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If you’ve been directed to this page, you have most likely found yourself knee-deep in a philosophy class (or something similarly analytic). Let’s get clear on some basics. Know first that you are NOT going to be passively reading and writing in this class. You are DOING philosophy. These are very different things. Imagine yourself playing a game of tackle football without knowing any of the rules. Forget about winning – you’d be lucky to make it through the first quarter. No one wants bloodshed, so this page is about how to do philosophy on the field. Think of this as your survival guide to our sport.
The Goal of This Game
Philosophy is the act of investigating things in the world that can’t be observed through our senses. We think about concepts, theories, and ideas. Since we can’t use something like the scientific method to determine the strength or weaknesses of our claims, we need to use something else. And so we use arguments. Argumentation is our tool, our method, our currency. It is what we work with, and how we communicate. Simply saying what someone claims is not speaking our language. We focus on how they support their claims.
Two philosophers might (and probably will) agree that murder is not morally permissible, but they might have vastly different reasons for believing this claim is true. These reasons are the kinds of things that concern us.
Arguments have gotten a bad rep in popular culture, and if you go around saying you enjoy arguing, people will usually think you’re sort of a jerk. That’s because arguing has become synonymous with fighting, and with obnoxiously trying to prove a point. What you usually see in contemporary political discourse is not arguing; it is just loudly asserting claims.
This is not our kind of argument. If anything, philosophers’ love of arguments makes us realize how fragile some of our positions are, and done right, argumentation promotes open-mindedness and humility. We offer arguments to justify our positions because we are trying to figure out what is true. That means being wrong – having your argument defeated by an objection – is a great gift. It gets us closer to our ultimate goal. Great philosophers who deeply disagree with one another can (and often do) sit down for a proverbial (or actual) beer together. I invite you to think of argumentation as something lacking in hostility, and as a dialogue between people who are all on the same team. If the rest of the world follows our lead on this one, we’ll all be the better for it.
So let’s get to it.
A Primer on Arguments
Arguments have two parts, premises and conclusions. You can think of these as the claim being defended (the conclusion) and the support for that claim (the premises). Let’s go back to our fighting philosophers. Philosopher Red offers the following argument.
1. Killing is only morally permissible when it is unintentional.
2. The definition of murder is the intentional killing of another.
3. An intentional act is, by definition, not unintentional.
4. Murder is a form of killing.
5. Therefore, murder is not morally permissible.
Philosopher Green offers the following argument:
1. Human life is sacred.
2. Killing is, by definition, ending a human life.
3. It is not morally permissible to end something that is sacred.
4. Killing is not morally permissible.
5. The definition of murder is the intentional killing of another.
6. Murder is a form of killing.
7. Therefore, murder is not morally permissible.
Right off the bat, you can see that Red and Green have very different reasons for coming to their conclusions. Let’s play with their arguments.
First, turn your attention to Red’s. You can see the two parts; line 5 is the conclusion and lines 1- 4 are the premises. Take a look at premises 3 and 4. Seem obvious to you? Me too, but Red did us a service by including them. We don’t talk or think about arguments in formal structure very often, and you and I are used to skipping steps that feel obvious or redundant. These steps are often called implied premises. By making these logical inferences explicit, Red lets us consider them with the same degree of care that we consider her other premises, and this makes for a more productive dialogue. You should do the same. People often imply (read: leave out) the steps that feel most obvious to them, and those premises can be important. Aim to spell your argument out as completely as possible.
Back to Red’s argument. What do you think the most contentious part of the argument is? Which premise is the engine of this argument? If you answered premise 1, you are correct. This is by far the most controversial claim that Red is making, and as such, it needs to be supported itself by another argument before it can support anything else.
In other words, Red needs a sub-argument to support her premise 1. Arguments are often nested like this, with sub-arguments supporting controversial premises. Just like in math, we need to prove a theorem before we use it to prove something else. You might be thinking: wait a second! If we have to support our premises with sub-arguments of their own, and the premises of those sub-arguments with sub-sub-arguments of their own, where would it stop? Wouldn’t it just go on forever? If this is true, we can never really defend our arguments!
Congratulations! You just gave an objection. We’ll talk about those more shortly. But in the meantime, let me answer that objection.
I’ve got good news. You don’t have to defend every premise of every argument (and sub- argument and sub-sub-argument and so on). You just need to defend the important ones.
