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How To Write a (Good) Philosophy Paper

2010年6月26日 发表评论 阅读评论

非常有益的写作指引。作者和出处暂时找不到了,非常抱歉。先转载在这里,供参考。

A. Before you write the paper.

Before you begin writing a paper, it is essential that you understand the material we’re dealing with. Although the material for the papers will be covered in lectures and recitation sections, it is essential to do the reading before class for the lectures and recitations to make sense. The material for this class is quite difficult – the texts that you are reading excerpts from are used in upper level undergraduate classes, and even some graduate courses! Often, it may be impossible to understand what’s going on unless you read the selection more than once. So, it is especially important to come to recitation prepared to ask questions about unclear concepts and passages, as well as the ‘jargon’ terms that many philosophers love so much.

1. Taking notes.

To understand the material thoroughly, it is important to take notes on the readings (as well as in lectures and recitations.) The notes don’t need to be fancy or in complete sentences – you’ll never be asked to hand them in or anything like that. They should, however, be your own personal guide to the readings. You’ll always have a number of paper topics to choose from; narrow them down by identifying two or three that look especially interesting to you. From there, it will be easier to find one that you want to write on. Before writing, you should go through your notes on the reading and make sure that you understand the material. (If you’ve fallen behind in the reading, at least make some notes on the article(s) relevant to you topic before writing.)

2. Taking a side.

While taking notes on the readings and listening to lectures, you should be considering whether or not you think the position being advocated is plausible. Do Plato’s Forms describe the way reality really is…or does Aristotle’s category theory seem better? It will be easier to take a position regarding the material once you understand it thorougly, but still, a particular position might strike you as total garbage or really cool.

3. Critical evaluation.

When a particular argument or theory strikes you as plausible or not, the next step is to think about why you agree or disagree with it. Even if you’re totally indifferent about all of the arguments and theories presented, it’s a good idea to think about why some people might consider certain arguments plausible. For example, why might Aristotle want to reject Plato’s Forms? A thorough understanding of the material will involve not only what positions the various philosophers advocate, but also some reasons why they advocate such positions.

4. Helpful Stuff from Dr. Sparks

Here are some useful websites to check out:

http://www.princeton.edu/~jimpryor/general/vocab/index.html

http://www.princeton.edu/~jimpryor/general/writing.html

http://www.princeton.edu/~jimpryor/general/reading.html

The first is a helpful glossary of philosophical terms and methods; the second, and most important, is a set of guidelines on writing philosophy papers; the third is a useful set of guidelines for reading philosophical essays. If you have time, I’d also recommend the following online ‘writing tutor’:

http://www.williams.edu/acad-depts/philosophy/jcruz/writingtutor/

When writing your essays, you should bear the following points in mind:

i. Completeness. Does the essay answer the question, addressing each one of its parts?

ii. Scholarship. Does the essay show a clear and detailed understanding of the problems, arguments or issues raised in the text and during the lectures?

iii. Critical engagement. Does the essay show that you have examined any of the positions or arguments that we’ve been discussing with a critical and intelligent eye? (You should remember that “critical” doesn’t mean negative; rather, try to grasp what’s being said in an intelligent fashion and understand precisely why it is important.)

iv. Originality and creativity. Does the essay make any attempt to carry on the discussion where the readings and the lectures left off? Does the essay do more than simply repeat what we’ve already done? This might be done in terms of secondary criticism, but should also involve original supporting arguments or understanding of the problems involved. (And you should remember, too, that original means that it’s your work, not that it’s never been thought before.)

Now you’re ready to start writing…

B. Basic guidelines for 750-word philosophy papers.

1. 750 words is not much space at all. Keep your arguments precise and to the point; there’s no need for irrelevant digressions or “filler” in a short assignment such as this. The main argument of the paper should be clear throughout; digressions tend to distract from the central argument of the paper, make the arguments difficult to follow, and take up space that should be used for presenting philosophical material.

