“To House a Poetic Impulse”


For months now I’ve been knee-deep in the mechanics of the tea house project: timber and stone, plans and dimensions, shavings and sawdust. It about time to step back and consider the meaning. In that spirit,  I’ve posted an excerpt from Okakura’s Book of Tea on the Texts page above. Have a read.

Mechanics and Experimentalists


Robert Hooke’s  Illustration of Feltmakers at Work, probably meant to accompany his “Report on the Feltmaker’s Trade”, c. 1666. Hooke was a member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Click to enlarge.

For artisans, today’s maker movement has meant not just better income, but a little more social esteem, too. That’s a welcome change, since occupational prestige has generally not come easily to craftspeople in the West, even in modern times. Plato’s attitude was mixed at best, and ambivalence probably best sums up attitudes toward craft in Western societies since. In the medieval era, making was often lumped together with manual labor of any type, all of which was considered undignified. Laboring to modify, shape, and assemble material rarely inspired respect. Though there were exceptions, they tended to highlight the rule. Notably, the Carolingian and high medieval eras saw practitioners of the mechanical arts granted a better place at the table, with some theologians even casting the “mechanics” as co-laborers in a novel and optimistic program of renewing fallen creation rather then simply waiting for it’s destruction when Christ would return. It had been thought that the world had grown old (mundus senescit) and was ready to expire or be put out of its misery; now it appeared that it could be revived by employing the mechanical arts alongside the liberal. Such exceptions helped set the stage for modern attitudes towards exploring and intervening in material processes, attitudes that would mean increased dignity for those whose “stations” involved working in matter.

One of the most important cultural episodes affecting craft’s standing in modernity was also profoundly significant in the establishment of modern science and industry. While it generally retained a religious background, early modern philosophy concerned itself with worldly matters to an unprecedented degree. Finding a workable politics for a rapidly fragmenting religious scene was one of its major preoccupations. Another, of course, was the investigation of nature. The new natural philosophers looked to the cosmos not so much as a realm of religious symbols, or as a theater in which to contemplate the divine harmony of heavenly bodies for the sake of harmonizing one’s soul (the tradition of Pythagoras and Plato), but as an arena of regular causal relations which could be turned to society’s advantage. While physical causes might be hidden from superficial observation, these philosophers bet that nature’s secrets would yield to patient, hands on inquiry guided by careful reflection.

As a result, the seventeenth century saw an unprecedented flowering of rational experimentation–empirical testing of observationally informed conjectures about the causes of physical phenomena. Gentleman inquirers could now be found mucking about with tubes, compounds, levers and fire, or gathering specimens in nature’s ruder corners. Intellectually speaking, their goal was broad theories about nature’s causal powers. Certainly this new experimental philosophy was recommended partly as a continuation of the longstanding tradition of contemplating (theoria) the presence of divine wisdom in the cosmos. But this wisdom was now more the ingenuity of an engineer revealed in his  artifacts than an outpouring of divine energy coursing through a hierarchy of natural forms, each reaching back toward it’s source, embodying that fulness in its own, finite capacity.  The point of observing divine wisdom in the universe had changed, too. Attending to nature’s design might be an end itself; it might even provide moral lessons (the industriousness of the bees, etc.); but it was now principally for the sake of utility rather than ethical formation.

It would not be too long before the mechanic’s universe became the mechanical universe and the cosmos was treated as wholly an affair of matter and its causal interactions. Mechanistic theories harkening back to Greek materialism had sprouted as early as the seventeenth century.   By the nineteenth century, complaints about nature’s disenchantment at the hands of mechanical philosophers, complaints that these cataloguers of nature had, in Keat’s image, unwoven the rainbow, would become commonplace. And heroic attempts would be made by philosophers like Kant to make place for human freedom and moral purpose in–or alongside–Newton’s universe.

But “mechanical philosophy” might just as well describe the new experimental approach to nature, one willing to get its hands dirty, willing to take up instruments and apply them to matter, and willing to learn from the vulgar who did that for a living. While Cicero’s ancient report that there was nothing liberal about a mechanic’s shop (see “Occupations Liberal and Illiberal” below) reflected common sentiment among early moderns, by the sixteenth century some had begun to say otherwise.