Which ones are important, you ask? We’ll start with something you’ve already noticed. Where’s the fight? Which premises would an opponent take issue with? You’ve already picked out the contentious premise in Red’s argument. It’s premise 1. Think Green would agree with that one? Bet she wouldn’t.
There might be – and usually are – more than one contentious premise in an argument. And just like you need support beams wherever a structure bears a heavy load, so too you need support for wherever these contentious premises appear.
Take a look at Green’s argument. Where do you think the contentious premise(s) are? Why?
How To Read Argumentation
Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to start putting these ideas into practice. By now, you have most likely been assigned readings where you are expected to understand (and think about!) other people’s arguments. Let’s talk for a few minutes about the best way to do this.
First, it is important to understand that reading argumentation is not like reading other kinds of text. When you do readings in most subjects, you are presented with a series of facts, and your job is to remember those facts. Success is a matter of recall.
This is not what success with arguments looks like. Our readings are instantiations of a particular activity – they are examples of people out on the field playing our sport. Imagine yourself watching a sport you are totally unfamiliar with. Look, that ball went through that hoop, that player ran through those lines, and that puck bounced against that wall. Even if you had no idea about the rules, you could probably report on what was happening. But that is not even close to following the game.
Your job in reading arguments is to actually understand the action, just like you would if you were watching your favorite sport. And the best and only way to do that is to understand the rules of the game.
That means the first step of reading is to sort out which arguments are being made when. New philosophy readers sometimes find this tricky because it can be hard to figure out when some arguments begin and some arguments end. You will find it helpful to look for linguistic clues.
When you see words like thus, therefore, conclude, prove, and so on, you have most likely stumbled upon a conclusion. Now this might not be the end of the play – remember that we can have smaller arguments nested into larger ones. But these words are our equivalent of goal posts. Something important is happening when you see them, and it is your job to take note and figure out what just happened on the field.
Remember that the author wants you to understand what is going on here, and that she will be doing everything in her power to fill you in. So you will also find helpful information in the introduction and conclusions of papers. A great teacher of mine used to say that philosophy isn’t a mystery novel; we don’t want to leave readers guessing. So use the help you’re given!
What does the author say she is setting out to do? Make a separate note of all statements that the author makes about what she is doing, and use that to focus your reading. Does the author announce she will try to prove that genuine self-deception is impossible? Fascinating! Now you know what she takes her conclusion to be, and you can follow along as she works her way towards it.
A Note About Notes
Since mere recall of facts is not the measure of success for us, note-taking strategies that focus on listing facts is not going to be the best method. Instead, think about your notes as a way to help you organize the material you are reading. Have you ever watched football commentary and watched the announcers draw little Xs and Os with arrows moving around? This is meant to be a visual representation of what is going on with the players – it is a way to visually organize the action. Imagine they just made a list of movement like “Player 1 does this. Player 2 does that. Player 3 does this.” Much harder to follow, right? The pictures allow us to see how all the players are interacting with each other, on the field, at the same time.
This is what great notes should look like. Some people organize their reading notes by listing the premises of every argument, with sub-arguments visually nested under the premises they are supporting. If you did this, your notes would look like a giant outline, and you would be looking at something that resembled an expanded series of folders on your computer.
Some people organize their reading notes by listing all the conclusions on the top of a page, and then drawing arrows from the conclusion to the premises that support that conclusion. That way they have a handle on everything the author is trying to prove in this reading.
And some people do something radically different. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as what you do works for you. But here’s the bottom line: to read philosophy, you have to take notes. And I don’t mean just in the margins. I mean full notes, on a separate page of paper. It’s the best way to follow the game.
To do this, you will need to read the article more than once.
There, I said it, and I’m sorry, but it is the simple truth. You will not be able to pass your eyes over the material and call it read. At least, not if you want to understand what just happened.
The reason you’ll need to read more than once is because you will be doing different things during different passes. Your first read might be just to scout out for the big picture. Look for the conclusion words and understand the introduction and conclusion. See where the author is trying to swing for, and then on your next pass, you can follow the technicalities of her swing.
