Each month I write the questions for Pub Theology. Pub Theology promises important questions, good conversation, great beer. It only guarantee’s great beer. Without important questions the good conversation may go bad. I want to improve my questions, even make them important. I need to improve my questions, exeven make them understandable. I must improve my questions, even make them philosophical. I found an article on the net on philosophical writing and my review of summation of it follows. I hope to extract the essentials for writing good philosophical questions.
The Harvard College Writing Center published a paper titled “A Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper”. This seven page document is structured into the following parts:
- The Challenges of Philosophical Writing
- Structuring a Philosophical Paper
- Begin by formulating your precise thesis
- Define technical or ambiguous terms used in your thesis or your argument.
- If necessary, motivate your thesis (i.e. explain to your reader why they should care about it)
- Explain briefly how you will argue in favor of your thesis.
- If necessary, explain the argument you will be critiquing.
- Make an argument to support your thesis.
- In order to strengthen your argument, anticipate and answer objections to it.
- Briefly conclude by explaining what you think your argument has established.
- Example of a Reductio
- Premise 1
- Premise 2
- Premise 3
- Conclusion (from 2 and 3)
- Example of a Question Begging Argument
- Premise 1
- Premise 2
- Example of a Reductio
- Avoid direct quotes
- Use first person personal pronouns and possessive pronouns freely; signpost.
- Say exactly what you mean, and no more than you need to say.
- Be careful with specialized language.
Above find the outline of this article. Below find my interpretation and the key elements I will need to apply to my Pub Theology questions.
The Challenges of Philosophical Writing
You expressing your personal opinion on controversial topics is not philosophy. A method of first attaining a clear and exact question, then provide answers supported by clear, logically structured arguments, that is philosophy.
An ideal argument should lead from obviously true premises to an unobvious true conclusion. A successful negative argument refutes the theory. Positive arguments usually end up discussing other questions.
Structuring a Philosophy Paper
Assignments ask you to a thesis, which is a claim that may be true or false. Explain it, support it, objection to it, defend it, evaluate it, discuss consequences, etc. Structure thesis as follows:
Begin by formulating your precise thesis
Example: State argument clear and concise, avoid ambiguity (uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language.)
Define technical or ambiguous terms used in your thesis or your argument.
Think of an imaginary reader whenever you need to decide how much you need to say to set up a discussion, or to judge the overall clarity of your work.
If necessary, motivate your thesis (i.e. explain to your reader why they should care about it).
Explain briefly how you will argue in favor of your thesis.
Take care to clearly indicate when you are speaking in your own voice, and when you are explicating someone else’s argument or point of view but not yourself advocating it.
If necessary, explain the argument you will be critiquing.
Explain the argument in your own words.
POOR WRITING EXAMPLE: In order to prove or disprove a thesis, one must engage with it. Explain and analyze the argument rather than just reporting on it (a book report). Make your view clear, not ambiguous.
Make an argument to support your thesis.
Use a single compelling argument as opposed to using multiple weaker arguments.
In order to strengthen your argument, anticipate and answer objections to it.
You must always present a reasons for thinking an objection is true.
You should always raise and reply to the strongest
objections you can think.
GOOD WRITING EXAMPLE: Do not let objections rest on logical fallacies or implausible premises.
Briefly conclude by explaining what you think your argument has established.
HOW TO GET IT DONE
Don’t try to write a from scratch, from beginning to end: leave plenty of time. Topic, possible thesis, rough argument in your head, sketches on paper, then begin master outline: thesis, argument, maximal logical clarity, one line for each argument logical step, potential objections and replies. Try explaining your argument to someone else. Read your paper out loud or have a friend read it to work out which parts of your argument might confuse or fail to persuade the reader and need more work.
Evidence for a claim generally provides a better argument. Philosophers avoid empirical data, and confine their investigations to their armchairs. If you
do use such evidence from elsewhere…explain exactly why it is relevant and exactly what we can conclude from it. Show how two or more views cannot be held consistently with each other, or show that although two views are consistent with one another, they together entail an implausible third claim, known as a reductio ad absurdum.
EXAMPLE OF A REDUCTIO
If the argument is logically valid, show that the three premises of the argument can all be true. A further argument would be needed to show which of the three premises ought to be rejected.
Philosophical arguments are not always in the form of a
reducti. Basic premises should generally be claims that any reasonable reader can be expected to agree with, and they might be drawn from common experience, or from our stronger intuitions. Avoid the fallacy of begging the question – which is to say, using any premises that one would reasonably doubt if not for one’s prior acceptance of the conclusion the argument attempts
EXAMPLE OF A QUESTION – BEGGING ARGUMENT
If the writer defined argument argument terms more carefully, its weakness would be clear. Ambiguous terms in philosophical arguments are a common problem, and can mask other weaknesses.
Examples can also help clarify the intended meaning of terms. Philosophers make great use of hypothetical examples in particular.
A GOOD USE OF EXAMPLES
Foreknown side-effect and aims are important points in arguments which involve clear moral institutions.
Do not argue that a claim is true, or is likely to be true, just because someone of
great authority believed it. Do not argue from what the dictionary says about something.
Explain other philosopher’s arguments in your own words. Read philosophy articles slow and careful. Understand the steps of the argument. When using another philosopher’s argument, put it in your own words and in the logical form that seems clearest to you, add improvements, offer or modify reason, defense.
Avoid direct quotes
When you paraphrase: explain any ambiguous terms or technical
terms in the source, and aim to show that you’ve understood.
Use first person personal pronouns and possessive pronouns freely; signpost.
Give your reader a clear sense of where your argument is going at all times (i.e. I will argue…, I will now show…, My second objection is…)
Say exactly what you mean, and no more than you need to say.
Use simple prose and short, simple sentences. Establish a modest point as clearly, carefully, and concisely as possible.
Be careful with specialized language
Philosophy reserves certain terms and phrases for special, narrow meanings that are peculiar to the subject.These include deduction, begs the question, valid, invalid, sound, and unsound (used to describe arguments), and vague (used to describe terms or concepts). You should understand the word use in philosophy before the word use in any of your writing.