What Does It Mean to “Do Philosophy”?
Americans don’t pay much attention to philosophy. Yet, in some countries—take France for example— philosophers enjoy something akin to rock star status, significantly influencing public debate and policy. What it means to “do philosophy” is a concept that is still alive and well abroad. Yet, how many American college students take a philosophy class in order to check off another general education credit, without giving any thought to the possibility that the class just might change the way they think about, or even are, in the world?
Philosophy is an active discipline, not a pastime for weary retirees ruminating on arcane ideas. Philosophy is robust. You might even have to read a text more than once! Nietzsche wrote, “A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts reached by walking have any value” (Twilight of the Idols). Philosophy requires curiosity, a critical eye raised at the status quo, and a willingness to get out into the world.
Reading and Writing Philosophy Is Doing Philosophy
You do philosophy by writing philosophy. Your voice enters the conversation. It’s become fashionable to say “doing philosophy” instead of “to philosophize” (in case you were wondering what happened to that perfectly good verb for the substantive), because “philosophizing” sounds, well, boring and erudite and “doing philosophy” sounds learned but maybe more urban, certainly more youthful and engaging.
Before you can write about philosophy, you have to spend some time with philosophy texts, which may be different than most reading you’ve done. When you read philosophy, you read for understanding. This is different than reading a novel for enjoyment or gleaning a textbook for facts you readily take away. The connectivity granted by technology has conditioned most of us to expect immediate gratification. But reading philosophy texts requires a bit of patience and new strategies, even rereading. There may be a passage you don’t immediately understand, but you push ahead, flagging the section and returning to it later. This is normal!
When you read philosophy, others around you may think you have issues. You may get into the habit of talking to yourself, asking yourself questions like: What is the main point of the text? How is this argument constructed and supported? What do I think of the author’s assertions? Who cares?
Bertrand Russell advised that “In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first, a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude. Know what a book is about, be able to interpret the meaning, then criticize” (The History of Western Philosophy). In other words, before you pass judgment and cop an attitude about how much you dislike Kant’s unrelenting moral command that you cannot lie to a murderer, even if he is chasing your best friend, you better make sure you’ve been truly open to Kant’s moral theory.
What to Expect When You “Do” Philosophy Papers
Most introductory level philosophy courses will not ask you to write a research paper. Instead, the emphasis is on demonstrating that you understand and can apply what you’ve read, as well as encouraging you to chime in and develop your own philosophical voice. Paper assignments will build on one another. Common paper types include:
- A summary of an argument (or several related arguments).
- An application essay, which requires you apply an argument to a new situation, like exploring whether the television character House is a Kantian ethicist or a Utilitarian.
- An analysis essay, which asks you to analyze an argument in both content and form, explaining how the various parts of an argument are connected. Often these types of essays deal with the difference between fact and opinion, as well as logical fallacies.
- An evaluation essay, which expects you to defend or criticize an argument you have read and support your position.
- A synthesis essay, which is essentially your defense of a position you have taken on a given issue.
All of these essay types require that you incorporate quotations from the primary source, from the book or article written by the philosopher, and cite them correctly. In your introductory level philosophy courses, you will be asked to use MLA guidelines for citing sources. Incorporation of secondary sources, books or articles written by others commenting on or interpreting what the original philosopher has written, is relatively rare in introductory level philosophy courses, although specific sources may be recommended by the instructor. Because in each philosophy course you will write several of the types of papers above, you will be practicing the skills honed by philosophers but which are also equally sought after in most, if not all, academic disciplines.
Philosophy, Writing, and Other Academic Disciplines
Many of the skills philosophy demands—in particular the focus on understanding, reproducing, critiquing, and substantiating arguments—will aid in your studies in most majors and minors. Transferable skills include:
- Recognizing arguments.
- Identifying assumptions.
- Recognizing when a conclusion is reached in the absence of complete information.
- Recognizing that agreements and disagreements can emerge in both belief and attitude.
- Exploring the implications of conclusions.
- Understanding what kind of questions need to be asked.
The beauty of learning to write philosophy papers is that the process just might change the way you frame your world. If Nietzsche’s reference to walking seems a weak metaphor for a bold activity like doing philosophy, consider first that those little German guys went for walks on some pretty steep mountain paths. And then, reflect on Martin Heidegger’s famous passage, which draws a connection between entering a clearing after an arduous walk in the woods and the deeper experiences of being human,
In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting… Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.
