Glenn Adamson on Material Intelligence

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Peter's twin brother Glenn Adamson discusses the philosophical implications of craft.



Further Reading

• G. Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (New York: 2007).

• G. Adamson, The Craft Reader (London: 2010).

• G. Adamson, The Invention of Craft (London: 2013).

• G. Adamson, Fewer, Better Things: the Hidden Wisdom of Objects (London: 2018).


John Thomas on 11 August 2018

Scientia and Sapientia

Great podcast and both of you look similar and sounds similar too. I agree with what you said during the first part of the podcast. Craftsmanship is not traditionally considered part of philosophy in most dicussions. I guess, two different terms are used in Latin to differentiate it (I don't know if there are corresponding Greek terms for it): scientia and sapientia. Scientia involves all knowledge we derive from the workings of nature. All the knowledge and skills that various craftsmen possess seems to be included under scientia even though these craftsmen exhibit extreme creativity and skills to create their works of art. Sapientia involves all the higher knowledge and wisdom or as Aristotle puts it, knowledge of first principles. And traditionally philosophy was thought to involve this higher knowledge rather than natural knowledge. Just my own reflection about it.

In reply to by John Thomas

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2018

Scientia vs sapientia

Thanks for the comment! Just wanted to confirm that that distinction existed in Greek too: episteme (equivalent to scientia) and sophia (like sapientia).

Lanie on 12 August 2018

Glenn Adamson

I enjoyed this so much!

Dave Martin on 12 August 2018

Material Intelligence

Hi Peter and Glenn,

I loved the twin podcast.

It seemed to me that what you were talking about when you were talking about material intelligence is very related to some recent theories in neuropsychology (particularly the work of Mark Solms).  He posits that the consciousness (and the knowledge therein) is simply a debugging tool for auditing completed actions and creating workable automated programmes of action to be lodged and executed in the unconscious (equivalent to your material intelligence, it seems to me).  I can see a line of reasoning here that says human learning is split into two by the brain: that which teaches us to walk, run, play the piano, plane wood etc, which is pushed down as automated programmes stored in the unconscious memory for quick access and execution; and more conceptual models (bits of philosophy if you like to call them that) which are stored in the conscious memory and can be used for analysing future input, for instance, deciding whether the thing that looks like a camel is actually a camel, or a fancy designer table.

The status of the two types don’t necessarily have a greater or lesser merit, but one is part of the executive function of the brain, the other used as the reference frame for its perception and processing systems.

Dave M


In reply to by Dave Martin

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2018

Material Intelligence

It's Glenn responding here. Thank you for listening! That two level model of conscious and unconscious expertise is fascinating and does ring true. In this case we could understand the acquisition of a skill as a process of submersion of knowledge from the conscious level into the body. Very much what happens in real world training.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Dave Martin on 30 August 2018

Material Intelligence

Exactly right, Glenn.  I used to work in motion capture industry where some researchers, looking at humans gait, were beginning to look at whether the onset of dementia could be seen in changes in gait pattern.  It seems it can.  If you think about walking as being one of the most obvious skills that gets submerged into the body by that conscious learning process at a very early age, what appears to be happening in this change of gait is that little bits of the submerged unconscious ‘programming’ is beginnning to get broken.  Consequently what happens is the brain sends alarm signals and the conscious has to take over and correct the movement.  What you see in the gait patterns as a result are strange hesitations in the movement of limbs.  This is detectable, apparently, long before the usual symptoms present themselves.



Pat on 12 August 2018

Happy Birthday Twins !

Thank you Peter and Glenn. I enjoyed a different podcast to my regular medieval Islamic philosophers that I normally listen to...

Rhys Willam Roark on 12 August 2018

Craft / Material Intelligence

Hi Peter,

I really enjoyed the interview with your brother, Glenn (and happy b'day guys!).  First, I think I like your podcast even more hearing that your brother has an art history background--my intellectual start.  But I was intrigued by Glenn's comment about how material intelligence has become more and more specialized.   This is what I very much recognize with mental intelligence, both more broadly in the society and esp in the case of academia where this can get very narrowed in terms of knowledge of persons, events and period, encapsulated in the famous phrase "knowing more and more about less and less." 

