Dicta on Field Philosophy from a Veteran

Having passed the standard retirement age for American workers, I can feel some sense of personal satisfaction with my career. I will also say that because I have tended to be jointly appointed in agricultural science programs, I have been paid a higher salary than much better-known colleagues who are in philosophy 100 percent. So I will not complain. Yet my concluding thoughts will mainly stress challenges that anyone who follows behind me will almost certainly confront. First and foremost is the fact that if you want to reach an audience of nonphilosophers, you have to do so in venues (conferences and journals) that are designed for them. Only a precious few of them are going to read an article in Ethics or Philosophy of Science or show up at the Philosophy of Science Association. The citation practice of scientists is to cite work that reports data supporting or relevant to the particular result that they are reporting in their own article. Even when I have written an influential piece, it never does that, and so the citation count is pretty low by scientific standards. And, of course, this work is utterly invisible to other philosophers, who seem unable to actually use Google Scholar or unwilling to look at an article in Poultry Science even when it pops up in their search results. Even when you have departmental colleagues who are supportive of your work (as I generally have), there are structural barriers to getting field philosophy recognized, even as it is having impact.

Here is a poignant example: One of my more highly cited papers was a collaboration with Wesley Dean, a sociologist who had done a M.A. in philosophy with me before going on to his doctoral work. It was an attempt to sort out some of the conceptual issues in risk assessment and social psychology alluded to above (Thompson and Dean, 1996). Paul Slovic, perhaps the most influential social psychologist to write on risk, incorporates an appreciative summary of our argument into one of his papers entitled, “Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, and Science: Surveying the Risk-Assessment Battlefield” (Slovic, 1999). He supports our case for the complexity of risk with his own considerable empirical research on the role of race, gender, political orientation, and other aspects of sociality in shaping a person’s attitudes about the risk of certain technological interventions. Slovic is very generous in the credit he gives to us, urging colleagues to pay more attention to philosophers. Yet, at the time of writing, our paper has 155 citations according to Google Scholar, while Slovic’s paper has 2224.

Some of the barriers to getting work recognized are peculiar to the specific (which is to say, actual) field in which I have practiced my work. As I have opined before, farming is like farting among philosophers and other humanities types: it’s almost as gauche to mention it as it is to be caught doing it. Lisa Heldke supports me in this observation (Heldke, 2006) though Lisa’s strong connections to feminism have given her a rooting section among philosophers that my work has generally lacked. Anyone who follows in my footsteps would be wise to write on food (rather than agriculture) and to couch their approach as explicitly situated within emergent trends that privilege advocacy for marginalized perspectives. I am not sure that this is the best strategy for having an impact within the agricultural sciences, but things are changing for the better, even there.

More general problems can be identified. As noted above, there is a presumption that any work actually taken up and utilized by for-profit entities is automatically suspect. The biomedical world has gotten a ‘pass’ on this (strangely, from my perspective) but a philosopher doing work that is useful to oil companies, retailers or (probably) Facebook, Google, or Microsoft would probably be decried as an industry shill. Even if the criticism stops short of that, it seems doubtful that the philosophical problems of powerful actors will ever be seen as worthy of serious attention in American philosophy departments as they are currently configured. The argument against this bias is simple: powerful individuals and groups are not (usually) evil, even when their activities are harmful and ill-conceived. They are often willing to do something different, and helping them think through their practice can bring about significant improvements in the lives of the oppressed (including animals). John Dewey made the case for this meliorist approach (see Fesmire, 2003) and it would be helpful if more contemporary philosophers read a little Dewey now and then.

