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Thinking Management Philosophically


Books on philosophy and management have proliferated in recent years, but with very different aims and perspectives. Philosophy books tend to be consumed in search of eternal truths that reflect the human condition through time. Popular management books, on the other hand, tend to trumpet the latest fad or quick-fix for today's problems. Like much of modern management practice, they are geared to generating short-term returns rather than capturing and contributing to long-term value.

But an understanding of philosophy and key historical events can help us to challenge current business orthodoxies while playing a crucial part in management education and the development of business leaders. The richness of our past experiences and different lenses of perception can help to inform the sort of economy and society that more liberally-minded people aspire to at a time in history where it is clear that the old frameworks and ways of doing things are proving increasingly dysfunctional.

One of the best-received recent books on philosophy is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, which demonstrates the value of philosophy to today's challenges by imagining Plato reborn into the 21st century, visiting Google's Mountain View headquarters and engaging in debates about the nature of wisdom in an age of crowd-sourcing. Plato is won over by the wonder of the worldwide web and avidly engages in googling, but he resists the Sirens' call to confuse information with knowledge.

Plato is a suitable, perhaps necessary, point of reference not just for philosophy or the arts and humanities, but also for management. Western thought stretches back to Plato and ancient Greece in terms of the debates that were first discussed then, both in terms of the language and the ideas which have framed subsequent discussion. For example, the origins of terms that dominate so many of today's debates about almost everything - "economy" and "economics" - derive from the Greek oikonomia.

But in appropriating the term "economy" we have misappropriated its meaning and deprived it of its richness. Thinking about it in a historical perspective reminds us that in ancient Greece the word meant household (oikos) management. Thus the concept of "economy" was integrally linked to the broader life of the society. By reducing our notions of it to the simple dynamics of monetary exchange and marketplace, we have forgotten that "economy" was originally conceived of in social terms as a collaborative enterprise rather than a commodity exchange.

The Greeks, as exemplified by Aristotle, were critical of market exchange as a distortion of social relations and damaging, if pursued to excess, to civic virtue. For example, market exchange, when it became an increasing focus of social life, created the danger of reducing the householder's commitment to hospitality and concern for others. It risked introducing a self-serving calculus of cost-benefit defined narrowly in abstract terms of profit which could deteriorate even further into a tendency to usury. Trading "purely" for profits was actively discouraged because it was both a degrading occupation and, most importantly, it represented a threat to the shared norms necessary to maintain social cohesion.

In her study of Plato's meeting with Google, Goldstein insists that truly philosophical thinking challenges the status quo because its raison d'être is to "do violence" to "the settled mind". This, of course, recalls Socrates' view that the "unexamined life is not worth living". Plato's challenge in The Republic was to ask us to critically re-evaluate our views so as to escape from the dark depths of the cave in which we saw only a distortion of what humankind might achieve.

In the conclusion of his classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the eminent social scientist Max Weber wrote about how the ghost of dead beliefs had created an iron cage whose inhabitants ("specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart") firmly believe they have "attained a level of civilization never before achieved". No doubt part of this belief is based on the conviction that economy, narrowly defined, and personal success equate to level of civilization.

Here I think ruefully of Martin Scorsese's recent film The Wolf of Wall Street and its precursor, Oliver Stone's Wall Street. We have more chance of understanding and escaping from Plato's cave and Weber's iron cage if we read philosophy books than if we content ourselves with searching for the latest management fad while remaining in thrall to our current definition and metrics of "economy".

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