Book Review: The World Beyond Your Head

WITH A RELAXED AGILITY, Father Cyril lifts the boxes from my car and carries them adroitly up the steps. I have known this certain monk for more than a decade. He is soft spoken, but alert; he is gentle, but strong. Conversations with Fr. Cyril can easily turn from the idiosyncrasies of byzantine liturgics, to trends in eCommerce, to the agrarianism of Wendel Berry. Yet, Fr. Cyril is most authoritative on the topic of monasticism, not through objective study but through subjective practice. Every morning and evening, Fr. Cyril will be seen standing in the small chapel of the monastery. On occasion he will serve, but more often he simply stands, praying. Life at the monastery is highly structured, monks are told when and where they are to be and what is to be done. There is little variety. The seclusion of the monastery lends to a predictable rhythm, day blends into day and year into year. Perpetual readings from the Christian scriptures and the lives of the saints provide a framework for thought. Even while alone in his cell, the monk is bound by a rule of prayer. This structure has one goal—undistracted interior prayer—but if we are to judge Fr. Cyril as a product-in-progress of this regimen, it could be said to result in an authentic person and a true theologian.

Matthew Crawford, in his penetrating book, The World Beyond Your Head, would describe the highly-defined structure of monasticism as an “ecology of attention.” Granted, Crawford steers clear of religious association preferring illustrations from music making, organ building, and motorcycle repair, to name a few. Nonetheless, what Crawford is seeking to present is the figure of a skilled practitioner as a model of the relationship between knowing and doing. In the highly structured and traditionally arranged world of organ building or jazz improvisation, Crawford sees an epistemology that is embodied by means of doing, acting, and reacting to things and people outside ourselves.

The World Beyond Your Head ostensibly tackles the issue of attention (or the lack thereof) in our technologically saturated world. In actuality, far from being a trite litany on the evils of smartphones and social media, Crawford challenges our conception of autonomy and knowledge. Examining the politically motivated philosophies of Locke, Descartes, and Kant, he argues that their attempt to liberate the individual from all external forms of authority (religious, empirical, and political) cast him in the mold of a disembodied mind, relying solely of the processes of his brain to determine reality. In modern guise, the autonomous individual is a human computer in which sensory inputs are internally processed and exported in decisions and actions. Removing all external “constructs,” or in Crawford’s lexicon, “jigs,” promises complete autonomy, the liberty so valued by the modern man.

Locating one’s true self inside the head, creates the illusion of limitless choice; the world has become a “click away” and choice is increasingly associated with consumption. But, limitless choice is overwhelming and many happily defer the responsibility of choice to another: an algorithm, a collection of positive reviews, or government appointed “choice engineers.” Crawford describes the condition of the modern autonomous individual as semi-autistic—we are overwhelmed by endless possibilities and desire structure. Fearing to attend to anything beyond our internal choice mechanism, attention itself becomes elusive and we are helplessly distracted by all that glitters. It is the promise of autonomy and not technology, argues Crawford, that has been the bane of an attentive life.

A mind that attends to nothing beyond itself is reduced to knowledge that is purely abstract. It leads to an epistemology that reduces all knowledge to disembodied concepts inside the head. Mental representations replace empirical realities, “a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things,” borrowing a phrase of Heidegger. For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, this disembodied epistemology represented a bastion in which truth could be protected from foreign enemies: religious, political and scientific. In reality, the opposite occurred. A disembodied epistemology quickly gave birth to existentialism, truth became subjective: my truth is not your truth. Crawford dives into the wreck of postmodern relativism to reconstruct an epistemology that is outside the head, knowledge that is acquired in relation to other people and other things.

Referencing numerous studies, Crawford builds an argument for embodied cognition, challenging the input-process-output model that has shaped much of modern psychology. His examples are varied: the scientist working in a community of fellow researchers who develop a collective intuition irreducible to written or verbal procedures; the motorcyclist feeling the road through the contact patches in his tires in which bike becomes an extension of the rider; the person learning a foriegn language during which they submit to the external authority structures of its grammar and lexicon in return for new powers of expression. Embodied cognition need not be physical to be situated within a larger structure of practice, knowledge, and community. While Crawford tends to favor those hands-on activities that deal with concrete thingness, there is room within his thought for applications in the cognitive fields.

Father Cyril, though his primary activity is spiritual, is situated in a structure external to himself. Theology, for the monk, is an event of ecstasis (standing outside the self) in which there is an interpenetration of his being and the Other. In monastic anthropology, authentic personhood is an embracing of all things in himself; he becomes a microcosm. The monk acquires knowledge of God, not by thinking about God, but by becoming like God: by prayer he breathes the name of God, he lives His Being, by following the commandments, he imitates God. This process is by no means abstract. The monk does theology by patiently enduring correction when he ships the wrong candles, he does theology when he refuses to spread scandal about a brother, he does theology when he makes a prostration with a back sore from digging ditches. Crawford speaks of cultural “jigs,” such as the protestant work ethic, the occupational “jigs” of the short-order cook, and the cognitive “jigs,” of mathematicians. We would do well to see in the skilled practice of monastic life, a “jig” much needed within the walls of theological academia, whose work is often reduced to an activity inside the head. Crawford provides a timely clarion call for a theology beyond our heads.

Matthew B. Crawford is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is also the author of the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. His newest book, is Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road. He is a regular contributor to The Hedgehog Review.

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