The Craftsman: A Book Review

 

“Craftsmanship… the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”  

-Richard Sennett


Beginning with this disarmingly simple premise, Richard Sennett proceeds to explore the largely undeveloped, complex world of craft.  This is the first of three  planned volumes, the next dealing with the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal, to be followed by an examination of the skills used in designing and developing sustainable environments. He intends technique to be the theme that unifies these volumes.  Although there have been numerous attempts over the years to examine craft, often from  the viewpoint of anthropology, sociology, personal experience, labor history, technology or phenomenology (see note A), craft  is somewhat resistant to scholarly explication.  Sennett, with one foot in praxis as a trained musician and the other in theory as a professor of sociology at New York University, seems well poised for the task.

This book is divided into three sections–Craftsmen, Craft and Craftsmanship. In the course of 296 engagingly and coherently written pages, the book references a myriad of philosophers and writers. (see note B) Perhaps it is the holistic nature of craft that demands a multidisciplinary approach?  Or is it over-reliance on research assistants?   The first section compares craftsmen and artisans, examines the workshop as the locus of learning and communication, then reviews how craftsmen have dealt with industrialization.  The second looks at craft as a learned and transmitted skill, with emphasis on the hand, hand skills and tools.  The third places craftmanship in the Pragmatic philosophic tradition (the authors orientation as well) and considers the three basic aspects of ability..”to localize, to question and to open up” (277).

This book was written for a general audience, and it is the best single volume that I know of that begins to explain and define what craft is. It investigates the types of knowledge and working methods that craftsmen engage in and presents craft as “a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” (9)  It encourages non-craftsmen (eg. architect, lab technician, doctor) to adopt some craft methodologies to their fields.  And for the student of craft, there are more than enough nuggets of insightful observations and lucid overviews to commend this book.

Two sections were of particular interest, and could each become complete books.  The first, “The Enlightened Craftsman: Diderot’s Encyclopedia,” reviews some of the philosophy behind presenting manual and mental labor on equal footing then explores the difficulty craftsmen often have in talking about their work. “Among a thousand one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use” Diderot writes. (94)  Sennett then examines some of the difficulties in linguistically explaining craft procedures, “…it taxes the powers of the most professional writer to describe precisely how to tie a slipknot.” (95) then points to the limits of language as the cause of this, rather than blame the inarticulate craftsman, as is often the case.  This is the reason for the large number of plates in the Encyclopedia. “The images, in other words, illuminate by clarifying and simplifying movement into a series of clear pictures of the sort the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘decisive moments.'” (95)

Chapter six, titled “Expressive Instructions”  is very provocative. By comparing four styles of written recipes on how to bone a chicken (Richard Olney’s precise how-to, Julia Child’s comforting guide approach combined with close-ups, Elizabeth David’s narrative approach and Madame Benshaw’s instruction through metaphors) Sennett queries how language can be used to transmit hand skills and craft information.   Interpreting and comparing how instructional manuals function is an useful and highly informative approach in determining how craft knowledge is preserved, transmitted and learned.

The book ends by discussing the subject of pride in one’s work, which Sennett feels is the reward  for the skill and commitment necessary to gain craft knowledge, and happens when the work transcends the maker. Whatever flaws this book possesses may well be inherent limitations of language, and thankfully this book avoids a common pitfall in writing on craft– the wheel spinning reiteration about “being in the moment” while crafting. The major problem with this book is it’s lack of distinction between craft and technology, which may be crucial to an accurate conceptualization of craft.  And should the subsequent volumes be realized, this might prove a fatal error, since they are currently  organized around the theme of technique.  However, this book  is a major step forward towards developing a coherent philosophy of craft, and how Homo faber interacts with his hands, tools, objects and the world.  I look forward to volumes two and three in this series.

 

Sennett, Richard.  The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008.  Pb.  $18.00

NOTES:

A.  Kenneth Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker;    David Kingery, Learning from Things;    Edward Luci-Smith, The Story of Craft;    Soetsu Yanage, The Unknown Craftsman;    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays;    David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship;    Don Idhe, Technology and the Lifeworld, from Garden to Earth;    Carla Needleman, The Work of Craft;    Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers;    Annie Wilcox, A Degree of Mastery;    John Staudenmaier, Technology’s Storytellers;    Frank R. Wilson, The Hand; How Its Use Shapes Brain, Language, and Human Culture;   Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman;    Reinhard Bendis, Work and Authority in Industry;    Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind;    Edward Mattil, Meaning in Crafts;    W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice;    James Krenov, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook;    Mary Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal;    Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, ...

B.  Aristotle, Arendt, Heidegger, Marx, Cellini, Diderot, Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Plato, Darwin, Merleau-Ponty, Burke, Mumford, Dewey, Bacon, Weber, Wittgenstein, Greetz, Csikszentmihalyi, Simmel, Homer and many, many more.  

2 thoughts on “The Craftsman: A Book Review

  1. Paper dragon books

    A client gave me the book last year
    lots of good stuff and a recommended read to any crafts(persons) out there that have occaissional existential moments!
    The yarn about the colourfull cellini was particularly entertaining
    happy birthday to the blog!!!
    g

  2. Pingback: A Book Review of David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” | jeff peachey

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