I’ve been reading Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head and am stunned by the relevance and application of his insights to Neoreaction, or, more specifically, the “Dark Enlightenment.”
Crawford is a kind of Mike Rowe with a Ph.D., a guy who left a think tank to restore and repair motorcycles. I had enjoyed his previous book Shop Class as Soulcraft and several times reading it thought “that point is positively reactionary.” But in World Beyond Your Head he has expanded his net to embrace the whole picture of modern Western WoMan and what ails Hir, and his most withering fire is focused on the “Enlightenment” ideas of radical autonomy and individuality that have produced the atomized consumption culture that the NRx critiques. Crawford is not just pointing out the symptoms here, he eruditely traces the root causes of our ailments back to their intellectual sources; not surprisingly, these sources include some named by Moldbug and Carlyle.
I haven’t even finished the book yet, but it got me excited enough to post this, hoping some of you will want to read the book and discuss it, or promote it to the DE community. Crawford gave an excellent interview last year about his ideas, with a plethora of quotables that will give you a flavor:
INTERVIEWER: Tracing the philosophical roots of our fractured mental lives to the Enlightenment and the modern liberal project, Crawford suggests that our very ability to become individuals is under threat — and likewise the possibility for genuine human flourishing. The World Beyond Your Head is a work of philosophy, and of urgency. Pay attention.
This comes down to a question of how useful the history of philosophy is for understanding the present. It is generally thought to be in bad taste — too idealistic — to assert anything like a necessary connection between the history of ideas and cultural developments. And indeed there are so many determinants of culture that pure intellectual history misses: natural resources, demographics, sheer dumb accident, etc. But I think it is fair to ask how the fate of Enlightenment ideas in the wider society, where they have trickled down and become cultural reflexes, reflects back on the moment of their original articulation. Viewing the Enlightenment retrospectively in this way, we can discern the seeds of who we have become. We may then develop a fresh take on those thinkers, and new reasons to quarrel with them, ultimately for the sake of self-criticism.
My critique of the anthropology we have inherited from early modern thought has a couple of dimensions. The first is sociological, simply noticing how autonomy-talk is pretty much the only idiom that is available to us for articulating our self-understanding, and how inadequate it is for capturing lived experience. It is the idiom of commencement speeches, of daytime talk shows, and also of marketing: You’re In Charge, as the message on the handrail of the escalator at O’Hare puts it. 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.
According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention. 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.
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.
Philosophical facilitator of “Black Lives Matter”
The ongoing “creative destruction” of capitalism celebrated on the Right clears away settled forms of social life. Cultural progressives find their work made easier by this; they get to re-engineer the human landscape with less interference. They do this by moving the threshold of offense ever lower, creating new sensitivities and then policing them. The institutions of civil society (universities, corporations, etc.) then scramble to catch up with the new dispensation and demonstrate their allegiance to it — by expanding their administrative reach into ever more intimate corners of the psyche. This dynamic has given us a stunning expansion of coercive power over the individual, but it has nothing to with “the government.”
That should be enough to whet your appetite for the whole meal. I think Crawford deserves much more attention from the whole spectrum of Dark Enlightenment thinkers, and this post is my bid for him to begin to get it.