I was a teenager during the 1960s when in the UK there was a controversy sparked by Bishop J. A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963). This led me to Paul Tillich (1948) and other existentialists, at a time when my sixth form studies were encouraging me to learn something of philosophy.

I was not impressed by the approach to philosophy advanced by Descartes (1637) in the infamous cogito, ergo sum[1]. Assuming a single thinking entity rather than a changing one, seemed to me a post-hoc rationalisation, using, by habit, the mental mechanism which, applied to external phenomena, helps to speculate on why things happen: “I think, therefore of course I think that I exist”. An intangible such as the self did not seem a promising starting-point for a method for discovering truth in the sciences: the thinking “I” is not simply reducible to the physical body or mental processes.[2]

From mathematics at university, I became used to setting out definitions of concepts to be used in later discussion, and only later discovered how strange this mode of thought seems to many people. Working in the information systems area in the early 1990s, I introduced some definitions in a draft paper that I sent to a colleague who kindly offered comments. I was astonished that a definitional sentence reading “Information is what we know.” was returned to me with the word “is” circled. I expected the rest of that sentence to be of interest – information theory in Shannon’s (1949) style focuses on what we know at any instant. I had not meant to imply that information exists as an object in the real world. I quickly learned to write instead in phenomenological terms such as “The word ‘information’ is used here when some knowledge seems to have been gained in communication”.

Existence, real, material, and universe clearly mean amazingly different things to different people. For Plato’s nineteenth century translators, material things were merely visible, whereas intelligible concepts were real[3]. For Bertrand Russell, things such as numbers were real (see Irvine 2001); for his colleague Alfred North Whitehead, it was processes that constituted fundamental reality (see Rescher 2002); for Kant (1783) ideas were real; and for many religious people, the spiritual is real. Aristotle (325 BC) observed correctly that sensations do not exist independently of our perceiving of them[4]; Berkeley (1710) incorrectly applied this doctrine to all material things on the basis that we know of them only through sensation. For Richard Rorty the world is real, but descriptions of it are debatable[5]. Different viewpoints for such basic concepts persist, and few discuss them, because there is allegedly no practical consequence of the difference in ontological perspective.

Carnap (1928), a positivist, put it this way: “Two geographers, a realist and an idealist, who are sent out in order to find out if a mountain that is supposed to be somewhere in Africa is only legendary or if it really exists, will come to the same … result not only about the existence of the mountain, but also about its other characteristics, namely position, shape, height, etc. In all empirical questions there is unanimity. Hence the choice of a philosophical viewpoint has no influence upon the content of natural science; (this does not mean that it could not have some practical influence upon the activity of the scientist).”

However, there was for most of the twentieth century a profound disagreement between the Bohm and Bohr interpretations of quantum mechanics. David Bohm would say that Schrödinger’s cat, supposedly in a sealed box in company with a deadly mechanism, is really either alive or dead, whereas Niels Bohr wants some intermediate mixed state until the box is opened (Cushing 1994); most people now seem to use Bohm’s interpretation[6]. For an earlier generation there had been a persistent incompatibility between the wave and particle theories of light.

Analogously, every writer in the information systems field has, it seems, concepts of information, business organisation, system, different from everyone else[7]. As with metaphysics, the persistence of so many different philosophical standpoints in business studies seems to suggest that these differences are of no practical consequence for business, and the use of “Ockham’s razor” is appropriate for getting rid of the redundant entities. On the other hand many of us in trying to achieve precision in our writing cannot find definitions in the literature that suit our purpose and standpoint, and are led to suggest our own. My own definition of business organisation is of a phenomenological sort that I find congenial: I speak of a business organisation when I want to distinguish between the separate legal persona of an enterprise and the actions of individuals on its behalf (cf. Crowe et al 1994). In particular organisations and other systems are not real in my terms[8].

