“My design has never extended beyond trying to reform my own opinion to build on a foundation which is entirely my own.” Rene Descartes in Discourse on Method
“External objects provide an attachment point for the mind; they can pull us out of ourselves. But only if they are treated as external objects, with a reality of their own.” –Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Our Head
Most folks have heard Rene Descartes’ famous saying, “I think, therefore I am” (“Cogito, ergo sum” in Latin). Mainly, Descartes establishes consciousness and doubt as the foundation of his philosophical approach to knowing. However, fewer folks have considered how Descartes represents a significant shift in how people think about knowing and reality. As a 17th century thinker, Descartes is generally considered the father of modern philosophy.
At the risk of oversimplifying the issues, it seems that Descartes shifted the focus of philosophy from what humans can know in light of reality (epistemology submitting to metaphysics) to more narrowly focusing on what “I” can know via my consciousness (epistemology getting unhooked from metaphysics). Descartes represents a “subjective turn” or emphasis in modern philosophy with many philosophers who follow him, including Hume and Kant.
When you hear someone saying, “Your perception is your reality,” you’re encountering the sort of subjective turn or even egocentric tendency I’m thinking about here. Note that the example is not “Your perception determines your experience of reality,” which is a whole different and more sensible claim.
Unhelpfully Separating Knowers from Reality
Descartes’ approach is at the headwaters of an egocentric focus in modern philosophy that creates dualistic fractures in our approaches to knowledge and seeking knowledge. In contrast to philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas, Descartes and his many philosophical descendants shift the focus away from considering persons and reality holistically to a more fragmented focus on consciousness. In many ways, since Descartes, western civilization seems to have lost its ability to understand the value and nature of philosophical common sense.
Educators tend to miss such problematic issues with philosophies due to a few factors: philosophically shallow teacher training programs, insufficient knowledge backgrounds, and a perennially recurring caricature. That caricature portrays all education as either hopelessly stuck in tradition or progressively enriched by John Dewey-esque emphases on “learning by doing.” Indeed, we can learn by doing, but we need to more fully rethink how we think about paying attention and how we know things.
Repairing Common Sense Engagement with Matthew Crawford’s Help
As a motorcycle repairman, philosopher, author, scholar, and tinkerer, Matthew Crawford can help us do some much-needed rethinking of our philosophies of knowledge, ethics, attention, and learning in light of reality. In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford explores many ways in which our society promotes a restlessly distracted sense of self leaves us out of touch with reality–literally and figuratively. Crawford gently addresses the problem as “narcissism,” which seems increasingly prevalent in our modern personalities.
When I first read The World Beyond Your Head, I thought Crawford and his publishers were merely sharing another version of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, but Crawford is actually continuing with applications of his philosophically rich intellectual and ethical insights found in Shop Class as Soulcraft.
In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford continues to explore how learning craftsmanship through hands-on work in the real world stimulates our intellectual and ethical growth. Delightfully, the author explores the art and craft of building pipe organs as an alternative to the chaotic sense of distraction found in our digital consumer culture.
Recently, I’ve been personally revisiting Crawford’s philosophy of hands-on work in light of so much of my own distanced-based knowledge work, especially in the form of remote teaching and learning. I don’t think I’ve ever had six months of so much online teaching and learning in light of COVID-19 conditions.
This summer, I signed up for several courses and frequently caught myself in a state of screen-time burnout, even though the work was more substantial than mere browsing, drifting, and doing social media interactions.
The Crawford-esque experiences that helped me most in the past six months include numerous hands-on projects. My list includes the following items, and I’m sure I left a few things out: replaced a dishwasher; replaced a garbage disposal motor; put up shelves in garage; purchased and installed a 5 cubic foot freezer; fixed my refrigerator’s freezer so it wouldn’t ice up and drip water; helped a technician install a radon mitigation system in my crawl space; installed a replacement horn in my pickup truck; installed laminate flooring and tiling in our living room; replaced a broken storm door handle; learned to use new tools for the flooring install; build storage boxes for the new tools; fixed a hydraulic arm and handle for a storm door; replaced washers and fitting on a kitchen faucet; replaced a dining room chandelier; put in a tile backdrop behind our stove; and repaired the damage on our RAV4’s right fender well from hitting a racoon.
Despite the occasional frustrations encountered in such tasks, my work on these items helped me restore my sense of reality (and personal agency) after so much time on Google Classrooms, Google Meets, miscellaneous other learning platforms, and Zoom meetings.
Rethinking Crawford’s Hands-on Repair for Ancient Philosophy
It may be that Crawford helps us repair an ancient fracture in our theory of knowledge, ethics, and metaphysics. For me, Aristotle most represents such a fracture in thinking about hands-on work and intellectual knowing. His view seems to represent a wide-spread Greek philosophical view of hands-on work that held that such work can “disfigure one’s soul.” Although I haven’t found anywhere where Crawford addresses that ancient bias, he makes a good case for many forms of hands-on work actually enhancing one’s soul.
In school, we often separate hands-on work from serious academic work, mistakenly thinking that the hands-on work is for laborers who merely do things while thinking that the academic work is for the up-and-coming knowledge workers who need to think more intellectually.
Matthew Crawford’s earlier work Shop Class as Soulcraft debunks such views with striking counter-examples from his own professional knowledge-worker experiences with situations that helped him understand the appeal of satires such as The Office (and I’d add Dilbert cartoons). Conversely, he makes a good case for intellectually challenging work that can be found in the hands-on work of repairing vintage motorcycles and other forms of craftsmanship.
Matthew Crawford models a powerfully thoughtful and authentic philosophy for living well and pursuing flourishing through our labors–whether those are hands-on labors or the work of knowledge-rich explanations of everyday philosophies and habits. Crawford might be one of America’s best philosophers, especially when it comes to repairing the many fractures between abstract knowledge and concrete experiences.
1. What hands-on work have you most enjoyed? In what way can hands-on work sometimes be soul-crushing? What’s the difference?
2. How might working to maintain, repair, or build things teach a person about philosophical lessons in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics?
3. What are the similarities between thoughtful craftsmanship in an area like woodworking and that of really good research and writing? (I used to enjoy visiting our shop class and getting a tour of student work. The shop teacher would often visit my class and talk with the students about Shakespeare and other literary topics…)
4. What’s the difference between thoughtful knowledge work and the ghostly versions of it found in The Office and Dilbert?
For Further Consideration:
“Manual Competence,” TEDTalk by Matthew Crawford
“The Case for Working With Your Hands,” NY Times Opinion piece by Matthew Crawford
“The Cost of Paying Attention,” NY Times Opinion piece by Matthew Crawford
“Attention as a Cultural Problem and the Possibility of Education,” recorded talk by Matthew Crawford