2. Keep writing clear and succinct. Long sentences with unnecessarily big words and incomprehensible jargon only confuse the reader; it’s generally better to stick to clear, simple sentences that fully express the point you’re trying to make.

Compare:

A purely conventionalistic account of the methodological role of considerations of theoretical plausibility cannot be adequate because it cannot explain the contribution which such considerations make to the instrumental reliability of scientific methodology.[1]

with:

Moore had much to say about which things do and which things do not possess the property goodness, but for a reason that will emerge, I shall not summarize his views on this matter.[2]

Which would you rather read?

The point here is not that “philosophical jargon” should never be used. Rather, the point is that ideas should be expressed in a comprehensible manner. Looking up random big words in the Microsoft Word Thesaurus generally does not help as much as hurt a paper. Using big words will not improve your essay so much as a clear writing style that gets your point across.

3. More on “philosophical jargon…” If you do need to use technical terms, be sure you and the reader both know what they mean. If you’re using the term in a specific way, define what you mean by it at the outset of your discussion, especially if a difference in meaning makes a difference in the argument.

4. Provide some insight! Simply reciting arguments and objections covered in class, even if done thoroughly and precisely, will not help you think about these issues independently (and for the grade-concerned, will not earn you an A). Coming up with your own objections or interpretations and defending them is a necessary component of a good paper. Besides, that’s half the fun of doing philosophy!

5. Explain yourself. Copying down what others have said, with little or no explanation, will not advance your argument. Quoting is fine, but be sure to explain what the relevance of the cited passage is to your main argument.

6. Give credit where credit is due. Even if you’ve paraphrased something, cite it. Anything you’ve taken from a source other than yourself should be referenced. (More on how to reference in section D below.)

7. Secondary sources: Occasionally, it is a good idea to supplement your required reading with secondary literature. Of course, some degree of caution should be used when approaching secondary literature. If you do a little research you will quickly see which secondary texts have currency and which do not and can exercise your judgment accordingly. Books in the library and articles in scholarly journals are generally acceptable for secondary sources in research papers. INTERNET SOURCES ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE. There is, however, one particularly good internet source that can provide you with introductions to a variety of philosophical topics, as well as reputable bibliographies on those topics. The URL for this source is http://plato.stanford.edu. This is sometimes a good place to start the search for decent scholarly articles and books that are relevant to your topic.

C. Parts of the paper.

1. Every paper MUST include a thesis statement. This should be something non-obvious, non-general, and disputable; your job is to convince others of its truth throughout the course of your paper.

(a) Avoid overly obvious or general thesis statements, such as:

In the Meno, Plato shows the possibility of innate knowledge. (Too obvious!)

Aristotle’s distinction between primary and secondary substances is wrong. (Too general!)

The first statement is too obvious, since it simply states a point that is clearly true of the dialogue Meno. Besides, it’s not really disputable – everyone agrees that Plato is doing precisely this in the Meno. The second statement is too general – although it raises a disputable point, it doesn’t do anything to say why Aristotle’s distinction is wrong.

A good thesis statement should be neither an obvious statement of a particular philosopher’s views, nor a simple statement of a position. It should incorporate both a definite position regarding a particular argument or theory and a reason or two that you hold that position. For example:

The second puzzle of false belief in the Theaetetus is inadequately resolved by Plato in the Sophist due to his inability to overcome the Parmenidean riddle of nonbeing.

Notice that this statement answers three questions:

(1) What are you talking about? The second puzzle of false belief in Plato’s Theaetetus and the response to it in the Sophist.

(2) What position are you taking? Plato fails to adequately solve the second puzzle of false belief with his response in the Sophist.

(3) Why are you taking this position? Well, Plato fails because he can’t overcome the Parmenidean problem of nonbeing.

Your thesis statement should answer these three questions.

(b) Make your thesis clear. It should be obvious as to what your thesis statement is – and the answers to the three questions above should be obvious from reading it.

