Back to Basics

The Craftsman

by Richard Sennett
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $27.50

The Craftsman, Richard Sennett’s new book, is a far-roving intellectual adventure. Touching here on the cooking of poulet à la d’Albufera and there on the construction of tunnels, here on Hesiod and there on evolutionary psychology, Sennett’s curiosity races across disparate fields of expertise much as an eclipse might sweep over the globe, slicing an unfamiliar path from Brazil, via Egypt, to Mongolia. In part Sennett’s project is to draw some conclusions from a polymathic career. To his intimate knowledge of haute cuisine and of cello playing he can add over thirty years as a sociologist known for his influential reinterpretations of class relations, of Western cultural history, and of urban life.

At the same time, Sennett in his mid-sixties—now, by his own description, one of the “elderly”—is attentive to immediate contemporary concerns. Early in his argument’s trajectory, the ongoing debates over Wikipedia fall within its penumbra. Is the wildfire expansion of that nonprofit reference Web site a trend to celebrate, or does it show that knowledge acquisition is succumbing to “part anarchy, part mob rule” as a onetime editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica has alleged?

Sennett notes that Wikipedia has problems with the quality of its input, but the drift of his thinking comes to the Web site’s support. For in principle, at least, it is an “open source” project, one that encourages its users to act as its codevelopers and that publically reveals, rather than conceals, the constant evolution of its content. As with the Linux operating system for computers, the trailblazer for “open source” models in software development, Wikipedia trusts to the good sense and goodwill of interested parties at large. The kernel of the Linux code “can be employed and adapted by anyone; people donate time to improve it.”

That is the type of institutional model that Sennett, who inclines to some form of socialism, tends to favor. The foil he sets against it in this context is the Microsoft Corporation, with its secretive, proprietary approach to product development. By contrast, those engaged in “open source” projects such as Wikipedia put considerations of ownership behind them. Their signatures are not on display. Concentrating on the identification of problems and the exploration of fresh possibilities, their online chat is terse and content-packed. A “blunt impersonality turns people outward.”

And in such a light Sennett, with a characteristically bold sweep of the hand, associates these networkers with the nameless potters, smiths, and weavers that Hesiod celebrated in archaic Greece, when he composed a hymn to their master god Hephaestus. “Open source” participants form

a community of craftsmen to whom the ancient appellation demioergoi [literally, “public producers”] can be applied. It is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work, which is the craftsman’s primordial mark of identity.

For Sennett, then, the “craftsman” across the ages has been …

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