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The Business Philosopher

I was not the most diligent of students first time around. The pleasures of a vibrant social life seemed much more interesting. But I ploughed my way through 4 years of a double honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and Economics. Like many graduates, I have never practiced my academic disciplines. I have never worked as an engineer or an economist, and much of what I learnt has been discarded to the dim recesses at the back of my mind. I can at least say I had a brilliant time at university. 

Roll forward about 20 years. I have had a reasonably successful career in industry, variously as a manager, a consultant and running my own business. The temptation rose to do an MBA. It was never a strong or deep temptation, but it was there. At least it made me do a little research. The research confirmed to me that the last thing I wanted to do was an MBA. (That’s no criticism of MBAs, just it was not for me). What I learnt about myself was that I did have an academic hunger, but one that was completely unrelated to my work. I wanted to study something for sheer intellectual pleasure. 

For years I had dabbled in reading philosophy, mostly at the shallow end of the range - popular explanations with fascinating snippets and nice quotes. They were interesting enough to intrigue me further and what with one thing and another, I formed the idea of doing a philosophy degree.  And I have done. I should graduate in 2014 with a BA in philosophy from Birkbeck College, London University. 

For me the experience of studying philosophy has been profound. Like, I suspect, most people who end up studying it, I had no real understanding of what philosophy was or entailed before I started to study it formally. Additionally, again I suspect like most people, I thought of it as a purely intellectual pleasure. Instead, I found a subject that provides a road to practical wisdom.  

There are many complex, obscure and for most people irrelevant debates in philosophy. However, I have found insights which are worth sharing – and which have real relevance to the every-day work of business and management. There are many aspects of business and management we take for granted, which need to be challenged.  

There are professional philosophers, mostly academics, whose daily life is made up of philosophy. But philosophy is an egalitarian subject, and anyone who is willing to do some thinking and enter debate on subjects of interest is to some extent a philosopher. Anyone interested in business, management, leadership, and organisations can be a business philosopher. 

 

What is philosophy?

What is philosophy? This is a question that could take up a lot more words than are in this article, and I am not sure I am qualified to answer it. There have been many attempts at definitions, not all of which are consistent. It is safe to say I am not going to give an exhaustive definition in a few paragraphs, but I will try to give a sense of the meaning.

The word ‘philosophy’ is used in a number of ways. There is the casual use, in which we might ask an acquaintance “what’s your philosophy”, but which we really mean something like “what are your guiding principles” or even “what are you trying to achieve”. When the word ‘philosophy’ is used in business, generally, it is in this casual way. There is the way the term is used by Eastern philosophers, were the boundary between religious belief and philosophy is not so clear cut. Here philosophy means something roughly like “how should you live your life”. I have been educated in what might be referred to as ‘western analytical philosophy’, as seems most typically to be on offer in UK and US academic institutions. That has a meaning not unrelated to the casual or Eastern use of the word, but its meaning is far from synonymous with those uses of the word.

Instead of giving a definition, I am going to look at philosophy from a number of angles, and I hope by that to give you a sufficient picture of what it is. Those angles are history, the questions it seeks answers to, and the tools it provides. 

The history of philosophy stretches way back into the past. The first records of western philosophy arise in Asia Minor from the 6th century BC with thinkers like Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Heraclitus. The origin of the word philosophy arises from the Greek word for wisdom, with philosophers being lovers of wisdom. I suspect the origins of philosophy lie in people stepping back from day-to-day concerns and asking the remarkably simple and powerful question “why?” 

Being a lover of wisdom sounds laudable, but in our age of hyper specialisation, it also sounds unacceptably vague. Employment prospects are not bright for the individual with a resume titled ‘lover of wisdom’. Yet whilst philosophy may have started as a catch-all, it is now specialised. One feature of the history of philosophy is a long slow process of becoming more and more specialised. 

