Some tips and tricks
1. What we do
Focus, not on evidence, but on arguments. This is not to say that evidence is irrelevant. Rather, it is that any such evidence must be part of (i.e. support) your line of argument. Always remember, your goal should be to put forward a supportable, but above all consistent, argument.
2. Avoid plagiarism at all costs
It is essential to get into the habit of demonstrating an awareness of ownership. Plagiarism is something you can do by accident so it is important to get into good habits now, e.g. always avoid cutting and pasting into your final document. When it comes to plagiarism, if you cite the references you will be rewarded; if you do not, you can be punished (sometimes severely). Hence, the golden rule: Cite references even if unsure how to.
No matter how painful it gets, keep writing the names of the things you refer to in full. Instead of ‘this position’ use ‘anti-realism’ (this goes for concepts, arguments, individuals, etc.). Don’t be put off by repetition. What is most crucial is technical accuracy and it is hard to maintain accuracy if one keeps changing terms.
4. Be upfront about aims
Don't be tempted to create suspense by leaving the purpose of the paper until the end. Markers/readers aren't looking for suspense, but clarity. It is also hard to know what is being said unless one knows why it is being said. For this reason, also make sure to...
5. Sign-post your argument
At every major juncture (e.g. before or after a section is reached), refer back to your own main argument, e.g. “this provides our first indication that realism and anti-realism rely on a shared understanding of scientific truth” … “this counts as further evidence that realism and anti-realism rely on a shared understanding of scientific truth” and so on.
6. Defining terms
Introduce new arguments as arguments (or specifically as “criticisms”, “objections”, “responses”, etc.). If particular arguments are going to be referred to throughout, then it can be helpful to give them names, e.g. “Smith’s generality argument”, “James’ Systematic Concern”, etc.
7. Define your position
Even if a philosophical position is fairly commonplace, e.g. “realism”, “compatibilism”, etc., say how you are using the term. Not only does this avoid ambiguity, but many well-known philosophers have been guilty of incorrectly identifying, even their own, viewpoints.
Stand behind your arguments as your arguments. That is, use “I” to make it clear where you are making a claim, e.g. “I will argue that x is y” or “I take Kant to be saying…” Wherever possible, use an active, rather than passive statement, i.e. instead of “this seems to suggest…” say “I interpret this as follows…”
9. Find a balance
Avoid strong claims/arguments where weaker claims/arguments will serve (“weak” in a philosophical, not a pejorative, sense), e.g. “I will motivate a discussion of y by disproving x” (strong claim) versus “I will motivate a discussion of y by demonstrating the necessity of going beyond x” (weaker claim). As this shows, a weaker claim can still have force without having to disprove, what might well be, a resilient thesis.
10. Use quotes to support arguments
quotes do not stand by themselves. Moreover, explain how you are interpreting what is being said; a text can be read in a number of ways. Again this speaks to ownership, not of the quote itself, but of its relevance to what you are saying. Thus, before or after a quote, say something to explain its relevance.
11. You must not be dogmatic (um… please)
Rarely, if ever, can a philosopher say that such-and-such is “self-evident”. There are a few exceptions, e.g. “p or not p”, but it is important not to claim knowledge where you are making an assertion. Rather than saying “evidently it is x” say “arguably it is x” or even better “for the sake of argument, I shall presume that it is x”. This avoids appearing dogmatic, and need not detract from your argument at all.
12.Words are precision instruments
Be as specific as possible when using technical terms. If possible, avoid vague terms such as “truth”, “conscious”, etc. It is better to say “scientific truth”, and to distinguish “consciousness” from “awareness” or “brain-state”.
13. Using connectives
Use the following connectives to structure sentences and paragraphs as part of a line of argument: ‘However’, ‘Therefore’, ‘For this reason’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘Moreover’, ‘Furthermore’, ‘In addition’, ‘On the contrary,’ ‘That is,' etc. These ought to be used correctly (i.e. "although" does not mean the same as "however", etc.)
I cannot stress enough the importance of showing favour towards an opponent’s position. This is not a question of manners. Opposition to someone else’s position is strengthened, not weakened, by casting it in the best possible light, e.g. “Even on this charitable reading, Lewis’ thesis of Modal Realism cannot be upheld.” Correspondingly, subject your own position to highly critical, even hostile, examination, e.g. “My own position seems to offer even less insight into the nature of reality. However,…”
15. Word Count
Word counts are important, but much more important than “staying within the lines” is having the ability to limit the scope of an argument appropriately. Word counts on assignments are excellent practice for when you come to write, well, just about anything really.