The next pass of the reading will be to assess whether the author was successful with her move. This will involve considering the quality of her arguments, something that we’ll talk about later in this piece. But for now, realize that this process requires at least three readings of the material. Professional philosophers often read a tricky and important piece tens (or hundreds!) of times. Reading philosophy is an active process where you are participating with the author, not a passive one where you are being fed information, and it takes time for you to do your part of properly engaging with the ideas. So if you don’t understand the reading the first two (or ten) times, good. Do it again. You’re doing it right.
Writing Out Your Own Argument
Okay, enough of looking at other people’s arguments. What do you do if you have been tasked with writing your own?
First, recognize that this is a skill you already have. Seriously. You’re a smart, competent adult, and you come to conclusions for good reasons all the time. The job in your writing is to make sure you list (and defend) all the important premises, without including premises that aren’t relevant. In other words, you need to spell out all and only the important parts. How are you supposed to know which parts fall into this category? I call this skill philosophical judgment, and you are better at it than you think.
I’ll prove it to you.
Let’s talk about a movie. Seen any of the Harry Potter movies? Based on statistical likelihood, I’m betting you have.
Now, imagine you asked me to tell you the plot of Harry Potter. Imagine I told you: “There’s this kid with a scar, he whines sometimes, and in the end there’s a wand battle.”
How’d I do? I’ll tell you: I did terribly. It took Hollywood an ungodly amount of time to tell this story; my measly few words did not do it. How about this attempt?
“The actor cast to play Harry Potter was Daniel Radcliffe, who was 11 years old when he was cast in 2000. Coincidentally, the character Harry Potter was 11 years old in the beginning of the series. Daniel Radcliffe was in one movie before starring in Harry Potter. His parents were worried about him auditioning for this role because all of the films were originally set to be filmed in Los Angeles. Like Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe is British and…”
How am I doing on the plot of Harry Potter there? Grading me down yet?
You know how to describe the plot of the movie because you have excellent judgment when it comes to narratives. My first attempt skipped huge, important plot points. My second attempt focused on things that didn’t matter to the plot at all. I would like to suggest that this same skill can be used when looking at arguments. When you think about arguments, think about them like you would a story. Does the plot make sense? Does one event lead clearly into another, or are there large gaps? Are all of these pieces central to the plot? Use the skill you already have and build your argument like you’re building a narrative.
What About Objections? Now that you have some understanding of arguments, let’s talk about how to knock them down. There are two ways to object to an argument. Here they are.
1.) You may prove that an argument is not valid.
2.) You may prove that an argument is not sound.
Before moving on, please note that “prove” is just a fancy way of saying “give an argument.” Objections are just arguments aimed at other arguments!
So, what’s up with these fancy words, you ask? Great question. In good philosophy, we define all technical terms when we introduce them. So here goes.
An argument is valid when its premises lead necessarily to its conclusion. In other words, it is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. Validity is about the structure of an argument. Let’s look at some examples.
1. All plants take in nutrients and grow.
2. Apple trees are plants.
3. Therefore, apple trees take in nutrients and grow.
This is an example of a valid argument. If 1 and 2 are true, 3 MUST be true. But check this next argument out:
1. All hufflelumps are plunterkery.
2. Smuffles are hufflelumps.
3. Therefore, smuffles are plunterkery.
Any idea what I’m talking about? Me neither. Doesn’t matter. We can still tell this argument is valid. That’s because we don’t need to know anything about the truth of the premises to figure out validity, we just need to look at structure. Want to see an example of invalidity? Here goes!
1. Ice cream consumption rises in the summer months.
2. July is a summer month.
3. Therefore, puppies are adorable.
What do you think? All of these statements may be true, but they do not have the right relation to each other to be valid. It’s possible for 1 and 2 to be true and 3 to be false. Try it yourself. What conclusion could your replace for 3 to make this argument valid?
Most of the time, the arguments you will be reading from established philosophers will be valid, so this is not always the most fruitful place to look for objections. Instead, you’ll usually have far more luck looking at soundness.
All sound arguments are valid. Let me say this again. All sound arguments are valid. So we know that if all the premises of the argument are true, the conclusion must also be true.
So what’s the difference between a sound argument and a valid argument?
All of the premises of a sound argument ARE true. Since we know that all sound arguments are also valid, what does this tell us about their conclusion? I’ll wait a moment.
Exactly. The conclusions of sound arguments are always true. Create a sound argument and you’ve established something!
Soundness is about both the structure AND content. That means the way you prove an argument is unsound is to prove that one (or more) of the premises is FALSE. Let’s get some examples.
