The Craftsman Chapter 1

The Troubled Craftsman

  • Craftsman – the special human condition of being engaged.
  • Aim of this book
    • How people become engaged
    • What happens when hand and head are separated
  • The emotional rewards craftsmanship holds out for attaining skill are twofold:
    • People are anchored in tangible reality, and
    • They can takepride in their work.
  • But society has stood in the way of these rewards in the past and continues to do so today.

The Modern Hephaestus: Ancient Weavers and Linus Programmers

  • [Is craftsmanship attainable for migrants? Craftsman are people who have an aspiration for quality (main mark of identity), to get better rather than get by.]
  • nearly instant relation between problem solving and problem finding
  • closed vs. open knowledge system: the former have tended toward short lifespans (in the history of handcrafts), refer anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan
  • open system – impersonality
    • blunt impersonality turns people outward

Weakened Motivation

  • Karl Marx thought … (his) writings would set the modern craftsman free.
    • Grundrisse: he framed craftsmanship in the broadest possible terms as ‘formgiving activity’.
    • ‘The Gotha Program’: he returned to the view that communism would rekindle the spirit of craftsmanship
  • However: the ethical and technical center was too far removed from life on the ground. 
  • Marx dealt with ‘the worker’
  • Deming and his Japanese followers dealt with the work. 
    • ‘Collective craftsmanship’
    • Sharp mutual exchanges, speak truth to power
    • Penetrate to get across the message that something is not good enough
  • Triumphalism following the collapse of the Soviet empire: it obscures both the roles competition and cooperation actually play in getting good work done and, more largely, the virtues of the craftsmanship.
    • competition: in any organisation, individuals or teams that compete and are rewarded for doing better than others will hoard information… (which) disables good work (because you need) lateral thinking.
    • within the framework of competition: clear standards of achievement and closure are needed to measure performance and to dole out rewards.

Fractured skills: Hand and Head divided

  • Going over an action again and again… enables self-criticism… the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within
  • Skill development depends on how repetition is organised. As skill expands, the capacity to sustain repetition increases… Isaac Stern rule (in music)
  • When practice is organized as a means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear;
    the person in training will meet a fixed target but won’t progress further. The open relation between problem solving and problem finding, as in Linux work, builds and expands skills, but this can’t be a oneoff event. Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving
    and opening up occurs again and again.
  • [It is not about solving a problem but about practising the skill over and over again and through that finding new problems to solve. What does the problem in your building mean?]
  • These precepts about building skill through practice encounter a great obstacle in modern society. By this I refer to a way in which machines can be misused. The ‘‘mechanical’’ equates in ordinary language with repetition of a static sort. Thanks to the revolution in micro computing, however, modern machinery is not static; through feedback loops machines can learn from their experience. Yet machinery is misused when it deprives people themselves from learning through
    repetition. The smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, instructive, hands-on learning. When this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer.
  • [Why can’t we just be thinkers? Why can’t we identify the problems in the programming and solve it through thinking instead of making? How integrated together are thinking and making?]
  • Industrial Revolution… machine threaten the work of artisan-craftsmen. The threat appeared physical… The modern machine’s threat to developing skill has a different character.
  • Blueprint vs. no blueprint
    • [But isn’t architecture also a craft? Or is architecture only in the head and there is no materiality to it?]
    • [if construction is different between a construction dependent on blueprint and a construction dependent on the repetition of skills, then can we also draw a comparison to the current heritage building construction where the former is done by architects and implemented by workers, while the latter is done by workers who are constantly innovating?]
    • [But how do craftsmen traditionally make shrine buildings? How do they plan? How do their skills get repeatedly grown through the construction of these buildings?]
    • [Does that also imply then that I should not give the potential craftsmen any blueprints? That there should be a set of formal rules which are dictated by the environment/site and allow them to innovate in whichever direction that they prefer. What are the rules then?]
  • Abuses of modern technology (e.g. CAD)
    • Simulation can be a poor substitute for tactile experience.
    • CAD is used to repress difficulty and (hide) problems.
    • CAD’s precision … (causes) overdetermination
  •  The problem, as Victor Weisskopf says, is that people may let the machines do this learning, the person serving as a passive witness to and consumer of expanding competence, not participating in it.
  • Challenge: how to think like craftsmen in making good use of technology.

