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Philosophy and Public Life

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Philosophy in the Workplace

Mark Addis takes philosophy to work on a building site.

Philosophy deals with all aspects of human existence and most human problems benefit from the persistent questioning, assumption-testing and rational analysis which characterise philosophy as an activity. Therefore a major challenge for those of us who think for a living should be to communicate philosophy’s importance outside academia, especially to the general public. Instead, the increasing professionalisation of philosophy in the twentieth century was accompanied in the English-speaking world by a decrease in the amount of philosophy aimed at the public. As a result, philosophy has been undersold, and the creation of a English-language culture of public intellectuals has been inhibited. Improving this situation requires cooperation between professional philosophers and the educated general public. Attempts at engagement have met with varying degrees of success, so reflection on what works well and what should be avoided is useful.

The three main kinds of philosophical engagement with the rest of the world are with policy-makers, with the general public, and with users of philosophy. The first two are the most common, with philosophers contributing to the formation of policy in various areas (often ones with an ethical dimension such as medical research or education), or with introductions to philosophy aimed at the educated general reader. Engagement with users of philosophy is much less frequent. The issue here is about how researchers in philosophy can work more closely with people who are using the fruits of that research, including academics in other disciplines. Such use of philosophical concepts and ideas is becoming increasingly widespread, particularly in the social sciences. In terms of scope, philosophical engagement is often regarded as synonymous with the attempt to apply ethics, but it covers much more than this. Expanding the range involves philosophers becoming more imaginative about the users of philosophy they could interact with, and also the philosophical fields they could apply in this interaction.

It is possible to promote the value of such engagement in fairly general terms, rather along the lines of arguments for the significance of the humanities. An alternative is to provide examples of how it has worked in practice, so I’ll turn to one now, drawn from my own work in the area of user engagement in philosophy, and with an eye to the broader issues it raises.

Being Constructive

In recent years I have applied philosophical thinking about expertise to improving practice in construction companies. The initial phase of the research was funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Expertise is related to issues in the philosophy of mind and epistemology, so I have used work in these fundamental areas of philosophy to address matters of a practical kind in a key industrial sector.

A common first reaction from friends to my research was to find it rather strange and puzzling, as construction seems to be about the most distant of any discipline from philosophy. The connection is through good practice being about knowing as well as about doing: thus, philosophical reflection enables greater clarity about issues raised by practice, and better understanding is part of the process of improvement. For example, the reality and the representation in theoretical terms of a number of activities in construction differ significantly. A good proportion of the misrepresentations occur in the area of managing knowledge in companies, and philosophical reflection on types of knowledge throws some light on how this divergence can occur.

I worked with an academic expert on construction, who had excellent industry links. Interdisciplinary research, contacts, and partnerships are crucial for developing user engagement with philosophy. Philosophers can develop relationships with potential users of their research (let’s call them ‘practitioners’) much more easily if they are able to collaborate with university colleagues who have the knowledge and industry access to persuade sceptical senior industry staff to consider such cooperation. In some industries, such as construction, without assistance from colleagues like these, it is virtually impossible to gain entry to companies.

Once the initial contact has been made, managing the complexities of successful engagement with practitioners has much to do with the attitude philosophers take towards the project. Academics from all disciplines sometimes approach interaction with industry with the assumption that they have the theoretical answers, and that all that is required is to implement them. A fair degree of respect for existing practices in the industry, coupled with a suitably critical attitude towards them, tends to fare rather better. In a similar way, a willingness to learn about the industry helps to build effective working partnerships. Such learning can take a while to acquire, as it is not just a matter of acquiring facts, but of understanding the prevalent culture. In my case that involved visiting a variety of offices and building sites.

