Soulcraft and Truth

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.

6 thoughts on “Soulcraft and Truth

  1. It’s not easy to prove something is “natural law”, but that doesn’t mean by accepting one version, and not another, of what the ” truth” is, that those results will be equally desirable. That the sexual revolution was considered to make us “freer” is not something that is un-debatable, even though people have different opinions of exactly what the good of those results are. G. K Chesterton said “We must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. For instance, we must have a final agreement, if only on the truism of human brotherhood, that will resist some reaction of human brutality.”

    The historical churches ideas about family, chastity, sin, death, virtue, etc are things that bind us. We inherit a tradition that we did not invent.

  2. I am intrigued by your reference to the phrase, “the world is fully legible as an abstraction”. This sounds much like what I tried to describe as a putative aim of physics as “a faithful mathematical map of the world”, meaning that the aim of theory (some thought) should be to create an abstract system of concepts which corresponded precisely to the structure of physical reality; or rather that theory should develop tools which made such an abstract map of the world possible in principle. I did not think such a thing was possible with quantum phenomena. I was hardly alone – that was the consensus of many of the early founders of QM (Einstein being a notable exception). But the recent trend was to try to go beyond the limited horizons of the founders, who were perhaps too influenced by positivism and operationalism. An abstract “map of the world” was just what the pioneers of Newtonian celestial mechanics did for the solar system. That’s what GPS systems do for the geography of the Earth, if we don’t try to push the accuracy down too far. (But then what would be the point of cataloging the position and history of every grain of asphalt on every highway of the world?) So why not do the same for atoms and photons? Well, you can’t do it, that’s why…. (for complex and elusive reasons)

    National Review in its first couple of decades was so different from today. It was more like a club of eccentrics than a band of ideological pundits. They were united by a disgust for Communism, and for what they saw as related phenomena in post-New-Deal America. Buckley and a few others gave it a general Catholic-friendly atmosphere, but at least a couple of the early notables were atheists. Some were ex-Communists. There were ‘libertarians’ of a sort, but they were more concerned to be able to live their private lives free from bureaucratic interference, rather than – as today’s libertarians – to have the freedom to run their companies however they like with disregard for how this affects society. They reluctantly supported the projection of American military strength, but only to counter what they saw as the Soviet threat. Their more natural impulse had been the isolationism of Senator Taft. Russell Kirk once wrote that, when required by some bureaucracy to fill out a form asking for his social-security number, he just made up a new one each time on the spot. That attitude was so characteristic of NR back then. There was another early contributor, who, decades later, announced that he was fed up with the Catholic Church and would have nothing more to do with it, until it reaffirmed its foundation upon the basis of Classical culture by way of Thomist-Aristotelian philosophy. His judgment echoed Belloc’s statement after WWI that “The Church is Europe and Europe is the Church.”

    Attitudes like these are so alien to us now. I think Laurie Wolpert’s comment that “We inherit a tradition that we did not invent” hasn’t been true for a long time. Anyone who saw the Catholic Church in action in the 1950s saw a real living tradition, a tradition with clout, but one which collapsed after Vatican II. (The transformation in old strongholds like Quebec was spectacularly sudden. Montreal is now one of the porn capitals of North America.) In fact, like the to-all-appearances robust mainline Protestant churches, its foundation had already been dissolving for generations. We still can know all about the old traditions, we can try to rebuild and revivify them. But they have not been handed down to us as a living culture. The institutions which now exist are ghosts. See the 1972 book by Garry Wills, “Bare Ruined Choirs”.

    • I link to Seeing Like a State because it’s one of the truly influential books I read at Georgetown. It is about the invention of administrative abstraction in modernity, and Scott writes about, among other things, the invention of silviculture in Prussia and how Jews in Austria got their surnames. For the former, it seems that in the 18th century Frederick the Great wanted to be able to know how many ships he could build for his navy by looking at a map of first. So, a method of planting trees was created that would yield a fairly standardized amount of wood. Thus, his officials could look at maps of forest, know how many board-feet of wood they would produce, and thus how many ships he could build.

      Similarly, Austrian Imperial officials wanted to be able to tax Jews — something they could not do so long as Jews lived in ghettos. To do that, Jews had to be identifiable, and that meant surnames, which few people had prior to modernity. But the Austrians them identifiable AS Jews, and so, they were compelled to take unique surnames that only Jews would have. All so that an individual human being would be identifiable as an abstraction to some official who would need something other than their humanity to deal with.

    • Maybe saying that is more of a sense of what should be, other than what is. I am one of those millennials people wring their hands over because so many of my contemporaries are not in church. When I went to a presentation recently about how the culture used to help people go to church, the older people were all nodding their heads along, but I was sort of baffled. I didn’t grow up in that culture. For that matter, sometimes I attend an independent non-denominational church on Sundays, and sometimes I get a sinking feeling they are just making it all up as they go along. They don’t have any deep religious heritage, other than the Bible.

      I often contemplate joining an orthodox church, or a Catholic church, or a religious order, just because I feel like that might create a deeper faith life. I don’t really know though. Sometimes I feel as secular as my peers, but its more by default than by choice.