Reality for me is a serious issue, since it is what keeps our feet on the ground: and separates facts from imagination and other lies. Consider the following metaphysical framework:

  1. Reality = the universe = material objects that can be seen and touched.
  2. We can know of this “external world” only through such personal experience as seeing/touching things, somewhat more indirectly by using instruments such as telescopes, and even more indirectly by our understanding of what others tell us.
  3. Concepts, ideas, processes, systems and laws are abstractions or generalisations and therefore are not real = do not exist of themselves.

This world of reality may seem cold and denuded, but it is warmed up by human and other interactions, which we are all very good at from birth. What we see is conditioned by what we think; and what we think, and how we express it in language, is developed through our interactions with others. These interactions enable us to build relationships, concepts, language, ideas, culture, as we learn about the opinions of other people at the same time as we develop our own[9]. We infer such notions as causality and repeatability from our experience: they are still our opinions, not givens and do seem to be culturally dependent. To me the modernists seem to take us back where each individual (unaided, ‘heroic’) confronts the cosmos, pure logic, transcendence or other grandiose notions that one finds in the philosophy of Descartes, Kant, and others.

Shared investigations and discussions are thus essential to intellectual progress, so that we benefit from the work of others, and climb “on the shoulders of giants”[10]. Yet we have seen in many disciplines, including science, a lack of agreement on fundamental issues or concepts, even, one might say, in the absence of a common language. Now in fact analytical philosophers in the sterile English tradition often argued that a common language was difficult, if not impossible to establish (Wittgenstein, 1953). There used also to be a rather sterile debate about “incommensurability” in relation to historicist theories of knowledge. But here we find not just single disciplines, but, it would seem, all academic investigation, flourishing despite such apparent philosophical problems. It is reminiscent of the old Greek paradoxes, such as Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which he is said to have claimed proved the impossibility of motion. Paradoxes generally cause intellectuals to think how to avoid such an impasse. Thus Zeno’s paradoxes led to a more careful mathematics of infinite series, as Russell’s led to a more rigorous formalism in mathematics.

In the academic community, it is almost because of the need to explain our evidence in terms that overcome these differences of individual point of view, that we establish a common academic style of presenting our ideas. We behave in a manner reminiscent of the School of Athens, where we are all entitled to filter ideas, to reinterpret them using our own conceptual framework, and to modify all of this as we go along. In this respect, the intellectual discussion and debate of the academic community is no different from the way that children learn language and other cultural matters in interaction with adults and other children. We can thus get beyond our personal opinions to a shared culture: where we may choose either to moderate our view of certain matters to conform to an emerging consensus or to promote our view of some matter in the hope of reaching a more congenial consensus.

Looking back to the School of Athens, it is clearer to us maybe than to its participants that their approach could never lead to objective truth, however much their arguments and methods benefited from the continual dialogue and debate. Although Francis Bacon, in his Instauratio Magna, set out to re-establish the whole of knowledge on a sound footing of rigorous enquiry, he envisaged cyclical processes of gathering and examining evidence and debate. The process he began has achieved such a magnificent temple of knowledge that it is as foolish to imagine that there is any admission test for knowledge to ensure it is demonstrably, necessarily true, as it is to imagine that “the individual” can construct anything from an unaided contemplation of the cosmos.

This social construction of knowledge precludes the attainment of objectivity[11] or universal truth (except in the empty tautologies of formal mathematics) – this is “the world well lost”[12] (Stove, 1991). Everything new and much that is old is provisional and open to debate, not in the sense of being subject to imminent falsification, but in the sense of requiring first to be generally accepted and later to be improved or replaced. If we do not own up to our starting-points, opinions and bias, others will infer them for us. This pragmatic approach leads to objections from all sides (Rorty, 1989); both from those who (maybe justifiably) mistrust any academic establishment (“governmentality” is Michel Foucault’s term), and from those who, following Habermas, wish to prove the falsity of opinions they (maybe justifiably) dislike. The postmodern stands accused of relativisim, where anything goes[13], but no shortcuts in the process ever seem to work: even simple discoveries in the physical sciences routinely take forty years to be accepted[14].  Since everything hinges on discussion and debate the excitement it engenders is so much the greater:

The social construction of knowledge also precludes the popular and flattering image of the scientist as genius. For the scientist a good road is one open to all, and the scientific method demands the modesty of asserting that anyone else, with the same starting points, could have reached the same conclusions. This modesty is balanced by the homage that the community pays to the great contributors to knowledge. We strengthen this virtuous circle whenever we exhort students to give proper references and reviews of the literature, and by our anathema of plagiarism.

