At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not. – William Faulkner
I came across the term intellectual craftmanship in Arthur Frank’s book Letting Stories Breathe, which he, in turn, has taken from C. Wright Mills’ work, The Sociological Imagination. Social science as the practice of a craft, the idea of workmanship as related to research, of not splitting our work from our lives (I don’t think anyone should, I don’t think it’s even possible, but that’s a whole ‘nother polemic), building up the habit of self-reflection, of writing – well, hallelujah and amen.
Crazy that Mills wrote about this in 1959 and it’s still not widely understood. Read, discussed, theorised, a part of the canon, all those things and more. But understood? I can only evaluate it by the research I have read, by the researchers I have met, by the students I have sat next to, but I’m going to say that the understanding is rare. Not, thank God, absent. But rare. Which implies the colossally hubristic idea that I understand what intellectual craftsmanship is, and maybe I do and likely I don’t. Certainly not as well as I could. But one thing I am sure of. I know craftsmanship.
I counted up the list of crafts I have some skill in: sewing, quilting, knitting, crochet, embroidery, photography, jewellery, drawing, painting. Collage! Many more I’ve tried, and even more I want to try, but alas. So many options and so few lives.
But, tant pis. It’s not the craft that makes the craftsman, just as it is not the fact of doing research that makes the intellectual craftsman. I would say of my list above, I might, on a good day and with a favourable wind, claim craftmanship in maybe three things. Probably one thing. At least something. (And yes, all can be arts as well, but that’s a whole ‘nother ‘nother polemic). At the heart of a craftsman is a set of learned and learnable skills that has take a lot of time and effort and practice to develop. Not just any kind of practice, but the self-reflective practice Mills speaks of, the standing back and reviewing and changing and trying again, and again, and again, and again. And again. Again. And again tomorrow. Having the humility to learn from the skill and technique of those who have gone before, while being open to innovation where it makes sense in the context of your own work.
Craftsmanship in anything comes at the end of a hella lot of self-reflective practice, and within the concept of craftmanship is also the idea of differing levels of mastery. Apprentice, journeyman, master, as the medieval guilds would have it, though mastery is not equivalent to knowing all there is to know. Didn’t Michelangelo write near the end of his life that he was still learning? Perhaps a craftsman is also one who understands the learning isn’t, never could be, completed.
Or, what Faulkner said.
(I sincerely believe my thesis has been made richer, better, more interesting, as much by the stuff I threw away as what I have included.)
I used to own* Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman, which is about craftsmanship in the realm of work in general, about doing good work for its own sake. Which has something of a moral/socioeconomic tinge of superiority to it, when I think about it. Nevertheless. I remember I enjoyed many of the ideas in it (and that it was a little dry maybe? But readable.) He says the book is his attempt to justify the idea that making is thinking, a response he had to a question asked him by philosopher Richard Foley. Thinking is also thinking, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I learned a lot about criticality by learning how to make, by learning how to be a craftsman.
Also, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Can’t find either. Where the hell have I put these books? Op-shop, most likely. Idiot child.