Aug 16, 2019

Aiming at Control and Losing Control in the Workplace

Last week, I gave an interview to a student writing a thesis about how Stoic philosophy and practice can productively inform the domain of business.  One of the topics that inevitably came up was what has come to be called the "dichotomy of control".  This is a distinction articulated by the Late Stoic philosopher Epictetus between what is in our control, or is "up to us" (ep'hemon in Greek) and what is not in our control or up to us (ouk ep'hemon). It has come to play a centrally important role in the contemporary revival and reinterpretation called "modern Stoicism".

Like most components of Stoic philosophy, this dichotomy seems very simple (especially if one only focuses on Epictetus early discussions of it). It turns out to be quite a bit more complex if one actually reads beyond Epictetus' very short Enchiridion and studies the much fuller Discourses.  There are several reasons for that, two of which I'll just outline here  (I'll elaborate them in more general terms in a later post).

First, any concept that is intended to apply successfully to our complicated human lives is going to be correspondingly complex.  People may reference it in simplistic terms - the vocabulary of sound-bites and life-hacks - but the real significance of the concept only becomes apparent when it is unpacked and applied.  (If you'd like to go beyond the sound-bite version, check out this essay).

Second, as Seneca points out, responding to his epistolary interlocutor, Lucilius in Letter 33 (entitled, "On The Futility of Learning Maxims"), you shortchange yourself in trying to reduce philosophies to short quotes:
Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole.  They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.
Stoicism itself is a systematic and fairly comprehensive approach, so if one really wants to understand it and derive benefits from it, one has to treat the key concepts accordingly, as components in an integrated whole - not as isolated and oversimplified maxims.

Now on to the issue of control, the lack of control, and our desire and striving for control.  These affect and occur in every workplace, particularly given the purposive nature of companies, paid work, and the locations we dedicate to that activity.  In fact, any given workplace is permeated with teleologies - orientations towards ends, purposes, or goals - many of them often at odds with each other.  People are doing things - and not just doing, but also saying, thinking, feeling, choosing, rejecting, etc. - for all sorts of reasons. 

The purposive activities people engage in produce outcomes, results, consequences.  Sometimes they have measures or benchmarks as well (and sometimes these are tracked, sometimes not, sometimes just made up or "guestimated"), and these are typically tied to some expectations or objectives.  These might be formally communicated, or just implicit and assumed.  Workplaces are one of many different overlapping domains of human existence, and (with rare exceptions) the people employed there only partially identify their own desires, goals, values, and the like with that of the larger organization (e.g. the company) or with those of its central work-activities.

One way to unpack the Stoic dichotomy of control is that outcomes or effects of choices and actions fall into the domain of what lies outside of our control. Whether we are successful or not depends on factors that we cannot directly control, entirely predict, or manage. In some cases, even our being able to carry out an action might lie outside of our control. 

What does lie within the scope of our control is the interior domain of our intentions, our choices, our commitments.  Epictetus does also say that our assumptions, our judgements and opinions, our desires and aversions, our emotional responses, our assent, refusal, or suspension of assent - these all are in our power, strictly speaking.  But he also clearly thinks that these are in principle in our control, but in practice, in specific situations, often not - in significant part because we already have established habits which we need to examine and rework.  Still, we do have some measure of control over what we think, feel, and choose.

Another thing that falls within the scope of our own control is how we think about that distinction itself - what's in our control/what's not - and how we apply it.  In fact, those very labels or conceptions fall into the class of what Epictetus and other Stoics call proleipseis, "preconceptions" or "general conceptions" - broad concepts that we apply in specific cases, and which studying philosophy helps us to improve and refine.  Many people think or feel that things that actually are not in their control are in their control - and then act accordingly. And likewise, many people assume things that are in their control are not in their control - and then make decisions on the basis of that wrong assumption.  That's one reason Epictetus and his modern interpreters lay so much stress on making the distinction, and getting it right.

