The freedom of the other cannot be ignored. An interview with Reinhard K. Sprenger

Erziehungskunst | A portrait which recently appeared in Harvard Business Manager wrote that you, and Götz Werner, the head of the dm chain of pharmacies, had Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom “in common as a spiritual root”. What is it that you like about the Philosophy of Freedom? 

Reinhard Sprenger | The idea of the “I” which determines itself as a free entity. Both in the cognitive process, which is a creative and not an depictive one, and in action, in which it realises itself in the love of doing as such. Cognition and action thus become one. Even in my sceptical attitude to education in my early university years, this book, which subsequently underlay my work as a management author, confirmed for me: the freedom of the other cannot be ignored. I can only acknowledge the other in his or her incomprehensibility and then decide whether I can live with him or her or not. I cannot change him or her – unless I confuse learning with conformity.

EK | Steiner saw himself as an individualistic anarchist at the time that he wrote the Philosophy of Freedom. We can summarize his maxim of the time as: “Do not obey any rules which you have not given yourself.” How can corporate and staff management be reconciled such anarchism?

RS | Every person who loves his or her work is an anarchist at heart. But according to Kant, anarchy is voluntary as well as organised coexistence – that is, not enforced and not without rules. I keep reminding the managers and their staff of the voluntary nature of their work together. And when we are talking about rules, I recommend extreme restraint and self-regulation within the bounds of possibility. The bounds of possibility that “still” exist, I should say. Because the process of organisation has advanced very far, it destroys ever greater numbers of alternatives. But I believe that the market will force it to happen: the reintroduction of the human being into management.

EK | How do economically-trained minds, who make all their decisions from the standpoint of efficiency, react when you tell them that the human being has to become the centre of entrepreneurial activity again?

RS | That should not be confused with the implausible “the human being as the focus” or the cynical “the human being as the resource”. By the reintroduction of the human being into management I mean the active de-construction of the organisation so that managers can decide on the greatest number of issues themselves. Especially with regard to concrete customer problems. That will hardly be possible without decentralisation and smaller units. In complex situations, that is the only way to use the fastest computer that companies have available: the human brain. If turbulent markets make this thought more plausible, managers can be quite open for such an idea. They only clam up when anxiety triumphs over fear.

EK | A Greek philosopher once said : “The human being is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.” Does this statement also apply to the economy and the world of goods?

RS | Protagoras’ famous saying has often been misunderstood. It does not demand general humanity, no moral action, but should be understood epistemologically. It recognises that all perception is always from a particular perspective, sees truth as relative and sets the individual as the interpreter of all things. In companies, this ineluctable subjectivity is concealed with numbers. They are used to create a more precise picture of appearances. What is gained when, in a growth forecast of 25 percent, only 23 percent is achieved and people are upset about the two percent which have been missed rather than happy about the 23 percent which have been achieved? Often objectivity is claimed by sleight of hand – and there is no objectivity. Not among people. Because numbers do not address us. We address numbers. Numbers may challenge us to respond. But this response is the “respons”-ibility of each individual person. They do not release us from responsibility.

EK | The economy has come under a lot of criticism today. It is accused of being oriented too much towards profit maximisation with too little interested in ethical and ecological concerns. Some critics accuse economic thinking of being too strongly wedded to a mechanistic philosophy and threatening to subjugate society, particularly culture and education, to alien paradigms, thus destroying it.

RS | It is like with reversible figures: depending on how you look at them, you can see endless scandals or incredible economic success. I continue to believe that the mortally wounded “homo oeconomicus” is a construct which is extremely close to reality – if we do not narrow rational utility maximisation down to purely material utility. People always act in their own self interest – no matter what they do. Even when they help others. And what you describe as “alien paradigms” seems to me to indicate a problematical understanding of democracy. In any event, I do not accept that an opera ticket is subsidised at four times the price while the audience at a rock concert have to pay the full price. Moralising the economy is a dead end. In contrast: balancing interests – that means something to me.

Interviewer: Lorenzo Ravagli.