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!

The Metaphysical Craftsman

The School of Athens by Rafael
In my second essay of the craftsman's philosophy series we leap headlong into the world of metaphysics, the study of the very nature of existence. A broad and deep branch of philosophy with many correlations to craft that we will revisit time and again. The ambitions of this essay are modest, an opening inquiry into matter, form and change; however, I would assert quite relevant to the craftsman working in applying designs and transforming materials.

Mom and Pop as Agents of Substantial Change

Sexuality is an inescapable fact of life and human existence. Well, who's looking to escape it anyway? Most if not all ancient peoples extrapolated the observations of reproduction and growth inherent in human, animal and plant sexuality to grander explanations of birth, change and death and rebirth of all things. There were underlying forces, masculine and feminine divinities in most cases attributed for everything that we sense as constituting the natural world, living or inanimate.

Greek philosophers, as early as the 5th century B.C.E., began to construct and codify explanations that continued to draw from natural observation but largely eliminated what we might call superstitious elements or appeals to the divine. Notable amongst these philosophers was Aristotle. He asserted that sensible objects consisted of form applied to matter.  Departing from his mentor Plato, he denied that form could have a distinct existence as a purely ideal concept, rather he claimed that form by necessity was embodied in and inseparable from matter, physical reality.

Aristotle established a school in the pre-existing Lyceum of Athens that was quite successful, open on and off for over 200 years before the Roman general Sulla sacked the city.  Fortunately, the Romans preserved most of Aristotle's work and the aforementioned philosophy was to take root in Roman intellectual culture. Interestingly, our English words for father and mother come directly from the Latin words pater and mater respectively. We likewise have inherited the words pattern (form) and matter from the same Latin root words. Substance, so it was purported, results from the masculine pattern imposed upon the feminine matter. This was said to occur at a primary (might I suggest quantum?) level. Most of what is identified as objects would be agglomerations or compounds of  elemental substances.

A snowflake,
hexagonal form imposed upon ice
From this imposition of pattern upon matter there arises the Latin natura, something born, the obvious analogy being of a father and mother begetting children. However, how does one account for change with this viewpoint? It almost appears as if something arises from nothing which sounds absurd. Aristotle proposed that while matter is in fact static and permanent, form has intrinsic dynamism. At the same that time form or pattern has an actuality that defines matter, there exists an inherent potentiality, the possibility of transformation.

Causation as Creation

Although the aforementioned explanation of form teases what is apparent from our senses, that change is possible, it doesn't explicitly reveal how or why it occurs. Aristotle thought that having the answers to these questions was directly tied to real, causal knowledge. In his view we can't truly know an object simply from superficial observation alone. Real knowledge comes from a deeper understanding of what causes the object of interest to be as it is. He was trying to frame all of nature, including human activities into a teleological model, that is to say having an intended end goal. So, Aristotle went on to address such inquiries through his description of the four causes of which I'll adopt and personalise his example of substantial change as illustrated by craft, in the specific case of carving an Ionic capital out of stone.

Material Cause

The material cause, as you might expect, is one of fundamental composition, meant to satisfy the question, "What is it made of?" It is the object of material permanence that foreshadows a formal change. In our craft example, you can see me at right outside of Austin inspecting an exposed bed of Texas limestone.

Formal Cause

Here we must be careful. There is a temptation to allow desires and intentions to cloud the meaning of formal cause. However, we must remember that Aristotle intends a universal system that explains natural change as well, where such intentionality is thought to be absent. Here we answer the question of "What kind of thing is it to be?" This often refers to a change in an objects spatial arrangement or shape as in our example. For the craftsman this occurs in the process of design, originally initiated as an archetypal example in his mind even if influenced by a treatise or example. Physically the formality will be often illustrated in drawings such as the layout of one of the volutes pictured here.

Traditional Stone Carver
Nathan Hunt
Efficient Cause

"By what means does the transformation occur?" At this point we engage with technique, the steps required to apply form to matter, resulting in formal not material change. Technique is a specifically applied knowledge, it is where practise departs from theory. In our particular case it is the applied knowledge of mallet and chisel as exerted upon the "matter" of limestone to impose the "form" of a volute.

Final Cause

There is certainly considered to be by Aristotle a primacy among causes. The final causes answers, "What is the raison d'être? Essentially, what is the purpose?" For the purposes of nature his arguments are interesting. Some of his examples of final causation of nature can be definitively shown to be false and ill conceived, yet others are quite compelling. I'll leave those aside for the moment and consider the craftsman's condition.

Courtesy of Hunt Studios

Certainly, the "end product", in our case the Ionic capital, is an external manifestation of human expression or intention which Aristotle does not preclude. In fact, the desire for final outcomes in art, craft and architecture is acknowledged as generative in the development of formal and efficient causes. With purposes in mind beforehand, humans will create new forms and new techniques to realise them.

Aristotle’s perspective and really the entire study of metaphysics came under withering criticism during the Enlightenment. Particularly, the supposed moment of causation was denied as something that could never be observed, as such impossible as an object of knowledge and subsequently a rationally pointless subject of scientific enquiry. However, this runs counter to our daily subjective “experience” of causation, our sense of meaning and order in the world. Typical of craftsmen, their knowledge of reality is not literal (best expressed in words) rather intimate, the world as a forum for active engagement. They don’t know the world in the sense of knowing what, like the categorisation of an object. Instead it’s more of knowing who, like one might come to know a friend or lover. This series will continue to do what’s possible to reconcile these two ways of knowing or philosophies, doing its best to convey in words what one experiences as a craftsman.

Craftsmen of the Tao

Chuang Tzu
In my opening essay in the series, "A Craftsman's Philosophy",  I controversially contested the Enlightenment classification Homo Sapien, "the wise man" and proposed an ancient point of view, Homo Faber or "man as maker" as being more representative of human beings. In truth, in my zeal to make a point I was being a tad insincere, attempting to persuade you, the reader of a conviction I do not myself hold. For example, it could be argued that our ability to cultivate, to nurture life and growth, is equally characteristic of human beings and just as critical to the rise and continuance of civilisation. By promoting one classification over another, do we not in many respects diminish the totality of who we are?

Over two millennia ago a method seeking escape from this seemingly intractable morass of nomenclature began to coalesce. The Tao () purports to be a path of liberation from the artificial world of convention, a deliverance into the visceral experience of reality. As I will subsequently consider, this change of perspective has many implications for the craftsman.

A Spontaneous Nature

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." - Lao Tzu

Blacksmith Robert Thomas
The Chinese word for nature, ziran (自然), literally translates something like "of itself so". The sentiment of expressing it thus is of nature conceived as an unhurried phenomenon, entirely spontaneous. Closely allied with nature is the concept of wu-wei (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making", yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. This is not a concept of nature as separate and outside of ourselves as humans, since we too quite literally grow ourselves. In reality, our capacity for reason depends wholly on the self-generated brain and body, our relatively limited capacity for conscious thought is but a staked tent resting upon the mountain of our unconscious, or perhaps better stated "super-conscious" mind, a highly complex system that grows and maintains the myriad of working functions and sense perceptions that we too easily take for granted.

I find that traditional craftsmen are almost universally interested in making "good time". However, the emphasis shifts from "time", that is to say efficiency, towards the "good" or quality of both the experience and of the work itself. Thus, neither excessively planned nor chaotic, the efficacy of craft adheres to the organic process of nature generally. For the craftsman the dynamism of the crafted object is in fact an extension of their own, its life existing vicariously in the moment of generation.


The formal, global implementation of theoretical standards for material and methods has significantly undermined traditional craft. Even in the presence of a tremendous inventory of safe, durable, beautiful hand crafted architectural heritage, the prevailing practise is that if a construction material or method can not be classified, labeled, numbered or otherwise be made to strictly adhere to scientific convention then it is deemed uncontrollable, potentially dangerous and bureaucratically illegal. Under this hyper-rational mindset, that a traditional material or method does work is deemed irrelevant if it can not be explained how it works within the abstracted limitations of convention.

The Tao offers freedom from the unyielding controls of convention:

“Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” - Lao Tzu

Instead the Tao urges the cultivation of Te (), commonly translated virtue but with the sense of an inner potency implying mastery. Interestingly, masters in this sense are really guides. They help the student to find the path for themselves. The path is really nothing special, just allowing oneself to be an authentic human being. The path has been followed by craftsmen all over the world since time immemorial. A master craftsman can not express in words enough to teach an apprentice much. Little can be learned by thinking, almost everything by doing. True mastery comes from direct experience admittedly benefited by guided instruction.

The path transcends in a very comprehensible way even space and time. It makes possible means of communication far more direct than those available through conventions, even language itself. For example, you could drop a traditional master mason from our English speaking world in a remote Tibetan village today to work alongside a team of local traditional masons in building, say a monastery. Without being to convey as much as hello they would be up and running in no time through sketching and demonstration. Furthermore, the same holds true if you were able to deposit our English mason back in time 2,000 years ago. As dear as we hold language, it and other conventions tend to ensnare us within their limitations, preventing us from the full richness of human experience.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

As any craftsman eventually learns, spontaneity and mastery can not be forced. One has to abandon self-consciousness. But the irony is that this can not be done consciously! Attempting to be spontaneous on purpose, thinking and willing yourself to do so, only amplifies the difficulty. How to escape this mental bind? As ancient philosopher of the Tao, Chuang Tzu said, "A path is made by walking on it."

The Pragmatism of Craft

Catedral de Santa María de Teruel
Craftsmen have an inherent affinity for the pragmatic and a brief consideration of the etymology of the term illuminates why this tends to be so. English inherits the word 'Pragmatism' more or less directly From the Greek pragmatikós (πραγματικός), meaning "active", derived in turn from prássein (πράσσειν) the Greek verb "to do", interpreted as "practice". Acting, doing, practicing...Pragmatism could be said to be a philosophy of action and results. The love of knowledge but of a particular kind, one acquired thru experience that is in turn enriched by observation and contemplation, an experiential knowledge that enables the craftsman to impose reason upon the concrete and material. The pragmatic outlook assures the craftsman full participation in life as an experiential philosopher yielding practical results in the world.

