Supporting Field Philosophy

Training in philosophy today does not include preparation for doing fieldwork. While ecologists, geologists, and sociologists are likely to take courses in field methods and to expect that their jobs will involve reaching outside of academia—for example, by contacting private landowners about access or working with public agencies to collect data or implement research findings— philosophers are often less comfortable being involved with projects off campus. In the following essays, a number of philosophers found themselves doing fieldwork when they were approached by academic colleagues to join a research team or when someone outside the university requested that they consult on a project. Adam Briggle’s work (Chapter 23) on fracking in Denton, Texas, for instance, grew out of a request for help by a city council member. Others found that their involvement in fieldwork grew gradually out of interdisciplinary and engaged teaching. A project related to teaching ethics across the curriculum might evolve into an interdisciplinary teaching team and then into an interdisciplinary conference. While these latter do not fall under the heading of field philosophy, they build toward fieldwork by creating networks and setting up the conditions for identifying a project where philosophical input is valuable.

Another path to field philosophy is for fieldwork to emerge out of civic engagement outside the university. Alisa Bierria (Chapter 20) writes about the natural interest in theoretical inquiry that is required for innovative social justice programs. As activists aim to remake our social world, philosophical inquiry can be essential to creating a vision as well as helping to define the political culture of the activist group. Some philosophers have deliberately pursued field methods as an arm of their research program. Ricardo Rozzi’s (Chapter 15) development of a field station for environmental ethics, science, and policy and Britt Holbrook’s (Chapter 8) research on the policies surrounding the promotion of broader impacts are examples of research programs that involved integration with practice from the outset.

Still, as Nancy Tuana notes in her essay (Chapter 10), it is exceptionally rare for philosophers to be trained to do fieldwork. Fieldwork is a risky prospect for graduate students and for young philosophers, not least because the profession as a whole often appears to grant the most abstract and esoteric research areas the highest esteem. Some graduate programs, such as Michigan State University, are providing graduate students with the opportunity to develop research that involves fieldwork and to build the skills that these essays argue are essential: collaborative skills, technical skills in other disciplines, the ability to communicate with various audiences, and comfort in contacting and working with people who are not academics. Such innovation should be applauded, even as essays like this one work to theorize fieldwork and to develop institutional support for the value of public philosophy, engaged scholarship, and interdisciplinary research.

As part of providing supportive training in field philosophy, philosophers will need to develop a parallel set of theoretical points that explain and justify the modus operandi of field philosophy, such as devising means for measuring or evaluating impact, or understanding the rhetorical dimensions of working with different audiences. These points are discussed at greater length in the Conclusion. Finally, philosophers and intellectuals can be as wrong as anyone else, and as susceptible to the attractions of self-interest, which suggests that the idealism of field philosophy should be tempered by an appreciation of the dangers of over-reaching. In this sense, field philosophy is modest in nature, or as it is put in the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.”

Field Philosophy: A Challenge and an Opportunity

Field philosophers give up some of the isolation from the real world that the academy provides. They take on additional uncertainty, risk, and inconvenience for the sake of greater relevance and impact. For all its virtues, the constraints of disciplinary philosophical practice hinder the ability of philosophers to respond to growing demands for accountability from society. It can be a challenge to compare teaching evaluations and to weigh publications and citations, but these metrics are relatively easy compared to assessing the gap between efforts in the field and their possible effects in the wider world. But we think the extra effort is worth it: field philosophy complements disciplinary knowledge production through its focus on actual, ongoing contact with people at the project level.

Field philosophy seeks to expand the repertoire of philosophy so that it can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. In an age dominated by science and technology the humanities are increasingly given short shrift. Traditional defenses of the liberal arts are no longer compelling, as the classical education that was common three generations ago—i.e., a familiarity with Plato and Shakespeare, perhaps combined with training in Latin—has given way to specializations in business and professional fields. Field philosophy provides a renewed defense of disciplinary' philosophy and the humanities generally by showing how their insights can be integrated in a practical and timely manner.

While its focus is on particular cases, at its widest compass field philosophy seeks to change the cultural valence of philosophy. Field philosophers seek to be honest brokers, speaking without prejudice or bias; but in engaging the world, it is inevitable that they will at times acquire a political charge. It takes courage to enter this sometimes rough-and-tumble world. By highlighting matters of ethics and justice the field philosopher will sometimes challenge existing relations of power. This is where the protections of tenure come in handy, but there is no denying that things can get sticky. To an unusual degree, field philosophy draws on both aspects of Aristotle’s virtues, the character as well as the intellectual virtues.

It has proven difficult for philosophy and the humanities generally to gain a foothold in public debate. In response, some of us have taken our philosophizing into the field. Given the assumptions of contemporary culture, field philosophy requires a willingness to operate in the background in partnership with people from all walks of life who face pressing real-life problems. The field philosopher seeks to bring the perennial spirit of philosophy into novel settings, renewing the ancient creed of speaking truth to power. Field philosophy, we believe, makes a real, concrete difference in improving peoples’ lives. The essays that follow are examples of how this is done. We hope you will find them as inspiring as we do.


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Pohl, Christian, Bernhard Troffer, and Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn. 2017. Addressing Wicked Problems through Transdisciplinary Research. In The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, edited by Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, and Roberto C. S. Pacheco. New York: Oxford University Press, 319-331.

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Thompson, Paul B. and Kyle Powys Whyte. 2012. What Happens to Environmental Philosophy in a Wicked World? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 25: 485-498.

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