Ciaran: Hi Brennan, so just to start things off, could you tell me a bit about your personal and philosophical background?
Brennan: I grew up in a family of people with what you might call ‘unorthodox’, careers. Everyone was an artist or musician. But while my parents were musicians, they also had teaching degrees, and so from Year One onward, I was home-schooled, which meant that it was a fairly ‘off-grid’ upbringing. When I went to university, I had already come across some ideas from Nietzsche and different thinkers, and I'd been encouraged to ask questions, something which I think primed me for philosophy. But I didn't have anyone in my life that would have called themselves a ‘philosopher’.
In fact, when I first went to university I was studying radio broadcasting and working in communications at the university radio station. I was studying at a liberal arts university called Spring Arbor University in Michigan, and as part of that curriculum I took an Introduction to Philosophy Class, which I loved. Specifically, I enjoyed being given the space to be curious about questions, where the emphasis was on the question rather than a specific answer. So I switched my major to philosophy because I thought that if I learned how to think, I could can come back to radio and have more to say. I've never made the move back to radio, but that arc - of thinking better so that you do better - underpins what I'm doing with my company, Philosophy at Work. For example, I've worked with the Saracens rugby team, where they have a philosophy club for the players. Once a month after the training, the players get together and do philosophy together. Being a professional rugby player is a line of work that one might not think lends itself to philosophy, but how the players understand their roles and how they work together impacts what they do on the field.
Ciaran: Great stuff and I'm very interested that the Saracens have a philosophy club! So, could you tell me more about your work and your organisation?
Brennan: Sure. Philosophy at Work is a business that I started to help people do their best thinking. I work with businesses and their people to develop the kinds of thinking skills that you need to thrive in the modern world of work. I tend to work with companies in three main ways. I give talks that help large audiences think differently about topics; I deliver training sessions on skills such as wise decision making and navigating change; and I facilitate idea-development meetings for teams.
Ciaran: Has it mainly been within the private sector so far?
Brennan: No, actually; private and public. There's a lot of uncertainty across sectors at the moment, and ‘'cognitive readiness' - the ability to respond to challenges and think well in stressful situations - is increasingly valuable regardless of where you work.
Ciaran: Great. So how did this all begin? Obviously you’ve talked about growing up and your time studying, but how did it go from that to it being your work exactly?
Brennan: The journey from academic philosophy to Philosophy at Work was quite organic. I finished my PhD on the topic of trust and betrayal just after the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when there was a real need to think well about trust. I began consulting to companies that were trying to navigate trust challenges, but that work broadened as I realised that the approach I was taking on the specific topic of trust was a philosophical one with specific ways of thinking at its heart, and those approaches could also help people wrestling with other topics and challenges. While doing my own consulting work, I was also teaching courses like Ethical Leadership at The Foundation for International Education and I was a faculty member at The School of Life. The combination of my own work with clients and my collaborations with both of those other groups made it clear to me that there was a real need in the workplace for the kinds of skills that philosophy affords -- skills like critical thinking, inquiry, and clear communication.
Ciaran: In Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman's Socrates Tenured they note that, "the challenges of contemporary society are now more philosophical than technical in nature. But we face two intertwined problems: the flight of society from philosophy and of philosophy from society." They focus on an academic construal of the second problem: how working predominantly in universities affects philosophers' relationships to society. But they point out that the "first problem also deserves careful thought", namely the flight of society from philosophy.
Your work seems very relevant to this consideration as does its origins. Your PhD work had a natural bearing on some prominent discussions in public life, and that grew, and then it touched more broadly on what was going on in society by the sounds of it. And of course, one of the most fascinating things about what you're doing, and the kind of insights that your work must provide, is that work is one of the largest dimensions of all of our lives, and for most people's lives it is the biggest part. So when it comes to the relationship between society and philosophy, there's probably not many things where there's more to be considered then philosophy and work. So, how has what you've been doing affected the way you think about work?
