My favorite contribution of Umberto Eco

Written on February 25, 2016 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies


By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

Last week, Umberto Eco, the Italian professor, philosopher and writer, died at 84. He is worldwide known for his novels and philosophical essays, but he was also an active intellectual,  engaged in multiple public debates. Here I focus on one of my favorites.

Some years ago, Eco published an article in L’Expresso [1], the Italian weekly magazine, under the title: “The first duty of intellectuals: to remain silent when they cannot be of any use”. The title is self-explanatory, but I extract a passage from the article that has been quoted often subsequently:

“Intellectuals are useful to society, but only in the long run. In the short term they can only be professional speakers or researchers, school administrators, communication managers at a political party or a company, or maybe blow the fife in a revolution, but they cannot perform a specific and distinctive task. To say that they are useful in the long run means that they work before and after the actual events, but never during those events. An economist or a geographer could have warned about the transformation of terrestrial transports when the steam machine came into scene and could analyze the future pros and cons of that transformation or develop a study one hundred years later to show how that invention revolutionized our lives. However, when stagecoach companies were becoming bankrupt and the first steam machines were taking the lead, (intellectuals) had noting to contribute or, in any case, much less than an engine driver. To ask intellectuals for something else is like reproaching Plato for not finding a remedy for the gastritis (…) The only meaningful thing an intellectual can do when his house is burning is to call the fire brigade” [2]

Indeed, it is an exemplary piece of irony. However, I do not agree with Eco’s statement. I believe that intellectuals and academics can and should exercise their social task effectively and produce a direct impact on their societies, for the better. Countless examples could be used as evidence. However, Eco’s scathing statement and the analogous ideas formulated by others are often used by critics of the “ivory tower” accusing academics of living in an unreal Arcadia, very detached from the real world. Suppose that Plato had been a professor at a business school in our days. Wouldn’t we have asked him for concrete remedies to business problems?

Business schools and universities need both academics and practitioners in their faculties and deans often look for those who represent the best symbiosis of the two. Most deans I have talked to agree with me on the need to have academics as well as practitioners, and they rightly believe that the challenge is to find the adequate blend of the two. Indeed, a real challenge for business schools’ deans is how to manage diversity when the profile of faculty members is so complementary.

Traditionally, the reciprocal reaction between academics and practitioners has been to reject the other. It is time to overcome this mutual exclusion and explore the formidable synergies that could result from diversity and merging different profiles of faculty members. I have always insisted that that business schools should act as bridges between academic and the business world.

In fact, one of the most pressing challenges on business schools today is precisely to provide valuable solutions to real business and manager’s problems. The key question is how business schools could more effectively foster the creation and the diffusion of relevant management research. This, in turn, is related to two issues:

  1. what is relevant management research or knowledge, and
  2. what should be considered as valuable channels of diffusion of this research.

The problem in distinguishing between those two questions is that, conventionally, the quality of a given piece of research is validated by its publication in some canonical vehicle of communication. For example, the quality of an article is supported by its publication in a refereed journal. Is there some way to escape this conceptual trap or, to put it differently, this Catch 22 situation?

Indeed, today the channels for the discussion and diffusion of novel ideas are multifarious and go beyond academic journals. Many academics realize about this fascinating phenomenon and already interact with multiple stakeholders from different quarters, inside and outside universities, through diverse means. Technology and the digital world have prompted these new ways of communication enormously and are transforming the ways knowledge and ideas are generated and distributed.

I do not agree with Eco about the ancillary role of intellectuals in solving actual social problems, and I support a very active participation of academics in all spheres of society. At the same time, I do not endorse Plato’s thesis that the best possible government is that composed of the wisest (intellectuals). A good balance, as in many other societal challenges, is probably the best solution.

Many thanks Umberto Eco, for your intellectual contributions, which have produced a real impact in the global society.


[1] Taken from A. Tabucchi, ‘La gastritis de Platón’ (tranlated by Carlos Gumpert), (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1988), p. 31.

[2] L’Expresso, 24/04/1997


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