Philosophy’s Place in Business

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Lovers of philosophy are often at pains to defend its relevance.

By “relevance” I have in mind something like “utility for a thriving career in the capitalistic marketplace.” It’s a narrow conception of relevance, for sure. The first draw of philosophy (for me at least) has always been deeply personal — the calm of clarity and perspective, the pleasure of elegant logic, the edification of edgy principles.

But those things are generally not in question. Rather, philosophy’s contested relevance seems to arise from a couple related facts: the best chance most people have to study philosophy is at university, and most people attend universities these days to improve their career prospects. From these facts, the question naturally arises as to whether philosophy can really do anything for your career. (Arguably, a similar question arises for every humanities discipline, but I just focus on philosophy here for simplicity.)

An affirmative answer is hard to muster. Rightly or wrongly, the unemployed humanities major has become something of a cultural meme, fueling snide remarks such as this typically philistine gem from Marco Rubio, “the market for Greek philosophy has been very tight for 2,000 years.”

One can always appeal to philosophy’s inherent value, but that rings of equal parts callousness and capitulation — callousness in how it ignores the economic anxieties that plague many students; capitulation in that enrollments really are declining and public officials contemplate funding cuts.

Better to tackle the problem head on. Philosophy has often had an embattled position requiring some defense. Just ask Socrates, or the Romans who tried to import philosophy from Greece. It has hung around so long in part because its practitioners have risen to the occasion.

How not to defend philosophy

It’s hard to do this well.

Back when I was teaching undergraduates, I had my own smart-alecky approach by starting every course with a quote from the philosopher William James: “the most practical and important thing about a person is their view of the universe.” So, I would follow, if your parents give you a hard time for studying philosophy instead of something like computer science or accounting, just tell them that they weren’t practical enough for you.

(I always managed to get some laughs, but doubt I convinced anyone.)

More serious-minded defenders often fixate on the idea of transferable skills, the sorts of things employers look for when hiring. Browse the website of just about any humanities department, and you’ll find encomia to their field’s ability to turn students into better communicators, more adept researchers, perhaps even more principled leaders.

I suspect that people say these kinds of things because they feel they must. And that they die a little each time they do. This kind of defense reduces philosophy to what Gianpiero Petriglieri has called “a more poetic productivity hack,” void of the very substance that might lead us to love and be improved by it.

Never mind the wrong of reduction. Philosophers don’t even live up to these hacks, at least not without some effort. In communication, we can be long-winded, elliptical, and obscure — an awkward fit with the lapidary bullet points of business. In research, we tend to push for exhaustiveness and exactitude — when business may just need an impressionistic, “80/20” solution. As for principled leaders — need I point out that even ethicists are subject to personal failings?

I write with some conviction here as a humanities Ph.D. who left academia and found my way into strategy roles within large corporations. Philosophy doesn’t have much place at all in business, not in the manner of directly transferable skills. Acknowledging this need not mean giving up on a defense, however. It just means we need a subtler approach.

How philosophy can find a place

Indirect value

A fundamental problem with the entire conversation about philosophy’s place in business is that it trades on an anemic concept of practical value.

This concept has room only for direct applicability. According to this concept, unless your job will require you to articulate the importance of synthetic a priori judgments, say, or the relative merits of moral realism versus expressivism, studying them is an imprudent waste of your time, and a waste of resources for any funder supporting you in the pursuit.

The trouble here is that practical value also comes through indirect means, often through pursuits that can seem like a waste of time. Businesses — good ones at least, those that invest for their future — actually appreciate this fact.

In management theory, there’s a familiar concept of “the ambidextrous organization,” which balances between two types of activities, “exploitation” and “exploration”. (It would be like certain management theorists to use “exploitation” unironically in the context of capitalistic pursuit. One could preserve both the intended meaning and alliteration just as well with “execution,” which I will do here.)

Execution is a matter of implementing processes that, if performed well, will help your business to flourish in the marketplace of today. You generally know what you need to do. The challenge is just in doing it, over and over, with greater and greater refinement. Exploration is a matter of searching out the markets of tomorrow. For those markets, you have no idea what it will take to succeed. So you have to try lots of things, many of which will fail.

