Friday, February 12, 2016

A Craftsman's Philosophy

Projekt CHARME
This past summer I had the singular opportunity of taking a working sabbatical in Germany. For ten weeks I participated in an historic masonry reconstruction on the grounds of Schloss Hundisburg, a largely Baroque era castle situated in the countryside of Saxony-Anhalt.  Learning building traditions alongside local German craftsmen was both instructive and deeply rewarding. I've found there is nothing quite like participation in traditional craft to help inform you about a people and their place, a far more profound experience than that of being a tourist.

There was ample time in peaceful isolation to pour myself into voracious reading in the evenings and soaking up as much surrounding German culture as was possible on the weekends. In Wittenburg I enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection at the entrance door of All Saint's cathedral where reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses almost 500 years ago. On a subsequent trip I listened transfixed at a concert and choir performance of Johannes Sebastian Bach at St. Nicholas Church where he taught, composed and performed as cantor for the city of Leipzig in the 18th century. Repeated visits were made to beautiful Weimar, home of Classical German humanism as was so eloquently expressed by friends, poets, playwrights, philosophers Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

So that was my trip. My days spent experiencing the world directly, viscerally, physically. My nights and weekends contemplating the nature of existence, the limits of human knowledge and what constitutes a meaningful life. An epiphany occurred to me one evening that summer: This pattern didn't commence with my time in Germany. The vacillation between the experiential and the intellectual had typified my entire life. For the first time though, I was beginning to reflect on it formally.

However, please permit me to digress for a moment with a few personal observations on nomenclature, as its power to influence (and perhaps limit) how we think of ourselves as a species has suppressed the very opportunity to explore a philosophy based on craft.

Homo Sapien

Systema Naturae - 1758
Sometime back in the 18th century an awful mistake was made that continues to haunt humanity, especially Western civilization. During the so-called "Age of Discovery" wealthy European aristocrats were busy scouring the globe, seeking in good Aristotelian fashion, to categorize everything they could lay their hands on. Finally one of them, Sweden's Carl Linnaeus, had the audacity and poor sense to classify human beings. At first he unceremoniously grouped us together with apes and monkeys. Unsurprisingly, this got Linnaeus into hot water with the church. In his defense, he claimed he couldn't tell the difference. Personally, I'm sympathetic to his perspective but the religious authorities of the time would have none of it. So, in a subsequent edition of Systema Naturae he clearly overcompensated in making his correction by applying a name that was to stick: Homo Sapiens, the "wise people" or alternatively "the judicious, discreet, discerning people." Good heavens, that obviously was laying it on a bit thick even for the Enlightenment! Was Carl being spiteful and ironic? I guess we're left only to speculate.

Homo Faber

To be fair, it's not as if humans are incapable of wisdom or discretion. It's just that as the defining characteristics of the species that might be pushing it. Well then, are there any other good contenders for an expression that might better capture the essence of what makes us human? Actually, one stands out to me and so happens to have a much older pedigree: Homo Faber, the "people who make" or alternatively, the "people as craftsmen"

Via Appia
The original use of the expression Homo Faber can be attributed within the context of a statement by the retired Roman censor and consul Appius Claudius of the 3rd century B.C.E. At that time, Rome was at the dawn of its glory, expanding its territory by subjugating its neighbors. This soon brought Rome into conflict with the preeminent power of the Mediterranean, Greece. A costly war broke out between Greece and Rome. After a particularly savage battle Greece sent an envoy to Rome asking the Senate for their capitulation while offering favorable terms of peace. The elder statesman Appius, now old and blind, roused himself to make an impassioned plea to reject Greece's terms famously stating, "homo faber est suae quisque fortunae" or "every man is the craftsman of his destiny".

Appius Claudius knew of what he spoke. Upon his appointment as censor a generation previously, he immediately began massive building projects: the Aqua Appia, Rome's first aqueduct and the initial phase of the Appian Way, superhighway of the ancient world. He understood Rome's destiny as a people lay as much with their skill in making, their ability as craftspeople, as with any military prowess. His appeal was persuasive. The Romans never looked back, building a culture both literally and figuratively, that in many respects endures to this day over two millennia later.

The Future of Philosophy

The possibility for a reconciling dialogue working towards a greater synthesis of experiential, empirical and intellectual knowledge is possible and well underway. Comparing what a craftsman experiences in his art with some of the more profound insights of history's greatest philosophers might yield an entertaining and enlightening beginning. The canon of philosophical thought is hardly complete. There is ample opportunity for us to expand human knowledge particularly in the domain of experiential learning. The contribution of the craftsman might yet prove surprisingly beneficial in this regard. With great enthusiasm therefore, I'll attempt to establish the contemporary basis for man as maker to reengage fully with the intellectual life, to realize his full potential as the thoughtful craftsman!

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Does an epiphany 'occur' to anyone? I love this post, wandering up the old roads.

  2. I don't find anything to disagree with in this piece. Patrick has correctly put his finger on the fact that craftsmen struggle and that craftsmen's engagement with the world, with their tools, materials, expectations, and all the rest is proper and fulfilling. Over against this sensible explanation for what man "is" there are many competing philosophies, and much confusion in our American culture about what humankind is, should accomplish, and needs, in order to be happy. I look forward to an elaboration of these themes.

  3. Patrick - It seems like you had a rewarding experience. The union of the higher and lower is one of the options offered by traditional practices in the arts and artisanship. Such an integration points towards a new era of design.

  4. A while back an architect did not quite understand what I attempted to convey to them in words. So I handed them the hammer and chisel and quipped that without touch there cannot be good design.

  5. While the moniker "wise" is certainly questionable when it comes to our species, "makers" could never be doubted given the scope of our physical imprint on this planet. The use of tools, while not limited to our species, does distinguish the cleverer animals, and it is through the use of tools that our highest human expressions have emerged, be they in art, music, or written word. Now if we could just join the two and be wise makers.