Philosopher in Business, Part 1

by Jonathan Halvorson
The tribes of businessmen and philosophers live, for the most part, in mutual incomprehension and hostility. It is the rare philosopher who understands–emotionally, not just intellectually–why I left the field for a career in business, and even worse, health insurance. Couldn’t I just have started working in porn instead, and saved more of my soul? It is no less rare to come across someone in the corporate world who understands why anyone would want to do something as navel-gazing and irrelevant as philosophy. The first reaction is usually eye-widened surprise, and then the residue left is a taint. For if I ever seriously wanted to be a fussy professor of philosophy, can I now be serious about business, or am I just an idealist disguised in a suit?

ScreenHunter_01 Apr. 18 09.36 So why did I abandon my previous tribe mid-stream, while teaching at a very good research university only two years out of graduate school? The decision went down like this:

My position at the time was not tenure track, so in December 2002 I was back at the annual slave auction….that is…the American Philosophical Association convention. I had just interviewed with a university in California that was arguably the best of the lot I had scheduled. As I exited the room, I thought: I do not want this job. In fact, I didn’t want any of the jobs for which I was interviewing. To clear my head, I decided to leave the convention. This being Philadelphia, I set out to walk from the convention center from the Art Museum. By the time I reached the triumphal steps where Rocky Balboa gave Philadelphia a reason to continue existing, the proverbial enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders: I was done being an academic philosopher. Despite over 10 years of training and the fact that I had wanted to do philosophy from the moment I knew that it was a thing one could do, I would quit.

If I had been more self-aware, I would have seen that I was edging myself out the door for some time. I hadn’t mustered the motivation to prepare for my interviews. I had been depressed for over a year about the fact that I hated teaching, and that it left me so drained on the days I taught class that I could get almost no other work done. I looked ahead and saw a cascading series of dispiriting events: I probably would not be a very productive writer while I taught, which meant that I would likely not get a tenure track job at a top university in the near future, which in turn meant that I would be expected to teach heavier workloads with worse students, which would reinforce my enervation and depression, which would…one gets the idea. Repeat a few cycles, and the outcome is a thoroughly mediocre career. Better to cut the losses and get out while I was, if not young, still in my early thirties.

As much as it was an attempt to understand the likely outcomes, the cause-and-effect chain described above was also a story that I was writing as I lived it, and even before I lived it. It was less a prediction than a decree and a pre-emptive surrender of one set of struggles in order to begin another. Because aside from the teaching, there was of course the matter of the institution of academic philosophy itself, which I, like many students, had struggled with for years.

Rather than rehash the problems contemporary academic philosophy has brought on itself, it is enough to mention in passing the petty infighting, the often arbitrary nature of paper reviews, and the preference for technical puzzle-solving over direct and meaningful engagement in the stream of public conversation. To find value in the profession, I had chosen a specialization (the methodology of the social sciences) that seemed among the most likely to have an actual impact on the ongoing activities of real people, because there is still extensive tension and confusion in the social sciences created by their twin roots in the humanities and natural sciences.

The decision to enter health care depended on a different calculation of opportunity. Of American industrial sectors, health care and the military stand out from the other nations of the world as bloated money sponges. Health care, unlike the military, has components within it (the insurers) that at least in principle should be able to limit costs. For a $2.8 trillion dollar industry, that would be less than $2 trillion if we were spending at the rate of any other nation, there is a lot of fat to cut. This implies almost the opposite of what most people associate with American health insurers: they are too stingy, cut care too much, and hurt the incomes of doctors and hospitals. The far bigger problems are that health insurers (private insurers as well as public insurers like Medicare) pay for too much, they pay too much for it, and physicians and hospitals generally are growing their income more quickly than the economy as a whole.

Putting aside the nuts and bolts of health care, has a degree in philosophy helped or hurt in this adventure? The short answer is: neither. The cultures of business and academia, particularly Philosophy, are dramatically different, though I have never felt at a disadvantage compared to those with MBAs in identifying the needs of the business or completing a project. And as much as I wish that I could agree with Matthew Stewart that business people should get degrees in Philosophy instead, the evidence points to something else: both talent and success in business (not the same thing) conform far more to basic habits and traits of character (foremost among which is not b.s.-ing yourself) than to educational background. More on that, and on what I've learned about the respective cultures of business and academia next time.