Brennan: That's a great question. I want to first, though, touch on something you said previously about the relationship between philosophy and society. There's probably a couple things that could be said that pivot on what we mean by philosophy. In the West at least, I think philosophy has been reduced to a kind of analytical science about how concepts hang together. While it is incredibly valuable to understand the logic of how ideas relate -- and while that is something I do with clients when we’re working on their strategies -- sometimes that approach to philosophy can result in hyper fine-tuned arguments that feel disconnected from practical reality. For this reason I think that, to some extent, society sees philosophy as interesting but as just asking impractical questions. Which is a shame, because philosophy has so much more to offer. In fact, the problem of reducing philosophy to abstract analysis has gone so far that sometimes people will use the term 'philosophical', as in "I'm just going to be philosophical for a moment" or "I'm just thinking philosophically", to mean ‘blue sky thinking’, or taking a moment away from what is practical.
To be honest, I really struggle with the distinction between the philosophical and the practical, because I think philosophy is incredibly practical. If we go right back to understanding it, not as is oftentimes assumed in academic analytical philosophy, but rather to the etymology of the word: 'Philo' means love and 'Sophia' means wisdom. So philosophers should be loving wisdom in the most explicit terms; and maybe that's vague, but if you're trying to work out how best to live and how to make sense of life and what we can really know... What you know and what you believe is of huge practical importance. It informs how you navigate life.
Just take a current event: If you think that there will be a No Deal Brexit, that might make you make a particular type of business decision. If you think that human behavior - including the behavior of the politicians involved in those decisions - will not let something like that happen, then that informs different behaviour. So your assumptions about humanity, your assumptions about economics, really inform practical life. The love of wisdom and understanding, which is a road paved with trying to understand ideas and meaning, is really practical and I think probably that if there is a disconnect between society and philosophy it's one that doesn't have to be there but is instead a misunderstanding between the two.
Ciaran: Definitely that notion of misunderstanding is core, I agree. It's not that there's some fundamental reason why they couldn't be more closely entwined and there's lots of good reasons for them to be so, it's often a matter of miscommunication.
Brennan: Right. There are some practical challenges. Not least, because philosophical methods begin with generalisations and then work back from there. So you might ask a really broad question and then say "is that always the case?" or "can we think of a counter example?" And if we can find one then our initial generalisation is too broad and we whittle it down and we refine it and then we go again. That's a sort of basic approach that philosophers use with thought experiments. But if you've got a busy day job and you're trying to run a business and you're working out your strategy, and you've got to just sort of go, "Okay, I want my products to be really meaningful, I want to add something good into the world" then it might feel frustrating to start with some really big, general questions and then whittle it down from there.
However, I'm not saying that I think every company needs to start each today asking the broadest questions such as whether or not there's a god! But there will be times when you might want to ask such questions because your beliefs about how you understand the human beings that are using your products, and the meaning they attach to something that might involve something relating to religious ideas, that could very well inform the assumptions that you’re making. So I think there will be times when you want to do that. Beyond that though, we need people each day to stay curious, ask good questions, and think critically.
Ciaran: You mentioned this idea of deconstructing the tools of philosophy, and it made me think about how Frodeman and Briggle touch on something similar in the book I mentioned, about what philosophers "habitually do"; thought experiments and the whole gamut of things philosophers do by habit. There are habits of the practice of philosophy that we take as being what philosophy involves and what a philosopher is supposed to do and so on.
When deconstructing the tools of philosophy and applying them, or using them in the work that you do, what surprised you in this regard? When you went from an academic environment to what you do now - and especially now that you've been doing this for quite a while - did you find that the things you'd thought of as being 'the' ways to do philosophy, changed? Or, at least, are there things that you have added to the roster of your philosophical practice which you hadn't come across in an academic environment?
Brennan: Well, if you strip it right back, what do you have to do to be doing philosophy? And what real value does that add to work? What are the kinds of things that I might have thought were philosophical but are not so useful, or things that I just took for granted but actually turned out to be really useful? I've done sessions with teams experimenting with how they use symbolic logic, for example. In this specific case the I was working with communication professionals, strategy leads and people working in social media and marketing and so on. I taught them some basic symbolic logic, and then we looked at political tweets they had been engaging with in their work and considered what would happen if we tried to analyse these by reducing them to their symbolic statements. For example, we were asking things like “Is there a conclusion in that tweet, and does it follow from the premises implied? And what does this tell us about how the philosophical practice of using symbolic logic can help us in our work with?”
