The philosophical framework of Peter Drucker
by Chetan Parikh
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In a classic, Peter Drucker, there is a piece by Tony H. Bonaparte (written in 1970) which wonderfully introduces Peter Drucker’s philosophy.

“To some, Peter Drucker is an intellectual guru who knows everything about the past and more than anyone about the future. He is acclaimed as the person with all the answers, and whatever he has to say is held in high esteem. He is also the iconoclast-the smasher of idols, seeker of proof, demander of evidence, gadfly, thorn in the side, tough and hard-nosed commentator on problems faced by our society.


On the other hand, there are those who think of Drucker as a shallow synthesizer, as a journalistic popularizer or as a dabbler in many disciplines but a master of none.


If a student were to check the index of books in social sciences and management literature, he would find Drucker listed as an economist, lawyer, sociologist, political theorist, management consultant, and philosopher. No doubt Drucker himself would take issue with each of these labels. Yet on one occasion or another, he has earned them all.


How, then, can we look through this man's diverse writings for a unifying vision, "a major influence." The task of trying to discover the antecedents of Drucker's philosophical framework is hampered by the paucity of footnotes and thin bibliographical material in his works (here his critics have a point). At the same time, a man's broad philosophical configuration becomes the hinge which opens the door to his interpretation of concrete reality.




Before approaching Drucker's philosophical framework, we must understand the metaphysical climate of opinion embodied in Cartesianism, which Drucker feels is no longer relevant today.


Rene Descartes, commonly ascribed as the "father of modern philosophy," greatly impressed his contemporaries mainly because he appeared to answer questions that related to religion and science. The whole of nature constituted a great machine. There was nothing in it-not even the human body-which could not be explained in mechanical terms. The mind or spirit of man belonged to another order altogether, an order to which God also belonged, and it had to be dealt with in quite another way. Hence, the new science could be admitted to the community of learning without the necessity of showing religion the door.


Mathematics was for Descartes the model of clear and certain knowledge, advancing step by step from one indisputable conclusion to another. Outside mathematics, all claims to knowledge seem, when one pauses to reflect, uncertain, unsystematic, and unsupported by any common method of proof. Therefore, the first step for Descartes was to introduce into the chaos of philosophy and physical science the clear and uniform deductive method of mathematics; only such system and method could supply knowledge with sure foundations.


Therefore, the proper order in Cartesian philosophy is to start from the most simple and clear "truths," containing only the most simple notions, and to advance step by step toward more complex truths, making sure that each step of the argument is indisputable. One must reject every statement that can possibly be doubted until one arrives at simple and self-evident truths that cannot possibly be doubted. These truths are the sure foundations of knowledge.


Descartes showed his method in action in the Discourse and Meditations in which he applied his method of doubt until he arrived at the indisputable proposition, "I think, therefore I am." He may be called the founder of the modern theory of knowledge, since he made the questions, "How do I know?" and "Can I be certain?" the first questions of philosophy.


In short, the Cartesian world view stressed the self, mind and matter, the exaltation of measurability as the fountainhead of knowledge, the preeminence of cause and effect, the static rather than the dynamic. To Cartesians, the "without" or the objective is more important than the subjective or "within," the whole is equal to the sum of its parts instead of being greater than the sum of its parts, and repeatability has priority over irreversibility and growth.


Drucker has suggested that the world view of the modern West can be called a Cartesian world view because Descartes determined, more than anyone else for the past three hundred years, what problems would appear important, the scope of man's vision, his basic assumptions about himself and his universe, and his concept of what is rational and plausible.


Drucker acknowledges the great contribution of the Cartesian approach, particularly in the realm of science, where we must continue to subscribe to its proofs where they work. However, he takes issue with the Cartesian world as an operating philosophy in meeting the realistic aspects of change, complexity, and totality as they are found in large organizational entities in the modern world. Drucker states:


Every discipline has at its center today a concept of a whole that is not the result of its parts, nor equal to the sum of its parts, and not identifiable, knowable, measurable, predictable, effective or meaningful through identifying, knowing, measuring, predicting, moving or understanding the parts. The central concepts in everyone of our disciplines, sciences and arts are patterns and configurations. . . . Indeed the parts in any pattern or configuration exist only, and can only be identified, in contemplation of the whole and from the understanding of the whole.