—The Question Concerning Technology
Writing philosophy papers will encourage you to think about how and who you want to be in the world.
Recommended On-line Sources for Philosophy
Even though most papers won’t call for secondary sources, print or Web, these sites can be useful for preparing presentations or gathering contextual information:
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Voice of the Shuttle: Philosophy
- Philosophy Around the Web
- American Philosophical Association (APA)
- Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP)
- Society for Women in Philosophy
- Guide to Philosophy of the Internet by Peter Suber, Earlham College
More Help for Writing Philosophy Papers
The bibliography below is a survey of some of the books and articles available on philosophy and writing. Many of them are geared toward students taking a philosophy class and provide specific and practical advice.
An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles on Philosophy and Writing
Edwards, Anne Michael. Writing to Learn: An Introduction to Writing Philosophical Essays. Boston: McGraw Hill, 200.
Both the tone and content of Edward’s book would make it an ideal choice for philosophy instructors seeking a composition text for introductory philosophy courses. The slim, accessible volume covers all the types of philosophical essays students can expect to be assigned in beginning courses, as well as the basics of reading philosophy texts. The book includes specific examples of the various essay types, as well as humor to mitigate the challenge of writing philosophy papers.
Eflin, Juli. “Improving Student Papers in ‘Introduction to Philosophy Courses.” Teaching Philosophy: Theoretical Reflections and Practical Suggestions. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004. 41-47.
Juli Eflin, chair of the philosophy department at Ball State University, provides philosophy instructors with practical suggestions for improving student writing in introductory philosophy courses. The article focuses on how to structure and conduct worthwhile peer review sessions and provides an explanation of the criteria Eflin uses to grade philosophy papers.
Feinberg, Joel. Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
Joel Feinberg, Regents Professor of Philosophy and Law (emeritus) at the University of Arizona, emphasizes that doing philosophy means formulating one’s own thoughts on philosophical subjects, i.e., writing on philosophical topics. He provides tips on choosing topics, suggesting, for example, that in a comparison paper a student choose two philosophers with clearly contrasting views in order to create a thesis comparing the persuasiveness of the two opposing arguments. Beginning and intermediate level philosophy students are the intended audience of Feinberg’s book, and he focuses on philosophy papers which do not require research, as secondary sources in philosophy tend to be written for a professional audience and are most often not accessible for undergraduates. He also strives to save students from common pitfalls like the inclusion of biographical details about the philosophers or making excuses for being a beginning philosophy student. His description of the process of writing an outline, emphasizing the fact that the outline itself is a work-in-progress which can be altered as needed, is insightful and might free students up from feeling so bound or intimidated by this stage of the writing process. The real strength of this book is the author’s effort to reduce the anxiety level of the beginning philosophy student confronted with the writing process. Feinberg also discusses the various types of philosophy papers and a useful overview of philosophy sources.
Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
While Graff and Birkenstein, both of whom teach at the University of Chicago at Illinois, have produced a book to improve academic writing in general, the content is particularly useful in a philosophy course in which students are being asked to add their voice to the ongoing conversation that is philosophy, a task they often find daunting. While some might argue that Graff and Birkenstein’s method is prescriptive—it uses a template method to teach students the lingo and rhythm of academic writing—one could also argue that it gives students a clear starting point from which they can always deviate as their writing matures. The book explains how to summarize an academic argument, how to quote, how to respond to a text, how to consider the other side of an argument, how to persuade the reader that the content of the paper matters, and how to add her own voice to the conversation.
Graybosch, Anthony J., Gregory M. Scott, and Stephen M. Garrison. The Philosophy Student Writer’s Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998.
Graybosch teaches at California State University, Chico, while both Scott and Garrison are at the University of Central Oklahoma. Their manual, while intended for an undergraduate audience, is too extensive to serve as an additional or complimentary text to other philosophy texts in most philosophy courses. Its content is too broad, addressing issues like the nature of the discipline of philosophy, great detail about the process of writing as one expects to find in an English composition class, and suggested formats for philosophy papers so long that they merit chapter headings. Chapter 12 introduces an interesting idea for an ethics paper, an essay on a personal ethics statement. On the whole, the content, diction, tone, and breadth and depth of information are inappropriate for most undergraduate level philosophy courses.
