Jeffrey's Reviews > The Craftsman

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett
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Jan 18, 2009

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Read in June, 2008

First of all, it is exceedingly unfair to write a short, impressionistic review for a book that is meant to be the first of a three volume critique and analysis on material culture intended by Richard Sennett.

But being one of the rare books out there--and I can remember only Donald Schon's 'The Reflective Practitioner' as the last word out there outlining an epistemology of practice--Sennett's new book still warrants a few exciting words despite the caveat as stated. And like Schon's 'The Reflective Practitioner' with a lasting appeal precisely because it straddles multiple domains of practice such as design, management and education to name three, Sennett's work should also share this boon of longevity if synthetic works of such records are any form of indication.

Truly, Sennett's total project is an ambitious one; and 'The Craftsman' here represents a powerful but nevertheless, a perplexing beginning to his critique of material culture. Why? While Sennett's powerful introductory delineation of a specific type of humanity in practice (i.e. the craftsman) is as comprehensive as it gets, but it may also strike many readers as a diffused analysis: an account that straddles one too many lessons to get the point across; an account that constantly runs the risk of losing its focus.

For example, Sennett begins heroically through the narrative of meeting Arendt (which I thought is Sennett's ultimate strength as a writer, thinker and philosopher of the concrete) which then tacitly promises to continue from the premise in Arendt's Human Condition on the dangers of design and technology. But the book then took a turn into an account of skill development, which only serve to further constrained the narrative into a more developed account on the various aspects and contentions of skills. But in the last chapter Sennett returns to his initial premise on the ethics of design via craftmanship, thus showing that the ride between introduction and conclusion has been a less than focused one. But to the extent that this entire book can be seen as the grand introduction to an upcoming epic of critical commentary, then this criticism founded more on coherent argumentation and less on a journey of musing should also realistically be a less trenchant one.

I found the book to be as uplifting as it was in parts, frustrating. On one end, the uplifting portions speak to absolve all who engage in some form of practical craftsmanship from the Arendtian charge of being engaged in mindless labor. On the other end, they inspire nearly all human activities and actions charged with the same Arendtian powers of natality to take on the virtues of craftsmanship. It is as if Sennett is interested to level the great disparity set between the mind and the hands instituted by the long line of thinkers from Plato to Arendt in the midst of the great nihilism of Tradesmanship today. If there is any covert political message that can rescue the current crisis of 'getting by' or 'value relativism', then Sennett here may possess the promise of a good chance.

But the frustrating segments are quite something else. Fundamentally, the frustrating bit is Sennett's reluctance to outline and provide the premise where the intrinsic, non-teleological and practical virtues but also merits of craftsmanship are found to be relevant. A reader who is familiar with Sennett's previous work may have some clues to this reluctant and tacit premise--a society weaned on mindless commercialism, mindless pace and crass improvisations to the ultimate detriment of the society as a whole--that the values argued in this book seem relatively powerful and appropriate today. Thus if this was a piece of political philosophy masquerading as an epistemological account of craftsmanship in practice--which I read as it is--then it is also an unwilling one.

Another frustrating bit comes from the uneven juxtaposition of Sennett's substantiations on his claims. Overall, Sennett furnished excellent examples to make his claims both clear and strong. But there are lesser notes in his symphony as well. For example, Sennett decisively claimed that it is easier to retrain a plumber than a salesman to become a computer programmer given the plumber's material focus and craft habits. While it is less clear that Sennett is exhorting a society where plumbers are given the same consideration as philosophers, it is however quite clear that Sennett believes that the ideal type salesman are certainly less than a plumber as far as retraining as re-skilling goes. As a reader who has a fair share of experience with plumbers and salesmen (and saleswomen) in a society that values philosophy over plumbing but which also worships commercialism, I find this claim somewhat specious.

In the end, it is Sennett's quilting that earned the extra *star* in this book review. Sennett's comprehensive synthetic quilting of bits from computer programming, to violin making, to architectural practice stitched with snippets of his own insightful social commentary of how bad planning practices make unlivable cities, and the devaluation of human beings in new capitalism all make this book a rewarding tract for unbridled musings across historical time and intellectual space.

For readers who want to know more about the theme of craftsmanship--a certainly underappreciated theme neglected by those who think and ironically despised by those who do--then this book is a real gem. But for a reader who seeks a deliberate piece of political philosophy improvised as an epistemological account of practice in a leveled world of commercialism, then this book, at least for now, still falls short of this wish.
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