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On intellectual craft 

I’m currently reading On Intellectual Craftsmanship, in preparation for a talk I’m doing in Berlin next week. This famous appendix to The Sociological Imagination is something I’ve long been inspired by, finding in it a way of organising my own life that belies the text’s apparently humble ambition to merely guide the novice scholar through the daily minutiae of scholarship. It might be the case that, as Mills puts it in his introduction, “Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student”. However it is in such conversations that we also renew our connection to what matters to us, finding energy and affirmation in the curiosity and concern we share for the social world we inhabit. If we dispense with the masculine language that marks the time in which it was written, there is a deeply powerful vision of scholarship as a vocation offered here by Mills. It is one which is all the more powerful for being grounded so precisely in a realistic sense of the “actual ways of working” which are the substance of our professional lives yet often fade from view when we describe what we do in terms of the lofty abstractions of theory and methodology:

It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. But you will have recognized that as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship. Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

It is a subtle vision, which I suspect I’ll return to in future posts over the next week as I reacquaint myself with it. It isn’t just an individualised matter, in spite of the vivid sense of interiority which Mills conveys in his urgent reminder that we should work to ‘keep our inner world awake’. It is in such awareness that Mills sees the possibility of methodological renewal, as a community can flourish when its members can converse about their foremost concerns rather than the dead formalities which their organisational lives demand of them:

informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science.’ It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes—on problems, methods, theory—ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own file is needed.

It is a powerful vision, worth returning to as our “actual ways of working” are undergoing a profound transformation. It should be treated carefully, because the notion of the ‘craft’ can obfuscate as easily as it can ground. But it provides an ethos which can guide our trajectory through the space of opportunities opened up by digital platforms, helping ensure that we use these platforms for our own ends rather than being used by them.

Categories: Digital Universities Social Media for Academics Thinking

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