The philosopher-mechanic

Matthew Crawford finds the good life in repairing motorcycles.

By Richard Mertens

Photography by Robert Adamo

Matthew Crawford was a promising young scholar of ancient political philosophy. He had finished his dissertation, a study of politics and eros in the Greek world, centering on Plutarch. He had earned a fellowship from the Committee on Social Thought and an office on the third floor of Foster Hall, between the venerable Irish classicist David Grene and Nobel Prize–winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee. In that exalted company Crawford, AM’92, PhD’00, was to spend a year looking for a job and turning his dissertation into a book.

But the academic job market was bleak, and Crawford’s interest in Plutarch wavered. He spent less and less time in his University office. His attention drifted to motorcycles, and to one in particular: his 1975 Honda CB360. He had long been fascinated by fast machines. At 15 he worked cleaning parts in a Porsche repair shop; later in high school he souped up a VW bug. This time he improvised a shop in the basement of his Hyde Park apartment building, where, surrounded by tools and foul-smelling solvents, he tore down and rebuilt the Honda into a “café racer,” a vintage bike modified for speed. He wrote later that “[t]he physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm for feelings of professional panic.”

IMAGE: Matthew Crawford

In his motorcycle shop, Shockoe Moto, Crawford engages with the material world.

Fixing motorcycles, it turned out, was not inconsistent with a love of wisdom. And this past spring Crawford finally published his book, though not the one the John M. Olin Foundation expected. In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press), Crawford welds philosophy and motorcycle repair, celebrating manual work and the competency, self-reliance, and knowledge it fosters. In few books do Honda and Ducati sit so naturally alongside Heidegger, Aristotle, and Marx.

Crawford argues that the contemporary world has undervalued manual work in favor of the cubicle and so-called “knowledge work”—labor that involves thinking or the appearance of thinking and flourishes in bureaucracies and corporations. In this way we have lost a meaningful engagement with the material world and a sense of usefulness and personal agency often missing from more prestigious occupations. “We worry that we’re becoming stupider,” he writes, “and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

Rejecting the false dichotomy between thinking and doing, Crawford praises the “cognitive richness” of working with one’s hands, particularly in skilled labor like wiring, plumbing, carpentry, and mechanical repair. Such work requires thinking too, he says, not abstract but concrete, specific, and difficult to articulate. It traffics less in “universal knowledge” than knowledge “in particular situations.” It also becomes a form of moral education. By submitting to the constraints of the material world, the manual worker opens himself up to correction. Mechanical repair cultivates a special humility and attentiveness, Crawford says, because it involves not making but fixing something made by another. Ultimately, he says, he is searching for “the conditions of human flourishing.” He is asking that oldest of philosophical questions: what is the good life?

His own experience offers intimations. He grew up in Berkeley, California, where he spent the years between nine and 15 in a commune. Instead of going to school he worked, and because he was small he often assisted an electrician. He spent summers doing electrical wiring to support himself through college.

At the same time, Crawford learned from his father, a University of California physicist, that “thinking is the highest pleasure.” Following his father’s example, he studied physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But in his last year he read The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom’s (PhB’49, AM’53, PhD’55) attack on American higher education. “It blew me away,” he told an interviewer for the Independent Media Institute. He came to Chicago to study philosophy.

Crawford is not the first motorcycle philosopher to have passed through the University. Robert Pirsig, X’73, left after studying Aristotle under Richard McKeon and went on to write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, the fictional account of a road trip from Minneapolis to the West Coast. Crawford pays homage to Pirsig in Shop Class, and reviewers have been quick to compare the two. But nothing in Pirsig’s 1974 novel, which the critic George Steiner, AB’48, once compared to Moby-Dick, suggests that Pirsig took motorcycles as seriously as Crawford does.

He began that serious focus under Fred Cousins, a renowned Chicago motorcycle mechanic, who operated Triple “O” Service in an old warehouse district on Goose Island. Crawford sought him out to fix a broken starter that had stumped everyone else. “He got all excited about that,” says Cousins, whose shop has since closed. “I took something that didn’t work and made it work.” This display of mechanical excellence spawned not only a friendship but an ongoing dialogue, now conducted by telephone, on motorcycle design, engineering, and repair.

Meanwhile, Crawford’s fellowship ended. He found a high-paying job as executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. The job required him, among other things, to prepare reports skeptical of climate change. He hated it almost immediately. He was “making arguments I didn’t fully buy,” he writes, on behalf of conclusions already determined by the institute’s positions. Like the hapless middle manager he describes in his book, he was obliged to “project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.”

But the job was useful in at least two ways. It drove him back to the only kind of work that had ever fully satisfied him, and it enabled him to save enough money for tools. Crawford quit after five months. With the example of Fred Cousins before him, he started his own motorcycle shop, Shockoe Moto, in Richmond, Virginia. 

Crawford does not reject academia. His years in graduate school, he says, were the best of his life. Indeed, Shop Class manages to bring the enthusiasm of the seminar table to the grease-smeared labors of the workbench. (His friend and former shopmate at Shockoe Moto, Thomas van Auken, says it was sometimes hard to get work done with all the talk about ideas.) And yet outside the intellectual environment of graduate school, Crawford has found mostly “an industry hostile to thinking.” He brings his ball-peen hammer down hard on the modern economy, with its huge concentrations of capital and what he characterizes as its mindless business culture. 

Crawford’s book is conservative in outlook and aristocratic in spirit. Riding motorcycles, he says, is a “kingly sport”; riding and fixing them answer “to certain intuitions I have about human excellence.” He sounds almost Jeffersonian in praise of self-employment and self-reliance. “Too often,” he declares, “the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men.”

Shop Class has clearly touched a chord. Reviewers have almost uniformly praised it, including Johns Hopkins political economist Francis Fukuyama, who in the New York Times Book Review called it “a beautiful little book about human excellence and the way it is undervalued in contemporary America.” It broke into the top 15 on the Times best-seller list, London’s Financial Times named it an “Editor’s Choice,” and it earned Crawford perhaps the greatest honor this side of the National Book Award: an appearance on the Colbert Report. “It’s nice,” he admitted in an interview, “to have written something on a topic that people care about rather than some ancient Greek crap.”

He hasn’t said all he wants to about work. He’s already writing his next book, The Organ Maker’s Shop, based on visits to Taylor & Boody Organ Builders in Staunton, Virginia. There workers make instruments to last 400 years, starting by felling trees. He spent days at the shop, talking to workers about their old craft in ways they hadn’t thought about and quizzing them at length about the organization, transmission, and dispersal of an organ builder’s knowledge. As he told the Independent Media Institute, “It’s the grooviest scene you could imagine.”

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