“Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added

Should philosophers focus less on Value Theory, and more on Value Added?

Over at Salon, a plea for philosophers to swallow their pride and get on with selling themselves and their profession:

if philosophy is so important, then selling itself to the culture at large is important too. So it’s time for philosophers to put their clothespins on their noses, wade into the stench of real-world commerce, and ask some of those tanned and toned marketing majors who skipped out on Philosophy 101 for some help.

Philosophy, in short, needs a Marketing Makeover.

One might conclude that philosophers share George Bluth’s plight:  they are trapped in a culture in which they have little power and influence, and are driven to sell themselves, packaging their wares into “Caged Wisdom.”  Philosophers, academics, and academic philosophers, however, are generally suspicious of business, commerce, capitalism, marketing and money.  They tend to see them as superficial and corrupting forces, while the life of the mind is profound and pure and must be ever on guard against such lurid distractions.  They tend to see what they do as somehow above or outside of the sinful, soulless, greedy, dehumanized world of capitalism.  Bringing philosophy into the marketplace would thus be a form of blasphemy, sacrilege, the betrayal of their intellectual conscience.  I use religiously charged terms for a reason.

It would be easy to dismiss the phenomenon of “Philosophy for Sale” if it didn’t have roots in the philosophical tradition itself.  French scholar Pierre Hadot has done a great service in reminding us that for many if not most ancient philosophers, philosophy was primarily a way of life:  a collaborative inquiry into how to live wisely and well.  “Vain is the word of the philosopher that does nothing to heal the sufferings of mankind,” reads an Epicurean saying.

There is a fascinating parallel here between the practical, almost soteriological bent of ancient philosophy, and the practical, pragmatic strain of American culture:  a focus on concrete results (this parallel manifests, incidentally, in the rise of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a popular form of psychotherapy with roots in Stoic philosophy that aims to cultivate mental frames and habits that “work”–for a great reflection on the convergence between philosophy and self-help, see Dan Mullin’s recent post)  “What’s the point?  What’s the ‘value-added’?”  Philosophers typically cringe and roll their eyes at what they perceive as the vapid, anti-intellectual, utilitarian ethos of the businessman.  And there’s no doubt that a great deal of talk about adding value, leveraging synergies, and maximizing ROI is indeed empty, self-interested, and simply dumb.

But there’s something important about asking what the benefits are.  It’s found in the spirit of the student in Philosophy 101 asking, sheepishly but courageously, why she has to take this course.  Business is the dominant discourse in the culture, and I think philosophers sell themselves [!] short when they ignore or eschew it (well, I think there is more to it than that–I’d bet that philosophers’ disdain for the business world is as much psychological–good old ressentiment–as it is intellectual, and probably more).  There may indeed be great value in asking questions like “How would Aristotle run General Motors?”

That is why I see the rise of “Philosophy for Sale”–whether we call it Practical, Public, Socially Engaged, Applied, Counseling, Consulting, and so on–as a blessing.  The fact that philosophy is on its heels, with its back against the wall, is a good thing:  if it really is all it cracks itself up to be, then it will find a way to be vital, to define and deliver itself to more people in myriad ways with greater impact.  The environment has introduced a selection pressure to which philosophy must respond and adapt.  The philosophical life will find a way.

Moreover, it is worth inquiring into the nature of selling to determine whether or not.  In his new book To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink (swiftly closing in on Tony Robbins status) argues not only that at some level we are all in sales–

Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

And most people, upon hearing this, don’t like it much at all.

Sales? Blecch. To the smart set, sales is an endeavor that requires little intellectual throw weight — a task for slick glad-handers who skate through life on a shoeshine and a smile. To others it’s the province of dodgy characters doing slippery things — a realm where trickery and deceit get the speaking parts while honesty and fairness watch mutely from the rafters. Still others view it as the white-collar equivalent of cleaning toilets — necessary perhaps, but unpleasant and even a bit unclean.

–but that “selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a car lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that has crumbled.”

I don’t know all the details of Pink’s argument, but it’s worth considering, and reminds me of Frank Donogue’s claim that today’s academic has become less a Seeker of Truth, and more a Canny Salesman.  If there’s no such thing as not selling, then we may as well be honest about it and do it in the best way possible.

And you might even explore the idea that there is a moral imperative for philosophers to rebrand the profession.  Plug the word “philosophy” into Google.  See what comes up first.  Or see what you find on “philosophy.com.”

3 Replies to ““Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added”

  1. I read the Salon piece but I wasn’t sure whether it was meant to be taken seriously or as satire.

    Of course, I agree about philosophy’s practical import and that most intellectual resistance to marketing the discipline is psychological.

    Have you read Robert Nozick’s essay ‘Why Do Intellectuals Hate Capitalism?’ He claims it’s because they’re resentful that the market doesn’t value what they do, i.e. that the general public is too stupid to appreciate and reward them. Why do athletes and rock stars make more money than we do? I think there’s a lot of truth to that analysis.

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