Saturday, February 25, 2012
how to strategize your philosophy paper
A philosophy paper is like a conversation, you need to make room for other opinions and for responding to that opinion. A paper requires that you include criticism of your own view and that you respond to that criticism. Always criticize yourself and your opponent fairly, don't misrepresent either opinion for the sake of a few paragraphs, i.e., don't provide criticisms that you yourself think are silly or not worth discussing.
1- Don't think of the professor as the audience. Use your peers as your standard of understanding. Ask yourself if your roommate, or partner, or brother or sister -all of whom are not members of the class- could understand the paper. Have you provided enough information so that they can follow your argument, understand your explanations, and evaluate your position?
2- Always define your terms. Any word that has special meaning for a text, i.e. "freedom, "human rights, etc, must be explained (preferably a reference must be given as to where in the text you found the definition). Sometimes it is easiest and most clear to quote the exact definition from the text.
3- Pay special attention to paragraphs. A paragraph should not be very long. There should be at least two or three paragraphs on every page. Pay special attention to how paragraphs relate to each other. Although paragraphs are in some ways self-contained, they must also relate to one another. Perhaps the best way of ensuring that one topic "follows from" another topic is by comparing the last line of the previous paragraph with the first line of the paragraph that immediately succeeds it. Make sure to include a transition sentence in the beginning of the new paragraph. You may use phrases such as "This brings us to...", or "At this point Aristotle changes his focus...".
4- Always edit on paper and read your versions aloud. Philosophy can be difficult to write, and students often write errors that they would never speak. Sometimes, we even forget the purpose of the sentence before we finish writing them and when the reader tries to follow our train of thought, they get confused by our lack of focus. It is therefore essential that we edit carefully. Always use the spell check and the grammar check on your word processor. They are very helpful. Never hand in any writing that you haven't edited on paper. We can see punctuation errors much better on paper. Periods, commas, and spelling mistakes get lost on the monitor. Third, always read your work out loud, and pay attention when you do. Reading aloud is probably the most helpful editing technique. I read absolutely everything I write out loud, and I have been writing this kind of stuff for years. -
Outline of A Paper:
The key is to not get overwhelmed by the information. The outline below will help you stay on-track. You need not follow it exactly. Those of you who are more experienced at writing philosophy papers may find that they want to combine various sections, but for those of you who are less comfortable writing, this outline should help. - Keep in mind that some of these sections may be only one or two paragraphs in length and others may be pages long. - Also keep in mind that you should not "divide" these sections with headers or titles. The division will be made clear as the author reads your transition sentences. I.
Explain the purpose of the paper.
Define all of the technical terms in the paper topic/question.
Explain the philosophical problem.
State your conclusion.
The introduction is important for setting the stage. Don't start out with biographical information about a philosopher, or with a definition from a dictionary (this is rarely helpful anywhere in the paper since the definition the philosopher gives is almost certainly different from the definition provided by the dictionary). Start out by discussing the main purpose of the paper. You should try to state your conclusion in the introduction. A philosophy paper is not a mystery novel. The end should not be a surprise. The reader is interested in your arguments as much, if not more, than your conclusion and they can only follow the argument after they are aware of what your conclusion is going to be. If you do not know your conclusion when you start writing, you can always go back and add it when you have figure it out. Imagine a discussion between two position, yours and your opponent.
II- Body of the paper
1- Explanation of both positions. 2- Contrasting both positions. Defending both positions. 3- Winning the argument.
1(a) - Explaining your position.
Summarize your position. 1. Define all terms. 2. Explain these terms and the basic position in your own words. 3. Include quotes. Offer an overview of your position in your words. This section can be difficult because it requires that you summarize a large text in a very short amount of time. It is hard to balance the details with the main idea. Therefore, it is helpful to provide the details in the main summary then end this section with a general narrative of the position in your own words. Try to tie- up all the loose pieces of the summary in this final paragraph.
1 (b) - Explanation of your opponent's position.
Summarize this position. 1. Define all terms. 2. Explain these terms and the basic position in your own words. 3. Include quotes. Offer an overview of the position in your words. This section is identical to the previous section but refers to your opponent's position. Now, the reader is able to see the similarities and the differences of the two positions.
2- Compare and Contrast the two positions.
Identify common themes. Point out stylistic or historical differences. Point out how conclusions differ and how they are the same. How much to explain? Don't assume that the reader can see the differences you can see. Be explicit about how the two theories differ even if it seems obvious to you.
Defend your position. Remind the reader of the main idea behind your position. Explain why you have chosen this position. Remember you must explain why you believe this is a better option. Provide examples. Show what details attracted you to the position. Provide evidence as to how history, current events, or your own experiences conform to this position.
Criticize your position (now from the perspective of your opponent). Remind the reader of your opponent's position (that is, assume the persona of your opponent and criticize your own defense). This section requires that you defend your opponent's position and show how your opponent would criticize your beliefs. Point out the weaknesses of your own defense! Explain how a different point of view may shed new light on your position that might make it less convincing.
3- Now, time to re-defend your original position in light of the new criticism. As the writer of the paper, you get "last licks". This means that you can now reevaluate and criticize the critique (the defense of your opponent) that you wrote of your own position. Explain why you still agree with your original position and explain why the criticism of your original position need not be convincing.
This is the last component of the discussion between you and your opponent. You want it to be as successful as possible. Make sure that this second defense is addressing the criticism and not simply reasserting your original position.
Briefly restate the purpose of your paper. Restate your position. And wrap up any loose end and end with a future goal. The conclusion cannot contain any new information. It can only restate or reorganize that which has already been said. It is still useful because it reminds the reader or that which they read and of that which you concluded.
Don't underestimate the importance of the conclusion, but, at the same time, keep it short. A couple of paragraphs should do fine. Your last paragraph should identify a future problem. Are there any unresolved issues that you have not solved? Are there any dangling questions that are essential to deal with in the future? You need not answer all these questions, but you must acknowledge them.