How is the Toolbox Approach Philosophical?

The initial article describing the Toolbox approach is entitled, “Employing philosophical dialogue in collaborative science,” which suggests that participants in Toolbox workshops sit around and talk philosophy with one another (Eigen-brode et al. 2007). However, the conversations typically involve nonphilosophers and rarely cover topics in a way that would strike professional philosophers as philosophical. When the workshops involve collaborating scientists, the dialogue tends to focus on science and, in particular, on their specific scientific projects. What, then, qualifies these workshops as philosophical'?

There are several answers to this question. The first is related to the origins of the Toolbox approach described above. As we noted, the UI IGERT project was noteworthy for the aggressive approach it took to integrative education, teaming up Ph.D. students to develop sets of thematically integrated dissertations (Bosque-Pérez et al. 2016). Early in the project, the students requested a seminar on philosophical aspects of interdisciplinary research, thinking it might help them identify techniques for integrating different contributions within their teams. Specifically, they suspected that the abstract nature of philosophical inquiry, combined with its analytical tools, might enable seminar participants to identify similarities among their disciplinary perspectives. Close consideration of this suspicion led to the development of the Toolbox approach, a philosophically structured way of enabling collaborators to identify their disciplinary similarities and differences.

Second, philosophical concepts figure importantly into the Toolbox approach. Early versions used a Toolbox designed in an explicitly philosophical fashion, drawing on concepts from the philosophy of science, epistemology, metaphysics, and value theory (O’Rourke and Crowley 2013; Looney et al. 2014). More recent versions of the Toolbox, including the one used in the strategic planning workshops described in Appendix below (p. 62), are designed with attention to the specific, contextual needs of the partner, but even so, the analysis that features in their design is explicitly influenced by philosophical conceptions of knowledge, normativity, and ontology. Motivation for this design approach is two-fold: (1) the desire to focus participants on the norms that govern how they think and act in the context of their common project, and (2) recognition that how collaborators classify and categorize their common experiences can be a source of divisive disagreement unless it is made a common focus of consideration. The prompts that result often focus on concrete issues that matter to participants—e.g., interdisciplinarity, authorship, and even stormwater management—but they are set against a philosophical background that establishes them as contestable in relation to one’s core beliefs and values.

Third, philosophical methods are key to the development of the prompts. The development process involves finding issues that divide collaborators and then abstracting away from context-specific formulations toward more inclusive formulations. The first step is analytical, involving assessment of bigger project themes to determine fundamental conditions that can be made the focus of dialogue. The second step is abstractive. Instead of prompting workshop participants to talk about, say, whether hypotheses are required in biology or environmental science, we focus them on whether they are required in scientific research more generally. This represents one way of looking at an issue (namely, the role of hypotheses in scientific research) that can be regarded as common ground for scientific collaborators, and they are invited to react to it in a way that is grounded in their own scientific practice.

There are also teleological reasons for seeing the Toolbox approach as philosophical. One traditional objective for philosophy has been the creation of a synoptic, integrated view of the world, drawing on findings from other disciplines. Toolbox dialogues are oriented toward a similar objective—they are designed to increase mutual understanding among collaborators and thereby support production of a coordinated project perspective. They pursue this end with philosophically informed prompts that spur reflection on assumptions and patterns of thought within individuals and the team. Participants are encouraged to explore how others might have read a prompt, how they came to different conclusions, and what these differences could mean for their collaboration. Ideally, a Toolbox workshop participant will come out of the experience with a better understanding of their own research position as well as those of their colleagues. While there are other goals that a typical workshop seeks to achieve, reflective analysis by a team of its complex set of heterogeneous project perspectives is certainly one of the goals and is philosophical in nature.

This way of highlighting the philosophical character of the Toolbox approach could be taken to raise ethical questions, such as whether we are relying in our work on the ends (e.g., enhanced mutual understanding among project collaborators) to justify the means (e.g., structured dialogue about specific topics), or whether we are adopting an uncritical faith that our method always generates ethically justifiable results. It is true that we typically reverse engineer the prompts in light of the specific goals of a workshop, and that we do this confident that our approach can help a team be more effective. Even so, three points mitigate these concerns. First, the “ends justify the means” criticism typically applies when the means involved are ethically problematic, but it is not obvious that structured dialogue of the sort we facilitate is ethically problematic. Second, the ends of specific Toolbox workshops and the means used to pursue them are identified in collaboration with our partners, ensuring their knowledgeable, participatory endorsement. Third, we are mindful that probing dialogue about foundational commitments can result in harmful disclosures; given this, our workshops are constrained by a code of conduct, generated with the participants, that acknowledges the potentially harmful effects of power dynamics, hot topics, and other aspects of interpersonal communication.

