Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Review: Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were things about this book I really liked, and things that infuriated and frustrated me. Part of the author's point is to revitalize and defend manual work. He wants to show the intellectual rewarding aspects of this kind of work. This part I liked, and he does a wonderful job here, with interesting anecdotes and references to historic thinkers. He seems to want to reject the mind/body dictohomy at the root of the manual-mental work division. But in developing the framework for his argument, he reintroduces or rather fails to reject fully the mind/body dictohomy in the form of a kind of concrete-abstract dichotomy.

Now, this is a real distinction, so what I mean is he consistently priviledges knowledge and ideas that are more concrete over more abstract ones. This is related, I think, to what Ayn Rand called this the anti-conceptual mentality. She says that this mentality "treats concepts as if they were (memorized) percepts; it treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes." Crawford doesn't do this completely, but he does fail to treat abstractions as fundamentally connected to and about reality. They are, well, too abstract to provide us with guidance, validity, or objectivity in work. Only, it seems, a particular, concrete direct experience can do this. There is a ubiquitous contrast of a kind navel-gazing, head in the cloud shadow of a person with the real guy doing real work that anyone can see, experience, and measure. We can only get objectivity with things we can see, if it is abstract or far-off, it cannot serve that function, and worse, misleads us. So carpenters know when they have done a good job, they can see it, others can see it. But the manager of some team in a corporate environment has nothing to look at the end of his work day. This, Crawford claims, leaves him with no objective standards to judge his work. What follows in his account are all the problems caricatured by The Office and Dilbert.

This anti-conceptual mentality leads him to several misdiagnoses of problems with contemporary work environments and institutions (the marxist influences don't help either). Nevertheless the book is an interesting and worthwhile read, with many insights into the pleasure and value of work and the essential role that work plays in the good life.

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