Architecture: from a Practical Craft to a Theoretical Profession

Image Courtesy of Jack Duncan III
Since the dawn of human civilization and continuing for thousands of years, the art of building otherwise known as architecture had been a very practical affair. Once again, we are indebted to the Ancient Greeks for the very notion of the architect; the arkhitéktōn (ἀρχιτέκτων) was a master technician, literally the "chief craftsman", typically either a carpenter or mason.  Highly skilled craftsmen continued to furnish Western civilization with its built environment throughout the Roman Empire, continuing during the Medieval period and well into the Renaissance. Andrea Palladio furnishes a Late Renaissance, 16th century example of the master craftsman as architect. Apprenticed as a stone carver, he had gained practical skills through hands on experience, mastering the tectonics of masonry. Palladio aggregated upon this foundation of experiential craft knowledge empirical observation that included measured drawings of Roman antiquities. Furthermore his famous architectural treatise, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, clearly demonstrated his clear intellectual grasp of abstracted systems of geometry, harmony and proportion as exemplified by the Classical Orders.

from Architectural Shades and Shadows
Although treatises featuring rationalized measured drawings such as contained in the Quatto Libri were still quite unique in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the 18th century drawing had become the primary method of teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where initial steps were underway to organize the study of architecture as an academic discipline. Several significant distinctions should be noted between the then modern, alternative study at the École in contrast with traditional paths to becoming an architect. The development of descriptive geometry was utilized for technically precise drawings that separated the act of design by the architect from that of building by the craftsman, increasingly regarded as little more than a technician. In short order, the rationalized approach to design subsumed the meaning of architecture itself; a drawing on paper could now be considered architecture. In the course of 19th century the Beaux-Arts methodology became adopted and its curriculum incorporated into universities throughout Europe and eventually America. Accepted architectural instruction relentlessly collapsed into a closed system of highly rationalized refinement whilst measures were undertaken by prominent academically indoctrinated architects to impose obligatory examination and licensing standards, separating architecture as a theoretical and therefore ostensibly superior profession distinguished from craft and building. The model of the craftsman architect would slowly diminish, eventually being fully discredited in the early 20th century.

The Empirical versus the Rational

There has been an open tension in the world of philosophy, a longstanding yet uneasy commingling of what might be called the rational versus the empirical temperament. Whereas the rationalist tends to favor thinking in terms of ideas, principles and eternal truths his empiricist colleague prefers to reply upon statistical data and observable fact. Of course, in practical terms humans rely both on ideas and observation to get by. Our modern world, for example, is largely a scientific one, as fact driven and empirical in its temperament as it ever has been. That being said the disconnect between raw scientific data received and potential meaning depends for resolution upon interpretation, correlation and generation of new theories, distinctly rational activities that direct subsequent empirical observation.

However, this oscillation, commingling, interdependence between empirical and rational modes of thought is largely absent from the contemporary field of architecture as a profession. Instead, architecture has become the largely abstracted, formal and expressive contribution to what I might otherwise give the name of 'shelter', be it intended for biological or mechanical use. In so restricting itself to the theoretical, architecture grows ever more separate from the recently formed professional specializations of engineering and building construction that attend to the material, labor resources and mechanical execution of shelter. As with science there forms a disconnect. Unlike science, the feedback loops between the professions are not sufficient to achieve resolution and provide our built environment with coherence and substantial meaning.

Proposed Main Museum, LA courtesy of Archinect

There are prominently two opinions of this account of the state of architecture. The first I would classify as complete denial; the unfounded belief that everything is fine if not getting better all the time (see pictured example above). Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, there is an admission of a serious crisis in architecture, yet clinging to the vain hope that urgently needed reform can set the ship right again (see pictured example above). I would contend that the contemporary model generating our built environment is fundamentally flawed, lacks an adequate philosophy, is of a temperament that does not align with people's needs and will inevitably necessitate complete replacement (yes, see pictured example above).

The Experiential as a Pragmatic Mean

For the traditional hand craftsman the feedback loops between his senses of sight, touch, sound, even smell and taste applied to the material objects he's working with and his own internal conception of pattern and design that he imposes upon the materials are introduced through experience and strengthened through repetition. Anyone who has witnessed a master potter at a wheel or a master carver at the bench will remark at the uncanny mastery humans can achieve at direct manipulation of material. Nevertheless, what has been apportioned out as separate and distinct modes in philosophical thought, influencing professional practice remain in fact completely integrated in traditional craft practice. I would like to briefly consider one example of how pragmatic, that is to say experiential thinking can serve as a mean, a negotiating point of view between the seemingly intractable philosophical modes of empiricism and rationalism.

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
facts                                   principles                             behavior

Beautification, beauty as an human activity
Courtesy of Hunt Studios
By the above, what I'm really introducing are the concepts of truth and Truth. By facts, what the empiricist is claiming is observation or discovery of bits of truth, raw data as it were that comes from the sensory perceptions of objects that exist in reality. For the empiricist this is the only truth we can possibly know and it's admittedly unreliable. By contrast the rationalist thinks of Truth in terms of eternal principles that take a certain form and possess transcendent meaning. In this sense even abstract ideas such as beauty or justice are seen as possessing a True immutable form, an intrinsic meaning as mental or spiritual objects, more true in fact than the shadows of reality we perceive through our senses as interpreted by our consciousness. Pragmatism doesn't regard truth as an object to be discovered at all, rather truth for the pragmatist refers to distinctly human behavior. When we speak of verification we're talking about "making truth", this is the literal meaning veri (truth), fication (making or doing), Latin (veritas and facere) by way of French. Traditional hand craft is one example of truth-making (or truth-doing, a likewise valid and interesting interpretation) as an human behavior, activity, process. This logic can likewise apply to beautification and justification as human activities rather than objects of the physical or psychological world.

Is some of this sounds familiar, well that's to be expected. Philosopher William James described pragmatism as, "a new name for some old ways of thinking." Experience and common sense wisdom have guided much of human activity and has contributed mightily to our ability to grow and thrive. That we have neglected this practical approach to life has only been to our detriment. Below are a few other comparisons, each set meriting further contemplation for the architect, craftsman and layman alike:

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
entropy                               progress                              change
past                                    future                                   present
observation                        abstraction                           experience
mechanistic                        static                                    relational
actual                                 imaginary                             possible
vulgar                                 classical                               traditional
sensational                         intellectual                           holistic
object                                 idea                                      process
skeptical                            dogmatic                               practical
nominal                              formal                                   instrumental
nihilistic                              eternal                                  continuity
material                              spiritual                                human
pessimistic                         optimistic                              engaged
chaos                                 unity                                     particularity


Courtesy of The World of Chinese
What is Zen? By its own premises, as we will subsequently consider, words are an inadequate means
of description. Yet, the following brief may start us along the path: an awakening from the dream state of convention, a liberation into direct experience.

Humankind's capacity for convention is one of the marvels of our genetic endowment. The primary manifestation of convention making ability is spoken language. We categorize or group together subjects, objects and actions with verbal utterances serving as symbols. This of course extends to the written word as well as other manifestations of symbol such as mathematical, musical and chemical notation. Our ability to express ourselves thru various forms of convention and be understood by others is more than remarkable, it's undeniably powerful, often intoxicating and potentially perilous. How so?

Western intellectual society since the so-called Enlightenment has sought, with a great deal of success I might add, to restrict the totality of human knowledge within a virtual straight jacket of convention. Laws, standards, codes combine to dictate human behavior more invasively than anytime in human history. We have conflated an artificial system of abstract, generalizing symbols with our infinitely particular reality. For example, it remains obvious that neither the conventional word "water" nor the chemical notation "H2O" will quench your thirst any more than the musical symbol "" will ring in your ears. This level of commitment to abstraction by society at large requires years of investment in undermining the individual capacity for direct experience. I'll commence with a few comments on the all too familiar: Western society's modern philosophical commitment to a rational education, or perhaps more appropriately expressed as an hyper-rational indoctrination. This will serve as a prelude to contrast with what is the wholly natural and human yet now seemingly remote concept of Zen.

Indoctrination vs Education

Common Core K-Prep
Words are such funny creatures. In any thesaurus you'll find that 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' are synonyms. Yet, we instinctively know better don't we? The "heart" of their long displaced origins still throbs. How about you, would you prefer indoctrination to education?

The English word 'indoctrination' comes from the Latin root 'doctrine', meaning 'teaching'. Similarly the original sense of 'doctor' simply referred to a 'teacher', notably one who had undergone some recognized academic training to thus qualify for said title. We have the legacy of this meaning in the 'doctorate' awarded to someone who is recognized for achieving the highest level of instruction, e.g. a 'Doctor' of Philosophy. The prefix 'in-' maintains the same meaning, to put into or inside. Indoctrination thus means to put 'teaching inside of'. It starts with a premise: that the student is ignorant, knows nothing, is an empty vessel to be filled. From this foundation the typical child in Western society is subjected to a minimum of13 years in the public school system and up to 20+ years of unrelenting indoctrination if they go on to pursue university studies. Indoctrination is the shaping, molding, construction of the individual.

Courtesy of Kelly Anne Photography

'Education' likewise finds its etymological roots in Latin. It originates from 'ducare' meaning 'to lead' not in the sense of 'lording over', rather 'to draw' or 'to pull'. The prefix 'ex-' meaning 'out' combines to give 'educate' the sense of 'drawing out'. The flavor of the words 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' could not be more different. 'Educate' begins from the premise that the student is wise, knows everything. The role of the teacher is akin to that of a spirit guide who simply 'draws out', brings to the students awareness the knowledge that already exists inside of them. This tradition of 'education' marked the pre-Enlightenment liberal arts of the West that focused on critical thinking, liberating the student to later pursue their own interests, a process that was typically achieved in 4 or 5 years. Education is the cultivation of conditions that encourage personal growth. An Eastern Zen master therefore is somewhat akin to our own traditional Western educator from this point of view.


