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from "Thinking With Your Hands," by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Books & Culture March/April 2009

Mine is a family of craftsmen—woodworkers, to be specific. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, my father was a cabinetmaker, I have done woodworking, my sons work in wood. I have always resented the many ways in which those who work with their hands are demeaned. R. G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theory is shaped by his contrast between “mere craft,” as he calls it, and true art; the attitude expressed is typical.

I spent thirty years of my life teaching philosophy at Calvin College and fifteen teaching philosophy at Yale University. At both institutions there was a pecking order (these institutions are typical in this regard, not unique), more evident to those at the bottom of the order than to those at the top. If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—“hands” being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of his Metaphysics: “We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.”

It’s a strange attitude for Christians to hold, since Jesus was the son of a carpenter and since God is presented in the opening pages of Scripture as a maker, not a thinker. Sennett observes, correctly, that “early Christianity had from its origins embraced the dignity of the craftsman.” That dignity was vigorously reaffirmed by the early Protestant reformers.

A craftsman, for Sennett, is someone who is dedicated to doing good work for its own sake. This good work will normally have desirable consequences; if things go well, the craftsman will get paid for what he does or makes, for example. But the craftsman is not content to aim at those external consequences; if consequences become his preoccupation, he will think in terms of getting by rather than getting it right, in terms of good enough rather than good. The craftsman’s “primordial mark of identity” is that he or she is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work. Craftsmanship is quality-driven work.

Sennett holds that in thinking about craftsmanship it helps to begin by looking closely at those crafts in which one uses one’s hands to make something. But if craftsmanship is doing good work for its own sake, then craftsmanship obviously extends far beyond manual crafts. It extends to the craft of writing book reviews. It extends to the craft of governing well that I mentioned at the beginning.