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Review of Ontological Fundamentals for Ethical Management. Heidegger and the Corporate World

by Dominik Heil

2011, Dordrecht: Springer

(Review bij Naud van der Ven in Philosophy of Management Vol.12, Nr.3 )

With Ontological Fundamentals for Ethical Management. Heidegger and the Corporate World Dominik Heil wrote a cross-border book, and this in several respects. Not only does he cross discipline boundaries: by relating the philosopher Heidegger to trends in organizational science and by translating in a plausible way Heidegger’s thinking to Management and Organization. In addition, in his analysis of the problems in this border area, he digs deeper than many other books dare to do.

To enjoy the book, you have to be able to bear Heidegger’s jargon. But those who are not allergic to it – as for me, it may have at times something fascinating about it – get an interesting argumentation about the question whether or not the shortcomings of Western management thinking can be sensibly discussed starting from Heidegger's ideas. In that argumentation those shortcomings are clearly outlined, Heidegger’s thought is clearly presented and it is made plausible that this thought may in many respects be an answer to the shortcomings.

Objective and motivation

The objective of the book is to clear the road for a new organizational ethics. But, Heil says, ethics does not hang in a void. It can only be based on thorough understanding of what that ethics belongs to, in this case the corporate world. Therefore, even though the book is about ethics, the author will mainly deal with the question of what an organization actually is: what is “the very nature of the corporation”(12)?

Thus the book’s ambition is to provide, via that road, a basis for business ethics. It wants to pass beyond a metaphorical way of speaking about the organization, and to get at “a literal, accurate and authentic account of the corporation and its organisation” (13). And Heil wants to achieve that by operating, with Heidegger, in an ontological way, because “[b]eing clear about the ontological nature of an entity is critical when dealing with it appropriately, regardless of the kind of entity one is dealing with” (21). Whereby ontology must be understood as being that part of philosophy that is concerned with determining the “very nature or Being” (15) of entities, and thus in the case of this book of the entity that is called the corporation.

Because of its emphasis on what is essential (“the very nature or Being”) Heil calls this approach to corporations more fundamental than other approaches such as by Coase, Drucker, and Lawrence & Lorsch, because they don’t arrive at an ontological account. And Gareth Morgan got caught by metaphors: “Metaphorical statements can highlight certain aspects of an entity but, since they are not literal, they do not capture the true nature of the entity. They also can not completely describe the entity as what it is in its very nature” (18).

The fundamental approach which Heil has in mind consists is “to look at what determines the contemporary discourse on the theory and practice of ethics, which is already taken for granted at the most fundamental level” (7). He wants to expose those taken for granted  startingpoints, because only then the subsequent phenomena can be explained and perhaps changed.

As mentioned, ultimately Heil’s concern is with ethics, and it is from that area that stems his motivation for writing the book. Because Heil observes that a cynical view prevails in the field of organizational studies, which states that corporations are not ethical (4). And that, by way of compensation for that shortcoming, codes and rules and value statements are being established (3), which have little to do with ethics and chiefly lead to calculating compliance behavior. Heil cannot agree with that state of affairs and this discontent leads him to wonder whether a corporation can or cannot show concern for people.

In addition, he notes that according to many studies, scientific organization studies performs poorly, because the scientific principles are meagre. The dominant conception of the corporation as a machine, stemming from Descartes, is simply impractical, “insufficient to recognize the doable and possible in an actual situation” (26) and the failure rate of organizational expert projects is high (27). According to Heil that could be improved, via a richer understanding of corporations, by broadening horizons.

It is Heil’s intention to perform this broadening of horizons through Heidegger. He emphasizes that defining in a broader way what a corporation is, and therewith what the field of organizational studies is, should be considered as a philosophical exercise, and not a science. “The decisions of what belongs in an academic discipline and what is to be considered useful or useless in this discipline is not something that can be decided within the field. It is decided when the field is constituted. The constitution of a field is a philosophical undertaking” (20). So Heil is not going to commit science. That means that he is not going to prove anything but will only try to make certain views more plausible. The reader is invited to get convinced.

The choice to perform his investigation on the basis of Heidegger’s work may cause surprise, Heil realizes. After all, Heidegger had nothing to do with corporations, nor with the usual conception of ethics as a set of universal moral principles, values or a single general maxim. But “Heidegger was able to ask questions at a more primordial level and it is this that makes him promising as a guide for the attempt to lead a philosophical inquiry about corporations and their management” (34).

The impoverishment of corporate ethics compared to original ethics which disturbs Heil so much, can be traced back with the help of Heidegger – beyond Descartes – to Aristotle. So, for the digging up of the original, broader oriented ethics Heil ends up with the pre-Aristotelian thinkers, because these depart from “a more primordial thinking which in the case of ethics refers to an understanding of ethos, the word that ‘ethics’ is derived from” (10). The difference is that “in contemporary ethics we look predominantly at character, and in this sense really the characteristics of a human being, while an inquiry into ethos really means an inquiry into our human way of dwelling, that which we already find ourselves in” (11). Heidegger also refers to this as “an ongoing inquiry into the truth of Being”.

