The Philosophical Contributions of the Field Philosopher

If you did a time-motion study of me across those five years, you would probably find most of my efforts distributed across the following: studying ordinances and other legal documents, trying to understand economic reports, wrestling with scientific and engineering papers about fracking, attending meetings, taking part in informal conversations and interviews, blogging, talking to the media, and developing campaign talking points and literature. Even when writing op-eds, articles, or presentations for the city council I rarely mentioned anything other philosophers would recognize as the stuff of philosophy. Maybe I was just an activist with skill sets in writing, researching, and speaking. In other words, what is philosophical about field philosophy?

This is what happens when one attempts to do philosophy in a complex natural environment. In the fracking case, philosophical questions were woven into political, legal, economic, and technical questions. For example, should fracking operators utilize low-bleed valves that minimize methane leaks? You could try to extract just the ethical dimension of this question and treat it in a philosophical paper. But that won’t work if you are trying to answer the question, as DAG was, within its native habitat, in the living context where it arose. To give a live answer, you need to deal with the economic and technical feasibility and the legal flexibility along with the moral dimensions. So, the field philosopher spends time studying economics, engineering, and law around low-bleed valves, making the moral case in this native, hybrid language of phil— econ-tech-law. In other words, the non-philosophical issues invariably influence, alter, or at least inform the philosophical assessments of ethics and values.

I can, however, retrospectively categorize the kinds of things I did in more traditional philosophical terms. These include:

  • 1 Making arguments: For example, I wrote an op-ed called “The case for a fracking ban” as part of an invited duel with a fracking spokesperson in the Texas Tribune. I also did live debates. And much of my blog writing was a set of counter-arguments to the opposition’s claims about the legal and economic implications of a fracking ban.
  • 2 Framing and meaning-making: I also did synthetic work to articulate the wider contexts and the relationships between parts. For example, though it seems obvious now, it took quite a bit of work to develop DAG’s sense of fracking as a land use issue as opposed to a mineral development issue. Much of our work flowed from altering this basic orientation. By the end, we had our message down to a simple card for voters that showed a picture of a frack site with this text: “We don’t even allow bakeries in neighborhoods. Why would we allow this?”
  • 3 Interpreting data: One of my contributions was helping people make sense of reams of data about health, law, economics, etc. For example, I led

DAG’s efforts to compile mineral royalty and other revenue data and to evaluate this in the context of overall state, city, and school district budgets.

  • 4 Supplying theories and concepts: As an example, I helped people talk in terms of distributive and participatory justice, especially giving voice to questions about jurisdiction or who should make decisions. I also drew from critical studies of science and technology to help people both make and challenge arguments about the politics of artifacts and knowledge.
  • 5 Raising questions: I questioned experts and others in positions of authority. I saw it as my duty to ‘ask questions to power,’ especially when I wasn’t sure that I had the truth to speak to power. I was often in the gas well administrator’s office asking: “Why can’t we zone gas wells as industrial uses?,” “Why can’t we have more air monitoring stations?,” “When will we get that new map you’re working on?,” “What exactly is a ‘green completion’ and can we require it?” I would always write up my findings on my blog.

This last point brings to mind Socrates, the first field philosopher, wandering the agora questioning everyone about their assumptions. But which Socrates are we talking about? On one understanding, he pops the bubbles of certainty—the arrogance that one knows what one is doing and thus can keep doing it.

Much of my work could be characterized in these terms. After all, DAG was tasked with getting the city to examine the ways it had been handling urban gas well development. We dug into policy documents and their assumptions. Yet this questioning wasn’t the end game. I didn’t see how it could be, because the city had to act one way or the other. It could permit gas wells under some conditions or not permit them, but it could not just exempt itself from activity altogether. So, we offered recommendations for action—at first, modified rules and then the ban.

But there was also another role, Socrates the gadfly—one who spurs action out of indolence. Then the question becomes: “Which action?” In other words, how does the field philosopher determine which outcomes to support? Is the field philosopher only supposed to facilitate dialogue, to nurture ideal speech conditions (e.g., ensuring a fair space for all voices) in the hope that the best argument will carry' the day? Or is this democracy-building or procedural focus insufficient? Maybe the task is to identify the underdog and put your weight behind the least popular position on the theory that what we need is the most diverse possible ecosystem of ideas. Or maybe the task is to keep your eyes fixed on the ideals: truth, beauty, justice, and the good. In each moment, then, you ask yourself what would serve those.

 
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