Tempering the Conceit of Mastery

Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

From Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work:

Aristotle can help here.  He expanded the idea of an art, or techne, to include those cases where our efforts are less than fully effective.  In doing so, he steers a course between impotent fatalism and its opposite, a fantasy of complete mastery, shedding light on the true character of human agency.

Some arts reliably attain their object – for example, the art of building.  If the building falls down, one can say in retrospect that the builder didn’t know what he was doing.  But there is another class of arts that Aristotle calls “stochastic.”  An example is medicine.  Mastery of a stochastic art is compatible with failure to achieve its end (health).  As Aristotle writes, “It does not belong to medicine to produce health, but only to promote it as much as is possible….”  Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch.  The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not.  This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way.  This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself.  Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism….

Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix.  This disposition is at once cognitive and moral.  Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration.