Modern life is all about the sovereignty and autonomy of the individual while at the same time everyone of us is the voluntary slave of a paraphernalia of technological tools demanding our constant attention. Have we lost the ability to stay in touch with our ‘real’ self through periods of silence and meditation? Being genuinely free would surely require a conscious effort to dissociate ourselves from the ‘white noise’ of our everyday life and a return to the pleasures of natural sensations and unstimulated contentment. Following on the tire marks of Robert M. Pirsig’s ‘Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, first published in 1974, Matthew Crawford rediscovers the joys of manual labour as the only way to ‘become an individual in an age of distraction’.
For Crawford, to connect with the world is different from being connected to the world, in the sense that our mind is ruled more by external stimuli than being its own source of sensations and ideas. The American thinker is prepared to question the legacy of the Enlightenment and what he regards as a political as well as epistemological polemic against the then existing figures of authorities. By encouraging individuals to liberate themselves from the power of custom, Descartes and Locke opened a Pandora’s box as every cogito became, ipso facto, the unique source of all possible knowledge. Reality was no longer a physical, tangible entity but was reduced to a mere mental representation.
Although empiricism put the experiencing body at the centre of philosophical preoccupations, Crawford emphasises the importance of attention in any cognitive theory, remarking that phenomenological accounts, such as Merleau-Ponty’s, fail to take into consideration its ‘humanistic’ and cultural dimension. The purpose of Crawford’s research is precisely to reassess and rehabilitate a precious faculty, essential to our acquisition of knowledge but gradually threatened by the sheer volume of information available to the mind at all times. His fresh and entertaining approach is most stimulating to anyone interested in the problem of knowledge.