The Craftsman by Richard Sennett


People can learn about themselves through the things they make. We can achieve a more humane material life, if only we better understand the making of things. 

Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. 

Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. 

Motivation matters more than talent. 

The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.

German employs the word Handwerk, French the word artisanal to evoke the craftsman’s labors. English can be more inclusive, as in the term statecraft; Anton Chekhov applied the Russian word mastersvo.

All craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree. 

The emotional rewards craftsmanship holds out for attaining skill are twofold: people are anchored in tangible reality; and they can take pride in their work. 

In the Metaphysics, he declares, “We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons of the things which are done.”

All craftsmanship is quality-driven work; Plato formulated this aim as the arete, the standard of excellence, implicit in any act; the aspiration for quality will drive a craftsman to improve, to get better rather than get by. 

Architectural sketches are often pictures of possibility; in the process of crystalizing and refining them by hand, the designer proceeds just as a tennis player or musicians does, gets deeply involved in it, matures thinking about it. The site, as this architect observes, “becomes ingrained in the mind.”

Simulation can be a poor substitute for tactile experience. 

The division of labor focuses on parts rather than wholes.

The workshop is the craftsman’s home. 

In craftsmanship there must be a superior who sets standards and who trains. 

The desire to do something well is a personal litmus test; inadequate personal performance hurts in a different way than inequalities of inherited social position or the externals of wealth; it is about you. 

Innovate rather than imitate. 

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”—simple work is good medicine for those battered by life. 

Voltaire’s point is that only someone who accepts that he or she is likely to fall short of perfection is likely to develop realistic judgements about life, to prefer what is limited and concrete and so human.

Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture provided seven guides, or “lamps,” for the troubled craftsman, guides for anyone who works directly on material things. These seven are: 

  • “the lamp of sacrifice,” by which Ruskin means, as I do, the willingness to do something well for its own sake, dedication;
  • “the lamp of truth,” the truth that “breaks and rents continually”; this is Ruskin’s embrace of difficulty, resistance, and ambiguity; 
  • “the lamp of power,” tempered power, guided by standards other than blind will;
  • “the lamp of beauty,” which for Ruskin is found more in the detail, the ornament—hand-sized beauty—than in the large design;
  • “the lamp of life,” life equating with struggle and energy, death with deadly perfection;
  • “the lamp of memory,” the guidance provided by the time before machinery ruled; and
  • “the lamp of obedience,” which consists of obedience to the example set by a master’s practice rather than by his particular works; otherwise put, strive to be like Stradivari but do not seek to copy his particular violins. 


Domain shifts are the metamorphoses that most struck the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Ovid of modern anthropology; the subject of metamorphosis preoccupied him throughout his long life. The foundational craft for him is cooking rather than potting, weaving or carpentry, but the logic of change in his view applies to all crafts. He presents change as a culinary triangle, in his words, a “triangular semantic field whose three points correspond respectively to the categories of the raw, the cooked, and the rotted.” The raw is the realm of nature, as human beings find it; cooking creates the realm of culture, nature metamorphosed. In cultural production, Lévi-Strauss famously declares, food is both good to eat (bonne á manger) and good to think with (bonne á penser). He means this literally: cooking food begets the idea of heating for other purposes; people who share parts of a cooked deer begin to think they can share parts of a heated house; the abstraction “he is a warm person” (in the sense of “sociable”) then becomes possible to think. These are domain shifts.

In 1756 the virtuoso Isaac Ware published The Complete Body of Architecture, a tome that tries to make sense of naturalness, which is for him the proposition that a building ought to look on the outside like the materials of which it is internally made; this makes the building honest—and again, rough-hewn and irregular. 

Immanuel Kant causally remarked, “The hand is the window on to the mind.”