The phenomenology of chisel handles
By dbcjoinery, Jun 3 2015 01:33PM
While I never stopped woodworking completely, I had a spell where I could only work part-time after a shoulder injury and during which I wrote a PhD on Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. Foucault is often called a post-structuralist thinker, and post-structuralism arose, among other reasons, to displace a dominant paradigm in continental philosophy known as phenomenology, particularly existential phenomenology ... stick with me I will get to woodworking. In my academic days I was dismissive and a bit sniffy towards phenomenology and existentialism because I inherited Foucault's prejudice towards them, but every now and then something comes up in my workshop that leads me to believe the phenomenologists had a few worthy points.
Most good philosophical systems have an identifiable starting point; a sort of ground zero from which they build an understanding, or at least a description, of human thought, the nature of truth, the meaning of objects and so on. For rationalists like Descartes or Spinoza this ground zero is human reasoning, for empiricists like Hume and Locke it is experience of the world, for post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida it is the hidden prejudices in our historical community or language.
For the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre this ground zero was existence. He famously said in the 1940s that "existence precedes essence". He argued that previous philosophers had mistakenly seen things the other way around. They had believed that the essence of something, that is, what it essentially, and finally, 'is' comes first and its existence comes later. One of his examples of this misguided way of thinking was the common perception of a paper knife. "We wouldn’t produce a paper knife without knowing what it’s for,” he said. Anyone who has been a woodworker can see the problem with this way of thinking. The handle of my tool box started off as a broomstick and the oak raised panels in my cupboard door samples started off as tongue and groove boards from Spitalfields market. This timber was not essentially a broom handle or floorboards first, no, it existed as a workable form that carpenters could shape into an object. And an object that furthermore was never essentially and finally settled into a given form as, with the intervention of skilled hands, it could always be reformed into something else. Anyone who has ever learned to use a lathe with a piece of scrap timber - hey this is fun, maybe this could be a table leg prototype; now its more of a chair leg; now a candlestick; oh no, not another chisel handle - knows that when it comes to existence preceding essence woodworkers were way ahead of Sartre.
However, the phenomenologist who stalks my joinery is really the German thinker Martin Heidegger. While it is difficult to pin down exactly what the ground zero for this confusing thinker was, one candidate is the 'there-ness' of the objects that surround us. This sounds a bit difficult but luckily for us Heidegger actually uses the example of a carpenter in his only long book Being and Time. He states that an experienced carpenter hammering nails doesn't even necessarily concentrate on hammer or nails. In this woodworker's mind, hammer and nails are not fully 'there' and have become what Heidegger calls 'ready to hand'. Now I've been practising my trade long enough that I can quite easily nail in a whole row of noggings while being completely preoccupied by how long it is to the next smoko break or why the plumber hasn't shown up yet. If you've ever arrived at your destination without really remembering the details of changing gears, indicating, putting on the hand brake and locking the car door you can probably relate to this.
For Heidegger, and here comes his impact for me, the there-ness of things often doesn't show up until you go wrong. Hit your thumb with the hammer and that thumb and hammer are suddenly very there. This was brought home to me early last year while I was making a stable door for a customer in Colchester. I dry fitted all the pieces together without the glue and was satisfied with the fit. I took it all apart, got the glue and clamps out and locked the workshop door so nobody could come in and distract me lest the glue set before the door had been set square. One of the door stiles, which I always leave a bit long until after my doors are assembled, had a splinter at the end which had kept catching on my shirt. Before I started the gluing I drew a neat pencil line close to end of the stile and cut it on the drop saw. Disaster. I cut the wrong pencil line. It was now too short. Nothing that I could remember had ever been more 'there' than that piece of hardwood. I had spent hours on it: milling it from rough sawn, cutting mortices and making grooves. I marvelled at its 'there-ness'. How could I have been such an idiot? How could that stile be too short? How could that too-short stile be so startlingly 'there'?
I was regarding the truncated piece of timber 'there' on the saw bench with German laughter mocking me from inside my head when a quiet French voice consoled me that at least it was now good for three or four chisel handles.