The Future of Field Philosophy: Lessons Learned and Next Steps

The essays in this volume demonstrate two things: that philosophers have already been successfully engaged in field research, and that they have revealed a common set of obstacles to working as a field philosopher. These obstacles are not insurmountable. Naming and describing them is the first step toward clearing a path forward, not only for field philosophy, but for philosophy as a whole.

Philosophy is being challenged in unprecedented ways today, as society grows more skeptical of the usefulness of a liberal arts education. These concerns have been growing for some time. In 1917, in “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” John Dewey was already worried about the abstract nature of academic philosophy: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men” (Dewey 2008, 46). In “How I See Philosophy,” published in 1975, Karl Popper complained:

Admittedly, criticism is the lifeblood of philosophy; yet a minute criticism of minute points without an understanding of the great problems of cosmology, of human knowledge, of ethics, and of political philosophy, and without a serious and devoted attempt to solve them, appears to me fatal.

(Popper 1975, 54)

And in 2011, in “Philosophy Inside Out,” Philip Kitcher was vexed by the inward turn that had left philosophers focused on scholastic debates. Kitcher (2011, 254) emphasized our responsibility to be “people whose broad engagement with the condition of their age enables them to facilitate individual reflection and social conversation.”

Clearly, then, philosophers have long recognized the dangers of academic insularity and the need for broader societal relevance. What distinguishes the essays in this volume is their performative aspect, where work relevant to real-world problems is actually getting done. Rather than discussing the problem of dirty hands, these philosophers have gotten their hands dirty—staying up late contributing to climate policy at the IPCC, debating the treatment of wildlife in the Netherlands with officials and the public, developing protocols for the introduction of new surgical techniques, and helping develop innovative approaches to the problem of addiction. These efforts have shaped policy for universities, government agencies, private businesses, and the World Bank.

At the same time, many of the preceding essays express concern that such work is disconnected from disciplinary expectations and rewards. Philosophers are trained to be open-minded and are well-known for their willingness to give unorthodox ideas a fair hearing. It is time, however, for this open-mindedness to be extended to include new ways of practicing philosophy. It is crucial, for both the future of field philosophy and for philosophy in general, that the lessons learned by the authors of these essays—lessons from the doing of philosophy—are integrated within the incentive structures of the profession.

These changes begin with opening up the criteria not only for hiring but also for tenure and promotion. This means supporting and developing the characteristics that set fieldwork apart from traditional research: collaboration with nonphilosophers throughout the academy and with various groups out in the world; a preference for action over extended discussion; and a willingness to define impact as making a concrete, practical difference to people’s lives. It also means fostering a culture where undergraduate and graduate students in philosophy are trained in the practice of the collaborative skills demonstrated across these pages, as well as in the flexibility to adjust to other work cultures and to changing expectations on the fly. The practical mechanisms for such work will vary— some will add a field component to their classes, perhaps with an extra credit hour, as is common across the sciences; others may require that one chapter of a dissertation be devoted to integrating its new insights in particular situations. But, by whatever means, the point is to recognize that twenty-first-century philosophy needs to reframe its conception of research to include the variety of ways by which philosophy is made relevant to particular social problems. Philosophical research in the twenty-first century ought to promote translational activities between the armchair and the field.

How should we chart the future of field philosophy? It’s certainly possible that its future will be like its past—that is, marginal to professional practices. Valerie Tiberius’s 2017 study on the goals of the profession found that a majority of philosophers value interdisciplinarity, relevance, and engagement. She found that “philosophers think it’s a good thing for philosophy to be open to input from other fields, written in a way that allows it to be beneficial to other fields, and communicated to the public in ways that are helpful” (Tiberius 2017, 74). But the study also found that there was less support for incorporating these values into graduate and undergraduate teaching or for making them central to how philosophers evaluate each other’s work. The key lesson from the case studies collected in this book is that coordinated training and support for these initiatives is essential.

