President Lincoln Mourning Flag, 1865. This is one of a series of five or six styles of paper-printed flags produced instantly following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. The black canton represents a nation in mourning. The words are concise, yet poignant, calling the beloved president “father”. The flags were affixed to plunges and […]
Commence Early. Put your thoughts on paper long before you expect to turn in the assignment. At this stage, do not worry about your prose. Have a conversation about your ideas with someone in class. After sleeping on it, come back to the argument to see if it still convinces you.
Outline. Begin with an outline of the paper. Even a rough map of where you are going is better than none at all.
II. State Descartes’ argument
III. Suggest my protestation
IV. Consider a possible reply by Descartes
V. Give a counter-reply to Descartes’ budge.
You may even divide your paper up according to your outline, with section headings in the text.
Introductory paragraph: Do not write an introductory paragraph until the paper is in its final form.
Revision. Expect to revise the paper several times before you turn it in.
Computer vs. Hand-written vs. Typed. Some people compose their papers on computer. Others write on paper very first, and then type out the finished product on computer or typewriter. Go after your own habit here, but composing directly on a typewriter is usually not a good idea.
Voice. In contemporary philosophy, there is harshly a fifty-fifty split inbetween papers in the very first person and in the third person. Generally, the third person voice reads more formally. Therefore, if you adopt the very first person voice in your paper, be extra careful that you do not lapse into an informal, chatty style. Writing in the 2nd person is almost invariably awful. Attempt this voice at your peril.
These are inappropriate:
I was talking to my friend Hector on the phone the other day, and inbetween us we came up with a fine protestation to Descartes’ argument for dualism.
You are going to be absolutely wooed by the argument in the paper against Descartes’ dualism.
These are acceptable:
In this paper, I will argue that Descartes’ argument for dualism fails.
This paper offers a refutation of Descartes’ argument for dualism.
Dialogue. Albeit it is much much tighter to write anything of philosophical substance in a dialogue, feel welcome to attempt your palm at writing in a dialogue format. Take care not to include futile conversational filler inbetween the participants in the dialogue.
This is inappropriate:
Socrates: The subject-matter of skill is being. [Socrates then walks over to the couch with a triumphant look on his face].
Vivian: No way, you’re crazy. Only an ancient Greek person would think something so foolish. You have to be kidding me.
Ad hominem arguments. These are arguments that attack the person rather than the substance of her or his views. Insulting comments of any kind directed at the author of a philosophical view are to be avoided at all costs. Vivian, above, is suggesting an ad hominem argument.
Spelling, Punctuation & Grammar. These are not the principal virtues to aspire to in a philosophical paper, but they are still virtues. Poor spelling and grammar will detract from the authority of your writing. It often helps to read your papers aloud to arrive at sleek sentence structure. Have a friend look at the paper for errors. You will not be graded on the mechanics of your writing, but if there are significant errors, I will have you rewrite the paper with corrections.
Names. The very first time you mention an author, use her or his utter name. All subsequent times use last name only.
Gender. Until recently the masculine pronoun was generic. We would write, “A student must prepare his notes cautiously to be successful on the quiz,” even tho’ many students are women. In the academy, this is switching. (Indeed, many of us are hoping that it has switched.) You may, of course, endorse any stance you wish on this matter, but I urge you to think about the gender of your pronouns and the “genderness” of your paper. Writing is sometimes powerful in its content. Writing is also sometimes powerful in implicit ways. Make sure that your papers express your considered views on gender issues.
Contractions. Avoid them.
Humor. Save your attempts at humor for another setting.
Very first Sentence. NEVER commence a paper by telling something like, “Since the beginning of time, man has grappled with the philosophical question of the basis of reality.” This maneuver is vacuous, clichéd, and bimbo. Your very first sentence should leap right into the subject matter
In the 2nd Meditation, Descartes argues that an evil genius could not loser him into falsely believing that he exists. I will showcase that Descartes is incorrect. That is, I will showcase that a adequately powerful evil genius could lead someone who does not exist to believe that she does.
