The philosopher and literary theorist Armen Avanessian is today one of the most renowned thinkers in Germany. He talked to us about the usefulness of knowledge, the mistakes in dealing with artificial intelligence, and why he was inspired by management theories.
WYZE: Mr. Avanessian, pragmatism and Operationalisability seem today to be the predominant criteria for assessing knowledge – especially in business. How do you see the connection between knowledge and usefulness?
Armen Avanessian: You can form a series of parallel pairs of terms. Theory and practice, for example, or thinking and doing. In my language, one would say that one has to deconstruct these terms, because they are not really opposites. For example, good theory is designed for change right from the beginning, and every practice has an underlying theory. In terms of knowledge and usefulness, I would also question what is actually the opposite of useful knowledge. Is it a harmful knowledge? Or rather useless knowledge that has no traction in reality? I often come across the second in the academic environment, the harmful thing is on the side of those who make far-reaching decisions, for example in business and politics, where a certain knowledge that becomes effective can actually be harmful.
WYZE: In this context, what does it mean when knowledge is useful or harmful?
Armen Avanessian: Beyond conceptual acrobatics, the question must be asked whether there are formal criteria to determine when it is a form of knowledge production that has advanced, progressive elements. A knowledge production that is solution-oriented and opens up potential instead of closing it. Depending on the field, such criteria can be found and evaluated. For example, in the field of artificial intelligence. Is there a thinking so far away from technological realities that it is useless or based on such false premises that it is even harmful?
For example, when dealing with AI, one often imagines a form of intelligence that detracts from its potential because it reduces artificial intelligence to human intelligence. The underlying anthropomorphic models hamper development and create fears. And it’s not fruitful at all. The same logic could be used to construct a plane that flaps its wings like a blackbird. Regardless of what is now called useless or harmful knowledge, in any case it is knowledge that directs technological development into a false, inefficient, and ineffective path.
Another field is, for example, climate policy. Here one can ask a different question with regard to usefulness: Namely, useful to whom? Knowledge is never objective but carried by values, every knowledge is always embedded in a political, cultural field. And this value-boundness is also decisive for the question of usefulness. Someone who denies the human impact on climate change for economic or ideological interests will find that factual evidence is not useful.
WYZE: In recent years, there have been several studies of what top managers read. These are almost always non-fiction books or biographies. Here, the utility criterion plays a major role. And indeed, why should I, for example, read Musil’s “Man without Qualities”? What good is it in my position as CEO? Should you waste the short time on it?
Armen Avanessian: It is now obvious that I accept the invitation and plead for reading complex novels like the “Man without Qualities”. That’s a statement in itself, if one says, one has read it. But maybe I should try to take another position.
Of course, I also think we should read this novel, which I consider to be one of the greatest of the twentieth century. But maybe for other reasons, not because you slow down and read a thick novel for a change, but because you can even save time. One can, for example, have the picture of a time, certain situation analyses, which is important for decision-makers, in a novel partly in a half-sentence. That’s what good literature does. It is highly efficient and effective when it comes to imparting knowledge that is useful to me.
WYZE: Then why the low bandwidth of the reading lists?
Armen Avanessian: The problem lies in the literature itself. Which media can still function in an attention economy like the current one? You have to ask yourself that question. It’s not a plea against the novel. But what I mean is that it makes no sense to complain about managers not reading the many great contemporary German novels. Maybe they’re not so great. I can recommend Musil because the first page alone shows so much about language and communication that I can save myself a lot of time – if managers have little time, you just have to read the right contemporary novels, or perhaps other literary forms.
WYZE: How should one read literature under the premise of usefulness, i.e. from a manager’s perspective?
Armen Avanessian: You just have to see what you want to find. For example, do you want to see how the structures worked in the age of another technological disruption? How to make decisions in extremely confusing situations? Or do you want to be deliberately irritated, led out of a too dominant form of context? I would be tempted to watch a management meeting, or to accompany a manager on the car trip for three hours. And then maybe create a concrete reading list. This is better than having a general discussion and making abstract proposals such as remote diagnoses. Then maybe you can read the short stories by Musil or Aphorisms by Nietzsche. Or maybe a specific chapter from the “man without qualities”. This can then help to better understand and judge oneself, others and a certain situation.
WYZE: Do you get comparative advantages if you draw knowledge from sources that are not common sense? So not the one important same article from ‘Wirtschaftswoche’ or ‘Brand eins’?
Armen Avanessian: Unfortunately, I don’t know enough managers to give a clear answer here. But when I start with myself – that is, I try to draw my ideas about the way I make philosophy (not what I do or say!), rather from management theory, or sociology, or technology – much rather than philosophy or literary theory. Because I very much doubt that one gets more from its own context, than a refinement of the paradigm in which one already thinks. I’m more interested in a paradigm shift.