From the vantage of execution, which prizes direct applicability, exploration is a complete waste of time. But the process has indirect value. Without it, a business may miss changes in the market that render the over-optimized models of today irrelevant. (A common example of this is Kodak, which missed the move to digital photography in its fixation on analog.) You don’t know what exploratory investment will be important for your future, but you do it anyway in order to stay nimble and innovative.

I offer this background to prepare you for what may otherwise seem a ridiculous claim: Studying “useless” subjects like philosophy can support businesses’ work of innovation.

Now I do not mean to suggest that understanding Kant’s third Critique or something like that will offer a clue for the markets of tomorrow. It’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t count on it. What I mean instead is that studying allegedly useless subjects like philosophy and then going into business better disposes you to engage in the exploratory mode.

To see why, follow me for a moment in imagination.

You’re entering a conference room in the corner of some glassy office building for the first time. Somehow you convinced your colleagues that hiring a philosophy graduate would be a good idea. (Perhaps you had dalliances with sophistry and rhetoric.) But you both feel and look out of place, having mistakenly assumed that tweed would be a style for all occasions. As you observe the meeting — not yet daring to participate — you notice a thicket of new words and concepts that seem to emerge from deeper paradigms that are equally new, even strange. You write them down so that you remember to look them up later, wishing that you’d studied anthropology instead and performed fieldwork in some distant place, perhaps an island nation. That, you suppose, would have provided real preparation for decoding what’s going on here.

Just as your reverie begins to drift off further and take shape around some fire ritual on a beach, infused with a beautiful song you can barely discern, someone snaps you back into the moment by turning to you and saying, “I know you’re new here, but would love to get your perspective. What do you think about these performance issues?”

Something important happens when you try to respond. You try to use many of the same words you’d just been hearing, but because they’re still so new, you have no attachment to their particular histories and twist them in unexpected, embarrassing ways. That will be because even though you use those words, underneath them the thoughts you formulate will be initially driven by the paradigms you’re more familiar with — creating, in effect, an attempt at translation, building an intellectual bridge between two worlds.

Those fumbling attempts at legitimate participation become less awkward with time and practice, but even then, the basic process of translation remains. Having drunk deeply of something as foreign to this domain as philosophy, it will be a long time before you become fully acculturated, if you ever do.

That growing facility with translation enables a couple important activities for the exploratory mode.

First, it allows you to see the business world as a participating outsider — familiar enough to understand how the parts fit together but unfamiliar enough to take none of them for granted. That perspective enables you to think in radical leaps beyond the status quo, not just the incremental tweaks that trap businesses in their present models.

Second, facility with translation enables you to make a wider array of creative connections between domains. Once you figure out how to relate your own strange background to your current work, you may find yourself unintentionally making other connections as well. Most of those connections may be idle curiosities, but some may be transformative. (Consider the example of Steve Jobs dabbling with calligraphy.)

If all of this is true — that businesses need innovation to survive, and studying ostensibly useless things like philosophy develops a mindset that can contribute to innovation — we’re ready for another claim that may otherwise seem ridiculous:

Anyone who spurns philosophy in the name of marketplace skills is actually a terrible capitalist.

Less indirect value

The argument I’ve made thus far could apply to any out-place-discipline, not just philosophy. Indeed, I hope it can support other disciplines in developing fresh defenses amid what is becoming an even more embattled position through the pandemic and its economic fallout.

But more can be said about philosophy in particular. Without going so far as to claim some magical repository of transferable skills for business, we can build on the experience of translation to identify a slightly less indirect path for philosophy to contribute: in its spirit of critique.

Whatever else philosophy may be, it is an insistence on reasons. It is a practice of asking “why,” over and over, until it exposes our most fundamental assumptions, and then asks again, pushing us to account even for them. Philosophers will bicker over what may count as satisfying answers. But all agree that the standards for satisfaction are significantly higher than those of everyday discourse. The reasons we give must be good ones, connected with sound logic to boot.

This spirit of critique could show up to the benefit of business in a couple ways.