Go back far enough and pretty much everything could have been included in philosophy. The earliest philosophers, such as Pythagoras, seemed happy to combine mysticism and exploring numbers with philosophy. Over time subjects like mathematics and theology have separated themselves out. Roll forward a few hundred years and you get to Plato and then Aristotle. Aristotle was as much a scientist as a philosopher. Science gradually extricated itself from being considered a branch of philosophy, but even in the time of Descartes and Newton science and philosophy were still close bedfellows. Each man contributed to science and philosophy, and probably thought of themselves as both scientists and philosophers, if they actually differentiated between the two.  Science gradually worked its way free through the 17th and 18th centuries, (although even in the modern era some scientists are prone to making philosophical pronouncements). More recently subjects like psychology and sociology have become independent and left their origins in philosophy behind. 

A cynic might view philosophy as the empty shell left when all the recognised and useful disciplines are removed. In reality, there is plenty of substance left in the philosophical house even though all the other disciplines have set up home in their own grand palaces.

A more positive way to consider philosophy starts by thinking of it in terms of the questions it asks. Much of philosophy is about determining the right questions to ask. It is concerned with finding out how we justify what we believe to be true (and what being true means). It asks very general questions like: what is there, how do we know, what should we do, what are the arguments for one position versus another and so on. 

These may sound like too broad questions to take one very far, but if you study philosophy you rapidly find out that such questions can take you quickly into deep intellectual waters. Soon you find the underlying arguments and assumptions on which any belief is based. It is these that philosophy exposes and subjects to scrutiny.

Modern philosophy builds from a set of central philosophical disciplines. Even here, various philosophers have differing views of what that central set is. My view is fairly mainstream, holding that the central aspects of philosophy are:

Epistemology – the study of how we know what we know (and if we really know it)

•Metaphysics  – the study of what there is

•Logic – the study of reasoning and the search for valid reasons

•Ethics – the study of how should we lead our lives

Although these topics as are presented and taught separately, they interact and overlap. For example, theories of logic can directly interrelate to metaphysics and what we believe exists. Another example is with ethics. Ethical views can be analysed from:

A logical viewpoint: e.g. what are the ethical arguments and are they valid?

•An epistemological perspective: e.g. how do we know the ethics claims we make are true and is it appropriate to think of ethics in terms of truth?

•A metaphysical standpoint: e.g. when we talk about morals what is the nature of a moral property; in what way does it exist, if it exists at all? 

In a similar fashion, from these building blocks you can develop a philosophical analysis of pretty much anything. Hence, whilst science may have departed the philosophical fold, there is a rich discipline in the philosophy of science. Any subject can be explored from a philosophical viewpoint and you will find topics like philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of art, philosophy of law, political philosophy, philosophy of religion and philosophy of history. There is even philosophy of philosophy.

 

... and how does this relate to business?

One thing philosophers have generally been uninterested in is the world of commerce. I am not suggesting no one has ever looked at business from a philosophical viewpoint. It is mentioned by ancient philosophers like Socrates, although mostly in a disparaging fashion. In a more positive light, Adam Smith writing about business in the 18th century was as much philosopher as economist. There are studies in the philosophy of social science which can encompass philosophy of business. There are a small number of serious philosophers who study and comment on business, but their impact on the thinking of people in business seems limited. Generally, philosophy has not concerned itself too much with business and management.

A good way to think about philosophy is somewhat akin to the way we can think about arithmetic. When you learn arithmetic at school you may learn certain facts, such as the times tables. But learning arithmetic is less concerned with learning facts, and more with learning how to use a vital tool. Through arithmetic you do not memorise all the calculations you may come across, but learn a technique that can be applied to every calculation to give you the right answer. This is how I think about philosophy. You may learn facts through studying philosophy, such as what Plato wrote in The Republic. What makes it more interesting and powerful is the approach to understanding, analysing and critiquing aspects of the world and our beliefs about them. 

Business, management, leadership and organisations are parts of this world, and fields which we have many beliefs about. They can all be analysed, understood and critiqued from a philosophical perspective. A business philosopher searches for and questions the principles used and assumptions made in business and then analyses what right we have to make those assumptions and the grounds for those principles. A business philosopher does not accept the givens of business thinking, but questions and scrutinizes them.

And  that seems a good thing to do.

 

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