Courtesy of Steve Shriver
The word 'Zen' arrives to the West from Japan that was in turn received from Buddhist China with ultimate origins in India where the Sanskrit word Dhyāna ( ध्यान ) carries the meaning of 'absorption', most often translated as 'meditation' in English. Particularly with its development in China, a certain Taoist flavor was adopted so that certain schools came to develop Za-Zen, a 'seated' form of meditation that implies stillness, quiet contemplation. However, it has been acknowledged that a number of human activities might qualify so long as one approaches a state of complete fixation and absorption. Particularly, in the former sense of requiring complete attentiveness, Zen practice lends itself to traditional craft such as carving, playing music, weaving and cooking to name a handful. Zen practice might also extend to what are thought of as leisure activities. Personally, I find surfing a calming medium to cultivate this attentive state. To be able to ride an ocean wave, one has to literally attune completely with its frequency and amplitude. As waves of one kind of another (visible light, sound, infrared, etc.) are our window into all sensory experience, the opportunity to interface with a wave in a 1:1 ratio with your body, harmonizes one to the very fabric of reality itself. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Visceral Experience

Brick making as Zen experience
I've had the experience of being called a lecturer or professor, ostensibly teaching traditional plastering, technical draughtsmanship and other subjects. One of the first things I confess to the shock and dismay of potential students is that I don't expect to teach them anything; furthermore, I conceive it an impossibility. After all I don't know how I plaster. It is largely not something to be explained anymore than how I might explain how I digest a peach. I simply do plaster. Plastering like traditional handcrafts generally are experiential arts, one learns by doing. Yes, I might demonstrate while others observe, perhaps offering a comment here or there. However, these exhortations are only helpful as occasional guidance to students who are actively teaching themselves. In Zen this visceral experience is captured in the Sanskrit term Upaya ( उपाय ), which has been interpreted as direct pointing. In this way traditional handcrafts lie at the frontier of self-awareness which permits us to tap into our profound unconscious intelligence that circulates our blood, grows our brain or manages any number of other bodily functions from that sliver of conscious mind that may follow a particular interest.


It is purported that the practice of Zen ultimately leads to Satori ( 悟り), the Buddha nature, enlightenment, an awakening. What then might Zencraft awaken us to? Liberation from the dream of separation, division and isolation, an awareness of the deep interconnection of all things.

In the dream state one believes he or she is individual, separate and distinct, not just from others, but from everything. Yet, everyday crafts deny this as a fantasy. For example, we imagine the craft of carving is our exercising our intellectual prowess upon unorganized raw material, a type of chaos typical of nature, be it stone, wood or clay. Yet is it not the nature of the material that determines how we carve? Would we even conceive of carving if these materials did not exist? Does the human create the carving out of stone or is it the stone that generates the human that carves? Wake up! The tendency to identify with this abstraction, this ego if you will, is a grasping for abstraction because abstractions are simplifications. Are you and the universe two? Hold your breath!

Human perfection is not the perfection of the equilateral triangle, neither is it to be found in the Ionic order or any other form of contrived convention. Rather it is the perfection and order of the cloud with its dynamism, spontaneity and undifferentiated borders. Zencraft is therefore not a mere symbol, a representation of nature as some 'other', rather it is the full expression of her. Seen in this way Satori, the Zen awakening is nothing exotic, just the realization of being completely human and living it.

The Existential Craftsman

From time immemorial people have contemplated the nature of being and likewise the concept of origins or the coming into existence. Such contemplations have often coalesced into the core structure of religious systems of belief and correspondingly within the branch of philosophy known as ontology or "the study of essence". Existentialism is a relatively recent focus within ontology that centers around the human individual's concept of being and becoming. Prevalent themes are authenticity and individual creation of meaning, themes that find resonance with traditional craftsmanship. Craftsmen are typically concerned with the authenticity of their creations, whether or not the crafted objects truly retain the expression of their will, as an artifact of their touch. Similarly, there exists a trepidation that their work might be viewed as inauthentic or worse still, meaningless. I would like to consider if there is any potential for intrinsic meaning in craft, how craftsmen use symbolic meaning, and a particularly modern dilemma threatening craft, the absurd.

Intrinsic Meaning

Let's begin by an illustration of a flower. What does it mean? "Well, it doesn't mean anything, it just is!", one might reasonably reply. A flower certainly doesn't mean something else, it doesn't refer to anything. However, I wouldn't hastily conclude that a flower is meaningless. Perhaps we could consider whether a flower has inherent meaning or stated another way, the flower is its own meaning. As humans we're well adapted to this qualitative, inherent meaning of the natural world. A flower will elicit sensual responses of sight, smell, feel and sometimes even taste (with or without further hallucinogenic effect). In this way flowers are intuitively sensible to human beings, even by very young children. Contrast this naïve, direct, visceral sensibility with the literal meaning of a flower as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: "The reproductive structure of angiosperms, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals."

So the "literal" meaning of flower becomes quite complicated and contingent on other literal meanings whilst our direct experience of a flower remains simple and accessible. Would a botanical that is to say scientific analysis of a flower reveal further or perhaps deeper meaning? We've been at the classification of flowers in general and particular for some centuries now with infinitely greater means of dissection from the cellular, to the DNA, to the now subatomic level with promising theories to take us even further. So it is that a single flower is now classified amongst the most complex things in the universe composed of levels of complexity ad infinitum. We lament the  complexity of the material world losing sight of that fact that we're the ones who keep cutting it to pieces. Flowers are simple yet rich in meaning. However, ascribing meaning to them in artificial, closed, conventional systems of literal and scientific terms has made them unintelligible to the point of absurdity. How does one ever feel at home in a world like that?

Last summer I had opportunity to work on a project of traditional masonry in the small village of Hundisburg, Germany. What do traditional, handcrafted villages like this and others mean? They don't refer to anything outside of themselves yet you just feel that the village itself is rich in meaning, it's authentic. What is physically embodied in my Hundisburg example is successive generations of human intention and attention, humans being humane. The oaks of the timber framing from adjacent fields cleared for cultivation. The stone from the local quarry now the summer swimming hole. The bricks and terra cotta tiles from a clay deposit up on the hill. Crafting a community with our neighbors from materials readily available around us is an eminently human activity, nothing absurd about it.


Symbolic Meaning

There is of course meaning that refers to something outside of itself. In fact, that this is how the term "meaning" is most often used and understood. One way for a craftsman to express symbolic meaning is with ornament, alternatively called enrichment. There are a number of methods for achieving this: carving, scratching, moulding, painting to name a few.

We appreciate that artistic representation is only a symbol, a reference of something else. Ornament's power lies in human sympathy. The craftsman draws upon the fractal attributes of say, a flower to select a handful of attributes, the essence of the thing to convey in the selected medium. And so when you or I look upon the ornament we "get it", otherwise stated we sympathize with the process. If we have familiarity with the medium we might even begin to imagine ourselves doing the carving, painting or what have you. Likely it heightens our appreciation for the craftsman's imagination and skill. Yet just having fulfilled human beings as embodied in the example of the craftsman are of tremendous benefit to a community. Furthermore, when these investments in intrinsic and symbolic meaning are made in the shared public realm (church, high street, piazza, etc.) as they customarily were, than an inheritance is established for everyone, an enriched community that loves itself, that feels at home.

The Absurd

The kind of life that established traditional villages around the world, many of which still remain for our enjoyment, seem like an impossibility today, a eutopian fantasy. What is the absurd? How has meaning been undermined by civilized society?


In its most virulent forms we find enslavement and serfdom. Great works of beauty like the Parthenon celebrate idealized human perfection, overlooking a city that was the birthplace of democracy. And yet much of this was built on a foundation of war, misery and exploitation. There is an unresolved tension between the rich symbolic meaning of many such cities and monuments of antiquity and the inhumane treatment, the destruction of the intrinsic meaning and worth of the individual. The skilled craftsman reduced to a tool himself to express the will of monsters.


Nothing corrupts meaning like a lie. The McMansion puts its dishonesty on display like a proud peacock. It pretends to use local, traditional materials; all materials are industrial from a factory far away. It pretends to be finely crafted; it extracts the cheapest labor from the most vulnerable in society. It promises you health and status; it delivers toxicity, debt and mediocrity.


A very visible manifestation of subversion is irony, typical of  so-called Postmodernism. Often a form is taken an exemplar of tradition and hand crafted refinement. The proportions are changed,  the function inverted, traditional materials and methods are replaced with the latest in construction tech. To its credit Postmodernism doesn't lie. Rather, it ridicules intrinsic meaning as an impossible joke.

Existentialism has been interpreted by some as an individualistic philosophy, described as isolating or inward looking. However, I would contend that being an individual has no meaning independent of others any more than individuality is possible without the air you breathe. It is modern civilization that is isolating with its increasing manifestations of coercion, dishonesty and subversion: the absurd. Two main tenets of existentialism that I did not develop here were that the individual is free and is responsible. This is very empowering. We can choose to reject absurdity, instead embracing lives of intrinsic and symbolic meaning. Perhaps it is in this time of crisis for humanity that our living a life of individual meaning can have the greatest impact on intrinsic meaning for human society at large.

The Hero's Path

Why can't we build things the way we used to?

This is a question that has been put to me often. I find it notable that the word "can" is most often used. Of course, we "can" conceivably build a certain way in the sense of possibility. Nevertheless, I believe that by using "can't" instead of "won't" or "don't", a deep frustration is betrayed, a profound sense of loss and more poignantly a feeling of disempowerment and insurmountable obstruction to regaining that which connected us to something greater than ourselves. In summary, we have become a people in existential crisis. Traditional craftsmen are not immune. We find ourselves almost as lost as society at large, holding on by a frayed tether to our corroded traditions which are under relentless attack.

So how did we arrive at this state of disorientation, where we quite literally don't know what to do? Likewise, is there a way back or maybe just out? I believe there is. From the Zen perspective there have been recognised two paths to enlightenment: the common path under the general condition of normalcy or the special path born of crisis.

Easy Does It

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the "Easy Way". This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or "Grace". This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the "other power" as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practise leading to salvation. A practise can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work. Since this is not the state craft finds itself in today, it may be helpful to point out a few key characteristics of this Way of Grace.

The hand-crafted art of ordinary people or mingei for short (民衆的な工芸) is an expression representative of our history wherein many people engaged in providing useful, durable, inexpensive items or homes for many other people. Many for many, at it's heart a very communal, social activity. Whereas modern education focuses almost exclusively on literacy and the arithmetic component of numeracy for reasoning on abstract concepts, former societies instead prioritised raising children with efficacy, practical skills for doing and making.

In traditional handcrafts much emphasis is placed on repetition. For good reason. With repetition there is muge (無礙) or "no obstruction" between oneself and material. Unobstructed hand craft is thus an unfiltered experience of direct seeing, hearing, touching. There develops a mindlessness mushin (無心), one could even say free or participatory mastery between craftsman and his material not unlike a dance. The dance takes a life of its own; it is in fact what we call tradition. Generations come and go yet the tradition endures; it transcends individual experience and the beat goes on.

Yet what happens when the music comes to a screeching halt? Just as individuals can fall from grace so too can entire societies. In a period of cultural drought and broken tradition there may be no easy way.

Show Me a Hero and I'll Write You a Tragedy
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just as a seed can grow in the tiniest bit of soil with a mere drop of water, so too can handcraft germinate from shear inner strength of will even with reduced opportunity for experience under the most unfavourable conditions. Or as traditional potter Bernard Leach so eloquently put it, "Even in bad periods art does emerge, even as the lotus blossoms in the mud."

