anything other than undergraduate boredom, but, of course, we are usually ruled by ideas so widely accepted and absorbed that we don’t question them, nor do we realize their power.

Much of what makes the world and our lives interesting is being eliminated, according to Crawford, by the notion that freedom means maximization of choices. We have unduly fetishized the notion that liberty means living in a way in which no person or institution tells us what to do. However important this idea might have been in the eighteenth century, Crawford thinks that we have gone too far in demanding that choices not be made for us, ever, not just by kings but by anyone or anything, including our technologies. He manages to find subtle signs of the effects of this philosophy everywhere, such as the contemporary tendency to demand a sort of genial blandness in any shared environment. He is tortured, for example, by a university gym that plays Muzak; the attendant tells him it is to avoid “imposing a choice” on anyone. That, to him, is insipidness posing as freedom.

Crawford has a particular hatred for modern luxury cars; he sees in them a deadening insulation of the driver from the realities of travelling at more than sixty miles per hour. “The animating ideal” of today’s car, he writes, is “that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as on a screen.” Such vehicles, Crawford says, leave us nothing to do, making driving a chore and ultimately yielding a kind of purposelessness. We can drive anywhere, but we remain strangers to the road. I sometimes wonder if Crawford’s beef with Kant is personal: for all the dangers of driving a motorcycle, my guess is that he would prefer going down in flames to living like the philosopher, whose life appears to have been among the most boring in recorded history. What else can you say about a man who opined on freedom yet is widely believed to have never had sexual intercourse?

To Crawford, life’s most meaningful activities involve shutting down options and dealing with the constraints of the physical world. Consider, for example, what it takes to sail a boat or play a guitar. Unlike an iPad or a luxury car, you cannot simply choose what you want to happen by pushing a button. I love to sail, but it can be a hard and sometimes frustrating experience—something always goes wrong. Guitars and sailboats clearly do not deliver freedom in the sense of a maximization of choice; you might even say that the guitar player or the sailor is constrained, or even trapped, for a sailboat will not sail upwind, and a guitar will not easily produce pleasing sounds. But, as Crawford points out, accepting such constraints and undertaking the mastery of demanding technologies is usually what ends up feeling worthwhile. No one asks to be buried with his iPad.

Crawford’s achievement in “The World Beyond Your Head” is to set forth clearly how confused we have become about freedom, even if his reading of Kant will probably be rejected by the philosopher’s adherents. His book might be read alongside Alva Noë’s “Out of Our Heads,” as a double-barrelled philosophical attack on what Noë calls “our 17th century conception of the person as an individual island trapped inside his or her head.” Crawford is less successful than Noë in explaining the link between freedom and attention—or, more precisely, something else Crawford hates, the constant distraction by advertisements and other intrusions. I suppose the idea is that if we all prized a deeper engagement with the physical world we would not be such easy prey. But I think that you’d also have to point the finger at the industrialization of human attention over the past century, and for that I don’t think you can blame Kant.

It is Crawford’s style to go a little too far. His rather manly and physical ideas of living tend to suggest that someone like Stephen Hawking, bound in his wheelchair, has led a meaningless life. Much of what Crawford writes comes close to suggesting the life of the mind is not worth living, but, at the same time, Crawford is an author and a philosopher. Perhaps his books are intended as mere warning signs for readers to avoid doing something so foolish and unsatisfying as composing a manuscript. In that case, he is a martyr.

These points can all be left to the side, however, for what I consider important about Crawford is his presentation of a truly alternative ideology, a reaction to the deadness of our times, that is not often offered in a thoughtful way. It is rare today to find a traditionalist who is not a conservative, and also a humanist who is not a liberal. He can criticize libertarians for failing to recognize by whom we are really ruled (large private bureaucracies can be as bad as their public counterparts), and liberals for lacking any vision of human thriving more meaningful than mutual respect and Muzak. Crawford is offering something that the Greek ethicists once aimed for: insight into what it means to live a satisfying life that is both philosophically grounded and gleaned through experience. “The World Beyond Your Head” is not the only work to ask us to “reclaim the real,” but it is one of the few that explains just why we may find it hard to do so.

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