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We Are Always Already Engaged: Epistemological Fieldwork in the Real World of the University

According to the prevailing disciplinary and professional norms of academic philosophy, field philosophy and those who engage in it are transgressive: in the identification and framing of problems; in the methods used to address those problems and the standards of rigor by which work is judged; and in the identification of collaborators, evaluators, and audiences. A commitment to transgression typically and understandably strains practitioners’ identification both with the profession that socializes its members to identify with disciplinary norms, as well as with the institutional settings that embody them. My own forays into what I only retrospectively came to think of as field philosophy came rather from a heightened—albeit highly critical—identification with institutionalized philosophy and, especially, with the particular institution within which I was working. Somewhat to my surprise, those forays led me back to some of the decidedly mainstream epistemological and metaphysical problems I thought I had left behind.

I want to explore three of those experiences, to illuminate both how, as a philosopher, I engaged with non-philosopher collaborators on what were primarily non-philosophical issues, as well as how I came through those engagements to think differently about some core disciplinary philosophical problems. The collaborations I will be discussing include: working to articulate and create structures for building norms of trust in a community-based research project on lead poisoning; helping new graduate students to think critically about responsible research methods; and engaging with university researchers and local indigenous activists about controversial research on wild rice.

Route to Engaged Fieldwork

When I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, I was involved, along with many of my friends, in the early years of the Society' for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) and of what became the Radical Philosophy Association (RPA). As exciting as I found these projects, my own philosophical work, interests, and inclinations seemed at odds with my political commitments: I wasn’t especially drawn to moral, political, or social philosophy, but was instead immersed in epistemology' and metaphysics; I was convinced, along with nearly all other analytic philosophers at that time, that these fields had nothing to do with politics or with anything else in what was referred to as “the real world.” Questions about the nature of knowledge and of existence might seem to be questions about the real world, but they' weren’t posed as such—certainly not as questions arising in a world characterized by' unjust structures of power and privilege. Nor were we, as philosophers, expected to interrogate our own positions, including our relationships to those structures and how those relationships might shape our perspectives and responsibilities when it came to addressing epistemological or metaphysical issues.

The conviction of abstracted detachment did not survive. I now describe what I do as practical or engaged epistemology' and metaphysics (not as “applied,” an unfortunate term that suggests that the intellectually, theoretically important work is done by philosophers who then apply that knowledge to some real-world situation). In particular, finding my' own philosophical voice involved breaking down the barriers not only between philosophy' and (the rest of) the world, but also between epistemology and metaphysics and moral, political, and social philosophy' and becoming, specifically, a feminist epistemologist and metaphysician. Most of the work I have done over the past 40 years has been on the fringes of academic philosophy and in interaction with nonphilosophers inside and outside the academy' on practical problems that are not, in the first instance, philosophical—ranging, as I will discuss below, from the ethics and politics of community-based participatory' research, to issues of trust and trustworthiness in social justice oriented research in the Global South, to disputes between university' researchers and indigenous people about wild rice. That work is intrinsically satisfying—in seeing that as a philosopher I have something of value to contribute—but it has also been exciting to discover that when I return to more disciplinary turf it is with fresh insights into old problems.

One way of framing the move away from abstract detachment was noticing that analytic epistemology' failed to get a grip on the problems of knowledge and belief as they arose in the real world. This failure characterized even naturalized epistemology in the Quinean vein, which purported to attend to how beliefs are actually acquired but did so by theorizing about the cognitive capacities of a supposedly generic individual knower. As Phyllis Rooney and others

(including me) have argued, true naturalizing—including the naturalizing of normativity (that is, the articulation of epistemic norms that have a grip on actual practice)—needs to attend to the conditions under which we acquire and share beliefs (Rooney 1998). Those conditions are thoroughly social (most of what we want and need to know comes not from our individual cognitive faculties but from other people) and deeply inflected by structures of power and privilege. Recognizing that fact made me realize that, as a faculty member in a research university dedicated to the discovery of knowledge that others are expected to trust, I was working in an epistemologist’s playground; and my career has mostly unfolded as—somewhat intentionally but mostly serendipitously—I took advantage of that location.