My material intelligence doesn't extend to that of your grandfather--but I do like to cook, draw and paint.  But, my own interest in art history spurred me on to have a broad, interdisciplinary (or, generalist, if you will) background esp. as it relates to the humanities--so taking much interest in issues of philosophy and religion, and then too science, politics and economics and even more tangentially literature and music, as all spurred (though not always simultaneously) through my encounter with the history of art.  This was all the more true as some noted art historians of the earlier 20th century embodied this type of broad learning as a cosmopolitan and erudite value (Erwin Panofsky and his interest in Kant and the work of a Neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer come to mind and their art historical relevance--and the latter being one of my favorite 20th-century philosophers thanks to this exposure, himself very learned it seems)--and I've always admired this as a value and type of cultivation even if it doesn't seem to do much for you in academia, or even the larger society, given the seeming increase in anti-intellectualism in US culture.

And a shout out to on mentioning Plato and his use of craft metaphors / analogies--something I've always taken to heart, both in striving to be more philosophical or learned and more virtuous. 

Great episode!

Rhys William Roark (first name "rise"). OKC, OK.

In reply to by Rhys Willam Roark

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2018


Glenn responding here: thanks for your great comment! It's interesting that art history was one of the later disciplines to emerge and that so many of its leading practitioners had a firm basis in other fields. Arguably the field is opening up to that kind of intellectual breadth again after several decades of relative narrowness.

Peter adds: one difference between us is that Glenn can spell "practitioners" right on the first try.

Jim Young on 12 August 2018


Could it be that Descartes put his finger on the wrong part of the brain? This wonderful discussion of embodied intelligence suggests we might give a shoutout to the cerebellum (since it never speaks for itself).

Manuel on 13 August 2018


While your podcasts are already great, this one was an especially nice present to us listeners.

Thank you very much and happy birthday!


Esperanza on 13 August 2018

Yoga, Material Intelligence and Ethics


Thank you this episode, I found it very interesting. I am a professional historian and a dedicated yoga practitioner and a few thoughts came to mind as I listened to your discussion on Material intelligence. First, historians (or maybe more philosophers of history) often discuss the question of whether historical knowledge that is specific to a particular time, place or even person, can be considered knowledge if it cannot be abstracted and/ or seen as part of a larger trend/process/movement. This is not one of the most explicitly discussed questions in philosophy of history, however,  I feel it should be since we generally try to justify the value of historical knowledge by saying things such as "we learn from history" and this assumes that one can generalize from specific situations. On yoga, I was wondering about two things. First, at one point in the discussion, Glenn (I apologize for addressing him by his first name) spoke about how areas such as athletics can be analogous to craft. But that craft leaves something material behind. He used the specific example of someone playing basketball. Here it may be worth pointing out that when athletes, dancers and yoga practitioners perform they in fact produce material changes in their own bodies. Their craft has specific and quite tangible effects on their muscles, joints and other tissues. It is an interesting kind of craft because your tools and your materials are often the same. Sometimes you use the limbs (arms and legs) to affect certain joints (shoulder, hips, spinal joints). Other times, you use simple positioning to affect the muscles and tissue of the limbs. More importantly, it takes hours and more often years of practice to understand how these things happen. I teach yoga and it is amazing how difficult it is for beginners to even know what the position of their pelvis is, where their legs are in relationship to their head and shoulders, or how to move in particular spacial plains. So I believe that one can think of these activities as crafts that use the body both as tools and materials. It is also the case that Yoga, in particular, sees itself as a paradigm for ethical behaviour. The practice of asana and pranayama are the spaces in which one is supposed to learn and cultivate the yamas and nyamas, such a no harm, contentment, etc. Some of the sutras speak of yoga as the learning of "skilled action" which is meant to first recognize how patterns of movement or behaviour create karma, therefore suffering, and then how to change those patterns to cultivate skilled action. I am by no means an expert on yogic philosophy, but I do remember clearly that the practice of asana yoga is meant to teach us what it means to be kind to ourselves first, so we can be kind to others, and it is meant to do this through daily practice, through practical knowledge and experience rather than study. Thank you again for a great podcast alltogether and a super stimulating episode



