Risk and Certainty

by Zadruga

Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

Wendell Berry – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front


The late David Pye, in his to my mind indispensable book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” (along with it’s companion, “The Nature and Aesthetics of Design”) sets out as one of his main theses the difference between the “Workmanship of Risk” and the “Workmanship of Certainty”.  This distinction has less to do with the quality of the work (both type of workmanship can create poor or excellent quality goods) or the type of end product (most things made can be done with either method, but more in how the work is done.  The the Workmanship of Risk, at every step along the way there is the risk of failure, mostly because the work is guided more directly by the hand of the workman.  Conversely, in the Workmanship of Certainty, once the work is begun, the end product is not in doubt.  In woodworking the Workmanship of Certainty is achieved through the use of jigs (broadly meaning, any device which guides the work to achieve a predetermined result).  Even very simple woodworking tools involve a lesser or greater degree of the Workmanship of Certainty, for example a hand plane as aided in creating a flat surface by the machined flat surface of it’s sole.  In the Workmanship of Certainty, it might involve a great deal of skill to set up the jig or machine, but once everything has been set, skill is no longer a requirement.  In the Workmanship of Risk, skill must be applied throughout the process, and close attention is required from start to finish.

This concept can, of course, be applied to the world outside of woodworking.  With some notable exceptions, the modern world seeks to submit everything to the Workmanship of certainty.  Most of the objects and systems around us, when they work, are designed to eliminate risk and give us a certain, predetermined outcome.  For example, it is getting harder and harder, at least in the US, to find cars with manual transmissions.  The industrial food system from start to finish, tries to remove all uncertainty from the growing and distribution of food, providing people with a consistent end product, available everywhere, at any time.  It should be clear that by submitting our lives to the Workmanship of Certainty, we allow those who create the systems to determine the end result, since we are simply part of a pre-determined path, and no longer in control of the end result.  That this should result in a depressing homogenization is compounded by the fact that we no longer have to apply skill in our lives.  This probably accounts for the popularity of most hobbies, as people try to reclaim a place for skill in their lives.  The Certainty of industrialization has made the owners and controllers of industry quite wealthy, and has been sold to the general public as relieving them of drudgery, freeing people from having to do work.  It is interesting how successful this has been, because in essence we have been sold on the idea that we should choose to be incompetent.  Most people would not probably consider themselves more free than in the past, and I know the modern life has more than it’s share of drudgery, so what have we received in trade for giving up our skill?

Living a life of skill, where skill is constantly employed, has benefits to one’s outlook that pass beyond whatever skill that may be, but are probably the most richly realized in the skills needed in farming.  More than anything else, bringing food from the ground, the planting, nurture, and harvest, changes one’s outlook and brings one to an understanding of the complexity of the world and the rhythm of the natural world.  The Workmanship of Risks teaches one to acknowledge limits and learn to accept and deal with failure.  On the other hand Pye explains that all the great works of art were created mostly through the Workmanship of Risk.  One false brushstroke, one bad blow with a chisel, one misplaced note or musical phrase, and a masterpiece of art would be ruined.  So it is with more mundane applications of the Workmanship or Risk.  If you use the old definition of art is broadly speaking the exercise of human skill, then perhaps only by accepting risk will we have artful farms, shops, houses, and lives.

The conflict between Risk and Certainty can lead even deeper than how we live and work in the world but also has a bearing on our personal philosophy and habits of mind as well as our relationships with others.  Our idea of how things should be done, our ways of looking at the world are tools we use to make sense of the world, and like and tool can be partially understood by the Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty.  Even openmindedness can provide us with a certain sense of certainty by ensuring we will never take the risk of making an irrevocable decision (G.K. Chesterton once quipped that the purpose of an open mind was to be able to close it on something).  There are any number of political philosophies and ideologies that use “tools” to help place whole groups of people into convenient categories, turning people into products that can then be dealt with uniformly.  Anyone who has done a good deal of hand tool woodworking can tell you that even in the same species of wood, every piece of wood must be treated a little differently, and often two piece that look the same will respond to the tool in total different manner.  Furthermore there are times when the proper application of skill requires one to depart from the “accepted” methods and use one’s intuition and understanding to work with the tools and the wood in a completely unorthodox way.  One of the appeals of traditional woodworking is the fact that the methods used developed over the ages as a response to the uncertainty and variability of wood.  In our garden and orchard as well we see that Certainty is almost nowhere to be found, the growing plants and trees all require individual care, and do not generally respond well to attempts to impose our systems on them.  But then are also times when even the most harmonious systems and ways of growing do not work (plants that do not thrive, even when planted and fertilized”correctly”, trees that become damaged despite all the “correct” treatments) and it is only through the application of skill and close attention to this particular plant or tree, outside of all systems or ideologies, that finds the solution.