Academic philosophers, pressed to explain their unique contribution to the university, how they “add value,” why they are relevant, and so on, often fumble about, and the first thing the seize upon is the good old, tried and true “critical thinking.” Ironic as it sounds, today’s academy isn’t all that interested in their critical thinking prowess. But as it turns out, they may be fumbling in the wrong place, all while sitting on a pile of gold. In its forecast of hiring practices for 2013, Forbes puts critical thinking at the top of the list. In fact, philosophical habits of mind dominate the list: complex problem-solving, judgment and decision-making, and active listening round out the top four.
Forward-thinking business leaders have been singing this song for years: technical know-how is more downloadable than the supple habits of mind needed to deal with ambiguity and complexity, integrate concepts, perspectives, and data across domains, and see the bigger picture. As Dov Seidman has argued, in today’s new economy, it doesn’t just matter what you can do, but how you do it, and philosophy is uniquely-suited to help us navigate the new normal of hyper-complexity, hyper-connectedness, and hyper-transparency:
Philosophy can help us address the (literally) existential challenges the world currently confronts, but only if we take it off the back burner and apply it as a burning platform in business. Philosophy explores the deepest, broadest questions of life—why we exist, how society should organize itself, how institutions should relate to society, and the purpose of human endeavor, to name just a few.
Credit, climate, and consumption crises cannot be solved through specialized expertise alone. These problems, like most issues businesses confront in the global marketplace, feature complex interdependencies that require an understanding of how political, financial, environmental, ethical, and social interests influence each other. A philosophical approach connects the dots among competing interests in an effort to create synergy. Linking competing interests requires philosophers to examine areas that modern-day domain experts too often ignore: core beliefs, ethics, and character.
Perhaps we might amend Plato’s dream of the philosopher-king: that the world will limp on until philosophers become CEOs, or CEOs become philosophers. Bodhisattvas must become businessmen.
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