The Italian humanist Juan Luis Vives (1493-1540) exhorted gentleman inquirers that they “must not be ashamed to enter into the workshops and into the factories, asking questions of the artisans and trying to become cognizant of the details of their work.” (Rossi, 6).  Bernard Palissy, a ceramist whose strenuous researches into producing enamel were, if his own reports are to be believed, nothing less than heroic, also challenged his educated contemporaries to leave their libraries and slum it in his shop. There, he boasted, they would find superior knowledge of natural processes.

Through practice I prove that the theories of many philosophers, even the most ancient and famous ones, are erroneous in many points. Anyone can ascertain this for himself in two hours merely by taking the trouble to visit my workshop (Rossi, 2).

Francis Bacon, one of the grandfathers of the modern scientific enterprise, summed up the class hinderance to experimental science like this:

One evil that has grown to an extraordinary degree comes from a certain opinion or belief, longstanding but self-important and harmful, namely, that it is beneath a man’s dignity to spend much time and trouble on experiments and particulars that come under the senses and are materially bounded, especially since they are usually laborious to look into, too base for serious thought, awkward to explain, degrading to carry out, endless in number and minute in subtlety. So it comes about that the true path is not only untrodden, but actually shut off and barred, experience being not so much abandoned or badly handled as rejected with disdain (New Organon, 83).

Bacon himself gave craftspeople only a minor role in the program of scientific research he championed, but he still gave them one. And as his program was taken up by others, the collective enterprise of marshaling knowledge took on a socially leveling edge. Through their intimacy with materials and processes, common artisans had an important place in enlarging natural knowledge. Since knowledge enabled control of natural processes, they could now make a deeper contribution to alleviating human frailty in the face of nature. They would continue making useful objects as they had before; but now they would also aid in the invention of new, more powerful technologies by contributing data for explanatory accounts. Their contribution could now be higher as well as deeper, since it helped to produce theory: articulate knowledge which, on the older but still widespread ranking of human virtues, was more excellent than mere know-how.

Would Cicero have approved this mingling of classes? Might a visit to Palissy’s shop  have convinced him of the potter’s claims to have satisfied the requirement of a “high degree of intelligence” in the occupations of gentlemen he had laid out? Had he lived to see the modern use of artisanal knowledge in applications “from which no small benefit to society is derived”, would he have loosened his ban on mechanical occupations? (On Duties, I. XLII; Trans. Walter Miller). I think its fair to say he may have moved some on the issue. But it’s also worth observing that for a society as largely given over to utility and “sensual pleasures” and so little concerned with the public good as modernity would become, he’d have had very little sympathy.

However his sense of gentlemanly decorum might have guided Cicero, Bacon’s experimentalist project was adopted widely and enthusiastically enough in England to constitute a cultural movement among “the better sort” (who, by the way, were still reading Cicero on social order). The chief institution of this movement was the famed Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded in 1661.  Here, too, we find intellectuals exhorted to get over engrained social distinctions for the sake of useful truths they might find among the craftsmen.


Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768Click to enlarge.

These exhortations did not go unheeded. The new natural philosophers did  in fact rub shoulders with mechanics and did take up vulgar artisanal endeavors for science’s sake.  Nevertheless, even members of the Society felt the need to distinguish themselves from their new collaborators of the lower orders (who in turn were not always ready to give up trade secrets). In fact, useful works or not, this mixing of estates was seen by many outside the Society as a threat to the body politic, a confusion of high and low that endangered social order at large–that complementary hierarchy of members they continued to think was natural. And the old revolutionary rhyme about Adamic work from the Peasant’s Revolt centuries earlier still rang in their ears:

When Adam delved and Eve spun
Who was then the gentleman?

Among leveling experimentalists, “delving” came to mean inquiring into nature’s secrets for the sake of cultivation and mastery. This was the calling of virtually all of Adam’s descendants, lending the same dignity to all. In response, defenders of the ancient distinctions would fight these egalitarian impulses of the new science in poems, plays, sermons, and policy.

The backlash reminds us not to overestimate the social promotion of the mechanics that came with experimental natural philosophy (see the excerpt of my review of Glenn Adamson’s The Invention of Craft, a few entries back). Craft would still need defending against invidious distinctions in the eighteenth century when Diderot and D’Almbert set out to realize Bacon’s idea for a complete inventory of modern making. Still, natural philosophy’s appeal to the mechanics was an important democratizing moment with regard to occupations, one in a series of modest steps that would begin to outpace the old hierarchies, even while new divisions appeared. About two hundred years and the industrial revolution separate the experimentalist celebration of craft-knowledge from Marx’s claim that fabrication is fundamental to humanity, that in making, humans make themselves.  Another century and a half on, it would be probably foolish to think that in today’s maker movement we are seeing the beginnings of a large-scale return to handicraft or a widespread change in social attitudes toward the “mechanicals”. But as another moment of leveling, it is worth keeping an eye on.



Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004.

Piccioto, Johanna. Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010.

Rossi, Paolo. Philosophy, Technology, and the Arts in the Early Modern Era. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2004

Hermann Muthesius Beyond Function


jap kat abb 110, s. 167

Chair by Hermann Muthesius


My last post suggested that both as an imperative and as a practical matter, functionalism in design was misguided. Function alone is inadequate to fully determine form, and if that’s the case, there can be no imperative to let it do so. (One might question the imperative on grounds of value, as well.) What many early functionalists were fighting against in their day was a culture of ostentatious display which unthinkingly borrowed the decorative trappings of past glory in order to magnify itself. Understandably, functionalists wanted to clear the decks. But they tossed overboard things they might have kept, in my opinion.

I’ve recently been reading Hermann Muthesius, one of the forces behind the Deutsche Werkbund, and a design theorist as interested in anyone in developing forms appropriate to an industrial age– “valid for our time”,  as others put it. Muthesius was no great friend of ornament, preferring “pure, unburdened objects”.  And yet he recognized the need for something in made objects going beyond mere functionality.  A passage from his 1907 lecture, ‘The Significance of Applied Art,” is worth citing at length:


At the very outset, the sum and substance of modern applied art was this: first to clarify the function of the object, and then to evolve the form from that function….Design based on function thus came together with design based on the character of the material; and with respect for material went respect for the form of construction appropriate to that material. Function, material, and construction are the only imperatives that the modern artist-craftsman observes.

In actuality, the form of the object is not always exclusively determined by these three principles of design. For human feeling intervenes between the mind and the hand. And it intervenes with particular force in those works that are designed to please. The engineer may be able to exclude emotion–though even this is doubtful; at all events, it would be totally absurd to expect an artist-designer to suppress emotion, and with it imagination, in order to develop forms through a mathematical and logical train of thought. There is an emotional element in modern applied art–perhaps more than in the past. (1)

Of course, this doesn’t amount to a ringing endorsement of decorative art. There is no talk, for instance, of any fourth imperative to apply pleasing forms to functional objects. In fact he denies this: there are only three demands of “modern applied art”.  But we do find a frank admission here about how things are in fact designed, even when those duties are met. And beyond pure functionality, Muthesius grants permission to form supplied by “imagination” and “feeling”, so long as this doesn’t devolve into ersatz finishes, sentimental imitation of historic styles, or “theatrical affectations”.


Haus Kramer, 1912

Muthesius does not make clear just how much “imagination” and “feeling” license. But just as Adolf Loos’ severe prohibition of ornament in his notorious “Ornament and Crime” is qualified by a look at his architecture, so the sterner notes of Muthesius’ lecture are softened by a look at his own design work. The “strict principle of design by function, materials and application” shouldn’t be taken to exclude works like those shown here, in which emotion and imagination were pretty clearly at work to produce designs that pleased aesthetically as well as they performed functionally. For Muthesius, observing the threefold principle was necessary, but not sufficient, for good contemporary design.





(1) Trans. David Britt. The Theory of Decorative Art: An Anthology of European and American Writings, ed. Isabelle Frank (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).









Traditions of Proportion


Thanks to Namita Gupta Wiggers for posting this article  in her Critical Craft Forum (Facebook) about  Keita Suzuki’s Japanese rice bowls, designed using traditional proportions. Namita asked about other proportional systems still in use by craftspeople, which brought Japanese architectural proportions to mind. After a brief exposition of the kiwari system,  I consider questions about its motivation in concern for utility versus desire for aesthetic value.

In traditional Japanese architecture, the scheme of proportion for the many different exposed members of a building is known as kiwari, or wood allotment.  Allowing for regional differences, kiwari seems to have been fairly standardized. Architectural refinements for social status and taste could be introduced stylistically, through intricacy of joinery techniques, in overall scale, and by means of quality of materials.  But kiwari served as the guide that allowed one to derive the sizes of the various members–finish rafters, doorway heads, and so on–from the basic post dimension that had been settled on. In a moderately sized home in the shoin style (14th C. on) this would often be about 4.8″. So, according to kiwari, the height of a typical finish-rafter, for instance, would be something like 40% of the dimension of a post face, or about 1.9″. The size of a tokonoma post might be 110% of the standard post size. And so on.

