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Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations
Anthony Kenny, Oxford Professor of Philosophy, tells us that the questions I have been asking about wisdom and its origins ‘belong to philosophy’:
“The ambition of philosophy is to achieve truth of a kind which transcends what is merely local and temporal; but not even the greatest of philosophers have come near to achieving that goal in any comprehensive manner. There is a constant temptation to minimize the difficulty of philosophy by redefining the subject in such a way that its goal seems more attainable. …even the greatest philosophers of the past propounded doctrines which we can see – through hindsight of the other great philosophers who stand between them and ourselves – to be profoundly mistaken. This should be taken not as reflecting on the genius of our great predecessors, but as an indication of the extreme difficulty of the discipline. … But we philosophers must resist [the] temptation [to understate the difficulty]; we should combine unashamed pride in the loftiness of our goal with undeluded modesty about the poverty of our achievement.” (Anthony Kenny, 1997, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p 368. I reordered his sentences.)
In the following, I offer a set of six small texts about cultivating and exercising wisdom in organizational settings:
* Taking Language and Listening Seriously
* Language-Action and the Constitution of Organizations
* Preparing for Ethical Action
* Learning and Competence
* “Inventing” Waste
* Pain-Free Wisdom?
Text #1: Taking Language and Listening Seriously
Language underlies everything we understand and know, and underlies all our actions. Words, gestures, pregnant pauses and silence, music, our private moods and intuitions, reflections we share and those we do not, and the conceptions and misconceptions and confusions that abide in language are the space in which we live. We encounter and invent ourselves in language. What we find desirable and fearsome, our ambitions, doubts, and resignations, the identities in which we make sense of ourselves, those with whom we live and work, and our worlds, all these live in language. Our problems with things, observers, and ethics all arrive escorted by and clothed in language. Heidegger called language “the house of being.”
The warp and woof of the tapestry of organizations, and the threads that reveal the patterns of that tapestry, belong to language. Let us take an example. Cars move down assembly lines in the midst of a host of conversations. The stage for manufacturing automobiles is set by an extraordinarily complex set of conversations. Cars move down the lines as people make commitments to build, sell, and buy. Long before any parts move, design engineers give instructions to all concerned about how actors, instruments, and parts will come together into a set of unities that they hope will satisfy customers. In operations, production managers lay plans, workers come to work, suppliers promise and deliver materials, salesmen make offers, and customers accept offers.
All the joys, and all the miseries, all the services, and all the destruction and waste that result from people working together in organizations begins and is shaped in language. Ethics and values are created, understood, passed on, and acted upon in language. And, we vastly underestimate the role that language plays in our affairs as we speak and listen to each other.
The serious student of wisdom and organizations, I suggest, must put language in the center of his inquiry.
The first prerequisite of wisdom is listening. By the word, “listening,” I point to the bio-linguistic process through which we attune ourselves to situations, the concerns of others, our own concerns, and prepare ourselves for action. Listening is exemplified by what happens to us when we read poetry, or attend a great performance and are touched by it. We are altered by the experience of listening. Listening is partially an automatic process that is out of our control, going on continuously in life, while we are awake, and while asleep. We can take actions to “shape” and affect our listening, as when “we take a walk” “to collect ourselves” before undertaking a difficult conversation. We can be responsible for the emotional state in which we will be listening to others.
Following the work of Fernando Flores, I distinguish listening from hearing. I use the latter word to point to the mechanics of receiving and decoding disturbances in airwaves, signs, and signals in our worlds – receiving data. Most people confuse the two. The two are related, but the deaf who were not born deaf listen, just as the blind who were not born blind “see.”
Listening happens all the time, and not just when we are listening to spoken language.
To encounter wisdom in a fresh way in organizations, we need first to get closer to language – to observe some things that happen as we speak and listen to each other.
Read carefully (i.e., listen) to the following pair of passages by Gemma Corradi Fiumara from her book The Other Side of Language, in which she wrestles with the poverty of listening in our time. Neither she, nor Martin Heidegger, whom she quotes, is easy to read. You may have to read each short passage a few times to catch the heart of what she is saying.
“One is often tempted to maintain that the ‘richness’ of our inner world [actually exists as an independent entity], and that the ‘problem’ [of articulating what we ‘understand’] merely consists in [selecting] the words which are best suited to expressing and representing it [the richness of our inner world] in [a way that others can understand what we are talking about]. In this way, we may be tempted to believe that words are ‘like a grasp that fastens upon the things already in being …’ – a grasp which seizes and compresses. In fact, however, the situation is far more complex, demanding and enigmatic than that. The organization of our innerness seems to exist on condition that it is heard … – in effect brought [out] to be born. It is not just a matter of entities lying there [within ourselves] waiting to be linguistically seized and organized in the most [appropriate] expressions. (Gemma Corradi Fiumara, (1990). The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge, p. 148.; Martin Heidegger is quoted from On the Way to Language, 1971, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, p. 68.)
“To pay heed to what the words say is particularly difficult for us moderns, because we find it hard to detach ourselves from the ‘at first’ of what is common [e.g., from the common sense that strikes us immediately from what is said]; and if we succeed for once [in detaching ourselves from the common sense], we relapse all too easily.” (Gemma Corradi Fiumara, (1990). The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge, p. 157. Martin Heidegger is quoted from What is Called Thinking?, p. 130.)
One lesson Greg recommends we take from these passages is this: learn to listen with more patience.
Stay tuned. More to come.
© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
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