Saturday, March 27, 2010

On Craftsmanship

Some time ago, shortly after its publication, I bought Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2007). It was a great disappointment.

I expected a careful sociological and philosophical analysis of the history and social role of craftsmanship. The jacket text promises that "the book names a basic impulse: the desire to do a job well for its own sake" and that Sennett shows how this impulse can survive even in the industrial age. Yet, all Sennett does is "name" the "basic impulse" and make some claims about it.

The book is, in fact, not very craftsman-like. It is a "performative contradiction," one might say.

From the Prologue: "I might have conducted this investigation by writing a strict linear narrative, beginning with the Greeks, ending where we are now. Instead, I have preferred to write thematically, going between past and present, to assemble the experimental record. When I've argued that the reader needs detailed context, I have provided it; when not, not" (15).

We all know about the supposed evils of linearity ... and "experimental record" sounds good. But jumping from Aristotle's discussion of the demiurgos to the the medieval goldsmith to the "enlightened craftsman" and brickmakers appears to me too quick to provide any insight. Falsehoods along the way don't help: "The master's verdict were final, without appeal" (58). The guild was the locus of final appeal. And the guild actually forbade "experimentation." Tradition was almost everything. In fact, in some guilds masters were forbidden from inventing anything new.

The conclusion is equally misleading: "Pride in one's work lies at the heart of craftsmanship as the reward for skill and commitment" (294). Apart from the Romantic mis-characterization of the reward as something completely divorced from the necessity of earning a living, this claim also underestimates the importance of the product. Pride, if it came into play, was primarily based on the quality of what was produced, secondarily on the social status that the profession brought, and it had little to do with "reflection and imagination"—something that is true even today.

Perhaps it is true that "understanding the inner sequence of development in practicing a craft, the phases of becoming a better craftsman, can counter Hannah Arendt's conviction that Animal laborens is blind" (296), but I doubt it. The traditional craftsman started out as an indentured learner, could look forward to become a journeyman dependent on different Masters and the rules of guilds for the rest of his life, and even the Master was caught up in the economic necessity of the trade. A careful look at the developments having to do with the abolishment of the guilds during the eighteenth century would show how blind craftsman were, and how hard it was to become enlightened.

What all this has to do with pragmatism is beyond me.{1]

None of this means that craftsmanship as the impulse to create the best product possible is not desirable.

1. The sentence about Hannah Arendt is followed by the claim that "ours would remain an innocent philosophical school, however, if pragmatism did not recognize that the denouement of this narrative is often marked by bitterness and regret" (296). My bitterness and regret is more limited: I wish I had not spent $27.50 plus tax on this book.

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