Field Philosophy: A Summary

Field philosophy identifies projects where philosophy is put into practice. On the model of fieldwork in the sciences, field philosophy is practical research that takes place in the wider world rather than being done from the proverbial armchair.

Fieldwork in philosophy is distinguished from the traditional disciplinary model in five ways:

  1. It involves collaborative case-based research at the project level. It aims to influence a practice or product, such as scientific data collection methods, a museum exhibit, or a policy—as opposed to being completed through a publication for philosophical audiences.
  2. It begins with the interests and framing of a non-philosophic audience rather than with the categories and interests of philosophers.
  3. The knowledge it produces is done in the context of its use by non-philosophers.
  4. Its notion of philosophic rigor is contextual, sensitive to the demands of time, interest, and money.
  5. It prioritizes audience-based standards for evaluating success.

Field philosophy can be clearly distinguished from traditional disciplinary philosophy, but it shares characteristics with several forms of philosophical inquiry and practice.

Field philosophy complements other forms of practical philosophical inquiry. For instance, applied philosophers write about real-world issues for other professional philosophers and often publish in disciplinary journals. Field philosophers work on real-world projects—for and with the people engaging those issues. Further, field philosophy does not apply a theory developed from the armchair, but rather works through the philosophical issues in a particular situation in a context-sensitive and bottom-up way. Thus, some—but not all—applied philosophers deploy a fieldwork approach some of the time.

Although philosophy is often treated as distanced from real world problems, many philosophical schools, including Aristotelian practical wisdom, American pragmatism, and Marxism provide conceptual foundations for the engaged methods of field philosophy. However, when these methods are examined within disciplinary venues, they are not themselves fieldwork.

Field philosophy is often a form of public philosophy. Not all public philosophy is field philosophy, and the relevant criteria for distinguishing the two are somewhat orthogonal, so we need further distinctions. As with any taxonomy, there are blurry boundaries.

Public philosophy differs from disciplinary philosophy in terms of its audience: with whom are you speaking? Disciplinary philosophers speak with one another as they create philosophical knowledge by extending their expertise, and they are judged by the standards of their peers. Philosophical knowledge is produced and collected in a reservoir that is isolated from non-academic use. By contrast, public philosophers engage people outside of academia, and field philosophers engage audiences in practical pursuits outside of philosophy. Thus, the relevant audience for public philosophers is typically taken to be non-academics, and while field philosophers usually work outside academia, they may work with other academics on practical projects.

Some interdisciplinary collaborations are examples of field philosophy. An academic collaboration most resembles field philosophy when it addresses a problem that is framed by non-philosophers, is developed to meet the constraints of a particular context, and is published in the context of use rather than in disciplinary philosophy journals.

Field philosophy poses several meta-philosophical questions. How shall we define the standards of ‘rigorous’ non-disciplinary research? How shall it be evaluated? How do we best teach next-generation scholars to do it? And how can we institutionalize support for it?