In reply to by Esperanza

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2018


Thanks for the response! What you say about Yoga is very interesting - not sure if you listened to the episode on Yoga in the India series but there Jonardon and I made the point that it is the "practical" complement to Samkhya. Thus we could with some justice say that the Indian tradition was already alive to this idea that there is an embodied or applied dimension of philosophy or wisdom, as well as a more theoretical one.

Bill Schaffer on 16 August 2018

identity of indiscernibles (twins)

I think you should know that, at least in terms of vocal properties, your brother and yourself are quite discernible (his voice is slightly deeper, but you sound slightly more affable). Also, your jokes always work, without exception or qualification (what the world needs now is more giraffe and Keaton-based analogies). Finally, I was strongly reminded of certain passages in Deleuze when your sibling evoked the specific frictions encountered wihen working with materials (If I remember correctly Deleuze actualy talks about the singularity of wood grains in logic sense as a model of learning).

Thomas Mirus on 16 August 2018

Great episode! As an artist

Great episode! As an artist this sort of thing really interests me.

Sam on 18 August 2018

I want to know more about

I want to know more about virtue as a craft. Would that make religions guilds?

In reply to by Sam

Peter Adamson on 18 August 2018

Virtue as a craft

Well, this was only supposed to be an analogy: the idea being that virtuous people act well through habits that they might not be able to articulate fully or transmit just by linguistic instruction. The idea that you become virtuous by doing the right kind of actions struck me as similar to what Glenn was saying about craft. But it is only a rough comparison, and actually I think it would be complex or even problematic to apply the idea in a Judeo-Christian context, for instance.

Karl Young on 20 August 2018

Embodied Cognition

Happy birthday guys, great show. I was slightly surpirsed re. the discussion relating Glenn's work to more specific areas of philosophy, that no mention was made of the current work on embodied cognition, e.g. people like Andy Clark (lack of time or interest maybe ?). In any case that work seems pretty related; to parphrase (no doubt based on a misunderstanding of both Clark's and Glenn's work !) the piece of oak an individual is working on (and the tools one is using) might be considered part of that individuals cognitive apparatus. I'm even reminded of the Buddhist notion of no-self, if that is interpreted to mean emptiness (of independnet exstence) re. having no obvious suitable boundary with which to define a self. Though not a wood worker I like the idea of being part oak (though maybe less being part wrought iron...). I guess as a shakuhachi player I can live with being part bamboo...  

In reply to by Karl Young

Peter Adamson on 21 August 2018


Oh yes, that's a good connection - the extended mind and all that. I think that the connections between Clark's ideas and Buddhism are also interesting though of course there is a big difference between extending the boundaries of the self and denying that there is a self!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Karl Young on 21 August 2018


Well I'm probably being way too sloppy for a philosopher's tastes but it seems to me that failing to clearly identify what something is and what it isn't (e.g. inability to establish a boundary) is as good as denying it's existence (at least in the Buddhist sense) - or maybe I'm being a little too continental ? :-) I don't think any Buddhist ever treated someone they were talking to as some sort of illusion; it's just that when you go looking for what it is that constitutes that person you can't find it, ergo the, perhaps fatuous sounding, connection to everything (empty of independnet existence...).

It seems the old Zen yarn about Bodhidharma pacifying the 2nd patriarch's mind (i.e. showing that it "didn't exist" in my clumsy paraphrase) captures the spirit of what I'm mumbling on about... From the Gateless Gate:

'Bodhidharma sat facing the wall.

