First Writing Assignment
Writing philosophically is difficult, and difficult to do well. Most philosophy papers require more extensive preparation in order to communicate clearly the contributions of the author. For this reason I have designed the first â€œpaperâ€ in this course to not be a paper at all.
For this assignment I want you to compose a detailed outline in preparation for a full paper. You will not have to write this paper now (but you will be doing so for the second assignment). As such, the emphasis is on the â€œdetailedâ€ of â€œdetailed outlineâ€. I want to see you include in the outline every point, idea, argument, and observation you would plan on including in the paper. This assignment, in short, is to do all the intellectual work behind the writing of the paper.
Length is a subjective matter for this assignment, but I donâ€™t imagine that you can do an adequate job in under two pages. Youâ€™re going to have to identify (even if you donâ€™t fully explain) the ideas you plan on including, and it should be clear to me what are the claims you plan to make in the paper and how you will defend them. Remember again that philosophical writing is and should be denser then much other academic writing. Iâ€™m not going to be too formal about my evaluation here, I just want to see you making an authentic effort to get into the exploration of your chosen topic.
Grading for this assignment will concern almost entirely the conceptual depth and density with which you compose your outline. A thesis with a couple throw-away defenses will not cut it. If you follow the attached procedure, you should find yourself with more than enough to build a detailed, complex discussion of your topic. Clarity and organization will also factor into your grade for this assignment, so even though this is only an outline, it may still be a good idea to do some revisions!
As far as acceptable topics go, I have decided to let you have more or less free reign in what you want to work on. Weâ€™re only a few weeks into the semester and there isnâ€™t a wide variety of topics available for you to choose from if I limited you to course material. So instead I propose the following: pick a topic of some more general universal import. Something related to how to understand the Human Condition, Experience, or the way the World is in general would make great topics. It would also be hard to go wrong with taking a topic related to Ethics or Morality. Another useful guide for considering a topic is to pick something related to possible perspectives we can take on our lives and the world. Philosophy doesnâ€™t limit itself to a particular one or type of these perspectives, and it wouldnâ€™t be too controversial to say that philosophy lives in the space where we compare these perspectives against each other.
Pick a narrow topic, but donâ€™t limit it by contextualizing it to just your experience or into some restricted conditions. Approach whatever issue you pick as if it was part of a discussion that would not be limited to a specific cultural or other circumstantial background. Finally, as I have tried to articulate in class, I want you to really dive into whatever question or issue you want to explore â€“ donâ€™t just poke at the issue from afar, speaking to what others have or would say on the issue. Try to get inside the question; imagine it from the vantage point of someone who has to make a decision on how to answer that question and what things you think they should be considering. I think the philosophers weâ€™ve already read may give you a good idea of what this kind of engagement looks like, but if you are having any further trouble with picking out a topic or in figuring out how I want you to approach it, please contact me so we can talk about it. Consider me available for assistance throughout the week up to the day the assignment is due.
The attached summary of my lecture for next week may also be of assistance. Please take a look:
These steps do not necessarily need to follow rigidly in the order they are presented in, but they are all covering facets of the overall process that are good to keep in mind.
#1: Picking a topic
There are 2 general categories of motivations philosophers have in picking topics to discuss:
- Sometimes a philosopher already has an answer to some question that we wonder about and so they start with the knowledge of where they want to go (their conclusion) and the process becomes a matter of giving a defense of this answer/position. Maybe you already have an opinion on some matter that you would like to work with to see what can be said for it.
- Other times (many times!), a philosopher just starts with a question they are curious about and wants to explore more. In this case they may not have an immediate answer, or even a starting guess, and the process becomes exploring the question and what things will be considerations we will have to weigh. Perhaps you are in this boat where youâ€™ve wondered about something but are not yet confident or comfortable claiming that a particular answer to that question is the right one. This is totally ok! You donâ€™t have to have all the answers before you start out on the journey of writing a philosophy paper.
Whatever your motivation is, you want the paper to end up engaging with a matter of some substance and significance. You donâ€™t want a paper that ends up defending an uncontroversial answer to a question that no one finds perplexing. Donâ€™t be afraid to try to tackle something you are not 100% confident about. The philosophical process is an ongoing one where we sort out the various considerations together, rather than accepting answers based on the authority of the author.
Also be looking for potential opponents. This will be easy if you are approaching things from the first direction mentioned above, but even if you are starting with the second, you should end up making a claim by the end of the process and being aware of the other possible answers out there that will be in disagreement is good. If you can find a strong opponent to your conclusion, that is a good sign you have a substantial topic.
