Monday, November 15, 2010

What is manufacturing?

In a previous post, I raised the question of the difference between manufacturing and growth, and we've been kicking that question around a bit in comments. As a first step toward answering that question—and in response to one of Neal's questions in comments—here's a quick post on what manufacturing is, and how it works.

Consider again the desk that I was using as an example in my previous post. Having already learned what it's made of, we now want to know how it was made.

The building of a desk begins with a design, a plan in the builder’s head or on paper that specifies what the final product will look like. Because the desk will be made from many parts, the plan must indicate the shape and dimensions of each part, and how these parts will fit together. Next, the builder must decide what materials each part will be made of. Having chosen oak, the desk-maker obtains some large pieces of wood cut from the trunk of an oak tree. She then cuts and shapes this wood into the various forms of the parts laid out in her plan. Once these parts have been shaped to the plan’s specifications, they can be assembled and fastened together to form the final product.

We can divide the making of the desk into three stages:
1. Formulation of the plan or design.
2. Shaping of parts from raw materials.
3. Assembly of these parts into the final product.

Some questions for discussion:
What kind of a being does this manufacturing process produce? Or to put this another way, what is the desk's way of being?

How is the desk as a whole related to the parts from which it was made? What kind of whole is the desk, and what sort of parts does it have?

1 comment:

Neal said...

Thanks Noah. That is a helpful clarification. It seems, then, that the distinction you are after is that manufactured items are purposively or teleologically constructed, whereas living things aren't. There are some nits to be picked about the way in which you divide up the three parts of the manufacturing process (why is there no role for communicating the telos between or within the stages, for example), but that can be left for later, perhaps. Using your definition, let's tackle the questions you discuss.

It seems like the desk's "mode of being" is fundamentally static--it cannot change based on internal principles, but all changes that accrue to it are externally imposed. This is clearly the difference b/w it and living things. But this difference, I would contend, does not affect the understanding of the whole-part relationship that exists between them: as a (completed) desk, the relationship between the desk and, say, its nails, is no different, it seems to me, then the relationship between me and my cells.

There is, of course, a difference in how those parts came to be in a relationship with that whole (via an external principle, in manufactured items, and via an internal or generative principle in living things), but that is a genetic or temporal issue that cannot be fairly posed of the desk, qua static being. When it is being put together, there is a physical relationship between the nails and the wood, say, but only an ideal one between the nails and the desk, since, during its construction, the desk, properly speaking, the relationship between the nails and the desk is only ideal, as the desk exists only ideally, i.e., in the mind of the creator. One could say, in this sense, that the relationship is symbolic, in that the nails take their proper meaning only in reference to the desk that they will eventually help constitute, but this is only partially true, as the nails can, of course, be understood fully well as what they are apart from the desk. This two-fold relationship (i.e., the desk and nails as things in themselves, with their own meanings, and as things for each other, with dependent meanings) seems no less true of my relationship with my cells.

In sum, it seems to me that the difference between manufactured and living things is not marked by a distinction in the whole-part relationship, but rather in a different different mode of being.
Here, however, I think there's a problem with thinking of the desk as static as opposed to the genetic existence of living things. I think the problem arises in large part from the way we have defined "manufactured", but that requires a post of its own, that I will get back to later if people are interested.