Understanding and Leading Organizations: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Investigation

By Heil, Dominik | Philosophy Today, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Understanding and Leading Organizations: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Investigation


Heil, Dominik, Philosophy Today


The purpose of this paper is to argue for an ontological investigation into the very nature of organizations and their leadership, in the tradition of Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology.1 Organizations in general, and corporations in particular, play an ever-more prominent role in contemporary society and, given their pervasive influence in all spheres of life, it seems surprising that this has not led to a vibrant ontological inquiry into what they are in their very nature. In choosing a guide for engaging in such an ontological inquiry, Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology seems promising, as he made the most prominent contribution to the ontological project in the twentieth century - a time that coincides not only with the rise of corporations, but also with the corporatization of many other aspects of contemporary society.2

Real progress in any science takes place when the fundamental assumptions of the very nature of entities to be researched are acknowledged as untenable, and are revised in a more or less radical manner.3 In such instances - as Michael Inwood4 points out, with reference to Heidegger5 - the inquiry, strictly speaking, is no longer scientific but philosophical - or, more precisely, ontological. Ontology is defined as "the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being,"s and is also understood to be "the 'study of beings as such,' but it can be a 'regional' ontology, concerned with the being or nature of e.g. numbers, space, ora work of literature."7 In this essay, I want to submit the phenomenon "organization" and, by implication, the field of organizational studies to such an ontological investigation, with the goal of making such a contribution.

An ontological investigation is itself prescientific and serves to build a foundation for establishing and developing appropriate theory-generating and scientific approaches, and, consequently, research agendas and research methodologies. Just like any other academic discipline, organizational sciences and studies necessarily rest on the assumptions about the very nature of the entity with which they are concerned, namely, the organization - whether these assumptions are specifically articulated or not.8 As Heidegger himself points out, science and ontology are, therefore, inherently inseparable.1* Any science presupposes an understanding of the very nature of the entity that is being researched, and can only research and understand that which is inherently permissible in its way to ascertain entities. 10If the fundamental ontological assumptions of the very nature of the organization as the entity that organizational studies is concerned with turn out to be untenable, all the hard work built on these assumptions would turn out to be of limited validity, or even to be misleading."

Concerns about an Ontology for Organizational Studies

Thomas C. Powell has made a foundational contribution to the academic field of strategic management - and, by implication, organizational studies - by explicitly confronting these fields of investigation with philosophical questioning and inquiry.12 His arguments against an ontological discourse are not novel from a philosophical perspective. They deserve their prominence in the following argument, however, as they are a rare occurrence in the field of strategic management, in two ways. First, they articulate the implicit, but until then largely unarticulated, empiricist and pragmatist philosophical foundation of the vast majority of the prominent scholarly work in these academic disciplines, especially in the Englishspeaking world. Second, by doing so, Powell's papers provide the opportunity to engage with this philosophical bias and expose it to further scrutiny and development where this is clearly relevant, even according to Powell himself.11

Unlike many other academic fields - for example, the political science or law - which were generated by philosophical insight and are guided by an ongoing, more or less vibrant philosophical discourse, the academic fields of strategic and organizational management and organizational studies have, for the most part, started out as a result of the pragmatic need to give guidance to the management of a relatively young phenomenon - namely, the modern organization in general, and the corporation in particular.

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