Notes: Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B Crawford


    This is a very dense work. For a book about craftsmanship and vocational trades, it’s ironically very academically written (no doubt influenced by Crawford’s time at research institutes)


    • Modern devices built to be replaced rather than repaired
    • Ideal of the book: manual competence
    • Economists will point out that opportunity cost of spending one’s time making what can be bought
      • Book is less concerned about economics than it is with the experience of making and fixing things
    • Working as director of think tank — pay was good but truly felt like “compensation”
      • Felt tired and didn’t feel like provided tangible good/service to anyone
      • vs the feeling of pride from repairing a motorcycle for a customer
    • Author will avoid mysticism that gets attached to “craftsmanship”
      • Prefers the term “trade” over “craft” to emphasize everyday nature of the subject
      • Will also avoid wistful notions of “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic
    • Center of modern life: struggle for individual agency
      • self-reliance and meaningful work
    • As a reaction to obscure forces of global economy, people are looking to recover a manageable field of vision
    • Easy to determine objective quality of a physical object compared to difficulty involved with knowledge work
      • Difficult to trace individual responsibility with teamwork

    1. A brief case for the useful arts

    • Shop classes around nation disbanded for computer literacy classes
      • Shop is expensive, potentially dangerous, and not easily scalable
    • Satisfaction from manifesting oneself concretely in the world though manual competence
      • No need to offer interpretations to vindicate one’s worth — simply have to point at what you made
    • Shared memories attach to material objects
      • Producing them is a communion with others and the future
    • People usually views objects as things that work in service for them
      • But when an object breaks down, we have to figure out what it needs
      • We are not as free/independent as we thought
    • Consumerism is one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives
      • Tangibility and satisfaction in picking and buying an object
      • Confirmation of an individual’s power to make things happen in the world
      • Claiming the exclusive right to enjoy a thing
    • Marketing diverts attention from what a thing actually is
      • Focus instead on backstory, exaggerating minor difference between brands
    • A craftsman looks not towards the new but the objective standards of his craft
      • Not swept away by trendiness
    • Education system: fear that acquiring a specific skillset means that one’s life is determined
      • College is ticket to an open future
      • Ideal of new economy is to be able to learn new things
        • Celebrates potential over achievement
    • The management consultant is revered for their lack of particular expertise
      • Ability to swoop in and out of industries
      • Presents an image of soaring freedom
    • False dichotomy between knowledge work and manual work

    Cognitive demands of manual work

    • Skilled manual labor entails a systematic encounter with the material world
      • Systematic encounters gave rise to natural science
      • sophia aka “wisdom” meant “technical skill” to Homer
      • “wisdom” lost concrete sense and shifted towards mystical
      • Science moved towards idealizations (e.g. frictionless worlds, perfect vacuums)
      • Shift towards accommodating mathematical representations
    • Historically, technological developments sometimes preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding
      • Steam engine was built while science was still tied to caloric theory of heat
      • Steam engine contribute to classical thermodynamics
    • Decision tree of hypotheses
      • Have to balance testing out hypothesis against risk of damaging an antique part
      • Also rely on experience/hunches of others
    • Author feels a much stronger sense of community working on bikes
      • Connecting with locals

    Future of Work: Back to the Past?

    • Critical divide between work: those that can be delivered wirelessly with no loss of quality vs those that can’t
      • aka personal vs impersonal services
      • Does not correspond well to traditional distinction between jobs that require high levels of education and those that don’t
    • Another school of thought: divide will be between whether the services is itself rules-based or not
      • Creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out/there are no rules in the first place

    2. The separation of thinking from doing

    Degradation of Blue-Collar Work

    • Rise of scientific management during early decades of 20th century
      • Goal was not to make work process more efficient
        • In other words, not about extracting more value of a given unit of labor time
      • Goal was to lower labor cost
    • Self-directed labor of worker is abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management — a labor sausage
    • When Ford first introduced assembly line, huge attrition rate, (hire 963 in order to keep 100)
      • Ford had to double wages in order to prevent workers from quitting
      • Destroyed competitors and consequently the possibility of an alternate way of working
    • 20th century saw moral legitimization of spending