1. Ice cream consumption rises in the summer months.
2. July is a summer month.
3. Ice cream consumption rises in July.
Look familiar? It’s the valid argument you created in your head a few minutes ago. We know it’s valid, and the premises are true, so… it is sound!
How about this one?
1. California is in the United States.
2. Las Vegas is in California.
3. Therefore Las Vegas is in the United States.
What’s wrong with this argument? Is there any way the premises could be true and the conclusion false? Nope. This argument is valid. Is the conclusion true? Yep, it is. But wait, what about that pesky premise 2. False, false, false. And so this argument is UNSOUND.
Remember, this is where your attention should be focused when making an objection, most of the time. Can you give an argument that one (or more) of the premises are FALSE? Then you can show the argument in question is UNSOUND. And that’s a great objection.
More About Objections
First, be careful about what you’re proving. If you offer an objection to an argument, are you necessarily proving the conclusion to the argument is false? NO. Check out the Vegas argument above. All you are proving is that the argument in question fails. This alone tells us nothing about whether the conclusion is true or false.
Second, note that there might be many objections to one argument, but unless otherwise instructed, you should focus on only one objection. Should you fall into the tar pit that is academia, you will be writing long articles that involve lots of objections. But as an undergraduate, trying for more than one objection will lead you astray. Remember, objections are arguments, and arguments take space to develop. You need to explicitly discuss all your premises and defend your controversial premises with sub-argument. When you have a space limit, the temptation is to offer a few shallow objections and call it a day. This is a mistake. You will always do better if you take the time to develop one objection and do it properly. We know you can say more, but that’s not the mission. The mission is to develop your arguments carefully. And that means ruthlessly focusing on one and ONLY one objection. Trust me on this.
How to Put It All Together
The vast majority of philosophy papers you write will have a common structure. Here’s a secret: underneath some surface differences, the vast majority of writing you do in other academic disciplines will also have this structure. Here’s how it will go.
B. Argument (either your own or someone else’s)
C. Objection to the above argument (either your own or someone else’s)
D. Response to Objection
E. Evaluation and/or Conclusion
More complex or longer papers might need this cycle repeated, or contain multiple arguments or objections. Don’t worry about that for now. Most undergraduate papers will follow this format.
Let’s talk about each section.
A. Introduction: Good introductions are short introductions. Are you going to be focusing on a case? Then describe your case, tell me what you’re going to prove, and move on. Are you talking about a small point in a much larger debate? Then use this space to give your reader context and locate your topic in the larger fight. Introductions are not where you do the work of your paper. They are simply the place where you help your reader figure out what is going to be happening. Don’t you find good introductions awesome when you’re reading philosophy? They make following the plays so much easier. Give the same gift to your reader.
And please, do not use platitudes or overused clichés. If you start your essay with something like “Since the dawn of time…” your TA will mock you on Facebook. Don’t do it. And don’t waste your time going to great historical detail. Historical facts might be interesting, but this is like talking about Daniel Radcliffe instead of the plot of Harry Potter. A argumentative paper is not a history paper, and it’s not a book report. Time spent focusing on irrelevant detail is time stolen from the important stuff. You would be resentful and bored if your assigned readings made you wade through a bunch of irrelevant fluff to get to the argument. Not only would you have to spend time reading all the fluff, you’d have to waste your time sorting the important stuff from the non-important stuff. Don’t do that to your reader. Do the sorting before their eyes hit the page and leave them only with the important stuff.
Your introduction should also contain your thesis. This is nothing fancy; it’s the mission statement of your paper, the goal you see you are setting out to accomplish. The best thesis looks like the following:
“In this paper, I will _______”
Fill in the blank as appropriate. Your thesis might be “In this paper, I will describe the case of the sympathetic man and give Kant’s argument about why his actions lack moral worth. Then I will offer an objection and a Kantian response.”
That’s it! Not so hard, right? And short, short, short. We’ve got arguments to get to!
One quick note: you will notice this sentence uses the first-person. So will you. Let me be clear about this: use the first-person. Philosophers are generally annoyed by arbitrary rules which detract from clarity. If it is your paper, or your argument, avoiding the first-person is just plain silly. This is why the first-person exists! It might feel weird to use it after all the drilling your comp teachers have put you through. Do it anyway.
