Philosophical Contributions

Field philosophers are in demand because various actors across society find themselves confronted by philosophical issues. Some of what the field philosopher brings is simply making the virtues of philosophy available to the wider world. Perhaps the most notable examples involve the many requests for help with the ethics and values dimensions of technoscientific problems. These calls for assistance have grown over time: the first funding of the history and philosophy of science at the National Science Foundation goes back to the late 1950s. A well-known example from the late twentieth century was the announcement by James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, that the Human Genome Project would devote 3-5 percent of its budget to questions regarding the ethical, legal, and social implications of this research. By the time of its conclusion in 2003 it constituted the world’s largest bioethics project, totaling more than 100 million dollars in funding (Gannett 2008).

Motivated by similar concerns, in 1997 the US National Science Foundation revised its peer (or “merit”) review criteria so that it consisted of two principles: intellectual merit and broader impact. “Broader impact” covers a wide expanse, including technology transfer and economic effects; but it also represents official recognition that philosophical concerns are intrinsic to scientific work today (Holbrook 2012). Over time the name for such efforts has changed—the European Commission now frames these concerns in terms of Responsible Research and Innovation—but all of these efforts are invitations for philosophers to work with the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) community.

Many contemporary social, technoscientific, and environmental problems are so complex and ill-structured that they qualify as ‘wicked.’ There have been calls to address such problems through research that is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature, integrating academic researchers with practitioners and community groups (Pohl et al. 2017). Because such problems are not amenable to disciplinary solutions, they require collaborative learning and knowledge integration that no single disciplinary approach is capable of. In such cases philosophers can serve two roles—addressing the specifically philosophical issues, and assisting in the role of integrating across the disciplines (Thompson and Whyte 2012).

What can philosophers contribute, specifically, to solving these problems? Philosophical involvement in fieldwork is very different from classroom lectures on Hegel or the Allegory of the Cave. Because of the interactive nature of fieldwork, field philosophy has two outcomes: it helps the philosophical community understand the implications of real-world problematic situations in a way that shapes philosophical discourse, and it facilitates our collaborators’ understanding of the philosophical dimensions of their problems so as to contribute to more just and effective solutions.

These essays demonstrate the many ways that field philosophers contribute to collaborative projects. Sometimes the contribution involves using the skills and methods we normally practice in teaching and research: public speaking, designing lectures and slideshows, writing reports, evaluating evidence, crafting persuasive rhetoric, and organizing events. But what is distinctively philosophical about the work that field philosophers do? What can philosophers contribute that is distinctive from the contribution of, say, an engineer or a social worker?

The essays that follow embody many types of roles and contributions, but three stand out: subject matter expertise, the prompting of a productively critical stance, and the widening of discussion. All three of these are promoted via the posing of questions. Asking questions is not unique to philosophers, but it is a skill that philosophers practice in a deliberate and distinctive way. Our field has developed techniques for asking questions that uncover unnoticed assumptions, reveal conflicts of interest, expose inconsistent goals, and demonstrate where understanding is lacking or options have been overlooked. Depending on the setting, we call our question-asking conceptual analysis, normative analysis, the Socratic method, or facilitating discussion.

Like all philosophers, field philosophers draw on subject matter expertise. For instance, they may point out where decision-making relies on considering consequences versus identifying and applying principles. They may point out how, in particular situations, a decision takes the value of the non-human world into account—or not—or increases the options available to future generations. In the essays that follow, Sahotra Sarkar (Chapter 22) was invited to participate in a conservation planning exercise on the basis of his research team’s development of computer modeling tools, and Tsjalling Swierstra and Merel Noorman (Chapter 16) were invited to participate in the design of energy distribution systems on the basis of their expertise with privacy. But in these cases of field philosophy, the contributions extended beyond providing a simple consultation on the application of established philosophical concepts. Significantly, in helping others it is rarely necessary to lay out all the theoretical machinery that is involved, for instance, in a conception of justice as fairness—any more than we would expect others we work with to explain the interior workings of a computer program. Field philosophy and disciplinary philosophy are therefore complementary, and philosophical inquiry advances in both kinds of contexts.

Philosophers are often drawn into a project because they possess specialized subject matter knowledge that contributes to partners’ goals, but they and their partners often find that the greater part of philosophers’ contributions consists of expanding possibilities and widening epistemic and moral horizons. One of the distinctive modes of field philosophy’s operation is through raising issues that have slipped the attention of others. Quite often, the key contribution on a collaborative project is asking critical questions that instigate a shift in perspective and, consequently, a change in project expectations, processes, or goals.

In doing fieldwork, philosophers may find that they offer an outside perspective on a group’s efforts, and are able to show what criticisms the group should anticipate and respond to. Being identified as the group’s outsider-within can allow field philosophers to critique the team in such a way that, if it came from others, would be perceived as betraying group loyalty.

By operating at a general level, philosophers are often able to make connections between people who otherwise approach a problem from disparate areas and with dissimilar vocabularies. Philosophers can play a facilitative role. As Francesca Bordogna (2008, 11) describes William James’ conception of the role of philosophers, a main task is “the facilitating of exchanges and encounters among people who traveled along different disciplinary, professional, and social roads.” Our humanities training can assist in translating between specialized vocabularies and between technical jargon and lay terms. In this collection, Michael O’Rourke and collaborators on the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (Chapter 4) examine the value of such a facilitative role.

This raises a rhetorical challenge, for philosophers also run the risk of being perceived as obstructionist. People, after all, want to get on with their work. This danger is in part alleviated by the fact that the field philosopher is usually invited to a project after it has become clear to the members that they face issues that require a new perspective. Nonetheless, it is also advisable for the field philosopher to project a modest demeanor. Such modesty is both sincere and tactical: after all, modesty is appropriate when matters of ethics and justice are on the table. It is also a good idea to emphasize that, in addition to providing valuable critical insight, field philosophy seeks to open up alternative paths for the achievement of goals. Field philosophy nurtures opportunities as well as uncovering problems, opening up avenues and smoothing the path ahead.

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