    Degradation of white-collar work

    • White-collar profession are also subject to same process abstraction and reconstitution
    • With AI, human ingenuity used to eliminate need for human ingenuity
    • Growth in knowledge work will not stop the increase in cognitive stratification

    Everyone an Einstein

    • Author is skeptical of the premise of a growing creative class
      • Workers given the illusion of autonomy, given freedom within a very limited scope, leaving insignificant matters open to choice
    • We like the idea of the rhetoric of freedom and individuality

    Tradesman as Stoic

    • Work should engage the human capacities as fully as possible
      • Goes against the central imperative of capitalism, which partitions thinking from doing
    • Freedom from hope and fear is the Stoic ideal

    3. To be master of one’s own stuff

    • Concept of opportunity cost presumes the fungibility of human experience — all actives are equivalent/interchangeable once reduced to the abstract currency of hours/wages
    • Interesting observation regarding infrared faucets
      • Physical handle gives impression that user has control over appearance of water (when really it is there due to the abstraction of plumbing and other infrastructure)
      • Lack of handle on infrared faucet brings to surface one’s dependence on other’s for water

    From the hand pump to idiot light, and beyond

    • Sub-ethical virtue: user hold himself responsible to external reality and opens himself to being schooled by it
      • User of machine has something at stake
    • With electronic equipment, interface is meant to be “intuitive”
      • Any psychic friction makes one aware of reality as an independent thing
      • Programmers have tried to anticipate his every need
        • If all goes well, nothing to disturb user’s self-containment
    • Dipstick for checking oil has been deprecated
      • Replaced with “service required” light and bureaucracy of service technician (dealership, the auto company that holds service plan/warranty, shareholders who collectively dissipate financial risk)
      • However, oil is still consumed + will still leak and running low on oil will still trash motor
      • The facts of physics have not changed
        • What has changed is the place of those facts in our consciousness

    Agency vs autonomy

    • Musician’s power of expression is founded upon obedience to mechanical realities of her instrument
      • Which in turn answers to natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically
      • These facts do not arise from human will and cannot be altered
    • Human agency arises only within the concrete limits that are not of our making
      • Importance of limits that are external to the self
      • One submits to things that have their own intractable ways (learning new language, gardening, structural engineering, etc)
    • Commanding reality (i.e. things): convey meaning through their own inherent qualities
      • Instrument is difficult to master and limited in range
      • Requires skilled and active human engagement
      • Requires practice
    • Disposable reality (i.e. devices): answer to our shifting psychic needs
      • Stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music possible
      • Invites consumption

    Betty Crocker cruiser

    • Betty Crocker learned that it was good business to make the cake mix not quite complete
      • Baker felt better about cake if they are required to add an egg to the mix
    • Choosing is not creating, no matter how much creativity is invoked in marketing

    Displaced agency

    • Build a Bear - gives illusion of creation
      • Child selects features and clothes on a computer screen and bear is made for them
      • Preempt cultivation of embodied agency (use of hands/tools) which otherwise comes naturally to humans
      • Will be more well-adjusted to emerging patterns of work and consumption
        • i.e. won’t worry about infrared faucets of lack of dipstick in car
      • Also creepy foreshadowing of what genetic engineering might look like
    • Choose among predetermined alternatives, each of which offers itself as good
      • Judgment of “good” has already been made by other people
    • Consumer no longer has burden of fabrication or evaluation
      • e.g don’t have to make compromises between aesthetic concerns and functional ones
    • Often, a product advertised promises to relieve us of the burden of the focal practice shown in the stock photo
      • In reality, it is not the product but the practice that is really attractive

