Philosophical Writing

 

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Deborah Dewit Marchant

 

On the pages that follow, I share with you strategies for critical writing in which the formal tools of philosophical argumentation are used.  You may be interested to know that I developed these suggestions for enhancing philosophical writing from conversations with students who asked my advice about ways they could improve their writing.  I welcome opportunities to continue such conversations.  

If you have any questions about or reactions to the suggestions I offer below, please  contact me at:  martha.reineke@uni.edu .

If you have never before written an essay in one of my classes, you may prefer to start by reading Critical Writing Skills.  That web page will enable you to see that you can draw on many communication skills that you already possess when writing essays.  This web page will assist you in reflecting on the many component parts of philosophical argumentation.  We will consider:  the introduction and preliminary thesis of your essay, the outline of your argument, ways in which you can respond to opponents of your position, a point-by-point rebuttal of an opponent's views, and the conclusion of your argument.

The Essay Form:

When writing a philosophical essay,it is not necessary to adhere rigidly to this format; however, a reader should be able to locate all segments of the essay-format at some point in your paper.  While this information may seem very detailed and complicated, we engage the mechanics of this process in class whenever we discuss a text.  In fact, our class discussions generally constitute an oral representation of this  format.

 

I. Introduction and Preliminary Thesis:

Inform your reader of the topic you will discuss. Describe the argument you will explore. Treat the introduction as a verbal "map" of the essay; e.g. "I am going to discuss X's position in Chapter 1. This will entail looking at three key points in X's argument: a., b., and c. I agree with point a. However, points b. and c. are problematic for 2 reasons." Your review of the author's position should comprise no more than 1/2 of your essay. Always assume that your reader has some knowledge of the text. I suggest that students imagine that the person for whom they are writing the essay is a fellow student in the class. This person has read the text, but feels insecure about the material. This is why you, as the writer who offers leadership to another student in his/her efforts to reflect on the text, need to review the author's position briefly. Never write your essay for me.

 

II. Outline of Your Argument (Pro)-

This section constitutes the "body" of your paper. You will present in detail the case you introduced in section I. Your objective is to locate problems with the author's position and to give reasons for your objections. Often, this section will entail offering a contrasting formulation of the issues upon which the author has written. Alternately, if you are going to construct your paper around a defense of the author, this is the time to cite the major strengths of the author's position and to supplement the author's argument with additional sources.

 

III. Response of the Opposition (Con)-

This section constitutes the most important part of your essay. Your argument is only as strong as the argument of your opposition. It is crucial that your opposition "have its day in court." In this section, therefore, you will discuss the author's possible defense of him/herself against the criticisms you have offered in II. This defense might take the following form, "In response to my criticism of X's views on a., X might make this response . . . ". If you have chosen to argue alongside the author, on behalf of his/her position in II., then you must admit the views of an imaginary opposition or those of an opposing author in this section. You might say, for example, "My critics will disagree with the argument I have just made. They will suggest that . . .". You will be able to locate views of this imaginary opposition in notes from class discussion since it will always be our project in class to construct both "pro" and "con" views of an issue.

 

IV. Point-by-Point Rebuttal (Pro)-

In this section, you construct a response to III in such a manner as to convince your reader of your own views (represented in II). You may offer supplementary information that you initially withheld from your reader in II.

 

Note: Some writers like to present "pro" and "con" sections as complete units. They will offer their entire case (many paragraphs/pages in length), followed by their opposition's entire case. Other writers like to alternate sections. They will present one "pro" point (a single paragraph or a few pages) and then they will present their opponent's response to that point . Then, they will present another point, which will be followed by their opponent's response to this point. Either approach is acceptable.

 

V. Conclusion-

This is your opportunity to lead the reader beyond the limits of your present paper. You want to convince your reader that she/he should care about what you have written. Ideally, your essay will keep your reader awake all night pondering what you have said! The conclusion also provides an opportunity to raise questions for further reflection in future papers. Sometimes the issues you have raised are so complex that you can't "wrap things all up and tie them with a bow." The most you can do is offer your reader advice for future reflection. Note: an open-ended conclusion should never be taken as an excuse for a writer to avoid taking a position. A writer who concludes "both of these views have their good and bad points, only time will tell who is right" does his/her reader no favors. Always take a position, no matter how tentative. Be specific about how (in what direction) and why (for what reasons, based on what evidence) you might elaborate upon or revise this position later.

 

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Martha J. Reineke.     Please send correspondence to martha.reineke@uni.edu