Work as an Open Concept
While I was finishing an article for Quartz at Work on the right to work, I saw more clearly than I had before how different authors were drawing on different concepts of work.
I’ve come to think that work is a family resemblance (or open) concept. A twentieth century philosopher named Ludvig Wittgenstein is given credit for showing, in his book Philosophical Investigations, that not all concepts can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. That is, not every concept can be defined in such a way that it allows us to pick out only instances of that thing while excluding what it is not.
The famous example he used to illustrate his point was games. If we take any set (e.g., baseball, poker, chess, and charades), we could find properties that they all have (e.g., “following rules,” “trying to win”), yet those properties would also apply to other things (such as warfare, which we don’t take to be a game). And so, Wittgenstein recommended that we simply try to get good at seeing vivid examples of the concept in question, training our attention that way. (Some art theorists have also argued for a family resemblance approach to understanding what art is.)
My hunch is that we’ll not be able to pin down some closed concept of work either. What I’d like to do instead, then, is to simply begin examining a few ways in which we speak about work below.
I’ll write just about six senses in which we use the concept of work below. I have no doubt that there are many others.
1. Work is how we survive. This is my own view, which combines a doctrine of sufficiency with doctrines of abundance and maintenance. I think that it’s a good start but also that it doesn’t get at all the ways in which work is spoken about. Helpful, then, as a starting point but not sufficient.
- The Doctrine of Sufficiency.– To work just is to apply deliberate, concerted efforts in order to meet one’s material needs as well as those of your dependents.
- The Doctrine of Abundance.– To work, in this sense, is to do whatever needs to be done to store up supplies with the aim of meeting one’s future material needs as well as those of your dependents.
- The Doctrine of Maintenance.– To work, in this sense, is to maintain or repair what belongs to us or the infrastructure we rely upon.
Work is an instrument for survive. (Cf. the “Catholic view”
I wrote about.)
2. Work is effort. One t-shirt carries this message: “Don’t wish for it, work for it.” The implicit understanding is that work is identical with effort. This is a mistaken conception carried into modern culture, one I think we should jettison. When I climb, I put in a lot of effort but I’m not working. Indeed, many forms of play require effort but are not work. And meditation requires a great deal of effort–“right effort,” according to Buddhists–but meditation is not work. So, while work requires effort, work isn’t effort.
3. Work is poesis. Work is any kind of creative making or creative manifestation. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I incline to the conclusion that we should drive a wedge between making and work. Indeed, I would say that creation is a gift (one kind of object), but that creation can thereafter be transformed into a different kind of object (a commodity), which can be bought and sold in the marketplace. I believe that the purity of creation, the bodying forth of idea in form, should perhaps (I mean perhaps) be hived off from working and production.
Working on nature [for Marx] alters not only the natural world, but also the labourer himself. Marx frequently reinforced this idea, as in the following quote from Capital: ‘By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.’ Thus labour is a dynamic process through which the labourer shapes and moulds the world he lives in and stimulates himself to create and innovate. Marx called our capacity for conscious labour our ‘species being’.
Work is not only shaping the world but reshaping the agent. Work is “transformation, development, and change” (a quote from Marx). I’m not sure how I feel about this one yet.
5. Work is a burdensome duty akin to slavery. This one may be less about what work is and more about our attitude toward work (for the ancient Greeks, for instance, work was ignoble, slavish, and contemptible), but I think it reasonable to put it here for now. (See sense 6 below.)
6. Work just is gainful employment. This is the one I’m trying to call into question. Listen often enough and you hear this identity implicit in what many people say. In my right to work article, I tried to point out that indigenous peoples have worked (they worked the land) without being gainfully employed in the work society.
“Are you working?” means: “Are you gainfully employed?” As usual, Taleb overstates his case while making a good point (HT Paul Millerd). Here’s Taleb during a recent interview:
Because we have a more complex system than need more [?]. An employee is practically a slave. I mean, you think about it in these terms. Right? He can’t say what he thinks–he’d get fired. He can[?] go on Twitter and curse at someone else. There are a lot of things he can[?] do. But it’s not there that they’re a slave, because they have to show up and give you their time, 9-5, or 9-6, or sometimes 8-10, 10 at night. So, they have to give you so much, and they are scared. With a slave, in Roman times, of course they have downsides–they could be beaten, they could be crucified–
He goes on:
But a slave at a time–if you damage a slave, you can’t sell them, so you lose market value. And with an employee, it’s not the same. So it’s quite–I haven’t written much about it in Skin In the Game, of course, there are so many other topics. But I’m certain that we have more people who are independent today than we did in Roman times.
A more moderate, reasonable version of Taleb’s argument would be that wage labor is, in some respects, akin to slavery. I think that’s right. I’m just not persuaded that gainful employment should be lauded; in fact, I find it bizarre how often it is lauded today.
Is the Sacrifice of Gainful Employment Worth it?
Gainful employment is at least a sacrifice, if not a Faustian bargain, and it neglects entirely Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a good society, one in which citizens owned their own small businesses and thus had also secured their freedom. For many in the work society, gainful employment may be an economic necessity (see the first sense about work as survival). Still, what does it feel like to have to report to bosses and managers? See how that feels each day.
Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <email@example.com>.