Practice Shopcraft to Understand the Self


A few months ago I read the excellent book Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The author, Matthew Crawford, examines the nature of work, what it can teach us, and why the crafts (loosely defined as manual trades) are significantly more satisfying and enriching than the typical office job.

I decided to reread the book because Crawford spends a significant amount of time discussing the relationship between the individual and his work and what one can learn about himself through work. Since my goal for Hinduism month is to learn about the Self (with a big S), I wanted to see if Crawford’s insights line up with Hindu teachings about the Self and Work.

Here are few areas where I found some interesting parallels.

Avoiding Selfishness

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent.   – Matthew Crawford

Crawford makes the point that there are laws that govern the material world that belong outside of the self. We don’t control how a washing machine works, therefore, we must, in some sense, submit to the washing machine. This submission forces us to acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe.

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. – The Gita 

Here, Krishna tells Arjuna that he must let go of his attachment to the fruit of his labor. He must be detached from the consequences of his work as a warrior. If Arjuna were a washing machine repairman, Krishna would counsel him to avoid detachment to the status of the washing machine, and to try to repair it without regard for his feelings about the washing machine.

These two passages seem like they’re saying different things, but both Crawford and the Gita believe in avoiding selfishness, meaning a focus on the self (with a little s). The washing machine has its own mechanical laws that preclude a focus on the self. Just because you want the machine to be fixed and would be upset if it wasn’t, doesn’t mean that it will be fixed. It requires a certain level of humility to be detached from it. This is what Krishna meant when he says to avoid selfish attachment. One must accept the washing machine as is, and try to repair it without getting caught up in your “feelings” about it.

Crawford, again supports this view that the highest Self, which he refers to as “human agency” can only come from encountering something outside the self. 

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. – Matthew Crawford 

On Reality

Crawford writes at length about the perils of the modern workplace, but one of his most intriguing points was that corporations try to create a sort of “false reality” in which there are no objective standards.

Crawford took a job as an abstract writer after he finished his Masters degree. He was responsible for reading difficult, scientific articles and writing an abstract that reflects the content of the piece.

However, it soon became clear to him that writing a quality abstract, a summary that reflects the primary points of the article, was not the goal of the company.

The writing of abstracts had been conceived in general terms, but I soon discovered that what the task in fact demanded was complete immersion in the particular text before me. Monica [Crawford’s supervisor] seemed a perfectly sensible person, and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology… My manager would periodically read a few of my abstracts, and I was once or twice corrected and told not to begin an abstract with a dependent clause. But I was never confronted with an abstract I had written and told that it did not adequately reflect the article. The quality standards were the generic ones of grammar, internal to the abstract, which could be applied without my supervisor having to read the article. In this sense, I was not held to an external, objective standard. – Matthew Crawford

The Gita, though not particularly concerned with the contradictory nature of corporate life, makes the point that there is a deeper reality that pervades the universe, one that is beyond what we can perceive with our senses and mind.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. – The Gita

In the Gita, Krishna is pointing out to the warrior Arjuna that we cannot be attached to the world of the senses and the intellect, as it often contains uncomfortable contradictions. Indeed, Arjuna is confronting one. To fulfill his duty as a warrior, he must fight. But in this case, he must fight his family members. Thus his duty to be loyal to his family conflicts with his duty as a warrior.

Crawford was asked to write high quality abstracts, but that goal was in conflict with the goal of writing a high quantity of abstracts everyday. You can’t have both.

Crawford, of course, doesn’t say we must detach ourselves from the sensory world, but it’s telling that Crawford, a mechanic and 21st century philosopher, experienced something similar (though less dramatic) as our mythical warrior from the 2nd Century BCE that forced them to reflect on the nature of reality itself.

Engaging with the World

Crawford’s makes that case that there is much to be learned by engaging with the material world, both intellectually and morally.

Here is a paradox. On the one hand, to be a good mechanic seems to require personal commitment: I am a mechanic. On the other hand, what it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal. In Pirsig’s story, there is an underlying fact: a sheared-off pin has blocked an oil gallery, resulting in oil starvation to the head and excessive heat, causing the seizures. This is the Truth, and it is the same for everyone. But finding this truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle. He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators. – Matthew Crawford

To understand the Truth (capital T), one must actively participate in the world. In the example above, one cannot know that that sheared-off pin has blocked an oil gallery without interacting with the motorcycle. It requires dedicating the self to the motorcycle, both in mind and in physical reality.

Now consider this passage from the Gita:

Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to dwell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants. But they excel who control their senses through the mind, using them for selfless service. Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act. Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit. – The Gita

Krishna is advising Arjuna to commit to action as a prince and warrior, instead of renouncing the world to live in the forest and pursue mystical visions. When Krishna says to act selflessly, this brings to mind Crawford’s point about the mechanic needing to “internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern.” The mechanic must not see himself as separate from the motorcycle i.e. act selfishly, he must devote himself to the well being of the motorcycle.

The reward for selflessly engaging with the world is great.

According to Crawford,

If we succeed, we experience the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision, and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just, as we bring them into conformity with that vision. This conformity is achieved in an iterated back-and-forth between seeing and doing. Our vision is improved by acting, as this brings any defect in our perception to vivid awareness. – Matthew Crawford

According to the Gita,

The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results; all his selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge. The wise, ever satisfied, have abandoned all external supports. Their security is unaffected by the results of their action; even while acting, they really do nothing at all. 

Free from expectations and from all sense of possession, with mind and body firmly controlled by the Self, they do not incur sin by the performance of physical action.

They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. 2They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved. – The Gita 

To retreat to the woods in a Thoreau-like fashion might be attractive, but perhaps actively engaging with the world, especially the material world, can help us uncover the Truth and avoid selfishness and narcissism.