Ambition can creep as well as soar. - Edmund Burke
When people think about the backgrounds of successful entrepreneurs, philosophy rarely comes to mind. Computer science, biology, and finance seem immediately applicable to starting a business, but philosophy conjures up images of inept academics sitting in an armchair with a book and coffee.
Business people and entrepreneurs often talk about ‘nice to have’ and ‘need to have.’ The latter refers to things you cannot do without. In most companies this could be things like a computer, desk, chair, and WiFi. Examples of ‘nice to have’ items could be an espresso machine or a Herman Miller chair.
Transferred to the world of education, the logic in recent years seems to be that the humanities should be cut because these are merely ‘nice to have’ for society. This is an absurd notion on its surface, for a healthy society cannot exist without morals and ethics.
Liberty does not exist in the absence of morality. - Burke
The argument is that the path is longer from the humanities to the labor market than it is from business studies. The intake to humanities courses should therefore be better matched to the needs of the labor market. Especially in our age of digitalization, disruption, and decentralization at the global level.
I believe, however, that a fundamental understanding of philosophy can be a powerful tool for entrepreneurship. In the following note. I explain how the principles of philosophy can help entrepreneurs succeed by using examples from my own life.
Philosophy isn’t just an abstract intellectual exercise. At its core, it focuses on improving our understanding of humanity, of how we evolve as individuals in a society.
Most people tend to be blinded by the now; they tend to think that the past isn’t that different from the present. They don’t realize the profound shifts in thinking that have occurred with the passage of time. We’ve evolved from living in tribes and thinking of kings as gods to valuing human rights as part of a nation-state. All these changes, including the birth of science itself, started with philosophy.
The other common misconception about philosophy is that it’s about providing the answers. The purpose of philosophy is not to convey literal truth in the form of the beliefs of the philosophers and their words, but rather for those philosophers and their thoughts to provoke and improve your own thinking.
The understanding one develops from studying philosophy does not come from memorizing what the great philosophers said and adhering to it with 100% fidelity. It develops from the way those words interact with the things that are in ones own mind, and the way that philosophy causes one to develop new frameworks for grappling with truth.
A key philosophical technique for understanding other people, ideas and theses is to ask yourself both what’s right and wrong about them. Even if ones inclination is to think that someone or something is all wrong, ask oneself, What’s right about it? If ones inclination is to 100% agree, ask oneself, What’s wrong about it? That’s where learning comes from.
Fundamentally, philosophy has a “question-first” orientation. It’s about asking questions like, “Why is the world the way it is?” Or, “I think I have a moral right to something, do I actually have a moral right to that, and on what basis?”
The following are three formative philosophers who really began to instill this mindset in me.
My second major philosophical influence was Aristotle (Plato was the first..). He wasn’t the first philosopher (many argue that Thales was the first), but he was the first who really opened my eyes to how important philosophy is for thinking about human beings.
When Aristotle was a philosopher, being a philosopher meant a lot of things. Science used to be called “natural philosophy,” and Aristotle was, in many ways, the first scientist as well. In addition, Aristotle was also a tutor to Alexander the Great. So he wasn’t just sitting in an ivory tower, but had a literal impact on world events.
That is actually one of the major contrasts between Aristotle and his teacher, Plato. Plato focused on pure ideas, as depicted in his allegory of the cave. Aristotle believed that because we’re embedded in the material world, philosophy starts by studying that world. That’s also the reason why I believe Aristotle is a good philosopher for entrepreneurs.
For example, one of the things about entrepreneurship is that it should include an embedded theory of human nature. If one develops a theory about how human beings identify themselves, connect with others, view themselves to be part of a group and pursue a theory of the good, the conclusions one reaches can help one design a product or service that appeals to people on a fundamental level.
Great entrepreneurs make every user or customer a hero. Of course, theory alone is not enough.
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.
Aristotle taught us to revise our theories based on practice. The loop between theory and practice is to engage with the world to generate the theory, apply that theory to the world, and use the results to refine that theory. Soap rinse, repeat.
It’s the combination of theory and practice that is so impactful and important. In both entrepreneurship and investing, this means taking an Aristotelian approach of developing an investment thesis, testing it in practice, then honing that thesis to a razor-sharp edge.
It’s all about making sure that one is balancing theory and practice. It doesn’t mean don’t have a theory. But it does mean to always be refining ones theory with engagement and Bayesian reasoning.
By the way, practice isn’t limited to the classic scientific method of hypothesis and experiment.
Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. - Aristotle
Another way to incorporate practice is to talk with ones smart friends and ask, “What do you think is wrong with this theory?” That leverages their many years of practice in a time-efficient way.
Friedrich Nietzsche is truly the patron philosopher of entrepreneurs. It’s important to consider Nietzsche in the correct historical context, because there are a number of common misconceptions about him. First, there is the false notion that Nietzsche was a fascist philosopher. This is largely because the Nazis, and their heirs on the “alt right,” have claimed Nietzsche as their patron philosopher.
This is no fault of Nietzsche, who died in 1900 when the most notorious Nazis were still small children. Instead, his estranged younger sister (whom Nietzsche grew apart from when she married a prominent anti-Semite) took over his affairs and later his estate, joining the Nazi party in 1930, and accepting government support for the Nietzsche Archive after the Nazis took over the government.
