Taking Philosophy into the Field

by Robert Frodeman and Evelyn Brister

People sometimes express confusion about what public philosophy is. We see the point as straightforward: it’s a matter of location. Public philosophy consists of all those efforts that aren’t centered on university life. Public philosophers write op-eds for newspapers, work on disability issues and penal reform, serve on expert committees for government agencies, teach in prisons and schools, and help community groups balance considerations of justice with economic development. But while the possibilities for public philosophy are infinite, the distinction is clear: are your attentions directed toward other philosophers? That’s academic philosophy. Are your efforts aimed at the wider world? That’s public philosophy.

We’re pluralists in our attitude toward public philosophy: all of these varieties are useful in a world that too often assumes that the answers to societal questions come down to science or economics. But we want to emphasize one particular strain of public philosophy: what we call field philosophy. By analogy with field science, field philosophers work on-site with non-philosophers over an extended period of time. These are philosophers who are not simply writing about public problems but are engaged in projects, working alongside people as they confront real-world issues.

In a recent 3QD piece, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse sound dubious about the usefulness of public philosophy. They claim that public philosophy has a distressing retrospective quality: by commenting on a situation philosophers are likely to affect that situation, and so are engaged in a continual process of catch-up. We grant the point, but we fail to see it as a problem. Public philosophy does not only consist of external, after-the-fact historical commentary. Particularly in the case of field philosophy, it actively participates in making sense of unfolding cultural events and reveals the conflicting pulls that make for difficult decisions. This iterative loop forms part of the dynamics of thinking, where an account adjusts to changed circumstances. The philosopher thinks with the scientist, the engineer, the businessperson, or the stakeholders’ group. Adjustment in the face of real-world conditions is how things are supposed to work.

We give Aikin and Talisse this much: efforts by public philosophers will sometimes generate problems. Misadventures can occur even when philosophers avoid condescension, exercise discretion in framing their points, are willing to collaborate, and operate within the political, temporal, and financial constraints of the situation. Efforts at public philosophy won’t be infallible; in fact, there will be cases where they makes matters worse.[1] But this is true for any academic field. The risks mean that something important is at stake.

Public philosophy does have its own special challenges distinct from those faced by economists or engineers. Philosophical questions ask people to slow down and reflect, thus threatening the pace of innovation and challenging the accelerationist mentality of contemporary society. This highlights the conservative nature of philosophical reflection and its precautionary approach to progress. The opposite is also true: philosophy is liberal in the sense of expressing ideas that lie outside of tradition or beyond the Overton Window of acceptable thinking. Thus, in its public interactions, philosophy is in danger of being at once too conservative and too radical for the tastes of society, fulfilling the ancient stereotype of being absurd and out of touch.

But it’s not as if philosophers lack resources to deal with such problems. Exercising discretion, we can widen a conversation and open up new perspectives on a problem. For public philosophy is less about providing answers than expanding our moral imagination. The suggestions of a philosopher of science or a feminist social theorist may well differ from that of someone trained in German idealism. But this matters less than one might think. For the central goal of public philosophy is to raise questions, to expand the universe of possibilities and the bounds of a conversation rather than to provide answers. When suggestions differ, this is something to celebrate rather than bemoan.

Perhaps our greatest difference with Aikin and Talisse, however, concerns their comments about what they call the ‘audience self-selection problem’. As they put it, “you’re more often speaking to folks who already agree or you’re just irritating those who disagree.” This doesn’t match with our experience. In the vast majority of the cases that we are aware of, people are facing a perplexity. They are looking for help. How can a community strike the right balance between resource use and environmental protection? How can a governmental body be more attentive to its most disadvantaged citizens? Of course there are cases where the positions have hardened. But the real opportunity for public philosophy comes when people aren’t yet sure what they think about an issue and would like some help in thinking matters through.

Finally, let us discard the old canard that public philosophy is antagonistic toward academic philosophy. Public philosophers aren’t attacking what professors do within the classroom; rather, these two approaches to philosophy complement one another. What’s more, public philosophy protects the flank of academic philosophy, answering critics’ attacks that philosophy and the humanities generally are impractical and useless. In this way, public philosophy demonstrates the usefulness of academic philosophy, especially important now when philosophy departments are at risk of closure.

Public philosophy is undergoing something of a renaissance. In many cases this is being driven by the scary new world we inhabit. Climate change and artificial intelligence, social media and populism: it sometimes feels like someone has thrown all the cards in the air. Philosophers do not have answers to the dilemmas we face. But they do possess conceptual, analytical, and historical perspectives to help light the way.

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Robert Frodeman has been a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of North Texas. He currently resides in Hoback, WY, where he writes on environmental philosophy and development issues in the American West. He is the author of Transhumanism, Nature, and the Ends of Science (Routledge, 2019), the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (Oxford 2017) and author or editor of a number of other books.

Evelyn Brister is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is a philosopher of science who writes about environmental values and land management and is incoming president of the Public Philosophy Network.

Brister and Frodeman are co-editors of A Guide to Field Philosophy (Routledge), forthcoming in February 2020, a collection of narrative accounts by philosophers who have engaged in fieldwork with scientists, engineers, and policymakers.

[1] Thus the essays in our forthcoming book (Brister, Evelyn, Frodeman, Robert, eds., A Guide to Field Philosophy, Routledge publishing) describe the failures as well as the successes of field philosophers.

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