B. Argument (either your own or someone else’s)
C. Objection to the above argument (either your own or someone else’s)
D. Response to Objection
You’re a pro at this part already. Here’s where you give three (or whatever relevant number) separate, well-focused arguments. Go back and read the Argument Primer again if you want a refresher.
Let me give you a word of warning here though. These arguments should be tightly connected! An excellent paper will have arguments that do not merely pass each other in the night. There will not be, for example, one argument with the conclusion that abortion is morally permissible and another argument that abortion is not morally permissible. Those are two arguments that happen to have contradictory conclusions, not an argument and an objection. In general, you should try to aim your objection at the actual argument that came before, not merely its conclusion. Your paper will be stronger for it.
That said, there might be some cases where you MUST consider two independent arguments that “pass each other in the night” – that is, one argument that a given conclusion is true and another argument that the given conclusion is false. What then? No problem. That just means that your evaluation/conclusion section is going to have to do the work of forcing these arguments into the ring together and seeing who’s stronger. I’ll say more about that below.
E. Evaluation/Conclusion: This is often the section that students find most confounding. There is a temptation to go back to high school writing lessons. In those, you might have been taught that a conclusion is the place where you state the points you’ve made in this paper. Philosophers are not into time wasting, however, and I’m going to guess you aren’t either. So stating what you just stated seems like a silly idea.
Here’s what to do instead. The conclusion of your paper is a perfect place to analyze which side is more successful: the side presenting the original argument or the side presenting the objection. You’ve just spent several pages describing an intellectual boxing match. What is the state of the opponents after the match? Has there been a knock-out punch? Are both of the boxers still standing, but one won the match on points? Do they need to go another round? Tell your audience where your paper leaves the issue.
You can also use this section to discuss what is at stake with this issue. What are the implications of the arguments you just considered? Where does this fit in the larger discussion? What questions still need to be answered?
Brand new philosophy writers sometimes think this section is the place where they say which side they agree with, or which side they like better. This sounds strange to many of us philosophers. We aren’t sure why you’re talking about this “liking” stuff, or even what you mean by it. And even though we probably like you a great deal, we don’t care which argument you agree with. Agreement isn’t an argument. Remember: a scientist’s beliefs aren’t the focus of her experiment reports. If you believe in one conclusion or another because you find the argument convincing, skip ahead to that part and talk about WHY that argument is convincing. Now you’re speaking our language!
So what if you’re stuck writing one of those “ships in the night” papers with two arguments that only conflict at the conclusion? How do you do an evaluation of that? Well, how do we tell who wins a football game? We have a standard of what earns points. Every time a team gets the ball into their opponent’s end zone, we call it a touchdown, and so on. We see how many times each team has met the standard we’re using, and we add up the points.
If you are to evaluate two arguments against each other, you too need a standard by which to judge them. Perhaps you will argue that if one argument is true, it would entail to a logical absurdity (try this one: Jim is a bachelor. Bachelors are unmarried. Jim is married. Therefore… Jim is married and not married. Wait, what?). If the other argument does not lead to a logical absurdity, then it is the winner! Perhaps you can offer a counter-example that one argument is vulnerable to, but not the other. The options here are almost endless. Regardless, you need a standard to compare these arguments against, just like a sport requires a standard for what it is to score. Think hard about what standard you want to apply in your evaluation of these arguments!
However you argue, it is important that you’re in command of what you’re doing. I call these two objection strategies boxing-style objections and gymnastics-style objections. Boxing-style objections are objections where we take aim at the internal workings of the argument – there is direct contact with your opponent. Gymnastics-style objections are objections like the “ships in the night” case I describe above, where there are two separate performances that take place completing independently of each other. Now, both sports have rules and need judges to tell us who has won a match. But it’s a lot easier for an untrained eye to follow what’s going on in boxing than gymnastics. That means both types of objections will need an evaluation section afterwards where you tell us who won and why, but a gymnastics-style objection will need a much longer and more detailed evaluation section. After all, there are no knock-outs possible in gymnastics. You have to tell your reader why one performance is better than another.
