I. Collaboration and Communication

Digging, Sowing, Building: Philosophy as Activity

Philosophy investigates the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge, beauty, and human purpose. But what do philosophers do? We teach our classes and give talks at conferences. For the most part, though, we work alone. We write articles for philosophy journals, read the books our peers write, and sometimes we write a book ourselves. We work in classrooms, in our offices and studies, and perhaps at the local coffee shop. We enjoy our independence, especially when we can find time to think and write away from the world’s commotion.

But philosophy can be more than a solitary, contemplative exercise. It also engages the world. Field philosophy, the topic of this collection, expands the range of philosophical activity. It reaches beyond the classroom and the study to directly respond to societal needs. By taking philosophy out into the field, field philosophers apply classical theories and analytic skills in hospitals and labs, offices and community centers, cornfields and wilderness areas. They employ a variety of tools to achieve their goals: sticky notes, computer models, games, and even a hand lens. Working in settings where pressing decisions hang in the balance, and with collaborators from all walks of life, field philosophers identify the philosophical aspects of problems as they arise in messy, pressing, real-world settings. Field philosophers make a difference: they sometimes change the world.

The Motivation for Field Philosophy

In 1975, a number of prominent philosophers, including J. J. Smart, J. O. Wisdom, Herbert Marcuse and others, wrote essays responding to the question “What is Philosophy?”. A common criticism shared across these essays was that philosophy, at that time, was “not relevant to human problems; that philosophers have fragmented their subject into a series of technical problems which are unrelated to the human crisis of the day and which are, apparently, even unrelated to each other” (Bontempo and Odell 1975, 2).

Criticisms of philosophers as unworldly and therefore useless to society reach back to Thales and the Milkmaid. Or as Adeimantus puts it to Socrates,

all those who take up philosophy—not those who merely dabble in it while still young in order to complete their upbringing, and then drop it, but those who continue in it for a longer time—the majority become cranks, not to say completely bad, while the ones who seem best are rendered useless to the city because of the pursuit you recommend.

(The Republic, Book VI, 487c)

The view that philosophical study cultivates irrelevance persists even in the face of evidence of its impact on social policy. Philosophical ideas have been taken up in frameworks for human rights, have become part of choice architecture in risk assessment, and have influenced thinking about race and gender as these ideas play out in law, medicine, and culture.

Philosophers and society often worry about relevance; what’s required is a volume providing evidence and practical guidance for doing work that is directly engaged in problem-solving and that explicitly demonstrates its real-world effects. We call this field philosophy: it treats the question of how to achieve relevance as not only a practical but also a philosophical issue, asking what counts as relevance, and exploring the nature of philosophical impacts on society.

Across its history, philosophy has clearly shaped the world. But the pace of this work is usually quite deliberate, perhaps at times too much so. Philosophers typically influence other academic fields and the world at large via a ‘trickle-down’ model, publishing their thoughts in philosophy books and journals in the hope they will eventually be noticed by practitioners and decision-makers. New concepts are worked out in debates internal to the philosophical community. This is important work, and it must continue, but there is also a need for more direct interventions. This is what distinguishes field philosophy.

Moreover, when philosophers engage directly with policymakers or other communities, their efforts are often not appreciated as valuable contributions to philosophical inquiry, even by other philosophers. This is not true in other disciplines, where, for instance, psychologists are engaged in the design of disciplinary policies in public schools, economists work with policymakers to predict public debt, and ecologists provide input to fisheries management. Their peers appreciate the value of these efforts. A partial explanation for the systematic ignorance of philosophers’ contributions to social problems lies in the fact that there is no shared way of describing this work, no shared understanding of the impacts achieved, and no shared sense of the meta-philosophical questions it raises about the nature of philosophical inquiry.

In response, this volume describes a philosophical practice that is directly engaged in our common lives. These essays highlight nearly two dozen cases where philosophy has been directly relevant to solving social and technological problems, and they chart a course toward building institutional support for a wide range of engaged research projects. They provide suggestions for how to entwine philosophical research with the concerns of different collaborators in the field, where the ‘field’ is understood expansively to include any complex setting where questions of knowledge and values arise. Finally, they raise the challenge of supporting this work more fully while theorizing about how to pursue it more effectively.

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