Home > Uncategorized > What are business schools for?

What are business schools for?

from Robert Locke

In his 1927 book, Julien Benda, wrote about the Treason of the Intellectuals (la trahison des clercs) One reviewer (Roger Kimball) noted:

“From the time of the pre-Socratics, intellectuals were a breed apart. They were non-materialistic knowledge-seekers who believed in a universal humanism and represented a cornerstone of civilized society. According to Benda, this all began to change in the early twentieth century. In Europe in the 1920s, intellectuals began abandoning their attachment to traditional philosophical and scholarly ideals, and instead glorified particularisms and moral relativism.”

Benda used the term clercs advisedly, as a special brotherhood, charged with knowledge seeking, who like the monks in the “dark” ages got civilization through barbarism, as the art historian Kenneth Clarke put it, “by the skin of its teeth.”

The subject recurred when Thorstein Veblen, in 1918, criticized the movement to create schools of commerce (business schools) in US higher education, as a return from civilization to barbarism.

John Kent in “The Business School in the Corporation of Higher Learning in the USA,” notes that Veblen

In The Higher Learning in America, speculated on the prospects of the schools of commerce within the American university.

“Specifically he postulated that (a) instruction in the field of commercial training may fall into a more rigidly drawn curriculum, that diverges from the ways of scientific inquiry (b) the college of commerce would divert funds from legitimate university uses, (c) create a bias hostile to scholarly and scientific work and (d) train graduates who would have better skills to predation on the community.”  

According to Veblen, there are people in every society who have “knowledge which their human propensity incites them to cultivate”.  These people exhibit a “blatant pursuit of scholarship”, a “scholarly efficiency”.  They work for the “advancement of disinterested knowledge”.  They have the positive attribute of “idle curiosity”, the display of which works to define the culture of the civilization.  They are internally motivated, the scholarly activity is fulfilling in, and of, itself.    The university is a place for “men with ingrained scholarly ideals and a consistent aim to serve the ends of learning.  The university …is specialized to fit men for a life of science and scholarship”. [Veblen, 1918, p.192]

Veblen juxtaposed the goals and endeavors of vocational training with this ideal of a university.  “An effectual university … sufficient to the single-minded pursuit of the higher learning, would be a seminary of the higher learning as separate from an assemblage of vocational schools. [Veblen, 1918, p.193]. Vocational training “is training for proficiency in some gainful occupation and it has no connection with the higher learning, beyond that juxtaposition given it by the inclusion of vocational schools in the same corporation with the university”. [Veblen, 1918, p.149]  An effectual university should be “concerned with such discipline [vocational training] only as will give efficiency in the pursuit of knowledge and fit its students for the increase and diffusion of learning” [Veblen, 1918, p.151]. The university should be solely for the “pursuit of scientific knowledge and serviceability”.  [ Veblen, 1918, p.194]  The choice is between a “matter-of-fact learning versus advancement of disinterested knowledge…the academic authorities face the choice between scholarly efficiency and vocational training, and hitherto the result has been equivocal”.  [Veblen, 1918, p.160]  Veblen  judged that academic authorities had, by and large, championed the matter-of-fact knowledge and vocational training over the advancement of knowledge.

The Higher Learning in America, then, was meant to be a warning about the cumulative effect of the conduct of universities by business principles.

Post WWII, Americans business schools tried to escape the charge of vocationalism by transforming themselves into centers for the study of prescriptive sciences. With sciences, the business schools would fulfill the mission of the intellectuals, which the establishment figures involved in their reform claim they have done.  It did not matter if business schools represented the rich and privileged if the sciences they used objectively prescribed policies for the real world.  But the claim is bogus; economics and management have not become prescriptive sciences, which means that Benda’s and Veblen’s strictures about the role of intellectuals in societies still apply.

J.C. Spender in his comments talks about “the almost total lack of interest in the ‘theory of the firm…’, politically, theoretically, and historically,” among management academics and economists; Susan Holmberg and Mark Schmitt, at the Roosevelt Institute, observe in “The Milton Friedman Doctrine Is Wrong. Here’s How to Rethink the Corporation,” adding, ”we won’t fix the problem of the gap in incomes between the rich and poor, until we address the nature of the corporation.”

When we address the nature of the corporation we also have to address the role of business schools and how they are integrated into firm governance.  I have discussed business schools for decades, with particular reference to German business studies, that is to an alternative in a very successful economy to the ways of the US management schools (Locke, 1985, 2006, 2015).  Ken Zimmerman commented in the rwer that “generally things that are settled, routine, taken-for-granted don’t rise to the level of conscious discussion and concern very often. They become part of the background of day-to-day life. So, it is in the USA with the firm.”  Is that our particular version of what Benda called, “the treason of the intellectuals?



Kemp, R. (2011). “The Business School in the Corporation of Higher Learning in America.” Journal of Pedagogy. Vol 2, No 2, 283-94.

Khurana, R. (2007). From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Locke, R. R. (1985). “Business Education in Germany:  Past Systems and Current Practice.” Business History Review. 49:2. Spring. 232-54.

_________2008. “Comparing the German and American Systems.”  Roundtable on Business
Education. A Consideration of Rakesh Khurana’s From Higher Aims to Hired HandsBusiness History Review, 82(2), 336-342.

____________. Appreciating Mental Capital (2015).  WEA ecommerce edition.

  1. spender7
    December 14, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    The paradox is that while there is little theoretical, economic, political, or historical interest in a viable and managerially-relevant ‘theory of the firm’ among business school ‘scholars’, everything that goes on within BSchools hinges on the ‘theory of the firm’ assumed/adopted, generally without admission or criticism. OK, that is a ‘scholarly’ issue.

    But, as Krugman says, here’s the thing; the universities are increasingly dependent on their BSchool activities; the tail is wagging the dog, as Duff McDonald makes clear in “Golden Passport” his 2017 book on HBS.

    Yet there is little about what goes on within BSchools – aside from their lower-calibre economics, accounting, psychology, sociology, and IT ‘research’ (i.e. taking place outside the university’s specialized schools of economics, accounting, psychology, sociology, and IT and outside those disciplines’ A-journals) – that attracts acclaim from those disciplines’ real scholars.

    And if that is not curious enough, consider the strangely under-researched impact the widespread availability of ‘management education’ has had on the student body, their parents, and the job market – which it helps stratify even though there is no demonstrated correlation between that education and managerial performance. Given the increasingly difficult job market/future students now face (over a third of all jobs are now ‘gig’ – without benefits or legal protections), credentials have taken on a character quite different from that presumed even in Khurana 2007; especially in the emerging economies.

    In short, management education proliferates as a shameless cultural and political monster, for the most part consuming fruitlessly – benefitting only the BSchool faculty who are, ironically, among the most highly paid in the university.

    What is to be done? ‘Nothing’ seems to be our community’s answer – as we cringe and whistle self-referentially, secretly awaiting the bursting of our bubble. Despite much breast-beating nothing much has changed in the 45 years I have been in this industry, everything has simply gotten more-so. OK, some shout ‘close the BSchools’ and many would applaud. Alternatively we might say, we have the students in the schools, for whatever reason, let’s try and provide them some real university-based intellectual value. Little has emerged from our rigor/relevance debate – and our community’s honest agonizing about ‘curriculum reform’ has not led to significant variation in what is a largely commoditized product – globally.

    Robert argues we deny our schools are ‘vocational’, pretending they are of ‘prescriptive science’. Any serious consideration of their history shows we must agree.

    But what would we teach if we admitted this vocational basis? We would focus on managerial practice and its improvement. Right, but we would still need some ‘theory of the firm’ as a touchstone to discriminate between good and bad practice.