My appointment was in the Philosophy Department, but for all of my time at the University of Minnesota (from 1979 until my retirement in 2016) I was also a full member and, for three years, chair of the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies (formerly Women’s Studies)—a department and (inter)discipline deeply committed to the practice, not just the theory, of social justice inside and outside the academy. I was also an active participant in faculty governance, with a particular interest in issues of diversity and inclusion, and briefly an associate dean in the Graduate School, in which role I participated in shaping initiatives in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) with an eye to social justice and trustworthiness. I took these not to be the add-ons they are typically treated as—if they are considered at all—but rather the foundation on which all the specific principles and rules rest. I was active as a faculty union organizer, working with contingent as well as tenure-line faculty and in solidarity with other unionized university employees, and I served as president of our American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter. I was a member of the faculty advisory board of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), which focuses on social justice oriented research in the Global South; a co-founder of GRASS Routes, a program to foster communitybased participatory research; and a member of a committee working with Minnesota Indian tribes and University agricultural researchers around tribal concerns about University research on wild rice (these last three, and my work on RCR initiatives, were the sites for the experiences I mentioned above and will discuss below). In general, I was a gadfly in solidarity with a diverse group of trouble-makers.1

The over-arching impetus behind these engagements goes back to my experiences as a student activist in the 1960s, passionate about universities and dismayed by their increasing enmeshment in a wide-ranging set of practices and stances that we then called the “military—industrial complex” and that now is conceptualized as neo-liberalism. Among all the reasons to be critical of those practices and stances is one that is of particular relevance to an epistemologist. One of the major functions of a research university is the discovery, creation, and critical sharing of knowledge, and one of the tasks of epistemology' ought to be to say something about the conditions under which knowledge claims from within the university are rationally justifiable, especially to diverse outsiders. For some academics those claims have practical import and our hope is that people will act on what we say is the case; for others, our hope is more modest—that what we say will be taken seriously by those who share our interest in our objects of study. But for all of us it matters that at least some people outside the university find us and what we do to be trustworthy. We tend to be quite attentive to the various outside forces that work against us in this regard, but even as there is much to lament about the widespread cynicism concerning academic expertise, the first responsibility of those of us inside universities should be to ensure that, if and when and insofar as others do believe (or at least take seriously) what we say, it would be rational for them to do so. We tend to simply assume that it would be, but, as I have argued elsewhere, the complex apparatus of mechanisms designed to ensure the integrity—hence, the trustworthiness—of our work in the eyes of similarly credentialed peers is inadequate to ground our trustworthiness in the eyes of variously marginalized or subordinated outsiders (Scheman 2001).

One way of thinking about these issues is through discussions about community-engaged research, which is nearly always approached as though it is something that some academics do sometimes. That is, I suggest, a problematic starting point. Certainly only some of us and usually only sometimes do research that is explicitly framed in those terms, but if we think of engagement in the sense that applies to gears—if this turns, then that turns with it—we are all always already engaged with the diverse publics on whom we are dependent, who stand to be affected by what we do, and who have interests in and reasons to care about our objects of knowledge. A related misconception concerns the “public” or the “community,” which is presumed to lie beyond the borders of the academy, a presumption that draws our attention away from the relationships among all those who work inside the university, including the increasing ranks of contingently-employed faculty, students, and the many non-academic employees who make our academic work possible. If we think about community engagement in these terms, our attention is drawn to how the university is structured, how it functions, and how it is perceived, and to how those perceptions ground the trustworthiness—or, too often, untrustworthiness—of the work academics do. What do members of diverse communities know about the university as a physical and economic presence in the neighborhood? As an employer? As a place where their children go to learn and return with stories about how their families, communities, and traditions are (or are not) taught about and respected? As a place from which researchers materialize and disappear and then seem to be responsible for problematic theories and policies?

I saw my involvement in university governance as grounded in epistemological concerns such as: What would it take for the university to be—and to be reasonably perceived to be—a trustworthy site for the creation of knowledge?

Most fundamentally, what it would take is for it to embody a culture of respectfill engagement, both among those who variously work there and with those whose experiences and perspectives have something constructive and critical to contribute. Thus, for example, a core reason why a research university in particular needs to have a diverse student body is in order to disorient the faculty by confronting us with perspectives that few of us are likely to be familiar with, and that are needed to overcome the collective solipsism that results both from legacies of racial and class privilege as well as from the workings of disciplinary socialization.

I will focus on three initiatives I was involved with at the University of Minnesota. In each case, although I cannot point to particular concrete outcomes, I think that, as a philosopher, I brought something of value to the work that others were doing—largely, attentive listening, drawing connections and posing questions, and offering frameworks for constructive sense-making: I modeled how to cultivate habits of thought. In particular, as a Wittgensteinian, I am suspicious of the conviction that what really matters is somehow deep, lying buried under the “merely” superficial. So, for example, in moving from the local toward the global, I tend to avoid generalizing in favor of looking for connections: not how what happens here is essentially similar to what happens there, but how what happens here is dependent on or vulnerable to what happens there, and vice versa. Questions include: What do we (academic insiders) mean when we say the things we say? To whom are we responsible? Whose work makes our work possible? Who is affected by what we do? Who else knows something about the things we take as our particular objects of knowledge? How do we leant from, and with, them? I also want to focus on what, as a philosopher, I took away from engaging with non-philosophers and asking questions such as these, and on how my work in epistemology and metaphysics has been indelibly shaped by those encounters and engagements.2

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