Sweeping Generalizations About Philosophers or Philosophy. Many students are tempted to include in their papers generalizations that emerge to increase the erudition of their work. For example, there is the temptation to include in a paper on Descartes a sentence that describes him as “The father of contemporary philosophy” or to say that “Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy inaugurated the modern era of theorizing about the mind.” While this sort of writing may have a place in journalism or for the script of a PBS series, and while your professors may suggest stage-setting generalizations like this in lecture, they are inappropriate for your scholarly papers.
Dates, Political Events, and Biographical Details. It is also unnecessary to include the kinds of detail that might be found in an encyclopedia entry for the philosopher or philosophical topic you are writing on. You need not mention the philosopher’s date of birth or death, or the date of the publication of the work you are dealing with, or the cultural or political events that surround its publication. Of course, if your paper is about the connection inbetween philosophical themes and cultural or political events, then you will want to introduce that material. Please keep in mind, however, that you are very very unlikely to say anything interesting or persuading about the broad topics that this treatment invites. There likely will never be a good five page paper written in an introductory class about, e.g. “The Influence of Religion and Economics on the Philosophy of Berkeley and Reid”
Lots of transition sentences. Always go out of your way to make sure the reader is “on board.” At then end of the sections of your paper, be sure to tell the reader what you have achieved so far and what you intend to do next. Do this inbetween every paragraph if necessary. Someone should be able to read the very first and last sentence of each paragraph (and nothing more) and know what your paper is about. Of course, I will actually read the entire thing.
Sympathy. For any philosophical view you are considering, suggest the most sympathetic reconstruction of it that you can. This is a crucial component of fair engagement with ideas. If the author is unclear, give the best possible case for the view (even if you disagree with it). You are permitted and encouraged to make note of the author’s lack of clarity in your paper. For example, you might write
[A quotation from the original text]. Here, Smith seems to be claiming that there is no matter in the universe, but there is matter in the mind. This seems the best interpretation of the passage, so I will endorse it in my discussion.
Quoted material: Never suggest a quote without telling the reader how you interpret the passage and why you included it.
The Dictionary. The dictionary is a useful contraption, but it is not a philosophical authority. Do not, therefore, put in your paper sentences like, “Webster’s Fresh American Heritage Dictionary defines dualism as the view that the mind is different from the assets.”
Originality. Where I ask you to produce an original view, it will not do to merely repeat what some other philosopher has said. There will likely be someone in history who has given the same argument you have, but I want your version in your own voice.
Anecdotes. Keep individual anecdotes to a minimum.
Paraphrases: If you paraphrase an idea from another source, footnote it as if it were a quote.
Quotations: You may quote sections from the work(s) that you are considering in your paper. Be sure to specify the page number. It is often useful to include a few quotations to assure the reader that you are sensitive to the text, but too many are distracting.
References. Include references at the end of your paper where needed (when you quote out of a book or article). Use whatever style you are comfy with. My dearest is the American Psychological Association journal style.
Rummelhart, D. & McClelland, J. (1986). Parallel Distributed Processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Smolensky, P. (1990). Tensor product variable strapping and representation of symbolic structures in connectionist systems. Artificial Intelligence. 46. 159-216.
Ideas due to Others. If someone gives you an idea, be sure to credit her in a footnote. For example, you may simply write “This idea is due to Professor Jana Sawicki, in conversation.”
Last Paragraph. Do not give way to the temptation of writing a lengthy summary paragraph at the end of your paper. Avoid coy admissions of fallibility such as, “The ideas in this paper may be right, but who knows?” or “No matter what I argue, inquiry into the human condition will go on into eternity.” Just end it.
Cover Page. There is no need to use a cover page or a fancy cording (number of students x number of papers = waste). The very first page of your paper should have your name and the date near the top.
Numbering: Number each page.
Copies: Keep a copy of your paper for yourself.