Autonomy and Attention

Matthew Crawford makes the following assertion in the introduction to The World Beyond Your Head:

But in fact, I think the experience of attending to something isn’t easily made sense of within the prevailing Western anthropology that takes autonomy as the central human good…. The paradox is that the ideal of autonomy seems to work against the development and flourishing of any rich ecology of attention–the sort in which minds may become powerful and achieve genuine independence.

Crawford argues that the pursuit of autonomy–the ideal of a life lived according to principles that I give to myself–undermines actual individuality or independence of mind. The direct pursuit of autonomy tends to defeat itself because it compromises our attention. While other critics have noticed the problems of emotional mediocrity and conformity produced by failures of attention, Crawford also gives us a theory of attention’s value. Attention cures us of a kind of moral and emotional solipsism by attuning us to an objective world inhabited by other people. Becoming an individual means becoming an active, contributing member in a shared world.

It’s a clever argument, and I agree with Crawford that a kind of anti-social individualism is pernicious to real individuality. Becoming an individual is an achievement rather than something to which we’re entitled. There are of course cultures and forms of life that inhibit individuality, and against which the familiar Millian argument against hidebound tradition applies. Crawford’s point, rather, is that many more traditions and practices are rich and diverse enough to give play for individual development than we believe.

Crawford is too hard on autonomy, however. In particular, an interpretation of autonomy that identifies it with a critical and reflective attitude towards one’s own culture fits nicely with Crawford’s conception of individuality. One important point of commonality such an interpretation of autonomy shares with Crawford’s individuality is concern for attention.

Stanley Benn writes that one feature of autonomy is self-awareness and awareness of dissonances in one’s beliefs. In circumstances where she must make a difficult choice, in which her deeply held beliefs pull her toward different options, an autonomous person has a sufficiently strong faculty of attention to notice these tensions and reason through them:

At certain critical junctures in our lives a novel situation can reveal that certain principles or evaluative beliefs that we had taken to be constitutive of our characters, because at the core of our belief system, and which make certain kinds of action “unthinkable,” commit us nevertheless to radically conflicting action or attitudes…. A person is, or is capable of becoming, autonomous to the extent that he is capable of making such discoveries and of reforming his belief structures to resolve such incoherences. The heteronomous person looks in his uncertainty to others for cues, to point a way to resolve his dilemma, or, too timid to recast his idea of himself or too vulnerable to social pressure to conform, he clings to the habitual self-image and suppresses the intrusive ideas, denying to himself that they are or ever were his. Like the akratic person, he suffers from a defect of attention, distracted from dissonant beliefs by the expectation that to contemplate them squarely would be painful to create an anxiety he does not know how to cope with. (A Theory of Freedom, p.180)

I find this account of autonomy entirely consistent with Crawford’s conception of individuality. One of the great virtues of Benn’s account is that it demystifies the concept of autonomy by describing it as an orientation towards one’s own beliefs, rather than a property of noumena. Autonomous persons do not simply act on their beliefs, they attend to them. They tend to be aware of inconsistencies and tensions in their beliefs, and try to resolve them. They are aware of when they face a choice that has real consequences for what they believe, rather than engage in self-deception.

A further point of convergence between Benn and Crawford is the democratic character of this excellence, whether we call it “autonomy” or “individuality.” Autonomy is still an achievement, but it’s not reserved to some elite or class of eccentrics. Autonomy is a practical ability to adjust and flourish in a world that often surprises us, not the sovereign rule of a “true self.” Crawford notes that such an ability requires other people and a set of learned attitudes and skills–what he calls a “cultural jig”–that’s both flexible and robust. It must be robust enough to generate reasons for action, but flexible enough for its users to be capable of “second thoughts” in Benn’s phrase. Recognizing when second thoughts are necessary, and thinking them through, is a function of virtues like honesty, courage, and attention. Not everyone achieves these virtues, of course, but they do not manifest only in a rarified few. They are “ordinary excellences,” both easier and harder than we imagine.

If Benn’s conception of autonomy is right, it invites liberals traditionally concerned with autonomy to read Crawford with a greater sense of urgency. Crawford is not only right that attention is a cultural problem, but it is also a threat to autonomy and  a form of freedom.


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