What use is philosophy to businesspeople?
Stepping into the mind-expanding world of thinkers and sages can help you get a sense of perspective on numerous business matters
There is an amusing story about Thales – regarded as the first philosopher in the Western tradition. According to Aristotle, “When [fellow Greeks] reproached him because of his poverty, as though philosophy were no use, it is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios – hiring them cheaply because no one bid against him.”
Aristotle added: “When the appropriate time came there was a sudden rush of requests for the presses; [Thales] then hired them out on his own terms and so made a large profit – thus demonstrating that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they wish… but that it is not in this that they are interested.”
It’s is a nice tale, which has comforted me during times when my online school, Pathways to Philosophy, went through patches of bad weather. It can get pretty cold outside the academy, if you want to make a living from academic philosophy. I managed to keep going by learning new tricks – how to market and advertise, how to tweak a business model, how to design a web page that looks professional. As it states on one of the Pathways web sites, “Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.”
But what can businesspeople learn from philosophers? Look again at the Thales story. It wasn’t philosophy – the art of reason – that gave Thales the advantage over his competitors, but his skills as an astronomer and meteorologist. At one time, all the sciences were known as “philosophy”, but I’m referring to what philosophers typically do today: analyse concepts, reason about reasoning, logically critique a theory and offer interpretations of cultural phenomena. The business arena is just one phenomenon that is ripe for interpretation.
I have tremendous admiration for businesspeople. All the virtues that Aristotle talked about in his ethics statements – such as courage, ambition, loyalty and patience – are required to be “good in business” in the wider sense – and I am not talking about short-term revenue generation, or this year’s bonus. The rewards of being a player in the business arena are more than just financial. That’s what Aristotle would have called “proper ambition”: money is just a symbol of success, telling people how much you are worth to your company.
Talking of bonuses, in 2006 – two years before the banking crisis – I wrote: The best thing a board can do for its company is to abolish the bonus system. So long as executives and managers have their eyes fixed on their yearly bonus, any attempt at developing a longer-term strategy is subverted and undermined. Find some other way to reward your people for their hard work and loyalty.”
I didn’t arrive at this insight by reasoning a priori. I was talking to business people, executives working at the coalface: people who cared deeply about the direction their companies were taking. The evil of the bonus problem was a topic I hadn’t thought about much before. But I could see the problem starkly, once it was brought to my attention. You shouldn’t be working for your yearly bonus. You should be working – doing the best you can for your company. If a company can’t get that message across, it is seriously damaging its long-term prospects.
Vision and values
So, why hasn’t the bonus system been abolished? Because companies and corporations are caught in a double-bind. They know that yearly bonuses distort the thinking of business executives so that they can see only in the short term, but they also have to compete for the best talent in a free employment market.
That is just one example of an urgent problem that companies need to address. There are other problems that you would have heard about, such as issues around equal opportunities and the resentment felt by talented women executives who feel they are trapped by the glass ceiling, or the question of whether CSR policy is anything more than a convenient fig leaf. I don’t like the way these issues are collapsed together under the label, “business ethics”, because it is much more than that. It is about what a company and the individuals who work for it need – not just to survive, but to thrive and express their full potential. Ultimately, it is about the quality and value of all our lives.
How can a philosopher help? Or, how can it help to study philosophy? I’ve read articles which talk up the philosopher’s special skills of analysis and logical rigour – but to me, that’s just a smokescreen. Logic belongs to everyone, not just philosophers. Philosophy is subversive. It makes you see things differently. That’s its secret genius. What philosophy offers businesspeople is a greater breadth of vision. More than anything else, what limits the potential of a business – or an individual player in the business arena – is lack of vision. It is your ability to imagine possible scenarios and their consequences, and see connections where others see only differences, that gives you the vital edge.
As Aristotle noted wryly, the problem with philosophers such as Thales is their general disdain for money. The thrills and rewards of delving ever deeper into the ultimate questions – “the meaning of life, the universe and everything” – tend to dull one's taste for material possessions and rewards.
Which is why my best advice to businesspeople would be to get some philosophy – learn about ethics, logic, methodology. But don’t get lost in it. Keep your sense of realism and proportion. The aim should be to widen your vision, make you a more flexible and imaginative thinker, and not to undermine those instincts that enable you to fight and compete in the business arena.
Geoffrey Klempner is founder of Pathways to Philosophy.