“I refute him thus” is an expression that’s famous in philosophy.

It was Dr Johnson’s response to George Berkeley’s philosophy of ‘immaterialism’.

Immaterialism was the view that all that exists are ideas, there is no material substance.

Berkeley said all we can ever know is what’s inside our mind.

The mind can’t know what isn’t inside it, so experience of external reality cannot exist.

Since experience of external reality cannot exist, external reality itself cannot exist.

All we can ever know is ideas, and since ideas are not a material substance, material substance doesn’t exist.

Immaterialism was summed up as “Esse est percipi” – to be is to be perceived.

Dr Johnson and James Boswell had attended a lecture on Berkeley’s philosophy.

As they left the lecture, Boswell asked Johnson’s opinion.

Johnson said it was nonsense to say that nothing existed.

Boswell asked him what argument he would use to refute Berkeley’s philosophy.

Johnson looked down, saw a large stone, he gave it a hefty kick, and said, “I refute him thus”.

For most ordinary people, like me, that’s an excellent demonstration of what happens when esoteric theory meets reality.

Theory is delicately woven into an intellectual tapestry for logicians and academics to debate endlessly.

But reality is simple, basic, blunt.

Not unlike what has happened recently at Unilever.

Their CEO, Alan Jope, had a similar experience when ‘brand purpose’ theory met reality.

He declared that every brand in his portfolio should “stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny or your food tastier”.

As if ordinary people didn’t buy Unilever’s products for those trivial reasons.

Of course he was wrong, making your hair shinier or your food tastier is exactly what ordinary people want from Unilever’s brands.

Ordinary shoppers are not browsing supermarket shelves searching for brand-purpose.

Terry Smith, who runs an equity fund with a large investment in Unilever, said:

“Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.  A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913, so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose: spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches.”

That was Terry Smith’s version of “I refute him thus”.

Dr Johnson’s thinking was based on empiricism, the evidence of the senses.

When you kick a stone it either moves or it hurts your foot.

Either way there’s an experience which is, to all intents and purposes, simple and real.

Very similar to shopping in a supermarket.

What goes into the basket are very simple, real things to “make your hair shinier or your food tastier”.

To theorists and marketing strategists that may be too mundane , too prosaic.

Like Jope, they would prefer a higher calling than mere buying and selling.

They may wish to engage in the same sort of esoteric debate as Berkeley’s immaterialism.

They may believe that boring commercial reality isn’t as important as ideas.

But shoppers don’t take a basket of ideas to the checkout.

They take a basket of things “to make your hair shinier and your food tastier.

I refute him thus.