Summary: Guide to Field Philosophy

Philosophy for the Real World:

An Introduction to Field Philosophy with Case Studies and Practical Strategies

An edited volume

Evelyn Brister and Robert Frodeman

A recent survey of over 2500 philosophers found that philosophers today value practical relevance, interdisciplinarity, public engagement, and diversity. But it also found that while these qualities are valued in the abstract, particular strategies for achieving them are not as well known or supported.[1]

We believe that one reason for the gap between ideals and practice is that accounts of successful, philosophically rigorous interventions in practical projects are not well-known. This volume will provide clear illustrations of practical, relevant engagement and reflect on questions about how to overcome obstacles.

Field philosophers bring the tools and concepts from our disciplinary training to bear on situated, live problems, often operating on short timelines and under resource constraints. Field philosophers may collaborate with academic researchers from other fields, but when they do, the primary outcome—the outcome that distinguishes field philosophy from applied philosophy—is a product, such as a white paper, a policy change, a technology, a scientific research article, or something else that reaches beyond philosophical audiences.

The case studies in this book consist of accounts of philosophers engaged in real-world fieldwork. These narratives tell how philosophers got involved in collaborative work with non-philosophers. They identify the kinds of skills and insights that are uniquely provided by philosophers, and they analyze the obstacles and assumptions philosophers had to overcome in order to be integrated into collaborative projects.

Contributors also discuss how to navigate and reshape institutional requirements that often undervalue engaged work relative to traditional academic pursuits. They show how they demonstrated the academic rigor of their projects, how they used field projects to build a research agenda, and how they found support for their work outside of academic institutions. This collection of first-hand accounts and reflections thus provides a useful how-to guide for others who want to make philosophy both practically relevant and publicly engaged.

Each essay includes three elements:

  • A project description: How does the project differ from more traditional academic philosophy projects and how does it fit the category of field philosophy? How did it reach for a tangible, real-world outcome?
  • A methodological, procedural, or strategic examination of this case of field philosophy: What obstacles had to be overcome? What are the concrete steps that others can take to do similar work?
  • An evaluation of our institutions and expectations: Which specific norms or standards in academic philosophy must change in order for philosophers to better engage with real-world issues? What is the value of this sort of work, and how can it be assessed?

Taken together, we expect the volume’s essays to cover a variety of sticking points, such as:

  • Getting started. “I think I have something practical to contribute to this real-world issue, but what?”
  • Choosing a project. “No one is knocking on my door. Maybe I should knock on theirs. But whose? And how?”
  • Building relationships. “How many meetings should I expect to attend?”
  • Finding support. “How can I get funding and time to work on this non-traditional project?”
  • Adding something unique. “What philosophical knowledge, skills, and habits of mind will be useful for this project, and how can I deliver them?”
  • Integration with academic work. “How does this practical experience change or affect my research agenda and philosophical commitments and assumptions?”
  • Handling publicity. “How will my university react if I get press attention for my engaged work, and it’s a controversial topic?”
  • Getting credit. “Can I get a peer-reviewed publication out of this work? Can I get academic credit for a non-traditional outcome?”
  • Identifying impact. “How can I really know, and demonstrate to others, that my work is having an impact?”
  • Dealing with contingency and failure. “I was working with the city council on an issue, but we didn’t finish before the election cycle and my collaborators got voted out of office, so what do I do now?”

The essays in this volume will demonstrate that philosophical skills of asking questions, analyzing concepts, and disentangling ambiguities have real contributions to make to practical problems. Moreover, in addition to helping philosophers pursue field projects, the volume will promote the development of an element within philosophy that will strengthen the discipline of philosophy overall—at a time when philosophy (and the humanities generally) are threatened with accusations of irrelevance.


[1] Valerie Tiberius, 2017, “The Well-Being of Philosophy,” Presidential Address at the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association,