Intellectual Craftsmanship (2008)

The idea and ideal of the intellectual as a craftsman is marginalized in various worlds by their various constructs of “the intellectual.” In “the real world” of business and finance, such a person is head in the clouds, or their ideas are used for a particular, temporary need of that world. In the academic world he or she is likely to be a person of authority with a command of a particular and, likely as not, exclusive language. Or there is the intellectual as individual genius who does not need to learn process.

To be a craftsman too carries specialized and often demeaning connotations, that of the maker of artifacts by old-fashioned methods for people with a lot of money. Without such baggage however, it involves the serious pursuit of skills which can mix the empirical with the theoretical; trial and error; a pride in one’s work; and the constant effort to improve it.

The radical sociologist C. Wright Mills who died very young, did have a clear idea of how the intellectual could, and should be, a craftsman. Biographically, he lived it out. While a subversive academic at Columbia University, he built his own house and, in the year of publication of his most famous book, The Power Elite, gained a factory diploma as a 1st class BMW motorbike mechanic. He believed that as part of taking their work seriously, intellectuals should aspire to such qualities of production. It was not a sentimental belief. In an essay on Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, he defended that writer’s ethic of workmanship, but found it ahistorical in its refusal to take on board what had undermined the artisan class, a process comprehensively described in Harry Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital.

Intellectuals had not however not been de-skilled and dis-respected in this way, not unless by their own volition, and in the later On Intellectual Craftsmanship, which appears as an appendix to The Sociological Imagination, and is celebrated in multi-media form by Muhammed A. Asad at, he tries to describe a how-to guide to how they could and should adopt a craftsman-like attitude to their work and its focus on process. It is directed at sociology students but is, I believe, relevant to anyone engaged in sustained thinking, and creative labour.

At the heart of the ethic is “that you must learn to use your life experience in your work…to be able to trust yet to be skeptical of it.” Work. The basis of its judgement as to craftsman-like quality, is intelligibility. This is not a banal argument for making what is difficult to explain simple in a manner that is simpler than is possible; rather of explaining as well as is possible. And this in itself is craft, to be worked at.. The unintelligible is usually a symptom of laziness, or a lack of clear understanding by the writer of what he is trying to say. That, or it’s intention is exclusionary, a motivation still existent in the academic world of 2008 as it was then back in 1959. “Lack of intelligibility,” he says, “has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.” But as a positive quality, work is required, process. Thus for example, “You cannot keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least once a week.”

The File

On Intellectual Craftsmanship as a how-to guide is centred on “the file”. The writing he recommends takes place in its orbit. For one thing it encourages the habit of writing, and “in developing the file, you can experiment as a writer, and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.” In the more or less pre-computer age, never mind PCs or Macs, that this was written, the file would be of the cardboard variety, a box file of some sort. In it there would be “joined personal experience and professional articles, studies underway, and studies planned.” It can contain newspaper clippings, notes from worth-while books (he offers good tips on note-taking) bibliographical items, outlines of projects.” It also “encourages you to capture ‘fringe thoughts: various ideas which may be products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.”

The modern day “file” on these kind of lines but with its multi-media characteristic offers all kinds of possibilities. Interviews in the course of a project as audio files are included in a text say as links. Visual evidence too. It is the ease with which links in comprehensible fashion can be made, that would, I think, have most excited him Between his time and now there have been analogous ways of working. The ‘files’ of serious documentary film-makers for example, likely as not a hotch-potch of written research, photos, interviews and footage which might coalesce around the chosen theme. Given the costs involved in film-making, the theme might well have had to be established early on in the process. With the file as described by Mills, there is what might be called a pre-preparation phase in the process. He thinks for example that. “you will find it well to sort all these items (the notes, clippings, fringe-thoughts etc) into a master file of ‘projects’, with many subdivisions. The topics of course change, sometimes quite frequently.”

As do the categories. He talks of the habit of classification, that necessity in ordering one’s material, but also of how “a new classification is the usual beginning of fruitful developments.” I can testify to the truth of this, how in my own case, examining the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, produced the notion of “think-tank reality”, the way in which truth was being replaced by partial agendas with the proliferation of think-tanks to the fore. Categories then can “change – some being dropped and other being added”…and this “ – is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth.” These are not elitist words but rather describe the process of learning and developing the craft. What they allow for is an openness as to what may come of your initial, and perhaps most heartfelt, concerns. Once one’s ‘concern’ has clarified itself into a project – and he uses how he came to, and then went about writing The Power Elite as an example – a whole set of problems arise as to how to present them, technical, craft problems. At the same time ‘projects so often require both re-examination and refreshment.. “After making my crude outline I examined my entire file, not only for those parts of it that obviously bore on my topic, but also those which seemed to have no relevance whatsoever. Imagination is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items, by finding unsuspected connections.”

This is not serendipity, though that is a real enough possibility and which, like those sudden – in a dream – proofs of unsolved mathematical theorem has invariably involved a lot of hard concentrated work beforehand. Rather, when mainstream presentation of the world presents a ONE reality while at the same time keeping related events and phenomena as belonging to several dissociated, rigorously apart realities, these “unsuspected connections” (or even suspected connections) are made. It’s perhaps not surprising then that though not named, it must be Karl Marx he has in mind, when he goes back to that sociological imagination built on the file. “There is an unexpected quality about it, perhaps because its essence is the combination of ideas that no one expected were combinable – say, a mess of ideas from German philosophy and British economics.” As with those mathematical theorem, these connections don’t come out of nowhere. Mills’ tip is the “rearranging” of the file. “You simply dump out heretorfore disconnected folders, mixing up their contents, and then re-sort them. You try to do it in a more or less relaxed way.”

This craft process, a kind of trial and error, can be relaxed, and in the case of his German philosophy and British economics, a “playfulness of mind back of such combining, as well as a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world.” The craft process is how it can be done, but the fierce drive to make sense of the world, surely a personal need, is indispensable to using the process. And because this is a serious business, there is finally the hard work of producing something intelligible out of all this miscellany, so that your ‘making sense of the world’ is important to you, and of use to others.