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Field Philosophy and Methodology

In bioethics, Daniel Callahan (1973) has written about how physicians, patients, and hospitals need help with deciding what to do. He said that the trick to doing real-time philosophy that is useful for such stakeholders is to develop a “normative ethic, which can presuppose some commonly shared principles” (Callahan 1973, 72). The key word there is ‘presuppose.’ Once you have settled on some ethical principles, you don’t need to keep opening them up and questioning what they mean or if they are the right ones. You can just use them as the basis for action. This is the same move for academic disciplines and for instrumental expertise in society: first establish some presuppositions, then act on them.

A key stream of bioethics did just this with the principles of beneficence, respect for persons, and justice. Then with the assumption that we all agree on those, they derive rules for action. Furthermore, assuming we all agree gives those rules the legitimizing social warrant of universal moral consent. I consider this the essence of a method: a pre-established, impersonal procedure through which philosophical questions are treated. Its universal moral purchase, in other words, cashes out as a standardized epistemic recipe. This is what bureaucratic societies demand from any authorized node of expert authority: that whatever operation is conducted, it turns out the same regardless of the particular person doing the operation. Ideally for the system, there is no person in the loop at all—witness the rise of algorithms.

There are strong impulses toward ‘methodism,’ if you will, which is tied to modern presumptions that what experts have to offer is neutrality or objectivity. Stephen Turner (2017) thinks field philosophers are caught in a trap, both rejecting and embracing expertise, saying both that philosophers need to stop being experts, but also that philosophers are experts and deserve some measure of special authority. Frodeman and I (Frodeman and Briggle 2017) have responded with an appeal to phronesis—that the authority of field philosophers rests on their judgment, insights, or virtuous habits of mind.

But Turner might object that our claim rests on an antiquated version of intellectual authority (call it virtue epistemology) that is out of sorts with our bureaucratic age. Rather than expertise and methodology, I’m appealing to personal character (the good philosophical judge). But a bureaucratic society expects impersonal methods. I see the problem in terms of unthinking systems that are philosophy-blind. But the field philosopher meets with skepticism from those systems who see field philosophers as irrelevant or even dangerous aberrations, half-cocked charlatans who might throw things off the rails on the basis of nothing but ‘charisma.’

I’ll give an example. A year after the ban had been overturned, I spoke with a County Commissioner who could barely conceal his disdain for me. Quoting as best as I can from memory, he said:

You have no business opining on the legal implications of a fracking ban. As if your Google search is as good as my law degree! This isn’t philosophy, this is misconduct. Every kook with the internet thinks they know it all. Stick to what you know.

In other words, you are either an expert (in which case you have a neutral method to offer) or you are out of your element and do not belong. This is a challenge for field philosophers.

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