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P H I L O S O P H Y F O R B U S I N E S S ISSN 2043-0736
Issue number 55
4th December 2009
I. 'Aristotle on the Ethics of Workplace Relations' by Andrew Murray
II. 'On Walter Benjamin's Historical Materialism' by Alfredo
III. 'Questionnaire on Philosophical Practice and Organizations' by
Neri Pollastri and Paolo Cervari
In his second article for Philosophy for Business, Andrew Murray,
Senior Lecturer at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, probes
Aristotle's enlightened views on slave management which show
surprising continuity with issues in contemporary management and
human resources. We may no longer believe in slavery, but it is
harder to shake free from abusive power relations in the workplace
which denigrate the freedom and dignity of the individual.
Walter Benjamin worked on his ground breaking reinterpretation of
Marx's theory of historical materialism while the National Socialist
Party rose to power under Adolf Hitler. As Alfredo Lucero-Montano
powerfully shows, according to Benjamin 'revolution' can only come
when through our questioning and insight we bring the blind logic of
history to a halt. I believe that this applies to the lives of
individuals and also to companies seeking to escape the rigid,
oppressive structures of the past.
Neri Pollastri and Paolo Cervari are philosophical practitioners
working in Italy. They have composed a questionnaire for anyone
working in the area of philosophical consultancy, from which they
intend to take material for their forthcoming book on Philosophical
Practice for Organizations. If you complete the questionnaire, do
send me a copy as I am keen to know who is currently out there at the
rock face of philosophical practice.
I. 'ARISTOTLE ON THE ETHICS OF WORKPLACE RELATIONS' BY ANDREW MURRAY
Aristotle begins the second paragraph of Book One of his Politics
with the following sentence.
Those who suppose that the same person is expert in
political [rule], kingly [rule], managing the household and
being a master [of slaves] do not argue rightly.
The Politics is about the political community, that most
authoritative community that 'embraces all the others... and aims at
the most authoritative good of all.' Aristotle called this the
City (Polis); we call it the State. The Politics is about the
possibilities of this kind of life that raises human beings above
mere subsistence and isolation and that allows them to thrive
economically, intellectually and morally. It investigates the
structures, ends and needs of the city and the knowledge and virtue
required to make this arrangement work. The book is written at a time
when the experience of the new Greek democracies is fresh and
Aristotle's insights remain acute and relevant.
And so, Aristotle distinguishes four essentially different kinds of
arrangement that call for different kinds of expertise in rule or
leadership or exercise of authority. Political rule is of those who
are free and equal, and it has the characteristic that citizens take
it in turns to rule and be ruled. Kingship is a carry-over from
tribal societies, in which hereditary status, family relationships
and seniority support a kind of rule. Household management includes
both the relationship between husband and wife and parents and
children and overseeing economic life of the family. In Aristotle's
time, economic life was most commonly the work of maintaining a farm,
but it was also the activities of artisans and traders living in the
city. The fourth kind of rule is management of slaves, or of those
who engage in labour, and is a function of economic life.
The interest of this essay is with the economic aspects of household
management and with the management of slaves. While to the modern
reader Aristotle's terms seem archaic and in the case of slavery
objectionable, our purpose is firstly to penetrate Aristotle's
understanding so as to find what might be helpful in his analysis and
secondly to apply what is helpful to the context of modern workplace
relations. It is our expectation that he will help us make better
sense of our situation than do some current modes of thought and
language. There will need to be some terminological shifts, and we
will find ourselves using terms like business, servants, workers and
managers, and so ultimately dealing with workplace relations. Our
sources will be Book One of the Politics, which is largely given over
to economics, and the fragmentary text, the Economics.
Two preliminary remarks are necessary. First, Aristotle recognises
the importance and value of economic life. 'It is evident, therefore,
that economics is prior in origin to politics; for its function is
prior, since a household is part of a city.' This is often
forgotten due to the priority given to political life, in which human
beings are able to act in relation to one another, and to that part of
life engaged in the liberal arts, where culture can flourish. The
complementary priorities are of end and origin. A city is for the
sake of a better life; without economic activity there will be no
life at all; and the more complex the city, the more complex will
economic activity need to be. Secondly, agriculture will be the
paradigm of economic or business activity for the purpose of this
essay, because it is fundamental to life and because it is in the
area of perishables that the nature of labour is clearest.
