Head and hand together: rediscovering craftsmanship

The Craftsman (2008) explores the skill, commitment and judgment needed to make something well for its own sake—from goldsmithing or playing the cello to performing surgery or making love.

May 8 th 2009

Mention the word "crafts" these days, and it conjures an image of little kids getting together in their neighbourhood play group smearing glue and shaking glitter on cut outs of Easter bunnies, or camp activities involving popsicle sticks and log cabins. Or, for adults, the type of thing that one might find at a church bazaar, a one of a kind show: nice, interesting, beautiful even—but not all that important.

That said, there has been a flurry of activity lately which, while not explicitly referencing crafts and craftsmanship, attempts to examine the practices and worth of creating things, fixing things, working with your hands and the broader implications. Examples span a wide range, from the supposedly mundane (the proliferation of instruction manuals on YouTube, which teach you how to perform any variety of tasks, from sharpening a knife to making clothes) to the more philosophical and historical (see for instance, Culture Making by Andy Crouch or The Arcadian Friends by Tim Richardson).

Richard Sennett's The Craftsman falls into the latter category, and, along with Crouch's Culture Making, is a chef d'oeuvre élevé: a work by a master writer which opens new ground and presents new possibilities in the understanding of craftsmanship, creation and work.

The Craftsman

The book is the first of a massive three-part project examining what Sennet calls "material culture." The goal of each book, he states, is to examine "a technique for conducting a particular way of life." This book in particular aims to explore craftsmanship, the skill of making something well for its own sake, and makes the rather simple but highly potent assertion that all knowledge is bodily.

One of the more striking aspects of this book is its extremely wide breadth of references and examples. Sennet moves from citing philosophers as far-ranging as Augustine, Arendt and Kant to recounting a glassblower's instructions to his pupil to "slow it down there, cowgirl, keep it steady!" Items as seemingly disparate as goldsmithing, playing the cello, creating corporate structures, designing architecture, writing a sentence or computer software, performing surgery and making love all find a way into the book and all serve to underscore his argument that craftsmanship lies in doing something well for its own sake.

The difficulty in reviewing such a book is that there are so many items on which one can dwell with fascination that one is afraid of leaving out an important nugget. Interestingly, the book contains an implicit word of advice to the reviewer in its description of what makes a good craftsman—namely, the inherent character of resistance, both found and made (in this case, the "found" restraint of the word count imposed by the editor of Comment and the "made" restraint of wanting to do justice to the book's author) and ambiguity (the resignation of total control and the hope that what is left out raises curiousity) in craftsmanship. One mark of craftsmanship is the ability to work within constraints.

So, given these constraints, I thought it best to present a visual which summarizes the book and from which all of its many supporting items draw their source and return. The craftsman's circle, if you will. It looks like this:

Craftsman's Circle

Sennet's argument is as follows: Craftsmanship is "an enduring, basic human impulse [that] desire[s] to do a job well for its own sake." To excel at craftsmanship—and excellence is the standard, both ethically and practically—requires skill, commitment and judgment. In craftsmanship, the false separation of head and hand is obliterated.

"Considering" is the process of imagination, of seeing a vision of something, or of thinking how it might relate to this or that. This considering is not done in a vacuum, nor is it something done in one's head. Consideration is most successful in those who have been "engaged" with certain materials.

One can only "consider" properly if one has been involved in the process of creation; thus, the "create" portion of the triad. Creation involves physical, hands-on interaction with a material, a process in which one becomes conscious of the material, its limits and possibilities. Sennet cites countless examples of architects and designers who ostensibly create perfect models—a corporate structure or block of buildings, for example—based on technical considerations, but who ultimately fail. His example of the attempt of the designers of the Peachtree complex in Georgia to introduce streetside cafés as part of the complex's culture—an attempt which failed because it didn't consider the material reality of heat and humidity in the state of Georgia—is particularly telling.

Finally, one must encounter what one has crafted. It is here that one's technical understanding, one's standing as a craftsperson, grows, and where the circle begins again. In encountering the craft physically, in working with it, one experiences both the joy of working with something well made, and also the problems and potential of the craft. The encountering of problems and the realization of potential can only properly occur when one has used the craft or the tool, or has been embedded in a system. The Japanese model of manufacturing, where the frank advice of the worker on the line is both expected and rewarded, and considered equally with the advice of consultants, is an example of this. In the process of encountering, one is met with a desire to "re-consider how we do this" or to "consider the potential" of something—a tool, a process, a craft. Thus, the circle remains unbroken.

There is much to like in Sennet's book. While I have some quibbles with the ease with which he breezes through history to make his points, that criticism seems slightly out of place, given his intent. His analysis and insight into work, workers and craftsmanship is so evocative that it really requires a second or third reading.

One item in particular, which on my initial reading would lend to particularly interesting discussion is a comparison of this text with Crouch's Culture Making, which embarks on a similar project, but from a Christian perspective. In many ways I think the two buttress each other rather than conflict, but I can envision significant and productive debate on how the two conceptions of craftsmanship—culture making, if you will—relate to what is considered "good" or "well" in the culture, in the individual and indeed in craft itself. I suggest that an examination of Sennet's emphasis on experimentation and the notion that "I am my own maker" (he confesses to be in the American pragmatic tradition) would be among the first places to start.

That said, if you're a baker, a mother, a businessman, a poet, a theologian, an artist, a student, a lover or a woodworker, tolle legge! You will find your thoughts aroused and your craft improved.

Topics: Arts Vocation

Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.