Before we go too far, allow me to introduce myself to the readers of Cogito (and more generally, of The Conversation). Before I even get to that… let me say that I am pleased and proud to have been invited to join this multi-author blog, which features a diverse group of Australian philosophers with established public profiles. I expect to see provocative contributions on a wide range of issues.
A bit about me
A little about myself, then. First, so you can put a face to the name, I’m providing a photo, courtesy of Embiggen Books. Second, you can find my website here, including an academic CV.
I grew up in Newcastle, NSW, where I returned a few years ago after three decades in Melbourne. Over those decades, I had a somewhat tortuous career that involved periods in academia, the Australian Public Service, industrial relations (particularly courtroom advocacy), and legal practice. I am now a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, while devoting most of my time to writing books and editing The Journal of Evolution and Technology. This editorial, published in 2008 when I was based at Monash University and had only recently taken over as editor-in-chief at JET, sets out something of my vision for the journal.
My personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, can be found over here, and you can follow my Twitter feed: @Metamagician. I’m also a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry, New Philosopher, and The Philosophers’ Magazine.
My work often involves sceptical scrutiny of social institutions that claim the authority to tell us how to live our lives: notably religion, political ideology, morality, and the law. I defend philosophical atheism, secular government, political liberalism of a kind familiar to readers of (say) John Stuart Mill or Joel Feinberg, and a form of moral scepticism that understands morality as a pragmatically useful form of social technology that is often (indeed, somewhat pervasively) regarded as something more.
As a taste of my views on the so-called “scientific skeptic” movement, which I support, you might like to check out this blog post, where I distinguish between scepticism and denialism. (This movement is, of course, not sceptical about science but about pseudoscientific and supernatural claims.)
I am currently working on a book about fundamental moral theory, another about the presentation of moral issues within science fiction, and an edited collection (with co-editor Damien Broderick) on the problem of philosophical progress. I’m also working on articles and talks about moral error theory and its implications, bioethics without a concept of sanctity, the intellectual relationship between Nietzsche and the contemporary transhumanist movement, and the vexed concept of “scientism”.
Philosophy and public debate
In this introductory post, I don’t plan to set out any particularly sophisticated or complete views on the role of philosophy. As a first approximation only (and with a hat tip to Graham Oppy), I understand philosophy as reason-based, intellectually honest and rigorous investigation of deep questions that produce much existential anxiety while defying any empirical solution. Those questions relate, for example, to the possible existence of God and/or an afterlife, free will, the authority or otherwise of morality, and the foundations of inquiry itself: i.e., to questions of what should count (either in general or in specific domains) as a cogent argument or as good evidence for a proposition.
I don’t see any sharp dividing line between philosophy and other fields of inquiry, including the sciences. Although I can’t argue the case in this introductory post, I think philosophers should draw upon well-established empirical findings from the sciences and from the other humanities - such as various areas of historical and textual scholarship - while making our best attempts at conceptual clarification of massively confused issues. In some cases, a successful outcome of philosophical inquiry might be the founding of a new field of empirical study (whether or not it should, strictly speaking, be called a “science”). Indeed (though again, I can’t argue for such a large claim today), I believe that we are now well-placed to integrate moral philosophy with other sub-disciplines from the sciences and humanities that study the phenomenon of morality. Our generation has an opportunity to create an expanded and more empirical (or broadly scientific) discipline of moral philosophy or moral science.
These questions are all inherently fascinating and of obvious public interest. I wholeheartedly urge other philosophers to engage with them publicly. Furthermore, I think that philosophers have a role in commenting on more specific moral, political, and cultural controversies. With our commitment to intellectual rigour and to high standards of logic and evidence, we can comment in ways that contrast with the tribalism, propaganda, and polemics that characterise so much contemporary debate on hot-button topics.
We do, of course, inevitably have our biases and prior assumptions, but at least we can be aware of such things as formal and informal logical fallacies, reliance on deeply contested assumptions, motivated reasoning, the dangers of emotional manipulation, group polarisation, and information cascades, and other factors that distort inquiry and debate. When we’re at our best - and difficult though it may be - we approach our opponents and their views with charity, looking for whatever truth or wisdom may be found in their viewpoints.
Our own contributions will never be perfect in their standards of rationality. As philosophers, we may, however, be able to offer fresh perspectives on difficult issues. We can strive for at least some detachment from the rival views of the usual moral and political tribes. That’s an ideal, of course, and I realise in advance that I will not model it flawlessly. Nonetheless, it’s an ideal that I recommend and that I’ll aim for as well as I can in the posts to follow.
