"Educating the Philosopher-Manager"

Selected excerpts from Chia, R. & Morgan, S. Management Learning, 1996, 27 (1), 37-64.

Introduction.  In American business schools would-be managers are often fed a diet of highly ideological imperatives which, more often than not, mask the complexities and ambiguities of lived managerial experiences. The ideological agendas of specific individual academics often take priority over the educational concerns of students to the extent that ‘schools of thought’ become identified with individuals and management education institutions. Amid this cacophony of ideologies it remains unclear to the seriously committed management educator what his/her pedagogical priorities ought to be and what theoretical agendas he/she should be working towards in order to remain constructive and emancipatory yet still visibly relevant and without appearing overly dogmatic.

As an alternative to the recipe-driven orientation in management education, we consider a set of pedagogical priorities which might possibly better prepare management students for the vagaries of the postmodern world. It is argued here that what underpins the recent proliferation of perspectives in management theorizing, is traceable to ‘regimes of signification’ that have increasingly colonized thought processes, to the point that an illusory sense of plurality, diversity, choice, and progressiveness has been sustained through these ‘floating signifiers’ which legitimate their own status and are remotely linked to concrete lived experiences. The systematic packaging of ‘unreality’ has become a lucrative trade producing legitimized representations that continuously flatten the distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘representational.’ They serve to create and reinforce a McDonaldized version of an unproblematically determinate, instantaneous, and multi-channeled ‘sound-bite’ notion of reality in all arenas of contemporary life as well as management research and education.

Without a critical examination of this ‘signing’ of management, without penetrating the veneer of managerial concepts, categories and ideologies, management education as a potentially constructive activity will remain impotent as an educational process; unable to liberate thought, extend vision and sanction novel expressions of the human imagination. This paper emphasizes the important role of management education in advancing the quality of the human condition and in helping humankind to not just live well, but the live better. Rather than the still predominant emphasis on management education, which concerns itself with the restricted model of management as a purely socio-economic activity, management education places the process of human development itself at the center of management learning. In this sense it elevates the process of cultivating critical thinking and human ingenuity over the much narrower ‘contents’ view of management education.

We argue that the concept of the ‘philosopher-manager’, the critical thinking manager who persists in the vigilant deconstructing or ‘de-signing’ of hitherto self-evident social and management concepts and categories in search of the deeper and bigger issues affecting the human condition, is one which will resonate with the concerns of tomorrow’s ‘managers’. More importantly, management as a conceptual category needs to be expanded and reconceptualized as embracing the management of life in all its complexions. Managing is not to be understood, in its narrower sense, as a purely socio-economic activity. Rather, it must be understood as the ongoing accomplishment of modern life in the broad sense we use when we say ‘I managed to…’. It is in regard to this ‘general economy’ of management that the place of the philosopher-manager can be more securely located.

Resisting Closure: Towards a Process Epistemology of Managing.  The philosopher-manager’s education begins with the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis: the process of initiating an ‘unforgetting’ that enables individuals to momentarily estrange themselves from their symbolic universe of discourse, suspend their ‘haste in wanting to know’, and to listen and mediate on these sensual experiences which would otherwise be lost without trace in the confusing bombardment of signifiers that continuously operate to disorientate, seduce and distract us. It is this ‘intellectual quietness’ which is sought in the process of educating the philosopher-manager. Heidegger reminds us that the authentic attitude of inquiry does not merely consist in the active and interrogative process of questioning. Rather, it is a contemplative ‘listening to the grant…to listen to that which our questioning vouchsafes’. A conceptual ‘groundclearing’ or ‘de-signing’ must be first undertaken to clear the way for this productive listening to take place. This ground-clearing creates the possibilities for cultivating what Keats calls ‘Negative Capability’.

In a letter to this brothers written in December 1817, the poet John Keats identified a quality which he associated with those who had achieved much in life. This quality described a way of thinking which resists the comforts of certainty and which Keats therefore called ‘Negative Capability’. He writes:

"And at once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of Achievement…I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Keats, letter of 21 December 1817).

Negative capability involves the resisting of conceptual closure (i.e., of succumbing to the authority of the sign) when dealing with affairs of the world. It is an injunction for us to stay ‘with’ the experience and to wallow in the open-endedness and indeterminacy of that experience, soaking it up until we are saturated with its presence and enduring personal insights are attained.

