Shop Class as Soulcraft

2 June 2009 at 11:39 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

20090526_shopclassw70After hearing Matthew Crawford interviewed this morning on the Diane Rehm show I’ve put his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, on my summer reading list. After earning a PhD in political philosophy at Chicago and doing a postdoc with the Committee on Social Thought, he worked for a while in a DC policy shop, then gave it up to start a motorcycle-repair business. Fixing bikes, he explains, involves complex analytical reasoning, application of scientific methods, Verstehen, and related cognitive skills far beyond those he used in his white-collar job. He also finds the work much more intellectually and emotionally satisfying than typical desk work. “The trades suffer from low prestige,” writes Crawford (see this excerpt published in last week’s Times), “and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.” By contrast:

As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the country. My most reliable source, Fred, has such an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I have been able to offer him in exchange is deliveries of obscure European beer.

There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic. . . .  The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.”

In the excerpt and in this 2006 essay, on which the book is based, Crawford draws out broader social, political, and personal implications of the joy of working with your hands, not all of which I necessarily buy. But I think I understand where he’s coming from. Personally, I don’t really know how to build stuff (unlike, say, Kevin Murphy), but I do enjoy cooking, and find that creating a wonderful meal is, in some ways, more satisfying than producing a wonderful journal article. (No wisecracks about the half-life of the meal versus the article, please.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Recommended Reading.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shawn Ritenour  |  2 June 2009 at 3:16 pm


    On the contrary, when you fixed dinner for our families during a visit this past winter, nine people enjoyed it immensely, which is more people than read the average professional economics article.

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  2 June 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Did he mention Pirsig on the zen of motorcycle maintenance?

    That was a cult book a few years ago.

    Inspired by Tolstoy’s ideds about the dignity of manual labour, Karl Popper did an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker (and qualified).

  • 3. Michael E. Marotta  |  2 June 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Pirsig’s “Zen/Motorcycle” came to mind for me, as well. I was told in junior high that because I was smart, I would not need to work with my hands, I would take college prep rather than shop classes in high school. Much later, working in robotics, I needed two years to learn how to tear down and rebuild a six-axis machine.

    We can blame the Greeks, especially Plato, but The Protagoras Dialog indicates the true esteem for the skill of the craftsman.

    Perhaps the cogent refutation of the mind-body dichotomy is Ayn Rand’s vision of fugitive capitalists smithing and forging in Galt’s Gulch.

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