You swipe your bank card to pay for your groceries and watch the screen for the expected prompts. But in the ensuing interval, before you are able to complete your transaction, you are presented with a series of advertisements. Or you check in to your hotel and notice that the key card you are given is emblazoned with an advertisement for a restaurant. Or, yet again, seated on your airline flight, you pull down the tray from the seat-back in front of you and find the tray top devoted to some advertisement or other.

In each of these situations, your attention has, in effect, been seized and held captive, however briefly. Increasingly, we find our attention hijacked, then transformed into an object of significant economic value to others—a commodity subject to the dictates of the marketplace and no longer exclusively our own to direct as we wish. Consequently, our first-person experience has become "by turns anxious, put-upon, distracted, exhausted, enthralled, ecstatic, self-forgetting."

In The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford examines this dilemma, following up on his successful Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. In the latter, he championed the value—even the superiority—of skilled manual labor over that of the new "knowledge workers," hard at work in their secluded cubicles, busy manipulating abstractions at their computer workstations. In the pervasive technologies to which we have become thrall, Crawford now discerns the source of our diminished capacity for sociability, for the creation of (and participation in) an "attentional commons," a shared space where each of us retains the capacity to choose what to pay attention to, while still remaining aware of the duty of "attentiveness and ethical care" that we owe to others.

This captivity of attention, Crawford now argues, is a predicament that presents us with serious ethical and cultural challenges, not the least of which is that of understanding human agency and the need to reclaim it from distraction. Crawford's interest here is not in joining the culture wars over the place of technology in modern society by offering yet another critique of our advertising-saturated, consumerist culture. Rather, he offers a project whose scope is both broader and deeper—and quite a bit more philosophically ambitious: He sets about to outline an "ethics of attention for our time, grounded in a realistic account of the mind and a critical gaze at modern culture."

Hewing closely to the original sense of "ethics" as calling for "a more capacious reflection on the sort of ethos we want to inhabit," Crawford wishes to "trace the subterranean strata—the historically sedimented geological structures—of our age of distraction, the better to map our way out of it." The inquiry is surely an important one because what we attend to is intimately related to what we value, and therefore to who and what we are. Animals can remember and learn, but it seems that only humans are able to call to mind things that are not triggered by the environment. But doing so demands that we retain the ability to direct our attention where we will, that we lay claim to it as our own and not allow it to be reduced to a commodity held at the disposal of others for their own ends, as it so often is these days.

The World Beyond Your Head is an important and intriguing response to these challenges, but one that comes with significant flaws of philosophical interpretation. Crawford approaches the problem of attention from a tripartite perspective: Speaking as a sort of philosophical physician, he diagnoses an illness, offers an account of its etiology, and prescribes a course of treatment. As to the first and third parts of his latest project, The World Beyond Your Head offers up a compelling account of what ails us, as well as an intriguing approach to its treatment.

There is much that is right and compelling in his analysis, but in tracing the source of the illness to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Crawford goes astray. To take the physician analogy a bit further, it is as if you seek medical attention for incapacitating headaches and are given a correct diagnosis of migraine—which your doctor attributes to demonic possession. She prescribes one of the standard migraine medicines, assuring you that it will drive out the demons. You take the medicine and, mirabile dictu, your headaches are gone! The diagnosis and treatment are spot-on; the purported etiology, not so much.

But first things first. Crawford rightly diagnoses the malaise of inattention and distraction that besets us. Our technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation, the content and value of which have become irrelevant. When we lose the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will. Crawford's examples of this phenomenon are apt: the compulsive gambler, consigned to "a zone of autistic pseudo-action" by clever marketing and casino design, pouring ever more money into the infernal slot machine; the "Mousekedoer," a children's electronic game programmed to prompt the child to "choose" pre-selected "solutions" to each peril that Mickey is presented with; the ever-present airport lounge TV monitor tuned to CNN, commanding our attention, even with the sound muted (a likely manifestation, Crawford explains, of the "orienting response," an evolutionary adaptation that arose to direct our attention to dangerous predators).

The list goes on. In each case, our attention is made use of for the purposes of others. In order to escape the grip of these attention-grabbing technologies, we may attempt to retreat to the shelter of a private self. Guided by an ideal of sovereign personal autonomy, we seek what we call freedom—a notion about which Crawford has much to say—from this attentional bondage. We pursue a conception of freedom as freedom of choice, where the latter term is understood as "a pure flashing forth of the unconditioned will," a faculty disconnected from history, social circumstance, and any authority external to the self.