Philosophy essay writing: general points
These notes are written in a fairly forthright style, peppered liberally with injunctions and prohibitions, but I suppose I should say by way of disclaimer that I do not necessarily think that there is only one correct way of going about writing a philosophy essay, either under examination or under non-examination conditions. So treat these notes as guidelines which you may find of assistance (though, on many points, I don't myself see that there is a realistic alternative).
As far as preparing to write a philosophy essay goes, the most important single piece of advice that can be given (obvious, but still worth stating clearly) is: read. Unless you are a genius, you will not be able to excogitate from nothing what the interesting philosophical questions in any given area are, and how one should go about addressing them. You have some idea of the terrain, and some interest in exploring it further (that's why you're doing philosophy), but you (like the rest of us) need help, and that help is readily available in the form of the writings of the great classic philosophers, and the commentaries on them and continuing discussions of their problems provided by modern philosophers. Reading these writings will put you in touch with the issues, and it will also (as I stress in my notes on Grammar and Style) acquaint you with the formal aspects of writing philosophy: it will supply you with stylish and grammatically accomplished models of philosophical writing. Active reading of philosophical texts is itself a skill which you should seek to acquire, and one that you will find has wide application beyond the dissection of purely philosophical texts.
How does one read philosophy actively? Well, people differ here. Some are able to read philosophical texts as if they were novels, perhaps without even taking notes, but most of us need to approach these difficult texts more circumspectly. One well-tried technique is to begin by reading through a text (a difficult article, say) fairly quickly, to get the general idea, and without taking notes. That can be useful if it helps to know where the author is going and what the conclusion being aimed at is; and it very often does help to know that. Of course much philosophy tries to be strictly consequential, like a mathematical proof, so that in theory one ought to be able to take it in step by step until one reaches the conclusion, without knowing in advance what the conclusion is going to be until one actually gets there. But we all know that when it comes to understanding an argument (and the point also applies to mathematical proofs, incidentally), it is often very hard to see why earlier steps in a piece of argumentation and included unless one is privy to the intended outcome. When you have finished a cursory reading of the text, you should re-read the same text carefully, taking notes, and trying to understand as much as you can, before moving on to other relevant texts. Alternatively, you might prefer to continue applying the technique of rapid, fairly superficial reading to other texts in the same area, to get an even more general (though still superficial) grasp of the terrain, before returning (as you should) to all these texts (or as many of them as you can manage) and subjecting them to thorough re-reading. It is good to read philosophy (and especially to re-read) with specific questions in mind: how does the author address such-and-such a problem, or how does he/she resolve the apparent contradiction between the view stated on p.5 and that stated in the conclusion?
If the subject matter you are investigating is a modern topic with no significant distinction between primary and secondary literature, the above guidelines will, I think, serve you well just as they stand. But it will often be the case that you are working on a topic where you expected to be familiar with two kinds of material: primary texts (classic statements of a position by one of the great figures in the history of the subject), and secondary texts (modern commentaries on or discussions of these classic positions). In these cases I recommend that you read the classic texts first, so that you approach them with an unprejudiced eye (or at least an eye unprejudiced by modern commentary), perhaps in the rapid, surveying manner suggested above, before looking at secondary material. When you have looked at a reasonable amount of secondary material you should then - if your reading of that material has not already forced you to do so - go back to the primary texts and read them carefully. If you are working with a textbook such as Cottingham's Western Philosophy, which provides only extracts from the great philosophers of the past (and present), it may be necessary to go beyond what the textbook provides and read whole texts or at least larger extracts than your textbook provides.
A word about textbooks. In the past at Sussex, none of our courses made use of textbooks: students were required to find the sources themselves in the library, and were often asked to read whole texts (treatises, dialogues etc.) even though the seminar discussion might focus on only part of the set texts. We have moved over to using textbooks in our first-year provision on an experimental basis, and we are including them elsewhere in our array, because we want to ensure (as was not the case in the past) that all students have access to the relevant primary sources, and can bring them to seminars. But clearly the drawback of moving to textbook-based courses is that a gap potentially opens between the student experience of doing philosophy and the professional experience - because of course professional philosophers cannot rely on textbooks, but must examine relevant texts in their entirety and must obtain these texts even if it is difficult to do so (even if it involves, for example, travelling to a copyright library, something I personally have to do regularly). In the past there was no such gap: students and professionals read exactly the same texts and were thus in a sense equals. I do not think the gap need be harmful so long as you are aware that it exists and, where possible, try to overcome it by going direct to publications of complete texts. When you are writing an essay, for instance, you should certainly try to read more widely in relevant primary sources than just the extracts which Cottingham (or similar) provides.
