Thursday, November 19, 2015

Toward Philosophy of Entrepreneurship

Specialty areas of philosophy that relate to a professional field (e.g., philosophy of law or philosophy of science) suffer from an ambiguity in their identity. Are such studies part of philosophy generally, or part of the field itself? The ambiguity arises in part because philosophy itself is usually considered a distinct field within the academy, rather than merely as a way of looking at things. A further confound is that any such specialized philosophy borrows methods and concepts from more general philosophy and may depend on its more general results. The ethics of science cannot be sundered from ethics any more than it can from science.

Despite this categorization challenge, we can normally establish a general sense of the subject matter to be considered in a philosophical specialty. We might say that it comprises the most general topics that relate to the field, or involve the application of more general philosophical conclusions to aspects of that field. In the analytic philosophical tradition it might involve careful review of the central terminology, whereas in the continental tradition it could explore the deeper meaning of the field or of being a member of it. To the extent that philosophy interacts with substantive theories within the field (those quotidian to the practitioner), the specialty philosopher aims primarily to contextualize and explore broader implications of a theory rather than passing judgment on its merits and particulars.

With that introduction we can consider the possibility of a philosophy of entrepreneurship. Academic courses have started to arise with this title, usually with a mix of a small amount of philosophy and a larger amount of substantive theory. But we can quickly see that entrepreneurship, as a rapidly growing and evolving professional field, admits of the same sort of analysis that science, law, or technology have undergone. We can ask questions like what entrepreneurship is, what is its value and how can it be used to implement values, what sorts of epistemic concerns arise, and how does it interact with human action, technology, sociology, economics, and politics along with their philosophical underpinnings. We can look at its practitioners and its place in their lives, and even whether there is an aesthetic element to it.

In contrast with my usual practice of commencing a topic by working through analytically-styled definitions, I will take this opportunity instead to explore some metaphysical aspects of entrepreneurship through a continental lens. My purpose in this is not to provide a definitive elaboration, but rather to show some possible connections with established philosophy, thereby beginning the process of treating philosophy of entrepreneurship as a genuine discipline. Do not despair if some of what follows seems obscure or patently obvious. Instead, allow it to inspire ideas of your own, even if they may be contrary.

Every entrepreneur begins with an idea combined with a desire. We all know people who have one or the other but not both; such individuals are not entrepreneurs, although they may be valuable in an entrepreneurial endeavor. The two elements are combined via a relation: the desire is for the idea to be realized.

As in most creative pursuits, and entrepreneurship is surely creative, the idea along with the desire for its realization often comes suddenly, as a spark or a flash of insight. This is the moment when the entrepreneurial journey begins, when the entrepreneur has the epiphany “it must be so”*, and is committed. Third-party assessments of the strength of this commitment may vary, since we know that psychologically, many entrepreneurial personalities are prone to changes of heart, and in any case the commitment may only be to perform an initial exploration or to start off in a general direction. Yet the phenomenology of this moment for the entrepreneur is one of genuine commitment, of heaviness, possibly of destiny or fate, or alternatively as a definitive exercise of free will. “It must be so, and I will make it so.”

We might be struck by the correspondence between what has just been said and Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as will and representation, also the title of his principal work. The entrepreneurial idea is necessarily a representation – it is something that does not exist in the world, but only in the mind of the entrepreneur. Now, Schopenhauer actually takes representations to fully constitute the world that we experience, as phenomena; they are as close as we can get to any alleged external world. The idea held by the entrepreneur is in a sense even further removed, in that it belongs to a class of fictional representations that we believe do not exist, even as phenomena. The will, then, seeks to transform this fictive representation into one that we experience as a direct phenomenon. It is the conduit for the becoming of the idea, which at first exists only as representation, and later as phenomenon, and finally as a representation of that phenomenon.

Despite the enticing correspondence and the possibly rich lessons we could extrapolate, we are not bound to the metaphysics of German idealism. We can say more simply that the entrepreneur has an idea and seeks to realize it. The word “realize” here implies that there is a real and external world, distinguishable (though not dualistically distinct) from the mind in which the idea is constructed. The entrepreneur uses her mind to construct the idea, her will to commit to it, and her will, mind, and body to realize it and then to perceive it as realized.

