On The Craftsman

Nick Doty

UC Berkeley, School of Information

August 13, 2015

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Status of this document

This is a draft review of The Craftsman based on discussion at the Berkeley School of Information Classics reading group. Your feedback or thoughts on the book would be much appreciated. This document is also a test as to how useful it is to share unfinished, academic analysis.

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. London: Allen Lane.


Pandora - John William Waterhouse by John William Waterhouse. Licensed under Public Domain.
“Pandora - John William Waterhouse” by John William Waterhouse. Licensed under Public Domain.
Rubens - Vulcano forjando los rayos de Júpiter by Peter Paul Rubens - Photo by Dodo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Rubens - Vulcano forjando los rayos de Júpiter” by Peter Paul Rubens - Photo by Dodo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Just the preface to The Craftsman makes me so excited. We are set up in the middle of an argument with philosopher Hannah Arendt about the development of the atomic bomb. Arendt argues that engineering must be kept as a separate, and subservient, task from the political will, which determines what we should do. For me, it seems like a most relevant ongoing debate (as we consider the “disruptive” effects of new technologies on economy and culture) and it highlights another debate I’m reading about at the moment, where José Ortega y Gassett is at times arguing both sides (Ortega y Gasset ). Sennett gives us a nice pairing of Greek mythical figures as analogy: Pandora’s box (and the fear of what technology might bring us) and Hephaestus (the shy, club-footed god of craftsmen). This is an ethical and societal question: should the technician be a servant to thoughtful, discursive politicians or does the craftsman herself learn the reasoning for craft from the engagement with material? (See also: “because you can is reason enough to do something”.)

Sadly, that powerful ethical question we’re set up with in the preface won’t be discussed again until the conclusion. (“I’ve left for the very end of this book the subject that the reader may well think should have come first.” Indeed; count me among those readers.) Instead, the body of the book concerns materiality. How did expertise develop in various tasks of manual labor, how was it communicated, how have machines affected manual work, how can tools be used, how is ability determined. I was surprised by what at times felt like a bait-and-switch. What feels like an obsession with material tools and manual labor seems to miss tools and crafts that are informational rather than physical (CAD software, say). But with the help of our reading group, I’m reminded of why materiality is such an important part of the book: because it’s the resistance and familiarity of material work that makes Sennett’s argument about the ethical quality of the craftsman.


Reviewers have pointed it out frequently, but it really is remarkable: the number of copyediting errors in the text is shocking. As an example, here is arguably the key sentence in the book, the second to last, as printed:

Ours would remain an innocent philosophical school, however, if pragmatism did not recognize that the denouement of this narrative is often marked by marked by bitterness and regret.

That’s not a standout; I’ve marked dozens of basic typos throughout the book.1 It seems like an irony that a work about the value of deep involvement with a thing and work for the sake of quality would be missing that kind of careful basic review.

What about the mistakes that aren’t just words? The book touches on so many different fields (software engineering; musical instrument craftsmanship; cooking and recipe-writing; the invention of nuclear weapons; etc.) that for Sennett to be expert in all of them would be impossible. But take an area in which we information scientists are more comfortable: Sennett’s example of the Linux operating system and Wikipedia. The general point seems accurate: development of the Linux kernel is a process of solving problems and simultaneously finding more. However, the details of the account give us pause.

Linux contrasts to the code used in Microsoft,

Does he know that the parallel comparators are Linux and Windows, rather than Linux and Microsoft? Microsoft is a company, a company that famously eschewed open source software development (until recently) to be sure, but it is a company, not an operating system. Later, Sennett refers to “the programming community” and the example of Wikipedia articles that have varying editorial standards. Whether “the programming community” is a coherent whole is one question, but Wikipedia article editors are not practicing programming and conflating the two is shocking to those of us who study this area.

Finding fault with the details of a field you know well in a piece of writing that necessarily must provide an oversimplification is fun but often not worthwhile. But it makes us wonder, what details or key points is the author perhaps missing or incorrectly describing in architecture or goldsmithing?