Writing a philosophy essay to be handed in
Use the essay question as your guide in deciding what to read. If the reading includes both primary and secondary literature, it is a good idea to follow the advice above: read the primary material first, perhaps fairly quickly, then the secondary material, and then go back and read the primary material again thoroughly. On secondary material: try to develop a street-sense of what's worth reading. Is it written (or revised) relatively recently? Is it by a philosopher? (Writings by historians of philosophy who are not themselves philosophers can - though this is by no means always so - be of a philosophically inferior quality.) Is it regularly referred to by other writers? Relevant articles you should read in their entirety, but if you've got hold of a book don't automatically assume that you should read it all: in fact you will very often do better to use the index and chapter headings to focus in on just part of the work - the bits most relevant to you. On the other hand, beware of always trying to focus very narrowly on what's 'relevant': often one doesn't know when one starts a topic what exactly is relevant, and it is often very rewarding to read material which at first sight seems to be tangential to one's concerns (as one reads the apparently tangential material, one finds that it is not so tangential after all, or that one's interests change to take in the new material).
(ii) Thinking about the essay question
Make sure you meditate on the precise meaning of the essay question you select: for this should be the focus of your essay throughout. Can the question be interpreted in more than one way? (If so, maybe you should fix on just one interpretation.) Does it break down into several questions? (If so, maybe you should focus on the most important one.) If the question invites you to consider and criticise the view presented in a primary text, establish as accurately as you can what view that is, and how it is argued. Think about counter-arguments, and be mature about this, i.e., don't spend time on trivial or merely terminological points (unless a terminological point leads to something bigger). Spend some time addressing how the author of a text you are criticising would respond to your points if they are not already ones he/she has raised. The advice given in the previous two sentences is really mandatory, for it is vital in philosophy not to score cheap victories (they will be unstable), but to attack the best and most sophisticated version of any position you wish to disagree with. That may not be the version which any given source material presents (because the philosopher in question may not have seen what his/her best point is); so be charitable and try to think things through from the point of view of your opponent (if there is one: but there usually will be).
Many of the great philosophical texts you will encounter in your studies make quite elementary mistakes: the reason why they are great and why they are in the canon is not that they are error-free - it is not even that they are at least free of obvious error - but that they tackle issues of fundamental importance in an exciting and illuminating way. Few people nowadays would subscribe to Leibniz's metaphysical views, for example, and many would say that he makes some quite simple mistakes (such as his theory of predication, on which so much of his system is built), but for all that he is a truly great philosopher (some would say: the greatest), just because the power and sophistication of his metaphysical views continue to exert fascination on us and to influence our thinking about many quite fundamental issues. I mention this point not in order to embark on an encomium of Leibniz, but to encourage you to think for yourselves in your reading, and pinpoint mistakes and confusions wherever you think they occur. Do not be shy, and accept no argument merely on authority: the history of philosophy is littered with arguments from authority, but that way of proceeding carries no weight today. Of course you must also avoid the opposite mistake of challenging authorities without good grounds: the authorities are there to help you see your way through the thickets of arguments and issues, and they can indeed be of considerable help (that is why they are authorities). But ultimately you must find the truth for yourself.
Note, in this connection, that plagiarism is a serious offence: see your 'Handbook for Candidates' on that. So far as possible you should try to state a thesis in your own words; but it is sometimes more convenient to quote: see my notes on Citation and Bibliography for guidance on that.
(iii) Writing the Essay
Make sure you have all the essential materials to hand when you write your essay. First make a skeletal outline of what you want to say: don't just plunge in. You may already have an idea how you want to begin, but you will find as you work on the skeletal plan that you modify your conception of the best way to proceed. On the other hand, if you have no idea how to begin (a very common experience), drafting a skeleton argument is absolutely essential to producing a clearly structured essay. Decide how much material you want to include: this will depend on the word length of the essay, and you may have to modify your plans as you proceed. Don't try to cram in too much: often one has to make the painful but necessary decision to omit something that one very much wanted to include, simply because it is (when one is honest with oneself) of secondary importance and there just isn't room.