The satisfaction of having an idea realized in this way cannot be overstated. Nietzsche might classify it as an exercise of our will to power, our essential nature that drives the best of us to create, in the world, according to our own vision. But no matter our preferred notion of will, to have independently (and therefore authentically) envisioned, committed, and finally realized, is a satisfaction of will and among the most rewarding experiences of life. The vision, the commitment, and the struggle to its realization: these are all filled with meaning to the entrepreneur as a human being. It is possibly the quintessence of Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world.

Another important idea in continental and existentialist philosophy is disclosure, which is a kind of uncovering, a revealing of a truth that was previously hidden or inaccessible. The first glimpse of such a putative truth occurs whenever someone has a creative idea, whether or not accompanied by desire. The entrepreneur, who brings forth desire, commits to unfurling that truth and completing its disclosure through action.

We are tempted here to say that success for an entrepreneur is when such a truth is fully disclosed in the form of a human need and a way to fulfill it. But building it does not ensure that they will come; if they do not come, what was disclosed was not the truth envisioned – rather the opposite. The market might be too small, the competitors too strong. Yet, errors of execution or shortcoming of effort aside, there is a sense in which even a contrary disclosure constitutes success.

Simone de Beauvoir explores disclosure as it applies to the self. From an existentialist viewpoint, humans live in an anxious ambiguity between having no purpose arising unprompted from our mere existence, and having the freedom or will to create that purpose on our own. How we live our lives discloses our purpose and defines who we are. The entrepreneur, who envisions, embraces, and realizes an idea, creates her purpose through this vehicle and discloses important truths about herself, thus (paraphrasing Nietzsche) becoming who she is. Whether or not the original idea is disclosed as a truth, this self-disclosure is heroic! Most humans pass life watching the shadows flicker on the walls of the cave.

Up to this point, our discussion is not strongly particular to the entrepreneur – it is largely applicable to any creator, including for example artists and authors. What is essentially different about the entrepreneur is that his idea describes an instrumental outcome. True, the works of artists and authors sometimes have an instrumental component in persuading the audience or moving it emotionally. But these goals remain somewhat mental, and any residual instrumental outcome is achieved through a pathway of conditioning rather than directly. So the creation of the entrepreneur emphasizes direct instrumentality: “I will build a better mousetrap, and people will use it to catch mice.” We see further that the entrepreneur must intend to fully realize the idea in its instrumental form. A design, a patent, even a prototype, is not the objective of the entrepreneur, though these artifacts may be milestones along the way.

We could explore many other razors to distinguish entrepreneurship from other endeavors. Intuitively, not all entrepreneurship is commercial, and not all commercial enterprises are entrepreneurial. Where might we draw these lines? Does the entrepreneur need to intend an outcome that is ongoing or self-sustaining, or do projects and expeditions qualify? Is a particular scale for the endeavor a desideratum, and related to that, is an organization required? We cannot answer all these questions here, but we can explore one final topic that might provide some clarity on these issues.

Theories about entrepreneurship make much of the concept of market disruption, essentially Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction.” Drucker views innovation as central to entrepreneurial endeavors. But what drives an entrepreneur to innovate and disrupt? Whence the “desire” that is so crucial in what we have discussed? Perhaps Nietzsche offers a hint: “This, yes, this alone is revenge itself: the will’s revulsion against time and its ‘it was.’” The will feels free to act in and on the future, but is helpless against the past. It acts in a spirit of revenge (broadly construed) to right the wrongs, to correct the errors, to establish that the will has its transcendent power after all, despite the facticity of what exists today. And indeed if we examine the psychology of an entrepreneur, we often find not just a desire to improve, but disdain or contempt for the present state of affairs, and sometimes frustration with or anger toward those who made that world. “This cannot stand,” says the entrepreneur, and he endeavors to innovate and disrupt, thereby wreaking revenge on that past, that time which he cannot change, and venting his will in a glorious act of creation of the future.

* Milan Kundera explores the notion of es muss sein (“it must be so”) in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.