That session using logic to analyse political messaging brought up some really interesting things that made us question our own biases. For example, there were tweets from politicians that we disagreed with where we found ourselves wanting to say "this is surely not a good argument" but then by putting it into symbolic logic, we could say "okay, well I'd still disagree with it, but the form is valid and maybe I specifically take issue with one of its premises not being sound". Likewise, we identified politicians we might tend to agree with, but who, when seen through a more objective and logical lens, were actually, not winning the argument. That was a very interesting session, and I think before that experience I would have said that only analytic philosophers would really warm to symbolic logic and other people wouldn't really have time for it. Yet the response was very positive and the people in the session were saying how they could really see how this could help them with their work as it was making them confront some of their biases when doing practical work.
Beyond actual methodologies, I think the thing that I've come to realise is that even if I don't get people doing logic or doing things that people in academia would, perhaps, recognise as philosophy, if we can get people in companies to be tenacious, I think that's really key to helping them benefit from philosophy. Whenever philosophers do philosophy, at some deep level I think there's a desire that makes them tenaciously ask "is that really true? There must be more to this. I want to dig deeper and really understand this, I'm not satisfied with with just the surface level, commonsense view about this thing". If I can get one person in each company, or one person sat around every board table to be really skilled in - if it's a skill - or at least have that trait, to push their colleagues to keep asking questions in a way which is really positive and winsome, that’s great. They are the person who will ask, "have we got to the bottom of this thing or do we just want to move on too quickly?" If we can help that person ask those kinds of questions in a way which brings their colleagues with them, then I think that's a real asset.
Ciaran: One thing I've noticed from doing these interviews is people are very interested to know literally what does this public philosophical work look like. Because of philosophy's association with more formal academic contexts, some are surprised to learn that others are doing it in these informal environments, in galleries and on walks and in pubs and in communities and in all sorts of places. So it's really interesting to hear how it occurs in a workplace context too, which is something apart from both of those. What sticks out from what you just said is how you’re trying to create a kind of environment or maybe change the culture of somewhere slightly, making this philosophical element of work fit in a bit more smoothly and so on. There is an expression on your site where you are talking about how you want people to address the elephant in the room, to have good disagreements. I like the expression you use: "we are sensible rebels".
The work required to create philosophical environments - especially for people who may be unfamiliar with them and perhaps most of all within the workplace - is often taken for granted. People might recognise the kind of interstitial times that philosophy can just crop up in conversation, even at work, but engineering it in non-academic places is difficult (and not always perfectly achieved in academic settings by default, of course). So how do you find doing this yourself? How do you create an environment for 'sensible rebels' where people might disagree but not in a way that's gonna fall apart and bring out all the worst of office politics?
Brennan: On the one hand it is sometimes about addressing culture, so that people feel a space has been made which is safe and is one where they can ask the questions they have. The result is that colleagues are better able to dig deeper than just the politically, professionally safe pleasantries. This goes right back to my work on trust. While I still do work with companies that just need to understand trust per se, a lot of times where that trust work comes in is actually when I'm facilitating a senior leadership meeting, or a larger whole company session. Understanding trust and how to make a safe space for people to feel that some parameters have been set so that now they're in a space where this is what we're going to do is vital. If I just walked into a room and said "right, what are your questions?" no one's going to say anything. But if we explicitly set expectations, we can deliberately come together to dig deeper.
So, we first need to address the cultural point and cultivate psychological safety. But, interestingly, if we thought about it purely in that way, if we just said "more trust means more philosophy", that wouldn't be correct. A big part of philosophy is not just trusting what other people say or just taking things at face value but actually questioning and taking things a bit deeper. So there's an interesting relationship between trust and philosophy where we're trying to say you need it to have the safety in the room for people to do it, and yet we don't want too much. I think that goes back to the philosophy of trust. The most helpful way to understand trust is not just a case of taking everything for granted, of just trusting everyone wholly. We don't just want more and more trust, we want trust that is appropriate, we want trust that is responding to trustworthiness and safety in terms of creating a safe space in the room, but which still leaves room for people to ask questions that are positive.
This is all part of what I mean by being ‘sensible rebels’. We're trying to help people find ways of getting out of normal and broken ways of working, but we're not just here to cause trouble. It's like the phrase ‘good trouble’, which came out of the US Civil Rights movement - challenging the status quo for a good cause, but in a responsible and respectful way.
