Posted August 12, 2006
I’d been thinking about blogging for a long time but what finally pushed me over the edge was this post. The author, Scott McLemee, wrote about what he’s learned from a pamphlet by C. Wright Mill “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”. Here’s the key quote,
What Mills calls “intellectual craftsmanship” involves more than the ability to produce work that can pass peer review. “Scholarship is a choice of how to live,” he writes, “as well as a choice of career.” It is (if I may be excused for borrowing another old Greek word) an ethos. That is, a structure of habits that sustains and embodies a quality of mind, a tendency of character.
“Whether he knows it or not,” Mills goes on to say, “the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works towards the perfection of his craft.” The notion of having a “career” is subordinate to—even a side-effect of—this process of inner shaping. “To realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way,” the scholar “constructs a character which has its core the qualities of the good workman.”
For Mills, there is a kind of bench where all of this crafting takes place. He calls it “the file.” I’m not sure this is the happiest of expressions. It’s simple enough, but Mills uses it in his own sense.”
Mills suggests that aspiring young intellectuals keep what he calls, “the file,” or the term I like, “intellectual journal.” Here are collected reading notes, stray ideas, and complications or successes in research. It serves as a journal as you analyze and sort through ideas. Mill writes that the process of collecting and sifting through your notes and ideas leads to more systematic thinking as well as more directed and thorough learning.
Starting my junior and senior years of high school, I came to love writing. Not that it is entertaining or easy — it’s about the hardest thing to do intellectually — but for the powerful and beneficial effect it has on my thinking. I find that when I write about an idea I’ve had or a book I’ve read, the writing serves to clarify my thinking and make explicit my reasoning.
My experience with the effects of writing fits with Mill’s main assertion, that the keeping of the file or intellectual journal is critical to the “[construction of] a character which has its core the qualities of the good workman.” My writing refined and shaped my intellectual charecter.
A critical realization I’ve come to over the past several years is the importance of my habits. My life is directed more by what I choose to do every day then any so-called life changing decisions. I like to think of habits as bricks. A single brick is really quite insignificant but from thousands of bricks mortared together come sturdy houses and soaring cathedrals. And from habits we build, one brick at a time, our lives. My life, whether it will be useful and great or broken and poor, depends a great deal on my habits.
The great disconnect in most people’s lives is between what they know they should do and what they actually do. Witness the vast number of people enslaved by addictions: alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, and so forth. What they lack is internal discipline or the character to live what they know is right. For whatever reason they have never built the character that allows their mind to rule their body. Instead, their bodies enslave their minds.
So how does this bring us back to Mill’s file? For many years, there has been a disconnect between what I want to be intellectually, and what I actually do, my habits. I feel far too often I don’t think as I should. I don’t analysis, probe, collect, sift, sort, synthesize. In other words, as much as I want to, I don’t have the character of an intellectual workman.
My hope is this blog will provide the motivation and discipline to write so as to help me develop the habits of the mind of an intellectual craftsman.
Kyle Mathews lives and works in San Francisco building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter