What’s With This Woodworking Philosophy Stuff?


What is “craft?” And why do we love handmade things? What is the difference between a “tool” and a “machine?” What kinds of work can ground us in the tactility of the world in which we live? And how might our technologies be derailing us from this aspiration?

I have spent the last several years deeply exploring these questions, aided by the work of scholars from several fields: philosophers, historians, and anthropologists, as well as observations and anecdotes gathered from woodworkers throughout the ages, right up to the present day. There are many ideas floating around out there about what “craft” or “technology” are and what value it is to be a “maker.” These notions vary in degrees of cogency. Some offer valuable and pertinent insights; others need a little more time to steep.

There are three thinkers in particular who I have found helpful in this regard. They’ve all thought deeply as they’ve personally engaged with their subject matter. Their thoughts have been formed through years of hands-on experience coupled with careful and deliberate reflection. The theorists who have most shaped my thinking on these questions are professor of furniture design David Pye, anthropologist Tim Ingold, and philosopher Albert Borgmann.

But I know full well that many woodworkers don’t want to hear about philosophy. What practical value can there possibly be in sitting around thinking about work? Isn’t it better just to roll up your sleeves and get to it?

I believe that this temptation to leave our brains at the door of the shop is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature that separates our thinking from our doing. René Descartes famously postulated a form of dualism that envisaged human beings as fundamentally minds separate from our bodies. He said we were res cogitans – “thinking things.” This idea, rooted in a long tradition of Greek philosophy, perpetuated Plato’s notion of soma sema, that the body is the prison of the soul. “A ghost in a machine,” as one scholar put it.


But this view, under a torrent of criticism over the ensuing years, has since lost its credibility. And rightly. Philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists have all furnished arguments against this reductive form of dualism showing that this is not in fact how humans work. We are whole beings, and although we have inner and outer aspects (mind/soul and body), we are essentially unities, not dualities. And, by the way, we are not machines. Get this in your head, reader. Get your arms around this fact: you cannot separate your mind from your body. You can’t put your thoughts and beliefs in one category and your practices in another.

So, why so much thinking and theory from a woodworking publication? Because, reader, you have a mind inextricably connected to those hands. And I am convinced that if we want our work to reflect the fullness of who we are, the why will be just as important as the how.

– Joshua


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