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Våren 2011


Making It

**A review of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett** In the late 1920s, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed and built a house in Vienna for his sister. Wittgenstein’s family was extremely wealthy and the building proceeded without the usual financial constraint. In one famous instance, to better satisfy his sense of proportion, Wittgenstein had the drawing room ceiling torn out and rebuilt three centimeters higher. As a novice architect, Wittgenstein obviously had large ambitions. “I am not interested in erecting a building,” he once wrote, “but in ... presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings.” Whether or not his sister’s house approached this high ideal, Wittgenstein himself judged the finished building to be austere and sterile. It has “good manners,” he later wrote, but not “primordial life,” no “health.” There is a strong link, Richard Sennett argues, between what Wittgenstein learned by building a house and the turn that his philosophy subsequently took, away from rigorous logic and toward a playful engagement with common speech, paradox and parable. This is a large claim in regard to a career in philosophy, but it becomes plausible in context, for Sennett’s book gathers case after case in which we see how the work of the hand can inform the work of the mind. Moreover, it is through his insistence that thought arises in relation to craft that Sennett comes to one of his more intriguing interventions, a reimagining of the Enlightenment in terms not of ideas but of how craftsmen learned to work. Using craftsmen as symbols of the Enlightenment turns out to be part of an argument that Sennett is conducting with one of his teachers, Hannah Arendt. In her own portrait of the human condition, Arendt distinguished between the world of animal needs and a “higher” world of art, politics and philosophy. This division is, for Sennett, a serious philosophical mistake with ethical and political consequences. It isn’t only that it demeans those who labor with their hands, but that it fails to recognize one of the foundations of good citizenship and cannot then imagine the kind of democracy in which governance is widely diffused, not given over to expert elites. For it is Sennett’s contention that “nearly anyone can become a good craftsman” and that “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens.” This line of thought depends, among other things, upon the Enlightenment assumption that craft abilities are innate and widely distributed, and that, when rightly stimulated and trained, they allow craftsmen to become knowledgeable and public persons. The assumption that craft abilities are widely diffused leads Sennett into a meditation on our love of those intelligence tests by which we supposedly single out the very smart and the very stupid so that some will go to college and others go to bagging groceries. Sennett points out that such sorting ignores the “densely populated middle ground” where most of the population is actually found. Rather than celebrating a “common ground of talents,” we tend to inflate “small differences in degree into large differences in kind” and so legitimate existing systems of privilege. Thinking of the median as the mediocre creates an excuse for neglect. This is one reason, Sennett argues, that “it proves so hard to find charitable contributions to vocational schools” while currently the wealth of the Ivy League schools is compounding at an astounding rate. Sennett builds his argument slowly and allows himself many seeming digressions, a method that sometimes makes for frustrating reading. It wasn’t until the final pages of The Craftsman that its organizing ideas crystallized for me, and at 300 pages that’s a long time to wait. It may be that Sennett knows the foundations of his own approach so well that he forgets that others do not. All this said, rather than demanding a spine of overt ideas, it may be better to read a book like this for the companionship of its inquiring intelligence.

**What, according to Sennett, were the con­ sequences of Wittgenstein’s experiences as a builder?**

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