What counts as good philosophy, either as teaching or scholarship? This is a perennial question that I cannot solve here. My focus will be on how field philosophy introduces new dimensions to this issue.
Perhaps most importantly, evaluating field philosophy requires alternative metrics that capture more than peer-reviewed citations. In the five years I devoted to the politics of fracking, I only published one peer-reviewed article.
It was written with a geographer and published in an economics journal, so most philosophers would not even count it. Still, that’s one more article than Socrates! The point is, in the spirit of Socrates, that field philosophers often don’t do ‘knowledge production’ so much as ‘insight insinuation.’
I take an Aristotelian view on questions of assessment: first identify the function of a thing and then ask how well it performs that function. A good watch keeps accurate time. A good short-order cook makes delicious food quickly. This can get complicated. Consider the case of the football quarterback. A good quarterback could be assessed by a variety of criteria, some of which are about virtues (arm strength, accuracy, foot speed) and some of which are about accomplishments (touchdowns, wins, championships). The total quarterback rating or QBR combines an array of metrics on every play, considering (for example) not just whether the quarterback completed a pass but how long the throw was, how much pressure the defense was applying, and even if it was during ‘trash time’ when the score is hopelessly lopsided.
This indicates the ambiguities and intricacies involved in measuring the performance of players in a game with clear rules and objective determinants for winning. Assessing disciplinary philosophical research is analogous to the QBR because specialization allows the development of standards for comparing apples with apples. However, there is more room for debate than in the QBR, because ‘winning’ or ‘excellence,’ even in specialized philosophical realms, is not as clear as it is with football and quarterbacks. Witness how often peer reviewers give divergent assessments of the same article.
Things get far more muddled with field philosophy, because the standards are even less clear. It’s not even clear who should do the assessing of field philosophers: at least, disciplinary philosophy leaves no room for doubt there (it must be fellow experts, our philosophical peers). So what can we say about assessing field philosophers? First, begin with the functions of field philosophers. In my case, that would be helping the residents of Denton think about and work toward better fracking policies. How would we know if I did that well or poorly?
Here is a shot at two basic intuitions: a good field philosopher would (1) say, do, and write things that get the attention of the intended audiences; and (2) get those audiences to see, understand, or act on dimensions of the issue that had gone unnoticed or assumed. In other words, there would be (1) appropriate outputs and (2) desirable impacts. It’s sort of like saying the good quarterback would (1) make passes and (2) score touchdowns.
In my own case, for the first part (outputs), I could list something like the following: blog posts (over 200), op-eds and articles in the popular press (over a dozen), videos (about ten), reports for policy makers (two), media interviews (dozens), attending town-hall style meetings (about a dozen), city council and state legislature testimonials (dozens), informal conversations (dozens), presentations and debates (dozens), arrests (one), community organizing activities (dozens), and more.
Maybe that’s an impressive productive churn—though probably not for a tenure committee—but is it high quality? How would we know? It could be like a quarterback who throws lots of passes, but they are all incompletions or interceptions. That’s why we need the second criterion about a good field philosopher having good impacts. But what would count as a good impact—by what criteria, no, by whose criteria? For example, one of my external reviewers for my tenure file was the Mayor of Denton. His criteria (how he measures helpfulness or usefulness) were important for measuring my success.
Although important, the Mayor is also just one perspective. I am tempted to appeal, with Adam Smith, to the ‘well-informed impartial spectator.’ I would like to imagine this fictional person reading my blog and saying, “Yes, he nailed it, that is the proper way to frame the issue and those are the right recommendations.” If I could just find that well-informed impartial spectator, I think I could solve our assessment problem. Alas.
The problems remain because disagreement remains. Instead of the impartial spectator, we have a gaggle of partial spectators—some loved my work, some hated it, many were mixed, others didn’t care. Maybe we could do a survey of everyone impacted by my work. In the absence of that, we could use things like articles written by others that mention me and comments left on my blog posts as data. But would everyone’s voice count equally, such that we would just tally up those who gave me a positive grade and compare that total with the sum of those who did not? Alternatively, we could say that there’s no such thing as bad press and put all mentions of my work on the positive side—I mean, at least I got the county commissioner talking about me!
The former strategy boils down to a popularity contest and the latter is a license for trolling. Neither tells us whether there was a skillful, loving search for wisdom. People might like or dislike field philosophers for bad reasons. This is a real problem. On one hand, field philosophers insist on being evaluated by an extended peer group. On the other hand, we insist on not being ranked either by popularity (being liked) or sheer attention (making a big splash).
Another alternative is to look at policy results. Does Denton have better fracking policies after my work than it did before? But this might just beg the question ... again: better by whose standards? My answer would be that the local policies are now worse than before. With HB 40 in place, there is now a legislative mandate forcing cities to prioritize commercial profits above other considerations like public health and neighborhood livability. This is not just for Denton, but for all of Texas. For some, this is a great outcome. I think the view from the common good or the impartial spectator, however, would see this as a serious negative impact or ‘grimpact.’
There is another grimpact to consider. Not long after HB 40 was passed, Frodeman received word that UNT was closing CSID. We never got a satisfactory explanation for this decision, especially considering that the center had exceeded all the benchmarks established by the administration. It is possible that
CSID was shuttered as an act of punishment for my fracking work. It pains me to think that my work may have led to the demise of CSID. Yet all along, I followed the path of truth and justice, at least as best as I could discern the way. Nonetheless, I don’t think it would be fair to say that HB 40 or the fate of CSID were my (or DAG’s) responsibility'. That responsibility rests with those who abused their power to punish those who dared to question and challenge that power.
1 The Code is available at www.apaonline.org/page/codeofconduct; the Guide is available at www.apaonline.org/page/goodpracticesguide.
Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
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Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle. 2017. Strawmen at the Symposium: A Response. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 48 (1): 80-94.
Fry, Matthew, Adam Briggle, and Jordan Kinkaid. 2015. Fracking and Environmental (Injustice in a Texas City. Ecological Economics 117 (C): 97-107.
Mitcham, Carl and R. Shannon Duval. 2000. Engineering Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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