Phil 101: Expository Writing Exercise

Choose one of the passages below, and write a brief exposition of the philosophical argument it’s presenting. Aim for 200–400 words (a bit shorter or a bit longer can be OK).

All of the passages are taken from a text you’ve been assigned to read for class, but the aim is not for you to tell us about the whole larger text or the author. Here’s what you should be aiming for instead:

  1. You should be explaining the argument in the passage to someone who hasn’t read these passages (or the text they’re taken from). You should say enough that they could understand and discuss the argument, based just on your summary of it. Don’t provide more detail than is needed to do that.

  2. Don’t try to list or give a sentence-by-sentence copy of the author’s text, with some words and phrases switched around. Instead, reconstruct the argument in your passage, in your own words and in a careful way that makes its organization clear. You may want to say things in different order than the original does.

  3. I don’t want these exercises to criticize or defend the arguments you summarize. There will be opportunities for that later in our course. For now, just explain the arguments, as best as you can. Learning how to do this well is an extremely important philosophical skill, and it’s harder than you might expect.

When I’ve assigned this kind of exercise in the past, generally students do pretty well with the first two of those points. (They do better with point 2 than point 1, but that’s OK because point 1 is a hard skill to master.) But many students go off-track with respect to point 3. Some of them don’t manage to summarize the argument in their passage at all, but only give a critical response to it. Others say in one or two sentences what happened in the passage, but then the rest of their submission amounts to a response or evaluation of the passage. So be warned in advance! That isn’t what this exercise is about. Pay attention to the instructions, including especially point 3.

These exercises will be graded only: High quality/Satisfactory/Low quality, and the default grade will be Satisfactory. If someone turns in a paper that shows low effort or was especially confused, I’d give it the Lower grade; and if your work demonstrates special care and/or skill, I’ll give it the Higher grade. But you shouldn’t stress about the grade. That’s just me giving you feedback and won’t put you behind or ahead in the class. This is just a warm-up exercise to help develop your writing and reading skills.

Submit your exercise in Canvas by the end of the day (11:59 pm) on Thursday Sept 28.

It’ll help if you all submit your work as a PDF. (If that’s not possible for you, then submit it another way.) Also please make sure to have identifying information on the PDF, so that I can see whose paper is whose when I print them out. When we get to your longer, more substantial papers later in the course, I will grade them anonymously, and so you’ll have to identify yourself with your PID. But for now, please identify yourself with your name instead. In any case, don’t give me PDFs with no identifying info on them at all.

Passage 1

The two-paragraph passage that starts with “Has the dualist any way to respond to this counter-argument?” on pp. 237-8 of the van Inwagen reading.

I will give some examples of how to do this passage below, so choose one of the other two options for your own assignment.

Passage 2

The three-paragraph passage that starts with “We now turn to a third argument,” on pp. 240-1 of the van Inwagen reading.

Passage 3

The passage that starts on p. 241 with “Our fourth argument for the conclusion that we are not physical things,” and extends until the end of that chapter at p. 245. But skip the discussion of “token-token physicalism.” More specifically, include up to “Type-type physicalism is a very strong thesis…” at the bottom of p. 242, then skip ahead and resume on p. 244 with “The second reply is an argument for the conclusion that even type-type physicalism is consistent with the possibility of thinking, feeling beings radically different from us in anatomy and physiology…” (You’ll still have to read and think about the parts skipped, for example to understand van Inwagen’s reference to the “radio analogy.” But I don’t want you to get tangled up trying to explain the token-token view, or how it’s supposed to differ from the type-type view.)

Example of how to exposit Passage 1

Here’s how I would have approached the task of summarizing Passage 1. I’d have said something with this kind of structure:

A dualist is someone who holds __1__. Their physicalist opponents on the other hand hold __2__. The passage we’re looking at considers the question whether __3__. The author of the passage van Inwagen, though you don’t have to identify him by name argues that if all the dualist can tell us about souls is that they are non-physical, then the dualist cannot claim to do better than the physicalist at __3__. Also the dualist may take on special disadvantages that the physicalist doesn’t also have, such as __4__. To avoid these complaints, the dualist would have to tell us more about “the positive nature” of souls, that is, tell us more about their nature than just that they are non-physical. The passage explains and illustrates these complaints with an analogy about magnetism, like this: __5__.

That gives the skeleton of a summary. Then I’d have to fill in the numbered blanks. Filling in blanks 1 and 2 requires background understanding of the debate beyond what’s in the passage, and filling in (the two copies of) blank 3 requires contextualizing this passage somewhat, by looking at the paragraphs that precede it in the reading.

Here’s an example from a past student that organized this differently, but also gave a pretty good summary:

First and foremost, this is a response to the materialist counter argument that although the mechanics of thought cannot be viewed or even properly explained physically, the same is true for nonphysical thought. Since dualists often simply state that the process of thought is nonphysical, and therefore by nature cannot be viewed or explained, unless they can come up with the specifics, they are in no better shape than a materialist.

