Your paper must offer an argument. It can't consist in the mere report of your opinions, nor in a mere report of the opinions of the philosophers we discuss. You have to defend the claims you make. You have to offer reasons to believe them.
So you can't just say:
My view is that P.You must say something like:
My view is that P. I believe this because...or:
I find that the following considerations...provide a convincing argument for P.Similarly, don't just say:
Descartes says that Q.Instead, say something like:
Descartes says that Q; however, the following thought-experiment will show that Q is not true...or:
Descartes says that Q. I find this claim plausible, for the following reasons...There are a variety of things a philosophy paper can aim to accomplish. It usually begins by putting some thesis or argument on the table for consideration. Then it goes on to do one or two of the following:
No matter which of these aims you set for yourself, you have to explicitly present reasons for the claims you make. Students often feel that since it's clear to them that some claim is true, it does not need much argument. But it's very easy to overestimate the strength of your own position. After all, you already accept it. You should assume that your audience does not already accept your position; and you should treat your paper as an attempt to persuade such an audience. Hence, don't start with assumptions which your opponents are sure to reject. If you're to have any chance of persuading people, you have to start from common assumptions you all agree to.
People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5-6 page paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace.
The aim of these papers is for you to show that you understand the material and that you're able to think critically about it. To do this, your paper does have to show some independent thinking.
That doesn't mean you have to come up with your own theory, or that you have to make a completely original contribution to human thought. There will be plenty of time for that later on. An ideal paper will be clear and straightforward (see below), will be accurate when it attributes views to other philosophers (see below), and will contain thoughtful critical responses to the texts we read. It need not always break completely new ground.
But you should try to come up with your own arguments, or your own way of elaborating or criticizing or defending some argument we looked at in class. Merely summarizing what others have said won't be enough.
It's even more valuable to talk to each other about what you want to argue in your paper. When you have your ideas worked out well enough that you can explain them to someone else, verbally, then you're ready to sit down and start making an outline.
The overall clarity of your paper will greatly depend on its structure. That is why it is important to think about these questions before you begin to write.
I strongly recommend that you make an outline of your paper, and of the arguments you'll be presenting, before you begin to write. This lets you organize the points you want to make in your paper and get a sense for how they are going to fit together. It also helps ensure that you're in a position to say what your main argument or criticism is, before you sit down to write a full draft of your paper. When students get stuck writing, it's often because they haven't yet figured out what they're trying to say.
Give your outline your full attention. It should be fairly detailed. (For a 5-page paper, a suitable outline might take up a full page or even more.)
I find that making an outline is at least 80% of the work of writing a good philosophy paper. If you have a good outline, the rest of the writing process will go much more smoothly.
You need to leave yourself enough time to think about the topic and write a detailed outline. Only then should you sit down to write a complete draft. Once you have a complete draft, you should set it aside for a day or two. Then you should come back to it and rewrite it. Several times. At least 3 or 4. If you can, show it to your friends and get their reactions to it. Do they understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them?
All of this takes time. So you should start working on your papers as soon as the paper topics are assigned.
You may think that since your TA and I already know a lot about this subject, you can leave out a lot of basic explanation and write in a super-sophisticated manner, like one expert talking to another. I guarantee you that this will make your paper incomprehensible.
If your paper sounds as if it were written for a third-grade audience, then you've probably achieved the right sort of clarity.
In your philosophy classes, you will sometimes encounter philosophers whose writing is obscure and complicated. Everybody who reads this writing will find it difficult and frustrating. The authors in question are philosophically important despite their poor writing, not because of it. So do not try to emulate their writing styles.
How can you do this?
First of all, use connective words, like:
These will help your reader keep track of where your discussion is going. Be sure you use these words correctly! If you say "P. Thus Q." then you are claiming that P is a good reason to accept Q. You had better be right. If you aren't, we'll complain. Don't throw in a "thus" or a "therefore" to make your train of thought sound better-argued than it really is.
Another way you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by telling the reader what you've done so far and what you're going to do next. You can say things like:
These signposts really make a big difference. Consider the following two paper fragments:
...We've just seen how X says that P. I will now present two arguments that not-P. My first argument is...
My second argument that not-P is...
X might respond to my arguments in several ways. For instance, he could say that...
However this response fails, because...
Another way that X might respond to my arguments is by claiming that...
This response also fails, because...
So we have seen that none of X's replies to my argument that not-P succeed. Hence, we should reject X's claim that P.
I will argue for the view that Q.Isn't it easy to see what the structure of these papers is? You want it to be just as easy in your own papers.
There are three reasons to believe Q. Firstly...
The strongest objection to Q says...
However, this objection does not succeed, for the following reason...