Probably the most distasteful part of the Cartesian world view to Drucker is that it was extremely static. Change was catastrophic and uncontrollable. Inertia, in the strictest meaning of classical mechanics, was the assumed norm. For three hundred years, societies had as their first purpose to prevent, or at least to slow down, the onrush of change. Family and church, army and state, were built to be "ramparts of security against the threat of change." It was the accepted doctrine that the Unchangeable-and-Unchanging alone was perfect.


This is not to say that Drucker did not see merit in the conservative aspect of Cartesian philosophy. Although at many management seminars he is labeled as the exponent of "revolutionary management," the important element to recognize is that Drucker believes that societies are hosts of two kinds of forces: those that seek to promote change and those that strive to maintain the status quo. These forces are locked in perpetual combat, the former trying to throw the latter off balance to gain the ascendancy, the latter trying to prevent this from happening. Since a tendency to change is fundamental, it is obvious that, in the long run, the forces that promote innovation will have the edge over those that strive for conservatism.


The degree of ascendancy that change-making forces achieve is not often, and perhaps never, a constant, for the tempo of change varies with time. The forces for change will predominate for a considerable period, and alterations in the nature and structure of an organization and a society will occur. Then there may follow a period of relative quiescence in which the stresses and strains occasioned by rapid change are relieved and the elements re-group and accommodate themselves in a more harmonious fashion. Hence, I think Drucker would agree that, at a particular time, the relative stability of a society, or its proneness to change, reflects the nature of the balance between the opposing forces. Innovation and change are always occurring. What is new, says Drucker, is the view of "man as the order-maker, working consistently through the anticipation, control and direction of change."


The Cartesian "world without change" is opposite to the world of Drucker's Age of Discontinuity. In terms of knowledge, the last half century was an Age of Continuity-the period of least change in three hundred years or so. But today we are in a period of change-in technology and in economic policy, in the structure of industries and in economic theory, in the knowledge needed to govern and to manage, and in economic issues.




Few can deny that for the past twenty years, philosophy has followed an uncertain path. Existentialism has fallen more and more into disregard; there is a growing tendency to proclaim that positivism has reached an impasse; in Marxist thought there is nothing original or capable of evolution; and finally, all philosophies seem to be powerless when they try to evolve into some kind of vague humanism.


Not being able to find a modern philosophical framework useful for today's dynamic world, Drucker's vision is based on ideas developed in the past, upon concepts that show some relevance to, and merit some consideration in the solution of, problems today. And probably the most useful underlying element is the view that a living thing is not thought to be reducible to isolated cells but must be considered as a whole, "an open dynamic system." In other words, the emphasis should not be on the partitive atomist structures or organisms but on their organization and their interrelatedness. As Herbert J. Muller explained it sometime ago, "Although parts and processes may be isolated for analytical purposes, they cannot be understood without reference to the dynamic unified whole that is more than their sum."


This view is certainly not new. It was antedated by such philosophers as Alfred North Whitehead, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and Henri Bergson; by psychologists such as Kurt Goldstein and the Gestaltists; and by molar behaviorists such as E. C. Tolman. Yet Drucker was the first individual that I know who put these concepts to use in a meaningful way for the business community.


The fundamental ingredient of Druckerian philosophy is, therefore, his organic approach to all the complex components of the total environment, and he has brought to bear on these components a set of concepts designed to describe and unify them. The focus of attention is not only on the data of the social sciences but also on those of the natural sciences. Drucker's work tries to correct a contemporary overemphasis on airtight disciplines in order to provide more effective guidelines for present-day problems.


