The World Beyond Your Head: How to Find Life's Meaning

Matthew Crawford's response to David Foster Wallace.

Posted May 06, 2017

Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in a World of Distraction, is excellent. (Plenty of agreement on this can be found in reviews.) To my mind it’s even more spectacular than the first book that made his name, the bestselling Shopclass as Soulcraft.

In “The World Beyond Your Head”, he manages to be carefully philosophical, informative about various fields and research, and yet readable. I suspect a general readership will find his work a bit too dense; this is not the typical “self-help” book, full of bromides and lots of spacing between thin paragraphs, but it is just wonderful for a person who likes to read philosophy and to think about life (and screens, and gambling, and social engineering, education, American identities, liberalism—he has no shortage of topics!).

While it would be hard to agree with all that he puts forward, it is very easy to get the very big picture that he provides, leaving the book being very clear on where you stand in relation to this nice big picture he offers. That said, let me focus on just one bit of disagreement.*

I was pleased to see him treat David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon as serious philosophy.** If you are not one of the millions who have viewed it, here it is. (If you are one of the millions, you likely will not have forgotten it.)

Here are some of the by-now classic lines:

“And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.” 

"Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term."

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is real freedom. 
That is being taught how to think.
The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" — the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

― David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

Wallace famously suggests that we pay more attention in tense socially-irritating situations. Crawford actually disagrees. He suggests that Wallace mis-describes his own examples. Wallace is already, he points out, paying the utmost attention to the people and things that irritate him. 

What Wallace is actually depicting in his examples is, Crawford explains, imagination. Wallace tries to imagine sympathetic back stories for the other "dead-eyed" shoppers. Wallace's suggestion that we “freely 'construct meaning'" according to our "psychic need" by "projecting generous imaginings onto others” just means, Crawford insists, that we are left to seek a solution to the problem of others by ourselves, for ourselves, and alone. Crawford regards this is self-defeating because our imaginations do not eradicate loneliness or “self-enclosure.” 

Crawford suggests two alternatives to Wallace’s proposal, ones that he thinks will be more “effective or sustainable.”

One is that we do not attempt to will ourselves into believing something else, something better, but we simply reorient our attention when put out or annoyed by others. 

Two is to rely on action. Do something rather than imagine your way out of it. (In response to Wallace's example of waiting in line at the grocery, Crawford suggests the action of simply speaking to the other shoppers.)

Crawford's general line applies: it is not by turning inward, but by turning outward that we adjust ourselves. It is "by acquiring new objects of attention, which is to say, real objects of love" (such as, for him, motorcycle repair) that results in a new and meaningful "source of energy.”

Crawford concludes, “As against the need to transform the world into something ideal” we should “orient ourselves by a selective affection for the world as it is, and join ourselves to it.”

It is thought-provoking stuff.***

***For more more on how looking inward might not be the best way to look, I’d also recommend Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s "The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything."

**I teach Wallace along with Camus, and when I do so ask students to consider that Camus has a far better solution to the problem of others, as well. More on Camus and how he advises us to cope here.

*If you read these passages of Crawford’s on Wallace, I would argue with Crawford that Wallace is not actually offering anything like a “Stoic” solution and that the “Epicurean” solution Crawford describes is also not focused on the role the right conception of happiness plays in either of these virtue ethics. Where Crawford is reporting wrong is that he suggests the Stoics would try to deny it is raining (!), when the Stoics would do anything but. They have us focus on how the rain does not hurt us (which seems true!). Similarly, the Epicureans do not think we can just be distracted and all will improve. Instead, we need the right beliefs about happiness. More on the Epicureans here. The Stoics here.