In balance with all of this is making sure that you are able to accomplish (more or less) what you set out to defend. If your topic is too broad it will be impossible to give a satisfactory defense of what you are trying to claim. Too narrow, and you run the risk of it being insubstantial. This is a hard balancing act that mostly requires experience to judge, but a sensitivity to this possibility even for new students of philosophy is a good thing in my opinion.
#2: Identifying a thesis
Your thesis is your conclusion that you will be spending the paper trying to defend. Every philosophy paper needs a claim like this. Even if you are starting out just exploring a question, by the end of things you need to adopt some position on that question and make whatever case you can. Again, donâ€™t feel like you have to be dogmatic about your opinion before you can set about defending it. You can even say as much in your paper! You can say something like, â€œIâ€™m not completely confident this is the right answer because of x, y, z (reasons that may be in tension with your conclusion), but reasons a, b, c (or however many you have) seem to make a good case for my conclusionâ€. Such modesty is totally appropriate when the situation calls for it (i.e. there must be some reasons x, y, z available!), but also donâ€™t make the mistake of being overly modest when you have in fact presented strong support for your conclusion!
Finally, I want to emphasize that while defining a thesis may happen at the start of this process it also may not. In either case, most theses will get modified and adjusted as you go about the work of putting together the paper. You may find that the arguments you come up with are able to justify a stronger thesis then what you originally had in mind, or you may find it is too hard to defend your original thesis and youâ€™ll have to weaken it. Be open to this possibility as you go to work.
Two variables are particularly important when defining a thesis:
- Scope: this is similar to the suggestions Iâ€™ve been making regarding the journals. Donâ€™t make your topic to broad â€“ find a manageable topic that youâ€™ll be able to give a good treatment to in the space you have available. Since you are only doing an outline, you may feel you can be more ambitious, but just keep in mind that the bigger the topic, the more youâ€™ll have to say to support any conclusions you draw about it.
- We never know anything (too broad)
- The subjectivity of perception undermines our claims to know things on the basis of our experience (much more manageable)
- Strength: this is parallel to scope in that the stronger the thesis, the more defense is required in support. Letâ€™s look at a couple of examples to explain:
- The subjectivity of perception undermines our claims to know things on the basis of our experience
- (this is still a strong claim since it rules out a number of ways we may try to justify knowledge based on experience, AND because inferring from our experience is a commonly accepted basis for knowledge)
- The subjectivity of perception threatens to undermine our claims to know things on the basis of our experience
- This is weaker since â€œthreatensâ€ does not yet assert that the threat is successful. All that would be required for this thesis is to provide reasonable support to the existence of a concern that is in tension with our claims to knowledge based on experience.
- In this example, the first is stronger not only because if true it rules out more opponents, but also because it controversially denies something we usually take to be uncontroversial. The more controversial the claim, the stronger it is and the more defense it requires
- Strength also concerns the force in which a claim is asserted:
- We possibly donâ€™t know
- We plausibly donâ€™t know
- We donâ€™t know
- We certainly donâ€™t know
- We necessarily canâ€™t know
- These proceed in increasing strength
- Watch strength because it is tempting to assert our claims more forcefully in order to express confidence, but confidence doesnâ€™t always come with enough supporting reasons to justify it! Philosophers are never (ideally) convinced of something only on the basis of the conviction of the one arguing â€“ conviction is not a substitute for giving good reasons in support.
- The subjectivity of perception undermines our claims to know things on the basis of our experience
Finally, when deciding on a thesis, it can be useful to get straight on the following two things:
- What is the precise question my thesis is supposed to be an answer to?
- What are my motivations behind defending this thesis and not another?
These should help you get starting identifying what kinds of reasons and considerations you want to be bringing up in the course of the paper and what stuff is actually off track. It also helps make sure you are defending only what you need/want to, without leaving out anything OR adding claims you really might not need to in order to get your point across.
#3: the first pass
The next step is to make a (revisable) list of the points, observations, arguments etc that first strike you as you approach the question, topic, or position that is your chosen subject. Most of the papers Iâ€™ve gotten in the past from students only make it this far. And while this is a crucial step in the process of writing a paper, it is not the end of the road.
If you are starting with a question: listing the various significant considerations related to answering the question should give you an idea of what answer you want to pick up and run with. After this step might be a good time to go back to #2 and work out defining a thesis.
If you are starting with an answer: First look to why you are at this point convinced of your position. What has maybe been in the â€œback of your headâ€ when youâ€™ve formed this opinion in the past. Once youâ€™ve got down what has led you to this position up to this point, spend time seeing if you canâ€™t brainstorm some new reasons for the position that you may not have considered before but which provide additional support.