This "new" philosophy of Drucker seems very much related to the work of Henri Bergson. This "tantalizing" philosopher has been enormously attractive to an astonishing variety of individuals for over seventy years; although, as soon as one reaches out to grasp his body of thought it seems to disappear within a teasing ambiguity. However, if Bergson were not so ambiguous, his philosophy might already have been dressed and laid out within the quiet mausoleum of philosophical history. Instead, in 1959, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, scholars gathered in both America and France for celebrations.


I am convinced that through Bergsonian philosophy we can find a new series of methods, new axioms of meanings, order, and inquiry. Drucker has been, in his own way, interpreting and applying this philosophy to the business community.


From the outset, Bergson was a thinker with one theme, one conceptual insight, which he applied with persistent and dazzling imagination to one area after another. The theme was unchanging, and no matter which of Bergson's works one picks up the same passacaglia sounds at the base of it. Stated as generally as possible, this theme affirms that all experience reveals two categorically distinct realms: that of the organic and that of the inorganic. And this general affirmation is rooted in a clear-cut metaphysical dualism which makes an absolute distinction between two realities: the reality of life or spirit and the reality of matter. Organic life is victorious over static matter.


For the phrase of Descartes, "Je suis une chose qui pense" ("I am a thing which thinks"), Bergson substituted "Je suis une chose qui dure" ("I am a thing which continues"); and whereas Spinoza had presented reality sub specie aeternitatis ("in its eternal aspect"), Bergson presented it sub specie durationis ("in its durational aspect"). He substituted durational for nontemporal values, and for static values he substituted values of motion and change.


Bergson was the first person who applied the principle of entropy (degradation of energy) to the fundamental ideas of biological instinct and life and matter. Today this is one of the most significant concepts used by the behaviorial scientists. Bergson was also the person who made existentialism acceptable. It is true that Kierkegaard revolted against the Hegelian system, thus causing existentialism to come into being. However, it was Bergson who prepared intellectuals for existential dialectics.


It may be banal to say that he restored the sense of quality in philosophical thought and that he called our attention to those aspects of consciousness which escaped purely intellectual analysis. But by his emphasis on the polarity between quality and quantity, mathematical time and concrete duration, continuity and discontinuity, the social self and the inner self, Bergson not only belongs in the twentieth century, but I think his work can be used as a basis for answering many of the philosophical problems of today.


I should reiterate that I am not saying that Bergsonian philosophy is Druckerian philosophy. I do not know on whose philosophy (if any) Drucker patterns his conceptual framework. I have known Drucker, first as a student and then as a colleague and friend. I also boast some knowledge of his work, and there appears to me to be some similarity in the work of both these men. Granting that Drucker has been impressed by other writers, there seems to be more Bergson in Drucker than any other philosopher.


For example, to both Bergson and Drucker, progress in the broadest sense can be made only if general theories are disregarded sufficiently to allow concentration on particular problems, each of which demands its own point of view. The solution of any one problem does not necessarily involve an analogous solution of others. Bergsonism and Druckerism also imply continued striving after a precise adaptation to reality. The aim is the elucidation of a detailed problem, though each is also part of a general philosophical framework-the philosophy of organism, of duration and change.




Drucker adopted the organic view to the field of business management. He took the work of the organic philosophers together with the management traditionalists (Taylor, Gilbreth, Gantt, Emerson) and the behaviorists (Munsterberg, Mayo, Follett, Barnard)-all the work done in the first half of the century -and synthesized Practice of Management. The elements of change, creative interaction, and individuality became important variables to the business firm. The goals of the firm were not viewed only in terms of efficiency and profitability or of morale and attitude; there were other objectives of the enterprise. Thus, the old concept of the corporation as a static entity, forever employing old methods and producing the same old products, no longer represented the facts. Managers and workers had to be equipped to adapt themselves to circumstances which were ever changing; and there was only one way to produce this adaptability-to view the business corporation as a system with interrelated parts and objectives.


Management was no longer conceived on narrow lines. Its mission was now to train young executives in one very special process and aim to achieve one goal that would probably be superseded before they were middle-aged. Drucker suggested that managers should have alert minds exercised in reasoning and knowledge of the universal functions and activities of the enterprise and of the world around them.


