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Strategic Examination

In this section, I raise some issues that I think are important and that may pertain to other excursions into the field.

The Conditions for the Possibility of Field Philosophy

I have three things in mind concerning the conditions that must exist in order to do field philosophy well. First, there’s the centrality of access, trust, and credibility. By access, I mean gaining a seat at the table where people are working on a complex problem. I was fortunate that Roden came knocking at the door of CSID, which gave me an entree into local fracking policymaking. But this was more than luck, because I had already been going to City Hall and arranging informal meetings with people involved in the fracking issue. Once I was involved, I had to educate myself about fracking. It took over a year to feel as though I had earned enough credibility to be taken seriously by members of the public and policymakers.

This is related to what Frodeman and I call the “demand-side” aspect of philosophy in Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016). Philosophers are happy to supply ideas, but what is the wider societal demand for these ideas?

Society rarely articulates its needs as philosophical ones. It is rare for there to be a ‘help wanted’ sign posted for a philosopher in the local newspaper. Field philosophers pay more attention to the demand side. They begin with the needs as defined by people out in the world, and then try to show how these needs have been mischaracterized: You thought you only needed technical expertise, but you also needed help thinking through values and first principles.

But even if we get an opportunity to speak (that is, get people to see their need as being in part philosophical), how can we engage them in a philosophical way? It’s not like they’re going to join a reading group on the Republic. That’s my second point about the conditions for the possibility of field philosophy. Is there a space for philosophy in public life? Philosophy, at least in its Socratic form, means asking questions and giving reasons in an open-minded search for wisdom. Tradition, authority, and other social and political elements can squeeze this space.

In my case, it is hard to say how much space there was. On the one hand, many people had their minds definitively made up—so much so that questioning and reason-giving were impotent. People literally slammed the door in my face. Fracking politics is a far cry from Jurgen Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” where shared norms govern a space in which participants (motivated solely by the desire to obtain truth!) evaluate each other’s claims on the basis of reason and evidence and in the absence of coercive influences. On the other hand, many people did go through a deliberative process about the issue. Several people told me they changed their minds after listening to me.

The need to gain credibility raises another set of issues. On one occasion, a group of student activists wanted DAG to join them in demonstrations at the next city council meeting where people would break the rules of decorum and be escorted out by the Marshall. DAG decided these tactics would alienate the city council. Those who took part in them would lose credibility in the eyes of the decision makers, and we would have lost effectiveness in this instance. But there is the opposite danger, too: in moderating one’s message and tactics, one might retain credibility at the expense of losing justice—and losing credibility with the activists.

For DAG, credibility was always fragile because none of us was an expert in the technical fields associated with fracking. A bureaucratic society tends to confer authority only on those voices that speak the language of expertise. This meant that we were often more moderate than many fracking critics would have liked. However, in the end I think that our strategy served us well because when this moderate body called for something as extreme as a fracking ban, we had earned enough trust from the public—as well as the political, media, and business elite—to be taken seriously.

 
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