Heidegger thematizes this difference between original and atrophied ethics, both with regard to Aristotle’s thinking and to its impact in Descartes and later philosophers. He shows us the totalitarian nature of our system: it constantly renders all phenomena in the same set of terms and reduces  our world to an oppressive totality “that reveals everything in such a way that humans are compelled to develop and employ all of these technical instruments and gadgets” ( 94) and that people themselves appear as human resources. Heil chooses Heidegger for his guide because of the possibilities which the latter offers to make this kind of analyses.

The argument

Crucial for the line of Heil’s argument is his focus on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, ie the latter’s view on the basic categories into which entities can be classified in this world.  Heidegger distinguishes four of them, namely physical objects, non-human organisms, humans and works. This classification is established on the basis of Heidegger’s fundamental ontological criterion, which focuses on an entity’s relationship to Being.

The four types of relationships to Being which Heidegger distinguishes are defined by using the concept of ‘world’. “World means the always already familiar horizon upon which everyday human existence moves with absolute confidence and within which humans make sense of both their environment and themselves. World is the significant whole or referential totality within which things, plants, animals and humans, including ourselves, make sense to us and fit into our lives” (53). World is thus a concept that belongs to humans, because primarily it makes theír lives intelligible. Therefore the definition of the category of humans – using the word ‘world’ – is as follows: human beings acquire a world.

But by extension ‘world’ can also be used for the other categories of entities. Thus Heidegger characterizes physical objects as ‘worldless’, because they have no access to an understanding of their environment or themselves. Non-human organisms he calls ‘world-poor’ because their access is only limited. And a work he describes as ‘setting up a world’, because a work (eg a work of art) brings to life the kind of meaningful background by which comprehensibility becomes possible at all.

Heil then discusses the question to which category the corporation belongs. To that end, he walks along the various options and he ends up at the category of works. The corporation is a work because the corporation creates a whole full of meanings that can be understood by humans. “Works, by setting up a world, also open up an a priori understanding of the Being of entities and of Being as such. From a fundamental ontological perspective, works do participate in Being and, therefore, by definition have an ethical import if ethics is understood orginally as pondering the abode of humans, which is first and foremost Being itself” (80). Hereby the agenda for the rest of the book has been established: “[I]t is critical that the investigation focuses on the corporation’s relation to Being or the truth of Being” (47).

The hallmark of a work is that it conjures up a world, and the dominant form of organization as we know it does so indeed. But, says Heil, in the case of a corporation that is a flawed world. Because there, in the wake of Descartes, objects and technology are central: “[World] is replaced by the very nature of technology, which Heidegger names ‘em-bankment’ [Ge-stell]. Em-bankment is of the same kind as world but it is not the same at all” (97). The main difference is that embankment is less meaningful, because although it produces meanings, their significance is always scant: “[E]verything shows up as an asset: physical objects, plants and animals, humans” (97). Everything becomes instrumental, reduced to the value it has for economic or technical control.

And the problem is: it is almost impossible to talk about it. The thinking in instrumental terms allows no critical meta-discussion, because whatever is said is encapsulated in the instrumental thinking. Thus, “[t]o inform people about them being an asset is entirely senseless, because, on the one hand, this view is obvious and correct within em-bankment and, on the other hand, it does not give humans any hint about their very nature” (125).

The job is therefore to achieve a richer conception of the ‘work’ of the organization, a view which does more justice to the meaning-creating character of a ‘work’. That does not necessarily lead to a break with technology, but rather to a search for access to the true nature of technology. Connection therewith allows qualified use of technology without impoverishing the world and it does more justice to the nature of things, nature and people.

Heidegger calls this simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to technology ‘the-letting-things-be’, which can be also understood as “granting something its own very nature or way of being” (132). This is achieved by contemplative thinking, in distinction to calculative thinking. By contemplation “we can create or re-create the company in such a way that it sets up a world rather than em-bankment” (135). A richer language is required for that.

Contemplative thinking is, according to Heil, pre-ethical and that determination takes him back to his real topic: ethics. Because contemplation may not be moral thinking, but it provides the basis for this (140). The connection is via the finding that, when people are merely seen as factors of production, the awareness is lost that they can create their own future and are ‘world-acquiring’ (69).

The Body Shop demonstrates how the desired connection can be established. Because the values formulated by the Body Shop may possibly be considered as “an articulation of an ethos, a way and depth of knowing the very nature of the entities that are involved in the business in various forms and ways” (166). The Body Shop shows to have an eye for the specific nature of the different entity categories: for example, for the vulnerability of animals, and for people as ‘openness-for-Being’, who have intercourse among themselves in the form of a dialogue, ie through sharing of worlds.

