Agency Versus Freedom

Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.

Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:

…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.

Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)

Crawford’s discussion of music that follows this, reminded me of the Zhuangzi skill passages, not so much in style, but in content:

The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64)

Crawford discusses music and its consumption as an example of the loss of the type of agency discussed above:

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.

As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy. (p. 65, emphasis added).

So, according to Crawford a sort of increase of freedom, or autonomy, afforded by consumer culture also “enables” a lack of interest in pursuing agency-promoting activity. Ultimately, he argues, this makes human life worse.

Comments welcome, as always.

(For some background on the skill-mastery aspects of the Zhuangzi see previous posts and discussion here, here, here, and here.

14 replies on “Agency Versus Freedom”

  1. I’m inclined to find this most congenial, having engaged in “manual labor” jobs (in a sign shop, as a furniture truck driver, as a beekeeper’s helper, on a forest service fire crew, doing trail construction and maintenance in both the ‘back’ and ‘front’ country, in housing construction, in landscape maintenance, etc.) and craft work (as a ‘finish carpenter’) most of my adult life. That said, I’ll lean toward the blue-collar vantage point in what follows.

    This post reminds me of the philosophies of Ruskin, William Morris, Eric Gill (cf. a collection of his writings in A Holy Tradition of Working, 1983), R.H. Tawney’s Christian Socialism, Mohandas Gandhi (who of course was strongly influenced by Ruskin), Ananda Coomaraswamy (see especially the essays in Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art, 1956), the Arts and Crafts movement, the emphasis in some Zen Buddhist and Catholic traditions (e.g., the Catholic Worker movement of Maurin and Day) on labor or, better, work, the concerns that animate E.P. Thompson’s classical historical study, The Making of the English Working Class (1st ed., 1963), and of course Heideggerian-inspired critiques of modern technology.

    Consider, for instance, the following from Coomaraswamy’s essay, “What Is the Use of Art Anyway?” in the aforementioned volume. Coomaraswamy speaks of “two contemporary schools of thought about art,” the first, that prevalent among “a very small self-styled elite which distinguishes ‘fine’ art from art as skilled manufacture, and values this fine art very highly as a self-revelation or self-expression of the artist…,” and the second, found among “the great body of plain men who are not really interested in artistic personalities, and for whom art as defined above is a peculiarity rather than necessity of life, and have in fact no use for art.” Yet,

    “over against these two classes we have a normal but forgotten view of art, which affirms that art is the making well, or properly arranging, of anything whatever that needs to be made or arranged, whether a statuette, or automobile, or garden. In the Western world, this is specifically the Catholic doctrine of art; from which doctrine the natural conclusion follows, in the words of St. Thomas, that ‘There can be no good use without art.'”

    Just as ethics is defined as “the right way of doing things,” Coomaraswamy says, art should be understood as “the right way of making things.”

    Again, Coomaraswamy:

    “It is at this point that the crucial question arises of maunfacture for profit versus manufacture for use. It is because the idea of manufacture for profit is bound up with the currently accepted industrial sociology that things in general are not well made and therefore also not beautiful. It is the manufacturer’s interest to produce what we like, or can be induced to like, regardless of whether or not it will agree with us [or, as Richard Kraut might say, whether of not it is truly ‘good’ for us]’ like other modern artists, the manufacturer is expressing himself, and only serving our real needs to the extent that he *must* do so in order to be able to sell at all [and, on occasion, some things do indeed turn out to be ‘beautiful’]. Manufacturers and other artists alike resrot to advertisement…and artist and manufacturer alike price their wares according to what the traffic will bear. [….] It is only when the maker of things is a maker of things by vocation, and not merely holding down a job, that the price of things approximate to their real value; and under these circumstances, when we pay for a work of art designed to serve a necessary purpose, we get our money’s worth; and the purpose being a necessary one, we *must* be able to afford to pay for the art, or else are living below a normal human standard; as most men are now living, even the rich, if we consider quality rather than quantity. Needless to add that the workman is also victimised by a manufacture for profit; so that it has become a mockery to say to him that hours of work should be more enjoyable than hours of leisure; that when at work he should be doing what he likes, and only when at leisure doing what he ought–workmanship being conditioned by art, and conduct by ethics.

