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The Craftsman
The Craftsman
Richard Sennett
Yale University Press, 2009
326 pp., 19.95

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Nicholas Wolterstorff

Thinking with Your Hands

The implications of craftsmanship.

I was reading The Craftsman, by the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennett, when then President-elect Barack Obama was selecting persons for his cabinet. The universal response of the media to the cabinet appointments was that Obama was selecting pragmatists rather than ideologues. Sennett's book led me to see that Obama was picking craftsmen—people who believe that there is such a thing as governing well and who are both capable of doing so and committed. Whatever the philosophy of governance of the preceding administration, certainly it was not this. The members of the administration did not think of governance as a craft that they were called to practice.

Sennett opens his book with a little story explaining his motivation in writing it. Just after the Cuban missile crisis he ran into his teacher, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, on the street in New York City. So intent was Arendt on making sure her student drew the right lesson from the crisis that she was oblivious to the freezing cold weather. The lesson was that "people who make things usually don't understand what they are doing."

This was by no means a momentary and isolated conviction on Arendt's part; it was the application to the topic at hand of her philosophical framework. Animal laborans is the laboring human being, engaged in the task of making something; he shuts out everything that does not pertain to the task as hand. Homo faber is men and women making a life together. Animal laborans is fixated on the question "How?" Homo faber asks "Why?" Thus homo faber is not the colleague of animal laborans but its superior, standing above as guide and critic. For Arendt, thinking comes after making, politics transcends labor.

The Craftsman is dedicated to the thesis that this picture of making is mistaken. "Thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making," Sennett writes. We need a "fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things, a more materialistic engagement than that found among thinkers of Arendt's stripe." Of course Arendt's attitude toward the one who makes things was by no means original with her. "Western civilization has had a deep-rooted trouble in making connections between head and hand, in recognizing and encouraging the impulse of craftsmanship."

These comments resonate deeply with me. Mine is a family of craftsmen—woodworkers, to be specific. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, my father was a cabinetmaker, I have done woodworking, my sons work in wood. I have always resented the many ways in which those who work with their hands are demeaned. R. G. Collingwood's aesthetic theory is shaped by his contrast between "mere craft," as he calls it, and true art; the attitude expressed is typical.

I spent thirty years of my life teaching philosophy at Calvin College and fifteen teaching philosophy at Yale University. At both institutions there was a pecking order (these institutions are typical in this regard, not unique), more evident to those at the bottom of the order than to those at the top. If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—"hands" being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of his Metaphysics: "We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers."

It's a strange attitude for Christians to hold, since Jesus was the son of a carpenter and since God is presented in the opening pages of Scripture as a maker, not a thinker. Sennett observes, correctly, that "early Christianity had from its origins embraced the dignity of the craftsman." That dignity was vigorously reaffirmed by the early Protestant reformers.

A craftsman, for Sennett, is someone who is dedicated to doing good work for its own sake. This good work will normally have desirable consequences; if things go well, the craftsman will get paid for what he does or makes, for example. But the craftsman is not content to aim at those external consequences; if consequences become his preoccupation, he will think in terms of getting by rather than getting it right, in terms of good enough rather than good. The craftsman's "primordial mark of identity" is that he or she is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work. Craftsmanship is quality-driven work.

Sennett holds that in thinking about craftsmanship it helps to begin by looking closely at those crafts in which one uses one's hands to make something. But if craftsmanship is doing good work for its own sake, then craftsmanship obviously extends far beyond manual crafts. It extends to the craft of writing book reviews. It extends to the craft of governing well that I mentioned at the beginning.

The bulk of Sennett's book consists of looking closely at the sort of cognitive activities that go into doing good work for its own sake, and at the sorts of circumstances that enable such work to flourish and those that make it impossible or difficult. He closes by arguing that almost everyone is capable of doing good work of one kind or another; almost everyone is capable of being a good craftsman.

Sennett's analysis of the cognitive activities that go into doing good work is never conducted in the abstract but always in the light of examples drawn from past and present; theory is extracted from examples. His range of examples is nothing short of astounding. He offers us fascinating and insightful discussions of medieval goldsmithing, of the invention of the surgeon's scalpel, of how to hold the hand when playing certain piano passages, of Wren's plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, of how to hold one's muscles when blowing a glass goblet, of the first tunnel under the Thames, of how Chinese cooks use the muscles of the arm when chopping meat and vegetables, of various ways of writing instructions for preparing the dish Poulet a la d'Albufera, and so forth, on and on.

His discussion of the circumstances that enable craftsmanship to flourish and those that threaten it is similarly informed by such historical examples as medieval guilds, the Stradivari workshop, and the invention and introduction of the mechanical loom into France. He argues that the reason the Stradivari workshop declined after the death of Antonio Stradivari was that too much of the knowledge that went into the making of the Stradivari instruments was tacit knowledge possessed by Antonio himself and never communicated to others.

