Friday, October 14, 2011

Philosophy and Entrepreneurship

Richard Price is a web entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of academia.edu. He is also an academic philosopher, with a fellowship at All Souls College Oxford, and is accustomed to being asked about the connections between philosophy and entrepreneurship. In an article in the latest edition of Oxford Philosophy Magazine (pdf), he offers the following hypothesis.

Some people ask me whether there are any connections between philosophy and entrepreneurship. I think there is at least one connection, which is about attitudes towards problem-finding. Problem-finding comes before problem-solving: you have to find and clearly articulate the problem before you can set about trying to solve it. In everyday life, we often zoom along through logical transitions at such speed that we don’t notice minor glitches in those transitions. I think one thing that philosophers do is try to slow those transitions down, so that we are more sensitive to glitches that may occur. After experiencing a glitch, something that doesn’t feel quite right, instead of marching ahead, philosophers will magnify that sensation of something not feeling quite right, in order to see whether there is an underlying problem in the rational transition.

When looking for business ideas, the analogue is that we often zoom around in life having adapted our behavior so successfully that we don’t often notice the constraints that we are skilfully navigating around. When hunting for business ideas, one has to slow down when one feels that one is navigating around some constraint, and then examine that constraint to see whether it can be removed. This is one of the similarities between philosophy and entrepreneurship for me: in the case of philosophy, one is on the lookout for logical problems with a train of thought, and in the case of entrepreneurship, one is on the lookout for practical problems in a train of activity.

I think this answer implies something about the ability to switch logical levels - to think practically about a business problem, but also to think about how one is thinking about the business problem. Reflexive thinking, we might call it.

Innovation often depends on people finding new answers to questions that most people thought weren't worth asking. For example, when Bill Gates asks "What is a network?", this could either be interpreted to mean that Bill Gates is stupid or alternatively that he is very clever. (Smart money goes with the second of these two possibilities.) See my post What's the difference between judges and geeks?

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