Workmanship of Risk

I recently started following the blog over at Lost Art Press. Given my interest in both craftsmanship and the philosophy of technology I was intrigued by two recent posts discussing the work of David Pye, specifically his distinction between the “workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty.”   Christopher Schwarz over at Lost Art argues that this is a meaningless distinction, and in a later post argues that the language we use in making these distinctions disparages the work of those who employ woodworking machinery.  I disagree that the distinction between workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainly is unimportant: there is a difference and as a philosophical construct it is worth discussing, though I think Pye misses the mark.  As to Mr. Schwarz’s larger argument, he is spot on: the important thing is making, and the distinction that Pye makes cannot and should not prompt us to value some making over other types of making.

Mr. Schwartz author claims that if someone is writing about craftsmanship, you can bet that there is  a copy of Pye’s book is nearby.  Well, I have to admit that for all of my interest in craftsmanship and the role of technology, I have never read Pye. So, I looked for a copy at my university’s library, but they did not have it so I got through interlibrary loan from a local art school. My own thinking about the philosophy of technology and the role of technology in woodworking and my life in general is more informed by Albert Borgmann, David Strong, and Carl Mitcham. So, I got my hands on a copy of The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty

Pye’s project is to draw a distinction between what he sees as an essential difference between production by the hand of a skilled craftsman vs. those produced by mechanized or automated processes. Pye describes the workmanship of risk as:

“workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.”

Pye contrasts this with what he terms the workmanship of certainty:

“With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation.  In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single saleable thing is made…but all the works of men which have been most admired since the beginning of history have been made by the workmanship of risk.”

Schwarz argues that this is a false distinction:

“I think the amount of risk between things Pye describes as “risk” and those that are “certain” is so small in reality that they are useless distinctions. In general, making things involves risk. We try to control it at the workbench and on the factory floor. But ultimately – and this is important to me – hand processes and machine processes are ruled by the same narrow factors.”

Mr. Schwarz makes that case that all making involves some risk and that certainty is illusory.  His argument is based in his own experience as a woodworker and press operator.  I am with him thus far.  I’ve known and worked with my fair share of machinists and millwrights and have repeatedly marveled at their precision and nuanced understanding (dare I say Zen like?) of the subtle feedback they receive from the machine.  That being said, I’m not convinced that Pye’s essential project–attempting to differentiate between hand work and machine or automated work–isn’t important.  I just think he has philosophically missed the mark in failing to 1. recognize the skill and input that automated processes require, and 2. differentiating between skill types.

I won’t claim to have a position worked out on this issue, but I can speculate what it may look like.  I think there is a difference between interacting with the raw material in shaping the final project and interacting with a machine that interacts with the material. Here I will lean on Mathew Crawford’s take on the stochastic arts which, i think, better captures the skill of the production line operator:

“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating”

More importantly, those who engage in the processes that Pye calls “workmanship of certainty” are no less engaged with means and ends than the craftsman that works with hand tools.  I think of Borgmann’s device paradigm. Though Mr. Schwarz does not make direct reference to Borgmann, he nevertheless demonstrates that the incursion of technology into production processes does not necessary result in the divorce of means and ends that are often the concern of philosophers of technology.

The Work of Workmanship

There is, it seems, an historical inevitability to this conversation.  Most if us who work with our hands are not professional woodworkers or furniture or cabinet makers.  We are hobbyists (or perhaps better put, enthusiasts).  Here is the interesting historical piece: the birth and popularity of the home workshop arose in no small part as a critique of modernity and modern technology.  The popularity of handcraft as an antidote to the dehumanization of scientific management and the cleaving of ends and means that was engendered by the birth of the modern assembly line (this legacy is touched on by Matthew Crawford in his excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft).  Indeed, the growth of home handcraft found its genesis in the antimodernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century (For a more in depth perspective on this I recommend the compelling No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture by T.J. Jackson Lears).  So, we should hardly find it surprising then that over a century later we are still debating the moral and philosophical significance of the machine.

Years ago, I was a member of the rec.woodworking newsgroup.  There was the divide between the Normites (name derived from Norm Abram and his machine heavy approach to woodworking) and the Neanderthals (traditional hand tool folks). Most of the ribbing was good natured.  The reality was this: 1. most of us were a mix of both rather than a pure expression of the species, and 2. it would have been arrogant and ultimately futile to make a claim about which of us derived more joy from the work we did in our basements and garage workshops into the late evening hours after our regular daily labors were done.

Mr. Schwarz is right that the language we use in discussing the distinctions between hand tools and machines can be–even if unintentionally so–disparaging to those who find joy and fulfillment in using a piece of machinery.  I have been guilty of this myself, and if I’m honest, I must admit that I find both joy and amazement at the precision and efficiency of a piece of modern equipment.  There is also a deeper issue here, which is that our American culture disparages (both implicitly and explicitly) people that work with their hands, and I for one do not want to contribute to that. I also think about the amount of time my father and I have spent bonding over episodes of the New Yankee Workshop or marveling at some new machine her purchased–that, my friends, is a whole world of making and engagement that I would never want to minimize or marginalize.

I predominately use hand tools because it is what I have room for in my small shop and I enjoy the historical connection.  Consequently, it is also what I write about, and I will continue to explore the differences between making with hand tools and making with machinery.  I really believe there is an important philosophical distinction to be made without privileging one over the other. I will also heed Mr. Schwarz warning and try to be thoughtful about the manner in which I extol the virtues of a hand cut dovetail or my love for my Stanley #8 joiner. The important part is to build.

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