A final thing: make it explicit when you're reporting your own view and when you're reporting the views of some philosopher you're discussing. The reader should never be in doubt about whose claims you're presenting in a given paragraph.
You can't make the structure of your paper obvious if you don't know what the structure of your paper is, or if your paper has no structure. That's why making an outline is so important.
These demands might seem to pull in opposite directions. (It's as if the first said "Don't talk too much," and the second said "Talk a lot.") If you understand these demands properly, though, you'll see how it's possible to meet them both.
Formulate the central problem or question you wish to address at the beginning of your paper, and keep it in mind at all times. Make it clear what the problem is, and why it is a problem. Be sure that everything you write is relevant to that central problem. In addition, be sure to say in the paper how it is relevant. Don't make your reader guess.
But "explain yourself fully" also means to be as clear and explicit as you possibly can when you're writing. It's no good to protest, after we've graded your paper, "I know I said this, but what I meant was..." Say exactly what you mean, in the first place. Part of what you're being graded on is how well you can do that.
Pretend that your reader has not read the material you're discussing, and has not given the topic much thought in advance. This will of course not be true. But if you write as if it were true, it will force you to explain any technical terms, to illustrate strange or obscure distinctions, and to be as explicit as possible when you summarize what some other philosopher said.
|In fact, you can profitably take this one step further and pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He's lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious. He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he's going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you're writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you'll probably get an A.|
Examples are also useful for explaining the notions that play a central role in your argument. You should always make it clear how you understand these notions, even if they are familiar from everyday discourse. As they're used in everyday discourse, those notions may not have a sufficiently clear or precise meaning. For instance, suppose you're writing a paper about abortion, and you want to assert the claim "A fetus is a person." What do you mean by "a person"? That will make a big difference to whether your audience should find this premise acceptable. It will also make a big difference to how persuasive the rest of your argument is. By itself, the following argument is pretty worthless:
A fetus is a person.For we don't know what the author means by calling a fetus "a person." On some interpretations of "person," it might be quite obvious that a fetus is a person; but quite controversial whether it's always wrong to kill persons, in that sense of "person." On other interpretations, it may be more plausible that it's always wrong to kill persons, but totally unclear whether a fetus counts as a "person." So everything turns here on what the author means by "person." The author should be explicit about how he is using this notion.
It's wrong to kill a person.
Therefore, it's wrong to kill a fetus.
In a philosophy paper, it's okay to use words in ways that are somewhat different from the ways they're ordinarily used. You just have to make it clear that you're doing this. For instance, some philosophers use the word "person" to mean any being which is capable of rational thought and self-awareness. Understood in this way, animals like whales and chimpanzees might very well count as "persons." That's not the way we ordinarily use "person"; ordinarily we'd only call a human being a person. But it's okay to use "person" in this way if you explicitly say what you mean by it. And likewise for other words.
Use technical philosophical terms only where you need them. You don't need to explain general philosophical terms, like "valid argument" and "necessary truth." But you should explain any technical terms you use which bear on the specific topic you're discussing. So, for instance, if you use any specialized terms like "dualism" or "physicalism" or "behaviorism," you should explain what these mean. Likewise if you use technical terms like "supervenience" and the like. Even professional philosophers writing for other professional philosophers need to explain the special technical vocabulary they're using. Different people sometimes use this special vocabulary in different ways, so it's important to make sure that you and your readers are all giving these words the same meaning. Pretend that your readers have never heard them before.
Then ask yourself: Are X's arguments good ones? Are his assumptions clearly stated? Are they plausible? Are they reasonable starting-points for X's argument, or ought he have provided some independent argument for them?
Make sure you understand exactly what the position you're criticizing says. Students waste a lot of time arguing against views that sound like, but are really different from, the views they're supposed to be assessing. Remember, philosophy demands a high level of precision. It's not good enough for you merely to get the general idea of somebody else's position or argument. You have to get it exactly right. (In this respect, philosophy is more like a science than the other humanities.) A lot of the work in philosophy is making sure that you've got your opponent's position right.
You can assume that your reader is stupid (see above). But don't treat the philosopher or the views you're discussing as stupid. If they were stupid, we wouldn't be looking at them. If you can't see anything the view has going for it, maybe that's because you don't have much experience thinking and arguing about the view, and so you haven't yet fully understood why the view's proponents are attracted to it. Try harder to figure out what's motivating them.
Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things, but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that.
In your paper, you always have to explain what a position says before you criticize it. If you don't explain what you take Philosopher X's view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you offer of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X's views. So tell the reader what it is you think X is saying.
Don't try to tell the reader everything you know about X's views, though. You have to go on to offer your own philosophical contribution, too. Only summarize those parts of X's views that are directly relevant to what you're going to go on to do.