The Second Patriarch stood in the snow.

He cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma, crying, "My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you, master, please pacify my mind!"

"Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you," replied Bodhidharma.

"I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it," said the Second Patriarch.

"Now your mind is pacified," said Bodhidharma.'

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Karl Young on 21 August 2018

more boundaries

PS re. my last message; I didn't complete that thought very well. I meant to ackowledge that I was indeed suggesting an extendion of Clark's theme a little in assuming that once one extended the mind in that way that he suggests, that that leads to something like a regress, e.g. because one might also properly think of the rain and soil that nourished the oak tree, and the guys that made tools as part of the extended mind, and then the... 

Jonathan Z. on 27 August 2018

Craft of Music

The topic of music came up a few times in this podcast.  Once, in the context of learning to play piano as a techné; another in the context of symmetry, by which it was said that you wouldn't ordinarily speak of a Beethoven Symphony.  

I think that music composition can be thought of in both ways.  Bach, for example, considered himself a master craftsman, and might have thought of his pieces of music similarly to how a carpenter might view a completed table or chair.  Our modern idea of a composer expressing their emotions through their music is a legacy of the Romantic period, which has been anachronistically applied to the Baroque period.

Symmetry in music may be a little harder to describe, but there are many musical forms that composers allow themselves to be constrained into, the mastery of which demonstrates the craftsman's skill.  Of the musical forms which evoke symmetry, the fugue immediately comes to mind, along with sonata-allegro form, the Schubert song-cycles, and even 12-tone technique of the 20th century.  The Scriabin 5th Piano Sonata purposefully ends with the same motif as it begins, in order to express a circularity, or perhaps a progressing spiral.  

I bring this up to ask for your thoughts on craft in the context of music composition, and why it may be more commonly perceived less as a craft than some other more tangible arts such as painting, for example.

In reply to by Jonathan Z.

Glenn Adamson on 28 August 2018

Craft of Music

Thanks Jonathan for your comment. 

You are certainly right that a musical performance involves skill, and seems a strong parallel to other types of making in that it has both technical and aesthetic aspects. However I have always thought of craft as involvinga concrete object that can circulate after the act of ‘making’ has concluded. This has been vital in terms of craft history because of the effects on the commodity status of the creative result. The crafted object is often considered unique, in opposition to mass manufacture, and this has arguably been a dominant factor in cultural usages of hand making since the Arts and Crafts Movement, if not earlier. I do see there is a parallel with the idea of a performance vs. its reproductions (a vinyl album, MP3 download) but the particular issue here is that the craft object is incompatible with efficient replication. So the craftedness of the object to some extent 'resists' economic efficiency, in a way that doesn't really happen in music. There is an interesting coda to this recently, in that the introduction of free music services like Spotify have meant musicians need to derive more of their income from live perfomance. Again I see a parallel there with the idea of craft as an economic proposition involving the direct involvement of the maker. But also again, I think it's only a rough parallel and not the same situation.  

Nick Stavrou on 20 September 2018

Great podcast

Hello Peter and Glenn,

Great podcast and I really liked the idea that symmetric objects are to exhibit the skill of the technician! (One might say that the laws of physics have so many symmetries that reflect the skill of the creator. I know I am jumping language limits but hey it kind of makes sense though.)

Also you remind me of Heidegger and Merlau-Ponty which I can’t wait to hear. I do suspect that Heidegger says things that Plato ans Aristotle have already said but in a more complicated way. Howver the embodiedness of knowledge was somehow lost till these guys kind of brought it back. Not so much Heidegger but MP. 

I'm no expert but have you got any thoughts on that? Or Am I completely of the mark?

Thank you for all the podcasts,

Nick Stavrou, Melbourne Australia

David Ladensohn on 8 October 2018

Material intelligence


I have enjoyed every History of Philosophy podcast I have listened to.  And I find that this particular one is what I encourage people to seek out and listen to.



