Never Say I Kant, Always Say I’ll Try

startups business philosophy Jul 13, 2022

My son recently chose philosophy as his university major, and with the fervor of a recent convert, he guides me into conversations exploring fundamental questions like “What is knowledge?” and “Can we trust reason?” Of course, the answers are hard to firmly grasp, but the conversations, which I always enjoy, sparked some thinking about how the great minds in philosophy could help me in everyday life.

Since my knowledge of philosophy is . . .  shall we say . . .  underdeveloped, I need to lean on the few thinkers who helped me understand the world. Although his writing is sometimes impenetrably difficult for me, Kant is a favorite. He sought to review all knowledge to answer three foundational questions:

What can I know?
What must I do?
What may I hope for?

Kant maintains that these famous three questions are central to all inquiry.

At this point, you may be concerned that, like my son, I am also a fervent missionary for philosophy and seek to create a discussion about topics long ago happily forgotten. Don’t worry. Here is my very practical thesis: These questions are an excellent framework for any complex decision, including those we face at work. If a good question is half of wisdom, these three are gems.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the questions.

What can we know?

It seems fairly obvious that we should seek to understand the dimensions of each opportunity or problem. However, it is at the boundaries of knowledge that true insights occur. The question, poorly framed, is “What do we know?” Kant wisely phrased it, “What can we know?” The intention is to push back the boundary of our ignorance with more data, context, and consequences.

The question also implies that there are limits on our ability to develop complete knowledge. Nobody knows everything. We need to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. There will always be doubt. Decision makers always want more input, but at what cost in time and treasure?

Once you know what can be reasonably known, it's time to move forward. Inaction and ignorance both impose a cost.

What must we do?

Exercising the power of judgment is necessary in every complex situation, but this question implies that action is an imperative. Once the best possible answer has been identified, there is a need to act with purpose. We ultimately have to produce something people will pay money to buy.

In this context, acting on a thoughtful and well-considered decision is a duty. Of course, it’s not the moral duty prescribed by Kant but a fiduciary duty to all stakeholders in an organization to produce desired outcomes while fomenting real good in society.

The duty to act cultivates responsibility and accountability. What good is action without ownership? The risk of blame for actions not properly completed requires courage. Courage requires confidence. Confidence is best obtained when it is the result of thoughtful and well-intended actions.

Whoohoo! We may have a virtuous path:

Explore > know > think > act > deliver

What may we hope for?

We can hope to craft a healthy, growing, and profitable business that is built to last. This feels like too heavy a lift for any mere mortal, but it is something to guide and inspire us. To be clear, these are not wishes—wishes are for genies—hopes are for planners and doers who reasonably expect a future event to be realized.

Jim Collins coined the term “BHAG.” It is an acronym for “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” They are long-term, stretch targets that define what is possible and align a group of people on distant goals. It is another way to express ambitious dreams.

Most of these goal-oriented hopes target human happiness or progress. They focus on building something valuable and meaningful.

A theory or framework with broad application is robust and durable. As my son can attest, I may not be able to answer all of the big questions in philosophy. But as I considered Kant's attempt to do so, I found his three questions to be wonderfully extensible: a robust framework with broad application that can help us in our own domains of technology, business, and entrepreneurship.

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.

—Immanuel Kant

David Haynes

Partner @ Ravn