Canada Research Chair in Ancient Philosophy
University of Toronto

The Authority of Craft

Lecture I – The End of Craft
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by Adam Gopnik and Rachana Kamtekar

Lecture II – Craft, Métier, Utopia
Thursday, April 25, 2024
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by Christine Korsgaard and Alexander Nehamas 

Seminar and Discussion with the Commentators
Friday, April 26, 2024
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by Adam Gopnik, Rachana Kamtekar, Christine Korsgaard, and Alexander Nehamas  

About Rachel Barney

Rachel Barney is Professor of both Classics and Philosophy. She was an undergraduate at University of Toronto, and returned after earning a PhD at Princeton and teaching at the University of Ottawa, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. Her research has ranged from the early sophists to the late Neoplatonic commentator Simplicius, but focuses on Plato. Her particular interest is in areas in which questions of ethics, psychology, epistemology, and philosophical method meet, as in Plato’s theory of the good.

About the Lectures

The aim of these lectures is to recover Plato’s idea of craft or art, Greek technê, in the expansive sense which includes not only the handicrafts but skilled practices from housebuilding to navigation. Plato and other Greek thinkers are fascinated by the craft model: the idea that both the moral virtue of the good person and the political widom of the expert ruler are — or could be made into — skilled practices as reliable as shoemaking or carpentry. Similar ideas appear in classical Chinese philosophy, developed in very different ways by Daoist and Confucian thinkers. In our time, craft is in a bad way: marginalized in theory and everywhere endangered in practice. Ancient thinkers can help us to see what remains valuable and urgent about craft today, and what a reinvigorated understanding of it might contribute to our ethical and political thought. Crafts to be considered include carpentry, medicine, drawing, film editing, the ‘multicraft’ of the restaurant, tennis, and traditional Polynesian navigation. Philosophical points of reference, in addition to Plato, Aristotle, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi, include Murdoch, MacIntyre, Korsgaard, and the Hart-Fuller debate, as well as literary reflections from Kazuo Ishiguro and Cormac McCarthy.

Lecture I – The End of Craft

What is a craft? For Plato, paradigmatic craft-practitioners include the doctor, carpenter and navigator; an updated, more generous conception should include the dancer, coder, waitress, painter, chef, professional athlete, and firefighter. Each of these skilled practices is oriented to the achievement of a distinctive end, the goodness of which is independent of the self-interest or inclinations of the practitioner. This Platonic conception of craft as involving disinterested teleological rationality can explain how craft sets objective norms for correct action, and for the excellence of the practitioner. And it shows that to master a craft is not merely to acquire knowledge or skills but to take on the ‘internal standpoint’ definitive of the craft, internalizing its values and treating its reasons for action as authoritative.

Lecture II – Craft, Métier, Utopia

Especially when practised as a line of work — as a job or métier — craft sets norms for its practitioners. On the whole, a shoemaker should try to be a good shoemaker, and the good person who is a shoemaker routinely does just that. But what kind of ‘should’ is this, and what could connect these two kinds of goodness? Prominent philosophical conceptions of craft, ancient and modern, offer wildly various explanations of its normative authority. The picture is complicated by the way in which craft-as-work is paradigmatic both for successful practical reason and for social roles or practical identities in general. But the most fundamental source of craft’s normativity is the one which Plato and Aristotle bring out: the fact that, when practised as a job or métier, practicing your craft can be a way to realize the human good. And so thinking about craft turns out to be a way of thinking about Utopia: a society in which a just distribution of work could secure both the flourishing of the worker and the common good.

About the Commentators

Adam Gopnik

International Author, Staff Writer, New Yorker Magazine

Adam Gopnik, legendary and beloved writer for the New Yorker, has—in his three decades with the magazine—written fiction, humor, memoirs, critical essays, and reported pieces from at home and abroad. He was the magazine’s art critic from 1987 to 1995, and the Paris correspondent from 1995 to 2000. Gopnik has received three National Magazine awards for essays and for criticism, the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting, and the Canadian National Magazine Award Gold Medal for arts writing. In March of 2013, he was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

An international bestselling author, his newest book is The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery (2023). His other works include A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventures of Liberalism (2019); In Mid-Air, Points of View from Over a Decade (2018), At The Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York (2017); The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012); and other notable works. 

Adam Gopnik was born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal. He received his BA. in Art History from McGill University, before completing his graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Rachana Kamtekar

Professor, Sage School of Philosophy
Cornell University

Rachana Kamtekar is Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Cornell University. She works primarily on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. She is author of Plato’s Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul and the Desire for Good (OUP 2017) and numerous articles on Plato’s and Aristotle’s ethics, psychology and politics, and Stoic accounts of the emotions. She is currently writing about ancient conceptions of cause, agency, and responsibility. Since 2022, she has been editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy.

Christine M. Korsgaard

Arthur Kingsley Porter Research Professor of Philosophy
Harvard University

Christine M. Korsgaard is Arthur Kingsley Porter Research Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, where she has taught since 1991. She took her BA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1974 and her PhD at Harvard, where she worked with John Rawls, in 1981. She has held positions at Yale University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Chicago, and visiting positions at Berkeley and UCLA. She is the author of five books. Creating the Kingdom of Ends is a collection of papers on Kant’s moral philosophy. The Sources of Normativity is an exploration of the development of modern views about the basis of obligation, culminating in a defense of the Kantian view. The Constitution of Agency is a collection of papers on practical reason and moral psychology. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity is an account of practical reason and morality grounded in the nature of human agency. Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals is an exploration of human/animal differences and a defense of the moral standing of animals. She is currently at work on The Natural History of the Good, a book about the place of value in nature.

Alexander Nehamas

Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities
Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature
Princeton University

Alexander Nehamas is the Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature Emeritus at Princeton University.  His books include Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and SocratesNietzsche: Life as Literature, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, and On Friendship.  He has also translated Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus into English.  At Princeton, he chaired the Council of the Humanities, the Program in Hellenic Studies, and was the Founding Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.  He holds the Chair in the History of Philosophy at the Academy of Athens.