    4. Education of a gearhead

    • Although people talk a lot about diversity in demographics but not much diversity in disposition
    • Different people are attracted to different kinds of work
      • At the same time, the work a person does form them
    • Aristotle’s idea of an art (or techne) is between total, impotent fatalism and fantasy of complete mastery
      • Stochastic art: mastery is compatible with failure
      • Doctor or mechanic fix things that are variable, complex, and aren’t of their own making
        • Therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way
        • Vivid awareness of difference between self and nonself
        • Fixing things a good cure for narcissism
    • Mathematics renders the world as something of our own making
      • World is interesting only insofar as we can reproduce it in ideal form
    • Stochastic arts require an attentive rather than assertive disposition
      • Industrial farming imposes its plan on the land
      • Traditional farming assumes land has a reality of its own
        • Conversation between what man wants and what nature affords
    • Old-school shops have anti-salesmanship
      • Desire to sell is counterbalanced by haughty professionalism
      • Makes a customer feel like they want to be part of an exclusive club
        • Can’t buy their way in, must earn it
    • For motors, there is not consistent engineering intention between manufacturers
      • Customization means you have to know how to modify parts to get them to fit perfectly
    • Echoing stuff from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
      • Normal perception is concept-driven
      • When most people try to draw they are just drawing the icon they see in their head of the thing
    • Good art often seems mysterious because it resists the easy patterns of the fantasy
      • Shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision
      • Bad art is recognizable and familiar
    • Craftsman’s perception is not a passive process
    • Etymology of idiot comes from Greek idios meaning private
      • Idiot fails to grasp their public role, i.e. a relation of active concern to others and to the machine

    Seeing clearly or unselfishly

    • Virtue is attempt to break through selfish consciousness and join world as it really is
    • Use imagination not to escape the world but to join it
    • Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility

    5. Further education of a gearhead

    • Tension between mechanic’s metaphysical responsibility to machine and mechanic’s fiduciary responsibility to owner
      • Author would go down rabbit holes of compulsively fixing small problems
      • Felt guilty about billing for hours spent on problems that he may have caused from trying to repair something else

    6. Contradictions of the cubicle

    • White-collar work: process more important than product
      • Manager has nothing objective to measure, so directs attention to state of mind of employees
      • Manager becomes a life coach
    • Contemporary office emphasizes teamwork and flexibility over strong individual character/responsibility

    Indexing and abstracting

    • Man who has gone through college becomes mentally resistant to manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in desired fields
    • Claude Shannon muddied up the meaning of “information”
      • Defined it as the transmission of meaning rather than meaning itself
      • Defined it as quantitative, a measure of how difficult it is to transmit the sequence produced by a source
    • Author got job writing abstracts for academic papers
      • Creator and consumers’ goals aligned (abstract writers learns on the job, abstracts provide utility to InfoTrac user, abstracts help paper’s author become understood and shared) misaligned with metric (purely quantitative)
      • Metric was conceived by middleman whose purpose is profit, not tied to the one shared by the principals
      • Middleman seeks to maximize surplus skimmed from labor, not sensitive to limitations of peace arising from nature of the work itself
        • No way for the work to be driven by the goods that are intrinsic to it
      • While greed may be the root cause, doesn’t mean that managers who design and orchestrate the work are more greedy than the rest of us
        • Problem lies in organization of managerial work within which they must operate

    Learned irresponsibility

    • Manager’s career depends on personal relationships because evaluation criteria are ambiguous
    • Mangers spend a good chunk of time just managing what other people think of them
      • Constantly feel vulnerable, aware that organizational upheaval could overturn their plans and careers fatally
    • A lot of time spent constructing a reality in which it is difficult to pin blame on anyone
      • Use vague language that can be reinterpreted in the future if the context changes
      • Leads to a culture where people are not held to what they say
        • Implicit understanding that their word is provisional
    • Reward and blame become decoupled from good-faith effort
    • Under conditions of estranged labor, man no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions - Marx
    • For author, knowledge work was a more proletarian existence than that of his manual work past
      • Had pursued higher education to guide his reading of difficult books, not for career
      • Yet ended up with golden handcuffs and feeling of belonging to a certain strata of society

