… Sennett’s book gathers case after case in which we see how the work of the hand can inform the work of the mind. Moreover, it is through his insistence that thought arises in relation to craft that Sennett comes to one of his more intriguing interventions, a reimagining of the Enlightenment in terms not of ideas but of how craftsmen learned to work.
“The hand is the window on to the mind,” Immanuel Kant wrote, and Sennett asks that we not pass through that window until we have adequately studied the hand. For Sennett the emblematic Enlightenment publication was Diderot’s “Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Crafts” [still in print, abridged, here]. In 35 volumes, this great work told its readers how to keep bees, make cider or wooden shoes, cure tobacco, prepare hemp, build a windmill, grind wheat, or — in the case that Sennett expands upon — make paper as it was then produced at the great L’Anglée factory south of Paris. The Enlightenment as pictured by Diderot arose from the conversation between craftsmen and all the stuff — the wood, the gold, the papermaking rags — that met their hands. The material world speaks back to us constantly, by its resistance, by its ambiguity, by the way it changes as circumstances change, and the enlightened are those able to enter into this dialogue and, by so doing, come to develop an “intelligent hand.”
Using craftsmen as symbols of the Enlightenment turns out to be part of an argument that Sennett is conducting with one of his teachers, Hannah Arendt. In her own portrait of the human condition, Arendt distinguished between the world of animal needs and a “higher” world of art, politics and philosophy. This division is, for Sennett, a serious philosophical mistake with serious ethical and political consequences. It isn’t only that it demeans those who labor with their hands, but that it fails to recognize one of the foundations of good citizenship and cannot then imagine the kind of democracy in which governance is widely diffused, not given over to expert elites.
For it is Sennett’s contention that “nearly anyone can become a good craftsman” and that “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens.” This line of thought depends, among other things, upon the Enlightenment assumption that craft abilities are innate and widely distributed, and that, when rightly stimulated and trained, they allow craftsmen to become knowledgeable public persons.
And what is it that such persons know? They know how to negotiate between autonomy and authority (as one must in any workshop); how to work not against resistant forces but with them (as did the engineers who first drilled tunnels beneath the Thames); how to complete their tasks using “minimum force” (as do all chefs who must chop vegetables); how to meet people and things with sympathetic imagination (as does the glassblower whose “corporeal anticipation” lets her stay one step ahead of the molten glass); and above all they know how to play, for it is in play that we find “the origin of the dialogue the craftsman conducts with materials like clay and glass.”
The assumption that craft abilities are widely diffused leads Sennett into a meditation on our love of those intelligence tests by which we supposedly single out the very smart and the very stupid so that some will go to college and others go to bagging groceries. Sennett points out that such sorting ignores the “densely populated middle ground” where most of the population is actually found. Rather than celebrating a “common ground of talents,” we tend to inflate “small differences in degree into large differences in kind” and so legitimate existing systems of privilege. Thinking of the median as the mediocre creates an excuse for neglect. This is one reason, Sennett argues, that “it proves so hard to find charitable contributions to vocational schools” while currently the wealth of the Ivy League schools is compounding at an astounding rate.
Read the rest of the review here.