Thursday, August 03, 2006

10 questions for Matthew Stewart   posted by Razib @ 8/03/2006 06:24:00 PM

Matthew Stewart is the author of The Truth About Everything, Monturiol's Dream and The Courtier and the Heretic. His recent piece in The Atlantic, The Management Myth, drew upon his experiences as a management consultant. Dr. Stewart received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University and a bachelor's degree from Princeton. Below are his responses to 10 questions.

(Other 10 questions)

1) Your recent essay in The Atlantic was rather amusing, we all have our MBA jokes I suppose (well, except for a small subset of MBAs themselves). How exactly did you get involved in management consulting in the first place? As you noted, your primary "professional" background was in academia and food service.

It was just one of those things. Toward the end of my last year in graduate school, long after everybody else had made their plans for the following year, I was playing pool with a couple of undergraduates who had accepted jobs as management consultants. At the time, I would have said that I was about as likely to become a ballerina as a consultant. Actually, more likely, since I at least had some idea what a ballerina does for a living. Still, since I had decided that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career and was in desperate need of gainful employment, I was inspired to fire off a dozen letters to prominent consulting firms. Only one deigned to reply. A senior partner of that firm just happened to be passing through town and had an hour to spare. Two weeks later, I had a job offer - as an "experimental hire," I later learned. I often wonder what would have become of me had I skipped that pool game or delayed a couple of weeks in sending off the letters. Did I miss my calling at La Scala?

My approach to management consulting was experimental, too - I initially planned to work for a year or two, then figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The job turned out to be quite different and much more interesting than I had imagined. I left it after three years in order to write my first book. When that failed to pay the rent, I returned to consulting and got into a situation from which I had some difficulty extricating myself. Eventually I was able to resume my career as a writer.

2) You seem to divide the "science" of management between the humanists & rationalists. In philosophy of course there is the continental and analytic tradition today, in which direction would you say your leanings would be, if you have any?

In both cases there is a kind of dialectic at work: the one really makes best sense as a response to the deficiencies of the other. That is, humanist management science arose out of the failure of rationalism to recognize that organizations are, well, made up out of people. But rationalism originated with the claim that human beings often aren’t very good at organizing things. In philosophy, the history is very different, but there is nonetheless a similar kind of mutual dependence at work between analytic and continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy began as a rejection of the Hegelian mushiness of late nineteenth-century English philosophy. If there is a general theme of continental philosophy, surely it must be the rejection of the excesses it attributes to reason or the Enlightenment.

At this level of generality, however, we are no longer talking about concrete history. (It's easy to show that, for example, many rationalist management scientists began from humanist premises, and the reverse.) We're really just playing with certain abstract ideas (e.g., about reasons and passions). So I prefer not to take sides.

3) In The Truth About Everything you seem to praise the sophists. Did you receive any flak about this from acquaintances?

Quite the reverse. I discovered a deep and hidden undercurrent of hostility toward Plato. People are just fed up with many of his dialogs. He turns Socrates into the pedantic advocate of some preposterous theories, and is manifestly unfair to the poor Sophists.

To be sure, the Sophists were not all sweetness and light, and I certainly don't see myself as championing them as the last word in wisdom. In bringing them closer to center stage, though, I want to draw attention to the fact that in many ways they embodied some of our own ideals about philosophy and society better than their more famous antagonist. While Plato was a dogmatic elitist, they were basically democratic skeptics. More importantly, the sophists were in some ways more authentically "Greek" than Plato and his heirs. I want to emphasize the extent to which the conventional idea of Greek philosophy is a construct of the middle ages.

4) A friend of mine is now a social scientist, but his background was originally in philosophy. He once mused to me that scientists are philosophically naive. Would you concur? If so, is this naivete a problem?

I can see why a social scientist might say such a thing. The social sciences, as far as I can tell, contain an awful lot of undigested philosophy. On the whole, however, I can't say that I have shared your friend's experience. I have met many scientists who seem philosophically well-informed, and I have observed that in the public sphere today it is often the scientists who carry the torch on the defense of Enlightenment values and other fundamental issues we usually think are the property of philosophers.

Social sciences aside, in any case, I don't see philosophical naivete among scientists as a problem for science per se. On the contrary, the history of science is replete with examples of scientists whose philosophical sophistication led them to make major mistakes. A number of famous scientists dismissed the evidence in favor of the existence of atoms, for example, on the basis of philosophical principles. On the other hand, a broader kind of historical (or maybe historico-philosophical) naivete can be something of a problem, inasmuch as it may lead scientists to fail to understand their responsibilities to and consequences of their activities on the rest of society.