    Industry without art is butality.”

    Consider too, the following from Crispin Sartwell’s Six Names of Beauty (2004):

    [F]ew objects objects are so simply and obviously beautiful as a well-made tool, the purpose of which is by necessity inscribed in its design, and craftsmen devote themselves not only to making the objects of their craft, but to an appreciation of tools, a love of the means by which they achieve their ends. In craft, means and ends become intertwined so that the process itself by which the crafted object is made is experienced as an end: the process itself is beautiful, like a dance. An excellent craftsman, at work on a pot or cabinet, engages in a beautiful process that eventuates in a beautiful and useful object.” (See especially his chapter on ‘Wabi-Sabi,’ pp. 109-131)

    On “limits,” cf. Richard Kraut’s reminder that “Socrates suggests in the Philebus that what is good is is produced when limit, structure, and form are imposed on something, thereby preventing it from becoming excessive.”

    A central idea here is that of an *askesis* of one sort or another, but especially in the sense intended by Epictetus, that is, as a “practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living’ (John Cottingham).”

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this Manyul as I kept wanting to ask you how the book turned out. Another thought-provoking comment from Patrick being icing on the cake 🙂

    I personally would have gone the way of seeing this as an issue of mind-body duality (which is less emphasized in East Asian philosophies; hence the stress on embodied practices/skills that you bring out) so was pretty intrigued to see the author positioning things in terms of consumerism. Never would have taken that route myself… Thoroughly intrigued I may even pick up the book! Manyul, I think I told you how much I loved Robert Harrison’s book on Gardens and the Human Condition. In his book he speaks so much about this idea of tending or cultivating things in terms of “care” (Heidegger’s cura??) Ah, I just checked and see you left a nice comment there (arigato).

  3. Peony,

    Yes, Patrick’s follow up was very nice. No, BH is still knight-errant. I’ve entered Little Fish in a philosophy blog post contest, here. There’s some voting to be done starting Sept. 1 and then some judging. Vote early and often…

  4. Bill and I will be famous if you win that thing! How exciting. I think I had better get a new profile picture huh?? 🙂
    (The offline me would want a new pair of shoes but..)

    A typhoon is heading this way. It’s very windy and nice. How are things there?

    Will vote now… can I cast repeated votes then?

  5. Thanks, Manyul. I thought the book was terrific, as fine an example of “public philosophy” as I’ve encountered.

  6. Hi Sean! Yes, and I thought it went even further to filling in some of the space between “public” and “popular” philosophy, in terms of genre — a difficult space to fill. It makes social philosophy and ethics relevant to a deep and widespread problem of modern life. Sort of bridges the gap between, say, MacIntyre and The Office.

    BTW I liked it much better than the old Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read many years ago. I’m not sure I understood the latter’s flights into Plato’s Phaedrus. Maybe I should read it again.

  7. RE: comments 3-6 — I misunderstood the nature of the competition referenced in 4, so the Little Fish post was not eligible. Here is the explanation from the relevant blogger:

    “Dear Manyul,

    The prize is for blog posts in philosophy, not discussions in the comments section, and your post itself was deemed insufficiently substantive by the editors of 3QD.

    Sorry about that. Better luck next time!

    Best wishes,


    C’est la vie.

  8. I have comments. I’m kind of bummed out by the rather boastful aspect of this book – Crawford has learned the value of skilled work, and we don’t know it. Has he considered the possibility that other philosophers/knowledge workers find the satisfaction and discipline they need in their work? Maybe the fact that he didn’t is his problem.

  9. Hi Phil; you make a good point over there. I hope you won’t mind that I cut and paste it here for further discussion:

    [Phil says]

    …”People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is ‘arduous to master and limited in its range,’ whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available…”

    I’m pretty dubious about the “fact” in this quote. Do people actually play musical instruments less than they used to? What time period is he comparing against? Ten seconds on Google finds me this report from 2000 “50 percent of households have one person age five or older who currently plays a musical instrument”. I don’t believe for a minute there’s ever been much higher percentages than that.

