The Craftsman, By Richard Sennett
Sunday 08 March 2009
In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers praised the virtues of craft, which unifies the manual and the mental. In the first of a planned trilogy (subsequent volumes will explore ritual and the environment), Richard Sennett continues this dialogue. "Craft" is no antiquated concept, extinct along with the workshop of yore, but is instead thriving in modern settings; a concept found in activities as various as developing Linux software, mastering a violin, or parenting. But it is threatened in the contemporary workplace and Sennett argues passionately about why we should save this intrinsic part of our humanity – the ability to do a job well for its own sake.
Sennett both challenges and posits theories of craftsmanship. In his depiction of the "troubled craftsman", he argues cogently that the principles of "command" and "competition" are flawed. Competing against others will not incite a desire to perform optimally, but instead breed demoralisation.
"The hand is the window to the mind," observed Immanuel Kant, and Sennett explores the connection between hand and head in the case of musicians, cooks and glassblowers.
Raw talent cannot take the place of training, asserts Sennett, citing studies of composers, basketball players, ice-skaters and fiction writers, and the idea that 10,000 hours of practice – roughly three hours a day for 10 years – are needed to become expert.
The author's vision of "craft" is a grand one: experience and human relationships themselves are raw material that we can craft and cultivate with care. Although his theories err into abstraction at times, The Craftsman is for the most part admirable. Readers might not have the leisure of 10,000 hours in which to engage with this book, but it is worth slowly savouring.
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