    The ones circulating today are either (a) firm as a mechanism for transforming inputs into outputs efficiently (that meet social goals?) or (b) firm as community of social practice that channels individual’s efforts towards the entrepreneur’s chosen goals. Yet there are no established/empirically tested versions of these theories that we can use to analyze real-world managerial practice. Where do we see compelling analysis of the link between practice and profit (presuming that is a typical rather than universal goal) that does or even should shape management?

    I am an ex-manager and ex-nuclear engineer and have never believed in the science of managing. Coming into the BSchool, I quickly concluded ‘theorizing’ is looking in the wrong place – the drunk looking for his car keys under the street-light.

    We are on sturdier ground when we see the BSchool as one of capitalist democracy’s ‘schools of professional rhetoric’ – the schools of government/public sector being their closest cousin. The point is to shift the emphasis away from establishing a physics-like science and towards recognizing the real goal is ‘persuasion’. The real goal of management education is to produce persuasive managers suited to the current business context.

    Our era is marked by the claim that science is the true test of persuasive-ness – that scientific facts rule. Yet our social life show this is not the case, especially in the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘fiddled facts’. Rhetoricians know persuasion is both more ancient and richer. Science-talk is often privileged but, as Kuhn argued persuasively, is no more than its own specialized rhetoric.

    What do MBAs learn that makes them more employable – aside from selecting and channeling them into the paths of privilege? How to talk, write, dress, and behave as throughly socialized into corporate life. Not how to make their firms profitable, sustainable, ethical, innovative … or any of that nonsense. Appreciating BSchools as schools of private-sector rhetoric helps explain our industry’s growth and current place in the increasingly competitive and ‘disrupted’ global socio-economy – talk right if you want to get ahead – or a date.

    Since there is no ‘science of rhetoric’ we would be forced to reverse the narrowing of our discourse that is key to understanding our history. From the time of Alexander to the mid-19th century the core of teaching leaders (however they got into the process – birth, wealth, power, luck, religion, examination, etc.) was rhetoric – extended to the trivium/quadrivium.

    Can we do better than that? Perhaps, but not by ignoring education’s past and shouting ‘science’. To which academics might add, and how does ‘science’ really work anyway? What do our highly regarded/influential/cited colleagues actually know about its ancient problems – the philosophy of science, epistemology, etc?

    If BSchools are of rhetoric we can also admit they exist to perpetuate the social institutions and cultural systems that led to their emergence and explosive global growth since WW2. But now comes the true role of the university – to be a place (ivory-tower) protected enough to facilitate critique of what others, embedded in the ‘real world’, take for granted, to explore other ways of being. When the four horsemen ride in, as they shall, these critiques might provide seeds for the survivors’ future.

    Nothing reveals the real (and miserable) state of ‘management education’ more vividly than the disappearance of criticism. I do not believe PhD students are now taught how to do it – OK, this might be my shtick but I feel as if my generation was the last that was taught the way to the future is always through the cracks opened up by critique or ‘upending’ the current idols. That is why paradoxes are so important to our intellectual progress – as philosophers remind us. Our community is characterized by paradox – under-examined.

    • robert locke
      December 15, 2017 at 10:19 am

      What an excellent idea, J.C. to teach Bschool MBAs the art of rhetorical persuasion, which has been the tool of achievement employed by all great leaders — Napoleon, Lincoln, Churchill, etc. But can we imagine the numbers-crunching mathematical model-building denizens of business school faculties, actually teaching rhetoric. Besides, as Risk Analysis points out, the process of getting into elites school and the processing of them while there — “How to talk, write, dress, and behave as throughly socialized into corporate life” — is all the persuasion needed..

      • robert locke
        December 17, 2017 at 8:53 am

        Spender7 responded, by email, “Isn’t it wonderful when folks re-discover rhetoric!  Cicero, where are you now that we need you to explain – yet again – how human society works?

    • December 15, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      Brilliant comment. Thank you.
      So we have Paul Krugman intellectually engaging with Steve Keen and after about five minutes Krugman dismissively says: That’s not like any economics I understand.
      And it’s game over. Done. End of discussion. Thank you for playing Steve.
      I ask. Is that a failure on Keen’s part at rhetorical persuasion? My answer is no. The more serious failing is intellectual laziness. Our intellectual elites are not traitors, they are bums.

  2. Risk Analyst
    December 14, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    I believe the author is missing the point of all of this. First, the Veblen quotes are taken out of context temporally in that the conditions existing are now different. Veblen for example highlighted what was a parasitic drain of resources that business schools inflict on colleges which was likely true at the time. Yet now, for the example I will use, the quintessential Harvard Business School (HBS) MBA program has revenues of something like $800 million per year, so instead of being a drain on resources, it has added hugely in money and prestige to Harvard. Additionally, when Veblen was writing, (according to Wikipedia high school movement article), “In 1910 19% of 15- to 18-year-olds were enrolled in a high school; barely 9% of all American 18-year-olds graduated.” While now the percent of the age 25 and over population that has “some college” is around 60%. So Veblen’s attack on using scarce intellectual resources was valid at the time, as a college education is becoming more of a norm, it is less so. In addition, the distinction between vocational training and pursuit of knowledge has become muddied as MBA students may have any of a number of undergraduate degrees and are required to take non-business classes.

    Anyway, to the point: The author is missing the point of HBS. It is not there to teach an even yet higher skillset than a lessor business school. That has absolutely nothing to do with the huge difference in tuition and prestige. HBS graduates went through an extremely brutal screening process to get there and are given business skills and contacts. A company seeks out those graduates to hire because they then do not have to do the screening and education and generate employee contacts, it was done for them by HBS. That is what the company pays for and not some fuzzy higher level of skill set. Hopefully that answers the author’s question in his title. Attacking the education of HBS for its lack of skillful training is missing the point.

    One might do well and garner support in criticizing business schools because they are continuing and enhancing a dysfunctional and predatory capitalist system. But criticizing them for draining candidates away from the anthropology program or because they are not hotbeds of radical thought on changing corporate governance displays a fundamental misunderstanding of why business schools exist.

    • robert locke
      December 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

      Risk Analysis: Why do we need elite schools to screen out the talent in society for firms? They do not do that in Germany and many other countries, with better results for the economy. There are no elite universities in Germany; but there are excellent regional universities, with faculties of business economics that students attend without prejudice. Students in Germany select a subject and are evaluated accordingly, not an elite institution of higher education, similar to the business schools in US universities or the grandes ecoles in France. German firms recruit their employees, carrying out interviews from a much greater talent pool than the American elite schools produce. It is an excellent system and has the advantage of being more democratically integrated into society.

    • Duff McDonald
      December 19, 2017 at 2:55 pm

      Risk Analyst – I’d be interested in hearing just what you think constitutes “an extremely brutal” selection process. The uniquely talented (artistic, craft, thought) do not go to business school. The competition among those who do want to attend business school isn’t so much a winnowing of the world’s top talent, but a carving up of that which is left after the world’s top talent has already left the building. What’s left is merely the best of the rest, hardly a student body worth bragging about. (Although that doesn’t stop them.) That said, you and I are in complete agreement that in the US, at least, they effectively serve as the custodians of predatory capitalism. My biggest qualm is that they do so while preaching the very same values that Spender and Locke find missing from their teaching. It’s hypocrisy at its finest.

      • December 19, 2017 at 4:54 pm

        Hi Duff, I fear Risk Analyst has ‘left the building’.

      • Rob Reno
        December 24, 2017 at 7:43 am

        “[I]n the US, at least, they effectively serve as the custodians of predatory capitalism.”

