The Working Man and the Philosophical Life

A review of Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford

By Jeremy Rozansky

The ancient philosophers would often compare statecraft to various professions: the doctor, the pottery-maker, the shepherd, etc. The comparison of these crafts to statecraft, which should be informed by political philosophy, implied that the other professions could also be advised by political philosophy.

It is no mistake then that a discourse about work, and specifically the worth of work, has percolated in an American context where political philosophy is constantly (and often unknowingly) debated. Bemoaning the number of bright young Americans who enter hedge funds or practice corporate law, Michelle Obama made a mid-campaign dismissal of contemporary enterprise. "Don't go into corporate America," she advised a group of Ohioans, "You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need." In favoring the "helping industry"—to use her locution—at the expense of the "money-making industry," Michelle Obama defines worthwhile work by its apparent altruism.

Conservatives and other partisans of the market gave a rebuttal best summed up by the original market partisan, Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The self-interested "money-making industry" is what serves the needs of others. A baker would not earn a profit if his bread did not satiate the hungry. Smith does not need us to aspire to help others, but rather believes the Baconian project of "easing man's estate"—general prosperity—is most ably motivated by self-interest. Michelle Obama, meanwhile, seeks prosperity of conscience, built upon the often deserved self-satisfaction of serving others. For her, altruism does not preclude material wealth—how could it when her recent experience in the non-profit world has been a part-time job and a triple figure salary?—but history suggests altruism alone is a reliable path to penury.

General American political philosophy shares more with Smith than it does with Mrs. Obama (although there are various sectors of the country that are firmly in the Obama camp). In his recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford, AM '92 PhD '00, gives a critique of what our Smithian culture defines as worthwhile work. His innovation is in looking at work not as a means to an end but as an experience capable of great worth. Thinking in this way, altruism matters, but it is not the ultimate good. Nor does Crawford want to shuck the demands of the market—he instead advocates a slight corrective for the sake of our souls. His conclusion is that we should not demean the useful arts—electrical wiring, plumbing, automotive repair, for example—but rather celebrate them, as they are more valuable intrinsically and extrinsically than much of white collar work today. In his effort to revive the dignity of the manual trades, Crawford makes Shop Class as Soulcraft the philosophical companion to Charles Murray's case for trade schools in Real Education.

Crawford argues with anecdotes. His life of odd jobs and odder mentors manages to speak for the comparative dignity of the manual trades. He grew up on a commune, worked as an electrician, graduated college with a degree in physics, took a job as a low-level "knowledge worker" in an educational resources company, received an MA and a PhD from the University of Chicago in political philosophy, and was an administrator for a Washington think-tank. Frustrated by the think-tank, Crawford used his available funds to start a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Today he is also affiliated with a political philosophy institute at the University of Virginia.

A favorite anecdote concerns the educational resources company, where Crawford, fresh out of graduate school and ready to take up the work of intelligent people, had to read scholarly papers and write what was essentially an abstract—although not the one provided. The problem? His quota was so high he had to essentially stop thinking and just mechanize his mind, producing a poor and likely useless output. The work of the intelligent required no intelligence. What did his secondary education even add?

This story, along with a more sociological discussion, builds upon our perception of a lurking absurdity to contemporary office work. One need only be peripherally aware of a television show like "The Office" in order to sense the righteous grievances of the white-collar worker.

In this vein, Crawford also points out that we have become more passive and more dependent. Cars are made for idiots, hiding their finicky innards; appliances require esoteric screwdrivers so we cannot make a futile attempt to fix them. This is a sort of soft despotism, a self-inflicted "enervation of judgment and erosion of the independent spirit." The enervation extends from the household to the workplace, where cheap thrills like pajama day are common motivating tools. Here is a taste of Crawford's insight on the subject:

The rise of "teamwork" has made it difficult to trace individual responsibility, and opened ways for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists or life coaches. Managers themselves inhabit a bewildering psychic landscape, and are made anxious by the vague imperatives they must answer to. The college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asked him about his grades and doesn't care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable compliance.

