Monday, November 29, 2010

Field Philosophy

Philosophers have spent enough time cogitating in their armchairs. A new generation has undertaken a more engaged approach, working with cognitive scientists and designing experiments that will “test” people’s intuitions about traditional philosophic puzzlers such as the existence of God, the objectivity of ethics and the possibility of free will. The result: new, empirically-grounded insights available to philosophers and psychologists. The experimental philosophy movement deserves praise. Anything that takes philosophy out of the study and into the world is good news. But it’s an open question whether experimental philosophy really satisfies the Socratic imperative to philosophize out in the world. 

Another group of philosophers is experimenting with an approach called “field philosophy.” Getting out into the field means leaving the book-lined studies to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers; drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.

Growing numbers of philosophers are interested in this kind of philosophic practice. Some of this field work in philosophy has been going on for years, for instance within the ethics boards of hospitals. But today this approach is increasingly visible across a number of fields like environmental science and nanotechnology. Some philosophers have worked with, and challenged, the food industry on the application of recombinant DNA techniques to agricultural crops and food animals. Others have helped to integrate ethics and values concerns with the ongoing work of scientists and engineers. One team even assisted the Chilean government in creating a UNESCO biosphere reserve in Cape Horn.

The “field” can even include the lab, featuring “embedded philosophers” who, like embedded journalists of recent wars, work daily alongside lab scientists and engineers. Field philosophy has two roles to play in such cases. First, it can provide an account of the generally philosophical (ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, ontological, metaphysical and theological) aspects of societal problems. Second, it can offer an overall narrative of the relations between the various disciplines (e.g. chemistry, geology, anthropology, public policy and economics) that offer insight into our problems. Such narratives can provide us with something that is sorely lacking today: a sense of the whole.

Field philosophy, then, moves in a different direction than either traditional applied philosophy or the new experimental philosophy. Whereas these approaches are top-down in orientation, beginning in theory and hoping to apply a theoretical construct to a problem, field philosophy is bottom-up, beginning with the needs of stakeholders and drawing out philosophical insights after the work is completed. Being a field philosopher does have its epistemological consequences. It means sometimes seeking to provide “good-enough” philosophizing - it often lacks some footnotes, but attempts to provide much needed insights.

The willingness to take these constraints seriously has meant that the work is sometimes dismissed by other philosophers. Across the 20th century, philosophy has embraced rigor as an absolute value. Other important values such as timeliness, relevance and cost have been sacrificed to disciplinary notions of expertise. In contrast, “rigor” in field philosophy is seen as involving a delicate balance among often competing values. To put it practically, field philosophers often edit themselves; realizing that sometimes what is needed is not the 7000-word scholarly article but rather a three-minute brief or a one-page memo.

Make no mistake; field philosophy does not reject traditional standards of philosophic excellence. Yet in a world crying out for help on a wide range of ethical and philosophical questions, philosophers need to develop additional skills. A field approach to philosophy helps with the challenge facing the academic community today. Underlying the growing popular distrust of all societal institutions, lies a social demand for greater accountability for all those who work in the industry of knowledge production. With budgets tightening, demands will soon be made on philosophy and on all the humanities - to justify its existence in terms of its positive and direct impacts on society.

No comments: