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