As the aforementioned illustration would suggest this is a very isolated, individual path known in Zen as jiriki-do (自力道), the "Way of Self-Reliance" or alternatively as the Way of "Hardship", nangyo (難行). When there is no master, there is no ritual, there is no tradition, what then? For the lone craftsman here below a representative sliver of what must be self-instructed:
  • sense of beauty
  • technical methods
  • scientific understanding
  • virtuoso creativity
What does it take to accomplish this? Genius, incredible discipline and a lifetime of effort. And what kind of person devotes his life to healing society with his accomplishments? A Hero.

Of course, such full manifestations of genius are exceedingly rare. Perhaps a handful of occurrences in a generation. How much more infrequently are individual genius and personal salvation coupled with generosity and self sacrifice? The hero's rise is therefore not an egotistical endeavour. In point of fact he is likely to be unaware, as it is not the hero that creates the role as such, rather circumstances. For a virtuous society, there is no need for a hero and no reason for the individual to stand out. The calling of the hero therefore arises thus from society itself, born of a state of deep dissatisfaction within.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei "many for many", was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, "Few with capital and mechanical means for Many". Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured "experiences" and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Simply put our craftsman hero is here confronted with his Kraken, his trial to overcome: the material world and human society placed under intellectual control. Sensible quality is reduced to quantitative analysis. Human beings, life and the bounty of the earth is cut to a million pieces and measured against money, a mere concept. Yet upon the slightest examination industry is revealed to be far more feeble whilst less advanced than it claims. Is drywall superior to plaster? Does stick frame outperform timber framing? Is a CMU wall better than stone masonry? Are asphalt shingles more desirable than a thatched roof? Do any to the products of industry provide deep, enduring satisfaction? We have been sold, and cheaply. The meaningful traditions that provided direct experience of life have been ripped from our rightful possession and we've been handed in turn a plate of sawdust and poison. Oh no, it's not a gift either; Industry will take your check when you're ready.

The Hero's Path

Image modified for NDA Compliance
The hero sees clearly. He does not bend his knee before false idols. His clear vision is his gift to the many. However, if there is no longer mingei what is his path? The only refuge available that remains for practise: the artist's path, the Few for the Few, a difficult path unsuitable for his temperament. The artist's path as old as civilisation itself is patronage, commissions from the few to create unique and costly works of exquisite refinement or ostentation. The most social, communal of these are monumental and sacred spaces that are bequeathed to the many and so contribute to the civic life. Almost exclusively today they take the form of private commissions of works having little utility, rather serving as symbols of status rather than for any direct enjoyment. Increasingly, craftsmen are obligated to work under NDA's (non-disclosure agreements), forced to acknowledge that the work of their hands is the intellectual property of the one who bought them.

There is another path of the Few for the Few, the independent artist. His works are characterised by uniqueness, novelty and impossibility of replication. They are unlike the drawing from tradition or developing a method of use to be shared. They are signature works bound and forever associated to the individual severed from society. In place of direct seeing there is the interposition of intellect. Exchanged for the inherent meaning that points to something outside of itself typical of traditional craft, a work of fine art is the personal expression of the artist, loaded with self-contained explicit meaning, begging for interpretation. So as not to be considered a fool, saying the same thing over and over, the artist is pushed to perpetual novelty and creation, bound hand and foot by his willful pursuit of freedom. The path of genius is exhausting but for the hero there is no igyo-do, there is no easy way.

The way of the hero craftsman then is not at all tariki-do, the Way of Grace. Rather his path is nangyo-do, the Way of Hardship, self-reliance and suffering.  In the West we have come to associate pleasure with the good and suffering with the evil, carrying a sense of opposition between the two. The hero does not succumb to such intellectual dualism. This frees him to directly experience and thus learn from suffering, an able teacher. The lifelong burden of the hero craftsman is to prepare the Way of Grace for others. He does this not by example; as we have considered his example is fraught with difficulty. Rather he lays out a return path by direct pointing: by writing, speaking, demonstrating, teaching. A culture in balance does not need to be told, shown or taught what to do. It already knows and in fact knows nothing else. So it is that the appearance and life of sage, prophet, healer, the hero is not the path itself, rather an incarnate manifestation of the society's desire to return to a balanced condition.

The Awakened Craftsman

Prometheus Creating Man in Clay
The cultural inheritance that remains to us today of Western civilisation is the culmination of a millennia long process of integration of predominantly Classical, Judaic, and later Christian traditions. All three traditions share a view of the transcendent, the highest ideal likewise as being the omniscient source of knowledge and Creator of man. This is perhaps most strongly expressed in the Judaic tradition where God is metaphorically addressed as Master Craftsman: "And now, O Lord (יְהֹוָ֖ה; Yahweh), You are our father; we are the clay, and You are our potter, and all of us are Your handiwork" - Isaiah 64:7 Tanakh.

The idea of man as crafted in the Great Potter's image has certainly instantiated itself deeply in Western culture. Like the dear Lord himself this image of ourselves "doth giveth and doth taketh away." An example of one of the gifts might be the Western legal system that grants due process and a presumption of innocence until proven guilt on the basis that the individual, as an artifact of the divine, has intrinsic value and inalienable rights. Even most of those who have rejected the inherited view of God maintain this positive view of individual worth. However, whereas man was said to be crafted in the image of the divine, nothing else in nature was so claimed. So we in the West have likewise been bequeathed a sense of separateness from nature and, being artifacts, an alienation from the divine source.

For the most part human beings lack qualities typically attributed to God, notably omniscience or omnipotence. Nevertheless, there is one capacity that does appear to clearly distinguish us from at least the rest of nature: self-consciousness. Each of us to a greater or lesser degree is awake.

The Waking State

Certainly, if nothing else human beings are uniquely conscious of their mortality to an often painful degree. However, I find it interesting that the purported source of light and wisdom, the indefatigable divinity awake like no other, is expressed repeatedly in Western culture as a master craftsman, essentially a sculptor. Perhaps this can be taken as an encouragement to pass our waking hours in more noble pursuits than anxious preoccupation over our inevitable demise.

There are several levels of consciousness, of becoming awake that human beings can realise. Such levels of conscious awareness have been described in religious traditions as knowledge, understanding and wisdom existing alongside the philosophical and secular analog of perception, apprehension and comprehension. Knowledge and perception are at the very edge of awareness and are associated with youth, the initial collection of 'facts' or experiences. Knowledge acquisition continues naturally but with more time and experience there is the possibility of conscious growth towards understanding, the apprehending or grasping of meaning emanating from the disparate pieces of knowledge acquired. After further acquiring knowledge and drawing understanding, it becomes possible, though not inevitable, through incredible struggle to collate experience and meaning, to privilege relevant material and establish  holistic connections. To truly comprehend is the mark of wisdom, a meta-understanding of the processes that generate meaning.

It is interesting to follow the traditional path of an apprentice to master craftsman as a great awakening.

The Apprentice

An apprentice within a traditional atelier is much like a very young child. Just as an infant is wholly dependent upon and completely identifies with the mother so the apprentice finds himself in a similar situation; he is in the realm of the unknown, everything encountered represents hope and anxiety, promise of success or threat of failure. So the young apprentice must rely completely on the Master and takes the conveyance of tradition as gospel truth. He is essentially possessed by the spirit of the Master, all his efforts are directed towards imitation until sufficient experience is achieved, enough knowledge acquired that more responsibility can be taken and a measure of freedom given.

What the apprentice represents to the Master is potential. As is the case of a mother with her beloved child, potential is to be worshiped. So it is that nothing less than the best of himself, his revealed wisdom that the Master metaphorically places upon the altar in sacrifice for his foster child.

Courtesy of Finch Woodworks

The Journeyman

To become a journeyman is to hold and share an identity, to join a brotherhood. A journeyman knows the means and methods, the tools and the medium; he knows what to do and why. He has submitted to discipline; his craft is a ritual, a reenacted drama pregnant with meaning and value to himself and others. He's embodied all the lessons the Master had to teach and is exactly what the culture expects from him. As such he is welcome in any workshop where there is work to be done.

This represents a significant step in his development as a craftsman obviously but more importantly towards maturity as an individual. However, more is expected. As the name implied he is encouraged to journey, to serve under a number of masters. There is good reason for this. Exposure to a single approach to creative problems can deaden the mind into an inflexible, lethargic state. Many masters stimulates capacity for invention, provides exposure to various methods for approaching a given task. A journeyman will be of even more value to his culture if he continues to adapt, a lesson best learnt early.

The Master

What does it mean to be a Master?

The very word has become acid in the ears of modern man. Mastery is represented as an old, feeble, and conservative elder clinging with gnarled hands to the tired traditions of an exhausted past. While the world hurtles apace in the name and glory of progress (towards what end we're never sure), Mastery it is claimed can't hope to keep up so it responds by dragging the world down through oppression, domination and authoritarianism, an avatar of power that is the embodied enemy of liberty and freedom.

So modern man's response has been to idolise the stars of his own collective whim. A churning chaos of fickle popularity, a continuous upheaval of perpetual novelty instinctively abandoned at the first sign of maturation. There is no longer allowance for a social hierarchy based on competence neither the acknowledgement for competence of the individual. Freedom from being subject to or developing judgement and discernment dissolves the blossoming individual subsumed by arbitrary assignment of some group identity; a rejection of the very process of maturation impoverishing a society that slumbers on till midday like a middle school adolescent.

What is no longer well understood is that the Master craftsman was never master over his apprentice or any person, rather he was the master of the very process of growth itself. Long prior to mastery he himself had submitted to a discipline, he had thoroughly absorbed his culture; only with such hard won wisdom inherited or discernment newly acquired does he transform into the steward of tradition. Rather than identifying with his craft, something already pertaining to the past, the master identifies with the process that generates craft. This process is tradition, literally the "giving across the threshold."

Sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Masters may embrace responsibility for tradition in numerous ways. Below are three typical examples.

By establishing a workshop (business in modern parlance) they address practical concerns providing an environment for apprentices to mature and journeymen to practise, providing the community of which they are a member valuable service.

As previously discussed the Master is intimately involved as a teacher in the development of both apprentices and journeymen. This is an additional burden and sacrifice. To be able to clearly articulate craft in guided verbal instruction and demonstration far exceeds the level of competence required of practise alone.

