Nowadays, philosophy is not often associated with technology and utility. However, in the mind of a skilled artisan, they are not only associated, they are inseparable working partners.
Artisans create things that are purposeful, often very beautiful, and invariably significant for them in some way. And they do this by merging a sense of who they are as individuals with common elements from their surroundings—from both the concrete world of physical objects (such as wood, stone, metal, fabrics, foodstuffs, or flowers) and the more abstract world of ideas (as expressed through words, sounds, images, or body movements). Through the work of artisans, our world can express itself in any number of ways that both fulfill our needs and bring us a sense of satisfaction, or even enlightenment and inspiration. In the mind of an artisan, one’s aptitude for technological know-how works hand-in-hand with one’s artistic sensibilities.
The work of genuine artisans can be easily distinguished from work that is merely useful or technologically innovative. For an artisan, the materials and methods used are meaningful in a way that goes deeper than what their surface features indicate. For example, a dedicated composer will try out many melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic combinations before one appears that seems “exactly right.” But why that particular combination creates the desired effect is a motivation that comes from deep within the composer’s psyche. The renowned American composer, Aaron Copland, once observed that, if he was asked if there was meaning in music, he would reply, “yes,” but if asked whether he can state “in so many words what that meaning is,” his response would be “no.” [What to Listen for in Music, (1939)]
To the extent that artisans draw from their personal inner resources, they are expressing who they are as individuals in a way that points to an overall worldview—a philosophical outlook. And it is this sharing of a general orientation towards life that gives others an opportunity to resonate with their work on a personal level, the level of our interdependent relationships. This personalized aspect of an artisan’s work is in sharp contrast with work that is done by individuals who have little or no personal interest in or control over their work processes, as is the case in many industrial and/or commercial contexts or when routine work is carried out without any sense of it having a deeper meaning than its surface appearance. In such instances, work is a purely technical matter aimed at producing a result that is valued mainly for its objective utility.
The point here is that all work involves us with some kind of technology and utility, but when it is done with the mind of an artisan, we can experience it in a way that expresses something deeply meaningful for ourselves and others. When we can reflect on the work we do and it tells us something about who we are, why we are doing it, and how it fits into the “big picture” of life around us, we are bringing out the philosopher within us. In its original (Classical Greek) context, philosophy is simply the “love of wisdom,” and implies a practical, everyday kind of knowing that guides a person’s actions—a way of focusing on how things fit together. In this sense, we are all philosophers, because we all have the capacity to reflect on “who we are” and “what we do” as a means of navigating through the varied circumstances of our everyday lives.
In the mind of an artisan, there is no distinction between oneself and the work one is involved with. For an artisan, “being” is a way of doing. There is an existential unity in the mind of an artisan that allows all aspects of human consciousness—intellect, intuition, sensation, and emotion—to join hands and work towards a desired end. Moreover, for an artisan, all genuinely creative work—be it of a scientific or artistic nature—is grounded in a lifelong love for wisdom, a philosophical disposition or state of mindfulness that is continually in search of meaningfulness. This search takes us beyond the technical and utilitarian aspects of what we do into the mysterious world of our interconnections with others, a world that ultimately involves us with the wholeness of life.
In his book “On Creativity,” the eminent physicist and philosopher of wholeness, David Bohm (1917 – 1993), notes that for many scientists “the utilitarian possibilities of their work are generally of secondary interest.” What is primary for them, he observes, is a kind of longing to experience “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, consisting of a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He adds, “in this respect, the scientist is perhaps not basically different from the artist, the architect, the musical composer, etc., who all want to create this sort of thing in their work.” [See: David Bohm, On Creativity, (1998), pp. 1 – 2.]
Today, most of us live in societies inundated with new technologies that impinge on practically every aspect of our lives. And although many of these technologies are incredibly useful, usefulness alone does not guarantee that a technology will bring us an enhanced experience of our interconnectedness, our unity. What would it take for us to look beyond the utility of these technologies and reflect on how our use of them contributes or interferes with our ability to be aware of the wholeness of life, and the beauty, truth, and harmony that flow from such awareness? I think it would take the mind of an artisan.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness