Richard Sennett: The Craftsman*

Article excerpt

Richard Sennett: The Craftsman* Yale University Press, New Haven, London 2008, 336 pp., euro18.90

Sennett knows his craft. The Craftsman is an essay about the desire to do a job well as an end in itself, and this definition of craftsmanship, with which Sennett begins his book, has in a certain sense been a leitmotif throughout the writing career of this philosopher of society. The result is a book that's hard to put down. Sennett takes us to various lifeworlds - the medieval workshops of the goldsmith, the kitchens of the Old and New Worlds, or contemporary architectural offices, to name but a few - and links these excursions to considerations on abilities, on the learning and the impact of craftsmanship. This should suffice to sketch out the reasons why Sennett's book - the start of a trilogy on material culture - craftsman, warriors and priests, as well as stranger - demands to be read through to the end. This review is concerned with the importance of this book for a particular circle of readers - practitioners and scholars in the particular management-oriented disciplines - beyond just a general interest in the contemporary social philosophy of labor.

Sennett's considerations begin with his recalling a passing conversation with his teacher Hannah Arendt in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the conversation, Arendt insisted on her standpoint - developed in The Human Condition - that the engineer, or, more generally, the active person is not the master of his own fate. The self-destructive potential of technological development confirmed her in her rational fear that opening Pandora's box - here, technological developments - can prove to have consequences that turn against both their creators and the entire human race if politics does not provide clear guidelines. In a sense, Sennett is indeed writing against this rational fear and its roots in the distinction between animal laborans and homo faber or the division of mental and manual labor: in Sennett's view, the human animal found in animal laborans can indeed think, and thinking does not just begin when the labor is completed.

With this proposition, Sennett is taking a position that actively refuses one widely accepted and subliminally effective in the various subdisciplines of management - labor and organizational sociology, organizational and industrial psychology, and business personnel management and organization studies - that craftsmanship abilities and orientations have disappeared with the emergence of industrial society. Of course, Sennett knows Marx and the consequences all too well to want to overlook principles of the division of labor into "old" or "new" capitalism. The Craftsman should be seen before the backdrop of his recent works on "flexibility" or the new culture of capitalism. But despite all his pragmatism, Sennett is enough of a dialectician to see the sublationof craftsmanship orientations in developed industrial societies of contemporary capitalism beyond the realm of qualified manual labor among computer programmers, doctors, or artists.

In the first part of the book, we become acquainted with the craftsman as part of a social community that shares a certain idea: delivering quality and doing good work. Sennett links the formation of this ideal to institutions that strengthen cooperation. In this light, neither individuated competition nor bureaucratic control proves to be successful models of organization. Accordingly, we are presented with examples from Japanese factories and northern European high tech companies as models of organization that promote cooperation. Furthermore, craftsmanship is based on the development of practical abilities, that is, repetitive and concrete practice. The division of the mind and the hand ultimately damages the mind in Sennett's view. He clarifies this by using examples where technology was introduced to replace manual labor too quickly, as in the use of computer-based design in architecture at the expense of freehand drawing and the linked visit to the construction site. …