Agriculture ranks first because of its justice; for it does
not take anything away from men, either with their consent,
as do retail trading and the mercenary arts, or against
their will, as do the warlike arts. Further, agriculture is
natural; for by nature all derive their sustenance from
their mother, and so we derive it from the earth.
There are basic principles expressed here that we in the Twenty-first
Century tend to forget, but we will also note some shifts in due
Aristotle on Labour
Contemporary scholars tend to affect scandal and to avoid Aristotle's
discussion of slavery, but this is a faint hearted approach to his
thought. He could not but deal with it, since it was foundational to
ancient economic life. Slavery took many forms from the brutal to
that of a benign domestic arrangement, but the Greek language did not
distinguish differences, for instance, between slaves and servants.
Still, at root, slavery implied the possession of one person by
another. Aristotle does ask whether slavery is justified, and it is
worth examining his arguments.
Aristotle concludes that there are human beings that are free by
nature and others that are slavish by nature, and he does this on
three grounds. First, the natural slave is one 'who participates in
reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it'.
In other words, the slave does not have the ability to know ahead of
time what is to be done, yet is capable of understanding commands
from a master and acting on them. This is identified with deficiency
in the ability to deliberate and so a lack of practical wisdom.
The second reason is that some people are less spirited than others,
and that human beings will not be free unless they have a passion for
freedom. The free will have both this passion and an ability to
command. Aristotle holds that the differences at the base of these
two arguments are present at birth, so that the deficiencies cannot be
simply overcome by habituation or education. The third argument is
from the general human condition. Human beings need sustenance on a
daily basis, and the food that sustains them is perishable. There is
no relief, therefore, from the daily grind of attending to the
perishables necessary to life. We can call this labour.
Before we deal with these arguments, it will be useful to see what
Aristotle rejects. First, he completely rejects conventional slavery,
which was most commonly that imposed on those who had lost in war. His
grounds are that it is unjust to treat as a slave one who is not
naturally slavish. Secondly, he does not allow that the children
of slaves should necessarily be slaves, because children will not
always be born with the deficiencies of their parents. Between
them these two positions rule out the real possibility of
institutional slavery, and Aristotle proposes a form of manumission
to rectify unjust enslavement. His solution is that a household
is bigger than a family and includes servants, who provide labour
under the direction of a master. Each does what he is good at, and
there are benefits for both. A slave shares in and enjoys the
excellence and achievements of his master, something that is lacking
in the lives of freely living artisans.
Without necessarily accepting Aristotle's solution, it is important
to note his insight. He recognises that in the human condition there
is a tendency towards subjection of some persons to servitude by
others. He gives three grounds for this. First, human beings are
dependent on the fruits of the earth for survival, and their
perishability places heavy demands on human labour. Secondly, human
beings have different capacities, which are not reducible to
differences of opportunity for upbringing and education, and this
puts them into unequal relationships with one another. Thirdly, in
many, particularly the strong and spirited, there is a drive to
dominate others. With these three observations, Aristotle pinpoints
also for today the issues underlying the relationships between
workers who labour, managers who direct them and the corporations
that employ them. The challenge to recognise all human beings as
intelligent agents able to act in their own right and yet to provide
institutions in which people of different abilities can thrive
remains as pressing as ever.
Lest we think that the modern world has freed itself from the
difficulties that confronted Aristotle, it is instructive to look at
the thought of John Locke, who was one of the foundational thinkers
in the development of modern political and economic institutions. In
Chapter Four of his Second Treatise, Locke accepts a form of
conventional slavery, which he describes as 'nothing else but the
state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive'.
It was this view along with changes in the understanding of property
that made American slavery so brutal. In the same chapter, he notes
that people may sell themselves into drudgery without accepting a
condition of slavery, and later in Chapter Seven, he says, 'A freeman
makes himself a servant to another, by selling him, for a certain
time, the service he undertakes to do, in exchange for the wages he
is to receive.' The not insignificant difference is a matter of
time and wages, but the servitude remains.
