- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008


By Richard Sennett

Yale University Press, $27.50, 326 pages


Last year, in a review of Robert D. Richardson’s “William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism,” I noted that in the past 50 years a resurgence of philosophical pragmatism has occurred. That philosophy was a powerful movement of thought in America at the beginning of the 20th century. William James, John Dewey and the Frenchman, Henri Bergson, were key figures.

But by the time of World War I and for several decades thereafter, other antithetical “isms” took over, especially logical positivism, Marxism, Freudianism and literary modernism.

One of the important newer pragmatists, the late Richard Rorty, observed that “the spirit of playfulness which seemed about to enter in philosophy around 1900 was, however, nipped in the bud.” Rorty allows too few years to this first flowering of pragmatism but I agree with his general idea.

Richard Sennett, author of the book under review, “The Craftsman,” makes a similar point:

“Pragmatism occurred in two waves … .[In the second,] the movement has revived and spread back to Europe. Its proponents now include Hans Joas in Germany, a school of young pragmatists in Denmark, and the Americans, Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein and myself. Two world wars and the arc of Soviet Empire checked but did not extinguish the hope embodied in pragmatism; its animating principle remains to engage with ordinary, plural, constructive human activities.”

The word, pragmatism, comes from the Greek word for active and focuses on the differences between actually doing something and merely thinking about things. Given this concern “to engage with ordinary, plural, constructive human activities,” it is not surprising that pragmatism has always spread out broadly beyond the confines of philosophy per se, notably in the cases of James and Dewey with their great involvement in the current affairs of their time. Mr. Sennett’s previous writings have been in what I would call sociology, with a strong interest in economics and the human effects of capitalism.

As the title suggests, “The Craftsman” focuses on the human being as a maker, homo faber or worker, especially with respect to workers in groups and devoted to work of public import. Hence, Mr. Sennett is more like Dewey than James or Bergson.

Concerning craftsmanship, he paints with a broad brush. The range extends into the arts, including architecture and city-planning, games, rituals, the methods of science, education and learning in general, the make-up of the mind and also the body and their interactions, since acts involve both parts of us, and also human relations, since acts usually put us within range of other people.

In his book, Mr. Sennett also examines the long up-and-down history of thought and awareness about work, including pottery-making from its beginnings, and the attitudes toward the craftsman implicit in the Greek mythic figure of Hephaestus aka Vulcan. His ungainly, damaged body - the impression of which is heightened because the myth-makers, being ironists, married him to Aphrodite aka Venus, the goddess of love and beauty - may convey the wise Greek sense that doing something is likely to get you in more trouble than just thinking something.

It may also reflect Greek ambivalence about manual labor, which turns up in celebrations of craftsmanship in the 18th chapter of the “Iliad” that is devoted to the praise of Hephaestus as well as in the Homeric “Hymn to Hephaestus.” The figure of Pandora is also considered as expressing, in part, ethical concerns about our overt doings and their results.

Mr. Sennett then moves on from the eighth to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., when the Greek sense of the worker deteriorates. The nature and operations of the medieval guilds also receive some attention, as do Vasari and Cellini, great Renaissance writers about artists when the artist was becoming a major kind of hero.

There is a section on Diderot, the 18th-century philosopher and writer and other French Encyclopedists, devoted as they were to the detailed understanding and promotion of the arts and industries burgeoning in their time. Later, Mr. Sennett deftly braids in a thinker with an attitude opposed to the modernism of the Frenchmen, the mid-19th-century John Ruskin, the great enemy of the industrial revolution.

Marx, of course, is also discussed, since his central, animating principle, which is also Mr. Sennett’s, is that purposive physical work can and should be deeply self-fulfilling, enabling as Mr. Sennett’s quotation from Marx puts it, “the all-round development of the individual.”

This study is distinctive in the attention it gives to very current forms of skilled work and their attendant opportunities and problems in the areas, for example, of organized medical care, the Japanese auto industry and the Open Source Initiative in computer development

As I’ve noted, Mr. Sennett is more concerned than many pragmatists have been with the activity of persons in groups. Still, as is typical of the pragmatist, he features the direct engagement of the individual person with things — or put more broadly, taking real risks with entities outside of one’s control. Action projects us beyond the prison-house of the conscious mind and into connection — Mr. Sennett calls it “dialogue” — with things, our bodies, the unconscious, material conditions and other persons. He quarrels with the philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s, mistaken-to-him division between the working man and the reflective man:

“For Arendt, the mind engages once labor is done. Another more balanced view is that thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making.”

Detectable in the press of action with things, are valuable modes of thought that we should recognize, appreciate and make room for. Often, as Mr. Sennett notes, these are forms of what we call play, as when the child tugs at the eyes of his or her teddy bear in order to test the material strength of the toy.

Inquiring hands play rough with things. As Dewey put it, “when we are trying to make out the nature of a confused and unfamiliar object … [w]e turn it over, bring it into a better light, rattle it, thump it, shake it, thump, push and press it.”

Mr. Sennett would call these significant instances of the role of “material consciousness,” also of the healthy collaboration of hand and head.

History indicates that it is difficult to be — and to remain — a good pragmatist. Hegel and his follower, Marx, broke new ground into knowledge of the importance of action but both of them eventually retreated into airy theorizing that is ungrounded in experience, as did Freud as well, many of whose conclusions, we now realize, have almost no arguable basis in matters of fact.

The true pragmatist remains just this side of the discouragement, bitterness, disdain and forgetfulness that can beset us when actually doing things or watching others in that predicament.

For Mr. Sennett, major obstacles to successful action are over-control and other manifestations of perfectionism or lack of tolerance for the painstaking, slow, messy, humbling, chancy process — replete with disappointment and other unforeseen change — that ends in producing most of our best products, a noisy, quarrelsome, give-and take affair where, incidentally, the leader is not remote from — or indifferent to — the other workers.

As a good pragmatist, Robert Frost, put it, the opposite of Utopia is civilization. Mr. Sennett concludes his book by saying that “the club-footed Hephaestus, proud of his work if not of himself, is the most dignified person that we can become.”

Robert Ganz is a professor of English at George Washington University. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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