Then again, why not look at this in the positive? A book like this could be a part of craftsmanship, rather than a finished masterpiece itself. In publishing it, Sennett can hear from the practitioners in all these fields and see how it hits or misses the mark. We find ourselves surprised that his account of craftsmanship doesn’t discuss feedback and iteration more directly. But his description of finding problems at the same time as solving problems, of confronting and responding to the challenges of material, perhaps might be translated into publishing a book before it’s perfect just as a way of exploring the material itself. In writing and sharing this inchoate review, I’m hoping to do the same thing: learn.

Other works

Of course, discussing with our little Classics reading group helps me see a lot more in the book than I was on my own. And while The Craftsman is laudably quite full of footnotes and references to external works, talking to other scholars helps me see the implicit references. Sennett doesn’t mention Jane Jacobs explicitly, but come on, that’s where the discussion of neighborhoods and conversations on stoops is coming from (Jacobs ).

Perhaps not scholarly enough for citation, I am quite confident that the occasional reference to the quality of instructions for constructing mechanical things is directly inspired by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig ), which I’m re-reading now.2

Regarding my own interest in ambiguity, I’m pointed at The Ethics of Ambiguity (de Beauvoir ); I’m excited to read Molotch on where technologies come from (Molotch ); and perhaps Gilbert Simondon for some insight into single-purpose vs. multi-purpose tools (Simondon ).

What’s next

Disappointed that I may be that the ethical question of political will vs. engineering craft, of Pandora vs. Hephaestus, of animal laborens vs. homo faber, doesn’t fill the body of the text, The Craftsman gives us some directions to look. Sennett tells us that the pragmatist philosophical position in this debate may depend on the materiality of craftsmanship, on the experience of engaging with the work or object. I find myself reminded to look at colleague Laura Devendorf’s work on materialism and the maker/fabrication movement and Noura Howell’s work on tangible UI as more directly relevant than I had quite realized. Sennett points us at the opposing argument (Arendt, The Human Condition) which Classics struggled with last month; I suspect both will be a part of our larger inquiry into technology and delegation. My mind jumps ahead to a sort of compromise, already: what if engineering and craftsmanship doesn’t have a single character or style, but a tension between the two? It’s not wrong to say that software engineers are sometimes focused just on writing to a spec and explicitly or tacitly choose to ignore the wherefore; and that as a result, we must rely on explicit guidance from discursive, political. But it would be wrong to ignore that their hands-on engagement with the tool also creates a simultaneous and contrary impulse, an aesthetic judgement of the thing that builds values inherently into the architecture itself where the makers have their own moral imperative.

We concluded that The Craftsman doesn’t clearly fall into any single discipline: it is not a traditional work of sociology, or philosophy, or history or anthropology, though it contains all those things. But in tracing the cyclical recurrence of some responses to technology through history, from the Enlightenment to Romanticism to the Industrial Revolution, we’re reminded that our current struggle with the economic impact of robotics or the pyschological effect of distance created by information technology is not a brand new event. The past may be a guide.

To that end, we’re encouraged to look at the manifestos on this topic, specifically Russell-Einstein (Russell and Einstein ), for the engineer’s view post-Manhattan Project. In the fall, Classics will read a smattering of manifestos all at once to compare their bold futures, an invigorating start to our year. Which better captures the zeitgeist of our time and place: The Coming Insurrection (Committee ), “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, “The Slow Web Manifesto” (related links), the Italian futurists?

Things to read

Ortega y Gasset, José.Meditación de la técnica”. Ensimismamiento y alteración..

Jacobs, Jane. The death and life of great American cities. Vintage. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=P_bPTgOoBYkC..

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. William Morrow. http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry/dp/0688002307/..

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity..

Molotch, Harvey. Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come To Be As They Are. Routledge..

Simondon, Gilbert.Du mode d'existence des objets techniques”..

Russell, Bertrand, and Albert Einstein. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. http://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto/..

Committee, The Invisible. The Coming Insurrection. US Support Committee For the Tarnac 9. http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Insurrection-Invisible-Committee/dp/B002IM8VD6/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=..

  1. Indeed, the book is framed as a response to Hannah Arendt and her distinction between homo faber and animal laborens (sic), except Arendt uses the Latin laborans, not laborens.

  2. As an adult, and as an aspiring philosopher of technology, it is more insightful — if less inspiring — than it was reading it as a teenager.