Modern industrialisation has done much to deal with the problems
associated with the perishability of food. Technologies of
preservation and transport have made life easier. But have we not
replaced one perishable with another? In Australia in 2005, the
Howard Government introduced Work Choices, its major reform of
industrial legislation. This reform was widely rejected, the
Government was defeated at the next election and alternative
legislation was introduced by the new Government. One of the
provisions that was deemed unacceptable was the removal of compulsory
penalty rates of pay for workers required to work at night or on
weekends. There is a profound reason for this rejection. Modern
factories need to work around the clock because of either continuous
processes or the capital that is invested in their construction. This
is done at human cost especially in terms of familial and social
activity, which until Work Choices had been recognised in financial
compensation. The removal of this compensation suddenly valued
capital and industrial process above human worth. It would seem that
the modern perishable is money or capital, pressed by competition,
rather than food, as it was for Aristotle, and that similar problems
need to be faced despite the change.
Aristotle on the Management of Wealth
In Aristotle's world, life begins, is sustained and ends in the
household, and the second function of household management, after the
management of familial relations, is the management of wealth.
Aristotle called this business, and so do we, though by and large we
have taken it out of the household. In the Economics, he lists four
functions of business: acquiring wealth, guarding it, ordering
possessions rightly and making proper use of them. Wealth he
takes to be the sum total of material possessions and, in the case of
slaves, human possessions. These include both things that are
necessary for life and the instruments that are used in their
management. The conduct of business requires specific knowledge,
skills, virtues and spirit or energy, but the activity, as has
already been claimed, is essential to life.
The part of business expertise of interest to this essay is the
management of human beings. Here we should experience some discomfort
with Aristotle's view. Not only does he accept the fact of slaves, but
as we have seen he also argues that for certain kinds of people (those
without foresight or energy) and for certain situations (dealing with
perishables) there is a natural movement towards slavery or
servitude. Is it necessary that the business manager be a master of
slaves? Aristotle's description of the art of mastery is not very
flattering. 'This science has nothing great or dignified about it:
the master must know how to command the things that the slave must
know how to do.'
Built into this mode of rule is the questionable moral assumption
that the persons ruled are deficient intellectual and moral agents.
Ultimately, if the moral dimension of the relationship is not
respected, both servant and master, or in our world employee and
manager, are degraded. Indeed, Aristotle himself argues that it is
wrong to treat as a slave someone who is not by nature slavish.
Modern sensibilities are stronger. Our understanding of democracy
recognises all nationals as citizens and thereby free, and we have
attempted by means of universal eduction to enable all persons to
reach their full potential.
A way out of this dilemma is offered by the first sentence of the
The sciences of politics and economics differ not only as
widely as a household and a city (the subject-matter with
which they severally deal), but also in the fact that the
science of politics involves a number of rulers, whereas
the sphere of economics is a monarchy.
This distinction offers a solution to the question of the differences
between politics and business and between the skills of a politician
and those of a business manager. Both lead to action but in different
ways. In political life, the community moves to action only with the
agreement of those who are franchised and collaboration of the
various officials and constitutional bodies. In business, action is
more direct, because the processes demand it. If the crops have to be
harvested, it is time to act rather than talk, and so the rule is
The term, 'monarchy', sits uneasily in Aristotle. In one sense, it
simply means the rule of one, and that could be all that is implied
here. In another sense, it names one of the formal possibilities for
the arrangement of political communities -- the rule of one as
opposed to the rule of a few (oligarchy and aristocracy) and the rule
of all (democracy and polity). Even in the Politics there is
ambivalence about the monarchical form of constitution, because it
would seem to lack that essential component of political life, namely
participation in decision making and action by all of those who are
capable. Nevertheless, Aristotle says a great deal about monarchy
both as a transitional form from tribal arrangement and as the form
you might choose, if there were a leader of exceptional virtue. Some
of what he says can give light, at least analogically, to the
monarchical rule of business.
The corruption of monarchy is tyranny, in which the ruler rules only
in his own interest. Such rule is generally brutal and relies on
devices, such as spies, that fragment and disrupt the community.
Much of the work of the Politics is about how to avoid this calamity.