Sennett's ambitions are larger, however. He does not only want "to rescue animal laborans from the contempt with which Hannah Arendt treated him." He wants to show how "we can achieve a more humane material life, if only we better understand the making of things." It is with respect to this larger ambition that Sennett disappoints.

Near the beginning of his discussion, Sennett observes that "the past life of craft and craftsmen also suggests ways of using tools, organizing work, and thinking about materials that remain alternative, viable proposals about how to conduct life with skill." But Sennett never gets to those proposals. He never talks about doing a good job of living one's own life. And though it was reading his book that made me think of the craft of governance when Obama was announcing his cabinet, Sennett never mentions the craft of governance other than to remark, near the end, that "the least developed side of my argument concerns politics—Arendt's domain, the domain of 'statecraft.' " Sennett is not a Romantic. He does not rail against machines; he is not for trying to return to pre-industrial society. Nonetheless, the book has the feel of celebrating those pockets of craftsmanship that remain within a larger hostile world.

I find the absence of a more expansive discussion not only disappointing but surprising. In reading the ancient Greek and Roman writers, one finds them over and over employing the concept of a craft to illuminate one thing and another. Plato spoke of properly conducted governance as a craft. Aristotle, along many others, spoke of living one's life well. Sennett does not follow the ancients in this regard. He mounts a vigorous and successful defense against the demeaning of craftsmanship, but his larger project, of showing that the concept of craftsmanship can be illuminatingly applied beyond its customary boundaries, never gets off the ground.

If Sennett were to undertake this larger project, he would find that he had to expand his concept of craftsmanship in a certain way. Sennett presents Robert Oppenheimer as "a committed craftsman; he pushed his technical skills to the limit to make the best bomb he could." Yet when Oppenheimer delivered the BBC Reith Lectures on the topic of the place of science in modern society, it turned out that he had almost nothing to say about what should be done with the bomb. Did this represent a deficiency in Oppenheimer's craftsmanship?

Not as Sennett describes craftsmanship. Oppenheimer came to know what a good bomb is and obsessively devoted himself to trying to make one; what he did not do at the time is ask himself whether making this good bomb was a good thing to do. So too a cabinetmaker as Sennett describes him comes to know what a good cabinet is and devotes himself to making one or more; what the cabinetmaker does not do is ask himself whether making this good cabinet is a good thing to do. Sennett cites with approval Thomas Jefferson's belief that "learning to work well is the foundation of citizenship." But if learning to work well has nothing to do with asking whether this well-done work is a good thing, how could learning to work well possibly be the foundation of citizenship?

Sennett's craftsman does not raise ethical questions about what he is doing. And thus Sennett has not fully answered Hannah Arendt's put-down of animal laborans. He has shown that the craftsman is not a mindless follower of routine, as Arendt apparently supposed; what he has not shown is that animal laborans is not in need of homo faber as his guide and critic.

Are we here touching on an inadequacy in Sennett's understanding of the craftsman or on a limitation in the usefulness of the concept of craftsmanship for thinking about larger social issues? The concept does have limitations when put to those more expansive uses; it would be worth exploring what those limitations are, as it would be worth exploring more carefully than Sennett does the extent to which globalized capitalism makes craftsmanship almost impossible. But I suggest that what we were touching on above is a limitation in Sennett's understanding of the craftsman.

There is something deficient about the person who does good work for its own sake without ever asking whether it's a good thing that this work be done. The estimable craftsman asks two questions concerning the good. He asks whether what he is doing or making for its own sake is a good example of its kind: a good violin, a good arpeggio, and so forth. But he also asks whether doing or making a good example of this kind is a good thing to do. If a member of Obama's cabinet is to govern well, she must not only know how to govern well the affairs of her department; she must also know whether the things done when her department is well run are things that are good and right to do.

I applaud Sennett for his insistence that we cannot understand the craftsman if we think in purely instrumental terms; the craftsman is dedicated to good work for its own sake. But Sennett does not explain and articulate this core idea of good work done for its own sake, nor does he say much about the point of such work. Doing either of these would require setting his account of craftsmanship within the context of some account of the good and some account of human flourishing. Sennett sees the need or desirability of a larger philosophical framework for his discussion of craftsmanship; at the end of his discussion he briefly introduces American pragmatism for that purpose. American pragmatism is laudable in its opposition to the dichotomy between thinking and doing that Sennett wants to undermine; but one looks in vain to the pragmatists for an account of why it is a good thing that we should do good work for its own sake.

I cannot close without mentioning that The Craftsman represents the worst job of proofreading that I can remember: words skipped, words added, words misspelled, wrong grammar. The spelling of the Latin laborans is just one of many examples of the point. It is consistently misspelled as laborens. (In one instance I have misquoted by correcting the spelling.) It is ironic that a book on craftsmanship should be such a poor specimen of the craft of making books. And it is unpleasant for me to call attention to it, since I used to be a member of the board of the press that published the book.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Protessor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and senior fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia. His book Justice in Love, a companion volume to Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton Univ. Press), is forthcoming from Eerdmans.

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