Professor Steve Ostovich Discusses the Value of Philosophy for Business and Life

“… the discipline most centrally concerned with what it means to think.”

Gordon Marino (L) with Prof. Steve Ostovich

I first me Steve Ostovich in June at the Magnolia Salon in Carlton. The discussion that evening centered around Gordon Marino’s book The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. Dr. Ostovich, philosophy chair at St. Scholastica, had prepared a series of questions for Gordon Marino, much like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, though with somewhat different subject matter. Ostovich played the role of interrogator.

A good bracing discussion ensued and afterwards I reached out to suggest we share an hour over coffee sometime. The discussion generated themes for an interview relating to philosophy and life.

EN: Maybe we can begin with a brief outline of your career path.

Steven Ostovich (photo: Ed Newman)

Steve Ostovich: After finishing a BA with majors in philosophy and theology at Marquette U. (in Milwaukee), I went to seminary in North Carolina at Duke University. I quickly found that my questions were not shared by my classmates, so I came back to MU, did an MA in biblical studies concentrating on the Hebrew Bible, and looked around for someplace to pursue a PhD. Lots of opportunities, but I ended up staying at Marquette where I could do exactly what I wanted combining philosophy of science and political theology. It was during this time I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and did research for a year at the university in Muenster, Germany. When I returned, changes in the department led me to spend two years as an investigator for the Affirmative Action Unit and the City Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee. Eventually I returned to scholarship and college teaching. I came to CSS in 1982, my first full-time appointment, and have never left.

EN: In what ways would the study of philosophy be of value for business leaders?

SO: The simplest answer may seem facetious, but I don’t mean it to be: “career advancement.” Businesses often look for particular skills in entry-level hires, but when you pay attention to who ends up leading the firm, very often it’s the person who started with a strong liberal education: nothing is more liberating than philosophy. Philosophy develops critical thinking and communication skills, but this is only part of the story. Philosophy fosters leadership ability in working with others — philosophy is based on discussion, thinking deeply and critically and developing visions, and helping the members of a community — business, academic, or other — identify and move in a common direction. This is why leadership demands more than management or administrative skills. People who have pursued philosophy also typically are ethical leaders, not so much because they have studied ethics but because they have learned to value others in the organization or community and the world.

EN: What are the big issues in philosophy today?

SO: Philosophers are all over the place in the kinds of issues and problems they address; this goes with the territory inasmuch as we’re interested in the principles and ways of thinking that inform whatever we’re doing and in learning to make a good life from our pursuits. But there is a big problem, a common problem, facing philosophy as a community of professionals: inclusiveness. We know better than most how diversity is a requirement for good thinking and living, but the discipline is rooted in a classical, Euro-American centered (that is, white male) tradition. So we, too, are faced with actively pursuing a more diverse philosophical community inclusive of women, people of color, and, in general, voices from other cultures, classes, and parts of the world. And, I’m happy to say, we are making some progress.

EN: How does the study of philosophy help us to become better thinkers?

SO: First of all, we’re the discipline most centrally concerned with what it means to think; this is why logic is so important to us. We strive to practice good writing and oral communication, skills essential to good thinking. Philosophy also can lead to an awareness of the different ways people put the world together both critically and culturally while providing the tools to evaluate these differences. But all this requires we learn how to listen. Socrates doesn’t seem to have written anything down, but he engaged in discussions in which he hoped to learn from the way truth revealed itself to others as evident in their opinions. To do this, one has to listen closely and openly and respond honestly. This is what we still try to do.

EN: How has Academia changed over the past 40 years?

SO: We have lost a common understanding of the role of higher education in our society. This is part of a general trend in which private goods defined in economic terms take precedence over the public good, and deeper values all but disappear from public discourse. The consequence for higher education has been a drastic cut in funding and support generally. Fiscal concerns are taking over the academy: boards of trustees and administrators fixate on the bottom line as institutions struggle to survive; faculty and staff are treated like employees and the professoriate becomes a job rather than a vocation; and students become consumers whom we train to be distracted workers rather than active members of a democratic society. It is still possible — indeed, likely — for students to get a first-rate education, but we are turning education into a service industry. We want to be empowered to achieve our wants and desires, but there doesn’t seem to be a place for us to discuss what these should be. So we lose our freedom even as choices proliferate, and while we become good at shopping, we lose the capacity to act. We need to resurrect public discussion of the role of the academy in a healthy society.

EN: Who would you say are your favorite philosophers? Are there any that you especially align with?

SO: One of the benefits of teaching at a small liberal arts college is I have to teach a wide range of courses in philosophy. This broadens my experience and reading which is good for me as well as for students. Having stated this, I would say my favorite philosopher to read, teach, and discuss is the eighteenth century Scottish empiricist David Hume. What makes him attractive is not so much that I agree with him but his style of thinking and writing, both of which are characterized by humility regarding the possibility of knowing truth. Other favorites (and philosophers about whom I have written in most cases) are: critical theorists like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, the still vital Jürgen Habermas, and Hannah Arendt, whose collection of essays Thinking without a Banister, I currently am reading; twentieth century French thinkers like Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty whose work I am reading with a post-baccalaureate student; and Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, American pragmatists whose concerns are still important and whose style is delightful. Also, my German Doktorvater, the political theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Finally, I still treat the Hebrew Bible as an important philosophical resource for thinking differently.

EN: How about favorite authors? Who are you currently reading?

SO: Sherman Alexie broadens my world and W. G. Sebald feeds my melancholy. Among essayists, I will always read a piece by Tariq Ali, for even when I don’t understand him or when I disagree with him, I always learn something from him. Among living poets, my colleague and friend Ryan Vine writes lines that speak. My brother and wife now have me reading the mystery novels of Louise Penny. And I just finished a non-fiction history of the Vienna Circle, Exact Thinking in Demented Times, by Karl Sigmund.

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Originally published at on September 12, 2018. Photos and illustrations by the author.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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