#4: the second pass: filling gaps
This stage is for looking over your list of considerations and seeing if anything needs to be added in order to just make your story sensible. Perhaps you make a leap in logic that could be filled in so that your reader can follow whatâ€™s going on. It is easy to make assumptions as far as how your audience will understand what you are trying to say, and this stage is just to take a step back to see how much you may be taking for granted and fixing that.
#5: the third pass: validity/sufficiency
This time going through your list you should be looking for ways in which a reader could agree to all your points while still disagreeing with your thesis. See if what youâ€™ve said is really enough to convince anyone who doesnâ€™t take issue with your arguments.
- Today is a Monday, so you should give me $5.
- Someone can agree with the truth of the premise (that today is Monday) without agreeing that the conclusion (you should give me $5) follows from this point.
A less silly example:
- We need an America with strong values, and I havenâ€™t ever broken the law (unlike my opponent who has held 3 parking violations in his life), so you should vote for me.
- Again, the premises may be true, and they may even provide SOME support for the conclusion, but maybe not ENOUGH support â€“ like I hope is clear in this case!
If you find that someone could take a (sensible) stance that agrees with you on your premises but not your conclusion, then see if you canâ€™t fix this by providing more support or including more premises that forge a tighter link between your conclusion and the premises. Sometimes the answer is to weaken the conclusion too!
#6: the fourth pass: soundness
Here you should now look for ways the truth of your points could be called into question. Perhaps there is some controversy over your claims in support of your conclusion. Get clear on how such objections might go and find ways to address them (or avoid them by adjusting the claims in your argument). Sincerely going through this step will probably help you find much more to say in your paper if you were originally worried you might not have enough to say. Remember charity! (try to make your opponents look as strong as possible so that you give them a fair presentation and so that when you argue against them you are accomplishing more)
#7: the fifth pass: perspective
Now step REALLY back and look for ways in which your topic may be approached in alternative ways. Compare and contrast, but first just do this for yourself (donâ€™t necessarily include it in the paper) as a way of exploring the ideas related to the issue. The similarities and differences between your perspective and others may possibly not contribute to the discussion of what answers we have the best reasons for. If such similarities/differences DO contribute, then they may be a good addition, but donâ€™t just put them in automatically (this is the biggest source of â€œspace fillingâ€ which I will not appreciate so much â€“ remember how I talked about how I want you to get â€œintoâ€ the issue of giving an answer and not just talking about different ways people COULD answer).
This step can take the longest and demand the most imagination on your part (in addition to holding a lot of things up in the air at the same time), but many times it is where things are the most dynamic in terms of getting straight on your own view and the best way to go about defending it.
(if you didnâ€™t start with a thesis, but instead with a question, you should probably do this step alongside step #3)
Another CRUCIAL step. This is where you decide what order to place your content in. Many things can inform this including:
- Argumentative structure: generally keep claims and the arguments they support together
- This is probably already obvious. If you have a chain of reasoning, donâ€™t split it up with other points that are not relevant to that chain.
- Uncontroversial -> controversial
- Start with the more uncontroversial and move to the controversial
- Simple -> complex
- Common -> uncommon
- Direct -> indirect connection to the â€œsourceâ€ material (this being wherever the discussion begins)
- Along with this is: significant -> less significant to your core position
- The idea here is to start with the stuff that matters more to your discussion and leave the curiosities toward the end. If thereâ€™s one point or set of points that you think are the most important reasons for your conclusion, donâ€™t save them all for the very end unless this contradicts all the other variables listed here
In general, you also want to be clear in alerting your reader to 1) where youâ€™re going and 2) how you are planning to get there. Philosophical papers should not be like leading us blinding through a bunch of points to a surprise answer. This virtue of philosophical writing becomes more important at the draft stage of paper composition (as opposed to the outline stage), but it is still good to mention now.
A final note on Audience
Identifying an audience is important when defining a thesis, but most of the time it wonâ€™t be necessary to imagine any substantial philosophical views on their part. For example, Jackson may be imagining certain philosophical beliefs of his readers in his paper on Mary (this is why he puts in the 3 clarifications in order to head off possible objections) since he is arguing against a certain common view (physicalism). But his paper is a very focused addition to an ongoing conversation. Your papers will probably not have so specific a purpose, so donâ€™t worry too much about such things.
My advice if you are going to imagine an audience is to imagine someone who is open, curious, but critical (in a non-antagonistic sort of way). They will listen to whatever you want to say, but they wonâ€™t just accept your arguments rolling over, unless you really do provide good reasons in defense of your position. I, for some reason, always imagine Morgan Freeman, but go for whatever works for you. Think of an audience that will be a part of that whole co-operative truth seeking thing with you.
Hope this helps!!!!
Let me know if there is any way I can help you out more!!!