Philosophy as Disruptive Business Practice

by Dr. Aaron Simmons,

Professor of Philosophy at Furman University

I have been honored to work with some extremely talented women and men in the courses that I have taught in the Furman University Undergraduate Evening Studies program. These students are all majoring in business, accounting, or information technology and yet due to the liberal arts focus of Furman’s curriculum they enroll in philosophy courses that I teach such as a C.S. Lewis seminar, a course on philosophy of religion, or various courses in contemporary philosophy. I love working with these students because they are all coming from places of experience and maturity. They work all day and then come to class in the evenings (requiring large amounts of time away from their families and added stress to their support structure). Yet they show up every week because they are committed to doing what it takes to open new opportunities for their lives and new prospects for their careers. Although some might suggest that philosophy is irrelevant to jobs in business or information technology, my students realize that philosophy develops skills in critical thinking, comfort with ambiguity, nuance in communication, and innovation in problem solving. In many ways, I see philosophy as the best training in “disruptive” business practices, and “design” thinking, because it refuses to allow the status-quo to remain unchallenged. Philosophy is about putting question-marks where everyone else puts periods. It seems to me that the true innovators of the modern world are, in this sense, some of the best philosophers we have ever seen. My students are invited not simply to ask “why?” but to ask “why not?” I intentionally design assignments that are meant to help my students see philosophy as applied from the outset. For example, when we talk about writing good argument-driven papers, we practice by writing imagined emails to their boss in which they argue for a new direction in which the company should go. Alternatively, when we think about writing styles and different genres of literature, say, we talk about the importance of reading your audience in order to speak to different stake-holders of a company. I remember one student who took these invitations to thinking out of the box seriously and decided to ask his boss why the company was so committed to the normal 9 to 5 workday. The boss impressively asked my student if he had a better model, to which my student responded with confidence: “Maybe. It all depends on what we are willing to consider as the guiding principles of our organization.” The boss was so impressed that he invited my student to set his own hours and see if productivity might increase when more freedom and flexibility were allowed. Not only did my student benefit from this philosophically produced engagement, it ended up having ripple effects throughout the company. Studying philosophy is something that business leaders are increasingly recognizing as a significant benefit to their prospective employees. When you hire a philosopher (even if she was a business major or information technology major!), you get someone who understands that doing a job is about more than simply hitting sales targets. It is about understanding how best to contribute to a culture of excellence. My UES students are amazing because they have the skills required for the jobs, but they have the education required for seeing excellence as a way of life. That is the sort of employee I would want to hire and the sort of person I would want to become.