16. "Kill your darlings”
The harshness of the phrase conveys the difficulty of the task. Don’t get precious about a particular statement or argument if it is unnecessary to your overall aim. If in doubt over whether or not a statement is relevant, cut it.
Warning: This is a tough one.
Try rewriting an essay from scratch. That is, write an entire draft of the essay and then, after reflecting upon it, put it away and write the essay again. A marker can almost always tell the difference between a first draft that has been edited into a final draft, and a redrafted essay.
18. Hone your craft
There are no doubt many more things one can do to improve one’s writing, many of which will be specific to a particular subject or branch of philosophy. It is therefore wise to start compiling your own list of tips and tricks.
Some practical exercises
Exercise One: Do as I say, not as I do
Students of philosophy are often given mixed messages. On the one hand, their own essays must be clear, to the point and up front (e.g. about their argument). On the other hand, they are asked to read articles and books that are often opaque, allusive and subtle. The reasons for this disparity are manifold, but are due largely to three things: i) the date the articles were written, ii) the way we have coopted terminology over time and iii) famous authors being able to assume that we all know where they are coming from. Naturally, a philosophy student today is expected to write in a different way to students 60 years ago (or 60 years from now). Neither can any student assume that the reader already knows where they stand vis-a-vis realism, materialism, utilitarianism or indeed any “ism” we care to mention.
Learn by example:
After being remonstrated for using a rather allusive phrase in an essay, I asked my supervisor, “So, are you saying Nietzsche wouldn’t get published today?” The inevitable, truthful and devastating answer followed: "You are not Nietzsche."
The lesson we can all take from this is that, in reading Nietzsche (or any other philosopher), we must separate the content of the ideas from the form. One way to do this is to reformulate the ideas in more familiar, conventional terms. With this in mind, begin by reading the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil (text available here).
- How might you rephrase Nietzsche’s invitation to ‘Suppose that truth is a woman’?
- What term might you use in place of ‘wakefulness’?
Exercise Two: Interpretation
Read the three extracts below, which are taken from peer-reviewed philosophy papers. You’re not expected to have a full understanding of the arguments, as you don’t have the full paper to look at. But for each extract, answer these three questions.
- What do you think the author is trying to say in this passage?
- What ideas from the argument would you need to explore in more detail in order to fully understand and evaluate it?
- If you wanted to take these ideas further, what words or phrases could you search for in a database, such as ‘Philosopher’s Index’, in order to find relevant articles, books or chapters?
Exercise Three: Close reading exercises
For this exercise, you will need to read Plato’s Apology. If you have read it before, then it would help to refresh your memory. If you haven’t read it before, then you really should!
Question: How does Socrates respond to his ‘first accusers’?
Once you have an answer, click here for more.
Now consider the following passage from one of Plato's later works, Theatetus (174a - text available here)
Socrates: Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a [well*], and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
*sometimes translated “pit”
Question: In light of Socrates’ trial, what significance might we ascribe to this passage?
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In his seminal article “Freedom and Resentment” P. F. Strawson makes the following claim:
"A sustained objectivity of inter-personal attitude, and the human isolation which that would entail, does not seem to be something of which human beings would be capable, even if some general truth were a theoretical ground for it."
He then immediately adds the following:
"But this is not all. There is a further point, implicit in the foregoing, which must be made explicit."
Highlighted like this, it is hard to imagine overlooking the significance of the sentence fragment ‘But this is not all’. Many do, however. Note that I have just now used a sentence fragment of my own; in part, to emphasise their usefulness in conveying the significance of the antecedent point. Strawson uses the sentence fragment in a similar way: to indicate an important shift in the argument.
Question: What justification might an author have for selecting one phrase, e.g. ‘thus’, over another?
Learn by example:
I learned, and continue to practice, using ‘thus’ only in my conclusion or, for added significance, at the end of chapters/sections. Bear in mind that different authors have different “signature” phrases. As readers, then, we should try to spot these signatures and remain sensitive to their meaning.