empty shopping cart in full grocery store aisle

What do Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics and David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College (known as the “This Is Water” speech) have in common?

Both of these famous philosophies, according to Matthew B. Crawford in his book The World Beyond Your Head, are faulty—and for the same reason.

It’s a bold claim. Crawford attempts to topple two towering figures of Western culture and thought in one fell swoop! So let’s back up a sec and analyze what Kant’s and Wallace’s philosophies, in these instances, are. Then we can delve into why Crawford thinks they are wrong.

Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Freedom

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a German philosopher famous for a philosophy called the categorical imperative. He states that morality exists beyond the realm of the everyday world, and can be derived through reason alone. The moral law, he says, is categorically (“unconditionally”) imperative (“crucial and essential”).

Crawford points out that Kant held a mind thinking rationally, in an ideal state, in far higher esteem than a mind grappling with the way things are in the messy, real world:

“Kant builds a high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws. Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is to remain pure, ‘unconditioned’ by anything external to it. . . . To be rational is, for Kant, precisely not to be situated in the world.”

David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” Commencement Speech

As those who know me well know, I am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace (1962–2008). Infinite Jest was well worth the struggle to read. I have also enjoyed and marveled at the brilliance of many of his other works, fictional and nonfictional. However, I was distinctly unimpressed by his work—for the only time ever—when encountering, ten years ago, the commencement speech he delivered on May 21, 2005: and for the same reasons Crawford cites.

Even ten years later—and I remember it very well: it was exactly ten years ago, give or take a few months, when my boss (at the time) printed the speech and gave it to me, as a benefactory gesture, an offering* of moral guidance from mentor to mentee, and which I duly read, but did not duly (oops) compliment, nor, however, criticize, because, after all, who criticizes David Foster Wallace?!!

But I seem to have gotten off track. As I was saying, even ten years later, I distinctly remember the bit in the speech about the annoyance of grocery shopping. Wallace opines that if you are engaged in one of the many frustrating activities of modern life—such as grocery shopping, after a long day at work, in an ugly and crowded supermarket, when all you want to do is go home and rest, but everything is annoying and taking too long, etc.—that you should remember that you can always control what you are thinking.

Here’s what Crawford has to say about this:

“Wallace’s core suggestion in the speech is that ‘you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.’ . . . His solution is thus emblematic of the problem we are addressing in this book: we have an uncertain grasp of the world as something with a reality of its own.”

In other words, Wallace, in this speech, held a mind thinking rationally, in an ideal state, in far higher esteem than a mind grappling with the way things are in the messy, real world.

Matthew B. Crawford’s Praise of the World Beyond Your Head

I believe in the power of the mind, thinking rationally; but I also concur with Crawford that thinking in an idealized bubble is not enough. There’s a real world to contend with out there! If the deep, rational thinkers aren’t up for working to make a difference . . . whom does that leave?

Crawford titled his book The World Beyond Your Head. His thesis is that we should work to apply our minds to real things, in the real world, despite the many powers that be and cultural conceptions guiding us in less grounded—and more illusory—directions. This quote of his is buried in a footnote, but it’s one of my favorites in the whole book:

“Wisdom is impossible without biography.”

The mind is not an empty shopping cart, hovering in an imaginary space. It has a history. It has been filled and emptied a bit, filled a lot more and emptied a bit more. It has traveled the aisles again and again and again. It has been knocked around quite a lot, but it keeps going. It keeps moving. It keeps engaging. And the more it moves and engages, the fuller it becomes.

With what real-world activities will you fill your cart today, this week, next year?


*I thought I'd throw a footnote in here, just for good measure. (RIP DFW.)