Philosophy of Work

Project Leader: Jeffrey Hanson 

The Philosophy of Work project seeks to organize the first comprehensive history of Western philosophical attitudes about work. It begins with an exploration of the birthplace of Western philosophy, the world of ancient Greece. We discover at the origin of Western philosophy an effort on the part of inaugural thinkers like Plato and Aristotle to defend a new conception of a worthwhile form of intellectual work, the project of theoretical speculation. The Philosophy of Work project will reveal that the advance of theoretical speculation came at the expense of the suppression of forms of inventive and engineering work that early philosophers did in fact pursue and in which they won significant renown. Disentangling the cultural and ascendant philosophical attitudes toward different types of work will be of paramount importance, as philosophical rhetoric drew on commonplace negative attitudes toward certain kinds of work, while other forms of work were prized or at least matters of little academic interest.

Plato and Aristotle advocated a new practice of theory in preference to the political careers pursued by the traditional aristocratic families of Athens, a project that required them to justify their form of life. They did so by both drawing on attitudes toward various arts and crafts and introducing new ways of thinking about technical and practical pursuits. The extent of their success can be measured by the durability of their critiques.

Careful attention to the texts will show that Plato and Aristotle reached divergent conclusions about work, and both had varying degrees of appreciation for a range of different sorts of labor. Nevertheless, the West’s cultural negativity toward physical labor of various sorts remains influential to this day by contrast to leisured intellectual exertion. The worthiness of technical work was not appreciated anew until the rise of monastic communities, in particular the Rule of St. Benedict, which enjoined physical work as an essential element in a life of the highest potential spiritual fulfillment. For Martin Luther as a leader of the Continental Reformation, the life of work was not to be disparaged, by contrast to what he regarded as the decadent corruption of medieval clericalism, which had forsaken the spiritual austerity of pioneers like Benedict.

Another turning point in the history of the philosophy of work was established by the seminal work of Karl Marx, in whose thought work was perhaps for the first time addressed in a thematic and comprehensive manner and additionally took into account the new reality of work in modern industrial Europe. The twentieth century saw a proliferation of direct philosophical engagements with the reality of work, from thinkers as divergent in priorities and interests as Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Michel Henry, and Emmanuel Levinas, though even in our own day it could be argued that work, which dominates so much of human life, has still never received the quantity and quality of philosophical attention that it richly deserves.

The Philosophy of Work project seeks to rectify that failing by providing a historical framework for re-energizing potential future reflections on the meaning of work for human flourishing. The project will also furnish rich questions for social science investigation, thereby relating a variety of philosophical possibilities to existing and future empirical research in the Social Science of Work project.