The Pragmatism of Craft


Craftsmen have an inherent affinity for the pragmatic and a brief consideration of the etymology of the term illuminates why this tends to be so. English inherits the word 'Pragmatism' more or less directly From the Greek pragmatikós (πραγματικός), meaning "active," derived in turn from prássein (πράσσειν) the Greek verb "to do," interpreted as "practice." Acting, doing, practicing...Pragmatism could be said to be a philosophy of action and results. The love of knowledge but of a particular kind, one acquired thru experience that is in turn enriched by observation and contemplation, an experiential knowledge that enables the craftsman to impose reason upon the concrete and material. The pragmatic outlook assures the craftsman full participation in life as an experiential philosopher yielding practical results in the world.

Architecture: From a Practical Craft to a Theoretical Profession

Since the dawn of human civilization and continuing for thousands of years, the art of building otherwise known as architecture had been a very practical affair. Once again, we are indebted to the Ancient Greeks for the very notion of the architect; the arkhitéktōn (ἀρχιτέκτων) was a master technician, literally the “chief craftsman,” typically either a carpenter or mason.

Highly skilled craftsmen continued to furnish Western civilization with its built environment throughout the Roman Empire, continuing during the Medieval period and well into the Renaissance. Andrea Palladio furnishes a Late Renaissance, 16th-century example of the master craftsman as architect. Apprenticed as a stone carver, he had gained practical skills through hands-on experience, mastering the tectonics of masonry. Palladio aggregated upon this foundation of experiential craft knowledge empirical observation that included measured drawings of Roman antiquities. Furthermore his famous architectural treatise, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, clearly demonstrated his clear intellectual grasp of abstracted systems of geometry, harmony and proportion as exemplified by the Classical Orders.

Although treatises featuring rationalized measured drawings such as contained in the Quattro Libri were still quite unique in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the 18th century, drawing had become the primary method of teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where initial steps were underway to organize the study of architecture as an academic discipline. Several significant distinctions should be noted between the then modern, alternative study at the École in contrast with traditional paths to becoming an architect.

The development of descriptive geometry was utilized for technically precise drawings that separated the act of design by the architect from that of building by the craftsman, increasingly regarded as little more than a technician. In short order, the rationalized approach to design subsumed the meaning of architecture itself; a drawing on paper could now be considered architecture. In the course of 19th century the Beaux-Arts methodology became adopted and its curriculum incorporated into universities throughout Europe and eventually America.

Accepted architectural instruction relentlessly collapsed into a closed system of highly rationalized refinement whilst measures were undertaken by prominent academically indoctrinated architects to impose obligatory examination and licensing standards, separating architecture as a theoretical and therefore ostensibly superior profession distinguished from craft and building. The model of the craftsman architect would slowly diminish, eventually being fully discredited in the early 20th century.

The Empirical versus the Rational

There has been an open tension in the world of philosophy, a longstanding yet uneasy commingling of what might be called the rational versus the empirical temperament. Whereas the rationalist tends to favor thinking in terms of ideas, principles and eternal truths, his empiricist colleague prefers to rely upon statistical data and observable fact. Of course, in practical terms humans depend both on ideas and observation to get by. Our modern world, for example, is largely a scientific one, as fact driven and empirical in its temperament as it ever has been. That being said the disconnect between raw scientific data received and potential meaning depends for resolution upon interpretation, correlation and generation of new theories, distinctly rational activities that direct subsequent empirical observation.

However, this oscillation, commingling, interdependence between empirical and rational modes of thought is largely absent from the contemporary field of architecture as a profession. Instead, architecture has become the largely abstracted, formal and expressive contribution to what I might otherwise give the name of 'shelter', be it intended for biological or mechanical use. In so restricting itself to the theoretical, architecture grows ever more separate from the recently formed professional specializations of engineering and building construction that attend to the material, labor resources and mechanical execution of shelter. As with science there forms a disconnect. Unlike science, the feedback loops between the professions are not sufficient to achieve resolution and provide our built environment with coherence and substantial meaning.

There are prominently two opinions of this account of the state of architecture. The first I would classify as complete denial; the unfounded belief that everything is fine if not getting better all the time (see pictured example above). Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, there is an admission of a serious crisis in architecture, yet clinging to the vain hope that urgently needed reform can set the ship right again (see pictured example above). I would contend that the contemporary model generating our built environment is fundamentally flawed, lacks an adequate philosophy, is of a temperament that does not align with people's needs and will inevitably necessitate complete replacement (yes, see pictured example above).

The Experiential as a Pragmatic Mean

For the traditional hand craftsman the feedback loops between his senses of sight, touch, sound, even smell and taste applies to the material objects he's working with and his own internal conception of pattern and design that he imposes upon the materials are introduced through experience and strengthened through repetition. Anyone who has witnessed a master potter at a wheel or a master carver at the bench will remark at the uncanny mastery humans can achieve at direct manipulation of material. Nevertheless, what has been apportioned out as separate and distinct modes in philosophical thought influencing professional practice, remain in fact completely integrated in traditional craft practice. I would like to briefly consider one example of how pragmatic, that is to say experiential thinking can serve as a mean, a negotiating point of view between the seemingly intractable philosophical modes of empiricism and rationalism.


facts principles behavior

By the above, what I'm really introducing are the concepts of truth and Truth. By facts, what the empiricist claims is observation or discovery of bits of truth, raw data as it were that comes from the sensory perceptions of objects that exist in reality. For the empiricist this is the only truth we can possibly know and it's admittedly unreliable. By contrast the rationalist thinks of Truth in terms of eternal principles that take a certain form and possess transcendent meaning. In this sense even abstract ideas such as beauty or justice are seen as possessing a True immutable form, an intrinsic meaning as mental or spiritual objects, more true in fact than the shadows of reality we perceive through our senses as interpreted by our consciousness.

Pragmatism doesn’t regard truth as an object to be discovered at all, rather truth for the pragmatist refers to distinctly human behavior. When we speak of verification we're talking about "making truth," this is the literal meaning veri (truth), fication (making or doing), Latin (veritas and facere) by way of French. Traditional hand craft is one example of truth-making (or truth-doing, a likewise valid and interesting interpretation) as an human behavior, activity, process. This logic can likewise apply to beautification and justification as human activities rather than objects of the physical or psychological world.

If some of this sounds familiar, well that's to be expected. Philosopher William James described pragmatism as, “a new name for some old ways of thinking.” Experience and common sense wisdom have guided much of human activity and has contributed mightily to our ability to grow and thrive. That we have neglected this practical approach to life has only been to our detriment. Below are a few other comparisons, each set meriting further contemplation for the architect, craftsman and layman alike:


entropy progress change

past future present

observation abstraction experience

mechanistic static relational

actual imaginary possible

vulgar classical traditional

sensational intellectual holistic

object idea process

skeptical dogmatic practical

nominal formal instrumental

nihilistic eternal continuity

material spiritual human

pessimistic optimistic engaged

chaos unity particularity

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