A few days ago, I was described as a “philosophical Airman”. The descriptor is accurate; I am a member of the US Air Force whose actions are fueled by my knowledge of philosophy. Yet, the descriptor made me cringe. Just as in contemporary culture, in military culture being labeled as a philosophical person lumps you in with either geniuses or fools. I have felt this doubly so in the even more homogeneous seeming realm of military innovation. In military innovation you are usually around tech types, and though I am a tech person myself I also understand the field’s propensity to disregard anything that seems “touchy feely”. I cringed at being called a philosophical Airman because of all the cultural implications of being called such. But I don’t want that to be my reaction anymore. More than ever I feel the need for philosophers in innovative spaces. I have witnessed Google’s ouster of Ethics Researcher Timnit Gebru, and realize it’s time to put my voice into this space. What follows is my journey into both philosophy and military innovation, and what it’s like to stand at the intersection of both.
I became acquainted with philosophy through the work of Albert Camus–technically I heard of Camus from the Ska-punk band Streetlight Manifesto. I was either a junior or senior in high school going through the angst that is accepted at that age. I had long since abandoned my faith in any God, but I also knew that by virtue of being a human being, I would strive to make meaning anyway. When I read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, my feelings were confirmed. Humankind, according to Camus and the Absurdist Philosophy, are meaning seeking beings, but they are in a universe which in no way cares about the plans they make. The absurd is that continuing tension between a meaningless universe and one’s search for meaning. A tidbit for the more philosophy inclined: you might notice a similar thread between absurdism and existentialism. The key difference between the two is that existentialism asks the practitioner to make meaning for themselves since there is none to find out in the universe, while absurdism asks you to sit with the tension between the universe’s ambivalence and your desire for meaning.
Albert Camus’ work informed a lot of my life for the next coming years. It changed the way I looked at everything, from friendships to life itself, but what it showed me most importantly was the idea of moving from the theoretical to the concrete. What I mean, is contemporary culture likes to point at philosophy as pure thought that often has no real use to every day people. This idea is further perpetuated by a mistreating of the philosophical field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and ontology (the philosophical study of being). Camus showed me that there is no philosophy without action. And many philosophers have been saying this since antiquity.
I inserted myself into military innovation circles about nine months ago. I moved over to a job as an “Innovation Craftsman” and spent the first couple of months learning and applying design thinking. I’ve met countless people that I would have otherwise not met if it weren’t for shallow bonds that connected me with others. I am now in the “leadership” of a non-profit organization named Agitare which seeks to build a community of practice consisting of Department of Defense-related individuals who practice facilitated methods, such as some of those used in design thinking. My title? Chief Philosophy Officer.
Just as before when I found myself standing in the tension of a uncaring universe and a self which wanted to find meaning, I now stand with the tension of innovation and philosophy. I should say that I stand at the imaginary tension between the two. Philosophers throughout the ages were social innovators (and sometimes technical) innovators. The barriers that we’ve put up around philosophy as merely thinking with no application, are either recent or more amplified than they used to be. Innovation, in all it’s forms, is about taking an idea from the abstract to the concrete and iterating within that process as much and as quickly as possible. I see no difference between a philosopher and an innovator only the ends are different. Philosophers look at human experience and try to extrapolate lessons from that, iterating as needed. Innovators are looking at trends and breakthroughs in domains and trying to extrapolate new changes from that. They are the same person looking through a different lens.
I am a philosophical type. By being so, I come from a long lineage of people who thought in the abstract and worked in the concrete, each aspect informing the other. What we need more of in military innovation and culture as a whole are philosophers, the people who will work in the abstract and then pull it down to the concrete to act on. Who will look at an organization and see if it is able to do the same, and apply corrective measures to ensure that it does. The world needs philosophers; philosophers have been here all along.
Austin has been in the United States Air Force for 9 years, and is currently serving as an Innovation Craftsman for the USAF.
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