On the more positive side, Aristotle distinguishes many different
forms of monarchy, which range from the traditional hereditary
monarchy, in which familial affection ensures good treatment of
persons, to those in which the king acts under the law, and to those
in which people of capability are entrusted with significant
authority. He also gives a good deal of advice to the monarch,
whom, he says, should involve subjects in the activities of the
kingdom, be moderate in use of funds and act with respect of all
He should appear to the ruled not as a tyrannical sort but
as a manager and a kingly sort, not as an appropriator of
the things of others but as a steward. He should pursue
moderateness in life, not the extremes; further, he should
seek the company of the notables, but seek popularity with
This kind of rule will not only be more effective; it will also
enhance the moral character of the monarch.
Where does this leave us? Aristotle has alerted us to the subtlety of
relationships in the workplace. They are essentially different from
other kinds of relationships that we enjoy. There is an ever-present
risk that they will be degraded to the master-slave relationship,
either because of the work and processes involved or because of the
inadequacies of particular managers and employees. We no longer allow
the possession of persons as slaves, but it is still possible to
approximate this relationship, following Locke, during the hours of
employment. This situation can be brought about by managers and
corporations regarding employees as unintelligent about what they do
and unwilling to foster the ends of the enterprise. It can be
increased by the pressures of industrial processes, capital and the
pressures of competition.
The challenge is to move away from this end of the spectrum so as to
recognise employees as intellectual and moral agents, each with their
own dignity. This requires specific attitudes, but it also requires
action. Managers and Boards need to engage in serious discussion with
employees about the projects in place and about mutual concerns. A
workplace will be morally enhanced to the degree that it recognises
and fosters the human development of its workers. It is arguable that
this will also lead to a more profitable enterprise, because it will
encourage the people involved to work at a higher capacity.
1. Aristotle, The Politics, translated by Carnes Lord (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1984) I, 1 (1252a7-10), p. 35. At least
one of those against whom he argues is Plato, The Statesman 258e-259.
2. Politics I, 1 (1252a4), p. 35.
3. Aristotle, Economics, translated by E.S Forster, in The Compete
Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1984), vol. 2, pp. 2130 -- 2151. While the
authenticity of this work is questioned, the main difficulty is that
we have only a few fragments of the original text. The style and
thought of what we have are clearly Aristotelian.
4. Economics I, 1 (1343b1), p. 2130.
5. Economics I, 2 (1343a27-b1), p. 2131. In Politics I, 9
(1257b19-24), Aristotle draws a hard distinction between production
and trading. Other distinctions are between primary production and
the making of artefacts and between different kinds of primary
production. He expects that once formal lines are drawn for the
paradigm case, appropriate adaptations will be made for other cases,
even if this is not necessarily easy.
6. Politics I, 5 (1254a18).
7. Politics I, 5 (1254b23) p. 41.
8. Politics I, 13 (1206a12).
9. Politics VII, 7
10. Politics I, 5 (1254a23); I, 7 (1255b20-22).
11. See Politics I, 8 and 9. Aristotle distinguishes three human
activities: 'doing' is daily labour with perishables; 'making' is
work that presents some enduring product; 'action', which is the
human being at its best, has no external product, but is found in
such things as study or political speech making. Hannah Arendt based
her monumental work, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1958) on this distinction.
12. Politics I, 6.
13. Politics I, 5 (1254b1-2 and 27-33).
14. Politics V, 10 (1330a33).
15. Politics I, 13.
16. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, edited by C. B.
Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 1980), ch. 4, n. 24,
17. Second Treatise ch. 7, n. 85, p. 45.
18. Economics I, 6 (1344b23-27).
19. Politics I, 7 (1255b34), p, 43.
20. Despite our achievements, it is arguable that we have not fully
solved the problems that Aristotle raises. Our solution to persons
lacking foresight or energy is to support them at the expense of the
state, something done in Athens only for top athletes. We seem still
to have some industries in which the press of rather degrading work
generates relationships that are far from good and just.
21. Economics I, 1 (1343a1-5), p. 2130. The point is made also at
Politics I, 7 (1255b19).
22. See Politics V, 10 -- 11.
23. See Politics III, 14 -- 18.
24. Politics V, 11 (1315a41-b3), p. 178. For the extent of his advice
see 1314a30 -- 1315b10. For more general advice see Politics V, 9.