Perhaps the most noble pursuit of mastery is to conceive, to give birth metaphorically, to bear, to take on voluntarily. Both the physical world and human culture are dynamic, ever changing. Past knowledge is always insufficient. Masters take on the responsibility of expanding the domain of knowledge and understanding of their craft. Sometimes this entails adaptation to changed circumstances by reevaluating means and methods. However, often the boundaries to be crossed and explored are artistic.

While we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent; nevertheless, each and every one of us have the gifts to acquire knowledge and exercise power. What the Master Craftsman represents is a time tested, verified path of transforming human potential into individual actuality. In essence, the light we could become if we would articulate the highest ideal we can conceive, disciplining and orienting the very best within us to that end. Awaken yourself, awaken the world.

The Mystical Craftsman 

"You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop" - Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad

A commonly expressed tenet of the mystical perspective is that we and everything surrounding us are localised and temporal manifestations of a greater wholeness. Stated another way, between you and the ultimate reality...there is no separation.

Unsurprisingly, for a number of mystic traditions such as Sufi Muslims, Kabbalist Jews, Taoists, Zen Buddhists and many monastic traditions within Christianity the boundaries of belief have always remained somewhat permeable. This openness and desire for unity typical of mysticism has the capacity to transcend dogmatic belief, heal division and uncover that which connects and binds us to each other and all there is.

Working together with a traditional plaster and masonry company, Preservation Works, I recently received a commission for the design, construction and installation of an enriched plaster dome of Islamic geometric design. This was for the "mihrab" or private chapel of a couple in their newly built home situated on the "Farm of Peace" an 150 acre Sufi Muslim community, retreat and healing centre nestled in the gently rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania. I was given great liberty with the design and manufacture of the dome of which I'll attempt to share my experience.

The Tessellation

The owners presented me with a rendering of an hexadecagram, a 16-sided star polygon as a point of departure for the design. Such "four-fold" geometries are the most common in Islamic geometric design as the root regular polygon, the square fully occupies surfaces, making it well adapted it for complex designs. However, the first challenge was to determine the surface to receive the design, to research what kind of curvature for the dome was possible given the architectural constraints of the room height, the potentially obstructing rafters above and even the thickness of the dome itself. We managed to squeeze out the most curvature possible with a profile generated by a three-centred arch, an approximate ellipse.

The hexadecagram pattern could now be adapted for the determined surface. This was all carried out traditionally, geometrically with compass and rule. The initially provided design was modified, the proportions of the 'safts' or petals of the star-like tessellation were adjusted to produce a more harmonious composition and the entire pattern was reduced in scale so as to be fully observable from a prostrate position on the ground. A calligraphic element, "ﷲ‬, Allah" was placed in the direction of Mecca to provide orientation for prayer.

With the occasional exception of highly stylised vegetal design, representational art is strongly discouraged, at times forbidden in Islamic tradition. Artists have responded to these constraints by pushing the very limits of aesthetic potential and symbolic meaning possible from geometric design. The star becomes a common motif. As an emanation from a centre it acts as a symbol of divine enlightenment, yet the same centrepoint draws you in to the divine unity. This sense of unity can be fortified with an interlacement of the bands, representing the woven tapestry of the universe in its infinitude.

Translating the interlaced pattern from a scaled two dimensional drawing to the three dimensional surface of the dome was another important step involving more geometry. The dome was to be cast; this meant that the "void" had to be first extruded in plaster. Onto that inverted surface the pattern was carefully and methodically transferred, physically inscribed utilising several methods to verify its precision. This accomplished, the casting of the dome in a relatively thin shell of plaster could commence.

Contrast, Harmony, Unity

Islamic geometry participates in a far more universal tradition of sacred geometry. Principles of the sacred feminine in harmonious relation with the sacred masculine were intrinsic characteristics of the tessellated dome that I sought to augment. For example, the "void" of the dome can point to the vault of heaven but has a perhaps stronger correlation with the universal "womb", the unseen and unknown mystery out of which all emerges. Rather than being considered empty or being nothing, the void symbolises that which is as of yet undifferentiated...potential itself. The gentleness and ethereal nature of the void is contrasted with the rigourous order, the imposed and revealed pattern of the tessellation.

For the enrichment of the surface we chose to further accentuate these principles of softness/sharpness, darkness/light, the sacred feminine and masculine. The oculus at centre surrounds a lightwell, literally bringing the light of the sun to be the focal point of the design. The tessellation continues to emanate from there in successive waves. The sixteen pointed star received a soft dimpled pattern representative of the sacred feminine, next contrasted by the sharp "flamed" texture hand gouged with wood chisels. The safts of the tessellation were so proportioned as to provide balance between these soft/hard, feminine/masculine elements. The end result is an harmonious composition that takes disparate, contrasting elements and interlaces them together into its own symbolic "universe", a single turn of the divine compass, encompassing quite literally the sacred feminine and masculine, seen through the symbol of unity, the perimeter of the circle through which it is entered.

The Logical Craftsman

I recently was commissioned for the bespoke design development, manufacture and installation of enriched plaster elements of an architecturally Classical Ionic order including capital, architrave, frieze and cornice as well as a large cove above an attic storey. This was carried out under the direction of a local architectural firm for a Classical Christian Academy in Richmond, VA. I would contend that it is not immediately obvious what Judeo-Christian culture and the legacy of Graeco-Roman civilisation might share in common as a worldview or, in spite of the long history and widespread diffusion of Western civilisation, why it might be that an architecture once developed for pagan temples might be appropriate for a school furnishing a Christian education.

Nevertheless, I've personally come to a provisional belief that the Classical and Christian traditions do share certain commonalities that are significant, of value and can be reconciled around specific principles, one of which being the "Logos" that I should like to develop directly towards the conclusion of this essay. Interestingly, the principle of the Logos has much practical utility for the craftsman so I'll first seek to articulate how it was drawn upon for this project through the exercise of various branches of "logic", that being "the art or technique of Logos", alternatively of "reason" but of a particular sort.


Human beings are far from omniscient, our knowledge is both limited and susceptible to doubt or revision. So the question arises, "how might one arrive upon certain knowledge?" or of practical utility for the craftsman, "how might we obtain consistent, necessary results from a given action?"  This can be accomplished by deducing, literally "drawing from" a base of knowledge already established. However, this species of knowledge does not directly originate from experience, rather "rationally" from a relationship of ideas to one another accompanied by a system to encode, conventialise or in other words make symbols for those ideas. The Classical Quadrivium studies of arithmetic, geometry, harmony and cosmology (number in concept, space, sequence, time & space) are all based on deductive reasoning. Although such deductive reasonings originate in the mind, the effects of implementing them can produce objective changes in the material world. For the architect and craftsman these become tools, instruments in the process of design.

The Ionic order of Classical architecture is held (with some controversy) to be based on a Golden harmonic sequence. All of the parts, from the smallest moulding elements to the pilasters and entablature, all the way to the overall elevation and volume of the contained space derive from a conventionalised system of proportion. Having mastered this deductive tool, one's design can largely unfold like a flower from a blossom. Variations of these tools have been encoded into "canons", formulaic treatises that closely followed lead to predictable, necessary forms. One specific deductive tool utilised for this project was that of Goldman's 17th century method for describing the spiral of the Ionic volute. The size and placement of the eye being given by the canonical reference, the volute uncoils in a predetermined fashion. Therefore, this type of deductive, formal reasoning can literally "inform" that is to say "put form into" the design.

An interesting feature of deductive reasoning is that it makes truth claims, at least within the given system of convention. In practical terms for the craftsman, his work is measurable and whether it is correct or not can be verified by physical examination.


Not everything in design unfolds from a prescribed formula; in fact, most things don't at all so other
species of reasoning are needed. To induce literally mean to "draw in", that's to say to take in additional knowledge, to expand the domain of what can be known. One of the ways in which we accomplish this is by analogy, literally "according to logic!" For the architect this may entail finding spaces that are similar in scale, shape and purpose and using them as precedents, reasons for the proposed design. The same analogous principle applies to the craftsman. For this project we studied dozens of examples of column capitals and entablatures, selecting precedents that we felt were both excellent and appropriate to our given project.

Clearly we're not the first to have encountered these design challenges and fortunately many talented folks before us have left instructive content in writing and drawings. The aforementioned "canons" provide a library of proven effective and widely accepted solutions that allow us to use expert, authoritative testimony to bolster our justifications, our reasoning for the design decisions we ultimately take.

However, as helpful as they are we mustn't thoughtlessly follow canon and precedent; if so we wouldn't be fully utilising our own capacity for reason! The canons provide general guidelines in an abstract, theoretical framework whereas precedents are specific solutions adapted for a particular time, space and purpose. Our own location and challenge are always unique and call for adaptation. The question that arises is an ethical, specifically an aesthetic one, "what ought this to look like?" In our project we were obliged to make many aesthetic value claims about what was appropriate for the space, whether to extend the profile of the cove further into the ceiling, to reduce the projection of the cornice, to pulvinate the frieze to name a few of many such decisions. These was hardly deductive reasonings applied formulaically to arrive at guaranteed truth, rather posited solutions inferred from our own experience and cultivated judgement.


Sometimes there are no precedents, there are no canonical sources. Almost inevitably that is the case for the small decisions, the fine details, the knitty gritty aspects of either the design or technical operations; essentially we find ourselves tasked with things we've never done before and there's no one to call upon for help. It is from this duress and with another type of reasoning that much skill in craft is acquired. It's abductive reason and, just as it sounds, it's reason that is "drawn away", taken from wherever you can get it! Occasionally reasoning through the difficulty will arise as an act of imagination, a scenario contemplated by the mind. We may even go so far to posit an hypothesis, an inferred solution, essentially our best guess verbally or in writing. More often and more effectively craftsmen tend to act out the solution as an embodied form of reason. If at first you don't succeed try, try, try again is essentially the method of abduction, acquiring and constructing further knowledge from the scarcest of data through applied imagination, creative action.

All three forms of reason were brought to bear on this project; however, particularly the latter form of abduction played the crucial role in the most ornamental, symbolic feature: the fleuron of the capitals.