In the course of our interview, we were discussing how the dichotomy of control might apply to managers in particular.  When you are managing other people, from a Stoic perspective, strictly speaking, what those people think, say, feel, assume, and do is something that is outside of your control.  And yet the entire "science" (there's good reasons to use quotes there!) rests on the assumption that we can control other people.  We can induce them to choose some behavior and to avoid or cease other behavior, right?  We can even set things up, or work on them to get them to see things the right way - to think, to value, to choose, to feel along the lines we want, can't we?  One's very success as a manager often is made to depend on doing so - or at least looking like one is pulling that off.

A manager who is realistic about human nature in general, the vagaries of the workplace, and the actual human beings who report to them will likely adopt a perspective, if not identical, at least similar to the classic Stoic one on just how much they can "manage" (in the sense of control) their subordinates.  You might say (and admittedly more needs to be written about this) that genuine, ethical, productive management and leadership will require and stick with a realistic perspective of this sort.  A manager can do - or at least attempt, or set up, or create opportunities for - quite a lot that might be able to positively affect the workplace and the employees who report to them.  But they don't control outcomes.

Managers will often be assessed in terms of outcomes, though - and that is one type of pressure that can easily shift them into assuming that they do control much more than they do.  Add to this an assumption that they should control things, events, and persons, that they are responsible for results, and it is easy to see how so many people in managerial positions can make themselves quite productive by some measures (at least for a while) and also consistently miserable as well.

One limit-point of this is the person that we often call a "micro-manager".  We've all run into people like this - or perhaps some of us also have this tendency.  The micro-manager is a mess, Stoically speaking, on multiple grounds.  First off, that person is entirely mixed up about what is or isn't in their power - that by itself is going to generate all sorts of problems.  Second, they routinely intrude themselves into the domain of what is in someone else's power - and there's more to be said about that below.  Third, their decision to stick their nose in here or there displays and derives from a lack of the virtue of prudence - and that means that they are likely in the grips of the opposed vice of foolishness.  There are many ways to be foolish, and lack of perspective and mistaken priorities in the workplace, as one micro-manages others, is definitely one of them.  Fourth, the micro-manager can be at best only temporarily content (when for the time being, they get their way) - this trait is definitely a recipe for being unhappy long-term.

To bring this to a close, consider again how micro-managing in the workplace (or really, anywhere else as well) sets one up for failure.  A boss gives employees strict and detailed instructions about how some fairly important but routine task ought to be done.  And inevitably the employee - who is after all, another human being with desires, preferred ways of doing things, and ideas of their own - will carry out the assigned task (or not) in their own manner.  The result will not be what the boss has desired and demanded. And then, the boss will be upset. 

Epictetus has a pretty straightforward way to illuminate this.  In his long chapter "On Freedom" (Discourses book 4, chapter 1), he writes:
When, therefore, you see one man cringing before another, or flattering him contrary to his own opinion, say confidently of this man also that he is not free; and that not merely if he be doing so for the sake of a paltry meal, but even if it be for a governorship or a consulship. Call rather those who do these things for certain small ends slaves on a small scale, and the others, as they deserve, slaves on a grand scale . . . When, therefore, it is in another's power to put hindrances in a man's way and subject him to compulsion, say confidently that this man is not free. . . .  However, if he does none of these things, do not call him free yet, but find out what his judgements are, whether they are in any respect subject to compulsion, to hindrance, to unhappiness; and if you find him to be that kind of a person, call him a slave on holiday at the Saturnalia; say that his master is out of town; later on he will return, and then you will learn what the fellow suffers.—Who will return?—Anyone who has control over the things which some man desires, to get these for him or to take them away.—Have we, then, so many masters?—Yes, so many. For even before these personal masters we have masters in the form of circumstances, and these are many. Hence, it needs must follow that those too who have authority over some one of these circumstances are our masters.
The boss who micro-manages presents a particularly interesting case in this light.  Wanting to be the master over others - over the actions, choices, thoughts, and desires of others - they make themselves, at least in some respects, "slaves" in Stoic sense to those others.  Attempting to extend and impose control over others, they yield control to those others.

