By Richard Sennett
In "The Human Condition," Hannah Arendt distinguished between Animal laborens and Homo faberâ€”between man as a worker, thoughtlessly and amorally lost in his labor's object, and man as a maker of society and its institutions, a builder of life in common. For Arendt, the maker had it all over the worker, who was, in her view, basically a drudge. Richard Sennett, Arendt's former student, thinks that his mentor's division is too sharply drawn, too contemptuous of practical life. In "The Craftsman" he compellingly explores the universe of skilled work, where "the desire to do a job well for its own sake" still flourishes.
Mr. Sennett regards skilled work capaciously, though; it is one form of what economists broadly call human capital. To bring such capital to a high levelâ€”to the level of expertiseâ€”requires (as Mr. Sennett notes) intense, constant involvement and thousands of hours of practice or apprenticeship. It matters not whether the craft is "practical" or artisticâ€”whether it involves playing a musical instrument, cooking a meal, building a brick wall, shooting a free throw or even raising a childâ€”the work is far from thoughtless and more than the dull effort of a "laboring animal."
As one might expect, 19th-century writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris receive a sympathetic hearing in "The Craftsman." They famously defended artisanal work against the division of labor and mass production of rising industrial capitalism. But Mr. Sennett is no anti-modern Arcadian. We can find exceptional craftsmanship today, he observes, in the high-tech science lab and in the work of anonymous computer programmers of the "open-source" Linux operating system.
Still, technology can make us forget the full meaning of craftsmanship, to lose sight of a human dimension. Computer-assisted design has largely replaced architectural drawing, for example, but the gain in efficiency has come at a cost. The architect, having no need to put pen to paper, now works in a condition of estrangement from the tactile and from "the relational." The result, Mr. Sennett claims, is poorly designed structures at odds with their surroundings and with the needs of their inhabitants.
Two figures from Greek myth recur in Mr. Sennett's argument. The lame blacksmith Hephaestus uses his tools for the common good, proud of his work but humble, a symbol of the exemplary nature of craftsmanship across time. Though craftsmanship is in part work done for its own sake, it is also for something, in Mr. Sennett's viewâ€”a social practice whose tools, throughout history, have tended to serve human ends, from pots and pans to musical instruments to vaccines.
Pandora, by contrast, is an emblem of misplaced skill, scattering (in Hesiod's words) "pains and evils among men." Mr. Sennett notes that a "culture founded on man-made things risks continual self-harm," even when great skill goes into the making.
Is capitalism compatible with the right kind of craftsmanshipâ€”or a destroyer of it? Oddly, Mr. Sennett, who calls himself a socialist and a pragmatist, never addresses the question directly. He observes somewhat blandly that social and economic conditions "often stand in the way of the craftsman's discipline and commitment" and briefly decries the creative destruction in market societies.
But he also praises Japanese auto makers for bringing the idea of craftsmanship back to the factory, so industrial work, in his view, is not necessarily incompatible with expertise, though it often is: The Fordist factory, with its mind-numbing repetition, is clearly for Mr. Sennett one of the great enemies of craft.
It is worth noting, in this respect, that Mr. Sennett's own bookâ€” arguably the product of the book-making craftâ€”suffers from more than the usual number of typographical errors. Among others: "for the musician, the conductor appers [for 'appears'] visually just slightly ahead"; "in evolution, Darwin surmised, the brains of apes became larger as their arms hands ['and' is needed] were used for other purposes"; "so it is will [for 'with'] your instructional uncle." Perhaps we do not need to blame capitalism for a proofreader's distraction.
One could make a strong argument that postindustrial prosperity has helped craftsmanship to thrive. The craft of making wine, for instance, has experienced a renaissance thanks to globalized competition, leading winemakers everywhere to improve their technique dramatically. And those computer programmers whom Mr. Sennett admires are the leading edge of capitalism's most dynamic sector.
Artisanal coffee, hand-made furniture, bespoke suits: Western economies routinely create niche markets for the work of craftsmen. If a lot of what we consume is made without exacting care, it is affordable, something for which many of us are understandably willing to forgo a bit of craftsmanship in our lives. It is to Mr. Sennett's credit that he reminds us of what has been lost thereby.