Mockup of the roof eave for a tea house showing finish-rafters (taruki), ceiling boards, kaioi and erago (for which there are no corresponding English terms). The proportions of the rafters to the pieces sitting on them is arrived at with kiwari.

Mockup of the roof eave for a tea house showing finish-rafters (taruki), ceiling boards, kaioi and erago (for which there are no corresponding English terms). The proportions of the rafters to the pieces sitting on them is arrived at with kiwari.

In addition, the posts themselves were laid out on a grid of roughly six foot intervals (1 ken)–the length of a tatami mat. This grid would be subdivided for smaller spaces such as hallways or decorative alcoves (tokonoma). The number of 3’x6′ tatami mats in a room would in turn guide in determining the height of its ceiling.

Kiwari was originally expressed in units of  shaku, which are just under one foot long.  These are divided into tenths to arrive at sun (about 1-3/16″), and again into bu and rin.  In his excellent Building the Japanese House Today (102), Len Brackett points out that this system of measurement is convenient for carpenters since it allows for units easy enough to visually discriminate but small enough to make for very accurate work. And calculations are easy because the shaku system is base ten.

The Aesthetics and Utility of Proportion
Some, like Brackett, have doubted that the overall proportional system had its roots in aesthetic sensibility, and speculate instead that it was ease of construction that motivated its development (48). But any number of convenient, standardized proportional systems would have done the job. (Compare David Pye’s polemic against functionalist design strictures in The Nature and Aesthetics of Design.) After one hits upon the idea of expediting work through standardizing sizes, one still faces a lot of decisions regarding number of pieces and their relative sizes, even given certain structural requirements. Standardization alone will not determine proportions among the various members.  Surely, then, the aesthetic virtues of the proportions of shoin architecture were not merely a “fortuitous” result of ease of construction, though utility played a role.

In downplaying the place of aesthetic preference in the development of the structural elements of the classic Japanese house, Heino Engel goes still farther, at least in one respect. Discussing the structural shortcomings of classical Japanese dwellings, he rejects the notion that aesthetic concerns stymied engineering advances in their design, i.e., that the lack of diagonal bracing was due to an aesthetic preference for right angles. Instead, he finds here a “distinct disregard for form”  and questions whether

“… during feudalistic society, when the mass of people hardly had enough to sustain themselves, man would concern himself with formalistic ideas, and even less would intentionally sacrifice security, durability and economy for visual effect” (Measure and Construction of the Japanese House, 71).

Engel may be right in this instance. Perhaps basic needs for food and shelter (along with traditionalism and Buddhist quietism) did retard growth in engineering principles. But his general line of thinking here flies in the face a host of anthropological commonplaces about humans’ decorative impulse and its common lack of what moderns would consider usefulness. One might argue in fact that humans as such are just those animals that not only make tools (homo faber), but make them aesthetically pleasing (homo aestheticus). This is still largely true today, in spite of twentieth century functionalist teaching that aesthetic excellence accrues straight away once the most efficient design is reached–no more is necessary (and, according to some, any more is decadent).

Clearly, like their medieval counterparts, very early humans and their forebears had to hustle for their sustenance.  And yet we know that considerations of visual form were central to their practices of making. Witness the piles of finely shaped axeheads from the paleolithic period, for instance. Even machines supposedly made with only functional efficiency in mind show evidence of aesthetic sensibility in their shape and finish. As Pye points out, we have a penchant for apparently “useless work”: simply flattening a plaster wall is an act of expenditure having little to do with straightforward architectural utility. As is planing every finish-rafter of  a Japanese house until it glows with a mirror polish. Of course aesthetic pleasure may also serve as a means to meeting basic needs–needs for procreation, for instance. But that’s a topic for another time.

Tea House vs. Library

A basic concept sketch from the studio of Paul Discoe Design. Click to enlarge.

A basic concept sketch from the studio of Paul Discoe Design. Click to enlarge.


There is physical labor, and there is intellectual labor.”    –Victor Hugo

One might doubt that intellectual work deserves to be called “labor”, but it’s certainly work. Combining it with full-time shop work is always challenging for me (see my post “Inventing the History of Craft” on the Greek notion of “banausia”). This is especially true with demanding projects like the tea house above, designed by Paul Discoe and now in progress. Its modest size–about nine by fifteen–hides its true scale: it has, for instance, twenty-six doors, thirty-eight finish-rafters, and posts made from natural rounds which are scribed onto stones. Clearly the library will have to wait. Keep an eye out for posts on the tea house’s progress in Shop Diaries.