(c) Alfred Murray 2009
Web site: http://www.cis.catholic.edu.au/murray.htm
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Catholic Institute of Sydney
99 Albert Rd
Strathfield NSW 2135
II. ON WALTER BENJAMIN'S HISTORICAL MATERIALISM' BY ALFREDO
Walter Benjamin's theses On the Concept of History promise a
discussion on a new concept of history, and concomitantly on a new
concept of the present. A characteristic of the text is that at the
center of it there is no discursive explanation, but an image
instead. Benjamin's concept of history seems to do away with
philosophy's conceptual games, and transforms concepts into images,
which spoil the promise of truth offered by philosophy of history.
For Benjamin, the traditional concepts of history evaporated as he
wrote the historical-philosophical theses. He could no longer be
convinced that every historical event derives from a linear cause and
effect relationship, and that all events together constitute a
progressive, continuous motion. In thesis IX this appears as 'one
single catastrophe, which keeps pilling wreckage upon wreckage,' the
'pile of debris' was so vast that it even 'grows toward the sky.'
According to Benjamin, everything about history has been untimely,
sorrowful and unsuccessful. History has collapsed into a 'single
catastrophe' in which the history of mankind has shown to be a
failure. The basis for Benjamin's image of the pile of debris
reaching to the sky, and the catastrophic concept of history in these
theses, goes beyond concepts and phrases. For Benjamin, the stigma of
philosophical language is that it does not extend to mimesis --
remembrance. Only images attempt to gain direct access to mimesis.
The image of thesis IX presents history as Benjamin himself
understood it, but we still have to grasp what he hides behind that
image: 'There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an
angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His
eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how
the angel of history must look.' The image is an allegory of history
as natural history. And the angel stands for the 'true' historian,
the 'historical materialist' who has stripped himself of all illusion
about human history.
In order to use the 'weak messianic power' bestowed on us 'like every
generation that preceded us,' we must perceive history from a
materialistic point of view, that is, history as the catastrophic
pile of debris that continually 'grows toward the sky.' The
historical materialist understands the 'claim' implicit in accepting
this power: 'a power on which the past has a claim' (thesis II). 'The
angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has
been smashed.' Here Benjamin seems to pave the way for the
construction of a new 'conception of the present as now-time' (thesis
It is plausible to contend that Benjamin was aware of the
explosiveness of historical materialism, which lay in the concept of
the incompleteness of the past. In the theses, Benjamin refers to the
'past' or 'what has been' in general, and in some passages, to 'past
generations,' the 'tradition of the oppressed', and finally, to the
dead and the smashed. Benjamin is not writing history, but developing
a new 'concept' of history.
No one more emphatically integrated the incompleteness of history
into its completeness than Marx did. In the Eighteenth Brumaire he
wrote: 'The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a
nightmare on the brain of the living.' For past revolutions, there
might have been some sense in 'awaken the dead', but for the
revolution, that Marx thought was imminent, 'in order to arrive at
its own content' -- its own identity -- it 'must let the dead bury
their dead.' In the same line of thinking, Horkheimer asserted: 'The
determination of incompleteness is idealistic if completeness is not
comprised within it. Past injustice has occurred and is completed.
The slain are really slain...' (Horkheimer's letter of March 16,
1937). But Benjamin inveighs against this, and thus he holds his
position in a celebrated passage from the Arcades Project:
History is not simply a science but also and not least a
form a remembrance. What science has 'determined,'
remembrance can modify. Such mindfulness can make the
incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the
complete (suffering) into something incomplete [N8,1].
Succeeding generations cannot simply ratify the fact that what has
been lost has been lost for all time, and that the dead have no more
access to any praxis, for another praxis is within reach. Thus the
history written by the historical materialist takes up a certain
'idea of the past' as its cause.
If 'the idea of redemption' is inherent to the 'idea of happiness,'
the same should hold true for the idea of the past. 'The past carries
with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption.' But
Benjamin does not assign the task of redemption to a redeemer who is
to intervene in history from the outside; he also maintains like Marx
wrote, 'men make their own history.' Benjamin thereby renders the past
of history its completeness. 'There is a secret agreement between past
generations and the present one. Then our coming was expected on
Although all this may sound theological, it has a materialistic
intent and content. It is the historical materialist who is 'aware'
that 'the past has a claim' on us, and we will not 'settle' this
claim 'cheaply.' Benjamin does not depend on messianic promises:
'Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a
weak messianic power.' That 'messianic power' is an impulse, a
promise that does not make a fetish of what it promises.