(c) Put the thesis statement toward the beginning. There’s no need for a flowery introduction – write as if the reader has already read the material, knows the basic theory, where and when the philosopher(s) lived, etc, etc. None of this information needs to be included in the paper – 700 words is really not much space!

2. Support your thesis with clear arguments and textual support. This should take you several paragraphs. When you quote the book, you should go on to explain the significance of the selected quote. Likewise with examples. Examples and quotes are not enough to constitute an argument; you should explain why you hold the position that you do. If you’ve written a good thesis statement, this should be easy: it will simply involve a several paragraph long exposition of your answer to question (3) above! (In my sample thesis statement, I would quote passages where Plato is committed to the Parmenidean thesis about nonbeing, and tell how this links up to stuff in the Theaetetus and the Sophist.) Remember, your argument should be more than simply opinion; be ready to defend whatever statements you make with further reasons.

3. Provide objections to you arguments. That is – try to think of good reasons others might have for rejecting your thesis and the evidence you’ve given in support of your thesis. Set up these objections in the strongest possible manner, and avoid “straw men.” In philosophy, even the most plausible theses are subject to objections. If you’ve having trouble coming up with objections, talk to others about it and see what they have to think. Other good moves for coming up with objections are the texts of other philosophers (if you agree with the position of whoever you’re writing on) and the philosophers themselves (if you disagree with the position of whoever you’re writing on.)

4. Provide responses to your objections. Once you’ve set up objections in the strongest way, come up with the best response that you can. Remember, if you can’t respond to objections in a convincing way, the objections “win”.

5. Sum it up with a breif conclusion. This doesn’t need to be anything snazzy; it should simply show that you’ve adequately demonstrated your thesis and covered possible objections to your reasoning.

6. Things to keep in mind. If you follow the advice in A above, the paper itself should be a snap. Still, one of the challenges of writing philosophy papers is that your beliefs about what is true can change – sometimes the objections you raise might seem more plausible than your thesis itself, and you might be inclined to change your mind about what position you even hold. If this happens, don’t worry – it means you’re doing something right. The whole point of philosopy is to think critically about things like the nature of reality and the good life – if you never changed your mind, what would be the point? Sometimes a good strategy is to begin by writing down arguments, objections, and replies with a thesis in mind. Once you’ve finished your paper, you can go back and write the introduction – and thus ensure that your thesis matches up with your arguments.

D. Sources

中文注释可参见《中外法学》

2. When to cite sources. Whenever you are putting down an idea that is not your own, you MUST cite your source. This applies regardless of whether you are quoting something from a book or internet source, paraphrasing something you’ve read, or relaying an idea that someone else told you. If you’re talking to your friend Joe and he gives you a really good objection that you use in your paper, give him a footnote. Failure to cite any relevant sources is plagairism, and is grounds for failing the class and worse. PLEASE CITE ALL OF YOUR SOURCES ALL OF THE TIME.

D. Formatting and grammar.

略。

E. FAQs Here are some of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve encountered in the past.

Q: These questions look like factual questions. How am I supposed to write a thesis statement?

A: Some amount of explaining might be needed for some of the questions. ‘Explain’, ‘explore’, and ‘evaluate’ can, however, all be interpreted as prompts for your own critical insights.

Q: I’ve read the material a million times, and I just don’t get it. What do I do?

A: Come to office hours or make an appointment. I’d be happy to talk it though with you.

Q: How do I know if my thesis statement is okay?

A: E-mail me a thesis statement at least three days before the paper is due and I’ll give you feedback.

Q: Do you read drafts?

A: Bring a draft to office hours and I’ll look at it.

Q: Why can’t I use internet sources?

A: You can, if I look at them first. There are a ton of bad websites with ‘philosophy’ on them, and they often botch the material.


[1] Boyd, Richard 1988. “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in G. Sayre-McCord, ed. Essays on Moral Realism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 190.

[2] Thompson, Judith Jarvis 1997. “The Right and the Good.” The Journal Of Philosophy: 94(6).

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