Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009) by Matthew Crawford looks at the value of shop works and contrasts abstract, white collar work with hands on, deliberative blue collar work. The book also follows Crawford’s path through getting physics and philosophy degrees to working in a motorbike shop.

The book echoes Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and actually quotes from it. The intellectual value and value that can be perceived from repairing motorbikes is nicely drawn up against the absurdity of much modern office work. Crawford points out that much white collar work has created a duplicity similar to that of Soviet style duplicity where people must say things they know to be nonsense and behave in absurd ways.

The book praises and lauds the art and intellectual requirements of repairing bikes and compares to the falsity and deception of many high prestige high pay jobs. Crawford himself stopped working at a Washington think tank to repair motorbikes at a fraction of his previous wage. It’s a pity the book doesn’t look at the creation of motorbikes as well as their repair. Perhaps there an intellectually demanding and rewarding enterprise might be something that would fit with his values. It’s unfortunate that Crawford gives little consideration to white collar jobs that people do find rewarding. Designing motorbikes, creating software, law and finance are all jobs that some people find more than just monetarily rewarding.

Crawford is leaving behind well paying jobs to work on motorbikes, something he enjoys. He has another shop profession, that of being an electrician that he admits pays better than working on bikes but isn’t something he enjoys as much. He’s saying that he’d prefer to work in what is essentially the entertainment industry rather than something that pays better. In a way the book is describing his choice of work he enjoys over work for paying bills. It’s nice to be rich enough to be able to make such a choice. The book could be called ‘Hipster life choices as soulcraft’.

The book refers extensively to Marx, Heidegger, Aristole and others but unfortunately there is little pondering of economics. Crawfords dilemma could be looked at through an economic lense that gave value to doing something you enjoy and that you think is valuable. Also Von Mises’s conception of the knowledge problem and the theory of the firm is something that isn’t directly considered by Crawford.

The book is still a good read. It’s well written, reasonably well thought through and nicely short. It’s thought provoking and contains a number of good quotes. Definitely worth a look for anyone who ponders the value of an abstract office job.


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