Decolonialism and Field Philosophy

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One of the most important challenges for field philosophers is participating in cross-cultural communications which have been historically mono-directional enterprises, privileging disciplinary ways of knowing. If, for instance, someone wanted to do academic scholarship either as an indigenous person or about indigenous struggles, one would have to adopt disciplinary language. The indigenous person would have to write and speak like an academic if they wanted to talk to or with academics. However, field philosophers are in a unique position with regards to concerns of oppression and colonialism. One of the most important elements of field philosophy as I see it is that it disrupts the functional aspect of disciplinary philosophy which creates mono-directional discourse; an in-group of people in the know who preside over the laity with regards to philosophical problems. We know, they don’t, and their problems are beneath our lofty more perfect vision. Field philosophy, if done with care, can avoid this problem. In order for us to meaningfully do field philosophy with oppressed groups it is crucial that we do so on their terms. We must not impose a philosophical narrative on a problem from afar but develop one with the people with whom we are engaged and within the context of oppression.

Husserl and other phenomenologists posit that consciousness is always consciousness of, that any consciousness requires an aspect of intentionality. You cannot be conscious with and about nothing, you must be conscious of something. I think a nice parallel can be drawn between phenomenology and field philosophy. Just how consciousness is consciousness of, field philosophy is philosophy with. In other words, field philosophy is a doing thing which occurs between people. Philosophy is not knowing, philosophy is thinking. Field philosophy is thinking with. In terms of the Socratic dialogues, Socrates is doing philosophy with the various interlocutors with whom he engages, not over and certainly not against or above. Moreover, to even begin the act of thinking together the participants in the dialogue must share their opinions (experience). While Socrates is the one posing the questions and generally guiding the dialogue, both participants are doing philosophy. I think that is the role of the field philosopher, a participant who helps direct and frame the conversation live, adapting and synthesizing the rhetoric and narrative as it emerges in the dialogue. This does not mean listening to concerned groups and then bringing various philosophical theories to bare. The goal of the field philosopher is to frame the narrative in light of the dialogue in itself, not in light of disciplinary philosophy. I see field philosophers in this way; as people who bring the philosophizing to the group, not the philosophy.

The following is a list of resources which I believe will be helpful for people interested in the intersection between field philosophy and indigenous issues. Many of these same issues can be adapted to more general application when working with oppressed groups.

For questions, comments, or suggestions for this list please contact me, Jeff Gessas, at



Field philosophers are in a unique position with regards to the project of decolonizing the university. Because field philosophy offers an alternative to the traditional disciplinary model, and positions itself to work with non-academic communities, field philosophers are in a prime position for participating in the decolonial project. By being open and listening carefully to alternative ways of knowing and being, field philosophers can begin to aid, instead of undermine, indigenous struggles. Below is a list (which will receive regular updates) of academic books which touch on all of these issues; the university and decolonialism, the problem of knowledge/power, and some which offer potential refigurings or reconstitutions of academic work in a way which does not privilege disciplinarity. Included among these books are practical strategies which involve the application of decolonial principles on the ground.

Christian, Dorothy & Rita Wong eds. 2017. Downstream: Reimagining Water. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press: Ontario, Canada).

Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong’s edited volume downstream: reimagining water is an attempt to reconstitute the engagement of indigenous groups, environmentalists, scientists, activists, artists and academics by presenting oral testimonies, poems, and other intercultural accounts of relationships to and with water. The book serves as a preliminary work in a slowly emerging field of scholarship which seeks to present academic work in a more inclusive way. By including oral traditions, poems, art, stories and other mediums of knowledge expression, Christian and Wong demonstrate what inclusive academic work might really look like.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed. (Otago University Press: Dunedin).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith explores the ways in which colonialism and imperialism are deeply embedded in disciplines of knowledge and research. She argues for decolonization of research methods both as a way to broaden academic understanding and as a liberatory exercise in indigenous struggles to reclaim ways of knowing and being. She does an excellent job of breaking down the use of ‘research’ in the occupation of indigenous territories and explains in clear language why there is such great distrust among indigenous communities of research and academics generally. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the question of decolonizing the university.

Bhambra, Gurminder K. and Kerem Nişancıoğlu eds. 2018. Decolonizing the University. (Pluto Press: London).

Beginning in 2015 with the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town, there began to emerge an international movement to decolonizing universities. Bhambra and Nişancıoğlu deliver this edited volume which begins with #RhodesMustFall and carries through the history of decolonial movement. Having provided historical context, the pair then offer a series of essays about the concrete practices of decolonization. These include specific initiatives, movements, and strategies for future action. As field philosophers, these examples and strategies prove invaluable. The final section of the book situates the historical context and specific struggles of the first two sections within a broader discourse of decolonizing the global North.

Tuck, Eve and Yang, K. Wayne (2012) ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.