Koontz and O'Donnell spearheaded the criticism of Drucker's objectives for a firm. They suggested that objectives were not independent and universal, that different firms require different objectives. However, their argument is not with Drucker's list of objectives but with his concept that the tools needed for the analysis of a business organization do not differ from those needed for the analysis of any other organization. The Koontz and O'Donnell school of thought believes that a business entity must utilize span of control, authority and responsibility, and function and rank as expressed in organization charts. It is still necessary to explain the existence of organization by the fact that there is more work to be done than any man can do, so that he has to delegate to others what is really part of his job.


All of this classical jargon seems irrelevant to the dynamics of today's modern corporation. Individuals of skill, knowledge, and judgment do not exercise somebody else's authority or somebody else's knowledge. They exercise their own knowledge and have the authority that befits their contribution. It is the job that determines the authority and responsibility of the holder; and this is original authority grounded in the needs and objective requirements for performance rather than in the power of the man above.


Drucker does not belong to any particular school of management thought, yet he is a member of all. He is not a traditionalist, behaviorist, or empiricist. He is primarily a social scientist that utilizes knowledge from all fields. In George's History of Management Thought}' there is no mention of Drucker belonging to any school. And in Massie's Essentials of Managementp Drucker is listed in three schools-managerial economics, organization theory, and human relations.


In the strictest sense, Drucker is not a management theorist at all since he believes that the field of management is relatively new. No matter how much we can quantify, the basic phenomena are qualitative ones: change and innovation, risk and judgment, growth and decay, dedication, vision, rewards, and motivation. And the end product of the knowledge we are trying to gain is value decisions affecting the individual and society.


Two final points are in order:


First, the field of management depends upon the changes in the socio-cultural environment. The main element of the business organization is people. Its process is human dedication, human knowledge, and human effort. Its purpose is the creation and satisfaction of human values. And therefore, its principle of organization must be a vision of man in society.


Second, Drucker has been saying for many years that the new decision-making tools require management to change its views toward work and the worker. In relation to the worker, a few decades ago Alfred North Whitehead expressed a similar view when he said:


High-grade labour requires high-grade management. You cannot make a greater mistake than to think that as the status of labour rises, the need for management declines. The exact contrary is the case. The higher the status of the workman, the more precise he becomes, and the less can any waste of his time or ineffective use of his work be tolerated.


The concept of work has also changed. Business today must pay more attention to planning knowledge work, which demands more analysis and more direction than other work. Gone are the days when the major emphasis of the manager was upon a time-study type of efficiency. The conceptual framework used to solve managerial problems a few years ago is no longer valid.


In one of Drucker's most recent articles he stated:


The major assumptions on which both the theory and practice of management have been based these past 50 years are rapidly becoming inappropriate. A few of these assumptions are actually no longer valid and, in fact, are obsolete. Others while still applicable are fast becoming inadequate; they deal with what is increasingly the secondary, the subordinate, the exceptional, rather than the primary, the dominant, and the ruling function and reality of management.




Peter Drucker, though his statements on a variety of subjects defies categorization, uses a philosophical framework that is similar to the work of Henri Bergson and the "process" philosophers. As Drucker points out, the Cartesian world is no longer relevant and other philosophies in currency today have not been helpful in solving our problems. A new philosophy is needed that leads beyond today's contradictions and turmoils toward the begining of a new wisdom.


I am convinced that through Bergson we can find a new metaphysics of energy. For more than fifty years we have been reminded that the notions of existence, labor, and organization have philosophical value. But there is a principle which underlies these ideas and gives them a deeper meaning than they have by themselves. I mean a principle of creation and consequently a principle of energy which allows one to place man in nature and at the same time allows him to rise above it. To help us understand this principle and give it a living value, I do not know of any better guide at present than Peter Drucker. Drucker's talent does not stop with interpretation, nor is it a mere re-application of Bergson. Other variables, such as his own views on life and the nature of things and his experience as a management consultant, teacher, scholar, economist, and writer, are included in a framework that makes Druckerism unique and important to all of us.”