You’re not inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame because you’re a deep thinker.
Or are you? Joseph Rotman says if not for his background in philosophy, he wouldn’t be considered one of Canada’s most distinguished business leaders today.
“I realized early on that the more successful I became, the more I was falling back on the principles and disciplines of thinking and how to tackle subjects using what I learned in philosophy,” says Rotman, who majored in philosophy at The University of Western Ontario and graduated in 1957 with a liberal arts degree. “The best expression that I got out of (my studies) was Aristotle’s concept of thinking about thinking. That concept is the highest form of man.”
Rotman visits campus today for the official launch of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. In 2008, he made a $4 million donation in support of the Department of Philosophy in Western’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. The gift fuelled the creation of the new institute, which is led by Charles Weijer, a Canada Research Chair in Bioethics.
Currently the chair of the Roy-L Capital Corporation, a private family-owned investment company in Toronto, Rotman admits he stumbled upon philosophy because he had to take an introductory course as part of his undergraduate business degree.
“In that one course, I saw that philosophy was a great way to talk about life and the world,” Rotman says. “At that point of my life, I was questioning everything. And as a D student, you can imagine you’re quite confused about ‘What is’ and ‘What isn’t.’ But that course transformed me from a straight D student to a very successful student. So I decided I would drop out of business and transfer to liberal arts with a major in philosophy.”
Rotman did eventually continue his post-secondary studies of business, first at the University of Toronto where he completed his masters of commerce and later Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in business and economics. But he never forgot his foundation in philosophy.
“Very simply, philosophy teaches you to think about things, whatever the topic. It doesn’t matter,” Rotman says. “It is a discipline of gaining understanding, through reflection, on topics, whether complex or simple. It’s a way to think.”
And that’s what the business legend hopes the Rotman Institute of Philosophy can teach scientists: a new way to think.
“Philosophy departments around the world have been inward-focused and my objective through the Institute is to accomplish two things,” Rotman explains. “Because of the work I’ve done in science, technology and innovation over the past 15 years, I recognized how rapidly the transformation was happening in these fields and the societal and ethical questions that resulted weren’t being addressed. So our primary focus is reaching out to science and trying to get science and philosophy interacting in ways that will produce thought and discussion about this topic in ways that aren’t currently occurring.
“The second thing is that I truly believe that studying philosophy has had helped transform my life, in a very dramatic way. There is no question about that because it has taught me to think about things. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. So I want to try and connect philosophers with scientists and other communities, so that they can give them the benefits that I received.”
Rotman says a perfect example of how taking time to think is no longer a part of everyday life is the way we respond to e-mail messages.
“The whole idea that your generation now thinks they have to react immediately to e-mail. The same day. The same minute,” Rotman offers. “We used to wait weeks to respond to letters because we wanted to think. That’s a very interesting philosophical question on how your society functions.”
Rotman says it’s for that very reason he wouldn’t think twice about hiring a philosopher for a position in the business world. And that’s saying something for a man who spends so much time thinking.
“I’d absolutely hire a philosopher,” Rotman says. “In fact, one of the top people in my son’s merchant bank, Clairvest, has a PhD in philosophy. There’s no question I would hire a philosopher.”
And you can take that to the bank.