The First Paragraph
If your skeletal framework is sufficiently full and you're happy with it, you may be able to write out a first draft of the essay from it, starting at the beginning and moving through to a conclusion. But it is very common (and this especially applies to unseens: see below) to find it difficult to write the introduction: writing the very first sentence is often the hardest part. In this situation, don't agonise. Begin your essay not at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle: in these days of word-processing there is really no difficulty in writing the parts of your essay in any order that comes naturally. When you have written the middle and the conclusion you will generally know how to frame an introduction, and it will present no problem: simply outline the problem and how you're going to tackle it. Of course, in doing that (and, if you go on to write papers which require abstracts you will find that the same often applies to the abstract) you may find that there is a mismatch between what you say in your introduction you're going to do, and what you actually go on to do. So you need to engage in a process of 'negotiation' between different parts of your essay. This is entirely normal, nothing to worry about, and can be (usually is) a fruitful source of philosophical insight.
Whether you write your introduction before you write the rest of your essay or afterwards, it should conform to the following general pattern: it should state the problem to be addressed, and the line you are going to take, unless, for stylistic reasons, you want that to be a surprise (but be careful deploying this tactic: remember that the overriding consideration is that your essay should be maximally comprehensible to your reader). You also want to interest your reader: so make your introduction snappy and business-like. Leave the background shading and necessary qualifications for later (though you should not of course misrepresent your thesis): a few deft strokes are what are required at this stage. If the result of your reading and thinking is that you do not want to argue for a thesis as such, then be open about that. There's no objection to an essay which simply knocks the ball around the court (you will be judged on the quality of your strokes), so long as you don't mislead your reader into expecting something else.
The Main Body of the Essay
Make sure that, throughout your essay, you keep the question to be addressed firmly in view: digressions are only permissible if they really subserve the ultimate goal. You should be able to say what any sentence in your essay is doing and how it contributes to the overall project. In working on your skeletal framework and/or in moving from that framework to the essay, you may have to discard points. You will find that in an essay of around 2,000 words you do not have space to argue for a large number of claims: making a coherent case for two or three related points will usually be as much as can be managed. Make sure that your essay reads smoothly, and that transitions from one point to the next are clearly marked and motivated. Your skeletal framework should help you here. As you work from that framework, you may detect gaps in its logic, or see how a position you've marked as one you want to defend may be better defended than you realised, or can be omitted altogether, or in fact is more problematic than you appreciated, etc.
The fact that, as you work on an essay, new points and alternative strategies will occur to you illustrates another important ideal in writing philosophy essay not under unseen-examination conditions: give yourself plenty of time. If you leave the essay to the last minute, you risk coming up with something half-baked and incoherent. If you start on it a few days ahead of the deadline, you will have time to reflect on it and re-read it (a crucial process) before producing and final version. Re-reading is vital, since it enables you to isolate and discard anything that is not strictly relevant to the argument of the essay, to detect and iron out inconsistencies, to spot non-sequiturs, ambiguities and unclear passages, and to find grammatical and other presentational errors.
Philosophy essay questions normally require you to argue a case. Sometimes you will be asked to assess another philosopher's views; sometimes you will be asked simply to address an issue in abstraction from any particular person's views. Occasionally a question will invite an expository answer, if, for example, the text you are required to discuss is particularly difficult, so that even to expound it demands a comparable level of acumen to writing a systematic answer. But such questions will be very much the exception, and you should normally expect to argue for or against a position, with or without reference (that will depend on the question and also on the subject matter) to views adopted by previous writers. In expounding a philosopher's views (whether that is your main purpose or a subsidiary one), do not waste time and space giving historical information that plays no role in the argumentation (of course if it does or can play a role, that is a different matter). Most of the essays you write at University, whether in unseen-examination conditions or otherwise, do not give you time or space to beat about the bush: get to the point; you will find that you have your work cut out simply stating key positions clearly and addressing their pros and cons.
If you are writing a relatively short essay, you may not need to add a conclusion. A conclusion is really only called for if the argument has been complicated and/or quite lengthy. Again, the overriding consideration is the comprehensibility of your essay: if your treatment of the subject matter demands it, then certainly you should append a short conclusion, stating briefly what you have been arguing and why; but do not put in a conclusion merely for the sake of it, and do not simply repeat what you have already clearly said.
Always keep a copy of any essay you hand in.
(c) Writing a philosophy essay under unseen-examination conditions
Much of what has been said already also applies to the case where you are writing an essay as part of an unseen examination, and I'm sure I can leave it to you to sort out, from what I've said so far, what's relevant and what's irrelevant to this case. Obviously you should aim, here too, to present a clearly structured argument, uncluttered by unnecessary historical or other material. Again, you may need to argue for or against a thesis; but here too you do not need to feel obliged to come down finally on one side or the other.