There are two dangers to a professional future that restricts itself to the status quo: the missed opportunities for producing interesting philosophical work, and the lost chances to demonstrate the continued relevance of philosophy to a skeptical public. The desire for philosophy to be more engaged with societal problems cannot be actualized without putting into place strategies, policies, and training efforts to support the fulfillment of this desire. In the absence of these strategies, one would still find occasions for engaged philosophy: philosophers would pursue creative and valuable projects, and they would produce beneficial impacts. Yet this work would remain scattered, as isolated, one-off experiments. This is not to disparage the fieldwork currently being done. It is rather to point out the ways in which contributors to this volume and other contemporary field philosophers are swimming upstream. Even as they work with and for various stakeholders, they work against current institutional structures and incentives. They even work against their own training, the disciplinary biases about what counts as “real” philosophy.

There is another, bleaker possibility to consider. The authors of these essays have pointed out risks and uncertainties that accompany fieldwork. The longterm success of collaborative projects can depend on resources and personnel that we have little or no control over. Developing the necessary relationships may take an investment of years, and the most high-impact roles may unexpectedly require additional support from university administrators. If expectations for clearly quantifiable short-term impacts continue to rise and university budgets for humanities research continue to shrink, then experiments in field philosophy could diminish along with tenure-track appointments. Similarly, tenure provides the protection and workforce security needed to encourage engagement in research programs that are innovative, outspoken, and risky— but also impactful. A decline in the protections of academic freedom provided by tenure could negatively affect philosophers’ ability to do sociallyrelevant work.

It is these headwinds that we are most concerned about. As budgets for humanities research get tighter, the tendency will be to retreat into more traditional activities, to concentrate on the ‘core’ functions of philosophy. To be clear, we support these traditional functions: philosophy, in the field or not, is dependent on having the luxury of time to devote to careful, wide-ranging thinking. In this sense, all philosophy is unpragmatic in nature, for it asks people to step back from the hurly-burly of life to think about first and last things. But such contemplation is only fully realized via an enactment where its results are brought into the world for field-testing. The field philosopher thus represents the fulfillment of the philosophic enterprise.

To imagine a more thriving future for philosophy, then, we have to think about expanding its repertoire. In other words, how do we institutionalize field philosophy? How do we make fieldwork into a systematic practice? And how do we demonstrate to university administrators and society at large the capability of field philosophy to directly contribute to the public good? This involves more than good intentions: philosophers need to become sought-after research partners across the public and private sectors. Field philosophers need to demonstrate the value of engaged philosophical fieldwork to potential collaborators, funders, journal editors, and university administrators, and they need to raise awareness of field philosophy’s ability to achieve tangible real-world impacts. At a time when disciplines are expected to demonstrate their value, field philosophy represents an opportunity to show, in real-life terms, the impact philosophy can have. Of course, philosophers will still have to write up their results, just like economists do, but their articles should get credit even when the results are practical, not just theoretical.

Part of the answer will turn on the creation of institutional structures for the promotion of field philosophy. Organizations such as the Public Philosophy Network (PPN) and the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) already exist. These organizations provide a valuable service by offering venues for philosophers to report on the field philosophy they have done. Other professional organizations can contribute by offering recognition and training opportunities. For example, the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy can provide support not just for writing public op-ed pieces but also for working with policymakers, as it has begun to do by hosting sessions at conference where philosophers can exchange strategies and lessons learned. Other professional organizations could follow the Philosophy of Science Association’s efforts to establish a caucus for socially engaged philosophers. These efforts should be followed by the establishment of best practices in making judgments for tenure and promotion.

Field philosophers remain philosophers, and so theoretical issues also arise in the pursuit of field philosophy. The essays in this volume demonstrate the breadth of theoretical and meta-philosophical questions raised by field philosophy. We see a new theoretical space opening up around field philosophy, enough to satisfy the theoretical inclinations of philosophers as they create and refine new research practices. What are the limits of the analogy with fieldwork in ecology or anthropology? How is fieldwork ‘translational,’ and in what sense is it ‘empirical’? Is it a species of public philosophy, or an entirely new entity different from both disciplinary philosophy and public philosophy? And what is its relationship to activism?