In fact, as van Inwagen offers, the dualist runs in to the extra problem of having to explain the connection or relationship between the physical and this proposed nonphysical force. In his example, an imaginary 17th century scientist doesn’t believe magnetism is a completely physical process, because it consists of unobservable forces that seem to go through objects. If a rival of his used an unexplainable physical force to represent magnetism, they would both lack the same evidence. So, bringing this back to our dualist vs. materialist argument, both views argue that some mysterious force explains how thoughts work, and neither of them provide an explanation into the specifics. Dualism has the extra work of needing to provide for an explanation for the interaction between the physical and nonphysical, and how that is proposed to work.

Because both dualists and materialists are stumped at this argument, it doesn’t come to any conclusion.

Here’s another good summary, with a different organization. This one focuses more on the magnet analogy, and then only at the end says how it illustrates how the passage represents the debate between the dualist and the physicalist:

Think of the process of a magnet sticking to a refrigerator (magnetism). Person A may believe that this may only occur from non-physical interactions, which are not seen and unknown. They believe non-physical interaction between the two physical objects (magnet and refrigerator) are what cause magnetism. They assume that physical interaction occurs from contact between only physical things that are seen. In the example of a magnet sticking to the fridge, this would be the pushes and bumps of the magnet towards the refrigerator. Therefore, they would believe that magnetism cannot be just physical. They would explain that certain observations (the magnet moving towards the refrigerator and sticking to it) can be explained as non-physical because if it were examined in detail there would be no evidence of any physical interaction occurring. Person A is showing the ideas of a dualist.

The opposite view point would be Person B who believes that a certain observation, in this case magnetism, is caused by known and unknown physical interactions that cannot be explained. They are unable to show how the unknown physical interaction causes what is being observed. They believe that physical interaction between the two physical things (magnet and refrigerator) cause the observation. Person B is showing the ideas of a physicalist. Both sides state that a certain observation, the magnet sticking to the fridge, is caused by something unknown yet they cannot explain how the unknown thing causes what is being observed.

Therefore, the argument is that a dualist (Person A) does not have more of an advantage in their argument if they cannot explain more about non-physical interactions and how they work with physical things. Their argument isn’t better than physicalists (Person B) who believe in other unknown physical interactions but are unable to explain what those unknown physical interactions are. The dualist must be able to explain what about non-physical interactions between physical objects, cause observations, such as the magnet sticking to the refrigerator, to occur instead of other unknown physical interactions causing the objects to move towards one another.

Neither of those summaries are perfect: they could be improved in several ways. Probably my (skeletal) summary could be improved too. But these all show some reasonable strategies for explaining or summarizing a particular text or argument. In your full-blown philosophical writing, you’ll need to be able to do this, before you can effectively respond to the text or argument.

Common feedback given to these expository exercises

Here are some remarks I found myself making in response to many of these exercises in past semesters. Read them in advance, and try to avoid these shortcomings in your own submission.

  1. Many students are writing in a way that’s more casual, loose, or imprecise than they should be aiming for. This is not a problem about whether your words or sentence structures are fancy enough. Instead, it’s a problem about how serious I expect you are about how you’ve put things. I expect there are many places where I can point to a word and say, for example, why did you write “establishes” here, is something being established? what is it? And I imagine you responding, oh I just meant “says,” or something like that — expressing that you didn’t have anything specific in mind by using the other word. No reason for choosing the one word over the other. In philosophical writing (and many other kinds of writing) this shouldn’t happen — or at any rate, it should happen less often. I should be able to point to a word and say, why did you put it that way, and you should be able to answer. Maybe you did have a good reason, and something about your writing just kept me from seeing it. Or maybe you thought you had a reason, but if we talk about it you’ll change your mind. All that’s fine. What you shouldn’t be comfortable with is that I’d ask you, why did you use this word? And you having no answer, or as soon as you think about it, it’s becoming clear to you that a different word is better. Even for a brief exercise, you should read over your words and think about whether each word is saying what you mean, or want to be meaning.

  2. Here are some words where often it doesn’t matter too much which you choose: “claim,” “proposal,” “theory,” “view,” “thesis.” Though when you choose one of these, it’s best to stick with it. If you start talking about X’s claim and then switch to talk about X’s proposal, a reader might naturally expect you’re talking about two different things — even if it’s not obvious what those two things are.

    But do be careful about choosing a word like one of those, versus choosing a word like “argument.” An argument is a reason (or structure of multiple reasons) for a claim. An argument often has, or could have, a “therefore” in it. A claim on the other hand, is just a single sentence. The difference between these is discussed more in the Terms & Methods webnotes you read earlier.

    If you talk about a “conclusion,” that’s a claim that someone thinks follows from an argument. So if there’s a conclusion, there should be an argument somewhere.