Aug 11, 2019

Seven Videos on Gabriel Marcel's On The Ontological Mystery

Earlier this summer, I created a number of new core concept videos as resources for my students enrolled in my online Existentialist Philosophy and Literature (taught for Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design).  This opened up an opportunity to shoot a sequence on one of my favorite works of the often overlooked French Catholic Existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, his essay "Concrete Approaches to Investigating the Ontological Mystery" (which you can find here, along with his play, The Broken World)

The reason I selected that essay (and provided that play as a supplemental reading) for the class is that it is probably the best introduction not only to some of the central themes of Marcel's philosophy - the distinction between problem and mystery, the dangers of a functionalized world, reinterpretation of faith, hope, and charity, and the need for ontological depth - but also to Marcel himself.  It is an essay he references frequently throughout his other works.

Marcel was one of the first authors to use the term "existentialist" and "existentialism" in French.  He would later abandon the title for his own work after Jean-Paul Sartre more or less took it over in his "Existentialism is a Humanism" (as would Heidegger), but Marcel remains a central figure within the broad Existentialist movement.

In any case, here are those seven videos.  I plan to shoot some additional ones on this work, hopefully later on this Fall.

Jul 8, 2019

Three Videos on David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature

I teach David Hume's works from time to time.  In fact, he made his way into my classes quite early on in my career.  My very first Ethics classes included some portions of his Treatise of Human Nature, and the first time I taught Intro to Philosophy his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a required text. 

I incorporated that Enquiry into my Foundations of Philosophy sections (at Marquette University) and my Intro to Philosophy class (at Milwaukee Area Technical College) this last semester, but - alas! - couldn't carve out the time to shoot footage for the core concept videos I'd wanted to produce on that text.  I did, however, manage to shoot a bit of material on the Treatise for my online Ethics class at MATC this summer.

One of Hume's most famous passages is where he claims:
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. 
That is from book 2 of the Treatise, part 3, section 3, and it fit in quite well to the section on non-cognitivism and emotivism in my class.  So I decided it was about time I created some Hume content for my students. Later this summer, I'm planning on shooting some additional videos on the Enquiry as well.

In any case, here are those three videos:
I hope you find them interesting and useful!

Jun 29, 2019

Thumos in Platonic and Aristotelian Moral Psychology

Earlier this week, at the annual Marquette Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition conference, I gave a presentation bearing upon on one of my current research projects.  It stems from my broader research project, focused upon anger in ancient and medieval philosophy, theology, and literature.  My talk was titled "The Significance of Thumos in Platonic and Aristotelian Moral Psychology".

I didn't entirely deliver on what I'd promised in the abstract, in my own view, but my talk was very well-received by those attending.  The participants in that particular conference tend to include a lot of very well-read and competent ancient (and some medieval) scholars, so it's a nice confirmation when their verdict upon one's work is largely positive.

My presentation centered around this notion of thumos, which Plato famously makes into a third part of the soul, intermediate between the rational part and the appetitive part.  This is the part of us that gets angry, and where the virtue of courage takes its root.  It is also the part of us concerned with social status and expectations - what the Greeks tended to call "honor" - and with contention and victory as well.  In Plato, it plays a centrally important role in moral life.

In Aristotle, thumos isn't a part of the soul as such, but rather a mode of the emotional, affective, or desirous, non-rational part which Aristotle calls orexis.  He still does give it and its associated objects significance in his own moral psychology.