Central among these issues will be an account of impact. A philosophy of impact will raise a wide array of questions concerning the various types ofimpacts (economic, cultural, and ecological), matters of timeline (short, medium, and long-term), and the possibilities of developing metrics for impacts. There will be questions of evaluating intentionality—whether field philosophers are responsible for unintended consequences, as well as the issue of giving academic credit for practical engagement even when real-world contingent circumstances foil the successful completion of a project. There is also a reflexive element to consider: to what degree should we rely on self-reports of philosophers having an impact versus relying on others’ recognition of their impacts, given people’s natural reluctance to admit being influenced?

In keeping with the practical bent of this volume, we conclude with suggestions for action. Let’s roll up our sleeves, as there is much work to be done.

To begin, philosophers should not work at cross-purposes: there are changes we can make in our own communities to support socially-relevant work. If you are in a position to influence hiring, promotion, or tenure practices, then look for ways to adjust standards so that engaged work is counted and valued. In hiring, write job descriptions that attract young scholars who have taken the risks to do interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work. Let them know that you are cultivating spaces that will promote next generation philosophical practices. Revise your department review and tenure standards to recognize and reward the efforts of people who are pushing the profession in new directions. Edit department websites to offer creative stories and unorthodox metrics about how you and your colleagues are taking philosophy into the field, and be in contact with your institution’s news service so that they can publicize your achievements. Craft talking points for your deans, provosts, and presidents about how the territory and impact of philosophers might be larger than they assume.

If you are thinking about a new research project or about adding a fieldwork component to your current research agenda, frame your thinking in terms of pathways to impact. Start with your passion and expertise, and then consider where they might find traction in the world. Ask yourself: Who might find my research helpful, and how would I frame it to best fit their needs? And then contact those people, and ask for advice for making your research relevant to them. Expand your sense of what counts as research or ‘doing philosophy’ to include this contextualizing and relationship-building work. After all, trying to figure out how one can be helpful—what situations afford the room to philosophize—is itself a perennial philosophical challenge. Building partnerships, for example, with a local hospital or Rotary Club can itself be an act of philosophy and can establish the conditions to produce impactful work.

If you are in a position to influence the education and training of the next generation of philosophers, then consider these areas as ripe for fieldwork. Learn from anthropologists, clinical psychologists, and other applied social scientists across campus about how they incorporate fieldwork into their classes and how their students balance theoretical scholarship with pragmatic and clinical experience. Learn from the business school on your campus how they cultivate internship opportunities for students, and take advantage of existing crosscampus support staff. Talk to staffers in your local government to see if they’d be interested in interns from philosophy. This will challenge you to think about what your students might have to offer and how you can better teach those skills. And provide information to graduate students about jobs outside traditional philosophy departments where their philosophical training may open up opportunities for extended interdisciplinary work or a career of direct engagement in addressing social problems.

Although field philosophy has been framed here as a research method, it may also play a role in undergraduate teaching. Try' out a service learning component in your syllabus. You don’t have to determine in advance what will be philosophical about it—the exercise of extracting philosophical insight from direct experience is the essence of field philosophy and can be an appropriate and memorable learning experience for undergraduate students. In short, look for ways to get students into the field and learn reflexively from these experiments.

Field philosophy continues the 2,400-year history of philosophers responding to evolving cultural needs and opportunities. Philosophy has always pushed boundaries, redefining itself on multiple occasions. Philosophy has periodically undergone changes in its self-image, methods, and role; field philosophy is a revision that responds to the demands of technoscientific complexity, the rate of cultural change, and the changing role of the academy in twenty-first-century society. We should not assume that twentieth-century styles of philosophy will work in the twenty-first, as many of the giants of twentieth-century philosophy would admit. At a time of great social uncertainty, economic and technological change, impending environmental apocalypse, and political dysfunction, field philosophy shows how philosophers can work, in very concrete ways, to make this a better world.


Dewey, John. 2008. The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy. In John Dewey, The Middle Works, Vol. 10. Jo Ann Boydston, ed., pp. 3-48. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Kitcher, Philip. 2011. Philosophy Inside Out. Metaphilosophy 42: 248-260.

Popper, Karl. 1975. How I See Philosophy. In The Owl of Minerva. Charles Bontempo and S. Jack Odell, eds., pp. 41-55. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tiberius, Valerie. 2017. The Well-Being of Philosophy. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 91: 65-86.

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