    So this is an example of where a guy’s basically invented a “fact” to try to confirm his assumption, which is that people make an effort (to learn a musical instrument) only under compulsion, or through lack of alternatives. We see the strength of the myth from the source of the quote. This guy Crawford is apparently a philosopher who chucked in the academic life to become a craftsman! He obviously made the choice to go and learn a craft (being a motorcycle mechanic) without any compulsion at all. Perhaps he wants to claim that most people don’t do this in order to make himself seem more unique. Whatever the the motivation, his point is gibber.

    [End of Quote from Phil]


    There are other, related critical things to say about Crawford. His emphasis on manual labor and the rewards of producing literally tangible results might suggest that there are few if any rewards to be had in producing more abstract ones. His slightly dismissive discussion of a kind of other-worldliness of his father’s work — his father was a mathematician — indicates this tendency. Of course, he is after all an academic who left academia, so it is not unexpected that he tends to devalue purely or even mostly abstract endeavors. Still, that seems narrow-minded if the topic is “soul-craft.”

  10. Thanks, Manyul. There’s actually an awful lot I disagree with in just those scant few quotes. I’m always particularly sensitive to claims about how “things have changed”. You need to be an astoundingly good historian to really know how things have changed; and most philosophers aren’t.

    From your synopsis: “the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor…into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence.”
    Is that really what’s happened? In America? Land of long hours and greatest professionals in the world? Or is it rather that we’ve dumped the myth of noble poverty, we no longer celebrate those excellent poor people who know their place (while despising those who don’t and try to climb into moneyed circles)?

    Other possible problems: “The musician’s…obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music…”
    If you really think that music follows natural necessities, you need to visit some other countries, or even just the world music section of a good record shop. Music is cultural. Even the “mechanical realities” are negotiable – see John Cage.

    “The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience”
    This sentence had me for a while. It’s beguiling. But I finally worked out what the problem is: it assumes that a trained musician has greater power of expression than other people. Is this true? Does Vanessa Mae have greater expressive capacity than, say, me? I’m open to the possibility that some people have greater powers of expression than others (though I can’t believe I’d be able to accept any proposed method of assessing or measuring such powers). I can accept that a trained musician *might* express stuff using her musical skills (though there are many technically skilled musicians who are unexpressive; and many relatively unskilled musicians who are very expressive – I like punk). But this is a far cry from saying that the musician’s ability to express is conditional on the training. It’s not.

    But I like this very much:”existentialist slogans…come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.”
    Hardly new and exciting, but it’s always a pleasure to see a well-expressed critique of consumerism.

  11. From a short review of Crawford’s book by Susan Salter Reynolds for the LA Times:

    Crawford is careful not to romanticize manual labor. “I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in,” he writes. “I also have little interest in wistful notions of a ‘simpler’ life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being ‘working class.’ ” In fact, Crawford’s writing is remarkably clear and close to the bone. When times are hard, the economy precarious, people turn not only to frugality but to work that gives them a greater sense of control over their own destinies, “the ability to take care of your own stuff.” Having a skill seems far more practical than the meta-work encouraged in most universities: “The question of what a good job looks like — of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored — is more open now than it has been for a long time.”

    Crawford challenges many myths: the assumption that blue-collar work is “mindless,” while white-collar work is “recognizably mental in character”; the idea that process is “more important than product”; and so many others. Popular culture, he points out, is full of references (“The Office,” “Dilbert”) to the absurdity of white-collar work. “Absurdity is good for comedy,” he writes, “but bad as a way of life.” The new economy celebrates “potential rather than achievement.”

    Having a trade, what Crawford calls “the useful arts,” gives the doer an intimate sense of the materials he works with, an understanding of how things actually work and a “library of sounds and smells and feels.” It is, in short, good for the brain. Crawford, who owns a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto in Richmond, Va., includes many stories from his own life. Recent press coverage has sent word-of-mouth buzz on “Shop Class” through the roof, but it really is a book whose time, in our culture, has come.

    The whole review is here:,0,7812775.story

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