In reply to by David Ladensohn

Peter Adamson on 8 October 2018


Thanks very much! Glad you like the podcast; this particular episode has been so popular that I had better have Glenn back on at some point.

Nursen Topal on 7 June 2019

Bonus Episodes

It seems like the bonus episode about Craft with your brother doesn't work or has been removed. I wished I could have listened to it earlier. I like bonus episodes, although the main task is to complete the HoP.

Thank you for your work and for sharing (thanks to the sponsors too, if there are any)

Best regards,


In reply to by Nursen Topal

Peter Adamson on 8 June 2019

Bonus episode

Oh no, we didn't want to remove this - it was just a technical error, this has happened occasionally with other episodes. It seems to work now though. If hitting "play" doesn't work for you trying hitting the Download icon. If you still have trouble please let me know and I will upload the episode from scratch.

Nursen Topal on 9 June 2019

Bonus Episodes

OK. I not only managed to find the bonus episode again, this time I was able to open and download it. Very interesting. I had no difficulty to tell you both apart. 

In reply to by Nursen Topal

Peter Adamson on 9 June 2019

Twin voices

Ok good! Actually listening back to it myself I was surprised at how different our voices are. When I hear my voice recorded I think it sounds like him, but you can definitely tell the difference with the two voices side by side.

Patrick Webb on 28 September 2019

Philosophy of Craft

I'm a craftsman myself in the Arts & Crafts tradition and write extensively on Craft and Philosophy. This is perhaps the best explanation from an academic perspective on the subject I've yet to hear.

In reply to by Patrick Webb

Peter Adamson on 29 September 2019


Thanks! I'll pass that on to Glenn.

Speak Truthiness on 30 April 2020

Knowing How and Knowing That

New listener here.  Fascinating topic, I'm engaged in a field of applied research where there is some attempt to bridge these ways of knowing. Appreciated the comments on  episteme and (scientia) and sophia (sapientia) and on neurophyscology.  Does Gilbert Ryle's work have relevance here?

In reply to by Speak Truthiness

Emily on 30 April 2020

Friend of Mind: The Holon Truth

I wonder, might the ghost in the machine be the Holon Ghost?

Let's consult the Bard: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go."

Andrew Maclaren on 28 June 2022


First, has Glenn ever considered doing a podcast of his own? Would love to learn more about this stuff. Second, I wonder what his thoughts oh Marx would be, considering Marx does love to talk about labour and especially his view on praxis. Has Glenn wrote about this? If so, which book should I read?

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Glenn Adamson on 29 June 2022

Marx etc

Hi Andrew thanks for your question! I have thought about doing podcasts before - I actually started one when I was at the V&A but then left after just 13 episodes. I’ve written a bit about Marx here and there, at greatest length in my book The Invention of Craft. You also may be interested in an anthology I did called the Craft Reader which includes a text of Marx’s and related material.  

In reply to by Glenn Adamson

Andrew Maclaren on 29 June 2022

Sounds good. Will check…

Sounds good. Will check those books out.

Two more things quickly. One, are these good as introductory material to the topic, or would you recommend another book for that? Keep in mind that, other than this video, I have no real knowledge about this topic to draw upon. No knowledge about art really, and other than the stuff required in secondary school, I haven't had any technical experience. Two, have you written anywhere about phenomenology? I think exploring the phenomenology of crafting or the phenomenology of a crafted object as a crafted object would be very interesting.

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Glenn Adamson on 30 June 2022

The Craft Reader is…

The Craft Reader is definitely a good point of entry. If you’re looking for a more readable overview you might be interested in my latest book “Craft: An American History” though it only covers the USA. It’s meant to be a little less academic in tone. Regarding phenomenology (great question) I have not seen anything really pertinent - you may possibly be interested in Bill Brown’s “thing theory” and related questions of Object Oriented Ontology though those texts are only Craft adjacent I would say.

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