The Nazis conveniently ignored Nietzsche’s actual words, such as when he wrote, “The Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today.” Nietzsche would have despised the fascists who tried to claim his legacy.
There are no facts, only interpretations. - Friedrich Nietzsche
We can and should draw on Nietzsche’s writing to provoke new ways of thinking without adopting the negative aspects of his own thinking.
Nietzsche remains one of the most influential philosophers of his — or any — era, and that is due to the power of his ideas and his writing. Reading Nietzsche is a revelation.
At 24, Nietzsche became one of the youngest ever professors of his time. But the academic attitude at that point was that modern thinkers were mere shadows of the great philosophers of the past. Aristotle was often referred to with reverence as “The Philosopher.”
Every attainment, every step forward in knowledge, follows from courage, from hardness against oneself, from cleanliness in relation to oneself. - Friedrich Nietzsche
In contrast, Nietzsche felt that while the past was great, what really mattered was the creation of the new, including the future human being he termed the Übermensch (sometimes translated as Overman or Superman). Rather than trying to copy the past, he believed we should pursue the act of creating better versions of ourselves. This has been an inspiration to Trans-humanists and biohackers alike.
This emphasis on the importance of the individual, and that individual being creative by engaging in creative destruction, is what makes Nietzsche the patron philosopher of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs invent businesses that attack the current “idols” (industry, markets, products) by creating something new and disruptive. The beauty of creative destruction is that new thriving innovations take the place of old decaying ones.
Nietzsche’s writings can help inspire entrepreneurs to become heroes, and to overcome the difficulties and fears of the entrepreneurial journey.
Wittgenstein lived a remarkable life, and was himself a larger-than-life figure. He was cousins with Friedrich Hayek. Klimt painted his sister’s wedding portrait. His father was a patron of Rodin. And Brahms and Mahler performed at the Wittgenstein residences when Ludwig was a child.
When he grew up, Wittgenstein made a remarkable impression, even on his fellow geniuses.
If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done. - Ludwig Wittgenstein
Bertrand Russell said that, “Wittgenstein was perhaps the most perfect example I’ve ever known of genius, as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense and dominating.” Russell also said when Wittgenstein criticized his work, hethought, “This is an event of first-rate importance in my life and affected everything I’ve done since I saw that [Wittgenstein] was right. And I saw that I could not hope, ever again, to do fundamental work in philosophy.”
The economist John Maynard Keynes expressed his first impression of Wittgenstein even more succinctly. He just said, “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Wittgenstein was obviously smart and somewhat obsessive, traits which helped him have a huge impact on philosophy.
At the time, philosophy was going through what has been described as the “linguistic turn,” which asked whether philosophical problems were actually problems of language.
The limits of my language means the limits of my world.- Ludwig Wittgenstein
For example, during the Christian Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians would ask such questions as: “How many angels fit on the pinhead of a needle?”
The linguistic turn would say, “That sounds like a well-formulated question but that impression is an illusion of language. The fact that we can assemble these nouns and verbs to follow the rules of syntax makes us think there’s a very important question there, when actually, in fact, what we’re asking is nonsense.” In the search for truth, language itself is where we need to start our examination.
In his first great work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein took the logical attack on language, which is “a language is good when it is formulated in clear logical expression” and extended it to its logical extreme. The final words of his book are simply, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
But what made Wittgenstein even greater was that he went even further. His next philosophical system attacked the entire previous system, including his prior views on language.
A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.
― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
What can we understand about the world that we’re in? How do we express that understanding in a form of language that we can communicate with others? And how can we use that understanding to inform our theories of the world, our theories of humanity and our theories about what is and isn’t possible?
Wittgenstein expressed some of the tensions in these views in his famous aphorism, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
That focus on language and what that means for identities, how we communicate and how we collaborate is one of the key learnings I drew from studying Wittgenstein. And while this may seem like a purely intellectual debate, it has actually led to some of my investments and business dealings.
To some degree, the way that we work together collaboratively is a ritual practice, like Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox.
The meaning of our rituals, and how we change and extend them, is something that Wittgenstein called an “agreement in form of life.” We decide on the most effective rituals (e.g. How do you run meetings? How do you collect feedback? How do you coordinate all your work?) based on their application, and whether or not they help us create a high-performing team.
When politicians and business people claim that philosophy is all well and good, but there has to first be food on the table, this is a hopelessly unaspiring and old-fashioned view. One could just as easily argue the exact opposite. That delicious meals can only be served once we have understood the depth of the world’s challenges and created companies that can solve them and make money doing so.
I have witnessed that our youth are fortunately beginning to realize this. This is impressive in itself, because we have not helped them much in reaching these realizations through our education systems. But they form new types of networks, where they make each other aware of these things. This is the beauty of communication.
The same young people also sought the combination of teaching mentioned, for example in programming and philosophy. In other words, we need to get to know the technologies of the future, but we must also think about what we want to achieve with them. Technology is just technology. It only becomes valuable and meaningful when we have sat down and thought carefully about what we’re going to do with it in the world. How it can make a major difference.
It also follows that all innovation and everything new is not automatically good. It is only when we look at things from a philosophical, anthropological, and ethical perspective that we can dissect the new knowledge and new opportunities, and actively and critically decide what we want to do with them. This is why the humanities should have a place much further along the food chain and in our mindset in the future. For there is no liberty without morality, and one needs to study philosophy to first wrestle with the idea of what is moral.