Conflicting Standards: Correct versus Practical

  • Practice vs. practical: the people most skilled in (something) are usually the ones thinking about (its) ideal and endless possibilities.
  • NHS, Fordism (division of labor which focuses on parts rather than wholes… to extreme), first laid out by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations
  • By the absolute measure of quality in the thing itself, the machine is a better craftsman than a person.
  • To do good work means to be curious about, to investigate, and to learn from ambiguity
  • … liminal zone between problem solving and problem finding
  • In skills… (there are two stages:) the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective. Craft quality emerges from this higher stage, in judgements made on tacit habits and suppositions. 
  • … experiential standard… is an excuse for mediocrity (Plato). Bedded in too comfortably, people will neglect the higher standard; it is by arousing self-consciousness that the worker is driven to do better.


The architect Renzo Piano explains his own working procedure thus: ‘‘You start by sketching, then you do a drawing, then you make a model, and then you go to reality—you go to the site—and then you go back to drawing. You build up a kind of circularity between drawing and making and then back again.’’About repetition and practice Piano observes, ‘‘This is very typical of the craftsman’s approach. You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. Drawing . . . is revisited. You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again.’’ This attaching, circular metamorphosis can be aborted by CAD. Once points are plotted on-screen, the algorithms do the drawing; misuse occurs if the process is a closed system, a static means-end—the ‘‘circularity’’ of which Piano speaks disappears.

Because of the machine’s capacities for instant erasure and refiguring, the architect Elliot Felix observes, ‘‘each action is less consequent than it would be [on] paper . . . each will be less carefully considered.’’ Returning to physical drawing can overcome this danger; harder to counter is an issue about the materials of which the building is made. Flat computer screens cannot render well the textures of different materials or assist in choosing their colors, though the CAD programs can calculate to a marvel the precise amount of brick or steel a building might require. Drawing in bricks by hand, tedious though the process is, prompts the designer to think about their materiality, to engage with their solidity as against the blank, unmarked space on paper of a window. Computer-assisted design also impedes the designer in thinking about scale, as opposed to sheer size. Scale involves judgments of proportion; the sense of proportion onscreen appears to the designer as the relation of clusters of pixels. The object on-screen can indeed be manipulated so that it is presented, for instance, from the vantage point of someone on the ground, but in this regard CAD is frequently misused: what appears on-screen is impossibly coherent, framed in a unified way that physical sight never is.

Troubles with materiality have a long pedigree in architecture. Few large-scale building projects before the industrial era had detailed working drawings of the precise sort CAD can produce today; Pope Sixtus V remade the Piazza del Popolo in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century by describing in conversation the buildings and public space he envisioned, a verbal instruction that left much room for the mason, glazier, and engineer to work freely and adaptively on the ground. Blueprints—inked designs in which erasure is possible but messy—acquired legal force by the late nineteenth century, making these images on paper equivalent to a lawyer’s contract. The blueprint signaled, moreover, one decisive disconnection between head and hand in design: the idea of a thing made complete in conception before it is constructed.

Sennett, The Craftsman, pg. 51-53

The Craftsman Prologue

by Richard Sennett

Prologue: Man as His Own Maker

  • Fear of self-destructive material inventions
    • Atomic bombs
    • Holocaust
  • Arendt, The Human Condition
    • Separation between Animal laborans and Homo faber
    • Public discussion important
    • Sennett: false, there is more to the maker
  • This is the first of three books on material culture, all related to the dangers in Pandora’s casket, though each is intended to stand on its own.
    • This book is about craftsmanship, the skill of making things well.
    • The second volume addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal;
    • The third explores the skills required in making and
      inhabiting sustainable environments.
    • All three books address the issue of technique—but technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure; each book is about a technique for conducting a particular way of life.
  • Dimensions of skill, commitment and judgement
  • Book structure:
    • First: historical struggles in recognising and encouraging the impulse of craftsmanship
    • Second: the development of skill through bodily practices and imagination
    • Third: motivation and talent
    • Conclusion: give people an anchor in material reality. History has drawn fault lines dividing practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user, modern society suffers from this historical inheritance.
  • [taking the craft out of the material – there is no more thinking, there is only the making. there is no questioning of why]
  • Second and third books in this series:
    • Warriors and Priests: how the craft of rituals makes faith physical. aim is to understand how the fatal marriage of religion and aggression might possibly be altered by changing the ritual practices in each.
    • The Foreigner: the dream of dwelling in equilibrium… lead(s) us to seek escape in an idealised Nature… (we need to) confront the self-destructive territory we have actually made… (through) the stranger… Craft is now foreign to us.
    • Georg Simmel: the stranger… learns the art of adaptation more searchingly, if more painfully, than people who feel entitled to belong… in his view, the foreigner also holds up a mirror to the society into which he or she enters, since the foreigner cannot take for granted way of life that seem to natives just natural. So great are the changes required to alter humankind’s dealings with the physical world that only this sense of self-displacement and estrangement can drive the actual practices of change and reduce our consuming desires…