By Steve Snyder
“Field philosophy” is becoming a trend in the world of philosophy, but what exactly is it? The book “A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking,” by Adam Briggle, helps to characterize field philosophy, with regard to one subject in particular, that of fracking. But before giving you a review of Briggle’s book, let’s get a general sense of what field philosophy is.
Per University of North Texas philosophy professor Bob Froderman, field philosophy is first of all, experimental:
Back in September, Joshua Knobe of Yale University, writing here at The Stone, outlined a new experimental approach to doing philosophy in his post, “Experiments in Philosophy.” Philosophers, he argued, have spent enough time cogitating in their armchairs. Knobe described how he and a group of like-minded colleagues in the discipline have undertaken a more engaged approach, working with cognitive scientists and designing experiments that will “test” people’s intuitions about traditional philosophic puzzles 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.
Just as behavioral economics, in the hands of Daniel Kahnemann and Dan Ariely, has revolutionized what was considered a “dismal science” and put it on a more empirical footing, so “field philosophy” gives hope and promise of doing the same for philosophical theorizing.
But field philosophy shouldn’t be confused with experimental philosophy, at least as these things are commonly understood today. While experimental philosophy starts in a lab, collecting data from subjects under controlled conditions, field philosophy starts in, well, the field, the real world, where genuine situations unfold between people and societies under uncontrolled conditions. Field philosophers draw out philosophical insights from the observations they make about such situations. This idea of field philosophy can be found in Froderman’s writing:
Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. …“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study 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.
To be clear, field philosophy doesn’t just involve going into the field and interacting with natural and social scientists, as Froderman says, but also involves field interaction with researchers involved in nanotechnology, hospital ethics boards, and, especially, environmental science, which is what Briggle engages with. He takes a look at field philosophy vis-à-vis one particular environmental issue, showing how it plays out in his new book, “A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking.”
No matter one’s stance on the specific issue of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, no matter one’s stance on environmental issues in general, there are interesting questions and discussions raised in Briggle’s book. What follows is a very brief review, in which I will address several of the key questions discussed in the book.
A good starting point is to note a problem Briggle faced with regard to drafting a petition to ban fracking from his community. What counts as his community?
One might think that the answer is a certain region of geographical space, which, in this case, would be the city-state-like area of Denton, Texas. But there are other surrounding dependent territories — what Briggle calls “demes” — on the outskirts of Denton. Do they count as part of his community? It’s a tricky issue, because demes are dependent, in the sense that they may need to tap into the resources of the city of Denton, but they are independent geographically. While a fracking ban might protect the water supplies of Denton, it may still affect the dependent territories, if the proper definition of “community” isn’t secured.
Another issue raised is that of the precautionary principle vs. the proactionary principle and its direct bearing on the issue of fracking policy. The precautionary principle is a political and moral principle, according to which there is a responsibility to intervene and prevent the public from exposure to harm, when there is scientific evidence indicating that there is a plausible risk. The proactionary principle is the opposite side of the coin, stating that the costs of imposing a restriction must be weighed against the damages done to technological advancement. After all, many very beneficial technologies have been discovered under uncertainty, and therefore with some risk to the public.
Briggle also shows in this book that field philosophy can’t operate independently of science. If the issue of proactivity versus a precautionary stance is considered to be a principle of ethics, for example, on an issue like fracking, where scientific measurements of air and water quality can be and are made, a number of related ethical issues spring up.
Many of these are strictly on the side of science, such as p-values and other issues of statistical rigor that figure into the calculation about the degree of risk to the public. This is borne out in measurements of air or water quality in areas that have been subject to fracking. However, p-values and other statistical controls are “looser” in health, medicine and the social sciences than in the natural sciences, precisely because of their interaction with human lives. Ethical questions — often rhetorical — then arise. Can we philosophically make judgments about causation, even before certain scientific standards are met? Per these issues, Froderman notes:
Being a field philosopher does have its epistemological consequences. For instance, we take seriously the temporal and financial constraints of our users. Working with government or industry means that we must often seek to provide “good-enough” philosophizing — it often lacks some footnotes, but attempts to provide much needed insights in a timely manner.
You have probably begun to suspect that the proactionary and precautionary principles are shot through with a classic utilitarian vs. deontological undertones. This makes it all the more interesting that, while Briggle does sprinkle his pages with references to ideas that would be considered virtue-ethical or utilitarian, deontology never seems to enter the picture.
This leads to a criticism of Briggle’s book. He could and probably should have talked about how clarity with regard to the differing ethical orientations of the relevant actors is essential, if we are to bring philosophy to bear on public policy. This also seems to be something that field philosophy in particular should have a lot to say about. After all, how else would one identify the ethical orientations in play, unless one went out and observed peoples’ behavior and attitudes, with respect to public issues like fracking?
Another criticism is that Briggle, because he is focused on one issue, and one with specific geographical and physical place, doesn’t extend his thoughts on how “demes,” (which we mentioned before as being the groups or regions which don’t neatly fall under the jurisdiction of one city or state vs. another) would apply to modern times as much as he could, which was disappointing. For example, consider the internet, with its new forms of connectedness and activism. Couldn’t certain internet-based demes arise as well? These questions are worth pondering further.
It is worth ending with some words from Froderman who, in his Opinionator piece for the New York Times, gives a big-picture overview of how field philosophy is and needs to be a part of public policy in general, beyond Briggle’s concern with fracking:
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, economics) that offer insight into our problems. Such narratives can provide us with something that is sorely lacking today: a sense of the whole.
This is part of why he was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity.
- Amazon URL for book: http://www.amazon.com/Field-Philosophers-Guide-Fracking-Texas/dp/1631490079
- Froderman NYT Opinionator piece: