Thinking is Craftwork

Just after spring break, I piled up the things that I’d accumulated while writing my thesis, intending to return what belonged to the library system and to archive the rest. Doing so, I noticed that the cascade of piles on my desk told the physical story of what I had just done. On one side stood three shelves of books and a plastic bag full of field notes and collected articles: my raw material. Next to that lay a heap of notecards and a folder jammed with typescript drafts covered in edits and marginalia: my shopfloor assemblies. At the far end sat two neat stacks of the printed final copy, bound and totalized: the finished consumer good.

It was a startling reminder that thesis-writing was an act of material as well metaphorical distillation. I had built a thesis out of books and notes and drafts, no differently than I had built a desk out of boards and pegs and paint over the previous summer. Martin Heidegger once wrote “Denken ist Handwerk”—thinking is craftwork. This observation, simple and revolutionary, contains within it the assertion that thinkers and intellectuals are bound into the same matrices of morality and creativity that control all humans who build things—that is, everyone.

We commonly assert that labor executed by the mind—reading, writing, analyzing, and criticizing—is fundamentally different from, and in some way superior to, labor executed by the hands. Why? A clever speech, a lively poem, and a novel scientific discovery all possess an inherent and self-secure beauty that demands no propping up through comparison. A well-built chair, a useful trinket, and a clean bathroom—these too are things of beauty and of humanity. Our own labors are not diminished by a broad extension of this franchise of value.

For the polyurethane on a student’s desk is no more or less important than the books on it. The vast majority of Harvard students will spend their lives toiling with their minds. We will find employment as professors, lawyers, businessmen, authors, artists, and politicians. We should remember that these professions are still crafts; they are still assemblies of knowledge which have been passed down through generations in order to express the constructive urge that makes humanity special. Harvard, after all, is a trade school for the craft of thinking, and its students are no more than a privileged class of apprentices who mimic the techniques, manners, and values of their masters.
Filling out a Selective Service registration form, the great essayist and country farmer E. B. White wrestled over what to enter for his primary job. “Physically I am better fitted for writing than for farming,” White wrote of the situation, “because farming takes great strength and endurance. Intellectually I am better fitted for farming than for writing.” The irony, of course, is that White was both a first-rate intellectual and a competent husbandman—cultivated and cultivator. We too should aspire to this kind of creative holism, where the distinctions between human activities are slowly eroded and erased.

When we maintain that thinking is craftwork, we reflexively maintain that craftwork is thinking. I spent eighty hours of my Senior Week cleaning dorms, an undertaking that prompted more than a few people to ask whether I was out of my mind. I suspect this question would have been less frequently asked had I spent those eighty hours peering at nucleotides or penning sonnets. And yet for all my sterling-grade education, I cannot see a meaningful difference between any of these things.

What we must do is to insist, stubbornly and in spite of the blinkered view from our perch, that on the scales of dignity all labor weighs equal. In doing so, we perform an act of unification by conjoining all citizens, from the philosopher to the policeman to the plumber, into the commonality of humanity’s unfolding history, a history precipitated out of the sum of thousands of craft activities. We assert that Homo sapiens—the wise human—and Homo faber—the making human—are the same item. And we emancipate our own education from a self-inflicted ephemerality by insisting on its integrability into a common fabric that is humane, concrete, and stitched out of the universal pride of creation.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.