And then there is the genuinely evil actor, or perhaps they are only strategic in the way that they will both utilize and also manipulate the reception of your work. I was once quoted on the radio about some experimental work on congenitally blind chickens. Animal protection groups twisted this into the claim that I was advocating the blinding of chickens, while some other comments I had made about the potential for using genetic engineering to limit the environmentally adverse impacts of agriculture were blown up into the claim that I was defending the use of so-called terminator seeds. I was also accused of direct industry ties in the aforementioned public meeting on possible gene flow in Mexico. All of these misrepresentations of the truth were undertaken by activist organizations, but they may have been misled by the fact that a Canadian named Paul Thompson was, in fact, serving on an advisory board for Monsanto, and this fact was proclaimed on the company’s website. The Canadian Paul Thompson had never published anything on agriculture or biotechnology' up to that point, while I had a book, a dozen or so journal articles, and the service I had done on advisory boards and centers behind me. When I speak of evil or strategic actors I am admittedly speculating on motives, but I have my suspicions (directed at Monsanto, not Thompson), nonetheless. This kind of manipulation is something that people in field philosophy should expect, and it may be some of the best evidence that they are actually having some impact. Frankly, I have no good advice here. I wish I had been able to figure out something more useful than just “soldier on.”

What, then, have I done right? Arguably it is something mentioned rather indirectly in this chapter. My career total for external grants and contracts is slightly above five million dollars, an amount that is respectable even for most social scientists. If this has been as material to my ability to gamer the respect of my science colleagues as I suspect it has, it is a depressing comment on the state of the American professorate. But this is, I submit, too many downers in a row. Having an impact is possible and, with a bit of support from one’s disciplinary colleagues, it is possible to do that from the platform provided by a professorship in philosophy. The philosophical problems of non-philosophers are real and, of equal importance, they are philosophically interesting. As Frodeman and Briggle (2016) have argued and Dewey before them, philosophers can not only do something useful (beyond teaching) with their academic careers, they could reinvigorate the disciplinary practice of philosophy as well. If only, that is, some other philosophers would read them.

Yet, perhaps there is a bit more that I can say. The first point draws on what I have recounted with respect to animal welfare. I was not doing anything in most of the forums where I participated beyond explaining what other people were saying. This is, I believe, what about 95 percent of undergraduate teaching in philosophy departments consists of. When you get called on to help people with their philosophical problems, you should not take this in the same way you might if you were asked to give a talk at an academic conference, where you would, indeed, be expected to report on your own philosophical scholarship. The kind of help philosophers can give outside their seminars and classrooms is going to differ pretty dramatically from what we do in those settings, but it may still feel quite a bit like pedagogy'. Don’t be embarrassed by that. You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who insisted on only trying some experimental treatment on every' patient that walks through the door.

Second, it was Ronald Reagan who said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The academic translation of this might be, “Feel good about being an important source in a paper that gets cited over 2000 times, even if your own work never rises to that level of influence.” There are, of course, limits here. I’m not saying you should let somebody' steal your work. Nevertheless, I’ve probably' not done an adequate job of communicating my own sense of the way in which work I have done is paving the way even for people who have never read anything I’ve written or, indeed, even heard of me. There is now a cadre of younger scholars working in the philosophy' of science and technology who will, I hope and believe, have more direct influence than I have had. I wouldn’t presume to take credit for their accomplishments, yet I do believe that the existence of this burgeoning field is in some small way a bit of the good that I have done.

Next, find some way to write it up, even if the chances of getting it read are vanishingly small. Not only do administrators like to report virtually any kind of publication, but when you are over the age of 65 and someone asks you to reflect on your career, you will be a position to list dozens of your own publications! Also, be supportive of this work among your colleagues. One thing I’ve not discussed is writing at least 100 external tenure and promotion review letters over my career. I’ve learned to take pains and explain why the work of the kind of people I get asked to write for is important, and how it is vital to the mission of the university. And, more locally, I’m proud to be finishing up my career at Michigan State University, where we have assembled a department of people with ethnically and intellectually diverse backgrounds who support the kind of work that Frodeman and Briggle call “field philosophy.” And finally, as I’ve also written elsewhere, it’s always better to be lucky than smart.


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