        I can certainly agree with that. Thanks for naming the beast: predatory capitalism.

    • Rob Reno
      December 24, 2017 at 8:01 am

      “One might do well and garner support in criticizing business schools because they are continuing and enhancing a dysfunctional and predatory capitalist system.”

      Indeed they are, and over the years the Journal of Business Ethics has said as much (using different terminology perhaps). Yet, to all appearances, to no real lasting impact.

  3. Edward Ross
    December 14, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    as an ordinary member of the public I find the above posts conversations and the exchange of ideas very informative and good encouragement to think.

  4. spender7
    December 15, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    OK @ Risk Analyst – let’s not hide behind anonymity and criticize; you know who I am. Your point seems to be that HBS is a selection mechanism. No doubt you are right. Perhaps you are a ‘product’?

    Four things then – for I am not a product and I would love to get an insider’s view. One, why does it take two years – at huge financial and time cost to those going through the process? Two, why do businesses outsource this obviously strategic activity? Does the Navy do it, or does the Navy only need jerks? (I ask, being ex-Navy) Or is it just because businesses are able to outsource and load the cost onto someone else as they acquire their ‘human capital’ at no cost? Is that ‘ethical’, as the products (MBAs) are taught the meaning of this term? Three, what established correlation is there between the selection mechanism and the outcome? Does it actually ‘work’? What are the selection criteria? IQ? Exam-passing ability? Sociability? Gender? (I ask because there is an interesting difference between HBS students and CEOs.) Clearly the HBS process values case-preparation and participation highly. Is this something that successful managers need? Where would the much-lauded Jobs or Zuckerberg or Bezos score on this capability? Or are we talking about corporate stalwarts like Mnuchin? And why do so many BSchools pay little attention to this capability?

    After over a century of this industry’s operation in the US why do we not have compelling answers to these question (and many related others)? Why is there so little research into the impact of the BSchool process – on the students, the firms recruiting, or the economy/polity at large? The only research I know of is Mintzberg & Lampel’s (2001) – which casts considerable doubt on the value. Do you know of other stuff?

    Four, you stress Harvard U’s income and I would definitely agree (somewhat) if you suggest HBS’s ‘real purpose’ is to increase this (see Duff McDonald’s 2017 book). But this raises interesting questions about what is happening to higher education as it is increasingly privatized – no longer considered either a public good or a public duty, more a return on investment – on which, among many others, see Derek Bok’s extremely well informed critiques (twice President of Harvard U). To whit, does our society need this industry any more, now that it has become more or less totally parasitic?

    • Risk Analyst
      December 15, 2017 at 5:29 pm

      Actually I have no idea who you are. The name you post under does not tell me anything, and I am not a stalker and have not tried to research you and if you wanted people like me to know, I guess you would have a hypertext link on your name like others here. I am here to discuss ideas that are of interest to me. Your post is too alienating to respond to much and anyway the answers for the most part are obvious. You and Robert are badly mixing up two entirely different ideas: one that the HBSs are a focal point of an extremely dysfunctional system with the second of trying to question them as if you know better how to be a hiring manager at a large firm. The former is valid, the second is ridiculous.

      • spender7
        December 15, 2017 at 6:54 pm

        Hmm … I though I was linked – jcspender.com

        OK, let’s go to the question you find valid – BSchools as part of a dysfunctional system. Are you agreeing or disagreeing – and why?

      • Risk Analyst
        December 15, 2017 at 7:46 pm

        Look, you are trying to drag me into a discussion and not being very nice about it. I will briefly respond to your inquiry not as encouragement for continued discussion but to close out the discussion with you on this. Demanding to know someone’s name or sneering at their anonymity is not an approach I’d recommend if you really want to talk.

        The higher business schools such as Harvard have evolved into a self-perpetuating loop with corporate entities and I place much of the blame on just a few published research articles and books about maximizing shareholder value from the 1960s and 70s that are heavily relied on in business school curriculum. That shareholder value concept does not exist in corporate charters, but is an artificial construct from neoclassical thought on how markets should work. The loop is complete as firms hire those with that belief system to perpetuate senior management goals of maximizing shareholder value, all of which maximizes CEO stock option values. None of these ideas are original to me and are cited in numerous articles. One separate idea of interest is the same as Paul Davidson’s when he laments the power of Samuelson’s book to misinform generations of students. In the business school situation, an identifiably few articles created a huge and negative impact of stock options on CEO incentives and helped lead to very unfortunate income distribution issues. So yes, they are part of a dysfunctional system. Good luck with your research.

      • robert locke
        December 15, 2017 at 8:25 pm

        Risk Analysis. The French say, from discussion comes enlightenment; that is the goal here. I don’t get too excited when you say that I am mixing up ideas. I can defend myself, but I am more interested in what you have to say about the very intelligent intervention of Spender7. So that the discussion does not end here, but continues for enlightenment.

      • Risk Analyst
        December 15, 2017 at 8:47 pm

        Isn’t discussion great? Wait a minute. Aren’t you the guy that told me I’m not allowed to discuss anything about the Nazi march in Poland because your wife is Polish and I’ve never been there? By the way, my best friend for the past twenty years is a Polish Jew who had much of her family killed in the holocaust. I decide when I want to discuss things and I’m done with this one.

      • robert locke
        December 16, 2017 at 5:16 am

        Rick Analyst: My wife’s grandfather died in Ausschwitz, too, but she says it has nothing to do with Polish Nazi’s today..

  5. December 15, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    oi vey!

  6. December 15, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    But to go to @Risk Analyst’s point, yep, there’s a self-sustaining feedback loop.

    But he (since he’s not looking any more) seems to be assuming everything relevant to this discussion began in the 1960s with some un-cited articles on maximizing shareholder wealth. This presumably a nod to Jensen & Meckling (1976) or perhaps to Friedman (1970).

    But the real point, as Robert has been telling us for decades, goes far further back – if the point is that BSchools are part of a mechanism for sustaining the privileges owners have over those who do the work that generates corporate profit – and whether that is seen as dysfunctional or not. And whether that gets reflected in the BSchool curriculum, research, or practice.

    Which takes us back to the question that began this thread – what are BSchools for? The simplest answer, which seems to be that adopted by most working in this industry is ‘they exist – and provide opportunities for a career’. Why think beyond that fact?

    Well, irrespective what Bob – or I – think, there’s @Risk Analyst’s conclusion – BSchools are part of a dysfunctional system. Shouldn’t those in our industry express concern, or even think about doing things differently?

    If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then let’s get to it. If the answer is ‘no’, is that not ‘ridiculous’?