Oakland Blacksmith Jim Austin

I learned about Jim Austin some ten years ago through my friend Wade Childress. Wade was making new cabinetry for a Japanese house in Tiburon, California, designed and built by Len Brackett’s East Wind. The traditional Japanese cabinet (tansu) hardware for the cabinets was hand forged by Jim, and was extraordinary. I have since used it on tansu for clients of my own. Jim also promotes traditional smithing through classes at his shop in Oakland, California.


Inventing the History of Craft

It’s been a long time since my last entry. Projects at the shop and in the library have kept me away. I’ll soon post a few details in Bench Diaries from the carpentry side of things. What follows now is from the books side: excerpts of a critical review article to appear in The Journal of Craft (Cahiers Metiers d’ Art). The book is Glenn Adamson’s The Invention of Craft, (Bloomsbury, 2013). I had intended to write a short notice, but it grew into something bigger. On reflection, I don’t see how I thought I’d manage the shorter piece, since many of Adamson’s topics are ones I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on for a large scale project in the works. The subject matter was already on my radar, and I found a lot on it in The Invention of Craft to disagree with. The second half of the piece, which I have not included here, is both historical–dealing with Ruskin, especially–and philosophical. The philosophical section centers on skilled know-how and its relation to belief and the use of concepts (see my “In the Bones” post, here). How we understand the relation of these more intellectual operations to more intuitive stretches of our activity has a good deal of bearing on our estimation of craft’s worth.

P.s.: The footnotes have now made the jump.




Bookbinders, from Diderot and D'alembert's Encyclopedia (Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des artes et des metiers, par une societe des de gens de lettres), late 18th century.

Bookbinders, from Diderot and D’alembert’s Encyclopedia (Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des artes et des metiers, par une societe des de gens de lettres), late 18th century.

Historical and Philosophical Reflections on The Invention of Craft

      For Leland Wilshire and Joe Jeppson

Though his title may suggest a study of craft’s ancient beginnings, Adamson says he wants to examine something just a few centuries old (1). Skilled handwork didn’t begin in the 18th century, as he is aware (xvi). Instead, along with the rise of industry a new notion of artisanal work emerged, and this is what he plans to investigate: the invention of craft as a category of activity distinct, especially, from that of industrial production. At times he makes bold claims that this new notion just is craft, as though “craft” named only a concept, and just one concept at that (2); in more sober moments, though, he implicitly distinguishes it from other varieties: modern ‘craft’ is his topic.

His main task is in intellectual history, then, but Adamson also provides an unconventional account of the social politics that went along with the modern concept of craft, and of the fate of artisanal work in the era of industrialization. He has something to say, too, by way of drawing lessons for the future of skilled handwork after modernity. Unfortunately, I’ll need to skip those lessons, along with many other matters in this rich and fascinating book. I want to focus instead on three issues–two from the history of ideas and one from the philosophy of action. All of them have to do with philosophical assessments of what craft activity is, and their bearing on social attitudes toward craftspeople.

The Modern Notion and its Antecedents
The modern idea was developed, says Adamson, by champions of technical progress in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who thought pre-industrial practices of making needed to be brought up to date. `And though these Improvers would succeed in reorganizing craft for greater efficiency, it would not be replaced; for many products, it remained indispensable. The received story of the artisans’ fall put forward by the likes of Ruskin and Morris, in which machines put artisans out of work or reduced them to mere attendants, was a hasty and neurotic response to the disorienting effects of modernity. Skilled handwork was not crushed beneath the weight of machines. It was rationalized in the modern spirit–examined, described, visually represented, and thereby managed for maximum return–certainly; but not stamped out.

There are intriguing case studies here, but as evidence regarding industry’s effects on artisans, they don’t go much beyond anecdote. A serious assessment would require a pretty massive study with plenty of data ranging across trades, regions and cultures–work more like Maxine Berg’s, on which Adamson at times relies. Still, Invention makes a contribution to that assessment, lays down interesting lines of inquiry, and shows that further historical investigation is worthwhile.

How was artisanry characterized by those who sought to bring it under the rule of modern efficiency? How did it become, so to speak, craft? First, it was portrayed as mysterious, relying on secrets, tricks, and techniques that were more caught than taught. Secondly, craft was held to operate tacitly, largely without verbal articulation, self-consciousness or advanced cognition–in a mode of action Adamson calls “flow”, following psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (3). Thirdly, it was said to be conservative; relying uncritically on traditional practices of transmission and technique, it was thought resistant to improvement.

