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The Philosopher Mechanic

Reassessing the value of working with one’s hands

Matt Crawford Robert Adamo

When Matt Crawford was 17, his 1963 VW Bug frustrated his many attempts to fix it. Corroded nuts and bolts would break under his tools, and electrical problems eluded diagnosis. His father, a physicist, offered him a bit of advice on problem solving: “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s in a double knot?” To Crawford, it seemed that his father’s advice came from another universe than the one he was grappling with. As a physicist, his father thought about the world as an abstract mathematical model; he didn’t think about actual shoelaces—with their specific textures, lengths and strengths, shoelaces that might break before being untied—but rather an idealized shoelace that could be defined with equations.

Shop Class as Soul Craft has been on the New York Times best-seller list since being published in May.

The disparity between his own perspective and his father’s inspired Crawford to investigate the difference between work that is based on intimate interaction with the physical world and work that is not. He became a motorcycle mechanic and philosopher. As a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University, he wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, in which he makes an argument for the rewards of working with one’s hands.

Crawford argues that physical labor that offers tangible results—a motorcycle that starts, a plumbing system that doesn’t leak—provides satisfaction, both intellectual and psychic, that office work often lacks. The problems of engines or pipes offer meaty cognitive challenges; Crawford claims that the natural sciences were born of the familiarity of skilled workers with the physical world, that observation and experimentation arose from the relationship that people had to the “stuff” that they worked with.

Crawford fears that people are alienated from their own stuff, both at work and at home. People drive cars without knowing how an engine runs; they live in houses without knowing how their toilets flush; they spend their time on computers whose interface is designed to hide the machinery that makes them work. This not only makes people dependent on the companies that make and fix things, but also deprives them of mastery over their own lives.

Certainly, lacking engagement with physical reality has costs in terms of self-reliance, but Crawford focuses on the philosophical loss of a sense of self in relation to the world. He writes:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

Shop Class as Soulcraft unites Crawford’s own work experience, the writings of philosophers and social scientists, the history of the industrial revolution and the rise of the information economy, and the demise of shop class over the past two decades to re-envision human flourishing. He sings the praises of the plumber and the electrician, the mechanic and the builder, but at core his project is “seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.”