  7. December 17, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Robert, et al bring up important concerns. But I believe the concerns are a bit off target. First, we need to leave behind this notion of the “life of the mind.” Existential philosophers and social scientists point out that Descartes was wrong. The essence of humanity is not, I think, therefore I am. The essence is instead I act, feel, speak, and learn within a community of my species. This is the only way we become human. Kenneth Clarke is one example why it’s not a good idea to hang our hopes on “intellectuals” and how impractical (non-pragmatic) they are. The monks of the “dark” ages transcribed manuscripts, many of which would surely have been lost. But they did not save civilization, if by civilization we mean all that makes a culture — spiritual, physical, social, etc. It was the simple farmer, artisans, crafts persons, and other ordinary people who saved civilization after the fall of Rome and the “dark” ages. The Monks preserved the treaties of Aristotle, other Greek and Roman writers, poets, and philosophers, the histories of the ancients, and some of the ancient versions of science. But ordinary people made the crops grow, designed and constructed the buildings and cathedrals, and fought the wars that shaped the 8th, 9th, 10th, etc. centuries till the west found its way again. Admittedly, not a very productive way, turns out. The premises of the book are silly and nonsensical. “…humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.” And after 1900, “…intellectuals began to immerse themselves in the unsettling practical and material world of political passions: precisely those passions owing to which men rise up against other men, the chief of which are racial passions, class passions, and national passions.” This is senseless because being involved in such relationships (passions) is part of the human condition. Intellectuals are already involved in it if they still live. Any separation or limitation is short-lived and artificial. Learning to direct these passions in useful and morally satisfying actions is the mark of the maturing of humanity. Then, there is all this talk of humanism. Humanism is what got the species into our current maze. Placing human life and understanding at the pinnacle of life, including other life on Earth and the planet itself. I prefer another vision that in my view has a better chance of saving humanity, the planet, and worthwhile cultural life for all inhabitants of the planet. Humility and commitment to respect all living things, the great mysteries of the universe, and the many understandings of all these. But in this I do make common cause with intellectuals in criticizing and proposing to change humanity’s current mechanistic, cynical, and wholly unsustainable cultures. It’s not intellectuals or intellectualism that will save humankind, but rather recognizing and accepting that humans are not a special or god-like species, that our questions and answers play only a small role in the universe, and that we grow and learn only so long as we admit our many and deep limitations.

    This boils down to business schools as the ultimate intellectualism for business. They are overtly abstract, impractical, and generally filled to the brim with human self-importance and false pride. Their goal is the formation of a human elite to oversee and direct other human elites to subordinate everything that is not human along with all semi-humans. Such schools generally ignore the practicality and wisdom of the ordinary business person who learned tasks and methods from experience with many others involved in business. If you stand outside the formal institution of the business school, supposedly you not only have no legitimate place or role in business, but endanger the “professionals” wherever you show up. Business schools protect their own and everything that might threaten their control of business education focused on elites. This becomes the only legitimate path to business and business education.

    • robert locke
      December 17, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      “The Monks preserved the treaties of Aristotle, other Greek and Roman writers, poets, and philosophers, the histories of the ancients, and some of the ancient versions of science. But ordinary people made the crops grow, designed and constructed the buildings and cathedrals, and fought the wars that shaped the 8th, 9th, 10th, etc. centuries till the west found its way again.”

      Lynn White, Jr. asked me on my PhD writtens, “To what extent can the civilization of Europe, 1050-1350, be called Christian?” — a three hour answer. White was no ideas man; his field of specialization was medieval technology, so he was aware that life and work was the basis of civilization. I’m thinking of wonderful books, like Pierre Boissonade’s on Life and Work in the Middle Ages, a wonderful compendium of labor in the fields, and in the founding of new cities. But let’s stop right there. Much of this work was carried out by Cistercian monks. Why should monks provide the energy for the clearing of the fields and the urbanization? They would not be the force used today.

      So I decided that to answer White’s question, I had to make Christianity an essential feature behind the shaping of live and work in the high Middle Ages, as in the case of the monastic orders. I thought also of Henry Adams essay on “The Virgin and the Dynamo” for an answer. All that human effort directed to the building of Gothic Cathedrals, Notre Dame’s everywhere, and all the effort in the 19th century to build dynamos, or football stadiums, today. Maybe there is something to the idea that “intellectuals,” shape the physical form and content of our world. Which made me think of another very short book from my reading list, Edwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism – a beautiful book, in which he demonstrates how the pinnacle of intellectual achievement of the time took physical shape in the Gothic structures that the hard working guildsmen and peasants built.

      Don’t sell the intellectuals short on their ability to shape how we do things. Theirs can be a force for “good” or “bad,” as in the case of the intellectuals that developed the form and content of business schools, described in Khurana’s book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, The Social Transformation of American Business Schools, and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession PUP 2007).

    • December 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm

      Thanks, Robert. I too believe Ken is a bit off target”. Has he forgotten the Rule of St Benedict? Wasn’t Descartes trying to satisfy himself about the reality of existence as the precondition of there being anything to know? And how can one be “pragmatic” about principles without first having decided what it is one wants to “work”?

  8. December 17, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Where is the Abbasid project in this conversation?

    The Abbasid historical period lasting to the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE is considered the Islamic Golden Age.[45] The Islamic Golden Age was inaugurated by the middle of the 8th century by the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad.[46] The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur’anic injunctions and hadith such as “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr” stressing the value of knowledge. During this period the Muslim world became an intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education as [46] the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad; where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather all the world’s knowledge into Arabic.[46] Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew and Latin.[46] During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, North African, Greek and Byzantine civilizations.[46] “In virtually every field of endeavor — in astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, medicine, optics and so forth — the Caliphate’s scientists were in the forefront of scientific advance.”[47]

    From the Wikipedia entry.

    This is why we have the classicals’ wisdom.

    • December 17, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      Sounds good, but the missing bit may perhaps why it needed to happen. The Iconclasts burning down the Library of Alexandra? ( I ask hoping to hear more about something I’ve really only heard of).

  9. December 17, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    Much of it goes back to Alexander – who systematically destroyed the libraries in the territories he conquered, lessening the likelihood that the peoples would be come sufficiently educated to revolt. The Abassid project attempted to reconstruct what was lost. Likewise it is not clear Caesar destroyed the Library at Alexandria. It seems more likely to have been an accident, given candles as lighting. The difficulty of destroying everything (scrolls etc) led to some of the classicals’ knowledge squeaking through to us, especially in monasteries and other sacred locations.

  10. December 17, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Alexander also thought it useful to bring all available knowledge to his operation. He saw mastering the world as a knowledge-intensive exercise.

  11. December 18, 2017 at 6:36 am

    Robert, et al, my overall impression of “The Treason of the Intellectuals” is that it is a pretentious and overbearing attempt to return intellectualism and intellectuals to the position as central arbiters of life and experience. Per Henri Bergson, processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality. Processes that rationalists and scientists depend on but mostly do not acknowledge. Bergson’s notions are like those of the American philosopher William James. And later in their lives the two corresponded and reflected those conversations in their writings. Their single most significant area of agreement was rejection of intellectualism. Per James, it was Bergson who led him “to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be”… and “to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably” as a method, for he found that “reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it.” I concur with James. Robert, you’re correct that intellectuals sometimes shape our physical, just not always in ways they either accept or understand. In other words, living and life overflow intellectuals’ logic and categories.

    Dave, by invoking the Rule of Saint Benedict I assume you are suggesting some middle path regarding the “treason” of intellectuals. I do not object to that path. I think Bergson and James suggest it. Life and living always overflows logic, rationalism, intellectualism. That doesn’t translate to these actions are useless, just always limited. Yes, Descartes was attempting to verify the reality of existence. He failed. Pragmatism begins with experience, with life whatever paths it flows down, whatever forms it takes. Logic comes from experience, not the reverse. Logic or intellectualism do not give us experience, experience gives us logic, sometimes. Reality is just one of many names we attach to experience.

    Spender7, your description of the Islamic Golden age is correct. One thing you should note, however. The Caliphate followed a pre-Islamic example in creating the society you describe – the Persian Empire. The Persian Empire was the largest empire in human history including more than 700 separate peoples and ethnic groups, in which science and arts flourished, and peace prevailed. Of all those who lived within it the Empire required only one thing – allegiance to the Empire. Many religions and ways of life coexisted peaceful in the Empire. Except the annoying Greeks who refused even to negotiate about becoming part of the Empire. Damned Spartans!

