More Than Field Philosophy, Composing, 10/05/2016

Recently, my colleague at the Reply Collective, Robert Frodeman (along with his partner Adam Briggle), has been embroiled in a fairly controversial discussion about the future of philosophy. It’s been fun to read, and not just because I don’t feel so lonely as if I was the only one making fundamental challenges to the future of a major knowledge tradition.

Frodeman has been writing about field philosophy for quite a while already. Six years, minimum. I’m not here to give a play-by-play of the whole debate on Reply Collective. If you want to do that, take a lunchtime longread starting from here, and continuing at this link. And this one. And this one too.

There really are quite a lot of links. Between the New York Times articles and the followups at Reply Collective and elsewhere, there’s some seriously complex controversy. 

One of the inevitable first moments of any conference is figuring out where
the hell anything is on the host campus.
What I want to write about today is my own relation to this idea of field philosophy. Because the idea I’m developing through my recent pieces at the Reply Collective like “Beyond the Academy” and “Can We Redeem Academia’s Worst Contempt?” is a cousin of Frodeman’s concept.

His idea of field philosophy is an extension of epistemology, the study of knowledge. It’s a partnership with scientists in their own projects to discover more about our universe. That’s a considerable departure from how philosophy of science has been done in the field in North America.

Back in my academy days, I met philosophers of science whose methods are the most intense job shadowing you'll ever see. One professor I know – a colleague of my old friend Johnny-Five’s at University of Waterloo – trained herself in such depth and detail in molecular genetics that she could pass as one at conferences. It’s total immersion in the discipline and styles of knowledge of a scientific field.

It’s a seriously impressive achievement.

That’s not what Frodeman’s field philosophy is. To my relatively limited knowledge of the topic so far, it’s a more collaborative form of knowledge building as philosophy of science. Working geologists, chemists, physicists, ecologists, and scientists generally would become partners with the philosopher in exploring, systematizing, and analyzing the knowledge production processes and structures of their own disciplines. 

Without letting yourself get too impressed with how
swank the University of Calgary is.
It’s a wonderful, fascinating project that could massively reorganize the structure and production processes of human knowledge as a whole. I mentioned it – and some other activities of his department at University of North Texas – as an example of an innovation that philosophy as a discipline sorely needs more of.

Because Frodeman’s project isn’t what I’m doing at this panel or in these meta-disciplinary articles. Frodeman’s project, as I said, is for philosophy of science and the study of knowledge. What about fields like ethics, morality, or political theory? What would be the field philosophy of these topics?

Scientific disciplines – speaking so broadly that the sides of barns become thin as needles – have a mission of investigating the world. A scientist discovers how the world is, and philosophy of science and knowledge figures out how we discover that.

Political theory, ethics, and moral philosophy all have one very different component that you can’t get away from in the end. They’re all about analyzing and figuring out how to make the world the way it should be. They’re essentially integrated with the attempt to change the world.

So what is the equivalent of a scientist in a relationship that an ethicist or a political theorist would build in the field? An activist. Someone dedicated to changing their world through the slow, plodding work required in their own communities. 

Very rarely, many forces converge on some group of dedicated people to make them seminally influential and powerful in changing the world on a large scale. Think of the protestors against neoliberalism in Greece, the demonstrators of the Arab Spring revolutions, or Bernie Sanders becoming a key figure in American history after decades as a lonely voice of social democratic conscience in the legislature.

I told you I was onto something.
The work of the community activist is the practical, field component of all the philosophy of ethics and morality. That’s what studying environmental philosophy taught me because that was the field of philosophy that actually began as political activism. The philosophical writings were just as much works of activism as works of knowledge.

So it makes sense that the next step of a philosophical investigation that began with Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is to bring those ideas to an activist movement. 

That’s why I’m glad the LEAP Manifesto dropped when it did, because it’s an excellent opportunity to engage the public in conversations about environmentalist ideas. And I’m part of a social organization that just committed to a thorough discussion of LEAP, environmentalism, and how to integrate environmentalist values into our society, economy, and minds. 

It’s not meant to be signed on to literally like a pledge. It’s literally a conversation piece about the energy economy, ecology, and a transformation of our values. This summer, I’m going to be leading public workshops and discussion groups whose purpose is literally “the transvaluation of values.”

I think that’s called philosophy.


  1. Interesting--I have not thought of FP as largely philosophy of science. True, it dates from my work on a masters in geology, and is an extension of field science. But my work in geology grew out of my background in Heidegger and phenomenology.
    Basically, I dont believe in the divisions of philosophy. Aesthetics turns into ethics into epist into MPs, etc.

    1. Only a first impression so far as I've only been looking into the idea very recently. Going back to the original article you wrote for the New York Times in 2010, and reading it in the light of the last few months of exchanges there and in SERRC. And being a venue primarily focussing on social epistemology, problems of knowledge are a key focus for SERRC.

      I'm using this post to float an idea that field philosophy with an ethical or political focus would end up becoming a form of public activism. This is where it seems to be going, and I'm interested in figuring out the full scope of this idea and its possible implications. It's very early – literally, as I only thought of it this way over the last couple of days.