When the ‘work’ which is the corporation is understood in this original sense, there is, according to Heil, no longer question of ‘corporation’ but of ‘enterprise’. And the work that people have to do for it are its creation and its maintenance. That is subtle, in fact artistic work which will never yield security. Instead of more of the same there is always created something new. In a way Heil summons managers to become artists (116).


As may appear from the above overview, Heil wrote a thorough study. The argumentation is clear, Heidegger’s thought is well displayed and there is a plausible translation of Heidegger to organizations. These are great achievements.

Somewhat inexplicable therefore in this knowledgeable book is the wrong spelling of res cogitans. This Cartesian expression is consistently presented as “res cognitans”. Could this perhaps be a matter of wrong autocorrection? Then yet it is surprising that that eluded the notice of the editors and proofreaders.

In addition there are a few comments to be made concerning content. The first of these is that the book relies heavily on the assumption of a crystal clear distinction between ‘very nature’ and something which then must be ‘not-very-nature’, or in other words between authentic and non-authentic. True enough there are a few critical questions in this respect, for example when it comes to the essence of the corporation: “The question that then arises is how it can be established that the interpretation of the very nature of the corporation and its management is not just another opinion in the market place of countless other opinions, but is a genuine contribution instead?” (41).

That is an important question indeed, but it is not really answered. However, that does not prevent the author from very often speaking in the sequel about the ‘very nature of entities’ or from assuming that it can be known. Eventually Heil believes to be able to get at a “unified understanding emerging in the literature of what a corporation actually is from an ontological perspective” (28).

A certain caution seems to exist in this respect when he says that “any truth is at the same time un-truth” (148). A consequence of that statement, I would say, is that this un-truth also relativizes the knowledge of the ‘very nature’ of things, and would make the word ‘very’ less suitable.  But that suggestion is pushed aside at other places, for example, in a sentence as the following: “This willing that is given by the knowing of a world and the very nature of entities in a world is what Heidegger calls resolvedness [Ent-schlossenheit]” (154), from which you may infer that the very nature of entities is known. And that, at least at one time, there is but one very nature of an entity (whether it be a corporation or something else). Apparently plurality of deepest insights does exist in Heidegger (and Heil) over time, but not at one and the same moment.

A second comment as regards content stems from the first. If it would be possible at all to determine in an unequivocal way the deepest character of an entity, who will be the one to  determine its content? Who is going to perform the important task of contemplating the very nature of an entity, in short: the task of ontology. As we have seen, Heidegger attributes this task to philosophy: “The constitution of a field is a philosophical undertaking” (ie the determination of the very nature of the entities is a philosophical task). And even though the method of fundamental ontology is descriptive and not proving, its results are claimed to be universally valid.

That is quite a claim and Heil knows the objections that may exist against it. He cites Powell who rejects the ontological approach, “stating that any ontological understanding will inevitably lead to dogmatism, illusion, despair and escalating chains of ideology” (31). In his treatment of this objection Heil points out that Heidegger emphatically wanted not to impose dogmas. In addition, Heil states that expliciting the underlying assumptions makes possible a  critical dialogue. “What both empiricists and pragmatists tend to overlook, however, is the way that empiricism and every pragmatic solution implicitly make transcendental claims that can and do lead to the escalating chains of ideology, dogmatism and, consequently, illusion and despair that Powell seeks to avoid” (31).
Heil is right about that, of course. But what guarantees does he have for the impartiality of philosophers in the determination of the very nature of an entity? As for me, the combination of on the one hand the assumption of the existence of a clear and knowable very nature, and on the other hand the allocation of the authority to do universally valid statements thereabout to a Heideggerian contemplative philosopher, keeps raising questions.

My third comment comes from one of Heil’s findings that to a large extent I can agree with. Namely from his observation of the impoverishment and alienation that prevails in management and organization. I also think it is sympathetic that Heil looks for an answer to that in broadening perspectives. For instance when he, in line with Heidegger, conceives of man as much fuller than the dominant organizational climate does, namely not as an asset or resource but as world-acquiring. And as someone who can, through dialogue, be addressed about the worlds that he shares with others in Mitdasein.

But what is disturbing, in Heil and in Heidegger, is the illusion that Mitdasein as it were trouble-free matches with the world-acquiring character of the individual. As far as it does match, one can indeed say that “being-with others in the sense of sharing a world allows for and constitutes the possibility of empathy and genuine concern for other humans as humans. As such it is the basis for the authentic concern for the other and others that is fundamental to and constitutes the possibility for any genuine ethics” (164).

But the matching to my belief is only half of the story. In many cases the world-acquiring attitude will for individuals also lead to tensions and fractures with the others with whom he shares a world. And not always with the prospect of reconciling the differences, because people cán really be different. Then more is required than an ethics based on a shared world. Then dealing with differences is at least as essential.


Heil, D. (2011) Ontological Fundamentals for Ethical Management. Heidegger and the Corporate World.
Dordrecht: Springer.