So if this enervation is what's so wrong with the knowledge-working world, what's so right with the world of grease, grime, and spit? Quite simply, the latter is the one that best approximates the philosophic, contemplative life. The learned manual trades as Crawford has known them are realms of thinking inquiry into a fixed reality with objective standards, all while buttressed by the company of friends. He is leading us to believe that if Socrates was alive today he would be more likely to change our oil than chair our university's philosophy department.

Manual work, Crawford maintains, is intellectually engaging. Our artifacts have obstacles and our machines have malfunctions. Practical wisdom derived from considerable experience is employed in tweaking this item or solving that problem, wisdom which can never be fully broken down into troubleshooting instructions. Manual work requires judgment, a judgment constantly matched by objective challenges. The carpenter's level provides instantaneous feedback, while the chirpy boss' commendations may be the cheap praise of a sensitivity training graduate. The key is the existence of external, uncontrived metrics like a patient's health or a bike's balance. Working subject to a world definitely not of our creation also deflects our potential narcissism. This is meaningful work because it is freeing work. We are having an honest interaction with the nature of things, without the contrivances of the modern workplace and away from the company of sophistic managers. In this sense, the tradesman is like the philosopher who is not fooled by the shadow puppets of Plato's Cave.

Crawford avoids nostalgic pedantry about simpler times or the logic of alienation. He even takes on the economic arguments. The jobs that will never be outsourced are not service sector jobs but jobs in which the product cannot be sent through a wire. Practical wisdom has not even been nearly replicated by robots—we will still need humans to fix things. Nor does Crawford abandon prudence and follow his argument to its logical conclusions, which would undermine the system of supply and demand. Rather, he speaks of finding cracks in the market like his motorcycle shop where such trades are profitable and refunding shop class and trade schools. He is not leading the Repairman's Revolution but is merely saying, "Repair is nice work, if you can get it." One must wonder, of course, how many more tradesmen our economy could provide for. To do so requires reverting back to economistic thinking about the ends of work. Crawford's motorcycle repair is an industry that exists because people desire the thrill of a motorcycle ride; do we not need more thrill-seekers in order to have more Crawfords?

Shop Class as Soulcraft is really an argument for shades of the philosophic life and against assembly-line-ism. The problem with so-called "knowledge work" in the white-collar service industry, aside from the lack of objective standards, is that it breaks up knowledge into rules, laws, and formulae. It never asks for judgment or skill and it presumes creativity is an amorphous result of sixteen years of education when creativity is really a byproduct of mastery. And mastery is only possible when the poorly-wrought veil of procedural instructions is lifted from the object.

The assembly line, of course, has helped to produce immense human prosperity. So Crawford challenges us: at what cost to our prosperity are we willing to compromise the dignity of our work? The two are hard to reconcile, but this is not the final thrust of the argument. Rather, he implies at various points that the removal of judgment from white collar work is not reflected in the market value of the work. What use is a formulaic summary of a scholarly article when there is an abstract? If Crawford is right then we are actually employing our brains not just poorly but inefficiently—maybe the market will correct for it. This may already be happening—Wikipedia has found labor because it gives an opportunity for talented people to use judgment, work independent of corporate directives, and generate a tangible product that can be reviewed objectively. Wikipedia has, in turn, found consumers (and donors) because it uses its workers' judgment to create something valuable. There is no reason why this would be limited to non-profits like Wikipedia. Knowledge work can have the components of the philosophic life that make the manual arts so nourishing—Wikipedia is just one example.

This brings us back to the topic of work in America. Maybe the market will self-correct and the Wikipedia model will beat out the model used by Crawford's former employer. It would be for the good. The independence that is the nerve of American democracy should be present in how we spend the bulk of our time, working. We democrats should consider the meaning of our work for our independence and for our democracy. As Crawford implicitly points out, we would rather have a nation measuring itself against a carpenter's level than hearing glib praise. We would also prefer a nation that practices and refines its capacity of judgment to a passive enervated one. A democracy can little stand a people who are not supposed to think. The question for a democracy is not whether we work for a non-profit, but whether the work we do is of soulful profit. Shop Class as Soulcraft is a small book that explores just that and, at its best, it leads us, whether we are destined for blue or white-collar work, to find in our workday the rubric of the philosophic life that so advantages a democratic citizen and a thinking, dignified human.