    If you talk about a “premise,” that’s a claim that someone wants to use as a starting point in an argument. So if there’s a premise, again there should be an argument somewhere.

    If you talk about an “assumption,” you’re saying this is a claim that someone accepts but hasn’t given any argument for. That’s needn’t be a bad thing. We don’t have to, and can’t, argue for everything we say. But you should understand what’s meant when you label something as someone’s “assumption.”

    Other words you may use, that mean different things than the ones already discussed, include: analogy, example, objection, question, possibility. If you use one of these words, try to be sure that’s what you mean, rather than something else like “claim” or “assumption.” Sometimes you could reasonably choose any of several words, even though those words don’t always mean the same thing. For example, you might discuss something that could be called either an argument or an example of van Inwagen’s, that’s at the same time an objection to somebody else’s argument.

    Another place to be careful is with words like “idea.” Often students use this word when they’re not sure whether to say “argument” or “claim.” But philosophers will understand “ideas” to mean things like “justice,” “possibility,” and “circularity.” Such things are very different from claims, which can be accepted or denied, and can be true or false. Other expressions that might substitute for “idea” are “concept” or “notion” or “word.” Don’t confuse when you want to talk about something like those, versus when you want instead to talk about something that can be true or false. Or when you want to talk about an argument.

  3. Another way in which writing can be too casual, loose, or imprecise, is not at the level of word choice but rather at the level of how sentences are put together. In your writing, it should be clear what each sentence is contributing, how it connects to its neighbors and to your main goals in that paragraph or section of your text. If I point to a sentence and say, “I don’t see what role this plays, or how this bears on what came before, can you explain?” then you should always be able to give an answer. Maybe if we discuss things, some connection you thought you saw or were making will turn out to be less clear than you initially thought. That’s fine. What you shouldn’t be comfortable with is when I ask you about a sentence’s role, you having no answer, or you immediately seeing that there is no clear connection. Even for a brief exercise, you should read over your text and think about what its overall plot is, and how each sentence is contributing to that plot.

  1. It should be clear to the reader “in whose voice” each sentence is being delivered. Part of what that means is that the reader should be able to circle which parts of your submission are you presenting someone else’s ideas (perhaps in your own words), and which parts are you presenting your own ideas. (Given what this expository exercise is trying to do, here it should all be the former.) But this goal of making it clear who’s talking when isn’t just about credit. It’s also important for you to help the reader keep track of when a point is supposed to help one side of a debate versus help the other side. Even if you’re only summarizing van Inwagen — or you’re only reporting your own thinking — sometimes you will shift gears to say things that help (or may seem to help) one side of a debate, and other times say things to help another side. You should write in a way that the reader won’t be confused about these shifts.

  2. You should be clear on how philosophers use and understand the words “body”, “mind/self”, and “soul”. These are not synonyms for each other. How these words are used may sometimes vary depending on who’s in the debate, and what’s being taken for granted. For example, in our discussions it’s taken for granted that we really do have bodies; it’s taken to be an open possibility, but disputed, whether we also have souls. In other discussions, it might instead be taken for granted that we have souls, and not be taken for granted that we really have bodies. But let’s focus on our own discussion. Our ground rules are: We definitely have bodies, and everyone agrees these are wholly physical. Everyone also agrees that if souls exist, they are not physical; but it’s disputed whether souls do exist. Everyone also agrees we have minds/selves. But it’s disputed whether those words name any kind of individual substance or Thing, in the first place, and if they do, whether it’s a physical/material object or an immaterial soul. The words “mind/self” are “neutral” words, in that most philosophers agree there are these things, but then have competing pictures/theories about what they amount to.

    In your writing, I sometimes see you using the word “soul” when you should instead be using a more neutral word like “mind”; or doing the reverse, that is, saying “mind” when you should be saying “soul” instead. For example, if you begin your submission saying something like “Minds are non-physical,” you probably meant to say “soul” instead. Everyone will agree that souls — if they exist, which is a big “if” — are non-physical. So that’s something you could reasonably take as a premise or starting point in your submission. The claim that minds are non-physical is something that dualists agree with, but since you’re summarizing discussions about whether there are good arguments for dualism, that claim about minds won’t be something you should start your discussion with. That’s a claim the dualist is trying to establish or earn the right to say.

  3. What makes someone a “dualist”? This label is applied to philosophers who think we have souls, which are immaterial substances that have our thoughts and feelings. Some dualists will say that you are identical to your soul; these dualists will deny that your body is part of you. Instead it’s just a physical vehicle that you control. Other dualists will say that when you have a body, your body is part of you. Some of them will even say it’s an essential part of you, that is, you are a combination of a body and a soul, and cannot exist without either part. Other dualists say you need a soul to have thoughts and feelings, but you can survive having that soul replaced. (We’re not going to explore this last view in our course.) All of those are things one can say, while still counting as a dualist. They are different options that dualists make different choices about. You shouldn’t include any of these things that dualists disagree about in a definition of dualism.