Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Philosophy at work

"The Case for Working With Your Hands" is possibly the best bit of philosophical writing I've ever read in a popular publication. The next time someone asks me what's worthwhile about philosophy, I think I'll start talking about this article.

The author, Matthew Crawford, has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, worked various white-collar office jobs along the way, and has since ended up running his own motorcycle repair shop. Now he has brought his massive edumacation to bear on his experiences with different kinds of work, revealing the soul-destroying effects of much white-collar work, and the great value of work in the trades and being an entrepreneur. What emerges are some profound and terribly relevant thoughts on the relationship between work and happiness, and how massively we tend to misunderstand this relationship nowadays. And he does this all without any jargony philosobabble, and scarcely and name-dropping. The perspective on work here seems deeply Marxist to me, but Marx gets mentioned just once; he manages to talk about "alienation", "actualization", and other such concepts without using any of those weird words. I think I might someday use his description of his desk job (writing abstracts for articles according to profit-driven--i.e., arbitrary--standards) as an example of what Plato means when he talks about the shadows on the wall in the allegory of the cave in the Republic. I'm kind of in awe.

In the online comments, there are lots and lots of white-collar yuppie types (well, I'm guessing that's what they're like) finding the problems in their lives precisely diagnosed by that article. It's really quite remarkable. Not only is the article a great piece of popular philosophy, it addresses the good old question that started philosophy in the first place--how should we live?--in a way that might even be of some help to some people.

My one quibble--as some people in the comments point out--is that he puts too much emphasis on trades and entrepreneurship. I think the deep point to be gotten from the article is that work can and should be a source of value: you should be able to see something good in the work you do, in the work itself. But you can find that sort of work outside of the trades, and you can find it without working for yourself. You can even find it in an office job with a boss.


Josh said...

I agree with your comments about this excellent article. Another issue that I think it raises is the proper role of American education--most obviously in that the status of vocational education should be restored, but I also think that it provides a certain justification for studying the classical humanities insofar as that discipline entails reading about and considering the value of different lives.

PS -- We added a link to your site at Global Policy Memo.

Toby said...

I am an unabashed partisan of the humanities. Though I think there's a problem with how it tends to be taught. Some of the assignments I've seen given to college freshmen--well, that's a whole other post. But I do think the humanities are worthwhile, for everyone, and that you shouldn't have to go to college in order to get a chance to read some stuff that might help you think about how you want to live.

PS: Thanks, and back at ya.