Apple employs a full-time, in-house philosopher – that’s interesting on its own, but what’s even more intriguing is that his work at Apple is kept tightly under wraps.
The philosopher, Joshua Cohen, was formerly a political philosophy professor at Stanford University; but Apple hired him in 2014 to work at Apple University, a secretive in-house training program that was started in 2008 by late Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs. Later, Cohen was made a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Apple.
It isn’t uncommon for large corporations to have in-house training or MBA programs. But there are a few details about Apple University, besides the fact that Jobs started it and it now appears to have a philosophy department, that make it stand out.
It’s staffed by high-profile academics such as Joel Podolny, the former dean of Yale, and former Harvard University historian of business Richard Tedlow. Back in 2014, The New York Times spoke with several employees who attended Apple University, and they described learning how Apple’s products were comparable to Picasso’s artwork in that they both share “elegant simplicity.”
But other than that vague information, there’s little that’s publicly known about Apple University, as Quartz pointed out in a recent piece about Cohen’s work there.
In fact, it isn’t entirely clear what Cohen does at Apple University. Quartz said that the professor seemed receptive to speaking to them, but was denied permission by Apple on at least two occasions. The publication theorizes that the firm is against having open discussions about philosophy.
Cohen sometimes does lecture outside of Apple University, and Quartz notes that those lectures are sometimes related to his work at Apple.
Back in 2016, for example, Cohen gave a talk about “how pianists Glenn Gould’s embrace of technology allowed him to create even more sublime music to share with a wider audience.” A writer for music website Ludwig-van.com, who was in the audience, wrote that the lecture was a version of one originally given to Apple employees.
In addition, the ludwig.van.com writer added that “Cohen’s task (at Apple University) is to identify the best things and explicate them.” That’s apparently inspired by a piece of advice from Steve Jobs himself: “Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and bring it into what you do.”
The secrecy surrounding Apple University makes it interesting since there isn’t any information on the program’s syllabus or which employees are able to attend it. But that does line up with Apple’s broader secrecy culture.
And none of that appears to inhibit Cohen’s work in other areas, his inability to speak to the press aside. As Quartz notes, the full-time philosopher has not been prevented from working outside of the company. Cohen is currently the editor of political and literary journal Boston Review and is also involved in academic research outside of Apple.