    What college is for

    • Arms race of education
      • Higher education feels compulsory to most high school students
    • Post WWII: general perception that society was becoming more ocmplex
      • Lower-educated executives hire college grads because surely they would make superior employees
    • Education has become production of credentials rather than cultivation of knowledge
      • College rankings matter, even if all colleges are now useless
    • If adult life/information economy is all about contradictions, then college actually does prepare students to get used to the disconnect between official representations and reality
    • Pressure to do extracurricular to show you possess the complete personality package
      • Signals that you are ready for teamwork


    • Rise of teamwork coincides with rise of “corporate culture“ by management theorists in late 1970s
      • Managers needed to become founder of cultures
      • Charismatic authority that shakes workers out of their cramped views and stale habits
      • Does not seek followers but to make every man a leader himself
    • Team-building exercises reconstitute the ego so that the team becomes the controlling unit of personality
    • Authority can no longer present itself directly (i.e. coming down from a superior)
      • Now understood as an impersonal thing that vaguely emanates from all of us
      • Authority now must try to pass itself off as cooperative and friendly, always pretending to be in your and everyone’s best interests
    • There is a risk of being deceived into thinking there is a common good where there is not one
    • Likens obligatory office fun to mandatory high school pep rallies
    • Corporation now requires transcendent meaning
      • Has to sustain moral demands normally associated with culture
      • Higher principle to give people a sense of purpose
      • Team objectives placed ahead of personal interests
    • Change is viewed as a natural force instead of originating from decisions made by a person
      • A force of nature is beyond scrutiny
      • Any stress is due to individual personality rather than a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable situation

    Crew vs team

    • When a team’s job is to produce culture, it is hard to measure individual contributions
      • Trivially easy in a trade: is it level, does it work, etc
    • Diversity workshops, sensitivity training, HR, etc stem from the office rather than job site because there is no concrete task that rules the job
      • Therefore, no secure basis for social relations
      • Focus is on maintaining consensus and preempting conflict
      • When there is “real work“ being done, the order of things isn’t so fragile
    • The characteristic form of address on a job site is command
      • In the office, discreet suggestions, hints, and coded messages
        • The person you criticize or argue with today could become your boss tomorrow
    • Cultural focus on self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves around group dynamics
      • When self-esteem is artificially generated, a product of social technique instead of one own accomplishments, it’s easier to manipulate
    • The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves
      • Children who are praised for being smart become risk-averse and choose the easier alternative when given a new task
      • Thus, credential-loving college students become well-equipped to enter a job market without any objective standards
      • Your self-esteem is handed out by gatekeeping institutions
    • Not an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character
    • In trade, no need for psychology of persuasion to make apprentice compliant to master
      • Both their purposes are given and determinate
      • There are rational principles for why one method is better than another
        • Don’t even have to verbally explain, apprentice can learn by example and imitation
        • Apprentice may not understand why at first, but the reason becomes clear
    • The master does the same work as the apprentice, only better
    • Skill becomes basis for mutual regard among peers
      • People are open about differences of rank and there are clear standards
    • Teamwork depends on group dynamics, which are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation

    7. Thinking as doing

    • Universal knowledge: anyone can look up
      • Treat students as brains in jars
    • Practical know-how: tied to experience of individual
    • To know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes
    • Practical know-how is neither fully formalizable nor essentially rule-like

    Of Ohm’s Law and muddy boots

    • Ohm’s law is explicit and rule-like
      • It’s beautiful simplicity makes us feel like we have access to something universal
      • However, charm of competence can get in the way of noticing things and other kinds of knowledge
    • Daniel Bell argues for “intellectual technology” that substitutes algorithms for intuitive judgments
      • Argues that complex systems involve integration of too many variables for the mind to hold simultaneously
      • Author argues that it is often the case that when things get too complex, you want an experienced human being in control

    Tacit knowledge of firefighter and chess master

    • Tacit knowledge: we know more than we can say or specify in a formulaic way
    • Rather than brute-force computations (i.e. applying rules of chess to decision trees) like Deep Blue, humans recognize patterns
    • Firefighters often have “sixth sense“ about when a burning building is about to collapse
    • Computational theory of mind is limiting
      • View humans as inferior versions of computers