So when I consider why academics do research, I think of participation in the joy of discovery and debate, the creation of new knowledge, and the timeless academe.


Aristotle (325 BC) Metaphysics.

Bacon, F. (1620), Instauratio Magna, London.

Berger, P., Luckman, T. (1966): The Social Construction of Reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge, Doubleday, New York.

Berkeley, G (1710) A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge; publ Works, ed. A C Fraser, Oxford (1901)

Burton, R (1624) The Anatomy of Melancholy, 2nd edition, London

Carnap, R. (1928): Der Logische Aufbau der Welt; English version The Logical Structure of the World - Pseudoproblems in Philosophy University of California, Berkeley (1967)

Checkland, P.B., Holwell, S. (1998): Information, Systems and Information Systems: making sense of the field, Wiley, Chichester.

Crowe, M. K., Beeby, R.B., Gammack, J. G. (1994): Construction Systems and Information: a process view, McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead.

Cushing, J. T. (1994): Quantum Mechanics: historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony, University of Chicago Press

Dennett, D. C. (1991): Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books, London

Descartes, R. (1637), Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verité dans les sciences, Paris

Descartes, R. (1641), Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animae immortalitas demonstrantur, Paris

Gjertsen, D. (1989) Science and Philosophy: Past and Present, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Hume, D. (1739), Treatise on Human Nature, John Noon, London.

Irvine, A. D. (2001); "Bertrand Russell", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Kant, I. (1783) Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können; English version, Cambridge, 1997

Lonergan, B. (1957) Insight: A study of human understanding, Longmans, London

Merton, Robert K. (1965) On the shoulders of giants, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Plato (360-350 BC) Works

Rescher, N. (2002); "Process Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Robinson, J. A. T. (1963): Honest to God, John Knox Press, Westminster

Rorty, R. (1979): Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press; (1980) Blackwell, Oxford.

Rorty, R. (1982): Consequences of Pragmatism, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.

Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony, Solidartity, Cambridge University Press.

Salisbury, J. (1159), Metalogicon

Shannon, C. E, Weaver, W. (1949): The Mathematical Theory of Communication, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Stove, D. (1991): The Plato Cult and other Philosophical Follies, Blackwell, Oxford.

Tillich, P. (1948), The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books, London

Wittgenstein, L. (1953): Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford.

[1] The phrase is not actually found in his works. The Discours is in French: “Mais, aussitôt après, je pris garde que, pendant que je voulais ainsi penser que tout était faux, il fallait nécessairement que moi, qui le pensais, fusse quelque chose. Et remarquant que cette vérité: je pense, donc je suis, était si ferme et si assurée, que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des sceptiques n’étaient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvais la recevoir, sans scrupule, pour le premier principe de la philosophie, que je cherchais.” Descartes (1637) IV: 1, cf 3. The later Meditations on Metaphysics (Descartes 1641) are in Latin, and also cover this ground, but do not actually contain the cogito. The Meditations have an interesting subtitle about proving the existence of God and the immortal soul, which calls into question Descartes’ modern reputation as a rationalist, and recalls Socrates’ equally fallacious final arguments (Plato: Phaedo 64-105). For a modern example of the cogito starting-point used in pursuit of similar ends, consider Lonergan (1957), and see a list of similar philosophical crimes in Stove (1991).

[2] David Hume (1739) is sceptical (positivist): “He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself, though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” Positivists imposed strict limits to what can be discussed. For a convincing phenomenological account of consciousness, see Dennett (1991).