As just outlined, modern ‘craft’ is neutral, neither a term of approval or disapproval. Variations arise when one goes on to make  judgements about the worth or utility (4) of the characteristics it ascribes to artisanal work: e.g., traditionalism thwarts needed improvement, tacitness is insufficiently rational, and so on. While the Improvers tended to deplore the three characteristics in this way, others celebrated them. In general, Adamson wants to undermine the modern idea, but as we’ll see, it isn’t always clear, for any of the three properties, whether what he objects to is the simple attribution of it, or to a given evaluation of the feature ascribed.

It looks odd when Adamson makes claims to the effect that before industrial production craft could not have been identified since there was then nothing to which to contrast it. In his special sense, the concept ‘craft’ was only developed beginning in the 1800’s when and because industrial methods of production emerged. So the claim that instances of craft couldn’t have been identified before then is perhaps no more surprising than the claim that a certain concept was not yet in use, and could not have been applied until it was developed by way of contrast to modern methods of production.

But, of course, we can identify a garden variety concept of craft in use dating from long before modern industry (5). Various forms of preindustrial production had been catalogued since the Greeks (whose philosophers, in fact, had pretty sophisticated theories of their nature). Many of the activities they would have called techne or poieisis, and Latin speakers ars, would have been called “craft” by average, modern English users, whether or not they employed the detailed modern concept Adamson lays out (6).

In Western antiquity, artisanal work was commonly contrasted to the liberal arts (those “becoming to a gentleman” or to liberales) and called the “vulgar” or mechanical arts with connotations of servitude, lack of autonomy and, at times–pace Adamson (chapter 3)–mindlessness, as when Aristotle says that “manual workers are like certain lifeless things, which act, indeed, but act without knowing what they do, as fire burns…`artisans perform their actions through habit. Thus the master craftsmen are more estimable and superior in wisdom to the artisans not because they can do things, but because they possess a theory and know the causes (7).”

Skilled handwork was distinguished from action proper (praxis), from contemplation (theoria) from farming, and from mere toil. It was set off from and compared to nature’s manner of production, on the one hand, and God’s creative activity on the other. This network of categories was well worked over by the high medieval period, and was especially pertinent to the new meliorative thrust–arguably the roots of the modern ideal of progress–of the 12th century. The status of the various “stations” would then be reevaluated, and a new theology of work would elevate labor a few notches. The softening of the hierarchical sensibility would continue with Reformation ideas about the priesthood of believers and the dignity of vocation. But mentalities die hard, and to one degree or another, depending on the region, the basic conceptual and hierarchical framework was still alive even up to the time of industry.

Not only had these distinctions been in circulation for a very long time, but the detailed modern conception had strong precursors, too. Homer’s stories are full of incidents of wonder (thauma) at works so expertly wrought as to suggest divine origins (daidala). The ancients didn’t share the modern delight, which Adamson nicely elaborates, in piercing the veil of mystery with naturalistic explanations and disclosure of trade secrets. Still, with the rise of Greek science and public reason, complaisance with mere wonder at cunningly made objects eventually waned, and a wordier curiosity began to supplement astonishment. More and more, logos would accompany thauma.

Something like the idea of flow was also known among the Greeks. Ad hoc, improvisational intelligence operating more rapidly and less consciously than deliberative practical reason was known as metis, translated “cunning intelligence” by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (8). Like thauma, it was closely associated with Hephaestus and Athena, and especially with Athena’s protege, the “ever resourceful” (polumetis) Odysseus. Best described as “crafty”, he is the model of metis: always ready with a trick, as when he deceives Cyclops by claiming to be “no-one” (me tis), and good with his hands. He is, as Adamson might say, manipulative.