The Logos

Here in the 21st century we've very nearly lost our capacity for communication through symbolic ornamentation. On the one hand ornament may be suspect of being idolatrous while at the other  extreme is often denigrated as arbitrary kitsch, carrying no capacity for meaning whatsoever. In this context much careful thought went into the concept and  design of the capital fleuron so as to be a proper reflection of the values of the academy and avoid these two extremes. Below are a few of those values I ascertained of the academy as I developed my design:
  • Engaging the students with the best examples of philosophical conversations, books, art and music that the accumulated Western tradition has to offer.
  • The cultivation (oriented towards cult and culture; religion and society) of the developing mind with an emphasis on logic and reason progressing towards clearly articulated communication through speech and writing.
  • The capacity and desire for lifelong learning imparted to the students is more important than the particular contents of any subject taught at the academy. 
The latter appeared to me to be an overarching principle, at the top of the hierarchy of values as it encapsulates that which can generate additional values. It recalled to me the writings of the Classical Greek philosopher Heraclitus who had a concept of the Logos as "the mind of God". His famous illustration being that of the river whose contents are every changing yet it remains the river and in some sense the same; the overarching structure for the river of course being its banks, the static precondition that makes the dynamic being of the flow of the water possible, an interesting paradox of the reciprocal relationship between the universal and eternal with the particular and ephemeral, that which is always coming in and out of being, subject to metamorphosis.

Plato contrasted Logos and Mythos as two ways of human understanding, two paths of truth. Mythos being a true story but a fictive, poetic, naturalistic account that might be dramatized or acted out as we orient ourselves the unknown, towards what we don’t yet quite understand. Logos by contrast he describes as the higher principle, the rational mind that grasps the higher universal ‘forms’ and represents the known, the knowable most notably through speech, particularly philosophy. Just as the soul inhabits the body, the divine, eternal Logos inhabits the material, provisional Mythos as it strives for a return to Unity.

Aristotle also treats Logos as a higher principle but constrained within one of three persuasive methods of rhetoric. In any given argument there are two subjects and an object of discussion so three bases of persuasion. Ethos refers to the character of the one presenting the argument, one’s credibility or authority. Pathos concerns the emotional state of the one receiving the argument, largely determining if he is moved or receptive to Logos, the rationale of the argument itself. Aristotle’s introduces concepts of Deduction, moving from universal principles to particular cases and Induction, the applying of particular cases to account for universal principles which have become accepted and expanded upon in Western philosophical tradition as the foundation of propositional Logic.

The Logos likewise is a central theme of Christianity:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." - John 1:1-3 KJV

The "Word" being the English translation of the Greek "Logos" so that Jesus is associated with creation itself but in a specific way: a call to order through speech. We can make reference back to the very beginning where all of creation is successively spoken into existence:

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." - Genesis 1:3 KJV

So in view of the above I thought it reasonable to ask, "what might it mean to be made in the image of God?" For me it means at least in part that we can embody in flesh the negentropic principle that can distinguish good from bad, that can develop habitable order from undifferentiated potential by speaking and acting the truth. In so doing we can participate in moving existence closer to heaven, the city of God, paradise, the beautiful. So how do you express that architecturally, in ornament, symbolically?

For starters by not confusing the symbol with the greater, transcendent reality it points towards. The Classical conveys quite explicitly habitable order. We in fact refer to the arrangement in this design as an example of the Ionic Order. Likewise the purpose of ornament is reflected in the meaning of the word itself as derived from the Latin root "ordo"; ornament is principally a means of reinforcing the order of architectural space...through symbolic narrative, through the metaphorical word. So the Classical design reinforced with Christian ornamentation of this room convey both a sense of order and sacred purpose, a temple architecture in essence rededicated to education: the "drawing out", uncovering of the spark of divinity that inheres to the individual.

In Christianity the greatest exemplar of divine light is of course Jesus Christ, "the Word made flesh", the Logos. One of Christ's symbols, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah", was taken by author C. S. Lewis and further symbolised in the Chronicles of Narnia with the character Aslan the lion who created Narnia with a song. The symbol of the lion also came to be associated with John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” - Mark 1:3 KJV, identifying the voice of truthful speech as a precondition for spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, the evangelist (literally the angel or messenger of 'good') Mark himself came to be depicted as a winged lion who held the truthful word in his right paw. So that was the inspiration for my design of little Aslan fleurons, to serve as a symbol, to point, to remind the young men and women who pass through those doors to embody the Logos in their own education, orienting themselves towards the good by becoming powerful, articulate speakers and actors of truth.

Lion of St. Mark, Venice

The Romantic Craftsman

Rebellious Slave, Michelangelo
To start off with, allow me to disabuse some of you of the notion that what follows is a discussion of craftsmen who work in a particular style, within a certain historical era. What concerns us here is the disposition of the majority of craftsmen throughout history towards the world, one characterised by intuition and familiarity, drawn towards life and nature, uniquely expressive of the sublime, melancholic and sentimental. Out of practical necessity we are obliged to consider the Romantic in contrast with what has greatly diminished and largely supplanted it throughout global civilisation: the Enlightenment, a predominantly philosophical world view that first took root some two millennia in ancient Greece before it gradually came to fully dominate the cultural outlook and organisation of society in 18th century Western Europe.

Separation vs Detachment

A craftsman benefits from a bit of separation from his craft. This separation can be thought of in a couple ways. There is the physical, bodily separation from his medium be it stone, plaster, timber, etc. At times we're chastised for anthropomorphising, attributing human qualities to material. However, I'd contend this is a reverberative process, we likewise begin to attribute material qualities to ourselves such as warmth, flexibility, endurance: an iron will, the steadfastness of an oak, a mind set in stone to name but a few examples. In the process of mastery, the craftsman is increasing drawn towards his medium, something akin to falling in love or perhaps even being seduced. There develops true affection and tender care as between lovers, prolonged separation from one's craft results in a sense of loss and longing.

In addition to the corporeal sense of loss the craftsman will often experience a nostalgia, literally the "pain of return" after a separation long in time and far in place. Such separation creates the possibility of empathy, to "feel inside" and sympathy, to "suffer together with" the other. The human feeling that naturally arises when in the presence of the caring, loving hands of our fellowman that time and the elements have slowly retaken. There was life there perhaps greatness even; the loss is not felt to be trivial. Nevertheless, there is potential healing for the pain of separation and possibility of reunion, if only in part. In one aspect this is what it means to be a traditional craftsman, to portray, to dramatise, to live the experience of culture. His relation to the past is not as an idea, memory or representation but much deeper and less abstract. Craft is the very embodiment of the past, acting it out in the present. A disposition to the world willing to take the past, present and future into account simultaneously.


The aforementioned sense of separation can be contrasted with detachment. Detachment seeks to establish a context of no context. It's surface, formal, picturesque rejecting the depth and complexity of time, place or embodiment. Such reductive simplicity serves instrumental utility. There is a certain  self-satisfaction that the detached view is a pure one, that it alone can capture the thing in itself, that it "knows", just the facts devoid of any motive force. In place of empathy there is analysis, a process of objectification that reduces experience to concept, concept to words, words to object. And an object is something quite detached from you, something to be grasped, dominated, exploited. In place of the generational, accretion of embodied wisdom typical of traditional craft, the detached Enlightenment view (a term itself dripping in smugness) became the philosophical grounds for the Industrial Revolution. Initially the formal, surface elements of traditional architecture were retained by industry; however, within a couple of generations that too was discarded as Modern architecture came to align fully with the Modern philosophy. Marked by disjunction and resulting cultural alienation, we now largely inhabit a craft-less built environment of no time, of no place, machined forms devoid of any evidence of the human touch.

Verification vs Truth

Verification, quite literally the "making of truth", a process of becoming. One of the earliest of the Greek philosophers was Heraclitus, who was in my view far more insightful and profound than subsequent philosophers on this and many other principles. He illustrated the "truth" of the river as being the process of flux and continual becoming just as what makes you as a living, thinking human being is not constancy rather the very process of metabolism and perpetual change. Steady states, "TRUTHS" are dead things, objects if you will. The process of verification has far more to do with pattern recognition and negotiation than any universality. This process appears to occur right down to the subatomic level as far as contemporary science can reveal. We may classify patterns such as Hydrogen as objects for simplification, instrumental tool-like use; however, there are unlikely to be e.g. two atoms of Hydrogen in the universe that are "exactly" the same. In fact, the individual atom of Hydrogen is a process of flux, it itself doesn't remain exactly the same rather being typified by constant change. Science has been able to progress because it has bit by bit left this Enlightenment materialism behind in favour of seeing reality as an interconnected web of pattern and process. The universe is not...rather it is becoming. How Romantic of them!

Traditional craft exists within such a living context. It is marked by adaptability: to the human body, to the local terrain, to the local climate, to the culture in which it is embedded. Craft is not founded upon an axiomatic definition of what is true, rather there is a shifting orientation towards provisional truth generated from a receptive, vigilant attention to what is, in favour of a Utopian certainty of what we might wish to be. Thus craft is a way of being in the world, a journey of discovery voluntarily moulded by reality's constraints. The craftsman's revealed truth becomes as an emergent property of his own uniqueness in body, place and time as it integrates with the particularities of nature, material and culture.

By contrast, the Enlightenment temperament seeks to impose the freedom, equality and certainty of its systematised ideological constructs upon the very processes of life characterised by constraint, particularity and dynamic change. Ironically it acts far more "picturesque" than the so-called Romantics it derides, attempting to frame a view of an ideal, decontextualised moment outside of time and space. Plainly stated, Modernism is far more otherworldly, ephemeral and fantastical than the Romantics ever were, characterised by this conceptual orientation towards fixity (and death) rather than viscerally engaging with the world as it becomes.

Authentic vs Automatic

Now might be a good time to bring up the origin of the word "Romantic". Obviously, it hearkens back to Ancient Rome; however, somewhat surprisingly not to Classical or Imperial Rome. Romantic was an adjective referring to Vulgar Latin and the Roman vernacular more generally. Far removed from the nobility and palace intrigues, Romantic is a plebeian term, local folks who mostly did for themselves, quite literally the meaning of authentic, "doing oneself". Traditional craftsmen certainly embody such a spirit of authenticity as well as anyone. And by embody I mean the expertise they exhibit is contained in the physical body. It's "know how" that can be displayed rather than "know what" to be written down or programmed. Likewise craft knowledge is familiar in the sense of how one might know a friend, family member or lover as opposed to being familiar or overly familiar in the other sense, that which is known for purpose, rote and usual (for use).

3D print of Rebellious Slave
However, authoritarian types don't care for it one bit when the folk aren't entirely passive and dependent on them. And they tend to get very irritated when they encounter things they don't know, can't grasp or control. One reactionary tactic is to verbally abuse those outside control. So it is that the work of craftsmen is often derided as being provincial, pastiche, anachronistic, picturesque and almost comically...elitist and inauthentic by the self appointed arbiters of taste in academia and the media.

