I’ve worked in businesses that were all numbers and watched them fall apart at the seams. I’ve experienced their atheistic death by abacus when a spreadsheet had the only answers. I’ve also worked in businesses that were purely driven by emotions and feelings and watched as they mushroom clouded into the ether. I’ve experienced the tragedy of gods waging war against each other until everything epically fell apart. There’s a reason both types failed. There’s also enough good in each that a balance is worth seeking.
Agnes Callard sees science and philosophy as trying to achieve two different objectives. Science wants all of the answers and philosophy wants all of the questions. Science is searching for truths and philosophy is searching for meaning. They overlap in plenty of places, but mostly while we’re dealing with uncertainty. This division, between endgames, can be found inside of every service-based business too.
Whatever offering a business may have, there’s a difference between the scientific metrics and the philosophical meaning. Yeah, you’ve got sales goals, profit margins, and retention numbers in a spreadsheet, but you also need relationships, credibility, and value propositions in your culture. Recognizing the endgames of each can help us focus our conversations about them.
The endgame of the science of our businesses is a number. It’s a representation of something that happened with a quantified answer. The endgame of the philosophy of our business is a question. It’s a reflection on how and why somebody was willing to pay for something we did, and if and why we think they’ll do it again.
We’re going to need both, but as Callard frames it, remembering the endgames can help us be clear about what we’re talking about and why. The next quarterly goal is a number. How we get there and what it means to our business, our stakeholders, and our clients is a feeling. If we lean too heavily on either side, we’ll find ourselves out of touch. If we strike a balance, we can ground ourselves on what we are really trying to accomplish with our businesses and why we keep showing up, day after day.
I loved Russ Roberts’ interview with “Agnes Callard on Philosophy, Progress and Wisdom” on the EconTalk podcast.