    It is correct I think to say Alexander was an unusual conqueror. He was not just a brilliant general and accomplished warrior, he also knew that he could not control the territory he conquered by force alone. He had to convince these different peoples to stay in his empire. Inter-marrying with local royalty, learning and respecting the ways of the peoples whose land he conquered, and building what today would be called comprehensive data bases helped him achieve this goal. But only for a limited time. As to the library in the city named for Alexander, it was burned several times. I think the most extensive was by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, by accident. A big question for historians and archaeologists is just how many of the “books” were burned.

    • December 18, 2017 at 10:23 am

      Re the para addressed to me, Ken, I was not suggesting a narrow middle way, rather a circuital dynamic whole in which logic, rationalism and (not what you deride as intellectualism but) abstractions or illustrative stories referring to patterns occurring on timescales and in locations other than those we can directly experience. James misunderstood C S Pierce, and by bthe sound of things he misunderstood Bergson, too, who as I read him was defending direct experience rather than decrying the lablels like ‘Life Force’ he was himself using. You say Descartes failed. I say Locke misunderstood him, for it turns out he was right: the brain is not a tabula rasa but has to have had a built-in ability to remember and reconstruct experience and (as it turns out) to use language to index and communicate it. In animals the experience comes first, but what makes man different is his restarting the cycle from language, as in infants finding out what their parent’s words mean.

    • December 18, 2017 at 11:25 am

      Apologies for typos in the above as guests departed. We are supposed to be discussing what business schools are for. I should therefore have concluded with our starting babies with baby talk and, logically, moving that on as far as business paperwork only when they have had some experience of the real business it is supposed to refer to.

  12. robert locke
    December 18, 2017 at 9:04 am

    When I looked at the mental capital necessary to economic flourishing, I first looked at the UK. The scenario you suggest is correct; in the UK economy that flourished in the age of the practical man, people learned to be merchants and mechanics on the job. There were no intellectuals coming out of elite institutions behind the “industrial revolution. But I also learned that the conditions for technology changes in technological demands as we advanced into the last part of the 19th century. When science based industries appeared, the mental capital required for them to flourish came increasingly out of institutions of higher learning, with the proviso that these institutions were integrated into the practical world. No longer could the practical man drive the technological-organizational evolution. To choose the title of my 1984 book, it was the End of the Practical Man.

    I did not arrive at these conclusions by studying economics, but by listening to the people living in the 19th century who were engaged in economic life, i.e., reading into the parliamentary minutes of special committees set up to evaluate the industrial prowess of a nation, reading the correspondence of industrialist, and the publications of professors concerned with educational reform, etc.

    Since the 19th century, intellectual elites have created bodies of knowledge and the research and teaching institutions that codify and impart bodies of knowledge, wherein for the intellectual elites that create them the discussions about knowledge and it development is self-referential. The elites decide.

    One institution that development in US higher education that became a citadel of knowledge, especially in second half of the 20th century, is the elite business school.

    When I asked, what are business schools for? most of you commentators reply that the knowledge they create is not of much use to people in firms, and, from the perspective of the economics of society can be actually harmful. If I had asked a similar question, i.e., what are engineering schools for, or schools of chemistry for, etc. I would get a different answer. Technologically advancing firms cannot operate, as they did in the past, without a scientific source of mental capital streaming out of elite institutions. The problem seems to be in the kind of knowledge we are talking about when we discuss elites and the usefulness of their knowledge creation in the real world. Business school knowledge is much more problematic.

    Real analyst thought that knowledge was much less important in our evaluation of elite business schools, than the role business schools play in funneling the best and brightest management MBAs into firms, that is, business schools screen them out, thereby eliminating the necessity for firms to do it. I suggest that the locus of the recruitment and advancement of their management should be in the firms themselves. In Germany and Japan, where MBA programs never flourished, after undergraduate education, the firm supervised everything.

  13. December 18, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Dave, I’ve read most of Bergson. Never encountered the term “life force.” But my French isn’t as good as it ought to be. I can accept your blending of intellectualism within direct experience. Recognizing that direct experience is always prior to any form of rationalism or logic. Why do you believe the Homo Sapiens brain has to have a built-in ability to remember and reconstruct experience and to use language to index and communicate it? Nothing in the archeological record supports this conclusion. But I guess it could be a faith thing. It is not language or a pre-programmed brain that makes Homo Sapiens different. It’s imagination. And imagination is not a faculty so much as a process of remembering experiences and extending them. Business schools are the result of a long history of experiences in living and their extension by imagination. There are infinite permutations of this combination. Which resulted in what we see today should be a primary focus of anyone looking to understand the questions about such schools presented here.

    Robert, concur with most of your statements. I add only that knowledge does not differ in how it is created. It is all based on experience and Homo Sapiens imagination applied to that experience. This creates not just what is generally considered knowledge but also the practices and theories by which knowledge is sought and arranged. Homo Sapiens don’t have some a’ prior structures of mind that shape its pursuit and presentation of knowledge. So, the process is circular and reflexive. Homo Sapiens imagine what knowledge is and how to get it simultaneously with finding knowledge and presenting it. All from experience and imagination. Knowledge is sometimes explicit but often implicit or tacit. Otherwise, humans would soon be overpowered by the tasks of holding and applying their knowledge. Science is special only in that scientists attempt to make as much of their knowledge explicit as possible and scientists extend the chain of practices for revealing knowledge as far as possible, recognizing to pre-set limit. These are all specific processes that can be revealed just as is the knowledge these processes reveal.

    • robert locke
      December 19, 2017 at 7:04 am

      “Knowledge” is not that simple in the history of business studies they have fought about it for a long time, including the definition of what theyare doing, Science (Wissenschaft) or Kunstlehre (theory of Art, in the sense of what the Germans call Technik,

      1. Erster Methodenstreit, ausgelöst von den Nationalökonomen Weyermann und Schönitz (Grundlegung und Systematik einer wissenschaftlichen Privatwirtschaftslehre und ihre Pflege an Universitäten und Fachhochschulen, Karlsruhe 1912); suchten die BWL in Form einer Lehre von der kapitalistischen Privatunternehmung als festen Bestandteil der Nationalökonomie zu konzipieren. V.a. Schmalenbach hielt dem seine Auffassung von der BWL als technologisch orientierte Kunstlehre entgegen, in deren Mittelpunkt der Wirtschaftlichkeitsaspekt stehen soll (Die Privatwirtschaftslehre als Kunstlehre, in: Zeitschrift für handelswissenschaftliche Forschung 1911/1912).

      2. Zweiter Methodenstreit, ausgelöst von Rieger (Einführung in die Privatwirtschaftslehre, Nürnberg 1927), richtete sich gegen Schmalenbachs Wirtschaftlichkeitslehre; plädierte für eine Orientierung am Rentabilitätsaspekt, der nach seiner Auffassung für die kapitalistische Unternehmung charakteristisch ist.

      3. Dritter Methodenstreit, entzündete sich am Werk Gutenbergs (Grundlagen der Betriebswirtschaftslehre, Band 1: Die Produktion, Berlin-Göttingen-Heidelberg 1951); neben inhaltlichen Aspekten über Geltung des Ertragsgesetzes in der industriellen Produktion und den Verlauf von Kostenkurven wurde die Frage der Zweckmäßigkeit einer mathematisch-deduktiven Methode oder einer empirisch-induktiven Methode kontrovers diskutiert.

