Philosophy vs. Google: The Value of Philosophy to Business and Education

For the love of wisdom, photo by Pixabay

With jobs being automated and knowledge being devalued, business and education need to prioritise proven tools that support flexible thinking. In the words of Charlotte Blease “we need people who are prepared to ask, and answer, the questions that aren’t Googleable.” Of ancient Greek origin, the word ‘philosophy’ itself explains why it matters to humanity. The first part, philo, means ‘love’. The second part, from the word sophia, means ‘wisdom’. Together, philo-sophy is literally ‘the love of wisdom’.

The critics

As long as philosophy has existed, there have been people who have hated, despised or dismissed its study. In the popular book ‘Grand Design’, Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawkings (2010) boldly declared philosophy as dead; that modern science should instead be relied upon for the progression of knowledge. The authors found support in many other anti-philosophy scientists such as Neil de Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and Lawrence M. Krauss. Anti-philosophical criticism can also be unearthed in business, by many who claim philosophy has lost its ability to engage people in real world problems.

The prevalence of philosophy

I declare it outside of my scope here to explain on balance whether science has contributed more or less to our understanding of the business world. Yet I do share evidence of the active employ of philosophy in business research ,and declare not only its importance to date, but argue for its increasing employ in Education and Business 4.0.

A google scholar search using key terms “relevance philosophy in business” provides 985,000 results returns, listing high is the connection between philosophy and business ethics. The Harvard Business Review, with its heavily subscribed business research and practitioner following, returns 2,420 results. Articles range from Brendal (2014) whose coaching combines philosophical reasoning and positive behavioural changes, through to the more recent Martin & Golsby-Smith article ‘Management Is Much More Than a Science’. The latter is explicit about the limitations of a purely scientific approach, which narrows strategic options, shuts down innovation, and is ineffective at evaluating possibilities.

Resurgence of interest in philosophy

The currency of philosophy in business is backed by a resurgence of interest from business students. More business schools are integrating philosophy into the curriculum beyond Ethics. Yolllin (2014) and Blackburn et al. (2017) report on an increased take up of philosophy courses. US graduate law, medical and management schools consistently put philosophy at, or near to, the most successful and desirable of majors. The London School of Economics, an institution firmly focused on producing research that ‘solves world-problems, promotes philosophy’s key role in posing challenging questions on how business decisions are being made.

The book industry is also filling philosophy/business hybrid shelves. returns just over 29000 results for “philosophy in business”.  Tsang (2016) explains since the 80s there has been a growing number of management literature that have employed philosophy to tackle methodological problems.  In Helin et al. (2014) scholars document 34 philosophers and social theorists who have connected ideas from process philosophy to present and future challenges in organisational studies.

Recurring themes in a business case for philosophy

My sample review across the aforementioned literature provides 4 recurring themes:

  1. Philosophy is key in supporting the methodological rigour of business research
  2. Different philosophical perspectives/lenses add value
  3. Reliance on science alone is risky
  4. Philosophy promotes critical and logical thinking

Theme 1:  Philosophy is key in supporting the methodological rigour of business research

Whilst researchers themselves do not agree about one best philosophy (Tsoukas  & Knudsen, 2003), proponents of research philosophies such as Saunders et al. (2009), Knowlton & Phillips (2009) and Easterby-Smith (2012), all encourage an ontological, epistemological, and axiological stance be declared. Even acknowledging the confusing plethora of classifications and categorisation of paradigm (Mkansi & Acheampong 2010), there is agreement a declared research philosophy states important assumptions about the way in you view the world, assisting in exposing biases, values, perceptions and predispositions, which work right through the work to the conclusions. If not considered, the researcher may be blinded to aspects of the inquiry or certain phenomena, since they are implicitly assumed (Flowers, 2009). Increased rigour and greater explanation of the basis of a piece of research allows  practitioners to make a judgement of  its applicability and usefulness.

Philosophy deals directly with aporia … and is pivotaI  to business research, opening up discussion and disagreement – Jones & ten Bos (2007)

Theme 2: Different philosophical perspectives/lenses add value

Whilst scientific unificationists exist (Saunders et al, 2009), pluralists recognises each research paradigm, including qualitative approaches representing a different and distinctive ‘way of seeing’ organisational  realities (Morgan 1986);  This insight helps explain the actions of individuals within organisational settings (Johnson, 2014). According to Siedman (2010), philosophy can also be used as a burning platform in business, exploring deep and broad questions. This would span from how our business institutions should relate to society, to the more complex interdependent issues confronted in the global marketplace that require an understanding of how political, financial, environmental, ethical, and social interests influence each other.

Pondering questions beyond the scope of business can broaden the reflectivity-horizon of future business leaders to help them manage complexity and make sound decisions – Poulson (2013)

Theme 3: Reliance on science alone is risky

Without trawling through history to evidence philosophy’s contributions, history has proven that over time scientific ‘facts’ are provisional; vulnerable to massive paradigm shifts (Hobbs, 2010). Some scholars go further and criticise the reliability of scientific research. Take Ioannidis (2005), whose work reveals that in modern research, false findings may be the vast majority of published research, claiming science easily and commonly veers away from the truth, by way of bias, error, and outright fraud.

Over-enthusiasm for science can mask the attention that should be paid to human social issues that are too complex for science to solve neatly and swiftly – Kitchner (2012)

Theme 4:  Philosophy promotes critical and logical thinking

Grey (2013) states that the critical thinking classes taught by philosophers teach students about logic, in addition to providing practice problems that can improve their critical thinking skills. All of which should help thwart the Dunning-Kruger (aka cognitive bias) effect. Tsang (2016) suggests that business research could learn more from philosophy e.g. picking fights and engaging in more robust critiquing of approaches adopted.  Whilst improved statistical or scientific techniques might suggest significant relationships between variables it will no further explain whether the assumptions implied in the model employed are actually realistic; this is the remit of philosophy.

Philosophers are pretty good at spotting where claimants to knowledge have put their name to some piece of quasi-scientifc speculation Norris (2011)

Demystifying, informing, and method facilitating

The aforementioned statistics and ideas indicate philosophical interest and approach continues to have traction in business and management research. In fact, philosophy continues to provide three key functions: demystifying, informing, and method facilitating (Lawson, 2004). Potentially there is more room for a stronger philosophical orientation in our businesses, in our education, in our research: as means to re-question the purposes, presuppositions and prejudices on which our theories, models and strategies have been based to date.

I believe philosophy will become an increasingly important subject in the future. As per my earlier blog on the concerns of the demise of the natural curiosity so richly endowed in the young, Ponder, Puzzle, Pose: the case for curiosity, I intend to actively harness the spontaneous philosophical instinct of my own young, and will continue to work to influence the mindset of my own learners.

The philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind – Norris (2013) adaption on Kant


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