The other thing to say is that culture change can be hard and slow. You might be working with a group of people who say, "well I'm on board with this stuff but my boss isn't, or the rest of my team isn't". So in those cases I can share very practical tools just with them in particular; ways of mapping out their ideas or taking a challenge that seems really complex and woolly and having a process to break it down into its parts. I think that's also a way of getting people to do philosophy in their work. Ideally you'd have the culture and the tools but sometimes it's valuable just to say, "okay, the culture's going to catch up, but for now here's a method that anyone can pick up and it's gonna help them stay objective when they're under stress and navigating change".
"There's an interesting relationship between trust and philosophy [...] you need it to have the safety in the room for people to do it, and yet we don't want too much."
Ciaran: One thing that crossed my mind is how embedded the work you do with people becomes, but considering those two elements makes it a lot clearer. The tools might be developed in an individual or a group of people but there has to be a culture in place as well.
So one thing I like to ask people is that a lot of this conversation is premised on you doing philosophy and doing philosophy in all these places, but obviously this is your work as well, this is what you do for a living. So I'd be interested to know in what ways - if it has - this work has changed you?
Brennan: I think it has definitely changed me. It's continued the change that I experienced when I was studying philosophy and working in an academic context, and that is just the impact that philosophy can have on you, making you question your assumptions and refine your thinking. That said, the change has increased as I’ve done philosophy within businesses. The work has really pushed me to challenge things that it would have been easy for me to take for granted in an academic philosophy department. It's nothing against academic philosophy departments, but they have cultures just like any business has a culture, and for good reason: it would be really inefficient if every time you had a conversation with someone in an academic philosophy department you had to start from scratch and you couldn't make any assumptions that they had read important academic papers, or that they knew some of the basics about philosophy. But when you ratchet that up, there are certain types of arguments and certain types of things that you can say in an academic department which will not really be questioned very much because everyone takes it for granted. So I think there were some things that I learned and took for granted in academic philosophy departments which people pushed back on when I started doing philosophy out of that context. Some of which were the kind of examples that I thought were fine examples to use as thought experiments in academic contexts. Through continued learning, I now have a better grasp on how to connect rigorous philosophy with real-world business challenges.
So it's challenged me to refine my understanding of how one does philosophy. While I personally might find it valuable to simply analyse and digest ideas, for the law firm or creative agency I’m working with they're going to say something like: "that's sort of interesting, but that doesn't make a difference for us". The challenge for me is to always be doing "real philosophy", which is to say an authentic and rigorous pursuit of truth and wisdom, but in a way that provides practical help to real professional challenges. That is the challenge but it's also the thing that makes it do real work for people.
Ciaran: That sounds like a really rewarding challenge! Before we wrap up, is there anything we've touched on you'd like to embellish on further, or anything that we haven't which you’d like to mention?
Brennan: One thing to add is that I've learned there are some things which philosophy is best placed to help with and there are some things where, say, psychology or behavioural economics would be best suited. The things that philosophy is really brilliant for and where I think only philosophy will do, are places where understanding and making sense are critical. If you want to change a groups behaviour then understanding is important and so I would always make the case for doing philosophy in the early stages of trying to strategically change a culture in an organisation. If we want to build trust we have to know what we mean by trust in order to build it efficiently. So we need to do philosophy at that point.
But at a later stage in that project a psychologist or a behavioural economist is going to be really helpful in knowing how to nudge people, and know how to make it more likely for people to adopt that new behaviour. Where I think psychology and behavioural economics has less to say, and actually what philosophy has made an art out of throughout history, regards purpose, meaning, and foundational reasons on which to base decisions. So if you're running a business, say a law firm, where justice is central to it, or you're trying to help your clients with a specific strategic challenge then understanding that challenge is really critical and it's going to save you a lot of resources if you can cut to the chase and have a foundation on which to draw. Understanding is half the battle if you want to do behavioural change because if you don't understand where you're going and you don't have the right assumptions and beliefs then it's not going to help. So I think where philosophy is really well suited is those kinds of situations where we say let's dive deep and let's understand and make sense of this and develop a shared language around something, so that we can bring the team together and we can all move forward.
Ciaran: I think that calibration about philosophy’s place elsewhere is a common experience for people doing public philosophy - both where less and more is needed. Thank you for speaking with me Brennan, it’s been a pleasure.