    Personal knowledge vs intellectual technology

    • In repairing motorcycles, relying solely on digital diagnostic codes without context is like a student using a calculator to do square roots without understanding the principle
      • If student makes an input error, won’t strike them that something is wrong
    • Digital multimeter doesn’t give the spatial mapping of an analog one
      • Digital reading will flash different numbers (and sometimes codes) too fast to comprehend the information represented

    Service manual as social technology

    • Service manuals were once written by people who worked on and lived with the machines they wrote about
      • Have a human quality to them
    • Manuals now written by technical writers how know that (i.e. universal knowledge) but don’t know how (i.e. practical know-how)
    • Likens a mechanic relying on computerized diagnostics to the man in the Chinese Room thought experiment

    8. Work, leisure, and full engagement

    • Leisure activities are intrinsically rewarding
      • Work often demands external reward (i.e. money)
    • Accumulating money in one facet of life to accumulate psychic nourishment in the other
      • Each part depends on and enables the other
      • Seems like a transaction between sub-selves rather than linked parts of a coherent life


    • Rewarding to see products of one’s labor used locally
    • Even if worker may never use product (e.g. panel beater for Rolls-Royce), still participates in national pride
      • Hard to take pride as a “Rolls-Royce man” if car parts are all assembled in different parts of the world
    • Find a market that is fully contained within a human scale of face-to-face interactions
    • In the 19th century, there was a prohibition in the US against banks opening branches in communities outside of their original base of operations
      • Bankers had to be judges of character
      • Assess if borrower was creditworthy by asking around community
      • A mortgage is a 30-year relationship between bank and homeowner
    • Modern-day banking disassociates instinct/trust from job
      • Now about how to package and resell mortgages
      • Broker must silence their judgment in favor of money
      • This work cannot sustain a human being
        • Thus, work is partitioned off from the rest of life
    • Any job that can be scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from scale of work is vulnerable to degradation
    • Used-car market hinges on discarded information
      • Ownership history is purposely obscured
      • If a buyer asks what problems the car has, salesman can honestly claim he doesn’t know
      • This way, everyone involved is morally pure

    Wholehearted activity

    • Thomas Hobbes:
      • Animals begin with a desired effect and discover an appropriate instrument
      • Humans are capable of viewing everything as a potential instrument and imagine all the effects it could potentially give rise
    • Because nature is ambiguous, we must ask ourselves: what is good?
    • External reward may affect one’s interpretation of their motivation
      • Example of study where children were rewarded medals for drawing vs children who weren’t
    • Although money is good, it is not intrinsically so

    9. Concluding remarks on solidarity and self-reliance

    Solidarity and the aristocratic ethos

    • Ethics: obligation to vs solidarity with others
      • Obligation seems abstract and dreary
      • Solidarity is something we can actually experience
        • Its scope is necessarily smaller
    • When connecting with others, either notice
      • An everyday experience we share with them
      • Something unfamiliar that catches our attention by being impressive
    • Aristocratic ethos: a regard for human excellence
      • Recognize one another as peers
      • Acknowledge difference in skill/talent
      • Current society makes it hard to articulate (Lake Woebegon: all children are above average)
    • Bourgeois principles is equivalence: interchangeability that ignores differences of rank/quality
    • We can extend our moral imaginations to be impressed by people with “dirty“ jobs

    Importance of failure

    • Dangerous combo of boosted self-esteem, grade inflation, and soft curriculum
      • Possible to get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong

    Individual agency in a shared world

    • Agency flows from understanding of real features of the world
    • Usually there is a role model you can emulate
      • Growth is the sense that your judgment are becoming truer to, feeling of joining a world that is independent of yourself
    • Autonomy denies that we are born into a world that existed before us
      • Free in the sense that being severed from all others is freeing
    • Checks and balances for legislative, executive, and judicial functions
      • No similar limitations to prevent concentration of economic power
    • Policy lumps together private property with corporate property
      • Corporations deemed legal persons in 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.
    • Advocates progressive-republicanism
      • Republicanism: suspicious of whatever erodes the stature of man
      • Progressivism: entertains visions of a better world
      • Shared potential to realize what is best in the human condition