Tuesday 15 December 2009

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman

Some time on a train gave me a chance finally to finish Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman. I had hoped for a sociologically informed but still theoretically structured study of craftsmanship: of what is involved in craft skills. That expectation was probably the result of reading, many years ago, Harry Collins fine empirical study of the nature and transmission of tacit knowledge: Changing Order.

Indeed Sennett’s The Craftsman has some interesting moments. There are discussions both brief and lengthy of the craftmenship manifested by the community of Linux programmers, the workshops of C17 violin making families, medieval goldsmithing and the rise of, and response to, machines at the start of the industrial revolution. But these examples, and indeed all of the promise of the book, are contained only within the first of three sections.

Therefter in the book, nothing really gels. There’s a chapter on hand skills: a potentially fascinatingly locally embodied focus. But it seems merely a description of the linear growth of forms of manual dexterity.

A chapter on verbal instructions and three literary tropes for avoiding merely ‘dead denotation’ in cookery books doesn’t seem to address the fundamental issue: just what is so dead about denotation? That might be the locus of an issue about the relation between skills of craftsmanship and what can be linguistically codified. Perhaps, for example, denotation would indeed be dead without a background of craft skills. Without that, it is interesting that different chefs use different styles of prose but really, so what?

Too much of the book baldy asserts general claims – which might be necessary or essential claims about the nature of craftsmanship – on the basis neither of an argument nor detailed sociological or historical study. (There is a comparison of Wittgenstein’s attitude to the house he built for his sister and to his changing philosophy of language. But it is sub third year undergraduate essay material.)

Perhaps Sennett is simply too famous and too prolific. The book needs a good edit. Or perhaps this reflects something which might be grist to the mill for a book in this area. Perhaps broadly sociological work simply doesn’t need, as a literary genre, as a means of avoiding dead denotation, the kind of tight argumentative structure of a philosophy book (although Collins managed it perfectly well). Perhaps a suitably inducted craftsman sociologist is able, as I’m not, to fill in the gaps, to see an implicit structuring argument. But for whatever reason, at least I now know I don’t have to address this book in my own. That is a kind of positive result in a loosely falsificationist spirit.

Collins, H. (1985) Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, London: Sage
Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman, London: Penguin