In this influential article, Tuck and Yang remind us that decolonization is not a metaphor for other types of oppression. They argue that the call for decolonization represents real political aims to repossess stolen indigenous land and that using “decolonization as a metaphor… recentres whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future.” they find it worrying that the language of decolonization is used in place of other social justice terms when speaking broadly about oppression. Diversifying faculty or moving away from a Eurocentric curriculum might invoke the language of decolonization as a metaphor, but those things do not further the political aim of decoloniaism. As field philosophers interested in engagement with on-the-ground and real-world problems this article represents a crucial thought for us all. That is, what is the relationship between the field philosopher and theoretical frameworks? Between the field philosopher and metaphor? If the field philosopher is genuinely engaged in the task of real-world problems then we must always be cognizant of this tension.


Gessas, Jeff and Adam Briggle. Forthcoming. “Field Philosophy as Liberation Philosophy” Social Epistemology [special issue: Field Philosophy East and West]. 

Coming soon.


Philosophy is not the only discipline which renders problematic relationships between the university and indigenous peoples. The following books and articles offer general accounts of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which refers to indigenous or other forms of traditional knowledge and practices regarding land use. As Fikret Berkes puts it, TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, belief, and practice, evolving by accumulation and handed down through generations though traditional songs, stories and beliefs.” Often, TEK is used in natural resource management and other scientific endeavors when sufficient data is inaccessible. In particular, TEK has been employed for climate change assessment and adaptation. However, relationships between scientists and policy makers have not always been empowering for indigenous communities. Indeed, many traditional ways of life are now threatened by the same climate change which indigenous communities are now being asked to combat. The following works explore what TEK is in detail, and express the cultural problems which the study of TEK must address.

I include this section that we might think of the relationship between the sciences and indigenous communities as a proto-example which can perhaps prepare philosophers for some of the problems which we will face as we emerge from our disciplines and begin to do field work.

Berkes, Fikret. 2012. Sacred Ecology. 3rd ed. (Taylor & Francis: New York).

This, the 3rd edition of Fikret Berkes Sacred Ecology, is the first book I recommend any scholars read to become familiar with TEK and the problems facing researchers who want to use it. Berkes, who is not indigenous, understands that TEK is a process of knowing, not the content of knowledge. He explores the use of TEK as a compliment to scientific ecology as well as the cultural and political significance of TEK for indigenous communities themselves. In addition, Berkes recounts for the reader his own groundwork following indigenous groups on fishing expeditions for many years.

Nakashima, D.J., Galloway McLean, K., Thulstrup, H.D., Ramos Castillo, A. and Rubis, J.T. 2012. Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation. (Paris, UNESCO, and Darwin, UNU, 120 pp.)

This report, a joint publication from UNESCO and UNU, offers a good comprehensive look at the application of TEK in early detection and adaptation against climate change. The report is good because it thoroughly explores the paradoxical nature of the use of TEK politically. The authors argue that indigenous groups present some of the best theoretical frameworks for thinking through the problem of climate change while simultaneously being the most vulnerable people to its effects. The report details the political dimensions and risks associated with TEK and the futurity of indigenous ways of knowing and being.


This section contains some general literature for anyone interested in colonial theory, settler colonial theory, Native Studies or Latin American studies.

Veracini, Lorenzo. 2011. “Introducing settler colonial studies” Settler Colonial Studies 1(1). pp. 1-12.

Veracini’s introduction to the first edition of the journal of Settler Colonial Studies, presents a nice synopsis of the literature in the field at the time of the journal’s creation. This piece is helpful for people interested in settler colonial theory as it presents the major themes and phrases in a thorough summary. Veracini is good for anyone looking to get a broad overview of settler colonial thought.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” Journal of Genocide Research 8(4). pp. 387-409.

Wolfe’s paper here is a great introduction to anyone interested in settler colonalism. In it, he breaks down the differences in structure between traditional colonial enterprises and settler colonialism. Principally, he argues, that settler colonialism is about territory and that the activity of the settler-state is therefore permanent. As such, settler colonialism is better understood as a structure not an event; a structure which requires constant ideological and material maintenance.

Memmi, Albert. 1957. The Colonizer and the Colonized Expanded edition trans. Howard Greenfeld. (Beacon Press: Boston, MA) 

This text is a classic in colonial literature, offering a psychological perspective on the effects of colonialism on both the colonized and the colonizer, a common theme in works to follow. The expanded edition includes an introduction by Sartre and an afterword by Susan Miller.

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. trans. Richard Philcox. (Grove Press: New York, NY). 

Poblete, Juan ed. 2018. New Approaches to Latin American Studies. (Routledge: New York, NY).

Laidlaw, Zoe and Alan Lester eds. 2015. Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism: Land Holding, Loss and Survival in an Interconnected World. (Routledge: New York, NY).

Edmonds, Penelope. 2016. Settler Colonialism and (Re)conciliation: Frontier violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings. (Routledge: New York, NY).