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On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

by Matthew B. Crawford

Pub Date: April 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-374-29298-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A philosopher mounts a polemic against self-absorption, subjectivism and conformity.

In this astute, acerbic cultural critique, political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Crawford, senior fellow at the University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, focuses on what he sees as a philosophical, social and psychological crisis: individuals’ assiduous distraction from engagement in “the shared world.” Drawing on a wide range of thinkers, including Descartes, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Kant, Alfred Kinsey and Sherry Turkle, Crawford argues that contemporary culture has been undermined by an Enlightenment notion of autonomy, which takes “an intransigent stance against the authority of other people,” even other people’s notions of reality. This view, however, is complicated by many individuals’ desire to see themselves as representative and conform to “the wisdom of the crowd.” The author excoriates commercialism, and he maintains that choice is not synonymous with freedom. Individuals, after all, choose only among offerings of manipulative corporations, acting out of greed in a so-called free market. “We take the ‘preferences’ of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self,” writes the author, “and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny.” True freedom requires that “the actor is in touch with the world and other people, in comparison to which the autistic pseudo-autonomy of manufactured experiences is revealed as a pale substitute.” As in his earlier book, Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), Crawford celebrates productive work and craftsmanship by carpenters, mechanics, plumbers and organ makers: Learning a skill and honing a craft, he believes, affords individuals a chance to connect knowledge to “the pragmatic setting in which its value becomes apparent” and to contribute to a shared reality.

Occasionally ponderous and strident, Crawford’s argument is both timely and passionate.