Fracking field philosophy!

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.

  1. Amazon URL for book:
  1. Froderman NYT Opinionator piece:

6 thoughts on “Fracking field philosophy!

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  1. Steve, I do always appreciate gaining greater exposure to what’s practically going on in philosophy. I hope you don’t mind me using your article to continue on with what I started this week at Plato’s Footnote. If you recall, many objected to how I’d help us figure out how to better lead our lives and structure our societies. (Beginning here:

    Your first criticism of Briggle’s book was:

    “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?”

    I love that you’re addressing social policy on the hope that these philosophers will indeed contribute. Furthermore the name by which this business is done, whether “philosophy,” “science,” “politics,” “garbage collecting” or whatever, doesn’t bother me as long as we do improve. But (and per my noted comments) I do also believe that you’ve missed something crucial associated with how one needs to go about this. Beyond practically observing behavior and attitudes, I believe that one must also present a formal good/bad premise from which to work. Without a noted ideology, field observations will lack true context from which to be interpreted.

    Take the one that I use for example: subjective total utilitarianism. In order to determine whether or not a given municipality ought to permit fracking, one might assess happiness in a similar municipality both before and after fracking had been permitted. Without such an ideological principal from which to work, or an ultimate goal which defines good/bad, these field philosophers would surely just be interpreting their observations from random intuition. Surely social policy does demand better of us.

    This brings me to your second objection, and I do love this one since it demonstrates why I’ve chosen to modify my total utilitarianism with the term “subjective.” Yes beyond a given municipality there will be the happiness of the state, for example, as well as the country, as well as the world, and so on. Observe that happiness for humanity regarding fracking right now, might conflict with its happiness in 200 years. Because objective good does not exist, these field philosophers would always need to specify their subject for any given assessment (along with a formal ideology itself, as I’ve already noted).

  2. Steve,

    Two related comments:

    First, in specific response to this article: I’ve read your piece, and Frodeman’s Times article, as well as the introduction to Socrates Tenured by Frodeman and Briggles ( ), and comments to this by Maya Frodeman and Lyudmila A. Markova. And to be honest, although I understand the motivation and general argument, and even largely agree with these, I still don’t have a clear grasp of what the practice of field philosophy actually looks like. I surmise that it involves meeting with various groups and individuals and discussing a given problem, and then trying to sort out different, even opposing philosophical perspectives on the problem that people actually wrestle and argue for in social or political arenas. But I would really have to read a detailed report on the kinds of arguments made, attempted negotiations, the results of these, and broader analysis of the wider philosophical implications of these. Perhaps I’ll have to read the book you’re reviewing in order to respond to the matter in greater detail. Or perhaps you can provide detailed quotes from Frodeman or Briggles that address some of these concerns.

    I guess I’m particularly concerned about the methodology used to pull the philosophical issues out of the work done with the people involved in the social given social conflict. Without such, field philosophers may simply come off as socially concerned consultants, and if so, then it would be hard to discern important differences between field philosophy and applied philosophy (for instance in the field of medicine).

    Also, whether written for the public or for other professionals, I would have to read some resulting texts to get a clear idea of how this reads as philosophy for my own edification. Philosophy interests me because it increases my understanding of the world; my politics may be informed by it, but is largely determined through social experience and personal history.

    But I’ll get into that a little more in my next comment.

  3. 2.

    The more general question raised here – the relationship between philosophy (particularly institutional philosophy) and the general community in which it is found – is a difficult one. I think most of us feel more comfortable discussing it in terms of what is usually called ‘the public intellectual,’ the term embracing anyone with a reasonable social argument to make, regardless of professional background.

    But the difficulty with philosophy per se is that its desired result is deeper understanding. And understanding doesn’t necessarily get us a say as to what should be done about the issues we come to understand through philosophy. That is, it really doesn’t get us claim to be able to suggest programs for improvement or predictions for better futures. In his youth, Hegel was a supporter of the French Revolution, and wrote that he saw “the world spirit on horseback,” when Napoleon marched through Germany. But in the “Philosophy of Right” – an analysis of German social structures and their assumptions – which some (wrongly, I think) take to be a defense of Prussian bureaucracy – Hegel wrote the immortal line, “The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, when history paints her grey on grey.” Quite frequently, understanding only comes on retrospection, after the curtain closes and the play is done.

    Yet consider another, more recent thinker. Michel Foucault’s decision to come out of the closet, released him to pursue two activities that filled his last years – commitment to gay rights activism; and protracted research into how the language we’ve historically used to address sex, actually molds our beliefs concerning sex, and positions those beliefs socially.

    Now, we can reasonably make connections between these two projects, but such connections are actually somewhat imposed from outside: There is no necessary connection between greater understanding concerning the language of sexuality on the one hand, and, on the other, the collective struggle to achieve greater justice for those with sexual desires and lifestyles outside of the presumed mainstream.

    (Indeed, it is a weakness of Foucault’s research project, that he himself very clearly wants there to be such a connection, but he can’t produce it. “The History of Sexuality” is at its best when it is simply a (somewhat arcane) social-historical study of certain language practices and their cultural and political implications. These just happen to involve sex; they might just as well involve eating. A similar archeology of how people have discussed eating meat could prove quite interesting. But vegans would hope in vain that it would provide them better arguments for their own lifestyle.)

    Understand that I don’t have an answer to this problem. I do want philosophers more concerned with everyday practices of non-professionals. But while such concern would undoubtedly contribute to greater understanding of these practices, I don’t know that they would contribute better practices.

  4. Hi Steve, this was interesting though I would second the point that field philosophy remains a bit undefined, even having followed the links.

    This actually sounds a lot like what I was being told was/could be the role of a philosopher in general, as I was graduating with a degree in Philosophy back in 1990. That is the skills we had could translate to real world events and considerations.

    And I found they were useful.

    Experiences in “the field” reinforced my distrust of lawlike ethical theories, and underlined how many problems stem from miscommunication. Defining terms and concepts held by those all around an issue is usually a necessary first step.

  5. In “Socrates Tenured”, linked to by ejwinner, I find (Dewey 1917)

    Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed

    That sounds like a very closely related phenomenon to being “famous for being famous”.

  6. I’ll offer a simpler definition than the guy who coined the term.

    “Field philosophy is empirically applied philosophy in the service of public policy.”

    I”m using “applied philosophy” with the idea of an applied vs. theoretical bifurcation just like in the natural sciences.

    “Public policy.” Simple enough phrase. But, yes, it’s very broad.

    Sorry, can’t narrow down field philosophy any more, precisely because of that.

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