In my presentation, I examined Plato's and Aristotle's treatments of thumos in some detail, and then went on to discuss Hellenistic perspectives of two sorts.  The first sort includes the Epicureans, Stoics, and Cicero.  None of these view thumos as having a positive role, and tend to reduce it to just one kind of anger.  The second sort includes a host of later Platonic, Aristotelian, and eclectic thinkers who for the most part do view thumos more positively, and who also bring back something like a Platonic tripartition of the soul.  I finished up by briefly discussing a few early Christian thinkers who also continue along these lines, but frame thumos' function in an explicitly Christian perspective.

I did manage to make a decent enough audio-recording of the session, which you can listen to.

I plan to write a series of posts here going deeper into some of the thinkers and schools, and their treatments of thumos, over the next few months.

Jun 14, 2019

Ten Videos on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Earlier this spring, as the semester was coming to a close, and I was getting ready for my online 6-week Existentialist Philosophy and Literature class (developed and taught for the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, now in its 5th week), I shot a sequence of new lecture videos on a classic and extremely influential Existentialist work.

It's one that my subscribers, viewers, followers, and other fans have been asking me to produce videos about for years - Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra!  I decided to make part one of that book a required reading for the online class (with the Genealogy of Morals a supplemental text)

I've just finished releasing all of those videos, so I thought I'd set links to them all in one place. Here are those videos:

Jun 2, 2019

Wouldn't It Be Cool? An Idea For A Classic Metal and Philosophy Conference

I posted a picture of my mother-in-law and me earlier today, in Judas Priest t-shirts, and it sparked an interesting conversation with a friend and colleague who is equally appreciative not only of that band, but of classic heavy metal more generally.  He jokingly wrote:  "At some point, I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether evil ever dies." 

For those who aren't up on their contemporary classic metal, "Evil Never Dies" is not only a controversial philosophical claim, but also the title of one of the songs on Judas Priest's most recent album, Firepower.  He clarified that he was asking me about the metaphysical and moral issue.  And that got me thinking.

Classic heavy metal songs often raise, play with, and even explicitly reference philosophical doctrines, problems, concepts, and perspectives.  Bands, musicians, albums, songs, tours, and all the other things connected with them can be looked at through philosophical lenses (I do that sporadically over at another blog, Heavy Metal Philosopher).

Wouldn't it be cool to put together a conference specifically devoted to conversation about those sorts of issues?  I think it could be done in such a way as to combine rigorous thinking, collaborative and critical conversation, with die-hard love of metal.

Set up the right way, it could attract professors and practitioners who have devoted years to reflection (and perhaps even research) about various aspects of heavy metal, but also - I expect - appeal to a much broader general audience.  So then the big question becomes how to bring it off.  Maybe at first it would need to be a virtual conference, i.e. carried out through online platforms.  Then, of course, the trick is to find ways to make it as interactive and participatory as possible.

As a side-note, while I wouldn't exclude the much more specialized genres of metal that have developed as their own little sonic universes in the last three decades, I think I'd want the central focus to be what's often now called "traditional heavy metal", or what I prefer to call classic 70s-80s metal.  That's what was - and remained - at the core of the heavy metal community as I grew up in it and experienced it. 

There's obviously a LOT of fleshing out that would be required - even just as an idea - but there it is.  Wouldn't it be cool?

May 30, 2019

Six Lecture Videos on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet

My 6-week online course on Existentialist Philosophy and Literature, developed and taught for Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, is well underway.  They're in the middle of Week 3, and just finishing up with a module on Rainer Maria Rilke's works and thought.

I've assigned to them as a required text his Letters to a Young Poet, and as a supplementary text his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  I have also provided them quite a few resources to help them as they study these works.  These include core concept lecture videos, which I have recently shot on the first text (I have an older, longer lecture video on the Notebooks as well).

These may be useful for you, if you're going to dig into Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.  So here they are - those six new videos:

If you find the philosophy resources I develop interesting, enjoyable, or useful, by all means share them with others.  And if you'd like to support the work that I do, making philosophy publicly accessible, you can become a monthly supporter on my Patreon page, or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can Buy Me A Coffee!