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Shop Class as Soulcraft

A philosopher turned motor-bike mender meditates on the rewards and joys of manual labor.

By George Whisstock / June 16, 2009



In his debut book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford examines for us his (mostly) joyful transition from philosopher and think tank director to self-employed mender of motorbikes.

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Crawford is not lamenting the passing of some golden age of the artisan craftsman; nor is he extolling the virtues of hobby-craft as therapy for the intellectual desert of modern office work and management. Instead, he is presenting the acquisition of a manual skill as a viable option in life, one that could be both intellectually and financially rewarding.

Living in a commune from age 9 to 15, Crawford was working as an electrician’s helper by the time he turned 14. Crawford’s introduction to philosophy – for him “a jolt of clarity” – came in his senior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Unable to find a job after graduating with a degree in physics, he put his work experience to good use and started his own electrician’s business.

Crawford writes that he “continued to feel the tug of philosophy ” which eventually took him to the University of Chicago and a PhD in the history of political thought. Currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Crawford also owns and operates a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in Richmond, Va.

Being thus both philosopher and tradesman, Crawford is eminently well placed to discuss the intellectual and practical aspects of work and indeed, between chunks of often amusing and always informative motor-bike lore, he branches out into philosophical discussion, ranging from Aristotle to the present. Chapters are broken into shorter sections, with occasional illustrations by a fellow mechanic, Thomas Van Auken, who is identified by Crawford as a “painter of nudes and diagnoser of steering shimmies.”

Passages from Heidigger – “a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things” – jockey with absolutes. “Where the rubber meets the road, the mechanic is still responsible for the thing,” writes Crawford, quite wonderfully.

“Shop Class” is primarily concerned with the philosophy of “scientific management,” which has transferred craft knowledge from employee to employer, recast it as “process engineering knowledge,” and subsequently degraded blue-collar work largely to an unskilled “labor sausage” – the intellectual and work satisfaction dimensions of which have been replaced by “the moral legitimization of spending.” Consumerism and consumer debt were thus born, swiftly becoming a vital part of the economy for the very firms that created them to survive.

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