The Character of Field Philosophy

Field philosophy, then, is improvisational in nature; it has no standard methodology. As these essays demonstrate, field researchers respond to opportunities as they appear, embed themselves in live situations, and remain flexible in the face of changing conditions of time, money, and interest. That said, it is possible to identify a set of markers that distinguish the field philosopher’s work. It involves:

  • • Working as a member of a team and being committed to collaboratively addressing a real-world problem through ongoing participation;
  • • Responding to the specifics of the actual situation rather than approaching the problem with a theoretical abstraction;
  • • Adjusting standards of rigor to the limitations of partners’ time, interests, and resources;
  • • Counting as results creations other than a philosophical publication, e.g., a technological product, a policy, or a reformed practice; and
  • • Evaluating success or failure first from the perspective of collaborative partners.

These characteristics of field philosophy are tied to making our research relevant outside the walls of academia. They challenge conventions about how philosophers work (on teams rather than alone), who our audience is (communities outside the profession rather than our peers), how we approach inquiry (from a problem rather than from a theory), how we evaluate our work, and what we aim to produce.

The customary outcome of research in philosophy is a single-authored monograph, book chapter, or peer-reviewed article—research that typically adds to an ongoing theoretical debate in the discipline. It is specialized research produced for fellow specialists. We call this model disciplinary philosophy (Fro-deman and Briggle 2016). Field philosophy is distinguished from normal disciplinary philosophy by its primary audience: people outside the discipline who have a distinctive need for philosophical assistance. This change in audience redirects how, where, when, and what we aim to produce through our research activities. Whereas the rules that govern academic research production are reasonably clear, fieldwork requires that philosophers be flexible in order to learn new things, communicate differently, and identify situations where our various forms of expertise can be useful. It also requires that we develop new ways to evaluate philosophical impact. Fieldwork is valuable, but it is also timeconsuming and prioritizes creations that are more difficult to enumerate than journal articles.

In some disciplines, researchers go into the field to observe the natural world. Fieldwork in philosophy is different from this because we are not separate from our object of study. As our contributors demonstrate, field philosophers do not simply provide theoretical descriptions of the systems they encounter. They engage with collaborators in order to study—and affect—ethics, justice, language, aesthetics, or some other philosophical concern that is embedded in a practical situation. It is this hands-on engagement that most clearly sets field philosophy apart from other forms of philosophical work. Fieldwork aims to make something other than a philosophical research article; its primary goal is to work with others to craft a new policy, practice, community, or object. It presents philosophical resources for the use of others while allowing us to test the utility of philosophical conceptions and tools. Field philosophy, demonstrates that philosophy is not ‘merely academic.’

When the audience for our work shifts from a disciplinary community to the community at large, the space and time in which we work also shift. Philosophical fieldwork is distinguished by its location—occurring at specific sites, usually outside the walls of academia. And it is distinguished by its break from academic timelines. In most cases, teaching occurs by the rhythms of a 10-week quarter or 15-week semester, and research, with the exception of the tenure clock, operates within a utopian time. In the wider world people constantly operate under constraints; it’s just the nature of things. Rather than treating these conditions as a burden, field philosophers see them as an opportunity. Like the rules of a game or the structure of a haiku, constraints become opportunities for creativity. The report is due at the end of the month: can you say something useful by then? You have one brief opportunity to make your point: can you make it ring? The changing nature of these limitations becomes a source of provocation and intellectual excitement.

Fieldwork operates at different speeds and tempos depending on purpose and location. When a field philosopher is busiest may depend on the seasons or on a court calendar. It may require years of building personal connections, an investment that may be upended by an election or a change in project management. Agreeing to collaborate on a project in the field is to take on a commitment that must be maintained through thick and thin and changes in plans. Field philosophy, then, is distinctive in terms of both space and time, venturing into new spaces and responding to faster and more direct cultural demands while developing relationships committed to producing change.

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