Harvey, J. “Bridging the Gap: The Intellectual and Perceptual Skills for Better Academic Writing.” Teaching Philosophy 31 (2008): 151-159.
While the intended audience of this article is philosophy instructors who teach graduate level philosophy courses, some of its content is of interest for the undergraduate philosophy professor as well. Harvey, who teaches at the University of Guelph in Ontario, focuses on clarity as the key element of any successful philosophy paper. He describes a process of modeling, whereby the professor reviews a well-written student essay with students in the course, then asks them to use the same criteria to review essays by professional philosophers, and then to apply this criteria to their own essays. Certainly the early steps of modeling he describes and the emphasis on identifying an appropriate scope and clear focus for a paper are steps undergraduate instructors should focus on. His overall goal, moving students away from stream-of-consciousness writing to a well-planned essay conveyed in simple, short sentences with accurate terminology, is crucial to successful undergraduate writing in philosophy.
Kasachkoff, Tziporah, Ed. Teaching Philosophy: Theoretical Reflections and Practical Suggestions. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
Kasachkoff, the editor of The American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy and a professor of philosophy and social science at the City University of New York, has collected numerous insightful and instructive essays in one volume. While several of the essays discuss how to better teach the reading and writing of philosophy, others cover such diverse topics as teaching applied ethics, teaching with computers, and teaching critical thinking, as well as how to teach specific philosophers like Kant and Hegel or specific courses like Continental Philosophy.
Malone-France, Derek. “Composition Pedagogy and the Philosophy Curriculum.” Teaching Philosophy 31 (2008): 59-81.
Malone-France’s article is a plea for more attention to composition pedagogy in upper level philosophy courses. He argues that philosophy must go beyond covering as many figures as possible and move towards enabling students by teaching them to do philosophy by writing philosophy. Students should, in other words, join in the on-going conversation that is philosophy. Malone-France, who teaches at George Washington University, recommends peer workshops, short graded reading responses, longer assignments which grow out of shorter ones, and multiple graded drafts. He does say that the planning and execution of such a writing-intensive philosophy course is time-consuming. While his suggestions would have to be modified for the undergraduate classroom, the essence of his arguments ring true, and his instructions for peer workshops are well thought out and thorough. Malone-France, like J. Harvey, recommends modeling a successful student paper early in the semester and work shopping as a way to stimulate student discussion on workshop and non-workshop days.
Saunders, Clare., et al. Doing Philosophy: A Practical Guide for Students. London: Continuum, 2007.
The multiple authors of this volume have taught at a variety of British institutions, including the University of Sunderland, the University of Durham, Birkbeck College, the University of London, and the University of Leeds. The purpose of the book is to introduce students taking philosophy for the first time to aspects of the discipline which often go unexplained, like how to best read philosophical texts, how to understand technical terms, how to prepare for class discussion, and how to construct arguments. The work is geared toward students in the British university system, but American students shouldn’t let this deter them from benefiting from the many practical tips the book offers. The chapter on writing introduces students to the various kinds of prompts they will encounter in a philosophy class—structured questions, descriptive questions, evaluative questions, comparative questions, etc. Suggestions for writing a non-repetitive conclusion are helpful, as are specific tips on style and sample essay questions, outlines, and annotated examples. The book ends with a helpful list of questions to guide students evaluating the value of an internet site as a research source.
Seech, Zachary. Writing Philosophy Papers. Belmont, CA: Wordsworth, 2004.
Seech teaches at Palomar College, and his target audience is undergraduate philosophy students. In his fairly short (148 pages), yet well-organized book, Seech balances information on good writing that applies to most humanities courses with specific information philosophy students need to know. He includes the various types of philosophy papers—thesis defense, compare-and-contrast, research, summary, and explanatory—spending most of his time on the former. Like Feinberg, Seech’s tone is reassuring, reminding students that a thesis does not have to be complicated in order to generate a thorough paper long enough to fulfill the assignment. He discusses various kinds of opening and closing paragraphs and strategie,s such as mapping and outlining. A sample paper with documentation, as well as a section on logic, is included in the appendix.