Sometimes you'll need to argue for your interpretation of X's view, by citing passages which support your interpretation. It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, though you can't find any direct evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, though, you should explicitly say so. Say something like:
Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he's assuming it anyway, because...
Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation. And when you do quote an author, you still have to explain what the quotation says in your own words. If the quoted passage contains an argument, reconstruct the argument in more explicit, straightforward terms. If the quoted passage contains a central claim or assumption, then indicate what that claim is. You may want to give some examples to illustrate the author's point. If necessary, you may want to distinguish the author's claim from other claims with which it might be confused.
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions, and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning.Here's an example of how you don't want to paraphrase:
Hume says all perceptions of the mind are resolved into two kinds, impressions and ideas. The difference is in how much force and liveliness they have in our thoughts and consciousness. The perceptions with the most force and violence are impressions. These are sensations, passions, and emotions. Ideas are the faint images of our thinking and reasoning.There are two main problems with paraphrases of this sort. In the first place, it's done rather mechanically, so it doesn't show that the author understands the text. In the second place, since the author hasn't figured out what the text means well enough to express it in his own words, there's a danger that his paraphrase may inadvertently change the meaning of the text. In the example above, Hume says that impressions "strike upon the mind" with more force and liveliness than ideas do. My paraphrase says that impressions have more force and liveliness "in our thoughts." It's not clear whether these are the same thing. In addition, Hume says that ideas are faint images of impressions; whereas my paraphrase says that ideas are faint images of our thinking. These are not the same. So the author of the paraphrase appears not to have understood what Hume was saying in the original passage.
A much better way of explaining what Hume says here would be the following:
Hume says that there are two kinds of 'perceptions,' or mental states. He calls these impressions and ideas. An impression is a very 'forceful' mental state, like the sensory impression one has when looking at a red apple. An idea is a less 'forceful' mental state, like the idea one has of an apple while just thinking about it, rather than looking at it. It is not so clear what Hume means here by 'forceful.' He might mean...
Don't be afraid of mentioning objections to your own thesis. It is better to bring up an objection yourself than to hope your reader won't think of it. Explain how you think these objections can be countered or overcome. Of course, there's often no way to deal with all the objections someone might raise; so concentrate on the ones that seem strongest or most pressing.
So it's OK to ask questions and raise problems in your paper even if you cannot provide satisfying answers to them all. You can leave some questions unanswered at the end of the paper. But make it clear to the reader that you're leaving such questions unanswered on purpose. And you should say something about how the question might be answered, and about what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at hand.
If something in a view you're examining is unclear to you, don't gloss it over. Call attention to the unclarity. Suggest several different ways of understanding the view. Explain why it's not clear which of these interpretations is correct.
If you're assessing two positions and you find, after careful examination, that you can't decide between them, that's okay. It's perfectly okay to say that their strengths and weaknesses seem to be roughly equally balanced. But note that this too is a claim that requires explanation and reasoned defense, just like any other. You should try to provide reasons for this claim that might be found convincing by someone who didn't already think that the two views were equally balanced.
Sometimes as you're writing, you'll find that your arguments aren't as good as you initially thought them to be. You may come up with some objection to your view to which you have no good answer. Don't panic. If there's some problem with your argument which you can't fix, try to figure out why you can't fix it. It's okay to change your thesis to one you can defend. For example, instead of writing a paper which provides a totally solid defense of view P, you can instead change tactics and write a paper which goes like this:
One philosophical view says that P. This is a plausible view, for the following reasons...Or you can write a paper which goes:
However, there are some reasons to be doubtful whether P. One of these reasons is X. X poses a problem for the view that P because...
It is not clear how the defender of P can overcome this objection.
One argument for P is the 'Conjunction Argument,' which goes as follows...Writing a paper of these sorts doesn't mean you've "given in" to the opposition. After all, neither of these papers commits you to the view that not-P. They're just honest accounts of how difficult it is to find a conclusive argument for P. P might still be true, for all that.
At first glance, this is a very appealing argument. However, this argument is faulty, for the following reasons...
One might try to repair the argument, by...
But these repairs will not work, because...
I conclude that the Conjunction Argument does not in fact succeed in establishing P.
Then come back to the draft and re-read it. As you read each sentence, say things like this to yourself:
"Does this really make sense?" "That's totally unclear!" "That sounds pretentious." "What does that mean?" "What's the connection between these two sentences?" "Am I just repeating myself here?" and so on.Make sure every sentence in your draft does useful work. Get rid of any which don't. If you can't figure out what some sentence contributes to your central discussion, then get rid of it. Even if it sounds nice. You should never introduce any points in your paper unless they're important to your main argument, and you have the room to really explain them.
