“Philosophers Have to Clarify”

Luc de Brabandere on the role of the Chief Philosophy Officer – an extract from the conversation


Sören E. Schuster: You went through versatile stages to arrive where you are at now, being a corporate philosopher. In your online courses, where you teach professionals to inhabit that role, it seems like the most natural thing to bring philosophy into companies.

Luc de Brabandere: But there is one main problem: a philosopher has nothing to sell. The rule in business is supply and demand. You have a demand – I can supply. Now where do you start? In many businesses you can start with the supply. I have a new accounting system, you ring the bell and you are going to buy. But in philosophy, you cannot start the game with supply. It must begin with the demand. I never sold anything. I tried to help many people who came to me. So how does that happen? Through two different ways: first through books, articles, and reputation; and secondly, through connections. Somebody says: “Hey, we’ve done this with Luc, you should do that with Luc.” And if there is trust, people will do that. But none of this is a question of: “Oh, I have a neat philosophy!” That doesn’t work. But if I’m here in this company, it means there is a need, because BCG is not a nonprofit organization. And so it means that there is value in philosophy. I’m living proof of it.


Do you, in general, see a difference there between the terms of the corporate philosopher and the Chief Philosophy Officer?

You can drop the Chief! I don’t think a philosopher should be any kind of chief. When Plato says that kings must be philosophers, he’s wrong. The thing is, philosophers should be next to the king, next to the chief. But they should not be there themselves at all, the role is a different one. So, if I only have one word for my job description, it would be “clarify.” Philosophers have to clarify, to fight fuzzy definitions. This is the rigor. For example, innovation is not creativity, comfort is not luxury. It is my job to clarify: What is the problem? Do you agree this is the problem? Why is it like that? How can we solve the problem?


In your books, you develop a concept of creativity that is not thinking out-of-the-box but thinking in new boxes. Can we understand this approach as a systematic way to clarify things and find out about a company’s problems?

First, we would have to establish what a box is. I will tell you how it happened. I was working with Essilor, a company producing glasses, and there was a conference about “out-of-the-box-thinking.” In front of 400 people, the CEO asked me: “Monsieur, tell me, what is this box we should get out of?” And honestly, I couldn’t answer. So I thought, oh là là, this is a key issue. I was caught in my own trap. I needed to understand that. All the answers I found to my question came from philosophy, including the question of what a box is in the first place. A box is a set of simplifications. I saw that, in a way, any single approach comes out of a box. It’s impossible not to think out-of-the-box. So the problem is not to get out of a box, but to understand from what kind of box your thinking comes from. How old is this box you want to get out of? If it’s 30 years old, bon, probably you will be upset, because an old box from a completely different world doesn’t produce relevant thoughts. So you need a new one. The new book Lina Benmehrez and I are just about to finish, Be logical, be creative, be critical, is precisely about that. It is a synthesis of older books, much more sophisticated and better simplified. So many things are fuzzy and we have to clarify them.


If we think about boxes as tools that can help us clarify fuzzy situations, one important question comes up. What makes a great box? How can we find out what makes a good box, an old box?

Yes. Let us start from the definition that a box is a set of simplifications. You need simplifications to start a business. For example, when you open a restaurant, you need a set of simplifications in your mind. People like meat, they don’t eat at 4pm, etc. – you have a set of simplifications. And doing that allows you to open the restaurant – that’s the box. Then, you can innovate a lot. And maybe with Covid, you should change at least one or two simplifications. De facto, you built a new box. If you change only one, you build a new box. That’s the message in the book.

Luc de Brabandere
Luc de Brabandere is a corporate philosopher. Fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute and cofounder of Cartoonbase, he splits his time between the worlds of academia and business. His work is therefore aimed at teachers and students, but also entrepreneurs and consultants. Recognized as a talented popularizer and public speaker, he has published several books on subjects that form our daily lives such as language, mathematics, humor or fallacious arguments.