Though I encourage you to use boxing-style objections whenever possible, it is not fair to say that they are better. They aren’t – these two styles are just different. But the fact that you need a less developed evaluation section means that boxing-style objections are often easier to pull off in limited space. That said, your number one mission in writing philosophy is trying to figure out something true, and that means testing ideas against their strongest possible objections. And sometimes the strongest possible objection is a gymnastics-style one. In that case, use it. Always pick the strongest possible objection – that is the only way we can truly test the strength of arguments.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about WHAT to do, but I want to give you some tips about HOW to do it. Here goes!
Use Clear, Simple Language. Philosophy deals with incredibly abstract, technical theories. If the ideas we’re working with DON’T make you feel dumb sometimes, you’re probably doing it wrong. And when we are faced with incredibly complicated topics, there is a great temptation to make ourselves feel (or look) smarter by using convoluted or obscure vocabulary. This is a mistake.
Writing is our method of communicating with each other, one of the only ways I can share the ideas nestled firmly in my own private thoughts with you. But there are better and worse ways to communicate. You’ve played the game of “telephone,” right? One person starts by whispering a message into another’s ear, and that person whispers the message into the next person’s ear, and so on… until the last person states the message out loud. The message is always horribly distorted, and hilarity ensues.
Don’t let this happen to your paper.
Using long, overly complicated words is like trying to play telephone with your reader. What do you mean by the phrase “omnipotent paradigm”? When your reader looks at this, you force her to strain to guess what you had in mind. And the success of your communication should not depend on whether your reader makes a lucky guess. Throw away your thesaurus!
Great writing uses language that is SO CLEAR that it would be ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE for your reader to misinterpret your ideas. We try to get as close to this standard as possible. This is going to mean you’re going to have to break some writing commandments that were drilled into you at one point or another. Think of it as civil disobedience.
First, do not vary word choice. If you are doing a math problem, would you say to yourself “gosh, there are far too many X’s in this equation. I’ll change some of them to Y’s!” Of course not, because your equation is talking about X’s, and changing those variables changes the meaning of what you are saying. If you start to use words like “brain” and “mind” interchangeably, you are making a mistake. No philosopher will fault you for using the right word in the right place, even if you use that word a lot. We will fault you for saying false (or misleading) things just because they sound nice.
Of course, sometimes your paper will HAVE to include hard, obscure, complex, or technical terms. If they’re necessary to your paper and not merely decoration, no problem! But they require a little extra care in their use. To be specific:
Define all technical terms. Make sure your reader understands exactly how you are using your words. Sometimes you will even have to define words that we use in everyday life that are contentious within the context of your paper. For example, perhaps you are writing about whether someone is morally blameworthy for an accident. In this case, “blameworthy” is a very technical term, and your notion of it will play a huge role in your argument. Define it carefully! And sometimes you will even have to give an argument supporting why you think your definition is the right or correct one.
Use short sentences. Aim for fewer than 14 words per sentence. It makes for easier reading!
Be aware that some words do enormous work in arguments. Words like: all, always, some, never, none, if, then, only, thus, and therefore convey technical information in your writing. Use them carefully! This also applies to technical terms about logical form, such as soundness and validity (which we discussed above). If you say some has a “valid” point, you confuse your philosopher. In our language, only arguments are or are not valid. Same with soundness. If you choose to include these words in your essay (and really, you probably shouldn’t — no sense using complex words when simpler ones will work), use them correctly!
Your paper will certainly be considering other people’s works, and by now, someone has no doubt taught you to cite all sources to avoid charges of plagiarism. This is good advice. But let’s talk about the best way to think about citations and quotes.
First things first: avoid over-quoting. Are you wrestling with an interpretation question where the wording of the text matters? Then you NEED to include a quote. But are you just putting in other authors’ quotes here and there to make it appear you’ve integrated other people’s ideas? This is a mistake.
Every direct quote you use needs to be explained in your own words. This is because you are communicating with your audience what YOU take this quote to be showing. Remember: we’re not in the guessing business. So if you have to explain the meaning of a quote directly after your use it, things start to get a little redundant, right? And you start to eat up valuable space. So let me give you a suggestion.
EXPLAIN the author’s point instead of using direct quotes. What is the author trying to communicate? Where in the argument is this point made? Why does he or she make it? All of this is far more valuable that a snip of text in the author’s words taken out of context.
Does this mean you don’t need to cite since you’re not directly quoting. NO. You must still cite where in the author’s work this idea came from. The best method for this is to drop a quick footnote and give source/page number so your reader can confirm your sources. Never discuss other people’s views without citing them. Fail to follow this rule at your own risk.
While we’re here, a quick word on citation style: many disciplines have style conventions that students are expected to follow. Philosophy is not one of them. In general, we don’t really care what citation style you use, so long as it makes sense. Unless otherwise instructed, pick one you like and use it consistently.
Also, choose your sources carefully. Let me just come right out and say it. Whatever happens, do not use the dictionary as a source. Dictionaries are not authorities. They do not settle anything other than Scrabble disputes.
On this topic, a word of warning. Many philosophers will advise you: don’t write “book- report” essays, or they might say a paper is “too book-report-y” as a form of feedback. Many of us say this so often it seems to make sense to us. Let me see if I can communicate what I mean by this a little more effectively.
When new philosophy writers are asked to summarize or explain a philosopher’s argument, many will approach that task by trying to give a faithful account of what the philosopher says. They do this by essentially reporting. Their papers go something like this.
“First Red says this. Next, Red says that. Red then writes X, Y, and Z.”
Okay. It’s a start. And assuming it’s accurate, it’s not a bad start. But it’s not what should show up in your paper.
Let’s back up a step. Once upon a time, you WERE asked to write book-reports. The purpose of those assignments was to proven that 1.) You’ve actually completed the assigned reading, and 2.) You have some understanding of that that reading says.
The thing is, we’re past that kind of assignment now. I know you’ve done the reading. And if you’ve come to lecture/section/office hours, I am going to assume you comprehend what the reading is trying to say. Reporting the facts, that the author says this or that, is not what you’re being tested on anymore. You’re being tested on what you DO with this material.
Book-reporting is a passive activity where accuracy is the only mark of success. Summarizing, paraphrasing, and explaining all require analysis. They require you to THINK about the material. It’s true that Harry Potter’s scar is lighting-shaped, and JK Rowling mentions this fact X number of times in her books. If you are telling me the story’s plot, are you going to report every time she mentions it? You wouldn’t, right? Because it doesn’t matter to the story THAT she mentions it. Once you understand the plot, the shape of his scar just doesn’t matter that much.
What someone is saying when they tell you to avoid “book-reporting” is not to merely parrot back an author’s argument. We are asking you to THINK about the argument, do some work on it, and finally help your reader understand what is important and what isn’t. This is an art in itself.
Speaking of book-reporting, there is another trap that students often fall into. I will warn you now: don’t go off-topic. Let me say more about what this looks like.
You are a smart person, and you know a lot about some things. Maybe you know a lot about the history of the time period a philosopher lived in. Maybe you know a lot about the technology that might make a thought experiment possible. And when you know a lot about something, there is a temptation to throw it into a paper. Don’t do it.
Technical, scientific, or historical facts (or any other facts about the world) should be included ONLY when they are necessary for the argument. If you are giving an argument that murder is wrong, do you think the technical details of how a knife can puncture a lung and lead to death is relevant to the moral argument? Of course not. What the knife does has nothing to do with the moral status of the murder. The act would still be wrong, even if it was committed with a gun, or poison, or a candlestick in the cellar. Throwing extraneous data in does not provide context. It distracts your reader. Leave it out. And if you are unsure whether technical or historical data actually matter to the argument, ask your instructor!
Finally, let me give you a suggestion that changed my writing greatly. May people will tell you to have someone else read your paper and tell you what they think. Some philosophers will tell you to have a “civilian” (read: someone not in the class, who hasn’t done the relevant reading) read your paper, to make sure everything you write is understandable to them.
I am here to tell you, this won’t work.
People are nice. Here’s what’s going to happen if you give your paper to your parent, or to your roommate, to read and give you feedback. Those people are going to tell you that it’s a great paper even if they don’t understand a word you’ve written. Or they’ll look for grammar/spelling issues, which while important, won’t fix the big stuff.
So here’s what I suggest you do instead. Ask a civilian to read your paper… and then quiz them. Don’t ask them for general feedback. Ask them to repeat back what your main parts are. Wherever they’re confused, whatever words they don’t understand, it will show up when they answer your questions. Take notes. Remember, as a writer, you are essentially a teacher. And a good teacher is one who can communicate effectively to his or her audience. Test yourself by giving your audience an exam. And keep revising until your student aces it.
Now… go get to reading and writing! Best of luck, and welcome to the game.