Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Philosophy of Work

Work is an interesting concept. I am sure that the concept of "earning a living" evolved so long ago that it has been accepted by all civilized countries as a way of life. There are those who are born so rich they never have to "work" and those who are so poor that "work" involves simply staying alive day to day. But the majority of us humans spend the majority of our life "working".

I am neither rich or poor, but I received my last paycheck in 1973, when I walked away from a promising career in physics earning a salary of $10,000. I immediately devoted all my energy to my passion of restoring antiques and noticed that my friends and clients were always remarking that "I was lucky to be able to do something that I loved for a living." I thought it strange that not everyone loved their "work".

When I left the world of high energy physics I was searching for something to do with my life that was completely different. I ended up as a pre industrial woodworker. It seems odd to some people, but to me it was a natural concept to abandon all aspects of the Industrial Revolution and adapt to a lifestyle where human effort is substituted for technology.

I studied the writings of Christopher Pye, an English wood turner, who wrote extensively on the relationship of Man and Work and Machines. I studied the concept of Form Follows Function, and all the progress made since 1800 in making our lives "easier." It can be argued that our lives are easier, but I began to ask the question, "Is it more rewarding?"

Eventually, after many decades working by hand at the bench, walking to work, living without machinery, I wrote the paper, "Form Follows Process." You may review it on my website. It was written for the journal of the Society of Period Furniture Makers. I think it explains why my activities at the bench are so satisfying, even after 40 years of effort.

Essentially, the "workmanship of risk" and the "workmanship of certainty" concepts proposed by Pye are essential points to consider in the evaluation of modern work and the satisfaction of the workers. Ask yourself, why is it that most workers hate going to work on Monday and look forward to the weekend, when they can do "what they really want to do?" Where is the pride of work and the satisfaction of a job well done? Why all the stress and emotional struggle for happiness?

In simplistic terms, look at the relationship between the worker and his work. Before the Industrial Revolution, where the workmanship of risk was normal, a worker learned to master his tools and take risks with the work. Learning from his failure, he was able to apply his skills over time to become a "Master" in his trade, simply by controlling the tools better. In this period, the worker held the tool in his hand, and it became a direct extension of his mind and body. He manipulated the tool against the work, and with increasing skill, overcame the risks of failure. The direct result is pride of work and accomplishment.

During the Industrial Revolution machinery was invented which allowed the workmanship of certainty. That means that the machine eliminated the risk, and guaranteed a reliable result with precision every time. To produce a better result meant purchasing a better (and more costly) machine. Thus the consumer market of the middle class was created, always chasing the new and improved tool for easier living. In this period the worker feeds the machine, literally. He pushes the work against the machine and the machine is the Master. There is no pride in the work; there is pride in owning the best machine.

As a result the workers leave work every day feeling unfulfilled and empty. This is how I felt when I left the physics lab at the end of the day, and why I love my profession so much today. I hate to quit "work" and I enjoy spending time in my workshop every day, 7 days a week. I feel out of sorts when I am away from the bench. For me the process of life is rewarding and challenging at the same time. The fact that it is challenging is the reason it is so rewarding.

May the Process be with you.


Patrice Lejeune said...

I may not totally agree on the machine becoming the master, there is still, even with machine, the need to master its specificities. I will more see the new woodworker as a technician stepping further away from the wood and its understanding. You understand better the wood it`s texture and its physical characteristic, each time different.
The use of hand tools brings you closer the the material and therefore closer to the final piece, from the choice of the wood to applying the finish. There should be technically no difference at the end between a machine-made and a hand-made piece, but we both know there is a little less perfection in the hand made, and these little "not totally perfect" are what the eye read as a human made piece. You can feel the maker presence behind it rather than the machine.

Peri said...

I believe there are persons for whom work is not going to be satisfying regardless of the method of its production. I believe also that the machines which speed the process of making something do not necessarily restrict the operators from a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work--I believe that restriction has to do with the societal mores they work under and their individual personal values.
I would say that the workmanship of certainty which created the consumer market for tools actually increased the fulfillment level of workers because it enabled more individuals to learn about a process and use that knowledge as a possible springboard to their own creativity. It is not the tool which creates -- it is the mind which operates the tool which creates and the degree of pride felt in the finished product would seem to me to be a reflection of the awareness of his/her individual creativity held by a worker.
The better tools reduce risk-not of failure of the properly doing the work, but of injury. The issue is not lack of pride, but a modern persistent belief that a better tool by itself creates a better end result -that is the fault of instructors and on the job training personnel. The issue is, for me, understanding what one does and having the time to enjoy doing it. Sadly, our modern society is too impatient for that --better tools save time and that saves money and that is what is supposed to give us our satisfaction level these days.
I personally prefer the chevelet over the modern high speed jigsaw, but the sense of pride in controlling each does exist.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I appreciate the comments of Patrice and Peri. They both include good opinions as to the relationship between the craftsman and the machine. My purpose in writing this blog on the subject of workmanship is to stimulate awareness and reaction within the craft industry. My extreme position against the workmanship of certainty is attractive to only a few Luddities like myself who have resisted the Industrial Revolution.]

Obviously, Formula 1 race cars, space shuttles, and many other inventions would have not been possible without the Industrial Revolution. I was educated in the field of particle physics and worked for a few years in the Physics industry. I understand and appreciate the value of science and research.

Since the Industrial Revolution has been accepted by the majority of the world for nearly two centuries, I feel compelled to ask the question "what have we lost in the search for progress?" I think it is a valid question for us to consider, no matter which side of the argument you rest on.

In my own way, and in my work, I am struggling every day to discover what work was like before this progress changed the world.

Thank you for your comments.