Teaching students how to explain philosophical arguments

While it’s a hallmark of upper-level philosophy essays that students are asked to formulate and justify a position in response to some evaluative question, it’s worth remembering that getting there often involves asking students to explain some argument or other from the philosophical literature.

This is a skill in itself, and one students can need support developing.  Without it, students philosophy essays can resemble unfortunate attempts to run before they can walk, since deploying a good evaluation of an argument generally depends on having previously deployed a decent explanation of it.

While there’s much to discuss here, for now, here’s a worksheet I recently put together in response to classes I know going on right now.

It’s designed to support students learning the specific skill of explaining a philosophical argument, especially in response to some question. Feel free to use it in whatever activities or classroom contexts you like.

The idea is you give them some argument or other from a textual source – a class text, a printout from the internet’s vast archive of philosophical literature – and they can use this worksheet to focus attention on explaining it, and then thinking about what sorts of steps were involved in what they chose to explain and how they chose to explain it.  Easy peasy.

HOW TO USE THIS WORKSHEET

Teachers, or students who want to use this to practice:

  1. Insert a question of your choice in the top box.
  2. Complete (or ask your students to complete, a caveat that applies to the rest of this worksheet) the second box, a stem question designed to get students to focus on writing a succinct, salient introductory sentence stating what they will do to answer the question (hint: we’re expecting them to say something involving words like “explain” or “describe”).
  3. Explain the argument either in bullet-points or in full sentences. Remember to focus on doing so in a way that clearly and precisely answers the question.
  4. Perhaps after some class discussion reflecting on the process of explanation and effective versus less effective ways of explaining, identify 2-3 things about your own explanation that were good, and 2-3 things that could be done differently next time to produce a better explanation.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE WORKSHEET

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Plato’s Theory of Forms, and the Sun, Line and Cave – PPT SLIDES

Here are some slides on the eponymous Plato’s Republic.  These were used in a class where we had to get through the basics of Plato’s position to evaluate the claim that philosophers should be kings.

They were offered to provide a framework of his overall position to support student understanding while simultaneously challenging students to think about the role the similes play in illustrating and supporting Plato’s arguments and position.

Of particular interest might be the slides on the Sun, the Divided Line, and the Cave.  The last links through to the animated version of Plato’s cave narrated by Orson Welles.

I would love to know what you think, if you’ve used them and what happened, or if you wouldn’t use them and why not, or any other salient thoughts.

Feel free to download and use these slides in accordance with our CC licensing.  Below you’ll find links to .pptx, .ppt and .pdf formats.

The slideshare doesn’t reflect the clickthrough “animation” of the slides, so download a version of the file below if you’d like to see these in action.

Plato’s Theory of Forms & Sun, Line and Cave slides (pptx version)
Plato’s Theory of Forms & Sun, Line and Cave slides (ppt version)
Plato’s Theory of Forms & Sun, Line and Cave slides (pdf version)

Early adventures in arguments – PPT Slide

Because one must always remember that students just starting out in philosophy mostly have minimal exposure to “argument” technique in the UK’s formal education system beyond the possibility of some Philosophy 4 Children, English lessons in which rhetoric is prioritized as an “argumentative” move, and a general exposure to “having an argument”, here are some slides I put together to introduce students to:

  1.  What is an argument?
  2. How does one identify the bits of an argument? (Using Monty Python’s “But how do you know she’s a witch?” scene with Sir Bedevere from The Holy Grail as a good example of a (bad) argument, and remaining very cursory for new students)
  3. How does one evaluate an argument?

These slides would have been buttressed by discussion in various ways which I may supplement here later, but for now I suspect someone may find at least the graphical walkthrough of the Monty Python argument useful.

The slideshare doesn’t reflect the clickthrough “animation” of the slides, so download a version of the file below if you’d like to see these.

Feel free to download and use these slides in accordance with our CC licensing.  Below you’ll find links to .pptx, .ppt and .pdf formats.

Arguments (pptx version)
Arguments (ppt version)
Arguments (pdf version)

How to Read Philosophy

So you’ve made the leap from learning philosophy out of bland and banal course textbooks to doing philosophy by interacting directly with philosophers and their arguments from the horse’s mouth. Congratulations!

Now, reading anything takes time, but reading philosophy can be especially time consuming if you’re not practiced in efficient reading strategies. It’s also very different from how you might read for pleasure, or for gathering factual information from articles and news reports. In these, you can skip and skim over the text, or indulge yourself in moments of inattention while still getting a pretty complete understanding of what’s going on. In philosophy, every sentence can be a morsel of reasoning, crucial to the argument offered by an author in support of their claims.

