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Why I Write

If community leaders continue the trend of asking the wrong questions, then history will have reached its turning point and failed to turn.
Why I Write
Some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved – the difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E.g. to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places.

This quote by Wittgenstein is apposite when writing about the philosophy of leadership as it expresses the difficulty of the task faced by the author: seeking ‘right’ order while remaining open to this not being the final order. But why, when embarking on a new project, make yet another attempt to place the books or analyse the problems? Not because, as is often remarked, it is the task of each generation to re-examine problems previously addressed, but because it is better by far for us to question our absolute convictions and, as Burke noted, spend a long time ‘lost in doubts and uncertainties’ than settle for a life deaf to speculative opportunities in which we question little and know little else. Only through a deep awareness of their own limitations can writers rise above their rivals and hope to achieve a truth-claim. Only through the aggregation of truth-claims, can we hope to put books in the great library of human thought in their final order. Nietzsche was acutely aware of the difficulties in establishing truth-claims as thinkers and believers beyond counting, not to mention we ourselves, have asserted a ‘truth’ of this world, trapping most of us in a matrix which interprets ‘falsely and mendaciously, though according to our wish and will for veneration, that is, according to a need.’ Only through constantly seeking what is ‘true as such’ can we hope to break out of this miasma of delusion, see this world faithfully, and find better, not just different solutions.

Continuing the metaphor of the library, my writing is also motivated by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Library of Babel, which has come to disturbing and dystopic fruition as the initial euphoria of mass access to a seeming infinity of information online has given way to madness with ideology and ‘fake news’ dominating the landscape. These developments create a relativist’s dream of a ‘post-truth’ world where lay readers and academics alike are seized by a ‘hygienic, ascetic rage’ which casts some schools of thought as ‘analogous to a god,’ with acolytes prostrating themselves before approved ‘books and like savages kiss[ing] their pages, though they cannot read a letter.’ Other texts or outlooks fall victim to ‘epidemics, heretical discords’ or ‘pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage;’ ultimately extinguishing the fire of any meaningful agonism. Again, Nietzsche had prefigured this dystopia by observing humanities general ‘incapacity for philology.’ In this context, philology is to be understood in a very wide sense as the art of reading well – of being able to:

read off a fact without falsifying it by interpretation, without losing caution, patience, subtlety in the desire for understanding. Philology as ephexis [undecisiveness] in interpretation: whether it be a question of books, newspaper reports, fate or the weather.

It is with sadness that I see an increasing number of institutions adopting a ‘no platform’ policy because students, staff or external activists feel threatened by the views of potential speakers. Simply because we hear, read or even write a view does not mean we hold or endorse that view. It may simply mean we recognise its importance, if only as something to be rebutted, and think it better to expose and test the assertion against the full weight of evidence than let it stand on hearsay or speculation. Social media provides a near unlimited outlet for any view, no matter how bigoted, anti-logical or ill-informed it may be. Only by bringing such views into institutions filled with the best and the brightest, and having those ideas opened to the scrutiny of debate and analysis, may they finally be put to rest as potential solutions to the present discontents.

My writing is also a reaction to the use and abuse of safe spaces. A safe space is a crucial notion for any institution, but the concept must be extended to mean more than a place in which people who ‘feel’ marginalised can go to discuss their experiences of marginalisation free from any criticism, no matter how constructive. If all counter arguments are suppressed, such spaces, far from equipping people with the tools to combat real, and imagined, marginalisation, will create the ultimate philosophical vacuum and only serve to fuel suspicion of all ‘out groups,’ that is to say groups who are deemed not to be part of the milieu of the marginalised. In such an environment it is little wonder minority and majority groups increasingly feel to be under siege. Such sentiment could be effectively combatted if the concept of a ‘safe space’ was extended to mean a place in which all aspects of thought can be discussed, particularly those which deviate from the ‘marginalised’ consensus. Émile Durkheim observed ‘if purely moral rules are at stake, the public conscience restricts any act which infringes them.’ Without divergence from safe views, without an opposing system of thought or differing set or moral rules, consciousness will ‘petrify too easily into an immutable form. For it to evolve, individual originality must be allowed to manifest itself.’

For leadership, one of the more recent attempts to put a case for writing about the philosophy of leadership was made by Leanne Meyer, co-director of a new leadership department at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business:

There’s a turning point in what’s expected from business leaders. Up until now, business leaders were largely responsible for delivering products. Now, shareholders are looking to corporate leaders to make statements on what would traditionally have been social justice or moral issues.

While such an argument does put the case for restressing the importance of philosophical enquiry, and the implications for leadership, it does so by way of negation. Carrying as it does implicit criticism of executives up until now, many of whom have made statements and acted on justice and moral issues, and because for those alive to the very real social problems which have gripped the world in each age, we are at no more of a turning point today than we were twenty or one hundred years ago. To imagine ‘our time’ is more awake and aware is to adopt a Whig view of history and, as a remedy, recycle the myth of the revolution which states: now, with this generation, we have recognised the injustices and our ‘new’ formulations will address them. At which point, still shining and fresh from the factory, a framework is presented which promises to reform business and society at large, while making one’s clothes cleaner than ever!

As a philosopher of history my thinking always looks back to project solutions forward. In doing so I am cognisant that each generation has seen a ‘turning point,’ asked very similar questions and, in a manifestation of Santayana’s prophetic phrase, often repeated the mistakes of the past. Part of the cause for this repetition of error is, as R. G. Collingwood noted, we too often ask the wrong questions by only enquiring about what people did, rather than trying to understand what they thought. In such a context we often give the right answer to the question, but, because it is the wrong question, fail to resolve the issue which persists for the next generation. This process failure can be seen in the notion of a turning point in executive responsibility and is often motivated by the misquotation of an argument by Milton Friedman that claims executive responsibility stops after they make as much money for shareholders as possible. Misquoted as his actual argument asserted ‘[a] corporate executive … has direct responsibility to conduct business in accordance with [shareholder] desires … [i.e.] to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.’ With Friedman asking the right question and answering responsibility entails law and ethical custom, we can only be at a turning point for business if we understand why executives, academics and journalists continue to miss the key questions by asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why,’ and in doing so fail to see that some of the answers to our present discontents have already been given. If community leaders continue this trend of asking the wrong questions, no matter how well they may answer, the history of our time, far from being a turning point, will be described using A. J. P. Taylor’s famous phrase: ‘history reached its turning point and failed to turn.’

With business playing and ever greater rôle in the development of society, Friedman’s words remain prescient. What was once solely the province of Church or State increasingly falls into the purview of corporations. Companies shape the political and social landscape in ways scarcely seen since the East India Company was wound up, and the decision making of senior leadership teams is more akin to drafting policy for the many than marketing products for the few. In such a variegated and responsibility-laden landscape, there is increasing need to define and refine both law and ethical custom, a task for which philosophy offers invaluable tools since different ideas can be placed on the scales and weighed against current business practices to ask questions such as, ‘is it a ‘bro’ culture or a necessary deviation from cultural norms to facilitate greater creativity?’ ‘Is it notions of invincibility mixed with arrogance or ground-breaking individuals accomplishing that which was not thought possible?’ ‘Are the 20-somethings running billion-dollar companies really flying too close to the sun or merely flying too high for current social norms?’ ‘Is current corporate governance truly best practice or nepotism favouring a different ‘in’ group?’


Image credit: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - aAH2PRcepgpGwA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29098753