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The philosophy of business knowledge

This article appears in the issue July/August 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 7]

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I've been crawling through a book my favorite college professor gave me a couple of years ago. It's very hard because no topic causes philosophers to tangle themselves up quite so much as does knowledge. You get a philosopher trying to know knowledge and you will soon be lost in a circle of meta-knowing that spawns its own language before cycling into unknowability. It's tough, especially since knowledge has been philosophy's own topic. Philosophy doesn't have a set subject matter, unlike biology or astronomy, so it instead has investigated what other disciplines take for granted, including what it means to know something about living creatures or the stars.

Two questions about knowledge have particularly fascinated philosophers. First, knowledge is a way that human minds are in touch with the world. Because to know the world is to be right about the world, it's a particularly important way mind and world touch. So, philosophers have asked how knowledge, as the connection of mind and world, is possible. This isn't obvious, and in some ways has become less obvious the more philosophers have thought about it, because mind and world seem so different: Mind is an awareness while the world is matter. Or so it has seemed.

Second, philosophers have asked about the certainty that seems to be characteristic of knowledge. If knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion, is justified true belief, what justifies belief? If I think tomorrow is going to rain because it says so in a fortune cookie, if it rains, does my having thought so constitute knowledge? Hint: No, it doesn't. Then what does justify belief?

So, I've been reading this philosophical book about knowledge. It happens to be a particularly difficult one. I basically don't know what the hell he's talking about. But it comes highly recommended by the teacher who did the most to shape my thinking. I know that the book must have deep insights. But meanwhile I'm wondering if anyone ever died of a reading.

Business, on the other hand, is rarely this hard. Business cares about knowledge, but not like philosophers do.

Or does it?

Business certainly cares about certainty. When a business makes a decision, it takes a risk that equates to the degree of certainty possible. Factors are weighed, which means the certainty of their occurrence is assessed. Even the certainty of certainty counts in business decisions: Some analysts are known to be more reliable than others, and some circumstances are capable of greater degrees of certainty than others. Of course, unlike philosophers, businesspeople can't wait for perfect certainty because the world is not perfectly knowable and the future is not perfectly predictable. The issue is always one of how much certainty one can assume. But, good businesspeople, like philosophers, think about knowledge in terms of certainty, sensitive to its various degrees and possibilities in every situation.

Business and philosophy also both care about knowledge as a relationship between mind and the world, as unlikely as that may seem. The problem is that much of what business knows about the world calls non-existent things into existence.

For instance, take a trend. Trends are interesting because they predict the future: If you see a trend developing, you better jump on it before your competitors do! But, suppose what looked like a trend turns out to have been an aberration? The future it foretold fails to materialize. Turns out it wasn't a trend at all. So, we can only know that something is a trend in the past tense, but they're only interesting because of the future tense they promise. It's easy to believe in trends, but trends actually are just a symptom of belief itself: A trend is not a thing but is the belief in a thing.

Markets are a different type of artifact of knowledge. They seem like real things in the real world, but our modern thinking about markets actually names something that would not exist if we didn't give it a name. A market these days consists of a demographic segment, that is, a set of people who have in common some set of statistical characteristics, such as that they are all urban males between the ages of 18 and 24 and make less than $40,000 per year. Or, perhaps we become sophisticated and define our markets via psychographics. Even so, we've defined that market into existence. In fact, what makes one set of demographic information more interesting than another--for example, the set of men who were born in even-numbered years is not a market--is that a particular set of demographics picks out people we believe are susceptible to the same message. Messages make markets. Markets do not exist in the world independent of our knowing them ... and messaging them.

So, businesspeople and philosophers actually are both interested in the same two facets of knowledge: certainty and the relation of mind and world. Businesspeople, of course, are not interested in knowledge for its own sake. They want to put it to use. Philosophers, on the other hand, would rather give us a good, pounding headache.

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