Though individual works might be highly esteemed in Western antiquity, skilled workman usually were not (9). The smith-god Hephaestus, whose function is almost entirely technological, is lame, and something of a laughing stock among the gods. Athena is revered, but on account war craft and skill in debate rather than her artisanry in weaving—though here, too, a close connection with the polis sets her work apart (1o). One reason for the relatively meager esteem of artisans among citizens was this intuitive, metic character of their work (though their was, to be sure, plenty of explicit, teachable technique involved in most trades). Though in the Timaeus Plato makes the well ordered cosmos the work of a craftsman (demiourgos), in the Laws he doubts that those reliant on hunches, knacks, and know-how would be capable of the kind articulate speech, fine distinctions, and moral character required of a citizens. He therefore excludes the artisans from citizenship in a partition of occupations based on what could be called the Margites principle: one person, one expertise. The polis needs hedgehogs, not foxes; citizenship is too demanding to admit of other occupations (11). And Plato stood within a tradition that looked down on mechanical, “banausic” occupations that hindered higher cognitive functions (mathematics, dialectic, contemplation) by wrecking the body through immobility and exhaustion. Being able to “give an account”, so crucial for Plato throughout the dialogues, was out of reach for most workman. The few masters who could explain their domain of expertise from first principles on up garnered his praise, but not the majority, who merely followed the conventions of their craft (12). The trickery and instability associated with metis also seems to have worried him. He inveighed against the theological slander of the poets, especially Homer, to defend the moral character of the Gods, who employ the light of reason in the pursuit of a harmonious, stable universe rather than relying on guess work, shape-shifting and tricks.

The revival of antiquity, first within scholasticism and then among the humanists, ensured that these ideas about artisanry’s nature and status would not have been forgotten by the time modernity was under way. To be sure, the Platonic ambivalence toward techne and poeisis had been eroded by many forces–by the fruits of technological improvements, by the new humanism of the “School of Chartres”, as well as by the preeminence of Aristotle, who had been interested in physical as well as metaphysical matters, in the early universities. With the Renaissance, artisans received a further promotion, both in terms of their ameliorative function and their relationship to truth. It would become increasingly common among the scientific intelligentsia to ascribe to them knowledge and not just knack (13). More and more, polite society would indulge inventors and discoverers (virtuosi) in dirtying their hands in pursuit of useful knowledge (successor in many circles to contemplation), as Adam’s task of naming and cultivating the earth (“delving”) became increasingly popular among gentleman. (Painting, too, would be promoted to the list of the liberal arts, as it came to be connected with leisured contemplation and careful observation). But mere artisans toiling at benches and anvils were still commonly contrasted unflatteringly to practitioners of the liberal arts with regard to their capacities, aims, and the objects of their attention. In broad society, they were still “mechanics”, with many of the social connotations attaching to that term since Aristotle and Cicero. Even after the rise of experimentalism among noble inquirers, encyclopedists Diderot and D’Alembert felt the need to address the prejudice head-on. Diderot summarized the regrettable common attitude as had Francis Bacon, who had defended artisanal pursuits for their scientific potential two hundred years earlier: “the dignity of the human mind is lowered by long and frequent intercourse with experiments and particulars (15).”

All of this strongly suggests that the detailed notion of “craft” current in industrial modernity, along with its low appraisal relative to other categories of activity, is not of uniquely modern vintage.  But I suspect Adamson is right in holding that it was the most representative view during the era of industry. Whether it remains current after the recent blooming of DIY and artisan movements, is a question for another time.


1. Glenn Adamson, The Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
2. To avoid confusion, when I use the term craft by itself to refer to a concept of craft instead of to instances of craft activity, I’ll set it off with single quotations marks.
3.  See his popular  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (San Francisco: Harper, 1990).
4. I don’t mean to conflate these two. Importantly, much of the debate about the loss of craft in modernity centers on the distinction between activities which are ends in themselves and those which are means to some other end. The latter are utilitarian or instrumental goods. The Improvers often cited the greater efficiency of modernized craft management, sometimes explicitly stating what they thought that efficiency was good for, like the greater well-being of the public at large.  In response, the Arts and Crafts movement often insisted that skilled and creative manual work was an end in itself, and could  in that way stand as a constitutive part of one’s well-being. (Note that something can be both and end in itself and and a means to other ends. I may enjoy running both for its own sake and for its health benefits.)
5.  Adamson himself recognizes something like this basic idea of craft. He refers to  a “commonsense” notion of “making something well through hand skill” and is tempted to call it craft, but then resists, saying craft is wholly a modern construction, i.e., reserving the term for an idea rather than an activity or its products.