Nevertheless there are far more reliable methods of excising conformity, principal among them: Automation, that is to say "self making". Automation might first call to mind the industrial robots of high technological factory production and certainly that would qualify. However, more broadly speaking we can think of automation as the imposition of enclosed systems be they mechanical, digital, state or corporate bureaucracies, municipal codes, etc. A moment's reflection will reveal that from cradle to grave almost every function of individual human life is subject to automation: food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, governance, transportation to name a few.

There is a legacy awaiting this Enlightenment world view: all of its systems will fail. Not because Romantic craftsmen like myself are hoping for that, rebelling against them or otherwise fomenting trouble (heaven knows we're just trying to carve out a little slice of another way of being in the world, not having the stomach to swallow the fantasy.) No, it's because static systems always fail. They only know what they know...what they know is to exploit. It's a self-contained knowledge based on willful ignorance of the dynamic reality of nature. Yet excessive order unleashes the forces of chaos. Instinctively we all know this, we've just been indoctrinated to hold something like an objective view...

The Ethical Craftsman

Themis - Titaness of the Moral Law
This essay is bound to be unpopular, extolling as it does the counter-culture virtues of judgement, discrimination and responsibility. Ethos, the etymological ancestor of our English word 'ethic', was a very important concept for the ancient Greeks. Ethos was the self-cultivated character of the individual that accorded with the custom of his place. By knowing where or from what family a man was from you could ascertain much about him. Yet it was never the whole story; the individual retained agency, the important choices that would ultimately praise or condemn him in the eyes of his fellowman.

Consciously acknowledged or not, ethics is the branch of philosophy that all humans are most concerned with. Whereas metaphysics concerns itself with questions of origin and existence and epistemology as to what constitutes knowledge or truth, ethics places to one side such abstract notions. Rather, it's emotional and dynamic, it seeks to act in the world, taking up the challenge of how things ought to be in the face of what they are. Ethics are of vital interest to the craftsman in two significant ways. First, how the work of our hands ought to appeal to the senses and secondly, what responsibilities we have towards ourselves, other individuals, our culture and nature herself.


How ought that which we create appeal to the senses? This is a question that chefs, musicians, and craftsmen, essentially all artists and makers grapple with. How are the dishes we prepare to smell or taste, the music we perform to sound, the crafted work of our hands to feel and look? These are not trivial questions...chefs, musicians and craftsmen invest years of practise, garnering experience in cultivating our sensory capacity for such nuances. In incremental steps we must first train the discerning palates, noses, ears or eyes for only then can we hope to develop and align the skills to produce that which might please the senses. Such pursuit of sensual delight must include a great deal of frustration, a virtual arms race of dissatisfaction that contains self-judgement from within and judgement from masters and patrons from without. Oh yes, your work will assuredly be judged and quite possibly found wanting. Disentangling yourself from the judgement against your work or your performance is no straightforward matter.

Apprentice Pillar - Rosslyn Chapel
In the visual arts of painting and sculpture as well as architecture there arose, perhaps initially as a mere reflection of an exercised instinct, something that grew into a self-consciously foggy notion of what our creations might ought to look like: the beautiful and the sublime. It was held that the beauty or sublimity of such visual arts were but a pale imitation of the source, nature herself. Beauty was emergent, to be revealed or discovered such as in the beauty of a young girl's smile or the beauty of a rose unfurled. Beauty held a certain delicacy, was approachable, drew you in. Sublimity on the other hand commanded reverence of another sort, that of awe. The sublimity of a mountain, great ocean or a field of stars leaves one dumbstruck; an encounter with the totally incomprehensible that nevertheless remains utterly sensible. Although expressed in painting and sculpture, no art has the capacity to convey sublimity like architecture. A majestic work of architecture such as a Gothic cathedral may hold us in awe, remind us of our smallness and mortality yet we simultaneously see in it the hands of man, that as 'man' we are participants in its greatness, it stands as a testimony of our own nobility.

Can a work of visual art reveal both beauty and sublimity together? Much in the same way that a delicate flower can blossom upon the craggy slope of a jagged mountain and a colorful, whirring hummingbird can hover among the mists of a thunderous waterfall, the beautiful and the sublime often indeed coexist. Furthermore, so as to command the most profound impression upon the senses they should do so. Architecture for example is only enhanced as a sublime sensual experience when judiciously combined with the beauty of painting, sculpture, ornament and handcraft.

However, during the Age of Reason the aforementioned way of feeling came under intellectual protest and underwent a reformation denying the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime in favour of a way of thinking about the senses, a need to define beauty and the sublime explicitly, to apply intellectual rigour to the senses, providing rational justification for them. One conclusion of this urgent need might best be summed up in the now cliché slogan "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", that is to say that our senses amount to nothing more than our own perceptions, we've no access to the minds of others or a greater reality outside our own head. Modern art and architecture awkwardly embraced the Modern philosophy which led to a baffling new aesthetic, a theory that denied its own possibility of appealing to the senses at all! Modern works of art and architecture were to befit the modern man, all concept and functional programme to be comprehended and rationally articulated, breaking with the traditional emphasis on illiciting feelings of beauty and sublimity.

Nevertheless, this Modernist aesthetic in practise followed two paths ultimately related to one another. The first was sensory deprivation: white or monochromatic environments, linear and geometric forms, smooth and polished surfaces, a "clean" aesthetic cleansed of any organic presence such as living things or crafted objects in favour of industrially produced metals, glass and plastics. The second approach has been a willful assault on the senses, art and architecture that is deliberately designed to be absurd, to shock, to offend, in some cases to uncover the ugliness, violence, malevolence of the human condition, a perverse celebration of our worst attributes writ large. The Modernist art and architecture movement has been largely successful in eliminating the beautiful and the sublime from academic discourse and professional pracitse; however, by replacing them with an aesthetic of sensory deprivation and sensory assault they've largely determined for society what we ought to have instead, the really real as it were: pain based sensory experiences.

JOKESTER 2 - Art Basel Miami


What responsibility do we have to have towards ourselves, our fellowman and nature in the very process of that which we bring into existence? This is the type of inquiry that makes the art and architectural community very uncomfortable and even reactionary. Questions of morality are essentially bad form and mingling them with questions of aesthetics, well that's strictly taboo. However, if one were to press the issue the answers regarding moral responsibility seem to converge upon: seemingly no responsibility whatsoever.

One problem confronting morality is an extension of the previously considered problem of aesthetics. If the axiomatic presupposition holds that our senses amount to nothing more than our own perceptions, that we've no access to the minds of others or a greater reality outside our own head, then it must follow that there's no basis for a shared aesthetics or a shared morality. Taken to its extreme results in a radical skepticism, a feeling of total isolation and complete detachment from anyone, any reality at all outside one's own perceptions.

As it turns out radical skepticism is not a good recipe for staying alive so we tend to be confronted with it only as a theoretical concept with more tempered versions of skepticism promoted in practise. Prominent among these is what we might call relative morality. The general premise being that I've my morality and you've your morality but there can be no such thing as a shared morality between us. This moral relativism is often amplified to groups identified by race, religion, gender or any other way we might carve up humanity. The focus is on division and separation where we see a repeated pattern on the meta-individual, group level. It plays out something like we have our morality and you all have your morality but there can be no such thing as a shared morality between us as our perceptions are shaped by our enculturation and life experience which represents an impassable chasm with those who don't share the same time, place, sex, race, status, culture, etc. There's a real denial of the possibility of the power of human empathy at work here. The belief is that we can't communicate effectively despite any desire to do so; no matter what you attempt to convey what will in fact be heard, perceived will be shaped by the others intransigent world view.

Another position regarding morality is that it is nothing more than an emergent property of biology and evolution. We're just role playing out our instinctive drives. A kind of materialist morality where all behaviour is reduced to instinct and could be accounted for if we just know more about biology which we expect to in time. This view of morality has a good deal of scientific data and research lending support, even if the scientists themselves hold a more nuanced view. It's not to be denied of course that we have instincts and that they can be quite powerful. However, I would contend that what we often experience are instincts that are in conflict with one another which is where morality actually emerges. When confronted with a moral dilemma, such as saving a drowning stranger i.e., that part of us that suppresses a stronger instinct, "self-preservation" in favour of a weaker one, "offer help" can not itself be an instinct but a higher function that judges between them.

Yet another commonplace view of morality is that it is shaped almost entirely by social convention and societal organisation. Religions, schools and cultures enforce norms whereas governments enact laws that dictate individual behaviour. In the socialist model the former responsibility that the individual might have had for himself, towards his fellowman and nature is largely depersonalised and taken up by the state. Whereas in the more capitalist models responsibility tends to be externalised and outsourced to the marketplace. Most all modern states utilise some compromise between these two approaches of mass societal organisation. What they have in common is that they both wrest moral responsibility away the individual, either by centralising it in the state or distributing it in the marketplace by means of laws, policies and codes. This last view is more descriptive of how things are than normative, saying how they ought to be.

The aesthetic questions of how their work ought to look or otherwise appeal to the senses are quite naturally a primary concern of traditional craftsmen. However, alongside this come other, moral responsibilities. The craft itself is a tradition, literally something of value passed across the threshold. So there is an obligation of stewardship, a respect for the craft even in the manner you practise it, an honesty in one's dealings and upholding a standard of quality, essentially an obligation fulfilled to the preceding generations. The tradition acts as an initiation into personal growth, the cultivation of discernment, the ability to use good judgement rather than a conditioning to perform work rigidly according to fixed norms or standards.

Traditional craftsmen are likely to enter into conflict with more expeditious means particularly those typical of industrial production that are willing to compromise quality, constrain creativity or forego investment in the next generation of craftsmen. To that last point, the craftsman carries an obligation to future generations in the form of apprentices, to pass on both the technical skills and the respect for the craft itself, the fullness of the tradition. Materials are not simply a means to an end form for the craftsman, rather there is an intimate relationship with timber, stone, plaster, iron; wastefulness is among the greatest of offences. Best if one can use local materials, adapted to local needs by local craftsmen. As I've written about elsewhere the Master craftsman becomes the greatest of ministers: to apprentices, to the craft, to the community and to those who are securing his services. Being a traditional craftsman is a moral life of obligation and responsibility and in that is found rich meaning and connection.

Courtesy of Finch Woodworks

The Abolition of Craftsmen

Industrial production has largely displaced and diminished traditional craft globally. What moral responsibility if any does society have towards the craftsman?