In contrast to other forms of writing, philosophical writing almost always offers arguments. This does not mean that they involve people arguing, or are written LIKE THIS TO INDICATE SHOUTING (!), but that they aim to state and then give reasons for accepting some position or other. In fact, the definition of an ‘argument’ relevant to most academic work can be lifted straight out of a Monty Python Sketch (Google: ‘Monty Python’s Argument Clinic’): An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition. Note that it may help you to memorise this definition and hold it in your head to help you when you’re reading anything at all at this level. Read on to see why…

Close scrutiny and careful attention pay dividends in understanding argument., opening up fruitful opportunities for interpretation, analysis and evaluation (all the things you need to show us you can do in your essays and class contributions).

There is one other important difference from other literary forms: philosophical writing usually contains an internal dialogue not present in other styles, where an author, using the same voice (i.e. without indicating a change in character or speaker) will disagree with himself and suddenly begin trying to knock out his previous point.

Expect this, and do not be thrown by it. This represents the typical back and forth of philosophical thinking: we state a position, consider problems with that position, and either reject it or adapt it to avoid the original problems we found. And so on with our new position, and on it goes. The mark-up below can be used to assist your engagement with this structure. [1]

So, without further ado, here are some top student, teacher and examiner generated tips for getting the most out of your reading, primary texts or otherwise. These tips are sequential, so go step by step until you get the hang of it.

 

Step 1: Getting ready

  • Sounds obvious, but find a comfortable place to settle for your conversation with the author (usually a big (famous) old dead guy[2]). Not too comfortable, or you’ll fall asleep, but not so uncomfortable that you’re compelled to stop after only a short time. Reclining on a sofa isn’t such a great idea: sleep may follow soon after.
  • Pen. Always have a pen. Be prepared to mentally reframe ‘defacing your books’ into ‘enhancing them with the wonder of your own thoughts’. Mark-ups, notes, questions and thoughts written directly into the book (provided you own it) will speed up your reading in future revisits.

 

Step 2: What you need to know

All of your learning in philosophy should be guided by the following questions, though they are especially pertinent when reading primary texts. They will help you to quickly formulate some kind of background or context for the content therein. This will help you to more quickly understand what on earth is going on.

  • What’s the point? (What is the fundamental focus of the discussion being presented, e.g. which area of philosophy does it relate to, is it focused on any particular theory, argument or example, etc. Examples might include: discovering the nature of justice, classifying different political systems, etc).
  • Why did they bother? (What was the author’s motivation for sitting down and spending so much time writing this philosophical treatise when they could have been out doing something else far more exciting? Usually this is to do with responding to some problem or issue they’ve discovered or are otherwise annoyed about.)
  • What are they trying to prove? (It is rare for any philosophical writing to be done without the intention of providing rational argument to persuade someone of to accept some claim made by the author, so it’s important to identify what exactly they’re arguing for, i.e., trying to prove. This is known as their thesis. It is essential that you can identify the central thesis of any article, since without this the philosophical foundation of it cannot be located. How are you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments given for and against this thesis if you don’t know what it is?)
  • How do they try and prove it? Or, what’s the argument? Remember, an argument is a series of linked propositions acting as reasons (or premises) to establish the truth of some further proposition as the argument’s conclusion. The reasons lead us logically to the conclusion (or not, in bad or weak arguments).

 

You should have these questions in your mind before you open even the first page of the text itself. They should inform your interrogation of the material. While fictional literature like novels may be gently padded through with cognitive slippers made from cotton wool, philosophical literature of any stripe deserves to be interrogated. It’s not that it’s bad, but just that it will slip from your fingers unless you scrutinise it down to the full stop. So, our catchphrase is:

 

INTERROGATE THE LITERATURE

 

Sorry it’s not that catchy.

 

Step 3: Get down to interrogating

  • Be like a detective and use the blurb, contents page, or even descriptions on bookseller websites or Google Books to give you an idea of what to expect. When doing this, ask: ‘What does this tell me about what to expect? How does this connect with my prior knowledge?’[3]
  • Read the first and last paragraph of the text (or section of text). This should provide you with answers to some of your questions, like ‘What’s the point?’, ‘Why did they bother?’ and ‘What are they trying to prove?’
  • Review your findings: what do you know already about the text and what to expect?

 

Step 4: Fast-read!

