But what does it all mean?

In the film “History of the World Part I,” the character played by Mel Brooks is at the unemployment office trying to secure his benefits payment for the week. A surly office clerk asks him what his profession is.

“Stand-up philosopher,” Brooks says.

“What?” asks the clerk.

“Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human existence into a viable and meaningful comprehension.”

“Oh,” says the clerk, “you’re a bullshit artist.”

Philosophers have had a bit of a raw deal over the years. Socrates was rewarded with a dose of hemlock for corrupting the minds of young Athenians, while Aristotle, clever though he was, has been blamed for stifling scientific progress for the best part of 2,000 years. So what role could philosophy play in the cut-and-thrust world of free-market capitalism, where the “big questions” tend to revolve around how to make a balance sheet look respectable?

An important one, according to Peter Koestenbaum, a philosopher and consultant who travels the globe applying the principles of philosophy to help businesses get more from their employees, customers and investments. Only by reconciling an inherent conflict between human values and achieving results in business can companies be truly successful and prosper, he said recently.

Koestenbaum, who is 73 and still jets between continents to ply his trade, has a degree in philosophy from California’s Stanford University, as well as degrees in theology and physics. After a long spell teaching, he began his consulting career some 25 years ago with a research group at IBM Corp. Since then, he says, his clients have included EDS Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Ericsson Telephone Co. Ltd. and Xerox Corp. He also lectures frequently at the Government Technology Group, an organization for chief information officers in the U.S.

Leaders must reconcile their need for profit with their responsibility to employees and customers, he says. Only by coming to terms with issues like injustice, anxiety, responsibility and the need to make difficult choices can leaders perform well for their companies. Being smart and confident aren’t enough; leaders must acknowledge the breadth of their role and aspire to it.

“Health in all aspects of life requires that we amount to something,” he says. “You’ve got to connect your sense of greatness with your job. If you cannot connect with your job you become a degraded human being, and as such you’re less valuable to your company.”

His method for achieving this begins with discussion and debate. At his seminars and workshops, employees try to come to grips with what motivates them. At a bank, for example, they are encouraged to see customers as individuals, and to see their money not as an end in itself, but as a vehicle through which their customers realize their visions.

“Philosophers are in a better position than psychologists for this task,” he says. “They are trained to help people deal with the deeper questions of life in this alienating business environment. What you need are discussion and clarity.”

Asked what caused so many of the new economy companies to fail, he points to greed and to “a lack of depth.” Good technology and a major in finance aren’t enough to run a business, he says; depth requires “a humanistic education. … You have to manage and understand the psyche.”

Koestenbaum has kept working past retirement age because it keeps him young, he says. Earlier this month he stayed awake an entire night writing a paper that explores the changes wrought by the Sept. 11 disaster, and how those changes affect running a business. Two weekends ago he flew to Paris to present a lecture at the Futuract humanistic business conference. Surely, a man who stays this busy at 73 must be doing something right.

Then again, cynics would say, perhaps he’s just a bullshit artist.

Koestenbaum’s consulting company, The Koestenbaum Institute, is on the Web athttp://www.pib.net/