How is this power with which mankind is endowed to be put to work?
Benjamin does not treat this question in the theses. But he has no
doubts about who is to put it to work -- the historical materialist.
In thesis II, Benjamin outlines the task of the historical
materialist, and in thesis XVII, he describes the procedure. Benjamin
first provides a summary of 'materialistic historiography,' under
which he subsumes his works: it 'is based on a constructive
principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but
their arrest as well.' The 'movement of thoughts' seems to stand
beside 'their arrest.' This shows Benjamin's characteristic form of
philosophizing, which uses 'dialectical images' to decode profane
existence as the enigmatic form of something beyond existence.
Benjamin also combined these ideas in the paradoxical formulation
'dialectics at a standstill.' His insistence on the arrest of the
flow of thoughts opposes Hegel's dialectics. Benjamin's thought does
not seek to assimilate itself into the temporal course of history
through understanding or intuition. The knowledge -- exposed by the
arrest of the movement -- 'flashes up at the moment of its
recognizability' (thesis V):
Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a configuration
saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a
shock, by which thinking is crystallizes as a monad. The
historical materialist approaches a historical object only
where it confronts him as a monad (thesis XVII).
This representation is a construction that distills the rational
shape out of the tensions of history. Benjamin's method seems to be
an optical change: the lenses in the historical camera have been
replaced. In order to grasp the movement of history, the flow must
come to a stop. It must crystallize into a shape and be constructed
as something immediately present. Regarding the historical subject,
Benjamin writes: 'In this structure he recognizes the sign of a
messianic arrest of happening.' By virtue of his 'constructive
principle,' by means of this 'shock' which he gives to history, the
historical materialist causes it to crystallize into a monad,
bringing about the 'arrest of happening.' Like Marx, Benjamin also
recognizes the sign of 'a revolutionary chance in the fight for the
oppressed past,' by virtue of this 'messianic' arrest.
In other words, thesis XVII deals with the opportunity for historical
materialism to gain possession of history as a unity subject-object,
which crystallizes itself by means of an 'arrest' into a monad. In
thesis VI, this cessation is more precisely described as 'a moment of
danger': historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the
past, which appears to man, single out by history at a moment of
danger. This danger is the political one 'of becoming a tool of the
ruling classes.' Benjamin accepts the cause of the oppressed as his
own: 'Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the
conformism that is working to overpower it.' The 'tradition' becomes
then a 'tool of the ruling classes' if it is abandoned to
'conformism,' and all that because under capitalism the social
relations are determined in the same way as commodities. The task of
the historical materialist is to wrest tradition away from the ruling
As an explanation of this task, thesis VI continues with this
sentence: 'The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as
the victor over of Antichrist.' The introduction of these theological
concepts cannot disguise the fact that there is no thought in the
religious sense. While the Messiah is an image for the historical
materialist, the Antichrist is an image for the 'ruling classes.'
Benjamin's language in the historico-philosophical theses invokes
anew the theological origin of Marxian concepts; the secularized
content of these ideas is always maintained. The Messiah, redemption,
the angel and the Antichrist appear in the theses as images, analogies
and parables -- not literally. Here the question is why Benjamin
proceeds in this manner. Maybe, the metaphorical emphasis of
Benjamin's thought leads us to assume that he is playing a game. What
then are the rules of this game?
On thesis I, Benjamin offers us an image and its interpretation as
There was once, we know, an automaton constructed in such a
way that it could respond to every move by a chess player
with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the
game. A puppet wearing Turkish attire and with a hookah in
its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.
A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table
was transparent on all sides. Actually, a hunchbacked dwarf
-- master at chess -- sat inside and guided the puppet's
hand by means of strings.
But Benjamin adds to the interpretation of the image his own
interpretation of the figures:
One can imagine a philosophic counterpart to this apparatus.
The puppet, called 'historical materialism,' is to win
all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it
enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know,
is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.
How then do the dwarf and the puppet, theology and historical
materialism, relate to one another? It seems that historical
materialism and theology, which is the impulse that sets the
apparatus of historical materialism, are by no means identical. There
is no identity between the separate figures. But it is the dwarf
(theology) who guides the puppet's hand (historical materialism).
In Benjamin's interpretation, these relationships seem to be shifted.