      4. Seit Beginn der 1970er-Jahre ist deutliche Belebung der wissenschaftlichen Diskussion festzustellen. Im Mittelpunkt stehen v.a. die Forderung nach empirischem Gehalt (Informationsgehalt) betriebswirtschaftlicher Aussagen, das Problem der Wertfreiheit in der Wissenschaft sowie Überlegungen zur Integration verschiedener sozial- und wirtschaftswissenschaftlicher Einzeldisziplinen (Betriebswirtschafts

      • December 19, 2017 at 10:15 am

        Robert, thanks for the references. I’ll check them out. I’ve written a dozen reports and make 10-12 presentations on the history of US business education, particularly the emergence of the MBA as a central part of that education. So, I’m comfortable discussing that history. I’ve little experience with business education in Europe, including Germany. These references may help fill that gap.

        By the way, I won’t be in Germany for Christmas this year. In the hospital from Dec. 21st till about Jan. 1. Having surgery to remove 50-year-old grenade fragments from my back.

      • robert locke
        December 19, 2017 at 12:26 pm

        While the German professors were founding and discussing the intent and content of a new discipline (BWL) over the past century, i.e.,trying to decide whether BWL was a Kunstlehre, as Schmalenbach said, or a Wissenschaft, a debate was going on between firms and academics about the usefulness in praxis of BWL.

        Generally speaking, the more the professor wanted to make BWL a Wissenschaft, the more people in firms found BWL inapplicable in Praxis and said so. German firms had two advantages in their fight with the professors.

        First, there were no MBAs to claim superiority in general management; the idea of a degree in general management was abhorrent to people in firms and praxis; 2. students specialized, i.e. in accounting,finance, marketing functions, etc. or in a branch, like banking. After one got a specialized degree, he/she went into a firm to work in that speciality and was promoted up the management ladder based on performance (Leistung). The firm was the locus of recruitment and advancement, not the business school.

        The firms and BWL worked out an uneasy compromise by claiming they were involved in different educations. Academia was involved with Faehigkeit, making students capable of learning, the firm with Fertigkeit, training people once in the firm to be ready to successfully carry out their speciality jobs, through on he job training, short post-experience courses, etc.

        In this way the abstractions of Wissenschaft (e.g., neoclassical economics) were tempered by the demand of praxis in firms and in firm related associations like the German engineering societies and the Fraunhofer institutes that introduce firms to new technologies.

        German academic business education, consequently, did not develop the pernicious relations with firm management that MBA education did, by teaching systems of codified knowledge developed in business schools, to MBA students who took elite positions in firms, and installed these business school learned systems into what turned into dysfunctional management procedures.

    • December 19, 2017 at 9:50 am

      I referring to Arthur Mitchell’s 1911 translation of Bergson’s “Creative Evolution”. You are probably right, the phrase ‘life force’ does not seem to occur there, but this does, in direct oppoisition to what you are trying to suggest (on the craziest of grounds: who else would think archeology could pick up meaningfully structured remnants of soft brain tissue?): pp.133-4 in my copy:

      “It must not be forgotten that the force which is evolving throughout the organised world is a limited force … Even in its most perfect works, though it seems to have triumphed over external resistances and also over its own, it is at the mercy of the materialiity it has had to assume. It is what each of us may experience in himself. Our freedom, in the very movements in which it is affirmed, creates the growing habits that will stifle it if it fails to renew itself by a conscious effort: it is dogged by automatism”.

      As it seems a lifetime of defending the weak has led you, Ken, into knee-jerk reactions against even the weak, generating a hubris that seems to prevent you from learning from those who, despite their inarticulateness, are still curious enough to have discoveries and learning to share. Sad, really. And this a warning, not an attack.

      • December 19, 2017 at 10:56 am

        Dave, when I mention archaeological evidence I refer to evidence of actions that can be captured in physical things like house form and size, distance between houses, size and layouts of villages. Not brain tissue that serve as the conduit for such actions. I just believe you have experience and language reversed. In the first instance, language is the result of experience and Homo Sapiens imagination. Then all three impact and change one another.

        The quote you cite in my view in no way contradicts my statements. It’s a bit more flowery than my statements. But other than that, it seems to be saying just what I said.

        I don’t see my job as “defending the weak.” I simply want the entire story to be told of how lives and civilizations are created and maintained. In my view, sometimes elites, whether monarchs, intellectuals, or industrialists steal too much of the story and the credit to favor themselves. I’m working to level the field, so to speak.

  14. December 19, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    To plunge back into the quotidian, here’s a recent report bearing on our thread’s initial question. I fear it illustrates anew the difficulty of answering that question: https://www.efmd.org/blog/view/1439-the-business-of-impact-does-anyone-use-management-research

  15. robert locke
    December 19, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Ken, I’m sure all colleagues send our best to you on your surgery; we know the VA works slowly, but a fifty year wait?

    • December 19, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      Yes, Ken, as always all the best from me too, hoping you’ll have the best of outcomes and a comfortable as well as happy Christmas.

  16. December 19, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    Looking back through Professor Locke’s original posting, this is really a very important issue. I’m seeing neither through Geman nor US eyes, and my mind, though of Veblen’s university type, is not university-trained, but “self-educated” through training in the business of science and immersion in the outcomes not only of scholarship but of technology and the arts of religious lifestyles. I’m therefore interested in what Veblen was saying about “Vocational Training”, both because it ties in with my experience of the disinterest of most of those doing vocational training in the history and philosophy of what they are doing, and because it goes much further than mere “schools of commerce”. He seems to think “The university is a place for “men with ingrained scholarly ideals and a consistent aim to serve the ends of learning … specialized to fit men for a life of science and scholarship”. But how do men [sic] know they have ingrained scholarly ideals until they themselves have had experience of them and of alternatives like (in science) physical exploration and experimentation? Veblen’s idea of a university seems to be more like some Centre for Advanced Studies rather than one for “growing” intellectual minds.

    I learned an older and rather different “Idea of a University” (1852), from the Catholic cardinal J H Newman, which was more on the lines of bringing together people of many types and from many disciplines with the intention of educating them – drawing out their capabilities. It is of course terribly old-fashioned and defensive of religious authority, but the main problems are the same. Like anyone else, “When the Church founds a university, she is not cherishing talent, genious or knowledge for their own sakes but for the sake of her children … with the object of training them to fill their respective posts better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society”. But “there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry … the literary and scientific ‘Academies’ which are so celebrated in Italy and France… The nature of the case and the history of philosophy combine to recommend to us this division of intellectual labour between Academies and Universities. To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and not commonly united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensiing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new.”

    It seems, then, that Newman’s idea of a university is at the opposite pole from Veblens. Nor was he speaking off the top of his head. “About fifty years since [so about 1800], the English University, of which I was so long a member, after a century of inactivity, at length was roused, at a time when (as I may say) it was giving no education at all to the youth committed to its keeping … presents to us the singular example of a heterogeneous and an independent body oif men, setting about a work of self-reformation, not from any pressure of public opinion, but because it was fitting and right to undertake it. … Years passed away, and then political adversaries arose against it … In the former [of two] controversies the charge brought was … inutility; in the latter, religious exclusiveness”.

    I must say reading this again makes me grateful for our having this blog and the WEA generally as a sort of on-line Academy, but the point is whether the Veblen or Newman idea of a university is the more appropriate. I’m seeing Newman’s University as a place where all the schools of learning come together so that students can discover themselves in light of how the other half lives; so a Chesterton can go to a university school of art and come away having learned to listen to himself listening to what others are saying, thereby discovering himself to be a critical thinker and a writer. What I’m seeing in practice is schools of commerce not as one school among a Catholic (all-embracing) many in a university, but as isolating seminaries producing moral authorities: the financial equivalents of those clerics whose competence Newman didn’t undermine but eventually improved via his (1845, so pre-Darwin) “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”.

