Thoughts on The Craftsman by Richard Sennet

Feb 21, 2019

I've finished my second read through of The Craftsman. It's an argument that craftsman are more capable than society gives than credit for. The notion of animal laborens, that man is simply a thoughtless animal, is wrong in Sennet's view. He argues that we think deeply when we work with our hands. The woodworker isn't just idly planing away at the wood she's working on. She looks at the grain, analyzes the constraints of the material, and is constantly problem solving and problem finding. The same applies to programmers. Fixing bugs is never a simple tasks. Often it challenges both our problem solving and problem finding abilities.

Sennet decorates his book with interesting case studies. The skill involved in using a Chinese cleaver or the expressive metaphorical recipe of how to cook a specific chicken dish are a couple of memorable examples. Sennet analyzes the history of the craftsman from ancient times to today, and how the industrial revolution has changed the scene. He asks Voltaire, with his encyclopedia, for his thoughts to accompany his own. Voltaire understood the superiority of machines in certain craft tasks, but felt it wasn't fair to the craftsman to focus only on that superiority. The craftsman has the ability through problem solving and problem finding to use these new machines as tools.

I found the story of "honest" bricks especially interesting. There was a time when the only way to make bricks was the artisanal and very labor intensive way. The bricks in these cases all came out slightly different and imbued with colors that represented the geographic origin and creators. Then came a more industrial form of creating bricks. This process created many bricks at uniform sizes and colors very cheaply. At this point people started to personify the bricks. They called bricks "honest" when they were hand made with blemishes that reflect their creation. No one doubted that the industrial bricks where objectively better, but there was still a considerable demand for these honest bricks. The industrial process eventually came up with ways to emulate more characteristics of the honest brick, such as modifying the colors of the bricks to mirror those of bricks from smaller towns. Even though this happened several hundred years ago and in another country, I think it's very easy to relate to this story. We are essentially reliving this, but with everything.

The myth of Pandora and Hephaestus are brought again and again throughout the book. The myths highlight the paradox in craft and society. Hephaestus was a skilled craftsman but an ugly person (born with a club foot). Pandora, a beautiful goddess with a box of ugly and evil things. The myths are the original prototype of society's fears and beliefs on crafts. Frankenstein is a more modern version of Pandora's box. Parts of the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi is our modern Hymn to Hephaestus.

I think the book is unbelievably fascinating in so many ways. It reminds me of when I heard Marian Hill for the first time. I didn't even realize music could sound that way. I was so happy to have discovered a whole new facet of life that I didn't even know existed. The book is the same way. Every chapter introduces some thought or history that I never knew existed. Each page was like Christmas. A nice gift from Sennet.

I only have a few issues with the book. The biggest one is likely it's weight on the idea that a society of skilled craftsmen could result in a society closer to self governance. An idea close to Jefferson. Perhaps it's because I've been reading Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography, but I'm primed to be suspect of Jefferson's political theories. I'm surprised by Sennet's belief here as he classifies a lot of somewhat surprising things as crafts (parenting, experience, etc.), but doesn't seem to classify governance and politics as a craft.

It's a great book, and I'd recommend it. I was introduced to it from Paul Sellers. Here's an excerpt of his thoughts on it.

I read an article about skilled artisans producing designs and selling their wares to mainstream in a recent weekend issue of the Observer written by Emma Love. In two minutes I thought to myself this surely has to be a joke. ... It was filled with journalistic drivel where she used stock phrases of the day like “Traditional skills”, “Tapping into the wider trend for natural materials,”. What she didn’t see was that most of the goods were highly over priced and none of them used traditional skills anywhere.

I wish that this journalist read a little more. I wish she had read this book beforehand, perhaps she might have at least understood she didn’t understand; that she couldn’t understand. Richard Sennett’s book is a well researched masterpiece, unpretentious in every sphere and should be mandatory reading for any and all craft students and mentored apprentices true to their craft. Sennett carefully crafts his sentences with depth and meaning of an artisan, and whereas I might not agree with every single word, I do see that he worked extremely diligently to open the world Pandora left to get a point of view in place first and then blasted through the myths and mysteries of why we do what we do, why penchants exist as yearnings beyond our understandings and why, when we are young, we should indeed listen to our hearts.

from There's a book you should read