I’m not normally a reader of The National Review. Neoconservatism gives me hives, and I have no patience for the frothing bucket of vulgarity that calls itself “The Conservative Movement.” But occasionally they will run very interesting, and thoughtful, pieces.
Like this interview with Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Craft as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, about his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.
At the center of the interview, and it seems the new book, is a questioning of the assumptions of Modernity — particularly choice and freedom. At least that’s what I see.
Living in a culture saturated with vulgar freedomism, you may develop a jaundiced view of the whole project of liberation inaugurated by Descartes and Locke. If you then revisit those thinkers, I think your irritation prepares you to see things you would otherwise miss. You are bringing a prejudice with you, but sometimes a prejudice sharpens your vision. Sensitivity to the present, and giving credit to your own human reactions to it, can bring a new urgency to the history of philosophy.
What stands out for me, and for other writers I have learned from, is that the assertions those enlighteners make about how the mind works, and about the nature of the human being, are intimately tied to their political project to liberate us from the authority of kings and priests. In other words, it is epistemology with an axe to grind, polemical at its very root.
Yet this original argumentative setting has been forgotten. This is important, because Enlightenment anthropology continues to inform wide swaths of the human sciences, including cognitive science, despite that discipline’s ritualized, superficial ridicule of Descartes. We need to be more self-aware about the polemical origins of the human sciences, because those old battles bear little resemblance to the ones we need to fight.
In particular, it is very difficult to make sense of the experience of attending to something in the world when everything located beyond the boundary of your skull is regarded as a potential source of unfreedom. This is, precisely, the premise behind Kant’s ideal of autonomy: The will must not be “conditioned” by anything external to it. Today we get our Kant from children’s television, and from the corporate messaging of Silicon Valley. Certain features of our contemporary landscape make more sense when you find their antecedents in serious thought, because the tacit assumptions that underlie them were originally explicit assertions.
In this, I find something of a useful and important counter-point to my previous blog entry on reason. The goal of the Enlightenment was the “liberation” of human beings from “external” authority, and the “freeing” of the human will, the human imagination, and the potential of each and every individual human being. The problem here — and with any notion of a purely subjective truth — is that the will is not, and cannot ever be, free of external influences and discipline. There is always some kind of external authority — there will always be “kings and priests.” Can we point at them, or are we confused and muddled as to who they are? Or do we even argue about their very existence?
For Crawford, one answer is attachment to the world, focusing on the outside world in a way that allows us to escape our heads. I suspect here, he is drawing from his Shop Craft as Soul Craft book and thinking about making, manipulating, and repairing things — the kinds of skills and talents that allow human beings, over time, to develop an intimate knowledge of some very narrow but important aspect of the material world. A knowledge that transforms us and masters us as we master it, and a knowledge that makes “self-discipline” much easier. As he notes:
Only by excluding all the things that grab at our attention are we able to immerse ourselves in something worthwhile, and vice versa: When you become absorbed in something that is intrinsically interesting, that burden of self-regulation is greatly reduced.
Crawford also addresses the concept of “the good life,” and this too is a notion that requires some shared subjective (objective) notion of human purposes and human flourishing. Modernity has robbed us of the ability to speak about “good” and “truth” in an abstract and ideal way, in which we can examine the choices we (or others) make and reasonably critique them.
My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate.
And this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about how our thinking is captured by obsolete polemics from hundreds of years ago. Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual.
I see the value in this. The problem of modernity, however, is the inability of the modern to live in the inherent tension that is the distance between our ideals, our profession of the good, and how people actually live. The modern insists that the law be applied in full to everyone, everywhere equally — that nature be bent into the shape of the law — or that the law be dropped or altered completely so that it can brought into harmony with what we understand nature to be. The world must look like the law, and the law like the world, however that is brought about. (And thus, our political differences are born.) So, for example, modernity has no idea what to do with a practice like that in Saudi Arabia, where homosexual acts are clearly illegal (they can bring a death sentence) and yet there are long-established social roles for male homosexuals. The “conservative” wants tradition abolished in pursuit of the law, and the “progressive” wants the law altered so tradition can be made modern.
The modern cannot merely preach and profess the “good.” The modern must use all the tools at her is his disposal to re-arrange the world so that everything in it is brought into alignment with the good. So that the world is fully legible as an abstraction, to borrow a concept from James Scott. This is a power that modernity has allegedly given us, and it was a huge part of the totalitarian experiments — and the carnage they wrought upon the world — during the first half of the 20th century.
But it is also, as Crawford notes, part of the liberal and neoliberal world as well. Because there will always be a profession of the good, even when there is no actual confessed good, because, as he notes, capital fills that void. It sells whatever it can. Capital is brilliant at selling everything.
This is one reason I am slowly creeping to a more conservative position on the matter of truth. There may not actually be a objective truth (again, prove it with something other than rhetoric), but I am beginning to think it’s essential to the church — because the church is what I really care about here — to live and act like there is, in fact, an objective truth — one that sits outside of human beings and our experiences — about human purposes, the meaning of existence, and the good life. I’m still convinced it’s better to tie the truth about the meaning and purpose to the redemption of humanity rather than its creation, because that redemption is the only thing we have to tell the world it cannot otherwise know or conceive of on its own. The world thinks it knows where it came from. It still needs the revelation to know where it’s going.
It still needs the incarnation, the cross, and the empty tomb.
Short of that, the partisans of natural law are wasting their breath thinking that people in an increasingly broken and brutalized secular world will much care about meaning and purpose in and of themselves. The world is past being well-governed. Those wounded, brutalized, and objectified by a thoughtless, callous, and libertine modernity are going to need to know that a suffering God has borne their wounds with them and in rising from the dead, has broken and defeated the power of the world.