Historical materialism is in control: it 'enlists the services of
theology.' Theology is the slave who must do the work. Of course, the
tasks undertaken by theology are not prescribed to it; on the
contrary, it is the expert. But it can only do anything when it is in
the interest of its master. The master-slave relationship is reversed:
the living dwarf does not 'enlist the service' of the lifeless puppet.
This reduces the living being to a mere object of domination and
reveals 'the puppet' to be, in reality, alive and active.
Although the two figures are clearly separated, they become unified,
however, when they make up the image of the automatic chess player.
Only when theology and historical materialism have joined forces can
the game begin. Only as allies would the two be a match for any
opponent on the field of history -- the class struggle. It seems that
Benjamin seeks a form of cooperation between historical materialism
and theology in which they can do more than take up the struggle --
they can win. There can be no doubt about the desired outcome of the
class struggle for one who has taken up the position of the oppressed
classes. But is it not a solely intentional standpoint? Benjamin might
respond to the question: if historical materialism 'enlists the
services of theology', the victory of the oppressed classes must be
objectively produced. Historical materialism 'is to win all the time.'
But this question necessarily raises the problem concerning the
necessary conditions for winning the historical match. At this point,
Benjamin implicitly departs from the discussion of the concept of
history to the possible historical praxis. Benjamin's historical
materialism would postulate the unity of theory and practice as has
been advocated since Marx. He attempts to develop the theory of a
different practice, which might have a chance of winning the match.
Indeed this seems to be the intention of the historico-philosophical
Historical materialism once sought to realize philosophy by
transforming it. But in the meantime, for Benjamin, it has lost its
relationship to reality. So in order to be able to catch up with real
history again, historical materialism must return beyond philosophy to
theology. But the question remains, was Benjamin's attempt successful?
is the alliance of historical and theology actually able to produce a
new unity of theory and practice?
Benjamin's theses closely connect the theory of historiography, or
narrative, with the theory of history -- the nature and
transformation of human society -- in the same way in which history
itself is referred to its political praxis. For Benjamin, it is
necessary to have a certain conception of the present that allows us
to generate an interrelationship between history and politics. The
concept of history intended by Benjamin is meant to improve our
position in the class struggle and historical materialism in the
process. He immediately begins to develop the conception of an
alternate political praxis, which would pursue the cause of
Benjamin's critical revision of the theory and practice of historical
materialism has its starting point as a 'criticism of the concept of
progress itself' (thesis XIII). Its theory and practice have been
formed by a conception of progress, which 'bore little relation to
reality but made dogmatic claims' [loc. cit.]. Here Benjamin
criticizes a vulgar historical materialism that 'recognizes only the
progress in mastering nature, not the retrogression of society'
(thesis XI). The vulgar-historical materialist bypasses the question
that the concept of 'progress' and the notion of 'barbarism' are two
sides of one and the same thing. Therefore, the task of historical
materialism is 'to brush history against the grain' (thesis VII).
It would be a mistake to understand Benjamin as being against
progress; he is against the idea that man internalizes the logic of
progress, and in this way indefinitely reproduces it. When the
progress turns into the objective of mankind and not mankind the
objective of progress, we reproduce a conformist and reified
conception of history. In other words, the task of historical
materialism then is to blast out the continuum of historical
succession, that is, to overcome the concept of 'progress.' Benjamin
adopts a conception of history as discontinuity, as interruption.
'Historical materialism aspires to neither a homogeneous nor a
continuous exposition of history' [N7a,2], rather it 'leads the past
to bring the present into a critical state' [N7a,5]. The critical
momentum of historical materialism 'is registered in that blasting of
historical continuity' [N10a,1]. Benjamin writes:
The concept of progress had to run counter to the critical
theory of history [historical materialism] from the moment
it ceased to be applied as criterion to the specific
historical developments and instead was required to measure
the span between a legendary inception and a legendary end
of history... as soon it becomes the signature of historical
process as a whole, the concept of progress bespeaks an
uncritical hypostatization rather than a critical
For Benjamin, historical materialism 'carries along with it an
immanent critique of the concept of progress' [N11,4]. So it must
liquidate the continuum of history: it 'blasts out 'the reified'
continuity of history' [N9a,6], and constructs it as a discontinuum.