Scientific naivete among philosophers, by the way, is more common and disturbing, at least to me, though the victims are usually only the philosophers themselves. I have read one too many philosophical essays purveying bizarre notions about quantum physics and obtuse thought experiments about planets abounding in a substance called H30. A fair number of philosophers often work with a high-school level caricature of science, without ever bothering to check out what scientists do.

5) What is your sympathy toward, Wittgenstein I or Wittgenstein II (assuming you believe that the two are genuinely separable)?

Long ago I found Wittgenstein helpful and inspiring, especially in helping me think through the issues of "meta-philosophy", or the philosophy of philosophy. At this level, I found that the similarities between Wittgenstein I and II far outweighed the differences. The change from I to II may have seemed radical to those committed to the philosophy of language; but now that that project seems safely confined to the history of futile endeavors, it is the continuity that dominates. In the The Truth About Everything, I put the main arguments of the Philosophical Investigations into the quirky numerical format of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in order to make these points.

With the benefit of more study of the history of philosophy, I eventually concluded that the value of Wittgenstein's ideas (in both incarnations) was overblown. The near-total absence of historical perspective in him and his followers resulted in their failure to see that his critical work in many ways replicated earlier critiques, not always with improvement. I also found that just about everything he said that ranged beyond the confines of academic philosophy to themes of culture and value was either banal or barbaric. And one thing I still cannot abide is the cult of Wittgenstein.

6) Back to business, between writing The Truth About Everything and The Courtier and the Heretic did your attitude toward management consulting evolve at all? I ask because I got the impression from The Truth About Everything that you believed that philosophy is best lived and done by regular folk with jobs out in the 'real world,' but now you are retired from that world and a 'philosopher at large.'

"Philosopher at large" - now that is something I do get flak for from friends and acquaintances. My point in the The Truth About Everything wasn't that philosophy is best done by regular folks; it was that academic philosophy suffers from its lack of exposure to and interest in the so-called "real world." Life outside the academy isn't any more "real," nor is it necessarily better; but it is more representative of the human experience, and that makes it worth getting to know. I learned a lot as a management consultant, but my attitude toward that particular form of employment didn't change at a fundamental level: it is not, dare I say it, the best place to look for the eternal truths.

7) Are there genuine philosophical problems? If so, are exact solutions ever possible for these problems?

No. And no. The notion that there is a fixed list of philosophical problems waiting to be solved - "free will," the "mind-body problem," etc. - is a product of the institutionalization of philosophy. It happened in the middle ages, and it has happened over the past two centuries with the rise of the modern university system. Once philosophy becomes institutionalized in that way, it ceases to be genuine philosophy, in my humble view, and just becomes a sophisticated form of rhetoric for advancing a particular mix of ideological, sectarian, and institutional agendas. Genuine philosophy isn't so difficult to spot, even in the labyrinth of institutional philosophy. It is a set of tools, an attitude, a commitment to the search for truth, and a project aimed at emancipation from fear and superstition. Just like Epicurus said.

8) Do you believe that the Classical Greeks "invented" philosophy as such? Or do you hold that a spark of philosophy resides in the basal cognitive wiring of most human beings, and has since the emergence of modern humanity 40,000 years ago?

The philosophical instinct belongs to human nature. It is as much a dysfunction as a function of our cognitive apparatus. It arises from our remarkable ability to see patterns in experience. It is a product of the natural inclination to look for the pattern of patterns, or the pattern of everything. The Greeks certainly did not invent it. Even in the existing historical record, they weren’t the first; and many who came later simply re-invented it on their own.

9) What intellectual discipline appeals to you other than philosophy? In other words, if you had to select another domain for your contemplative energies, what would that be?

I went to college thinking I would major in physics, though what really interested me at the time was astrophysics and cosmology. Somehow I got sidetracked into metaphysics. I must have gotten impatient with astrophysics, thinking it was all about hot balls of gas instead of stardust. More recently, I have found myself drawn toward evolutionary biology. Alas, it is too late for me to be a scientist, so I content myself with reading lots of popularizations. What I do now is probably closer to what most people would call history than philosophy. Though I've never really been able to separate the two.

10) If you had to change anything about your education, what would that be?

As a good Nietzschean, of course, I wish for nothing but the eternal recurrence of Philosophy 305 and the rest of my courses. Nonetheless, I would say with the wisdom of retrospect that in my education I probably failed to learn as much as I could from the many talented individuals who had the misfortune of being my teachers. So perhaps I would have changed something about my ears.