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stimulating but ultimately disappointing
on 28 June 2009
This book could have met a clear need: a work explaining clearly what craftsmen have to offer in a post-industrial age would have been welcome. Also,we could use a book explaining why so many of us rush to buy objects at "craft fairs" etc. even when they may be of lower quality than their industrial equivalents.
Sennett rightly stresses the (good) craftsman's commitment to quality and the involvement in craftsmanship of implicit knowledge (in industry, there can also be a commitment to quality, but only on the basis of explicit knowledge). But he says little about the expression of personality, flair or even a certain Weltanschauung through craftwork. (Sennett seems to assume that artists are not craftsmen but surely the two categories overlap considerably.) He includes an essay on the hand but is less clear on whether craftworks are necessarily handmade. (I believe not necessarily: poets and composers are craftsmen without needing to exercise any special manual dexterity.)
I agree with the other reviewers that (i)Sennett does not lay down a clear line of argument and gets bogged down in examples and byways, not all of which are strictly relevant; (ii) the book is shoddy: Penguin should be particularly ashamed of the paperback edition which contains all the typos of the hardback edition uncorrected and is produced meanly with tiny margins; so much for craftsmanship!
Again, like other reviewers I have reservations about Sennett's use of his sources. I'll give one example: his references to Adam Smith. He says (a) that the "Wealth of Nations" (1776) was published a generation after the "Encyclopédie"(1751-1772) [!] and that Smith asserted that "machines would end the project of enlightenment"; but Smith says no such thing: he recognises that the repetitive work entailed by the division of labour (not necessarily involving machines) may dull people's minds but proposes a remedy for this (adult education). Smith argued - surely plausibly - that mechanisation increased productivity to society's general benefit, making inter alia education available to a wider range of people.
Moreover (b) Sennett ignores Smith's admiration for the intelligence of agricultural craftsmen: in agriculture division of labour may be compatible with the preservation of some crafts, e.g. animal husbandry. Then (c) Sennett says that in "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" Smith "asked his readers to enter into the misfortunes and limits of other human beings" but he did no such thing: he clearly asserts that "sympathy" is a part of human nature; it does not "instruct ethically" as Sennett says but is the meaning of ethics.
These examples raise doubts in my mind about Sennett's use of e.g. Plato or Kant and his references to the scientific revolution (which all seem to be based on secondary sources).