Craft, Pragmatism and a philosophy of action

Another way of describing my one of my interests and the driving research question behind my PhD centers around the unconventional forms of craft within organizations. To say we design (in) organizations isn't always well received or well understood. "Shaping (in) organizations" is better, but "crafting in organizations" somehow takes it from the abstract and grounds it IMHO.

Richard Sennett's The Craftsman is quite helpful as he provides a framework and language to better understand craft in general. Surprisingly, I was delighted to find some passages where an important connection with Dewey is made. Two things I find a great help: (1) Sennett's description of Dewey's idea of "environment" through the lens of craft and (2) a clarification of a question I've always had regarding Dewey's interpretation of Naturalism and Evolutionism and how it differs from Social Darwinism.

On environment:

Resistances, then, can be either found or made. Both cases require toleration of frustration, and both require imagination. In found difficulties, to cope we will identify with the obstacle, seeing the problem, as it were, from the problem's point of view. Made difficulties embody the suspicion that matters might be or should be more complex than they seem; to investigate, we can make the even more difficult.

The philosopher John Dewey embraced positive learning from resistance, in part due to his embattled position at the turn of the twentieth century. His contemporaries the social Darwinists … supposed that all living creatures aim to defeat the obstacles posed by all other contending creatures. The natural world appeared to these faulty disciples of Charles Darwin as a place of strife only; society, they argued, was ruled by self-interest, absent any altruistic cooperation. To Dewey this seemed a macho fantasy that missed the real issue: working with resistance is the key to survival.

Dewey was an heir to the Enlightenment … he believed in the necessity of learning one's limits. He was also a pragmatist, believing that to get things done you need to understand the resistances you encounter rather than aggressively conduct war against them. Dewey was a philosopher of cooperation; he declares, "Only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living," … he derived from these straightforward principles an entire philosophy of action. But, most of all, he was interested in resistance as an environmental problem. Dewey's use of the word environment is rather general and abstract; sometimes he refers to the ecology of a forest, sometimes to factories, as "the environment." He meant to convey that resistance always has a context, be that natural or social, that the experience of resistance is never an isolated event. pp. 226-7

On pragmatism, the craft of experience:

craftsmanship finds a philosophical home within pragmatism. For more than a century, this movement has dedicated itself to making philosophical sense of concrete experience. The pragmatist movement began in the late nineteenth century as an American reaction to the ills of idealism in Europe, embodied by G. W. F. Hegel, in the eyes of the first pragmatist, C. S. Peirce. Peirce sought instead to find the keys to human cognition in everyday, small acts … From its origins, pragmatism addressed the quality of experience as well as sheer facts on the ground. Thus William James sought an alternative to the bitterness, irony, and tragic foreboding that seemed to him to infuse the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche … 

Pragmatism occured in two waves. The first spanned the late nineteenth century to the Second World War … Two world wars and the arc of the Soviet empire checked but did not extinguish the hope embodied in pragmatism; its animated impulse remains to engage with ordinary, plural, constructive human activities.

The pragmatist in the first wave who addressed directly the condition of Animal laborans was John Dewey, an educator unfairly blamed for the sins of touchy-feely progressive education, a student of biology who disputed the aggresive, competitive viewes of Social Darwinism, and above all, a socialist who set himself resolutely against doctrinaire Marxism. Dewey certainly would have subscribed to Hannah Arendt's critique of Marxism; the false hopes Marx held out to humanity can be measured, in Arendt's words, by "the abundance or scarcity of the goods to be fed into the life process." Aganist this quantitative measure, Dewey argued for a socialism based on improving the quality of people's experience at work rather than advocating, as did Arendt, a politics that transcends labor itself.

Many of craftsmanship's themes appear in Dewey's writings in a more abstract form: the intimate relations between problem solving and problem finding, techniques and expression, play and work. Dewey the socialist best assembled these connections in his book Democracy and Education: "Both work and play are equally free and intrinsically motivated, apart from false economic conditions which tend to make play into idle excitement for the well to do, and work into uncongenial labor for the poor. Work is psychologically simply an activity which consciously includes regard for consequences as part of itself; it becomes constrained labor when the consequences are outside of the activity, as an end to which activity is merely a means. Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art." Dewey was a socialist in just the way John Ruskin and William Morris were: all three urged workers to assess the quality of their work in terms of shared experiment, collective trial and error. Good crasftmanship implies socialism … all three disputed the pursuit of quality simply as a means to profit.