Cooper identifies two aspects required for cultivating this attitude toward our experiences. First, (after Waddington) "in an act of perception, the person involved is neither a mere passive reflector nor a dominant actor who imposes his preconceived scheme of things on to his surroundings, but is instead a knot or a focus in a network of to-and-fro influences." Every act of perception is an act of participation in bringing forth a reality. The corollary of this is, of course, that all realities are socially constructed and socially sustained and can therefore, in principle, be other than what they are. This implies that we need not necessarily capitulate to the dominant regimes of signification inhabiting a particular social or academic community. Instead, this understanding should provide inspiration for resisting closure by such sign systems.

Second, Cooper postulates the need to define man as ‘ever open’ and an ‘unfinished project’. Each human experience, therefore, constitutes what Whitehead calls the ‘creative advance into novelty’ in which each individual entity creates and recreates itself in an endless process of becoming other than itself. In order to subvert what Marcuse calls ‘A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom’ – that self-assuredness characterizing the incessant drive toward greater technocracy, control and domination of every aspect of social life, Cooper advocates ‘pure action, uncontaminated by a directing image (i.e., sign)’. The point of such ‘pure’ spontaneous action is to create a cognitive vacuum, so that we can then begin to fill it up with novel images that create new insights. This process of subversion must be employed from time to time in order to prevent ossification and conceptual closure. Pure action, then, is used as a means of surprising ourselves by revealing the latent within ourselves. This is the approach adopted by ‘action painters’ whose unthought actions produce effects which only make sense retrospectively. Such creative and experimental actions form a domain of knowing (sometimes associated with aesthetic or expressive knowledge) with which the essentially propositional code associated with representational epistemology is unable to deal and hence surreptitiously ignores.

Conceptual closure quickly leads to overfamiliarity and then unquestioned certainty and finally to ideological dogmatism. Such overfamiliarity with sign-systems means that we no longer think into them, but rather through them. This produces an ideological extremism, an iceberg of which, perhaps, the recent spate of animal rights, and environmental protection activists remain but the tip. They themselves pose a real threat to our modern existence. As Whitehead warns us: ‘A civilization which cannot burst through its current abstraction is doomed to sterility after a very limited period of progress’. The intellectual challenge for managing the future of modern civilization is to constantly revise our modes of abstraction and in so doing prevent the elaborate sign-systems, which we have created to help us interrogate our brute experiences, become too easily assimilated into our everyday discourse and hence to ossify through unreflective use. This is the never-ending task of the philosopher-manager. It calls for a radical revision of pedagogical priorities in management education.

Educating the Philosopher-Manager. In an interview with Scientific American shortly before his death, the radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend maintained that ‘the best form of education is one which immunizes us from the systematic effects of education’. Such a pedagogical strategy is consistent with Baudrillard’s observation that every system that seeks to perpetuate itself by devoting its own logic to total perfection invariably falls under the weight of its own monstrosity and effects its own demise. A pedagogy which avoids this must be necessarily self-effacing. It must operate like Wittgensteins’s ladder; to be discarded once one has out-used it in the search for more enduring ‘truths’. Such an educational strategy is not one which aims to fill in factual information but a processual pedagogy which simultaneously fills in and empties out – a positive and negative pedagogy – one which affirms and denies, informs and evokes, appealing both to the intellect and the senses. Johnson reminds us of the profound evocational value of a negative pedagogy which teaches ‘ignorance’ instead of knowledge.

"Ignorance, far more than knowledge, is what can never be taken for granted. If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge (i.e., an informational issue) instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know (i.e., an evocational issue), then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative."

It is this evocational aspect of the pedagogical equation which has been overlooked in the management education process. Education entails not just information acquisition but an ‘awakening’ of the senses. Whitehead, writing about the role of university business schools after the inauguration of Harvard business school over 70 years ago, maintained that the sole justification of a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge, imagination and the zest for life. In such an educational scenario, universities provide the ideal setting for generating intellectual excitement whereby, through such imaginative consideration, knowledge is transformed and its true potential appreciated. ‘A fact is no longer just a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities…it is energizing as the poet of our dreams and as the architect of our purposes’ (Whitehead). It is this evocational aspect of the pedagogical process that has been sadly neglected by contemporary management educators.