But there are several important points which need to be made relating exclusively to unseen examination conditions.
Read the paper carefully, not hurriedly. Make a provisional decision on the questions you are interested in tackling, and mark them on the question paper (it is all too easy in the excitement of the moment to forget what one had intended to do). Note that the number of questions you mark need not be the same as the number you are required to answer: you can leave it till later to make any necessary final decision between equally attractive (or unattractive) rivals: one reason for leaving these final decisions is that you may simply waste time agonising about that at this early stage, whereas if you postpone the decision you may well find that when you get to the point where you have to make it it has already made itself. All you need to do at this stage is hit on your best or two best questions. But you may of course know straight away which three (or four, as the case may be) questions you want to tackle. At this point a very important principle of exam technique kicks in: do your best question first, your second-best question second, and so on. Occasionally candidates reason as follows: I'll leave my best question till last, so that I've got the nasty ones out of the way and can have a pleasant landing. This is a very big mistake. What inevitably happens, if you tackle your worst question first, is that you get bogged down, you run over time, and you work yourself into a state, so that by the time you come to tackle what you thought was your best question you are all set to make a right mess of it. So: take your best question first. That will give you confidence and get you into the right psychological position for tackling that nasty final question which you were unsure about when you read through the paper first. If one's feeling confident and in control one often finds that that awful last question turns out to be not so awful after all: your confidence gives you ideas and emboldens you to grasp the bull by the horns. As a candidate one is often very bad at estimating which question one has answered best: it not infrequently happens that a question you think you answered best was not in fact your best (because you were coasting), whereas one which you answered last and in a state of semi-desperation attracts your highest mark (because having your back to the wall brings out the best in you).
Do not run over time on a question. Sometimes candidates take extra time on what they reckon is their best question, but this is a mistake. Each question is worth the same: taking an extra 15 minutes on your best question may earn you a few extra points on that question, but (a) it may not: you may start to waffle, in which case you'll lose points, and (b) the few extra points it gains you are likely to be more than cancelled out by the thoroughly bad job you do in consequence of having inadequate time on that difficult final question.
Before you write each essay, make sure (it's so important that I repeat it) that you write a skeletal plan. Take a good 5-10 minutes to do this: you'll find that it pays dividends. If you just start straight in you risk getting into a muddle and producing an incoherent essay; if you write to a plan, on the other hand, your essay will show just that measure of coherence and intelligibility evinced by your plan - hence the value of not skimping on the plan but giving it careful thought.
Again (another point I repeat, which is even more important in this context than in the previous one), don't agonise over your first paragraph. If your skeletal plan does not suggest to you how to begin (though it may well), never mind: just start in the middle. Leave a side of the answer book blank so that you can come back at the end and write an introduction, take up the argument at the point where you feel you can confidently develop it, and then leave five minutes at the end to go back and draft a suitable introduction: once you have written the essay you won't find that a problem.
Write neatly: you may be penalised by your examiner if your writing is hard to read. Writing neatly entails not writing too fast and not trying to write too much. The time you are allowed in an unseen examination to answer a question is perfectly adequate to enable you to address it at any level of competence. If you find that you don't have enough time, what that means is that you are misjudging exactly what should be included and what omitted, or you are taking too long to say something that could be put much more concisely. Remember - this is a mundane point but still worth stressing - that writing an unseen examination is a physical as well as an intellectual challenge. If you own a computer and are accustomed to type notes directly into it, make sure that you give your writing hand plenty of practice at manual writing for some time before any unseen examination: otherwise you are likely to suffer from cramp or some other form of writing exhaustion in the examination itself. We are all getting out of the habit of using pen and paper: don't forget that unseen examinations have not yet caught up with this development.
If you change your mind about a passage you have written and want to delete it, just score it through once. Some candidates spend a long time thoroughly deleting a passage, so that no part of it remains legible, but this is a waste of time: a single score is quite enough to signal to your examiner that it is not to be read, and I can assure you that examiners do not strain to read scored-out material.
Do not communicate directly with your examiner: do not add instructions to a scored-out piece of text that the examiner is not to read it; if you run out of time don't write 'Sorry, no time' (it's your fault if you've run out of time, and you don't get any credit for recognising it).
Leave enough time to write a conclusion, if your essay demands one. But again, do not, under the mistaken apprehension that a conclusion is mandatory, simply repeat what you have already said perfectly clearly.