Grand Challenges and Robust Action

My latest paper — Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited — is now available online. Co-authored with Fabrizio Ferraro (IESE Business School in Barcelona) and Dror Etzion (McGill University in Montreal), in the paper we theorize a novel approach to addressing the world’s grand challenges based on the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism and the sociological concept of robust action. Grounded in prior empirical organizational research, we identify three robust strategies that organizations can employ in tackling issues such as climate change and poverty alleviation: participatory architecture, multivocal inscriptions and distributed experimentation. We demonstrate how these strategies operate, the manner in which they are linked, the outcomes they generate, and why they are applicable for resolving grand challenges. We conclude by discussing our contributions to research on robust action and grand challenges, as well as some implications for research on stakeholder theory, institutional theory and theories of valuation.

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Putnam’s Ethics Without Ontology

Already this summer I’ve read a dozen or so books, most of them more or less academic. One of the books I read this weekend was Hilary Putnam’s (2004) Ethics Without Ontology.

The book consists of six lectures: four on “ethics without ontology” and two on “enlightenment and pragmatism.” Given my various research interests, I found the most profound and interesting parts of the book to be in essays 1, 4, and 5.

Essay 1: “Ethics Without Metaphysics.” This essay sets up Putnam’s next three essays.  On p. 24 he brings in Levinas: The foundation of ethics is my immediate recognition, when confronted with a suffering fellow human being, that I have an obligation to do something. No me, no ethics. No other, no ethics.  Thus, we can say that ethics is both personal and relational. To not feel the obligation is to not be ethical.

On p. 28, building on Dewey, he introduces the concept of “practical problems.” He interprets Dewey: Solving practical problems is the concern of ethics.

From here he turns to the issue of “controversiality” (pp 29-32). Solutions to practical problems are controversial — unless they are put into practice and succeed to the satisfaction of all those involved. In other words, problems cannot be solved in principle, only in practice, and even then, the solutions may “fail.” Indeed, even when a practical problem is successfully solved, there is still controversy as to whether the successful solution can be generalized to the next problem that seems similar. Even the “similarity” between problems is typically controversial!

Essay 4: “Ontology: An Obituary.” On p. 74 Putnam reprises quite quickly the “collapse of the fact/value dichotomy.” Valuings do not contrast with descriptions. There is an overlap between the class of valuings and the class of descriptions. As with solutions to practical problems (which are always ethical), ethical claims (i.e., valuings) are frequently controversial. But so are questions of fact (p. 75). In short, factual, descriptive and ethical valuings are controversial.

Some ethical questions are such that agreement is unlikely until such time as it can be demonstrated that we agree (p. 76). [Note the performative quality to ethical controversies.] And even in the case of success — i.e., cases where the problem is solved for now — questions may arise as to whether the same thing would work again the next time, or in the next case, etc.

If we try something in connection with a social problem and it works well, meaning to the satisfaction of those involved, those who object to such a solution in another situation are unlikely to concede that it will work again (pp. 76-77). In short, it is impossible to “verify” that something is the right thing to do, even when the success criteria are agreed upon, unless you have actually done it, and it has worked to everyone’s satisfaction. But even then, questions may remain about its ongoing applicability. This is a general feature of practical problems, that is to say, a general feature of ethical problems.

Essay 5: “The Three Enlightenments.” Lengthy quote from Dewey on the “common good” (p. 97). In short, the common good is only possible when it involves those whose benefits are intended. Again, more interpretation of Dewey as positing a kind of participatory democracy as integral to resolving social problems (pp. 99-100).

Although not invoked, recall Levinas’ ethics as implicating a me-other relationality. From this Putnam concludes that contra to Kant, Hobbes, etc., there can be no morality prior to sociality (p. 101). That is to say, moral beings do not confront the social world. Rather social beings confront the moral world, or perhaps, moral worlds. Although Putnam has supposedly done away with ontology, clearly he is saying there is a primacy of sociality over ethicality. But if that is the case, if I am social before I am ethical, then there are bound to be ethical lapses in social life. My capacity for ethical living grows out of my social life. The ethical response is a response to the confrontation of the other.

Pragmatism and Open Content

Over the weekend I finally had a chance to try out my Kindle 2.  Although I have still not found a satisfactory way to convert PDFs of academic journal articles into readable Kindle files, I am very pleased with the formating of books available through  And while most of the content on ManyBooks comes directly from Project Gutenberg, one important difference is the option to download .AZW files, which is Kindle’s native format.  

So far I’ve downloaded over 50 books from ManyBooks — all for free — ranging from the complete works of Williams Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe to the Declaration of Independence and the 2007 CIA World Factbook. ManyBooks also offers a selection of copyrighted titles that are licensed through some flavor of open content license.  For example, I downloaded Eric S. Raymond’s (1996) The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Cluetrain Manifesto. Of course, it is doubtful I’ll be reading most of these titles anytime soon.  But with 1.4 GB of storage, they are now at my fingertips.

Of more immediate interest to me are about a dozen books by scholars such as Henri Bergson, William James, Adam Smith, Thorstein Veblen, and so forth. In fact, yesterday I cruised through the first third of Pragmatism, a series of seven lectures delivered by William James at the Lowell Institute in Boston and Columbia University in New York, between November 1906 and January 1907. And it is here that I began to appreciate the power of open content, in particular, the power of Kindle + Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks + Google Books. 

In Pragmatism, James (1907: 46) credits C. S. Peirce’s 1878 article in Popular Science Monthly as the first to introduce pragmatism into philosophy. Curious about what Peirce had to say, I first went to Google.  Dissatisfied with the results, I tried Google Books. After a few minutes of searching, I found Popular Science Monthly Volume 12 November 1877 to April 1878. As it turns out, during this 6 month period Peirce published a series of 4 different articles, including “How to make our ideas clear,” the paper cited by James.

Through Google Books, I downloaded the entire volume (about 30MB).  Then using Acrobat Professional, I extracted each of the 4 articles as separate files, ran OCR on them, added these PDFs to my collection of research on the philosophy of pragmatism, and created citations for all 4 in EndNote. All this without ever setting foot in the library. Long live open content.

James, W. 1907. Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. Accessed from

Peirce, C. S. 1878. Illustrations of the logic of science. Second paper: How to make our ideas clear. In E. L. Youmans & W. J. Youmans (Eds.), Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12 (November 1877 to April 1878): 286-302. New York: Appleton. Accessed from