ROBERT'S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING PHILOSOPHY PAPERS

Robert N. Johnson


First, a brief sermon.

 

Philosophy is not different from other intellectual undertakings in the topics it addresses. Few topics addressed by philosophers are their exclusive area of inquiry, and virtually any topic addressed by another discipline is fair game for philosophers. Right and wrong, virtue and vice, human behavior, language, the mind, numbers, society and politics, beauty, the nature of the world around us, God and even the 'meaning of life'—all are addressed by disciplines other than philosophy. It is philosophy's approach that is distinctive. That approach is characterized by the depth of its inquiry into these topics and its extensive construction of and evaluation of arguments. Once you get a real taste of it you'll see why some, such as the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, have likened philosophy to a disease, a kind of mental tic that keeps a philosopher going over and over an issue well after most sane people will have lost patience. It's not really a disease, but one will see Wittgenstein's point once you start doing philosophy.

 

It is natural to be very frustrated with philosophy until one has gotten a little training. It is not enough to be smart or well educated to understand philosophical positions and arguments, any more than it is enough to be smart and well educated to understand organic chemistry or discrete mathematics. I expect my colleagues in these fields to understand philosophy about to the degree that they expect me to understand their subjects. That is because, just as with any other field, it takes quite a bit of training to get beyond a superficial understanding of philosophy. Philosophical training requires that one do it oneself. And one cannot do philosophy without writing philosophy.

 

Now, the commandments.


Hear, O would-be philosophers, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep and do them!

1.   THOU SHALT REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE! And then rewrite again. No one ever wrote anything very good without rewriting it. No one ever wrote anything very good the day before it was due. No one. Ever. If it's not rewritten, it's probably crap.

2.   THOU SHALT PICK A MANAGEABLE ISSUE. You can usually rephrase a philosophical issue as a question, one to which you could give different answers. Try to do this with your own issue; if you can't you're probably in trouble. Pick an issue that you can thoroughly address in the pages you have available. Careful discussion of one issue is good; a superficial paper covering everything that comes to mind, bad.

3.   THOU SHALT TAKE A STAND. A philosophy paper is a thesis defense. Take a position on your issue and defend it.

4.   THOU SHALT PLAN. At some point in the process of writing, list the points you want to make in favor of your thesis. Each paragraph should make one of these points. At the end of your paper, you should have a collection of paragraphs making a set of points that, taken together, support your thesis.

5.   THOU SHALT INTRODUCE THINE ISSUE AND POSITION. A good paper must have an introduction, though it doesn't necessarily need a conclusion. A good introduction is a map of your paper. It begins by stating the issue, then states what position you will take on that issue. Then it gives an overview of how you aim to defend it.

6.   THOU SHALT GIVE SIGNPOSTS: Plant flags and signposts as you go, referring back to the map of the paper in the introduction. "This completes my treatment of blah, now I shall turn to blah blah.In this section, I'll argue for blah blah; in the next, I'll take up blah blah blah." That sort of thing.

7.   THOU SHALT BE CLEAR. Forget for this class what you may have been told in English composition courses. Boring, but clear papers get better grades in philosophy than exciting, but unclear papers. For instance, it is desirable to begin a paper with something like: "Socrates argues in the Republic that justice is one of the highest goods. But does he actually answer Glaucon's Challenge? In this paper, I shall argue that he does not...." It is not at all desirable to begin with: "Lightning flickered through the blinds. On the desk lay a whiskey-soaked copy of the Republic and an empty box of Gitanes. Phil Ossifee, head throbbing, pulled himself off of the carpet and, for one last time, sat himself before his trusty Underwood..."

8.   THOU SHALT ARGUE! You can get an A+ on this paper defending an opinion that I disagree with. Likewise, I may fail you even if I agree 100% with your opinion. What this shows is that, so far as this class is concerned, I do not care much about your opinion. What I care about how you reason for it, and this I care about very, very much. I care so much about how you reason for what you believe that I am going to base your entire grade on how well you reason. This is because philosophy is about arguments, not opinions. Indeed, having an opinion does not require philosophy. Everybody has an opinion. Few have reasons for their opinions, and fewer still, good reasons. So be warned that I have less interest in what you believe than in the reasons why you believe it. If you give no reasons, then it is as good as not writing a paper at all.

9.   THOU SHALT BE REASONABLE. No matter how good your argument is, there will be objections worth making. Your paper should address some (NB: not to your thesis, but your support for that thesis). It shows that you have thought this through.

10.        THOU SHALT ADDRESS THINE AUDIENCE: Do not write a paper to me. I already know the material and how to argue. I want to know whether you know. And one test of whether you know is whether you are intelligible to someone who doesn't know the material. So our paper should address an intelligent reader who knows little or nothing about the topic.

 

AMEN



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