    • robert locke
      December 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      “To discover and to teach are distinct functions;”

      Dave, this is a standard interpretation that was incorporated in the idea of the university colleges and the academies. English colleges, which when Newman wrote, were concentrated in Oxbridge, did not teach much scientific education. They concentrated on the humanities. Moreover, they did not care that much in advancing knowledge in these fields, because knowledge was incidental to their real educational purpose – the cultivation of leadership qualities of an elite by bringing teacher and taught together in a fellowship of “leadership and confidence” that would impart “effortless grace, casual assurance, and a light touch in command,” qualities of a primarily landholding elite’s cultured way of life. See Claudius Gellert’s Vergleich des Studiums an englischen und deutscheen universitaeten. (1983)
      The German universities, which subsequently became the model for research and teaching, were driven by a different conception of knowledge which combined discovery and the teaching function, on the grounds that knowledge was in a constant state of becoming and the students had, therefore, to be incorporated into a system of discovery-learning that made them in their university studies part of knowledge extension. The Germans called it Wissenschaft, which they divided into Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft, a collective enterprise in which students and professors collaborated in their advancement, and graduate research became the pinnacle of this self-perpetuating development of knowledge. Everybody in late 19th century flocked to Germany to do research in their doctoral programs and seminars, and reformed their own education, especially in the us, along German line, bringing together in the system discovery and teaching. Engineering and business studies were, at first, excluded from universities everywhere; but in Germany were brought into the research-teaching model at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

  17. December 20, 2017 at 9:26 am

    It is not innate in Homo Sapiens to search for knowledge in terms of truth, purity, or ideal. But in their everyday lives with all the other humans and nonhumans they contact, Homo Sapiens encounters many uncertainties. Many of these uncertainties are important in their lives. Such as how to feed their families and villages, how to provide for the future welfare of the disabled or those unable to work, how to travel and not become lost, etc. Homo Sapiens invented many tools, devices, and other cultural artifacts to deal with such ignorance. Including language, mathematics, physical technologies, writing, etc. In answering such questions, truth is not the test of knowledge. The real test is utility. Any idea, theory, concept that allows Homo Sapiens to do new things constitutes knowledge. In this sense, we can also understand the earliest versions of science. Science and scientists set out to understand the universe, the laws of physics, etc. But these early scientists, as those today at least partially support themselves by finding knowledge that is useful. Unfortunately, mostly in war it seems. That’s still the case today. For example, in climate change. Scientists have produced mountains of data and models but find it difficult to justify or explain their efforts until they become useful. That’s one of the reasons changes based on climate change took so long to emerge and find popular support. They simply did not seem useful. Science in today’s world must lead to technology that solves specific problems to be noticed and funded. That makes an uneasy relationship between scientists and the public. To do the work they want, scientists must demonstrate their usefulness to society, not just to one company or nation. Thus far scientists carry this burden well. Universities have always been trapped in this tension between searching for the laws of physics, or the prefect rhyme, or the moments that shape world history; and the need for useful knowledge. Ironically, it is this tension that created the driving artifact for our modern societies – the ideal of progress. That it is possible for Homo Sapiens to create new and expansive powers that could solve all problems, answer all questions, perfect humanity to god-like status. Poverty, sickness, wars, famines, old age, and even death itself are no longer the inevitable fate of humankind. They are simply the fruits of human ignorance. Overcome the ignorance and a perfect world awaits. The push back on this ideal has set the struggle for our times. “Conservatives” argue that humankind must know and keep its place in the universe. That perfection is beyond its grasp. Universities have always been in the center of this struggle.

    Thanks for all the kind thoughts on my surgery. It’s not a critical surgery. Only in the last decade has micro-surgery advanced far enough to allow the safe removal of fragments as small as those in my back. Mostly, they want to remove them to prevent future infections.

    • Rob Reno
      January 9, 2018 at 11:54 pm

      Thank you for the link that helps me follow the topic better, cheers.

  18. December 20, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    The bottom line seems to be to recover from the elimination of the nomothetic/idiographic distinction. It was central to Aristotle and his discussion of the general and the particular. Positivist science seeks generalizations/universals and dismisses the idiographic – asserting the knowledge generated is objective and about ‘the real’ that lies beyond us and our quirky imaginings. That’s fine and we should applaud that kind of ‘science’ because there is stuff to be discovered that is seriously useful. The ‘reality’ discovered often limits our practice, even if it seldom determines it. The clearest example being the Second Law of Thermodynamics – we can imagine perpetual motion machines, but cannot build them.

    The power of the nomothetic/idiographic distinction is to show that even if we can think nomothetically, we live life idiographically – in the universe of experience that is particular, unique, specific, and so on. Practice is in the idiographic universe of knowledge. Much is lost by ignoring this, subsuming it under the nomothetic notion of knowledge. But the challenge lies in trying to bring these together – what empirical science attempts. Thus falsification presumes – obviously incorrectly – that they can be brought together conclusively. Popper’s misunderstandings aside is clearly not easy to make scientific or rigorous sense of the idiographic – for instance in understanding what history ‘is’ – or how the future might be foretold.

    Obviously there is vigorous activity in the nomothetic universe/s of economics – many chairs to fill and courses to be taught. But does it relate to the idiographics of living? Aye, there’s the rub.

    To Robert’s comments about leadership. Who really thinks this can be a nomothetic ‘quality’? Obviously many of those now writing about leadership. Their story is often of ‘traits’ – focus, persistence, etc. etc. This story has been around since the most ancient storytelling and despite much empirical research in the last few centuries has defied any ‘scientific’ formulation. But it still appeals to us. The majority of leadership academics’ pursue this will-o’-the wisp – and, remarkably, get away with it. Note, though, the view is not held by those involved in military training – where leadership is a matter of life and death and centers on situational awareness (i.e. on applying idiographic modes of focus and thought that are often fueled by intensive study of military history). Recall von Clausewitz’s methodology – attend to the details.

    Robert has written extensively on difference between German versus other ideas about military training and, implicitly, about the different notions of ‘military knowledge’.

    Most of this collapses into abstractions that have little relevance to our practice or into tautologies if the nomothetic/idiographic distinction is not anchoring the discussion.

    • robert locke
      December 20, 2017 at 6:26 pm

      So JC, it has been a nomothetic/ideographic dialogue of the deaf (or lack of even a dialogue) in which I have been engaged or tried to be engage with orthodox economists for decades. I look at the reaction of the historical figures engaged in life and work in particular ages, to find the specificities of experience, from which historians can generalize only with great caution. Since economists find these historical musings of little use in law formulation, they fall back on themselves and the Zweckmäßigkeit einer mathematisch-deduktiven Methode, which is their province, for answers. But it is not only unsatisfactory if it does not relate to the ideographics of living, but unpredictably applicable in the practical world. This blog should focus on furthering this dialogue in the interests of developing prescriptive science.

      • December 20, 2017 at 8:01 pm

        Yep! Further musings shall follow. Season’s Greetings to you both!

      • robert locke
        December 21, 2017 at 9:54 am

        It is easy to see how a nomothetic/idiographic cooperation actually went on in history in German education between the professors and the firms in high technology at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Sydney Higgins in a insightful 1907 book on Dyeing in Germany and America, with a Chapter on Colour Production, describes how the spectacular success of the German dyeing industry depended on the close cooperation of scientists trained in university seminars with the firms, in which they were employed, with their customers in the textile industries, and the ability of AEG, the German Electrical firm, to capture a large share of the power market, depended on the close cooperation between professors in technical Hochschulen with the firm in the development and marketing of electric motors that could satisfy their customers. There are lots of illustrations of this cooperation, between, to give another example, the professors in the technical University of Aachen and the steel firms located in the nearby Ruhr, in the development of the alloy steels necessary to produce the new products (e.g., ball-bearings) needed during the second industrial revolution.