As to his prescription for treatment, Crawford argues that through submission to the authority of things—tools, equipment, skilled craft in the broadest sense—and the focused and devoted attention that a craft demands, we can find our attention released from the bondage into which it has fallen and free it to attend to the things that really matter. Drawing heavily on the notion of a "jig"—any of a number of devices afforded the craftsman by tradition and collective experience, which serve as authoritative guides for the creative process—Crawford suggests the idea of "cultural jigs" that might similarly guide us in the exercise of our "moral capacities."

As exemplars of such skilled activities, Crawford's choices include glassmaking, ice hockey, the manufacture of traditional pipe organs—the latter receiving a quite fascinating, chapter-length discussion—and motorcycle racing. (In addition to being a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Crawford is also a fabricator of components for custom motorcycles.) In the practice of his craft, the skilled practitioner submits to the authority of a tradition. But in the spirit of Kierkegaard, Crawford argues that it is in such submission that the craftsman acquires the reverence prerequisite to the reasoned rebellion that lies at the heart of innovation. Far from being the isolated "rugged individualist" who, starting from scratch, self-legislates his way to innovation at the cost of retreating from the world, the craftsman is situated in a socially and historically constituted space whose norms provide the "jigs" through which he can innovate while yet remaining in conversation with the tradition of his craft. And that very conversation, Crawford argues, "is a kind of rationality; a mode of thinking that helps us get at the truth about things."

As suggested by the subtitle of the book, becoming an individual is an achievement to be desired, but the devil is all in the details. Crawford is surely correct to argue that there is a tension between a certain conception of individuality, autonomy, and freedom, on the one hand, and the reality of our social and historical situatedness, on the other. However, painting with too broad a brush, he attributes that cramped conception to "the Enlightenment" as a corporate body.

In attempting to free the mind and spirit from subjugation to external authority, Enlightenment thinkers (as Crawford would have it) took us down a fourfold path: (1) To be free from the tyranny of subjection to authority, we must not rely on the testimony of others; therefore (2) freedom—both politically and epistemically—demands radical self-responsibility, which we can achieve only by (3) "relocating the standards of truth from outside to inside ourselves." But this forces us to rely on engineered, highly manipulable "representations" of reality to go proxy for lived experience; (4) now enclosed in something that calls to mind Aron Gurwitsch's notion of the self as a "closed sphere of interiority" (although Crawford does not mention Gurwitsch), we have allowed our faculty of attention to be "demoted," with no functional role to play other than fixing on those representations, the latter coming to serve as "the fundamental mental process by which we apprehend the world."

This is not a reading of the Enlightenment that I have encountered before, nor is it one with which I agree. Crawford elides the differences among the thinkers of that era, treating them as univocal in their epistemologies. Although all were insistent on the power and necessity of the rational faculties in justifying belief, Crawford provides little discussion of reason as a theme of Enlightenment thought, and the term does not even merit an entry in the index. Reading Crawford, one might think that empiricism played little part in Enlightenment thought when, in fact, the tension between empiricism and rationalism was a key feature of the philosophies of that age. But perhaps most egregiously, Crawford administers a strange and undeserved drubbing to Immanuel Kant, at whose feet he lays principal responsibility for the extremes of subjectivism that he (correctly) discerns in our contemporary ethos. Crawford's Kant isolates us from the world through a conception of autonomy that consigns to the realm of "heteronomy" any influence external to the individual will, thereby cutting most of us off from our social connectedness and material environment—the exception being the small but fortunate cadre of pipe-organ makers, fabricators of custom motorcycle components, and other skilled craftsmen whose work spares them that isolation.

Such a conclusion, however, reflects a decidedly idiosyncratic and highly selective reading of Kant's critical philosophy. Thus, Crawford builds his brief against Kant on Kant's assertion that our autonomy demands that we "abstract from all objects to this extent—they should be without any influence at all on the will so that [the will] may not merely administer an alien interest but may simply manifest its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of the law." But there is more to Kantian autonomy than this. In particular, Crawford neglects entirely the concept that lies at the very heart of Kant's moral philosophy: the categorical imperative, to which he alludes only obliquely in a footnote.

In its two principal formulations, the categorical imperative demands that we act always (and only) in a way that we could universalize as a law for all rational beings, and never regard others solely as a means to an end, but always as ends in themselves. Kant is plainly not endorsing the unrestrained exercise of the individual will. For Kant, someone who does as he pleases, unconstrained by any limiting principle external to his unconditioned will, is a slave to his passions and, therefore, radically unfree. Indeed, for Kant, freedom and absolute obedience to the moral law are two sides of the same coin.

These criticisms notwithstanding, The World Beyond Your Head offers a valuable and original critique of the crisis of attention that besets us and much food for thought as to how that crisis might be addressed. For his diagnostic and therapeutic services, Matthew Crawford deserves our thanks. But let's leave Kant out of it.

Peter Lopatin is a writer in Stamford, Conn.