A Philosophical Practice

As a term of art, field philosophy is modeled on the idea of field science, as it is practiced in ecology, geology', anthropology', and other fields. Field researchers collect and interpret data from the natural and social worlds in all their complexity. Philosophical field research is similar to fieldwork in these areas in its distance from controlled experimentation and isolated theorizing. In a laboratory, researchers create artificial conditions to produce and evaluate phenomena in isolation from the complete network of natural causal influences. This has its advantages: it often results in law-like generalizations. But as Nancy Cartwright (1983) noted, this type of knowledge stands at a remove from the world we inhabit. Controlled experimentation is central to the sciences, but fieldwork is its necessary complement, especially for complex systems and wicked problems. In philosophy, too, field research provides novel insights that bounce philosophy' out of the intellectual ruts that can be notched when philosophers lose sight of how theory connects with real-world problems.

Because field philosophy theorizes from real situations, it avoids some of the pitfalls of ideal theory and of philosophical thought experiments based on intuition. Ideal theory and thought experiment both have their place in philosophy, but they have also been criticized because they fail to take into account the complexity and constraints of real-life social, political, and physical systems. Charles Mills (2005) argues that political theory too often relies on idealization, to the point of marginalizing and ignoring urgent social concerns that lie outside the terms of the ideal, such as racism and other forms of oppression. By' doing so, ideal theories tacitly support the ideologies of oppressive social systems. Philosophical thought experiments have been criticized on similar grounds: armchair theorizing overlooks the effects social systems have on the generation of philosophical intuitions (Schwartzman 2012). Thought experiments are useful for generating cases to consider, but they' have less epistemic value than empirical examinations of existing systems (Haggqvist 2009). Examining philosophical issues in their natural habitat yields better philosophy' and can have concrete results in the real world.

There are, however, limitations to the analogy with geological fieldwork: geologists make and interpret observations, but they do not make the rocks and rarely interfere with geological processes. There are also elements of fieldwork that are unique to philosophy and the humanities: we do not just observe in the field—we bring our understanding and techniques for others to use. Thus, field philosophy shares an outlook and set of problems with anthropological fieldwork. In the early twentieth century, Bronislaw Malinowski urged anthropologists to step “off the veranda” and to participate in the cultures they studied (Harrison 2014). Like participant observers in anthropology', field philosophers take on obligations to the people and groups they collaborate with. In pursuing fieldwork, philosophers give up a degree of autonomy as they merge their research goals with the goals of their collaborators. Participant methods have raised difficult questions of objectivity and ethics for anthropologists—questions that field philosophers also find themselves confronting.

As a practice, philosophical fieldwork does not depend on a particular set of methods. It makes strategic use of a wide range of philosophical methods from phenomenology to computer modeling, following the logic internal to the problem at hand rather than applying a preformed method. This means that field philosophers make generous use of interpretation. Like a geologist interpreting the ancient historical events that led to the formation of a rock outcrop, field philosophers maintain an awareness of their situatedness in an unfolding problem-solving episode. Field philosophers embed themselves in natural contexts, clarifying goals and values and expanding the decision space for complex problems.

For field philosophy, Marx’s comment in his Theses on Feuerbach remains a touchstone: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

 
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