AR — You’re known to wear ‘dual hats’ as philosopher and management consultant. To some, it seems like an odd mix. What brought you to these two worlds and what is the link?
Robert Rowland Smith — There both is a link and isn't a link. They are of course different practices, with different beneficiaries and different remuneration structures. I rarely use any philosophy with my business clients, and I rarely introduce any business thinking into my philosophy. On the other hand, there is something 'philosophical' in helping business clients to reframe their issues and in providing them with conceptual frameworks they can use to solve problems. And although philosophy can take place with a beneficiary in view, there's a sense in which philosophy, like consulting, is a helping profession. I'm increasingly bringing the two together through my work in Constellations, which is a technique for diagnosing and resolving complex issues in business and personal life.
Similarly, designers and artists are starting to branch out, moving beyond the traditional realm of aesthetics, using their creativity in other ways. For example, being called-in to find solutions to complex questions using ‘design thinking’. Why is this so important for businesses today?
I'm not sure it's any more important today than yesterday, but the pressure to connect grows stronger with our awareness of the connections to be made. Connection is a widening movement, not a deepening movement. When we connect we make horizontal links, as it were, but our understanding needs to become vertical again in order to advance. In other words, connections are a means, not an end. The other great value that connections have is that they can interrupt our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving, because they expose us to difference.
In a recent interview you said, in context of the banking crisis: “We’re all in the system and there is no innocent position... A lot of anger is based on the false notion of innocence”. Some say we are broadly untrained in making sense of things, in creating an understanding of how systems work and that this is the bigger problem. Would you agree?
Yes, I agree. We are encouraged to think about ourselves as ourselves, as owners of discrete identities that must be nurtured. Up to a point this is true. Certain aspects of my being are inalienable—my body, my death, my breath. I'm not sure that these create a 'self', however, so much as a somatic and organic substrate. This substrate is unique, and it has its own code. At the same time we are part of systems—families, organisations, groups, and so on. In these groupings the 'self' tends to come second to our position in the system. The desire to sit on the sidelines of a system when that system has gone wrong—like the banking system—is a refusal of responsibility, a childish claim for innocence. Responsibility and guilt are intertwined.
VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic, asymmetric) is an acronym of military origins that has been used to describe today’s rapid transitions and complexity. If you had to create a guidebook for living in a VUCA world, what would be its main chapters?
I didn't know this acronym, VUCA. It's not the whole story, however. There are opposite forces in play, forces of conservatism, reaction, and so on; throughout the so-called financial crisis, for example, the rich have continued to get richer. Sometimes capitalism generates the fear of volatility in order to mask its own preference for the status quo. For those on the other side, it's easy to fetishise uncertainty and volatility. So everybody gets something out of it.
You mentioned in The Independent that time flies by as we get older because there are fewer major events in that period since most of the major events happen early in life. Is there a relative aspect to this: If you go to college for four years, it’s a fifth of your life at that point, but if you live in a different city for four years in your sixties, it’s a twelfth of your life, a proportionally much shorter time. Do you find this also plays a role?
Yes, this is a good point. The younger you are the more the present feels like everything. As you get older the power of the present is rebalanced against the power of the past.
We are often told to talk about the future we want, to try and draw things and events to us by our attitude. When it works, does it have more to do with communication and our network(s) or with pulling ourselves towards it and creating the future?
Creating the future we want doesn't have to be a matter of magical fantasy. It's a question of action. As soon as we act in the way we wish the future to be, it begins. But two things hold us back. The first is that we want others to change first. The second is that we're attached to the familiar way of doing things.
In Stumbling on Happiness , Daniel Gilbert writes that we use our memories to create an imagined, ‘happier’, future. He states that the memories we use are as fictional as the future, that we remember only parts of what happened: we compress events, to save space, and then reassemble the ‘memory’, inserting bits and pieces that aren’t necessarily the actual truth. If both of you are right it means we are living in a sliver of the present weighed down by an imagined past and fabricated future. Since our present is so distorted by our past, does this mean we are living in our own made up worlds?
It's not necessarily so solipsistic. We create meaning with others when our frames, no matter how divorced from reality, overlap. When two mad people understand one another, there is reason. So yes, the relationship to reality is never secure, for all sorts of subjective reasons, but we end up creating an ersatz reality through the interaction of many subjectivities. People who meditate talk about the reality that is accessible when you stop thinking, but thoughts and even distorted memories are part of reality too. All phenomena have a place. Being a human subject among other human subjects means living in the semi-subjective world with in-between realities. This doesn't mean there isn't a reality free from our projections onto it, but this reality needs skill to access, just as we need skill to manage all the projections that make up the agreed social sphere.
Thanks to hyperconnectivity and social media, it feels like there is ‘too much reality’. It seems as though we are plunging deeper in the ‘factory of the present’. How is this shaping up who we are? What is the bigger picture?
There is a difference between reality and 'content'—the content of Twitter feeds or 24/7 news or updates and upgrades. Content is continually replenished, but reality tends to move less quickly and is more like form than content. For example, the news will be full of political content that changes daily, but the reality is that there is a tension between Left and Right, for example, which is the form the content usually takes. Reality doesn't change so fast.
The skill of imagination, “where the walls are elastic”, seems to be receiving a new form of appreciation, as we are challenged to collectively find solutions to complex problems. Is imagination a new currency?
Imagination is being repositioned as a resource in the world of fact, where it used to be the preserve of fiction. It was novelists and poets who used to have a licence for using the imagination. But we are licensing ourselves to adapt it for what we see as more important things than situations in novels. We are adapting it as a form of creativity to solve environmental challenges, for example. Let's not forget the work of Romantic poets such as Coleridge on the imagination, however. For him, the primary imagination was a means of connecting with the Divine.
You have a book in the making geared towards business leaders. What topics will you be covering?
The book for business leaders is based around a set of questions that tries to get them out of the belief that it's business factors that most affect the fate of business. It's not: it's human or social factors, like the leaders being too vain to heed advice, or that the company treats its customers like idiots, or that they ran out of energy when the founder left, and so on. I'm also developing a new 'philosophy' book, but it's taking a long time to get it right.
Can you tell us more about your current project around the concept of ‘endarkenment’?
This is the philosophy book. The idea is that the history of ideas has progressed not so much through enlightenment as through moments when we've acknowledged a gap in the centre of our knowledge. From Leonardo's [da Vinci] Mona Lisa to Einstein's theory of relativity, from Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market to Freud's unconscious, our understanding has increased when something mysterious has been identified at the heart of things: knowing less sometimes helps us understand more.