Review of Richard Sennett - The Craftsman

The estimable John Nolan, with whom I’m in the habit of swapping book recommendations, waved Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman at me, saying “I’m half-way through the introduction, but it’s already making me think…”. Recommended, duly bought, and now some weeks later somewhat digested. This is a long time for me: not a reflection on the writing, which is conversational, urbane, knowledgeable. The quality of the discourse and the thinking behind it made me realise quickly that this was a book I wanted to spend some time with.

Richard Sennett is familiar to people in the UK, as his position as Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics means he’s often written or broadcast on economic and social concerns of the day. I suspect his combination of pragmatism, respect and inclusiveness didn’t go down well in the US in the Bush era, and I’m sure his stock in his native country can only rise as the prevailing political ethos catches up with his humane vision of social life. He’s well-known for his writing on urban society and the place of work in it: the shared background as a musician (he’s a cellist and a composer) is just an added attraction for me, indeed he often touches on the experience of musical training and practice to highlight particular points, and what he has to say invariably rings true.

The Craftsman is the first of a projected trilogy on what Sennett identifies as “material culture” — not materialism, but rather the way in which we’re defined by what we make and how we relate to it. At the end of the book this is tied in with Sennett’s pragmatist philosophical view — the sum total of our making is a rich source of evidence about our identities as individuals and about the characters of our societies [1]. While there’s a great deal of historical material presented, this isn’t simply a history of craftsmanship.

The book is organised into three sections: Craftsmen, Craft and Craftsmanship. Broadly speaking, the first section is historical (considering as it does the expression of craft in institutions like workshops or, more recently, professional medical bodies, and the endeavors of historical thinkers to understand the act of making and the place in society of those who make), the second practical (dealing with the relationships with the materials of craft, tools, instruction and resistance). The third part draws social and ethical consequences from the nature of craft explored in the first parts of the book.

The many stories, examples and reflections that Sennett places within this framework generate a steady flow of insights. I like the idea of material consciousness — the absorption of our attention in the work we do and the objects of that work — and see the results of this in the flow states that we aspire to: an identification of the individual, tools, and the work itself in which our awareness is somehow “in” rather than “outside” the work. This leads to a state of sensitivity about materials which can appear as obsession to those who don’t share the experience.

The second section has some important things to say about the way we describe and instruct in the ways of craft: here (for example) are extracts from two different versions, from practising expert chefs, of the same recipe:

Sever the attachment of each shoulder blade at the wing joint, and holding it firmly between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, pull it out of the flesh with the other hand…

Your dead child. Prepare him for new life. Fill him with earth. Be careful!

Four different versions are given: Richard Olney, Julia Child, Elizabeth David, and Madame Benshaw (Sennett’s teacher in a course in cuisine in Boston). All recognisably the same recipe (well, maybe not the extraordinary last version, which is a transcript of the chef’s instructions during a class), all differing not just in style but the location of attention: the object being manipulated (Olney), the subjective experience of a novice chef (Child), the cultural context (a typically evocative narrative by David), and, in some sense, the metaphorical essence of the operations (Benshaw).

Also in the second section, a consideration of arousing tools. Tracing the history of medical tools, for example the scalpel in the sixteenth century, Sennett points out that developments in tools and materials create both possibilities and imperatives: the replacement of gross surgical knives with scalpels moved the locus of movement in surgery from the arm to the hands and fingers, forcing a refinement of the surgeon’s (or dissector’s) craft, and leading to the revelation of anatomical detail in the works of Vesalius and others. The author describes repair as an essential component of making, and extols the benefit of multi-purpose tools: in their flexibility they suggest ways of use beyond their immediate and intended purpose, and encourage experimentation.

The chapter on resistance and ambiguity is a tour-de-force. The role of difficulty in our activities is often overlooked. We highlight “problem-solving” as a key ability, but I’m reminded of Kegan and Lahey’s [2] observation that when we’ve solved a problem, we’ve actually lost something: the problem itself. We learn by living with difficulties and ambiguities, exploring their boundaries and contradictions. Sennett identifies the ability to deal with material resistance as a key element of craft. Our education and work practices today often militate against the development of abilities for dealing with ambiguity, focussing on skills and results at the expense of what Sennett describes (and which Robert Pirsig would recognise) as quality.

The Craftsman asks for, and deserves, consideration beyond the confines of a single discipline, though it will be clear from the descriptions above that there’s much that resonates with the experience of developing software. There’s one area which I’m not yet resolved on: although Sennett concludes that “the capacity to work well is shared fairly equally among human beings” (p.285 in Penguin edition), earlier in the book he’s at pains to point out that talents and abilities differ:

enlightenment through practice — or as modern educators have it, learning by doing — raises the question of one’s talent to act and so the possibility of learning little, because one is not good at doing the work (p.96)

Sennett describes the way that you can hold a brick or a piece of carved wood and derive an immediate visual and tactile impression of the quality of the object at hand. This is more than an aesthetic response. The author highlights the anthropomorphising language that we use to describe quality in craft — we talk about “honest” work, for example, and value restraint or “modesty”. These words transmit something of the immediate impression of quality that we experience, but crucially impart an ethical value to the results of our work. Yet the structures we build in software have no material analogue: there’s no physical stuff you can pick up and examine. To reach a point of fine judgement in physical crafts requires experience and training, of course (there’s an evocative description of how medieval gold assayers used their fingers to touch, sense, probe the surface of objects brought for their consideration in order to determine the purity of the metal). Training and experience can likewise lead us to identify quality in code, but the explicit need to hold and manipulate these abstractions seems to me to be a barrier of a different sort than improving the skill of hand or eye: we know that, on the whole, we’re not good at abstract thinking, particularly when it involves the evolution of structures and processes over time [3].

Given the title of the book, I think there are important lessons here for the burgeoning Software Craftsmanship movement. It’s hard to regard it as a ringing endorsement of the movement’s ideas and principles: rather, I believe it poses difficult questions against some of Software Craftsmanship’s more facile pronouncements and solutions. Sennett’s prescription here is not about labels, slogans and manifestos: it’s concerned with an approach to our actions in creating the objects and environments in which we live, and extends beyond any single occupation to encompass making in all its forms:

The argument … is that the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others. (p.289)

As in crafting wood, or jewellery, or software, so relationships, parenting, the practice of music, of medicine, all can be understood through the way in which repeatedly, and over a long period of time, we come into contact with the materials and structures of these domains, shape them and are shaped by them. Underlying all of this is a trinity of motivations: care, curiosity, and dedication. Miss out on any of these, and any aspect of our lives becomes mechanical and dehumanising. While this is hardly a new message, what’s unusual is the philosopher’s curiosity that Sennett brings to the subject, and his situation of all the things we make — and the ways in which we make them — as a central expression of ourselves.

(And finally - though we’re told we shouldn’t, we do of course judge books by their covers. The cover design of the Penguin edition of the book is a classic, in the best tradition of its publisher’s innovative, appropriate and delightful designs.)

The Craftsman - jacket design

[1] The psychoanalytical school of object relations also gets a name-check.
[2] Lisa Lahey/Robert Kegan: How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work
[3] See for example Extreme Thinking

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