Field Philosophy in an Actual Field

The title of this chapter hints at the way it will navigate between the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublime is indicated by Bob Frodeman and Adam Brig-gle’s conception of field philosophy: work by disciplinarily trained philosophers that goes beyond the traditional departmental seminar, classroom, or journal article to engage with the philosophical problems of people occupied with otherwise non-philosophical professions or activities (Frodeman and Briggle, 2016). In my case, this has meant working with agricultural scientists as well as with producers and other professionals in the food industry. The absurdity is reflected in punning greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, and other sundry giftshop paraphernalia that depict a farmer amid stalks of corn or shafts of wheat along with the caption, “A man who is out standing in his field!”

At the risk of a little immodesty, I will reflect on my own career as an example of how philosophy can engage with and be of assistance to problem solving in practical and policy contexts, and recount a few of the ways in which I believe that I have done that over my career. Giving advice on ‘‘how to do it” for future practitioners of field philosophy will be more difficult. As I have recounted elsewhere, the circumstances that enabled me to undertake my work on agriculture and food systems were, in important respects, not of my own making (Thompson, 2015a). In lieu of a true field guide to field philosophy, then, the second half of the chapter will offer advice more along the lines of “how not to screw it up” than “how to do it.”

Creating Agriculture and Food Ethics: 1980–2010

As I have come to view my own work on agriculture and food, it is continuous with much of the philosophical scholarship that was done prior to 1850. Once I learned something about agriculture, I began to read the writings of the ancient Greeks, and of Locke, Rousseau, and Mill as quite engaged with agrarian themes, despite the fact that nothing in my prior philosophical training had prepared me to see these connections. Nevertheless, the day that I accepted a joint faculty position at Texas A&M University in 1980 that was half in philosophy, half in agricultural economics, it was only a slight (joking) exaggeration to say that I was immediately one of the top five philosophers working in agriculture. With some important exceptions, philosophers had abandoned all interest in the production, distribution, and consumption of food by the dawn of the twentieth century. By the time I started my professional career, there had been more than a century of neglect.

A few years after the publication of Michael Pollan’s (2006) The Omnivore's Dilemma, which uses eating ethically as a trope, a new generation of philosophers have now entered the field. My impression is that most of them have never heard of my work, or that of other philosophers who were involved in starting the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, the European Society for Agriculture and Food Ethics or in launching journals such as Agriculture and Human Values or The Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. I am sure that many people who think of themselves as conversant in the field of food ethics as it has evolved after 2010 will have little or no familiarity with the areas of scholarship I will discuss.

I was assigned to develop an undergraduate course that would cover issues of relevance to students majoring in agricultural disciplines. There was important work by philosophers that set the stage for this, most especially the two strands of research inaugurated by Peter Singer at the earliest stages of his own career. The 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” (Singer, 1972) had launched a stream of philosophical scholarship on the phenomenon of world hunger, while Singer’s review essay in The New York Review of Books opened the floodgates for philosophical writing on the ethics of animal use, leading rapidly to numerous philosophical critiques of livestock production (Singer, 1973). I was able to draw upon this literature when putting together my first course on agricultural ethics in 1982.

It would take a few years for me appreciate the difference between working on agriculture and food topics, and working in agriculture. The institutional history of this transition is recorded in the paper “Agricultural Ethics—Then and Now” (Thompson, 2015a), so I will not repeat it here. The key point for an exposition of field philosophy is that agriculture and food system professionals were struggling with a cluster of anxieties that they had only vaguely formulated to themselves. For some people, the worries took the form of disquiet over the direction of social and technical change in agricultural production systems, especially in the domain of animal husbandry. For others, it was a feeling of unease that could be summarized by the question, “Why is everyone so angry at us?” By the mid-1980s the confusion had risen to the point that some audiences were willing to listen to anyone who could give them a leverage point for dealing with the troubles, including a very junior professor with a Ph.D. in philosophy.

My work over 40 years has touched on many topics, including the general philosophy of agricultural research, the structure of the undergraduate curriculum in agriculture, and the rationale for biofuels. I have often joked that from the perspective of my colleagues at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, my portfolio seems so diverse as to be incoherent, yet when I go back to the philosophy department people say: “Your work is so narrow! Everything is about agriculture.” I also had a brief stint with field philosophy in the computer science department during my time at Purdue University. Yet, perhaps the best way to summarize the most effective dimensions of my research are to focus on three areas: animal welfare and animal rights, biotechnology, and sustainability. Accordingly, the next three sections take up each theme in succession before moving on to more general reflections.

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