After Enron, Arthur Andersen and Tyco collapsed a few years ago, U.S. federal investigators tried to identify who was responsible for the corporate mismanagement and misdeeds that shook the economy and the American public’s trust in business leaders.
As prosecutors charged C.E.O.s and top executives with tampering with evidence to cover their tracks, Robert C. Solomon, philosophy professor at The University of Texas at Austin and author of “A Better Way to Think About Business,” helped people make sense of the psychology behind the seemingly self-destructive behavior of the former corporate giants.
“People assiduously avoid the risks they readily envision and remain all but oblivious to those they don’t. It’s easy for a C.E.O. to envision losing his job or losing face among his peers but all but unthinkable that he would get indicted, much less go to jail,” Solomon explained to the New York Times in 2002.
The business ethics consultant compared the errant executive with an alcoholic who ‘’chooses to drive home to avoid having to admit to his friends that he’s too drunk, but risks arrest—not to mention his life—in doing so.’’
Solomon, the Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and a Distinguished Teaching Professor, said, “The question is, ‘Why is the C.E.O. acting like a drunk?’’ The question exemplifies Solomon’s talent to get to the heart of an issue, translating confusing human behavior and the nature of emotions into an easy-to-understand philosophical analysis.
John Schwartz wrote the New York Times article, “Choosing Whether to Cover-Up or Come Clean.” The Plan II alumnus who specialized in history says he turned to the philosopher Solomon because, “His expertise was deep, and he had a knack for explaining complex issues with elegance and wit.”
In January 2007, Solomon, 64, died after suffering from a heart attack. The international scholar left behind rich scholarship in the areas of business and philosophy and a community of friends and colleagues who remember and celebrate his ingenious insights, generosity of spirit—and love for The Three Stooges.
A Philosophical Prescription
Solomon was born in Detroit, but grew up in Philadelphia. His father, a lawyer, and mother, an artist, encouraged Solomon’s passion for music, which included studying violin and playing saxophone in a big band.
After graduating from high school, Solomon embarked on a path to become a doctor. In only three years he earned a microbiology degree from the University of Pennsylvania and enrolled in medical school at the University of Michigan.
But, when he audited a philosophy course taught by Frithjof Bergmann, Solomon began to explore a new career path.
As Bergmann lectured about Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, the philosophical concept that time repeats itself, Solomon evaluated his own life and decided to leave medical school to enroll in the university’s graduate program in philosophy.
After completing his dissertation on unconscious motivation and earning his doctoral degree in 1967, Solomon began a worldwide teaching tour beginning with the University of Auckland and continuing to Princeton, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, the University of Melbourne and Queens College.
In 1972, Solomon joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin where his tour of the world continued. He visited the University of Michigan, the University of British Columbia, Harvard University, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, the Auckland Institute of Technology, and the University of Delft as a visiting professor.
“I was young and adventuresome, I guess, so I took lots of one-year jobs and two-year jobs just because I wanted to see the world,” Solomon said in a 2005 Austin American-Statesman article. “I came to Texas expecting it was an interesting place and I’d spend a couple semesters here and then go back to New York.”
Instead, he fell in love with the city, the university—and eventually his wife, fellow philosopher, Kathleen Higgins, who often collaborated with Solomon on his books and articles. As a gifted teacher, Solomon decoded complex philosophical concepts for a new generation of thinkers. The popular professor earned high teaching honors, including: the Standard Oil Outstanding Teaching Award, the President’s Associates Outstanding Teaching Award and the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award. In 1997, he was elected into the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
Throughout his career, the recognized scholar and teacher continued to bring philosophy beyond the hallowed halls of academe.
Most notably, in 2001, he made a cameo appearance in Richard Linklater’s film, “Waking Life,” in which he discussed the relevance of existentialism in a postmodern world.
The Joy of Philosophy
Solomon was a leader in the field of continental (or European) philosophy and post-Kantian thought. He impressed his colleagues not only with his deep understanding of the great ideas, but also with his intimate familiarity with the philosophers, themselves.
“He talked about Nietzsche, Hegel, and the German romantics as if they were old friends,” Joanne B. Ciulla wrote in the Business Ethics Quarterly memoriam to Solomon, “The Man with a Hole in his Heart,” which referenced the congenital heart condition that claimed the philosopher’s life.
She noted one of Solomon’s last articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education included references to Heidegger and Sartre as “the grand old Mr. Cranky and Mr. Grumpy of German and French existentialism.”
The friendly approach to philosophy attracted students to Solomon’s classes and inspired the next generation of scholars to look beyond the text of the philosophers to live some of their ideas.
Solomon modeled the virtues he taught in the classroom, Ciulla observed, especially the Aristotelian notion that what you are cannot be separated from what you do. “A humble man with an enormous work ethic, Bob showed his graduate students that being a world-class philosopher did not entitle you to be pompous, inconsiderate, dogmatic or too good to teach the intro course,” explained Ciulla, who co-authored “Honest Work: A Business Ethics Reader” with Solomon.
In addition to serving as a world-wide consultant on business ethics to such corporations as Chase Manhattan bank, AT&T and Volkswagen, Solomon was a thought-leader in the philosophy of the emotions, a field he launched after publishing “The Passions” in 1976.
For more than three decades, Solomon examined the nature of emotions for his books, which included “Not Passion’s Slave: Emotions and Choice,” “In Defense of Sentimentality” and “True to Our Feelings.”
In 2000, he was elected president of the International Society for Research on the Emotions (ISRE). He produced “The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions” for The Teaching Company’s Superstar Teachers Series. Solomon’s insights inspired fellow philosophers, even those with whom he disagreed. “On the emotions we had opposing views, but I learned more from his arguments than from any others,” philosopher Jesse Prinz wrote in an ISRE newsletter tribute to Solomon.
“For those of us who want to reduce emotions to something simple and scientifically tractable, we must not forget that the whole interest in this category stems from the fact that emotions permeate our lives,” he explained. “As a person and as a scholar, Bob never lost sight of why emotions matter.”
Solomon also never lost his sense of humor.
Peter Kivy, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, recalls the deep and abiding affection for The Three Stooges he shared with Solomon. “I shared his affection for those low, disreputable characters, although Bob’s affection for, and understanding of, them I am certain were more profound than mine,” Kivy wrote for the American Society of Aesthetics’ memorial.
“Could the Stooges perhaps have been a metaphor for Bob’s work?” he asked. “All us Stooge lovers will know Moe’s classic routine: the tweak of the nose, the finger in the eye, the bop on the noggin. Well, Bob’s work tweaked our received opinions; it bopped our thoughts out of their familiar channels; it opened our philosophical eyes. He waked us from our dogmatic slumbers.”