Much what you’d expect: read the text fast. You won’t understand everything (this is normal) so don’t expect to, and don’t stop. Keep going to the end. Your goal here is to get an overall sense of the architecture of the discussion, of the moves the author makes to motivate, state and defend his or her thesis. Broad brush strokes are all that is required. This further develops your background knowledge, and some of the above questions should begin to be answered.

 

Step 5: Close read

Now, go sloooooooooooooowly. Really slowly. Slower than you’d want to. This may be painful, but it will be immensely worth it at the end when you have the satisfaction of being able to give the clearest and most accurate account of an author’s argument, how they present it through discussion and what you think of other interpretations of it. Philosophy is hard, so work hard and set yourself up to be able to pat yourself on the back.

As you read slowly, scrutinise the text with the questions above in your mind at all times. Consider whether and how each sentence contributes to building an answer for any of those sentences. Mark-up the text as you go. Your highlighter should have been slung in the bin by now (or just kept out of reach) since highlighters only tell you that a section is more important than another, but not why or how it is. Marking up will speed up your understanding of the latter, and thus make your reading more efficient.

Marking up should include the following:

  1. Identification of the structure of the argument/discussion by noting down things such as ‘focus’, ‘thesis’, objections (obj1, 2 , etc), reasons (R1, R2, etc) and so on.
  2. Underlining particularly important sections (in conjunction with other notations)
  3.  Connections to other ideas or literature.
  4.  Clarification of meaning, such as making implied references explicit.
  5. A note of bits you don’t understand: use ‘?’ to denote confusion, but do try and say why you’re confused (in tiny, tiny writing, if you must).

Here are some suggested marking up methods, but you should try and create your own too:

Df Definition
Q. Important question raised by the author/speaker – can be used to determine focus or shift in argument
Cf “See…” some other theory, reference, author, etc.
E.g. An example, either in text or one of your own that nicely illustrates the point.

 

Some of the readings have examples of this kind of mark-up. But you’ll have to look at them all to find out which they are! Check Moodle’s downloadable reading list for Socrates and Plato and see if you can find them.

 

Step 6: Summarise what you’ve read

This does three things:

(1)     It forces you to check you’ve been paying attention, and how much. If there’s a step in the argument you can’t summarise, you need to go back and review the text.

(2)     It consolidates your first reading so enhances your ability to recall the information later.

(3)     It provides you with a handy first point of reference when you come back to read the text again later, allowing you to create your own preliminary source of information.

I do this by writing a bullet-pointed summary of the focus, thesis and argument (including objections) onto 2-3 sticky notes which I then stick to the first page of the text. I do this within 10 minutes of reading the text, to ensure it’s fresh in my mind, and because recall at this stage is proven to enhance memorization.  I also find this invaluable whenever I have to go back to the text, sometimes a long while since the last reading, and want a quick summary of what it says and how it says it. This way, I get more of a return on the initial investment of my time: I don’t need to go searching for my notes on the text, since they’re right there on it, and I’ve used my initial work with the text to make future work much, much easier.

 

And, you’re done![4]

 

[1]This isn’t true for all texts, especially those written in dialogue form, e.g. Plato’s Dialogues or Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

[2]Big as in famous, not oversized. And yes, unfortunately, the majority of the people you’ll read will be dead and male and white, women and people of colour being somewhat underrepresented in the ancient, classical and modern (mainstream) philosophical literature, and philosophy being a very slow discipline in which ideas initiated 30 years ago can be ‘recent’.

[3]This may not be possible in the case of journal articles or essays. Here, seek the abstract, heading and subheadings, and also look at the author and their credentials.

[4] For a good pedagogical discussion of how to teach students how to read philosophy, including the author’s own guide for students, see David O. Concepión’s Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition (Teaching Philosophy, 27:4, 2004)

Want to download a printable version of this post?  Click here to download and print: FALASAFAZ-How_To_Read_Philosophy

 

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REVISION WORKSHEET: Plato’s Theory of Forms, Sun/Line/Cave & Form of the Good

Got Plato? We do. Just a bit though, since he’s rather prolific.

Use this worksheet to support revision on:

  • Theory of Forms
  • Similes of the Sun, Line and Cave
  • The Form of the Good

Question is: would a consistent Platonist insist that it’s not revision, it’s just recollection?

Revision Worksheet – Plato

 

 

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How to write a badass Philosophy essay

The best kinds of intro-level Philosophy essays:

~ Demonstrate detailed and precise knowledge and understanding of the arguments and concepts relating to the question.