[3] Plato, Republic τούτοις μὲν ὡς εἰκόσιν αὐ̂ χρώμενοι, ζητου̂ντες [511a] δὲ αὐτὰ ἐκει̂να ἰδει̂ν ἃ οὐκ ἂν ἄλλως ἴδοι τις ἢ τῃ̂ διανοία. [My translation: these things they treat in their turn as only images, in trying to see what are merely thoughts]

[4] οὔτε γὰρ ψυχρὸν οὔτε θερμὸν οὔτε γλυκὺ οὔτε ὅλως αἰσθητὸν οὐθὲν ἔσται μὴ αἰσθανομένων [Neither the cold nor the hot nor the sweet nor in general any sensation will exist unless we are perceiving it] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book ix, 1047a, my translation. The usual translation of αἰσθητὸν as “sensible thing” seems to me quite misleading.

[5] Rorty (1989) “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

[6] The physicists who taught me seem to have favoured Bohm while mathematics lecturers followed Bohr and Dirac.

[7] See Checkland and Holwell (1998) for a survey of this phenomenon.  For system, the only important idea for me is emergence, which seems very simple to me. For example a triangle is made up of three lines, but the area of the triangle is an emergent property of the triangle (not possessed by the lines). A car has a maximum speed and a fuel consumption in miles per gallon, but these properties are emergent since none of the parts has properties remotely like these. Such an idea seems familiar to Aristotle, cf. Metaphysics Book XIII (1078a) ὁ δ' ἔθετο ἓν ἀδιαίρετον, εἰ̂τ' ἐθεώρησεν εἴ τι τῳ̂ ἀνθρώπῳ συμβέβηκεν ᾑ̂ ἀδιαίρετος: assumes [man] to be an indivisible thing, and considers attributes of man as indivisible. (My translation.) The notion of emergence comes to us more recently, from Gestalt theory, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Christian von Ehrenfels 1890).

[8] This was a point of view which my co-authors were at pains to conceal in Crowe et al (1994).

[9] This viewpoint is that of constructivism (Berger and Luckman, 1966). cf. Aristotle (Metaphysics II, 993b, 1-5) “…They too have contributed something; by their preliminary work they have formed our mental experience”, in answering Meno’s paradox on the impossibility of gaining knowledge of things we do not know (Plato: Meno 80e). Aristotle’s conception of the pursuit of knowledge as an unheroic, collective enterprise was taken up by Bacon 1620.

[10] This famous aphorism is usually attributed to Newton, but it is much older. Robert Burton (1624) gives a somewhat inaccurate quotation in Latin from tom. II, cap. x of a commentary on Luke by Diego de (Didacus) Estella, 1524-1578, published in Salamanca in 1575 (Some reprints of this book, e.g. Antwerp 1622, evidently gave the author’s name inaccurately as Didacus Stella). The oldest surviving occurrence of the dwarfs and giants image seems to be in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon (1159), III 4, citing Bernard of Clairvaux: “Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos gigantum umeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora uidere, non utique proprii uisus acumine aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subuehimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantium.”

[11] All disparagement of objectivity was edited out of (Crowe et al 1994) by my co-authors, who, probably rightly, felt that it would be easier for readers from a scientific background to accept a constructivist viewpoint than a subjective one. I did not see much practical difference, though one or two nice quotations were, sadly, lost in the change.

[12] Richard Rorty (1982) includes “The World Well Lost”, The Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972) p. 649-665. The title refers to the central thesis of (Rorty 1979), refuting Carnap’s “correspondence principle” (the mirror of nature).

[13] “No one holds this view… The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between … opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” Rorty (1982), ‘Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism’, his emphasis.

[14] Newton published his experiments on the chromatic nature of white light in 1672, but the results were not accepted by the scientific community until 1714 (Gjertsen, 1989, p.191). More recent examples include the periodic table, special relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, neutron stars, and black holes.