donderdag 27 november 2008

Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further

It is very understandable that reflexive managementauthors like Weick, Winograd and Flores look for inspiration towards Heidegger. If you want to stop the thinking about organizations in terms of schemes and diagrams, Heidegger offers a liberating perspective.

Heidegger holds that “knowledge lies in the being that situates us in the world”. That’s to say: we do not learn by taking a distance and by observing phenomena from the outside, but by being actively engaged in the world via work and relations. Heidegger prioritizes praxis and being in the world. By doing so he breaks through the deceit which originates from models and structures. Knowledge always is embedded in an acting way of being which precedes everything.

At the same time it is possible, in relation to the Heidegger oriented managementauthors, to identify two blind spots. The first concerns the unwillingness to communicate, which people - and not just in organizations - at times display. The authors seem not to be acquainted with this phenomenon. The spontaneous active being which they talk about in their writings, for them automatically coïncides with a permanent readiness to communicate.

The second blind spot concerns the difference one person can make with regard to another person. That people may disagree fundamentally about the direction and the goal of their acting is not a theme in the works of the above mentioned authors.

I tend so see a connection between those two blind spots. That connection, in my view, stems from the way in which Heidegger uses the concept of Mitsein. Namely, as a reference to a shared reality in which we humans collectively participate. We share Mitsein as a part of our active being-in-the-world. Communication arises from there almost automatically.

It is certainly true that Heidegger leaves room for individuals to conceive of primary being, where acting finds place, in their own, original way. But by the position he allocates to Mitsein there is a shift in the balance: the portion of collectivity weighs much more heavily than the portion of individual originality. Being is foremost one and collective, even if there is a multitude of personal insights in being.

This explains why plurality of thinking and profound differences between people get so little attention from authors who orientate themselves towards Heidegger. It is as Safranski says: the true nature of political thinking will be exposed by Hannah Arendt – as part of her answer to Martin Heidegger. Such really political thought derives from living communally our differences.

I would like to add that, for an elaboration of the radical difference between the one human person and the other, we can fruitfully turn to Levinas.

Also see Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic and Is the world sound?

donderdag 20 november 2008

Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic

Organizational scientists who become philosophical should be cherished. They probably will allow a bit more space for manoeuvre and depth in their reasoning than those who are trained only in management. Nevertheless I want to make a warning remark concerning organizational scientists who orientate themselves towards Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein. What a number of followers of those two philosophers have in common – and that’s what I want to talk about – is the use of the metaphore of car-traffic for human communication in organizations. I find that irritating. For in my view that metaphore is not really adequate.

What can one say about traffic? Car-traffic consists in a unequivocal, uniform reality and this reality is based upon a set of (almost) generally accepted rules. Those among us who drive their car to the wrong side of the road or park it across the lane form a small minority. Of course the respective destinations of the road-users can diverge a lot but that’s not relevant for their quality of road-user. Their reality is being defined by the two white lines they have to respect, the arrows they have to follow and the trafficlights that come to their path. As far as their participation in traffic is concerned, all drivers have one and the same preprogrammed rationality in common, which allows only very limited space for interpretation.

The moment you start applying traffic as a metaphore for human behaviour in organizations a kind of alienating effect sets in. Take for example John Shotter, who is inspired by Wittgenstein. Shotter considers social action as ‘to know how to go on’ and for his explanation of this expression he takes recourse to the metaphore of car-traffic: “Just as in driving down a multi-lane interstate highway, we sense those cars here as near, and those there as far away, this one as requiring us to move away as it is moving too close, and we possess a synoptic grasp of how ‘to go on’ in a skilful way in many other spheres of our lives”.

Managementauthors Winograd and Flores, who orientate themselves towards Heidegger, also use car-driving as an image for communication and language in organizations. They speak about a kind of natural interhuman communication and compatibility by which things just go as they have to go and people, somehow, know what they have to do. Of course misunderstandings between people can arrise, in the same way in which collisions take place in traffic. And also in organizations one can find non-communicative people, as there are yokels in traffic. So, apparently, also traffic is not that unequivocal. But those situations are – according to the mentioned authors – exceptions, on the organization floor as in traffic, which are to be redressed or to be deplored. In the last resort they do not affect the clarity of the rules and the uniformity of reality. In principle human interaction functions, as does car-traffic, automatically.

I think this conception of human interaction is alienating because it does not match the experienced reality. The conception leans heavily on the presumption that people are permanently prepared to communicate. I find that a naïve, romantic thought. The day-to-day practice in organizations shows too many examples of the opposite. I have in mind people’s refuse to talk to others, the largescale use of language which in fact does not clarify but mystifies, and the energy it takes, not so much to redress misunderstandings, but to get people to talk with one another at all.

On a better look, it is possible to give some explanations for the discrepancy between the relatively unproblematic functioning of road-traffic and the laboriousness of human interaction. One can point to the fact that, opposite the unequivocal rationality and limited space for interpretation of trafficrules, in the domain of worldinterpretations and human acting many divergent rationalities can be found. And opposite the total freedom for each cardriver to choose his own destination, in organizations there is a hierarchy by which some workers (managers) tell other workers what to do. Conflicts on the road are usually restricted to teasing, while in organizations they often have to do with imposing, legitimately or not, one’s will on others.

These differences touch certain aspects of organizations which make communication in organizations so difficult but also interesting. Organizational scientists like Shotter, Winograd and Flores, who are orientated towards Heidegger and Wittgenstein, seem to miss exactly those points. They end up with a simplistic and technocratic caricature of interhuman communication. One may wonder whether something essential is lacking in the philosophical oeuvres of Heidegger and Wittgenstein because of which their organizational adepts arrive at that caricature?

woensdag 5 november 2008


Obama president!

I was surprised this morning by my own gigantic joy that this happens. Apparently I didn’t know myself how deeply cynical I had become about possiblities for change. Eight years Bush do not leave one untouched.

Of course it has to be seen yet how far Obama can get. The problems are enormous, the financial possibilities smaller than ever. But the new president himself is very much aware of that. And it may turn out that his charisma and the enthousiasm he arouses open possibilites we could not think of before.

Inevitably the election of a black president in the United States will make a tremendous impression on those people in the world who politically don’t have any choice at all. The desire for democracy will undoubtedly be felt much stronger than when Bush believed he could install democracy by military means. Whether that desire will further the world’s stability is a different question altogether. The desire must be felt.

So, they can! And if they can, can we too? In Europe, in Israël?