Philosophy writ large

Note on the ontological, normative and other philosophical issues that must underlie any theory of strategic human resource management

By Graham Little PhD AFNZIM

Copyright April 2003: This paper is copyright, but in line with the policy of this site, the material and ideas may be used in discussion provided due recognition is afforded the source.

Frequently issues of philosophy are dismissed and or ignored particularly by those bent on pursuing ‘real theories’. Unfortunately, this is a grave mistake, but one understandable in a modern world riddled with philosophies and philosophers delivering little more than nonsense, yet seen as ‘professional’ (I am frequently quoted as a ‘non-professional’ philosopher and rather pleased for it), afforded access to journals provided form and style and message are seemingly consistent with editors norms – no matter how extravagant or obtuse or unintelligible.

I have done no detailed research on the topic, but from my general understanding of how we as a species work, I would think it impossible for Einstein, for example, to create his great works without thinking conceptually and philosophically about the issues then finding and working through the equations. As I have previously discussed, mathematics is a third order conceptual system, able to lead conceptual thought as well as being a language describing conceptual thought, the only other such system I know is that of Ashby’s ultimate and immediate effects supported by my analysis of Variables, these tools better suited to managing understanding of social systems than mathematics, but nonetheless are equally useful in guiding and helping the conceptual process and bounded by their own well understood limitations in absence of effective understanding and strategic analysis of both practical and philosophical issues relating to any theoretical endeavor.

I know of no better example of these issues that in the creation of a theory of strategic human resource management, and I use this example, since I have developed a paper on this topic, to illustrate the relation between scientific endeavor and essential, underlying philosophical issues, and in the absence of solutions to these issues any and all scientific endeavor must be prefaced with …assuming/ignoring the following, we speculate that… For any theory of strategic human resource management (SHRM) which of the following issues apply:

I could go on, but I hope my point is made. My position is as follows:
Any theory of strategic human resource management that does not address fully and effectively the issues above must be prefaced … assuming/ignoring these issues …(specify)… we speculate that…

The real issue, particularly in social science, is that there is only one actor, people: and no matter the particular issue, the particular circumstances the scientist chooses, no matter how empirical or rigorous they try to be, and in particular no matter how hard they try to ‘isolate’ the factors and deal with the situation, all the causal and philosophical issues pertaining to people, all the underlying and unresolved issues (unresolved everywhere except at this site), will be ‘present’, and will force the qualification …assuming/ignoring…

My general point is as follows:
Any theory in social science that does not bring to account the underlying issues relating to the causality of human mood and conduct will always be limited to the extent that those issues impact the circumstances to which the theory applies.

Going further with the analysis, I also believe most strongly that modern philosophy, focused so often on analyzing what other, historical people said, misses the point of what philosophy is and what it needs to do to be meaningful. Philosophy is the (1) activity of uncovering the assumptions underlying current thought, and (2) tactically and strategically exposing where such key underlying issues have not been bought to account and as a result the thinking is flawed and/or limited to that extent. Finally and crucially, (3) philosophy is a practical exercise rooted in the circumstances and context of the situation under review, so hear, I have isolated strategic human resource management, bought forth various assumptions ignored or made (and it does not matter which) pointing out the limitation of current theory.

The ontological issue in a theory of SHRM

Returning to the specific of a theory of SHRM, I argue that the firm is separate from people, and that a firm exists as a legal entity (trivial in the circumstances), and as an idea that shapes behavior, further that no adequate theory of SHRM can or will be developed without addressing the issue of whether or not the firm is separate from people, and any work that does not address this issue is intellectually shallow to the point of being nonsense.

It is crucial to understand that the statement the firm is an idea is valid if and only if there are underlying theories of how ideas come to be, how ideas exist, and how ideas shape and impact human mood and conduct. The problems of existence, creation and impact of ideas on people have all been resolved and can be found at

The normative issue in a theory of SHRM

Below is the diagram from the paper at People and profits; it summarizes the structure of the firm and the manner in which the elements interact to affect people.

Please note that the arrows and ‘boxes’ all have quite definite and well-defined meanings and should not be causally read without understanding of those meanings.

In another paper at, The difference between physical science and social science I discuss the issue of selection of variables and the importance of this, particularly in social science, where the selection of one set of variables describes a one set of human values and norms others equally possible.

In the paper People and profits there is an error of understatement, in that I did not make it as clear as I should have the influence on this issue on the nature of the theory presented, and I am correcting this error here and now.

In the variables ‘values’ above, there is an item "Implicit values of success", that item should read "implicit values derived from the founders and subsequent controllers of the firm". This second and more general phrasing allows for the reality that failure, as a value must be as likely and as probable within the theory as success.

I stand by the initial presentation on the basis that having now made the normative issues clear, and indicated exactly how they come to account most firms are seeking to succeed, and that the practical analysis of the theory is of much more interest to managers than the technical analysis that shows how failure is equally likely as a value and consequence (in fact of course, most managers know that failure is a strong possibility even when everyone is trying hard to succeed never mind them trying to fail!).

Yet a second way of bringing failure to account, if at the founder level, is that the strategy would embrace failure, then the implicit assumption of success would remain, that meaning that everyone seeking and aiming for the strategy to succeed, but that the strategy is one of failure in a business sense.

I am not sure practical managers are all that interested in these technical niceties of social science, and I tend to think they would prefer some direct advice on how to make their firms go better. But, it is not unreasonable of them to demand some validation of the advice, particularly given the vast array of sometime conflicting views and fashions foisted upon them.

I would like to think that one sound set of views that will help, and is soundly rooted in all the core and essential underlying issues, is found in People and profits.

Footnote: the philosophy underlying this philosophy

I have a rather old fashioned view that everything is in principle explicable, and where it is not then we need work harder with our conceptualization.

That’s it really!

I find current fashion of postmodernism, relativism or whatever, where all is reduced to comparative issues of language, culture and like, simply misses the point. No question relativity of issues, but that is not an end, merely a circumstance to be explained: Similarly with culture itself, if we have a general theory of social systems, then culture is merely the set of values located in that theory that pertains to the particularly culture under study, again not an end, merely a challenge to uncover the system of variables that provides the theoretical understanding and explanation.

Our future as a species lies in our ability to uncover that which embraces us all, for only from within such common understanding can we see one another as the same, and equal.