That is, historical materialism does not reconstruct history by
repeating the present, but constructing its 'interferences.' Its
'founding concept is not progress but actualization' [N2,2].
Benjamin attempts to establish 'the discontinuity of historical time'
as the foundations of the materialistic view of history. This attempt
terminates in the concept of history as a 'catastrophe'. The
catastrophe is the continuum of history. For Benjamin, catastrophe is
progress; progress is catastrophe. Thereby, 'the concept of progress
must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are 'status
quo' is the catastrophe' [N9a,1]. That things continue on going is
However, Benjamin postulates a true concept of progress versus its
reified version: 'Progress has its seat not in the continuity of
elapsing time but in its interferences' [N9a,7]. That is, in its
discontinuities. These discontinuities are no less than the outcome
of the aporias, the historical contradictions, of the present. In
short, the task of historical materialism is to construct an
alternative history once it 'has annihilated within itself the
[reified] idea of progress' [N2,2].
1. Quotations originate from Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of
History, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael
W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al., (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2003).
2. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Selected
Writings, ed. David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
3. Quotations in brackets are from Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project,
trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999).
(c) Alfredo Lucero-Montano 2009
III. 'QUESTIONNAIRE ON PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE AND ORGANIZATIONS' BY
NERI POLLASTRI AND PAOLO CERVARI
We are writing a book (for the Italian publisher Apogeo) on
Philosophical Practice for organizations, and we would like to take a
sort of 'photograph' of the actual situation in Europe. We would like
to understand, first of all, WHAT has really been DONE in this field.
In other words, we would like to have some good and detailed 'case
histories': the narrative reports, with their methodological
premises, goals, relations with the clients, and some of the ethical,
epistemological, and ontological considerations, and so on.
Our aim is to understand the specific characteristics of philosophy
and its role in relation to the world of business and organizations.
Our intention is, together with you and all the other Philosophical
Consultants, to build a sort of 'map' which shows what all
philosophical practitioners have in common when they are working with
Finally, we have an urgent recommendation: since the heart of
philosophical practice is just the 'practice,' perhaps you can help
us understand what you have concretely done by detailing, above all,
the various phases (or steps or developments or characteristics) of
the various processes that you have actuated with individuals or
The questionnaire is made up of two sections, to be freely
interpreted, taking into account what we have written above. Thank
you very much for your collaboration.
You can find other details on the dedicated website
http://www.ilfilosofoinazienda.eu (it is in Italian language, but
includes some English pages).
Neri Pollastri and Paolo Cervari, Italian philosophical practitioners
1. How many interventions have you done as a philosopher in an
organization? What kind were they?
2. Could you talk about one of them, explaining its genesis, the
employed processes, the obstacles and difficulties encountered along
the way, and the results and benefits achieved?
3. Could you talk about another one, possibly of a different type,
duration and aims?
4. How do you propose your interventions? What do you explain or
expose in the first meeting, to define the activity to be carried out?
5. Do you agree upon some goals? In the affirmative case, what are
they (usually)? In the negative case, how do you manage the demand
for results by the client?
6. Do you employ specific formats (i.e., Socratic Dialogue)? In the
affirmative case, which ones? And how do you distinguish between them
in relation to the different demands, goals, circumstances and
7. Could you tell us about other things you consider important or
useful in understanding your way of working with organizations?
1. What could philosophy offer to the organizations?
2. Which specific needs of the organizations could be met by
3. Could philosophy offer advantages to the organizations that other
consultation professions are not able to offer? In the affirmative
case, what are they?
4. Are there processes or specific activities which philosophy could
activate in organizations? By means of which methods, forms or
5. Are there tools (or processes, or approaches), which philosophy
possesses exclusively, that could be employed in organizations? In
the affirmative case, what are they? And what results or effects
could they produce?
6. In particular, are there tools or processes from the history of
philosophy (i.e. dialectics, epoche, phenomenology, etc.), which
could be employed in organizations? In what ways? In which contexts
and situations? With what results?
7. Are there forces of resistance by organizations against using
philosophy as a resource in consultation? What are they? Why?
8. Taking for granted that philosophy could involve a critical and
emancipating tendency, could this characteristic create conflict with
the requests and goals of organizations?
(c) Neri Pollastri and Paolo Cervari 2009
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