Information and evocation are two sides of the same coin in the pedagogical process, the one attending to the intellect, the other to the senses. Theorizing as a cognitive operation when stretched to its limits self-deconstructs, because language, on which it relies to express itself, painfully reveals its inadequacies in facilitating expression. It is here at the limits of language that we are impelled to recognize the primordial character of brute sensational experiences. Such theory-building breakdowns occur, Whitehead warns us, ‘precisely at the task of expressing in explicit form the larger generalities…which (we) seek to express’. Our never-ending pedagogical task, therefore, is to constantly experiment with and redesign language in the same way that, in a physical science, the appliances are redesigned and improved for new and novel usage. This involves stretching words and phrases ‘towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage’. It is through this continuous struggle with expression and articulation that we move from the domain of the rational and the intellectual to the imaginative and sensual. This is a point reiterated by Heidegger in his mediation on the nature of language and our relation to it. Heidegger asks ‘But when does language speak itself as language?’ and answers:

"Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right words for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us. Then we leave unspoken what we have in mind and, without rightly giving it thought, undergo moments in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its being."

Forcing our thinking to this linguistic limit brings us closer to the point of catastrophic symbolic disordering that Baudrillard speaks about. A strategy in which we constantly position ourselves so that we operate at the limits of conventional meaning and, thereby, constantly risk saying nothing meaningful yet revealing much about the code in which meaning is rendered possible.

The purpose of university management education is not so much knowledge acquisition and accumulation as it is sensitizing students to our own peculiar culturally based (and often idiosyncratic) ways of ordering the world. It is about inculcating an intimate understanding of the way a configuration of relational abstractions (i.e., regimes of signification), which make up what we call management knowledge, is organized, produced and legitimized through interlocking acts of representational abstraction so as to appear unified, coherent and plausible to a particular community of inquirers. In other words the priority of education is quintessentially about gaining an understanding of the implicate modes of ordering that we invariably rely upon in organizing knowledge itself. ‘Knowledge does not keep any better than fish’ says Whitehead. This realization is derived from his processual view of reality. In such a world view of changefulness and becoming, knowledge itself must be understood as a momentarily stabilized and encoded pattern of relations always about to become something other than itself. In such a world view, education can be best understood as a journey without destination. Management education for the philosopher-manager, understood in this sense, is intellectual and emotional preparation for the adventures of life beyond the cloistered boundaries of academia.

Conclusion. Philosophy is not an academic subject. Instead, philosophizing involves the cultivation of an attitude that attempts to ‘clarify those fundamental beliefs which finally determine the emphasis of attention that lies at the base of character’ (Whitehead). Its gifts according to Whitehead, are ‘insight and foresight, and a sense of the worth of life, in short, that sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort’. Philosophical thinking involves the careful ‘destructuring’ of systems of thought with a view to arriving at a satisfactory understanding of the abstracted nature of contemporary human existence. Philosophy seeks to explain the reasons for the emergence of the more abstract from the more concrete. The philosopher-manager is, therefore, one who sees his/her task as continuously seeking to understand the abstract in terms of concrete experience. The separation of philosophy as an academic discipline from the social sciences and, more specifically, from management studies, is unfortunate. It results in a truncated understanding of management as an activity totally divorced from the context of the civilizing process. This is a consequence of the fragmentation of knowledge fields brought about by modernist thought. Management must be understood in the wider sense as the management of life.

Postmodern thinking must be appreciated as an intellectual reaction, which seeks to initiate the ‘unforgetting’ of the primordial bases of knowing which modern knowledge continues to trade upon, in order to remind it of its necessarily abstracted status. In this sense, postmodern thinking encourages a critical attitude toward the dominant sign-systems which pervade late capitalist societies and the ideological proliferation accompanying the intellectual malaise evident in the latter. The philosopher-manager is a manager who intervenes into affairs of the world, carries the weight of this understanding and is necessarily tentative and circumspect about what he/she is attempting to achieve – intellectually bold but actively cautious.

The education of the philosopher-manager entails simultaneously ‘filling in’ and ‘emptying out’, action and reversion – positive and negative pedagogy. Through this process, the changeable and becoming character of the ‘real’ is internalized. Mental abstraction and its consequence – the static character of conventional signs, linguistic categories and theoretical concepts – are recognized for what they are: representational abstractions. Ideologies and other ‘liberatory’ referentials are in turn recognized as part of the veneer of contemporary life. Nonetheless, they often contain within themselves the traces of a yearning for a lost origin – that of the unthought world of brute experiences which propels the never-ending task of reconciling matter and memory.


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