Perhaps just give it enough space to grow. That seems to be a tall order in a technological age. We're at the point today where most academics and professionals in architectural circles are convinced that we don't need craft or craftsmen anymore, their hands and heads can be replaced and at greater efficiency. They're not altogether wrong, at least from a certain point of view.

The ability for industry machinery to replace craftsmen has increased steadily since the early 19th century. Those early efforts placed significant constraints on what could be designed and produced. However, after two centuries of technological advancement computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) utilise waterjets, lasers and various bits and bores to produce almost any form imaginable with a level of nuance and detail approaching and in some cases exceeding that of the human hand. 3D printing is the latest technological breakthrough that promises to clear the field entirely.

Semi-Automated Mason, SAM100 - 3,000 bricks a day

So much for the hand but surely complex design tasks, the head is safe? Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured from the public and private coffers into artificial intelligence and algorithmic design development. Almost any human work activity physical or mental can be codified and programmed with sufficient monetary and increasingly digital resources. Artificial intelligence has reached the point where it can speed the conversion along, helping us immensely towards our own redundancy. Even professional fields such as journalism, science, medicine, legal, accounting and ironically computer technology are beginning to see the code written on the virtual firewall.

Why this acceleration towards the automation of practically every conceivable human task be it physical or mental? Some claim it is the only way to address the problem of large numbers. Such automation is the only way to care for the exponential increase in population growth; furthermore, having machines labour and think on our behalf will yield corollary benefits, the freedom from constraint to fulfill our desires, to pursue happiness! That's the sales pitch anyway...I'm not so convinced. Author and moral philosopher C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that every declaration of man's conquest of nature was in reality a few men's conquest over many men with nature as her bludgeoning instrument. I think history has more tended to support his contention than not.

Let's look at the number situation from a different angle. What's the one resource that we have today in superabundance like no time in history? Human beings. And they're super efficient too, running on only 2000 calories day of 100% bio-renewable fuel. Does having billions of young people not just unemployed but unemployable, passive and dependent upon the state and large corporations sound like a secure future to you?* Perhaps the solution to the "problem" of large numbers is to allow the possibility for responsibility and self-reliance for these next generations. Perhaps they would be better served being prepared to be active participants in their future not just along for the algorithmically determined ride. A future where they create not only with their hands and design with their head but rely upon their figurative heart, that unprogrammable uniquely human capacity for moral choice, for what their life ought to be and bestow over the threshold the same possibility for their progeny. I expect that if such an alternate future is possible, craftsmen will have an important role in shaping it.

*Note to politicians and despots: employed craftsman, being active and independent, seldom foment trouble

The Gnostic Craftsman

Courtesy of Philip Gaches
"Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing!"

This is a perfectly natural, expected reaction when listening to an accomplished cellist, a potter at the wheel, a smith at the forge or any master craftsman at work as our plasterer depicted here. What the aforementioned all share in common is that they all make an an extremely complex activity appear almost effortless. Their demonstration of competence commands immediate respect. We acknowledge that such mastery takes inner discipline, a substantial commitment of time as well as the accumulation of a fair bit of knowledge. Whereas English has only a few related terms, many other languages parse what we call "knowledge" into a number of nuanced meanings. In the process leading to mastery we can think of these manifestations of knowledge as incremental stages of development.

Second-hand, Given Knowledge

The Ancient Greeks placed the least amount of value on second-hand knowledge, doxa that is often translated as mere opinion. In its simplest form doxa may be nothing more than a narrative that we receive; that is to say, we "know" something because we heard about it. It's not the case that we've directly worked it out for ourselves or personally have done something. Rather, it consists in nothing more than a belief in or acceptance of something because it originates from an source in which we place trust. Closely related to doxa is the Latin term pistis, an intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition often translated as "faith" whereas doctrina referred to the articles or literal contents of faith (catechism) as taught by the Catholic Church. To "indoctrinate" maintains this negative connotation of the insertion of knowledge into an ostensibly intellectually empty human vessel.

In our more honest moments, I think we must confess that we depend upon this type of second-hand knowledge quite a lot. For example, whenever we read or listen to the news, accept reports regarding climate change from scientists or receive medical advice from our doctor, all of these reports represent doxa, forms of second-hand knowledge. The trouble arises because it's really easy to claim to know in a profound sense what in reality we've merely read or heard. In such cases what we're really doing is expressing a belief commitment. In our defence, there are tremendous constraints on how much we can personally learn and experience. We cope with this by outsourcing the problem socially and as long as our sources have real knowledge (are not mistaken) and are not trying to deceive or manipulate us it can be quite helpful, even necessary. However, we ought to be instinctively cautious of second-hand knowledge as mistakes, deceit or even our own misinterpretation tend to creep in and lead to paradox, literally "contrary opinions".

There are a number of ways in which craftsman can acquire this kind of second-hand knowledge. We  can certainly learn a few things about a given craft by reading about it. Likewise we can discuss it, having an experienced craftsman explain various aspects of the craft. Nevertheless, as craft is primarily experiential as opposed to being understood intellectually, literal and verbal explanations provide at best partial or low image resolutions of craft. Watching a craftsman at work or demonstrating his craft can add further insights whereas physically viewing, touching and measuring a completed work may yield a better understanding. Nevertheless, none of the aforementioned hold a candle to directly engaging in craft yourself.

First-hand, Acquired Knowledge

Two forms of acquired knowledge are necessary for craft. Both of these must be acquired directly yet are very different in nature from one another. Let's first address Theory. The Greek word from which our English word theory derives, theōria, literally means a kind of disinterested contemplation as a spectator may hold of a performance at a theatre. Just as there is no necessity or end goal of a performance, theory is a kind of knowledge for its own sake and pleasure. In Enlightenment language we might say that this species of knowledge is a relation of ideas held in the mind. The process of establishing truth claims built upon initial axiomatic presuppositions was known as analysis by the Greeks and scientia by the Romans. Both of these terms conveyed the concept of cutting apart mental constructs so as to reassemble them into ordered wholes. Geometry, deductive logic and arithmetic would be examples of such theoretical knowledge characterised by timelessness, universality and formality whilst being immaterial, that is to say creating no product nor engaging an action. Epistemology is one of the three main branches of Western philosophy that concerns itself with what constitutes knowledge. The Greek word episteme literally means to "stand over", implying a type of knowledge that stands removed, detached from the object or action of contemplation.

Courtesy of Hamza El Fasiki, Craft Draft
As craftsman we learn abstract systems of proportion and conventions when working inside of a given tradition. As a preeminent example, Classical architecture since at least the time of Imperial Rome has documented these systems into "canons", theoretical standardisations of its three principle orders, that is to say styles of building: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Likewise, other architectural traditions such as Islamic, Vedic, Gothic, etc. possess their own conventional systems whose theoretical knowledge was retained and passed on through various iterations of trade guilds and apprenticeship programmes. Design is initiated from a theoretical point of origin and extended into three dimensions as represented by line, surface and enclosing volume. The elements, that is to say the smallest components of an assemblage, are all derived from fundamental geometric principles such as the circle and the square as well as the various conic sections: ellipse, hyperbole and parabola. A master craftsman (technitês) must be able to perceive, literally "thoroughly grasp" (Latin percipere), such theoretical principles.

A second form of personally acquired knowledge necessary for craft is of course Practise. Our English word derives from the Greek praktikos meaning "to do" or "to act". Practical knowledge is contingent upon what the Greeks called a telos: a goal or function inherent to a made object. Unlike theory, practice is inductively applied particular knowledge of matters of fact to fulfill some specific need or desire. It is thus an interested form of knowledge tied directly to material and action, a knowledge for something's sake as it were. Rather than any universal truth, practical knowledge seeks an arete, an excellence of value in the action or object made. Of interest the very word "philosophy" originally meant a "loving", philo of "skill in handicraft and art", sophos as characterised by its use in Homeric poetry of ancient Greece before its meaning was extended to include a love of wisdom in a more abstract and general sense.

This kind of practical "know how" was best captured in the Greek word techne, the Latin word artes carrying a similar meaning. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle denigrated most craftsmen as mere banausikai techne, illiberal servants whose works were self-centered, of questionable merit and unbefitting of a gentleman. Aristotle in particular expressed that value rested only in the crafted object, not in the means of bringing the object into existence. This is a view that persists in contemporary times when far more value is placed on the end product and little concern given as to how that product is brought into existence. More often than not the process, tradition or training infrastructure required for skilled craftsmanship are ignored in favour of a dogged focus on bottom line price and schedule. By contrast, many Stoics held a more charitable view of skilled craft according value to practical experience, phronêsis as a virtue unto itself. All agreed that a master craftsman was identified by his sapientia, his ability to teach, furnishing a verbal or written account of the craft itself whereas a chief craftsman, architektôn further distinguished himself by his mastery of theory and practise combined with an ability to command others.

Innate Knowledge

In my own experience of teaching traditional plasterwork, the first thing I do is disabuse the students of the notion that I can teach them much at all. Like all traditional crafts, plastering is an embodied form of knowledge. Apprentices have to teach themselves or perhaps another way of stating it, they must unlock their already present potential to plaster thru repetitive action...craft as a form of ritual. I certainly can't plaster for the students; the most I can do is say a few words in the form of encouragement or critique and demonstrate actions whilst they observe. Learning a craft is more akin to a remembrance, the awakening of a capacity already present in the individual. The role of a master is less of a teacher as it is that of a spiritual guide. This type of knowledge has been described as empeiria, that is to say empirical knowledge. Unlike the aforementioned forms of acquired knowledge episteme which can furnish a verbal or literal account, empirical knowledge is internal, non-discursive and straightforwardly acted out. 

The ancient Greeks had a specific word for this kind of knowledge, gnosis. As you may already suspect this is the origin for our own English words "to know" and "knowledge". The sense of gnosis is quite intimate, more of a "knowing who" than a knowing how or what. It is the type of knowledge you'd have of a dearest friend or loved one. It's not a collection of facts about them, rather a deep connection that is shared.

To become an effective craftsman you must lose your mind. In the process of learning the student initially attempts to think thru and control his movements, ultimately a futile effort that leads to complete exhaustion. The student understandably wishes to know what to do in the sense of being informed of the correct materials, means and methods. Although there is a place for that, it is secondary in the learning process as information is always particular and soon becomes redundant. By abandoning oneself to the ritual of craft the student is rather transformed and an insight grows spontaneously from visceral, direct, embodied experience. For the master craftsman, knowledge sublimates into action, his knowing is making.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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