        There is lot of evidence of cooperation between new business schools in Germany and also in the US up to 1940 when the schools sought to teach best practice in accounting or sales in firms. But this was idiographic cooperation.

        The nomothetic problem arose in the US business schools after their reform in the 1960s, described in Khurana. Nomothetic professors in economics and management science, stuffed their fingers in their ears to close out the clamor of the idiographs. So our problem is to help them pull the fingers out of their nomothetic ears.

        Seasons greetings to you and yours as well.

      • Rob Reno
        December 23, 2017 at 6:29 pm

        Robert, since I do not know German I used Google to look up “Zweckmäßigkeit einer mathematisch-deduktiven Methode,” and come away with the rough understanding which may be wrong, that this means “expediency of the mathematical-deductive method.” Is that in the ball park?

      • December 23, 2017 at 6:33 pm

        Indeed the mathematical method is a comfort since it requires so little imagination – even as living ‘mindfully’, as they say, requires much.

      • robert locke
        December 24, 2017 at 10:39 am

        Right Rob, google the piece JC Spender entered in his Dec. 20th 3:37 comment for further clarification in English of what the Germans meant by science (Wissenschaft). Its enlightening stuff.

    • December 21, 2017 at 10:06 am

      There’s an adage in my business: every law is temporary. Humans made up a dichotomy –nomothetic/ideographic – to separate the facts they considered permanent and fixed from those that varied with time and circumstances. Of course, humans had no way of confirming that these beliefs were correct. But the dichotomy was useful, so they continued to use it. But it’s certainly not permanent. For example, physicists are now discussing one such permanent fact – the speed of light. Turns out, it may not be constant. They’ve confirmed that at earlier times of the universe light’s speed was slower than it is today. While economists may dismiss history as valueless, physicists certainly do not. Robert, keep that in mind when economists dismiss your “historical musings.” But on a cautionary note, we need to recognize what this means in terms of developing “prescriptive science.” The goals of science – describe, understand, predict, and control – are always uncertain and achievable only in part and temporarily. Real scientists recognize and accept these limitations and reflect them in their work. So, ought economists.

      • robert locke
        December 21, 2017 at 4:41 pm

        This discussion about the nomothetic/ideographic was carried out by Windelband, Dilthey, Weber, and others well over a hundred years ago, and students of economics should be aware of it as a matter of course. Which goes to show the truth of the adage that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Or is the discussion, for reasons you cite, outmoded because, we live in a different time when it is no longer useful. Nomothetic economists right after WWII would claim that the development of their science made the discussion passee; but today it should be resurrected.

      • December 21, 2017 at 4:57 pm

        Quick response – while some other comments marinate. As you know better than most, Robert, it is all about the politics – as they impact academic activity. Nomothetic became politically in, idiographic politically out. My view is that we cannot ever get to a better understanding of why BSchools exist, or why our ‘scholarship’ (sarcasm intended) is the way it is until we dig back into the history of management education and get clarity on why and how it became politicized. The rigor-relevance debate is emasculated when it ignores or denies this history. The idea that we are/should be searching for a rigorous theory of managing is, itself, a deeply political claim.

        Hence one answer to your question “What are BSchools for?” is that they are the political madrases of contemporary capitalism – so back to my earlier post about them being most understandable as schools of rhetoric rather than of ‘science’. We should not forget Joe Wharton’s intent was explicitly political – as one the leading American monopolists he was anxious to train a cadre of people able to resist the Free Trade politics of his time. He detested ‘perfect competition’ thinking.

      • December 21, 2017 at 5:08 pm

        I believe there is more to the nomethetic/idiographic distinction than static versus dynamic. I see it as more to do with the language and axioms that one uses to address such issues. Bergson is interesting on this. Is change defined in terms of a fixed environment – we ‘change’ by going from one fixed location or attitude to another? Or is change a characteristic of a shifting language with which we attempt to take hold of our ‘knowledge’? In which framing knowledge is about us and our thinking, not about something external and fixed.

      • robert locke
        December 22, 2017 at 9:52 am

        “we cannot ever get to a better understanding of why BSchools exist, or why our ‘scholarship’ (sarcasm intended) is the way it is until we dig back into the history of management education and get clarity on why and how it became politicized.”

        One view is that the growth of business schools as a nomethetic institution is rooted in the politics of the Cold War, where The Rand corporation pushed for the adoption of nomethetic analysis in operations research done for the military, and for the introduction of mathematical-deductive methods into research and teaching of economic departments and business schools by Rand Corporation and Pentagon sponsored reforms. Nomethetic thinking seems to promote the politics of imperialism.

      • December 23, 2017 at 9:16 am

        All knowledge and understanding must come via Homo Sapiens. Sapiens don’t shaped it entirely since it is involved in the world with other actors – both animate and inanimate – but it must be expressed by Sapiens. Business schools are one of the creations of this interactive process. Our job – to describe and document this process. The process in America included the American versions of capitalism; American feelings of academic inferiority; rapid industrialization; conservative moral foundations; extreme racism; economic inequality; progressive political movement; American globalization; and more. American public education is a popular topic for historians of every ilk. American business schools are not. The US dominated world economics and culture after WWII till about 1990. The result of the US’ resources, geographic location, the tutorials from the UK, and the sufficient but not overwhelming opposition of the USSR. During this period US business education collapsed entirely. Between the dominance of “energy” (oil) companies to the advent of the military industrial complex to operations research and the RAND corporation to the rebirth of radical (fascist) regimes, any chance for a democratic capitalism in the US was crushed. Now there two dominant capitalist nations in the world – the state-capitalism of China and the corporate-capitalism of the US. Neither has much use for democracy.

  19. Rob Reno
    December 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Robert, thank you for this post. I look forward to delving deeper into your research and learning from you as I have from many on this site. Thank you all for such thoughtful and reflective sharing. Ken, wishing you well for your upcoming surgery and a swift recovery.

  20. Rob Reno
    January 9, 2018 at 11:58 pm

    “Right Rob, google the piece JC Spender entered in his Dec. 20th 3:37 comment for further clarification in English of what the Germans meant by science (Wissenschaft). Its enlightening stuff.” Thank you Robert, just did, sorry for slow reply. All you guys are great. Learning much just reading.

    • January 10, 2018 at 1:12 am

      thanks for your kind comments Rob.

    • robert locke
      January 10, 2018 at 9:05 am

      I have more to say on the subject in an article that I just finished, which discusses the contrast between ideas about knowledge in academic German business economics and economists in general.

      • Rob Reno
        January 11, 2018 at 5:13 pm

        I look forward to reading your writings Robert. I am, I admit, sometimes overwhelmed as I try to read so much. But I find your ideas and concepts revealing and in line with much of what I found in my historical studies of the history of evolutionary biology. Germany played (and still does) a leading role and often was less dogmatic and pluralistic and willing to include philosophy more than the American schools.

  21. January 10, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Catching up on this discussion, I found Ken’s rubbishing truth (again) tedious, but Calgagus and J C Spender seem to have answered him better than I could. ‘Truth’ anyway I understand as a criterion. My working definition of it is not based naively on Hume’s “correspondence with the facts” but includes Ken’s usefulness in terms of their relation to purpose:

    “Truth is an adequate representation of the facts for the purpose in question”.

    That does of course leave open the question of whether a stated purpose is an honest one.

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