Insights On Site

Engaging practitioners with philosophy requires finding the right issues to engage their attention, and industry knowledge is vital for this. For instance, construction has a poor public image, which in turn affects the ability of companies to recruit and retain good staff. Part of the problem is that accounts of construction tend to be rather reductive and factual, making it difficult to communicate the interest and achievements of the industry. The companies with which I worked were interested in how philosophical thinking about expertise could be employed to develop positive and informative accounts of the skilled work being undertaken in their industry. If asked, many people both inside and outside the industry would say that the kind of knowledge that matters in construction is factual (often technical) knowledge. However, this contrasts with the experience of working in construction which often calls for non-factual knowledge about how to handle particular situations, especially those involving dealing with people appropriately. For example, a carpenter engaged in refurbishing social housing has to negotiate the physical space, the tenant, and the time constraints for the work. The philosophy of expertise is concerned with how factual knowledge and knowledge about how to do something combine to produce expertise such as that displayed by the carpenter. The case of the carpenter also illustrates the importance that the philosophy of expertise places on the idea that expertise is about the ability to respond to context. Expert carpenters (like experts in general) identify the relevant features of the context and reach solutions quickly, whilst for the less well-qualified it is much harder to recognise what is important.

A challenge from the start was how to communicate philosophical concepts effectively in a situation where people were busy and had little or no previous exposure to philosophy. This was particularly important because they were being asked to take ownership of those ideas in order to bring about change in their firms. Dealing with this difficulty involved identifying the most relevant philosophical ideas about expertise, and bringing them to the fore, along with thinking about how quite abstract points could be made more concrete (excuse the pun). For example, a standard philosophical inquiry into potential problems with strategies for managing knowledge might take as a starting point the distinction between knowing how to do something and knowing that something is the case. However, in working with a company, it seemed better to open the discussion by asking people to reflect on how good they thought their current knowledge management was. Many construction professionals realised that a considerable proportion of current knowledge management strategies (whose focus is upon the collection and storage of factual knowledge in a systematic way) are not particularly effective at improving business performance in practice, but are unsure why they do not deliver the promised results. Asking questions about knowledge management in the company is likely to elicit responses which can serve as the basis for philosophical discussion which moves on from a point where people feel confident.

A construction company, like any large organisation, will store a great deal of information on computer. Indeed, the push for a decade or so from government and industry bodies alike has been for construction firms to handle all their information this way, so that architects’ plans, contracts, stock levels, information about deliveries of materials, building regulations, records of quality checks, and all manner of procedures are stored and managed on computer and all processes can be tracked to ensure compliance with quality standards and best practice. In principle this looks great, but in practice there are crucial kinds of knowledge which cannot be stored this way; they cannot be meaningfully separated from the individuals possessing them. If things go wrong then judgment is required to fix them, and (as with the carpenter) that judgment might partly depend on non-factual knowledge concerning skills, context and the personalities of the individuals involved. For instance, if a delivery is delayed and the workers therefore cannot undertake the day’s scheduled task, there might be several possible options open to the manager on site. Similarly, if a problem arises with a subcontractor, then the best way to solve that problem might depend on the context and on assessing the personality of the subcontractor, and these things cannot be reduced easily to a protocol on a computer. This is when management experience and people knowledge becomes vital to the ability to make a judgment call. There is a complicated interplay between different sorts of knowledge and a careful examination of this can enable the development of more nuanced ways of managing knowledge and training.

A general problem for philosophical engagement with industry is that a balance has to be struck between having substantial theoretical content, and generating analyses and guidelines for action which are simple enough to be workable. Much carefully thought-out research fails to achieve any impact because it is too complicated for possible users to handle efficiently. Achieving a balance between content and practicality was an important consideration for me when dealing with the companies.

Good dissemination of the results of this kind of work requires considering how presentations might be suitably tailored to both philosophical and practitioner audiences. For the latter, it is worth investigating relevant industry bodies and journals. Overall, my experience of engaging practitioners with philosophy was beneficial both in terms of the actual research carried out and the insight it provided into some of the issues raised by this kind of interaction. It changed the attitude towards philosophy in the construction companies I was involved with, and reinforced the idea that clearer thinking can contribute to business success. User engagement with philosophy is an underdeveloped area, but one whose possibilities are well worth further exploration.

© Prof. Mark Addis 2013

Mark Addis is Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham City University.

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