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Examples are also useful for explaining the notions that play a central role in your argument. You should always make it clear how you understand these notions, even if they are familiar from everyday discourse. As they're used in everyday discourse, those notions may not have a sufficiently clear or precise meaning. For instance, suppose you're writing a paper about abortion, and you want to assert the claim " A fetus is a person. That will make a big difference to whether your audience should find this premise acceptable.

It will also make a big difference to how persuasive the rest of your argument is.

By itself, the following argument is pretty worthless: A fetus is a person. It's wrong to kill a person. Therefore, it's wrong to kill a fetus. For we don't know what the author means by calling a fetus "a person. In a philosophy paper, it's okay to use words in ways that are somewhat different from the ways they're ordinarily used. You just have to make it clear that you're doing this.


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For instance, some philosophers use the word "person" to mean any being which is capable of rational thought and self-awareness. Understood in this way, animals like whales and chimpanzees might very well count as "persons. But it's okay to use "person" in this way if you explicitly say what you mean by it. And likewise for other words. Don't vary your vocabulary just for the sake of variety If you call something "X" at the start of your paper, call it "X" all the way through.

So, for instance, don't start talking about "Plato's view of the self, " and then switch to talking about "Plato's view of the soul, " and then switch to talking about "Plato's view of the mind. In philosophy, a slight change in vocabulary usually signals that you intend to be speaking about something new.

Using words with precise philosophical meanings Philosophers give many ordinary-sounding words precise technical meanings. Consult the handouts on Philosophical Terms and Methods to make sure you're using these words correctly. Don't use words that you don't fully understand.

Use technical philosophical terms only where you need them.

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You don't need to explain general philosophical terms, like "valid argument" and "necessary truth. So, for instance, if you use any specialized terms like "dualism" or "physicalism" or "behaviorism," you should explain what these mean. Likewise if you use technical terms like "supervenience" and the like.

Even professional philosophers writing for other professional philosophers need to explain the special technical vocabulary they're using. Different people sometimes use this special vocabulary in different ways, so it's important to make sure that you and your readers are all giving these words the same meaning. Pretend that your readers have never heard them before.

Philosophical Writing: An Introduction by A.P. Martinich

Presenting and assessing the views of others If you plan to discuss the views of Philosopher X, begin by figuring out what his arguments or central assumptions are. Then ask yourself: Are X's arguments good ones? Are his assumptions clearly stated? Are they plausible?


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  6. Are they reasonable starting-points for X's argument, or ought he have provided some independent argument for them? Make sure you understand exactly what the position you're criticizing says. Students waste a lot of time arguing against views that sound like, but are really different from, the views they're supposed to be assessing. Remember, philosophy demands a high level of precision. It's not good enough for you merely to get the general idea of somebody else's position or argument.

    You have to get it exactly right. In this respect, philosophy is more like a science than the other humanities. A lot of the work in philosophy is making sure that you've got your opponent's position right. You can assume that your reader is stupid see above. But don't treat the philosopher or the views you're discussing as stupid. If they were stupid, we wouldn't be looking at them. If you can't see anything the view has going for it, maybe that's because you don't have much experience thinking and arguing about the view, and so you haven't yet fully understood why the view's proponents are attracted to it.

    Try harder to figure out what's motivating them. Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things, but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says. Use your imagination.

    Philosophical Writing: An Introduction

    Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that. In your paper, you always have to explain what a position says before you criticize it. If you don't explain what you take Philosopher X's view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you offer of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X's views. So tell the reader what it is you think X is saying. Don't try to tell the reader everything you know about X's views, though. You have to go on to offer your own philosophical contribution, too.

    Only summarize those parts of X's views that are directly relevant to what you're going to go on to do. Sometimes you'll need to argue for your interpretation of X's view, by citing passages which support your interpretation.

    It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, though you can't find any direct evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, though, you should explicitly say so. Say something like: Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he's assuming it anyway, because Quotations When a passage from a text is particularly useful in supporting your interpretation of some philosopher's views, it may be helpful to quote the passage directly.

    Be sure to specify where the passage can be found. However, direct quotations should be used sparingly. It is seldom necessary to quote more than a few sentences. Often it will be more appropriate to paraphrase what X says, rather than to quote him directly. When you are paraphrasing what somebody else said, be sure to say so.

    And here too, cite the pages you're referring to. Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation. And when you do quote an author, you still have to explain what the quotation says in your own words. If the quoted passage contains an argument, reconstruct the argument in more explicit, straightforward terms. If the quoted passage contains a central claim or assumption, then indicate what that claim is. You may want to give some examples to illustrate the author's point.

    If necessary, you may want to distinguish the author's claim from other claims with which it might be confused. Paraphrases Sometimes when students are trying to explain a philosopher's view, they'll do it by giving very close paraphrases of the philosopher's own words. They'll change some words, omit others, but generally stay very close to the original text. For instance, Hume begins his Treatise of Human Nature as follows: All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas.

    The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions, and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul.

    By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning. Here's an example of how you don't want to paraphrase: Hume says all perceptions of the mind are resolved into two kinds, impressions and ideas. The difference is in how much force and liveliness they have in our thoughts and consciousness. The perceptions with the most force and violence are impressions.

    These are sensations, passions, and emotions. Ideas are the faint images of our thinking and reasoning. There are two main problems with paraphrases of this sort. In the first place, it's done rather mechanically, so it doesn't show that the author understands the text. In the second place, since the author hasn't figured out what the text means well enough to express it in his own words, there's a danger that his paraphrase may inadvertently change the meaning of the text.

    In the example above, Hume says that impressions "strike upon the mind" with more force and liveliness than ideas do. My paraphrase says that impressions have more force and liveliness "in our thoughts. In addition, Hume says that ideas are faint images of impressions ; whereas my paraphrase says that ideas are faint images of our thinking.

    These are not the same. So the author of the paraphrase appears not to have understood what Hume was saying in the original passage. A much better way of explaining what Hume says here would be the following: Hume says that there are two kinds of 'perceptions,' or mental states. He calls these impressions and ideas. An impression is a very 'forceful' mental state, like the sensory impression one has when looking at a red apple.

    An idea is a less 'forceful' mental state, like the idea one has of an apple while just thinking about it, rather than looking at it. It is not so clear what Hume means here by 'forceful. Anticipate objections Try to anticipate objections to your view and respond to them.