  3. Laurie – When I described the Catholic Church of the 1950’s as a living tradition, I didn’t mean to imply that that was necessarily a purely good thing, only that it was a powerful thing. My wife’s family on her mother’s side was 100% Irish. She was born in NYC and lived her first two years in Manhattan. Her mother had become estranged from the church, and also her grandmother, to some extent. One reason – when my wife’s mother was taking her first communion (which was always a big occasion, with the little girls all in white dresses), her mother had made her a dress, but one with short sleeves. The nuns considered this to be too revealing for church, so they wrapped toilet paper around her lower arms. Both mother and daughter were outraged and humiliated. My mother-in-law left the church and became an extreme leftist. She later married a Jewish orthodontist she worked for. The two of them sometimes went to Communist meetings. My wife was born in 1947 (as was I) when her mother was only 19. For some reason, her father was in the Army in Europe at the end of the 40’s. In 1949-50 he sent back word that he wanted a divorce. My guess is that he may have treated some holocaust survivors and emotionally reconnected with his Jewish identity. Intermarriage was considered a threat to the existence of the Jewish people.

    This was not a baseless belief. Today in the US, more than half of Jews marry non-Jews, and very few raise their children with any sense of Jewish identity or culture. Except for the Orthodox. As a result, the Jewish portion of the US population has fallen from 4% to 2% over the past century, and will probably fall much lower over the next generation. It is difficult to define precisely to everyone’s satisfaction and therefore to get hard numbers. There are now about as many Jews in Israel as in the US. The birth rate is much higher in Israel, especially among the orthodox and the religious Zionists (“modern orthodox”), so within a few years, the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israelis, with the proportion constantly increasing. This is an epic historical transformation – barring catastrophe, Judaism and Jewish ethnicity will become as much identified with a particular nation as is Italian or Greek ethnicity.

    Anyway, my wife, though born to Marxist parents, was torn at the age of 2 between two different religious traditions, both still culturally powerful. Her mother packed up daughter and grandmother and moved out of New York, fearing that the Jewish grandparents would try to get custody, and might succeed with the mother being so young and now single. As a child in the 1950’s, she was taken by her mother to the same Methodist church I grew up in – to be socially respectable in the small-town Midwest, one had to belong to a church. But the grandmother started going to mass again, and often took my wife-to-be with her. The Latin rite was quite impressive back then. I once attended the wedding of a cousin three years older than myself (I had 5 Catholic cousins). They went for the full Latin mass wedding ceremony (perhaps to compensate for the fact that the bride was pregnant at the time, though not showing). It lasted well over an hour, I think, with much rising and kneeling (which I later became used to as an Episcopalian in a “high church” congregation). All the while, the bride and groom were standing or kneeling in front before the priest and the altar. It seemed to be as much a penance as a wedding. In those days, as for many centuries before, the priest at the altar faced away from the congregation. He was talking to God during the rite, not the people. The laity were merely spectators in a mystical ritual by which the priest sought the intercession of God to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This was a mystery which was considered almost too holy for the laity to witness.

    My wife became a Catholic around the age of 12, and continued even after her first marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970’s. After she and I married in 1975, she was no longer welcome, at least in conservative jurisdictions. Or rather, she might have been welcome to attend to inspire repentance, but she could not take communion.

    I could say as much about the former arbitrary power, pressures toward social conformity and narrow cultural horizons of some Protestant churches, even the relatively liberal ones. I once heard my mother and Aunt talking about what a bad idea “inter-marriage” was. But the case they had in mind was a marriage between a Methodist and a Presbyterian. How could the children take religion seriously when their parents came from such differing views of grace and election?

    On the other hand, though religion was socially powerful [priests in some cities would stand outside of movie theaters when a banned film was playing, to see if any of their parishioners were about to buy tickets], observance by the people was often lazy or hypocritical. Many were the parents who dropped their children off at Sunday school, but never saw the inside of a church themselves except on Christmas and Easter. My wife once heard her grandmother’s opinion that, though women might vary in degrees of purity, all men were basically animals, with the exception of priests, and could not restrain their carnal impulses at all.

    Possibly the end of these “living” traditions – in which the gospel often got lost amongst all the particular and local practices – might be a good thing. Social pressure also maintained segregation and violence against various minorities or between one small group and another. (A stand-up comic in the 1960’s had a nostalgia routine about how kids in poor urban neighborhoods used to get along in spite of ethnic diversity: “We would work together, play together, beat up the Greeks together….”) There have always been revolutions in Christianity which re-form traditions in times of complacency. These include the rise of the monastic orders, the assertion of the 10th century papacy against secular power over the church, the appearance of the mendicant orders, and also many popular movements during the Middle Ages against the wealth and isolation of the clergy – most of which were declared heretical. The Protestant Reformation began only a few decades after the invention of the printing press. So did the anti-witchcraft hysteria, which was led by the intelligentsia, not the peasants: very similar to the Taliban today. Now blogging and social media have created completely new ways in which the gospel can take social forms. Who knows what will happen? In a way, we are all (including the Pope) making it up as we go along. We can only hope that the Spirit is making it up with us.

  4. I don’t think I’m pining for the golden religious age of the 1950’s, although I do enjoy old-time religious music. I do think learning a deep faith tradition is helpful, and having that incorporated into ones life culturally, is important for the formation of people. Civic Christianity may only have ever been the distant cousin of truly following Jesus, but the hedonism of consumer culture or the religion of tolerance, don’t seem like great replacements.

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