~ Give a clear, detailed and precise analysis of the arguments and theories relating to the question.

~ Make good use of illustrations and examples to support your analysis, and more importantly, the line of argument you choose to reach your conclusion.

~ Interpret and combine the points you’ve chosen to talkabout to create a coherent, and well-reasoned argument that directly addresses the question.

 

BUT… HOW?

 

1/ Do your research – beforehand! Getting the detailed and precise knowledge the examiners are looking for involves reading around the subject; don’t just rely on what you do in lessons. Don’t forget, this is great practice for what life’s like at university. See it as your own independent research, and own it. Do remember, this step comes way before you enter the exam room!

2/ Look for clues in the question. Don’t rush. Take a moment or two to look for the clues the examiners have given you in the question that tell you what they want you to focus on. Does the question link up with other questions you know about? If so, how? What arguments, or philosophers are relevant? And how do they contribute to the debate?

3/ Prove it! – pick a line of argument. The very best philosophy essays pick some line of argument that leads them to some definite conclusion, and this is what you need to aim at. So based on what you’ve discovered in the question, how are you going to answer it? What are you going to prove? And what arguments and theories can you use to do so?

4/ Signpost what you’re going to do. Now you’ve chosen your line of argument, and how you’re going to construct it, tell the examiner that in your introduction. After you’ve introduced the topic generally, explain how you’re going to approach the question, what theories or arguments you’re going to consider, and what you’re going to do with them. And when you finished, summarise what you looked at, what you did with it, and what conclusion you’ve drawn. Dead easy.

5/ “On the one hand… on the other…” Even though your essay should aim at persuading whoever reads it to accept your conclusion, you’ve got to keep it balanced. It’s no good just singing a view’s praises without considering possible pitfalls, problems and criticisms. So for every point you make, consider a counter-argument. Even better, you could try to think of any way someone holding the original view might give a counter-counter argument.

6/ Define key terms and concepts. Even if what you mean might be obvious to you, there’s no guarantee it’ll be obvious to your reader. And that’s even more of a problem if there are multiple ways a word could be understood. So define any technical terms to make sure your reader knows what you’re talking about.

7/ Be precise, and specific. Examiners can spot waffle a mile off. If you want to make a point, do so explicitly; don’t do the verbal equivalent of waving your hand vaguely in the air when you could easily point directly at the thing you’re talking about. And don’t forget to include as much detail as you need to really pin the point down on paper. Vagueness is about as bad as waffle.

8/ Write clearly, and use simple language. Imagine you were trying to explain your point to a friend, or family member, who doesn’t do philosophy. Would they understand what you’re saying? If not, simplify it, or use less words to say the same thing. This is where proof-reading your work, and practicing writing, are essential. The more you practice, the better you get at saying more by writing less.

9/ Use detailed, creative examples. Illustrate your points by giving detailed examples that show the reader what you mean. But don’t forget that sometimes it’s helpful to say why the example is useful or relevant to the point you’re making. Again, though you know what you mean, the examiner reading your essay might not.

10/ Stay focused – don’t wander off! Though you might have to go through a few different arguments or positions to construct an argument that supports the conclusion you want, always stay focused on answering the question. No matter how good the essay, examiners can give only limited marks for good-but-irrelevant answers. The easiest way to beat this? Keep what you say focused on what they want to see you talk about.


A checklist for a good essay…

It’s really useful for you to think about what’s good and bad about your work. And more often than not, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things you could have done to improve it. Have a think about each of these points, in relation to your essay, then give each point a score out of 5. Scores of 3 or below are things you could have done a bit differently to improve the essay overall.

 

Have you…

Not at all Not much Some, ish Quite a bit A lot
  1 2 3 4 5
Looked for key clues in the question?
Picked a definite line of argument to take?
Read around the topic to research relevant positions and arguments?
Given a clear statement of the problem the essay covers, and how you’re going to answer it, in your introduction?
Defined your key terms and concepts?
Provided at least one good illustration for each point you make?
Provided at least one good criticism for each point you make?
Given a balanced debate between both, or multiple, sides of the argument?
Is your writing as clear and simple as it could be? Have you been as precise as you could be?
Does your essay stay firmly focused on the question, without wandering off on tangents?

Total score?

 

Good writing, just like anything else, takes practice. And practice itself involves a lot of patience.

So if you don’t get it right first time, then don’t worry too much. Just keep thinking about the areas you could improve on next time, and practice, practice practice!

 

 

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