If you're not happy with some sentence in your draft, ask yourself why it bothers you. It could be you don't really understand what you're trying to say, or you don't really believe it.
Make sure your sentences say exactly what you want them to say. For example, suppose you write "Abortion is the same thing as murder." Is that what you really mean? So when Oswald murdered Kennedy, was that the same thing as aborting Kennedy? Or do you mean something different? Perhaps you mean that abortion is a form of murder. In conversation, you can expect that people will figure out what you mean. But you shouldn't write this way. Even if your TA is able to figure out what you mean, it's bad writing. In philosophical prose, you have to be sure to say exactly what you mean.
Also pay attention to the structure of your draft. When you're revising a draft, it's much more important to work on the draft's structure and overall clarity, than it is to clean up a word or a phrase here or there. Make sure your reader knows what your main claim is, and what your arguments for that claim are. Make sure that your reader can tell what the point of every paragraph is. It's not enough that you know what their point is. It has to be obvious to your reader, even to a lazy, stupid, and mean reader.
If you can, show your draft to your friends or to other students in the class, and get their comments and advice. I encourage you to do this. Do your friends understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them? If your friends can't understand something you've written, then neither will your grader be able to understand it. Your paragraphs and your argument may be perfectly clear to you but not make any sense at all to someone else.
Another good way to check your draft is to read it out loud. This will help you tell whether it all makes sense. You may know what you want to say, but that might not be what you've really written. Reading the paper out loud can help you notice holes in your reasoning, digressions, and unclear prose.
You should count on writing many drafts of your paper. At least 3 or 4!! Check out the following web site, which illustrates how to revise a short philosophy paper through several drafts. Notice how much the paper improves with each revision:
Also, don't begin with a sentence like "Webster's Dictionary defines a soul as..." Dictionaries aren't good philosophical authorities. They record the way words are used in everyday discourse. Many of the same words have different, specialized meanings in philosophy.
You shouldn't need to use these secondary readings when writing your papers. The point of the papers is to teach you how to analyze a philosophical argument, and present your own arguments for or against some conclusion. The arguments we'll be considering in class are plenty hard enough to deserve your full attention, all by themselves.
But neither should your papers be too short! Don't cut off an argument abruptly. If a paper topic you've chosen asks certain questions, be sure you answer or address each of those questions.
Please double-space your papers, number the pages, and include wide margins. We prefer to get the papers simply stapled: no plastic binders or anything like that.
Include your name on the paper. And don't turn in your only copy! (These things should be obvious, but apparently they're not.)
You'll be graded on three basic criteria:
More specifically, we'll be asking questions like these:
The comments I find myself making on students' philosophy papers most often are these:
Try to anticipate these comments and avoid the need for them!
Philosopher X assumes A and argues from there to B. B seems unattractive to me. Philosopher X just assumes A and doesn't give any argument for it. I don't think A is true. So I can just reject A and thereby avoid B.This line of thought may very well be correct. And the student may very well be right that Philosopher X should have given more argument for A. But the student hasn't really philosophically engaged with Philosopher X's view in an interesting way. He hasn't really done much philosophical work. It was clear from the outset that Philosopher X was assuming A, and that if you don't want to make that assumption, you don't need to accept X's conclusion. If this is all you do in your paper, it won't be a strong paper and it will get a mediocre grade, even if it's well-written.
Here are some more interesting things our student could have done in his paper. He could have argued that B doesn't really follow from A, after all. Or he could have presented reasons for thinking that A is false. Or he could have argued that assuming A is an illegitimate move to make in a debate about whether B is true. Or something else of that sort. These would be more interesting and satisfying ways of engaging with Philosopher X's view.
Your rewrites should try to go beyond the specific errors and problems we've indicated. If you got below an A-, then your draft was generally difficult to read, it was difficult to see what your argument was and what the structure of your paper was supposed to be, and so on. You can only correct these sorts of failings by rewriting your paper from scratch. (Start with a new, empty window in your word processor.) Use your draft and the comments you received on it to construct a new outline, and write from that.
Keep in mind that when I or your TA grade a rewrite, we may sometimes notice weaknesses in unchanged parts of your paper that we missed the first time around. Or perhaps those weaknesses will have affected our overall impression of the paper, and we just didn't offer any specific recommendation about fixing them. So this is another reason you should try to improve the whole paper, not just the passages we comment on.
It is possible to improve a paper without improving it enough to raise it to the next grade level. Sometimes that happens. But I hope you'll all do better than that.
Most often, you won't have the opportunity to rewrite your papers after they've been graded. So you need to teach yourself to write a draft, scrutinize the draft, and revise and rewrite your paper before turning it in to be graded.
Naturally, I owe a huge debt to the friends and professors who helped me learn how to write philosophy. I'm sure they had a hard time of it.
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