Adapting David Wiggins’ terms in Sameness and Substance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980) p. 179, we might say that the modern, detailed notion of craft goes beyond the basic concept (something like skilled handwork) to become a conception of craft.
6.   For instance, Cicero, De Officiis I.xlii.
7. Metaphysics, 981b1.
8. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, trans. Janet Lloyd (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978).
9. Plutarch’s view was typical: “No young man of good birth having seen the Zeus of Pisa or the Hera of Argos desired to become Pheidias or Polycleitus, nor Anacreon, Philemon, or Archilochus for having been delighted with their poems. A work may delight us with its charm, but there is no need to regard its creator with admiration.” Cited in Austin and Vidal Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press,  1980). In some circles there were exceptions for certain recognized masters.
10. Especially if Indra Kagis McEwen is right that the polis was “woven”. See her Socrates’ Ancestor: An Essay on Architectural Beginnings (Cambridge: MIT Press 1993).
11. See Hesiod, “Margites”.
12. Republic, 1605.
13. See Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011) and Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, Technology, and the Arts in the Early Modern Era, New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
14. See D’Alembert’s Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 1751 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merill, 1963) and Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia entry, “Art”, reprinted in Art in Theory, 1648–1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
Joanna Picciolito’s very interesting Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) has just come into my hands.  In her judgment, though experimentalism promoted leveling with respect to the labor of knowledge-gathering, it was hardly “unaffected by a society that was obessessed with protecting the privileges of rank and sex.” She considers this egalitarian strand a “crushed potential” (Zizek) “that never found successful political expression in the legislative arena and found only fitful expression outside of it” (25).
15. Ibid

Occupations Liberal and Illiberal

060924-182957 Musicians mosaic by Dioscurides of Samos from Villa of Cicero in Pompeii

Mosaic depicting musicians, from the so-called Villa of Cicero, Pompeii,1st century BCE, signed Dioskourides of Samos.

Wheelwright philosopher George Sturt (see “In The Bones,” below), describing his experience in assisting a master cart-maker in the family shop, says something that many of his readers would have found surprising.

Truly it was a liberal education to work under Cook’s guidance. I never could get axe or plane or chisel sharp enough to satisfy him; but I never doubted, then or since that his tiresome fastidiousness over tools and handiwork sprang from a knowledge as valid as any artist’s (The Wheelwright’s Shop, Cambridge UP, 54).

Equating a manual trade–what Hugh of St. Victor would have called a “mechanical art”– with anything “liberal” runs counter to a tradition dating back to Greece and Rome. “Liberal education” gets its name from the ancient “liberal arts”, disciplines which had more to do with philosophical contemplation than with usefulness, and which were the domain of those privileged people whose economic standing freed them up for the practice of virtue and politics.

In spite of the great cultural distance between them, we may contrast Sturt’s words with Cicero’s discussion of liberal and illiberal occupations in On Duties, his handbook for the conduct of the dignified. Its ranking of occupations was fairly representative of its time, and would prove durable for a long while afterward. Economic historian M. I. Finley calls On Duties “one of the most widely read ethical treatises ever written in the west.” (The Ancient Economy, University of California, 1974, p.42), and whether or not Sturt had direct contact with it, its ideals for the gentleman were still quite influential in Sturt’s England. Here is Cicero:

Now in regard to trades and other means of livelihood , which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman (liberales) and which are to be considered vulgar (sordid), we have been taught, in general as follows. First, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people’s ill-will, as those of tax-gatherers and userers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen (mercinnarriorum) whom we pay for mere manual labor (operae) not for artistic skill (artes emuntur), for in their case the very wage they receive is pledge of their slavery (servitutis). . . . And all mechanics (opificesque) are engaged in vulgar trades (artes) for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable are those trades that cater to sensual pleasures:

Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, poulterers,
And Fisherman,

as Terence says. Add to these, if you please, the perfumers, dancers, and the whole corps de ballet.

But the professions (artibus) in which either a higher degree of intelligence (prudentia) is required or from which no small benefit (utilitas) to society is derived–medicine and architecture, for example, and teaching–these are proper (honestarum) for those whose social position (ordini) they become.

Against this background, Sturt’s metaphor is striking, though it’s not clear precisely what he meant to convey with it. Perhaps by “liberal” he wanted to indicate the comprehensive nature of the knowledge Cook transmitted in the shop. And he clearly wanted to elevate Cook to the level, at least in terms of skill, of the painters and other “artists” who in the preceding centuries had graduated to the ranks of the “polite.” Since the eighteenth century or so when that social promotion was cemented, Marx and Ruskin had intervened, too, and Sturt was sympathetic to their celebration of labor. His purpose was subversive: Cook’s workshop know-how, while it didn’t count as “science”, was nonetheless ennobling and worthy of admiration. In its attention to the perfection of its object, was it even, maybe, a little like contemplation?