The first, and most basic, is an elevation of good sense. While many areas of business require specialized knowledge (accounting, say), often the most crucial thing is sound practical reasoning.

To build a “business case” for some initiative or other is just to construct an argument about ends worth pursuing and the best means to reach them. That’s it. Of course, being persuasive requires some familiarity with the range of ends and means that may strike your audience as live options (not to mention leavening your argument with some quantitative analysis for backup). But I have been pleasantly surprised at how simply following a chain of sound reasoning can lead to conclusions that colleagues with more traditional business backgrounds will support. Additionally, in constructing such arguments, it can help to bring a philosopher’s skepticism about what we know and how we know it, given the pervasive uncertainty and change one finds in business. Any good strategist should be at least an amateur epistemologist.

I stop short of calling this a transferable skill largely because the practical reasoning in play in business will, to anyone with a philosophical bent, feel somewhat clipped. Because of the need that business people feel (often justifiably) to make decisions and move, the standards of sufficient reason are generally lower than what philosophers would accept, and to go on insisting will just get you dismissed as an ornery pain in the ass.

But this points to a second way philosophy may show up beneficially in its spirit of critique: by throwing even the most fundamental assumptions of business into question and introducing radical alternatives.

I suggested something like this already in how translation leads to creative possibilities by taking nothing for granted, but a philosophical state of mind may amplify that into a matter of practice. You may survey whole PowerPoint decks full of internally consistent means-ends arguments and cast them away as so much garbage because the ends for which they optimize are ill conceived. Better to start fresh, you may say, with first principles about what a business could be and pursue.

Many business people would actually recognize such reflections when framed in the language of “vision.” And strangely enough, they may find them timely.

Buffeted by a thunderous array of forces — the pandemic certainly, but also social and political unrest, climate change, disruptive new technologies and competitors — few businesses can afford to go on, happy in their ignorance, with the straightforward execution that may have worked in the past. These forces create a special kind of fog around the future. And leaders are having to navigate into it without so much as a dowsing rod.

Signs indicate a tremendous rethink already underway. The Business Roundtable, a club of CEOs, made a splash when 181 leaders signed onto a statement declaring businesses’ scope to include all “stakeholders,” not just “shareholders.” (A couple years before that statement, when first getting into business, I recall proposing something similar at a cocktail party only to be waved off as “too philosophical.”) And leading scholars, such as Rebecca Henderson of Harvard Business School, are taking that approach further by developing rigorous proposals for “reimagining capitalism.”

But all of this is just a start, like the first nicks in the drywall in a major renovation. Philosophically-minded, critical participants within the sphere of business may, with their outsiders’ perspective, help to realize the potential of the moment and advance further ways of thinking that avoid the merely cosmetic tweaks of incrementalism.

What this means

As a businessperson now, I typically trade in short, practical recommendations, and that feels like an apt way of reflecting on potential implications of this line of thinking.

For students: Study whatever you want — provided that you prepare to do translation in proportion to your field’s “out-of-placeness.” Give philosophy and its ilk a closer look. Admittedly, the kinds of contributions I outlined above are most applicable at levels more senior than your first few jobs will be, but it may be challenging ever to do that if you begin by brutalizing your spirit with courses you’d rather not take in business administration.

For businesses: Hire graduates from all fields. In fact, prioritize filling your ranks with at least some people who have oddball backgrounds. Stop posting job ads that require degrees in things like finance and economics when the job could be done by any intelligent person with a knack for ongoing learning.

For academics: Rethink your sales pitch. Support translation between domains, but be circumspect about tacking on “applied” to your field in pursuit of more direct relevance. Recognize that some of the most creative connections can happen after people simply immerse themselves in a subject with abandon.

For the haters taking potshots at the humanities: Just stop. Seriously. If you take issue with funding “useless” pursuits, consider the example of successful businesses that invest in innovation. (Arguably, the current price tag of higher education and corresponding debt load for many students could push head scratching for many more practical fields as well — making for a different conversation for a different time.)

And if you can get your head around innovation investment, maybe we can come back to talking about the inherent value of fostering the human spirit.

Essayist. Erstwhile academic turned business strategist.

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