B. Scot Rousse on the role of the Chief Philosophy Officer – an extract from the conversation
Sören E. Schuster: One thing that generally always comes up talking about the involvement of philosophers in business is the assumption of many people that philosophy and business are two very separated things. Businesses would care about profits only. On the other hand, philosophers would be academics in ivory towers, separated from the world.
B. Scot Rousse: They’re largely right about the second part! Well, I think we have to remind ourselves that what philosophers should be trying to do is to come to a better understanding and an exploration of what it means to be human. What are the distinctive possibilities, tragedies and world-forming ways of being that we have? I already reveal my cards when I say something like that. I mean, coming from a tradition of phenomenology, my philosophical training has been mostly based in asking: What does it mean? What’s the structure of the possibilities that we belong to? And that means, you can ask about the nature of human organizations. And how does philosophical reflection on the skills and possibilities of being human reflect upon this distinctive human endeavor of creating institutions and organizations for taking care of the concerns of the customer? Philosophical reflection really applies straightforwardly to questions of the nature of a business organization, and the best ways to enact one. Speaking from one perspective that phenomenological philosophy can open up to us, philosophy has made three big moves that are relevant for business. The first is that the world is opened in language, and that all human relationships take place and are mediated in linguistic interaction. That means a better sense for how language structures and guides our interaction with each other, and the different ways we relate to each other linguistically can be of some really good powerful use, that can open up a lot of insights for how to work together, how to treat each other with more care. And the second one is that human beings always live in a predefined emotional space, a space of moods. And moods are related to our possibilities, our sense of what’s possible in the world and our relationships. There is the third point, that humans always live within traditions that precede them. So each business organization is going to have practices and habits for linguistic interaction. Every organization and the people within it are working within certain moods that shape their sense of what’s possible for working with each other, and every organization is going to be working in a space opened by prior traditions of work, management, and so on.
Even though they might have a different official company policy, many organizations have moods of resignation and resentment: “Well, it’s just set up this way, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The salespeople have their agenda, and the people in charge of customer satisfaction have their agenda. And what can we do about it? We just got to live with it.” Now, philosophy can be good at pointing out something so obvious like that, that we live in moods, and that moods shape our possibilities, and that we come from traditions, and that what our tradition is, for us, shapes our sense of what is possible to do.
Would it be possible to imagine a respective job description of the Chief Philosophy Officer?
I don’t know. What would a Philosophy Officer do in a company? I think a Philosophy Officer could appeal to the concern of a company’s culture. It’s already normal for companies to have that or have conversations about the design of a culture. The CPO could play a role in that, and also in seeing what the mood of the company is. What mood does the company aspire to have for itself and for its employees? What are the ethical standards that it wants to have for the way the employees treat each other? And how does the company want to interact with its external customers? What are the conversations we need to be having as a company about living up to our own standards, for establishing those standards? For cultivating skills in relationships in which we treat each other as full people, and not just instrumentally. Let’s speculate more: for designing workshops and inviting speakers, for helping the employees to develop more caring habits for communicating, skills for navigating their moods, for thinking, for learning how to expand their horizons of thought. And that means for getting out of the rigid problem-solving way of being and for having an expanded sense of possibilities, for being able to increase the range of conversations that people can be a part of, to expand the horizons of the employees in the company. That can be the philosophy role.
In possible workshops, you say, speakers could be invited. That is something that you are already doing as a consultant with Pluralistic Networks. Earlier, you also mentioned that you create interventions. I’m really interested in why you talk about interventions. There’s something antagonistic about the term – do companies agree that they need an intervention?
Yeah, well, it’s true that you have to tie the intervention to an increase in efficiency and productivity, because it’s a nice side effect. That’s what happens when we take better care of each other – we also increase our productivity and our efficiency. And that means it’s better for the company. But if we just go after efficiency and productivity, we can create really bad moods and contribute to the concretization of bad habits of interacting. So an intervention is one that has an offer for helping a company overcome problems that it’s having, breakdowns that it’s having in its operations. But the way we approach it is that it’s a way of re-educating people for how they relate to each other in listening, in the commitments and moods that they generate, when they interact with each other. This comes to a deeper point that is one thing that a Philosophy Officer can do.
But I don’t know if this can be something about a Philosophy Officer in general, or perhaps a Philosophy Officer of a certain kind, because you have to buy a lot of substantive philosophical theses that I also happen to think are true: People tend to have to live in the wrong understanding of what they are as a human being. To put it in other terms: People live in a mistaken ontology. We live in a culture that almost imposes on us a self-conception that we’re an information processor. We think of ourselves as computers, especially around here in Silicon Valley, but it’s in the culture at large, where we say: “Oh, I’ve got to process what you’re thinking, and I don’t have enough information about or band width to deal with this. So I can’t make a decision.” We always think in terms of information, processing, and problem-solving. And then we think of the mind as if it were a kind of inside representational space, that it contains ideas, and perhaps it also contains emotions, and it contains information, and so communication and working together means that I’ve got to get the information that is in my mind somehow into your mind. So we live in an individualistic ontology that separates us from the world and separates us from other people. We relate to each other by sending information and by controlling our emotions. This is the wrong ontology of human beings. One thing a Philosophy Officer could do, is to help people break out of the mistaken ontology we live in, an individualistic, representational ontology that separates us from the world and separates us from other people. We relate to each other by sending information and by controlling our emotions.
The Chief Philosophy Officer can cultivate a different ontology, one that opens up different ways of interacting with each other. People think that information is this neutral thing that you can process in a machine. But what really makes things happen is when we communicate, we coordinate commitments and generate moods; when we make offers to each other, for example, we generate commitments and moods that end up motivating us. This is the glue that forms the bonds between us. And if we create an ethos of taking care of the commitments that we generate, we create a new kind of productivity, one imbued with care. But we also take care of each other in a different way. We no longer see other people as a source of information. We see them as a locus of concerns. And we develop practices for tuning to their concerns, rather than their information, and coming to an agreement. Our communication then gets re-figured. We develop different habits of listening, different habits of communicating that de-emphasize information and re-emphasize concern and communication and mood. That’s an example of changing the ontology in which somebody lives.