The uselessness of philosophy

A belated report on the visit of our old friend Ruud Kaulingfreks to the CPPE in February. Ruud talked to his chapter from the Campbell Jones and Rene ten Bos collection ‘Philosophy and Organization‘. His theme was the various ways in which the operability of philosophy has been mobilised in management education and consultancy. The philosophically equipped consultant might be seen as trickster or a joker figure – someone who offers an alternative learning, but who also runs the risk of being seen as pointless, as wasteful. But such an intervention runs counter to the logic of training as a form of governance, which is experienced by its recipients as either a reward (‘come join us for a weekend away in a castle in Poland’) or a punishment (‘attendance at this session is mandatory and will be monitored’). The current vogue for ‘ethical consultancy’ (a glorious term which attracted much discussion) might be seen in a tradition of professional philosophy dating to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Such philosophy may be seen to have a role as sanctioning or justifying senior managerial decisions. The CEO searches for their own legitimacy, and this search acquires a kind of quasi-spiritual or religious quality. Non-executive directors would then be a philosopher caste for business. The wise elders assisting in the spiritual quest for (commercial) enlightenment. Perhaps we could see in this a tacit acknowledgement of guilt, or the lack of any grounds for legitimacy. Better yet, the gesture of turning to philosophy (or art, or whatever other ‘wasteful’ activity that can be bought in) is a demonstration of the power and the cynicism of the senior manager – ‘I will do what I want and I will take whatever I choose and make it mine in the full knowledge of its incoherence’. The cult which grows around the supposed wisdom of the great business gurus, such as Steve Jobs, is a celebration of the seriousness and sanctity with which the task of seeking meaning in multi-layered propositions which express only their utter vacuousness is pursued: it is turtlenecks all the way down (with apologies to William James).

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