A final way of answering the metaphilosophical question about the Toolbox approach is to call attention to our interest in contributing to the traditional philosophical literature. The research dynamic of TDI is structured by a feedback loop: as we have noted, philosophical concepts and methods inform our facilitative work, and the data we collect while conducting workshops serve as input into our research in epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of communication (O’Rourke and Crowley 2013; Crowley et al. 2016). Commitment to this feedback loop entails a complex dissemination strategy according to which we publish broadly in scientific venues to report evidence for the effectiveness of the Toolbox approach to potential partners, as well as in traditional philosophical venues to demonstrate the philosophical relevance of reflection on interdisciplinary activity.3

Why Consider the Toolbox Approach Field Philosophy?

As a term of art, “field philosophy” was introduced into the philosophical lexicon by the University of North Texas Department of Philosophy. Frodeman (2008, p. 602) tells us that, as they use it, “ ‘field philosophy’ emphasizes the importance of entering into settings where philosophic claims are tested by real-world challenges, and that the insights reached in the field should reflect back upon one’s thinking with regard to the study.” As Briggle and Frodeman (2016, p. 28) emphasize, the notion of the field is a metaphor meant to highlight the practice of philosophy “in an active and participatory sense with nonphilosophers, under real-world conditions.”

Field philosophy, then, is a domain of philosophical practice that extends beyond philosophy’s typical home, the academic department. It emphasizes working with non-philosophers on philosophical aspects of multivalent (often interdisciplinary) challenges in ways that respect working rhythms and requirements that may seem foreign to academic philosophers. TDI’s work fits this description, although this may not always be obvious. We have argued that Toolbox workshops are philosophical, and the vast majority of participants in Toolbox workshops over the years have been non-philosophers. But it is not obvious that the challenges have always had that “real-world” flavor, where that means addressing extra or non-academic concerns.

Although many of our partner groups grapple with these sorts of challenges (e.g., climate change, sustainability, translational health science), many do not. TDI’s work with non-philosophers focuses primarily on aspects of their collaborative process. At first glance, collaborative process may not seem like one of “the concerns of non-philosophers” (Briggle and Frodeman 2016, p. 28), but we prefer to think of TDI as elucidating and addressing concerns our partners did not realize they had. Since the process of complex research or practice is difficult, especially when it involves different disciplines and professions, attention to it can pay dividends for teams working on a wide variety of challenges. Our primary objective, then, is to help increase the chances of project success for teams of non-philosophers regardless of the substantive challenges they tackle. For additional reasons for regarding TDI as a field philosophy effort, grounded in the definition supplied in Frodeman and Briggle (2016), see Table 4.1.



Relevant TDI Characteristic


Addresses philosophical aspects of stakeholder problems’

Addresses philosophical aspects of the collaborative process of complex research and practice teams in a workshop setting


Works with stakeholder problems

Focuses on the process of stakeholder collaboration involving non-philosophers, creating dialogues in which participants discuss the communication challenges they confront on their common problem


Develops responses for stakeholders

Develops process-focused intervention specifically for a partner team that is sensitive to their specific process


Adopts a context-sensitive, bottom-up approach

Designs workshops for partners around issues that matter to them


Success is dependent on stakeholder reaction

Evaluates success relative to the goals set by partners for the workshop



Moves between academic and nonacademic locations

Travels back and forth from academic to nonacademic contexts in conducting its research program (O’Rourke and Crowley 2013;

Crowley et al. 2016)


  • 1 We use the definition from Frodeman and Briggle (2016). The “Aspect” and “Condition” columns specify the six characteristics Frodeman and Briggle (2016, p. 124) take to be “definitive of field philosophy.”
  • 2 “Stakeholder” is the term used by Frodeman and Briggle. Within TDI, “stakeholder” refers to anyone who participates in a Toolbox workshop, which can include non-academics, non-philos-opher academics, or philosophers. In general, the problems TDI addresses are related to cross-disciplinary process rather than traditional philosophical problems.
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