Where is the soul of research?

I recently finished reading “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” by Matthew Crawford (see my review). He argues for the merits of trade or craft worker, such as that of plumbers and mechanics and (some) doctors and carpenters and so on. These occupations share a fundamental connection to the real world and a dedication to improving it in some particular way. (Crawford has an odd tendency to also refer to these jobs as the “stochastic arts”. Here he seems to use “stochastic” to mean “trying to fix a system that you didn’t design and therefore cannot fully control”, which is rather a departure from the typical meaning of the word.)

In Crawford’s view, the opposite of a trade worker is a “knowledge worker,” someone who manipulates abstract bits of knowledge, often using a computer. This is the occupation family to which many are urged these days, freeing workers from a specific place of business (“work from home!”) and often from specific tangible output (“I developed a template for a work process for the development of websites to stimulate creativity!”).

Knowledge work gets a bad rap in this book. As a knowledge worker myself, I can see and agree with the problems Crawford points out. Number one is the lack of a specific result, or at least a meaningful specific result. A mechanic can point at a car that now runs. There’s no obvious way for me to measure productivity and success in my job that translates so directly into helping others, or reducing entropy, or any other self-evident good. Instead my productivity, at the rare times when any attempt is made to quantify it, is measured via indirect quantities like the number of papers published or the number of grant dollars won. These are so far removed from actual significance or impact that it’s hard to feel genuine pride or accomplishment if they go up, or genuine lack if they go down. I think this is why I find volunteering at the library ultimately more satisfying; although I’m engaged at a “lower” or more “simplistic” level, in the end I can actually count how many books I’ve shelved or patrons I’ve helped or donations I’ve sorted. The result of my work is self-evident. I agree with Crawford that there’s something good for the soul in being able to see the fruits of your labor like this.

Crawford also argues that a benefit of craft or trade work is that it forces us to submit ourselves to an external order. Either the plumbing leaks or it doesn’t. This is dictated by the constraints of physics, in terms of how water flows and whether there’s a gap in the fittings. You can’t redefine the rules or wish the problem away; instead, you work within those constraints to fix the problem. He sees this as a good prescription for avoiding narcissism. I can definitely see this, too. In research, it is easy to redefine the evaluation metric, or experimental methodology, and totally change the outcome, because you have control over the rules of the world.

For these two reasons (lack of meaningful metrics, and the ability to redefine the constraints at will), it is supremely hard to know whether you are actually good at such a job, and whether you ever improve. In a statement that perhaps stuck with me the most, Crawford writes, “To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room for progress in excellence.” Stated that way, it seems obvious that a job with nebulous and shifting measurements of output would ultimately lack motivation. And so the question arises, for me personally: Where is the “soul” in research? How can I find concrete ways that the work to which I devote most of my waking hours actually matters? How will I ever know whether I’m getting better at what I do? Is this gap due to a lack of imagination on my part, or a fundamental problem with the type of work itself? Would my energies be better spent doing something else?

I recommend the book to anyone interested in these same questions.

The Call of the Bee-Loud Glade

Recently I discovered this enchanting poem, written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and playwright:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Who can read those lovely lines and not be put in mind of Thoreau, down to the very mention of beans? And it seems that Yeats was indeed a fan of Walden’s most famous occupant. His father had read “Walden” to him when he was a boy. (What a great idea!) Consider this story, from Yeats’s autobiography, about how the poem came to be:

Sometimes I told myself very adventurous love-stories with myself for hero, and at other times I planned out a life of lonely austerity, and at other times mixed the ideals and planned a life of lonely austerity mitigated by periodical lapses. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism — “Arise and go” — nor the inversion of the last stanza.

I find his description here fascinating, for I too have felt just that same tug, on random occasions, triggered by a fountain or a tree or a bit of music. And I love getting some insight into his own view of his work, the idea that he “could not have written” the first line just a few years later. I assume by “conventional archaism” he refers to the use of the term in biblical writing, and yet it seems not terribly out of place here; the narrator is expressing not just an idle vacationing whim but instead what, to me, sounds like a very personal, overpowering, internal calling. He will arise and go because until he does, the summons of the lake water will follow him everywhere he goes.

Shop Class as Soul Craft

This isn’t a book review, since I haven’t read the book yet. It’s more of a book preview. I’ve only had a chance to read the Introduction so far, but that alone already has me jittering with desire to dig in and dig deeply. It’s that good, and has that much content that speaks to me.

Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew Crawford, is a book that my friend Jim recommended long ago. I’m finally getting the chance to take a look for myself. It emphasizes the deep-down satisfaction that we gain from making (or fixing) things ourselves, with our own hands. More generally, it considers the nature of work, and what constitutes a meaningful occupation.

Here are some tidbits from the Introduction that resonated with me, or that I found particularly thought-provoking:

“Following a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, I took a job as executive director of a Washington ‘think tank.’ I was always tired, and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all—what tangible goods or services was I providing to anyone? The sense of uselessness was dispiriting. That pay was good, but it truly felt like compensation, and after five months I quit to open a bike shop.”

“This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’ Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so.”

“… I hope [this book] will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance—the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things.”

“Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.”

I’m hooked; bring on the soul craft!

Philosophical translations

Les critiques judicieux sont rares.

This was the first sentence that I was called on to read aloud, and translate, at the first meeting of my French Translation course. For no obvious reason, the professor called on me first. I hadn’t realized that we’d be getting a chance to also practice our pronunciation (bonus!). I read it out loud, and then translated:

Fair critics are rare.

And we were off! We continued around the room, reading and translating sentences from the textbook. We completed all of Chapter 1 (to be, negation, plural nouns, articles, to have, the partitive pronoun en, -er verbs) in the first class, and Chapter 2 (-ir verbs, demonstrative adjectives, -re verbs, imperative verbs, reflexive verbs) in the second class; our professor says that we’ll slow down around Chapter 5 when things get “plus difficile”.

The authors of our textbook frequently have chosen quotes from famous French philosophers as example sentences for us to translate. Therefore, instead of dull sentences like “The cat is black,” we end up debating whether or not we agree with a particular statement about the purpose of life or the differences between men and women. This also means that the sentences are more challenging (which I like) since they sometimes involve abstract concepts or comparisons that really cannot be rendered literally. Here are some examples:

  • Il n’y a pas de roses sans épines. (Proverbe) “There are no roses without thorns.” (Or “Every rose has its thorn,” in 80’s parlance.)
  • Je n’imagine pas le génie, sans le courage. (Montherlant) Lit. “I do not imagine genius without courage,” which doesn’t really work. Instead, “I cannot imagine genius without courage,” or even “Genius is impossible without courage.”
  • Quand un acteur est mauvais, l’applaudissement le rend pire. (Renard) “When an actor is bad, applause makes him worse.”
  • Ceux qui s’appliquent trop aux petites choses deviennent ordinairement incapables des grandes. (La Rouchefoucauld) “Those who devote themselves to small things usually become incapable of accomplishing large ones.” (Excellent advice for work, eh?)
  • Les livres d’histoire qui ne mentent pas sont tous fort maussades. (A. France) “History books that do not lie are all very dull.”

Translation being a subjective art, please feel free to suggest improvements to these renditions.

We’ve had two classes now with no homework! In the meantime, I’ve been compiling a list of sources of public domain French texts for potential practice, including the French wikisource, the Internet Archive, and feedbooks. As usual, there’s so much more out there than I could ever hope to read!

Thoreau’s moonlight and mountains

Henry David Thoreau was a fascinating character: intense, passionate, obnoxious, arrogant, and possessed of a lyrical mind. I cannot help but like the man, even as he exasperates. He was given to making jabs at society, the government, technology, law, his neighbors, and anyone who wanted to give him advice:

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”

Yet he had his own heroes, and looked up to Emerson (as just one example) enough to follow the latter’s advice on variety of subjects.

Walden itself starts humbly enough:

“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life…”

but quickly moves on to convey a sort of impatience with us as readers, lazy desperate folk that we are; if only we would wake up and realize the brilliance of his own plan, that we could live mortgage-free and debt-free by simply walking into the woods, building our own simple houses, and giving up meat.

Thoreau is most pleasurable to read when he is least snarky (he does love a good pun), as when advocating an open and curious approach to life:

“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries each day, with new experience and character.”

or when he is exalting in the beauty of his beloved Pond and its surroundings:

“Sky water. It needs no fence. […] a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this is the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”

And I know what he means when he says he cannot spare his moonlight (and I know he does not mean that he dislikes people).

And he offers some other valuable ideas, aside from the musings on solitude and self-sufficiency that pepper Walden:

“… the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

And most everyone’s heard the bit about why he went to the woods in the first place. But this quote perhaps is the one that will stick with me most, for now:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

We have so very many lives to live! As many as we choose. Kudos to Thoreau for being willing to try out his Walden experiment and, when he’d learned what he wanted, to move on. Everything changes.

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