WRITING A RESEARCH ESSAY IN PHILOSOPHY

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1 WRITING A RESEARCH ESSAY IN PHILOSOPHY The following document is designed to provide an overview of the kinds of things you need to bear in mind when writing a research essay for any philosophy unit at ACU. Note that more specific instructions will be provided by your lecturer as they pertain to particular units and topics. 1/ A Research Essay requires Research! In many or most Philosophy units, a research essay(s) is your major piece of work for the semester. Given that, it is not something that you will be able to throw together quickly on the basis of a bit of web-surfing and regurgitating what was covered in class. Taking this approach may, or may not, enable you to just scrape a pass for your essay. But on the whole there are no short cuts, and no substitutes for serious research, particularly if you wish to do well. You should ensure that your research essay is built on: some serious reading of reliable published philosophical texts; some serious thinking about what you are reading, and ideally discussing with others (including your lecturer and/or tutor) as you go; a process of drafting your essay through several versions (your first draft will almost always be unsuitable for submission). 2/ Stages of Research and Writing (a) Choosing your topic: In first year units, your choice of research essay topics/questions may be quite limited, though in other cases you will be provided with a list of topics to choose from. In this case, choosing your topic is the obvious first step, and it is not always easy: Think about which topics covered in the unit you found most interesting, or about which you have some existing thoughts you would like to further develop or investigate. Look carefully at the wording of the research question. What exactly is it asking you to discuss and develop an argument about? Remember, you are not being asked to write generically on a topic: you are being asked to research and write about a specific philosophical problem. (b) Understanding the Problem: Getting to first base involves understanding what the philosophical problem you are dealing with is about. Why is it a problem worth writing about, and why have philosophers debated the problem over many years? What are the main positions possible? What are the key pieces of philosophical terminology that are relevant, and what do they mean? Start by reviewing your lecture notes and tutorial reading(s) on your chosen topic. Ensure that you are thoroughly up to speed with what was covered in class on the topic. Make sure you check with your lecturer if you are unsure; Then do some further reading from more basic textbooks to help fill out your understanding. (c) Understanding the Debate: In most cases, your essay question will ask you to argue for a particular position on the problem you are tackling. But this isn t something you have to come up with on your own. Rather, you should look to understand what other scholars have been saying on this topic, Understanding the views of major thinkers in the field of research is getting to second base. At various stages in your essay, you will need to accurately outline these views of others. This is called exposition. These views of others will often include both primary texts : classic historical works by famous philosophers who often pioneered a major position on a philosophical topic; and secondary works : writings by more contemporary philosophers who continue the debate, often with reference to the primary texts in the area. Your lecture notes and tutorial readings may assist you with this stage, but here it is important

2 that you go beyond what you received in class to do your own research. Here you will find more advanced books helpful (usually chapters, rather than attempting to digest an entire book) and eventually journal articles. If after checking your unit outline for suggested sources you are not finding helpful resources, make sure that you contact your lecturer for guidance. (d) Developing your own Argument: As you get to know more about the debate, think about which people you find yourself generally in agreement with (and why), and which people you tend to disagree with (and why). The process of developing your own argument in response to the research question you have chosen is something that tends to creep up on you as you continue to read, think, discuss and start drafting (writing). Getting to a clear position of your own in response to the question is third base. For some people, the process of coming up with their own position and being able to say why they hold it, is quite difficult. There are so many complex and competing ideas out there, and many contrary viewpoints have very good arguments in their favour. If you feel this way, that is not a bad thing. It is likely that your research has allowed you to understand more deeply the complexity of the problem and the wealth of thought that has been produced through the history (and present) of philosophy. It is not a bad thing to see both/all sides of the debate. Inevitably good philosophical arguments will often have the form: on one hand X, but on the other hand, Y. Rarely will well-attested arguments be just plain wrong, and you should be prepared to acknowledge what is seemingly right about even those arguments you find yourself disagreeing with on balance. Remember that philosophy is eventually all about being able to give clear reasons for what you think. It is not about being clever, or solving an ancient problem all by yourself. You are not expected to hold any particular view, or follow any particular line, on any matter; but you are expected to be honest, open, thoughtful, and willing to engage in serious reflection and critical discussion. By all means, argue passionately for a view if you like, but ensure you are willing to consider carefully the objections that can be raised against your view and to demonstrate, as best you can, where you think those opposing arguments go astray. Philosophy is concerned with dialogue not dogma. You are free to use personal pronouns in stating and developing your argument (e.g., In this essay, I will argue that ), or else use an alternative style (e.g., This essay will argue that, In this essay it will be maintained that ). The use of the royal we (e.g., We will see that ) is discouraged. Finally, remember that this is just an undergraduate essay: it is not committing you to a position for life! It is quite likely that your position on this topic will change and evolve over time if/as you read/think/discuss more. All that is required for your essay is that you present a coherent case for your position as you currently see it. If you can do that, you will do very well. (e) Writing/Completing your essay: The process of drafting your essay should start early, but there is, of course, the time when you need to put an end to further reading and turn your full attention to writing and finalising your essay. This is the final base : People write essays in many different ways. o Some take copious notes on scraps of paper, blue tacking them all over their study wall. o Others keep neat notebooks as they read, with well-honed referencing systems. o Others scribble extensively all over photocopies of book chapters and articles, as they read (not the library books themselves, please!!) For almost all people, though, it is never a good idea to read and read and read and then try to write the essay starting with a blank page/screen. You should always take good notes as your read and discuss, so that you have some good starting points when you start to write the essay proper. It is also an excellent idea allow yourself to write freely (without all the scholarly niceties) as soon as you have to a break through moment while reading. Get it only paper (or into a computer

3 document if you prefer) while it is still fresh. Then once you have it down, go back to your reading. This means that you will have whole paragraphs of thoughts ready to beat into shape further down the track. For most people too, it is helpful to jot down a bit of an essay plan before you start trying to write the first draft of the full essay. This helps clarify the overall structure of the essay and ensures that what you are setting out to write ready does respond directly to the essay question. For some, having that essay plan in their head is enough, though many people find it is well worth the effort to commit something to paper at the outset (even if, inevitably, the essay writing process develops a life of its own that means the initial essay plan is left far behind). Make sure that you leave time before the due date to read through your penultimate draft: o Ensure that what you said you would argue at the start of the essay, is in fact what you argue throughout the essay. o Check that your arguments are as sound and clearly expressed throughout the essay as you think they are. Bad arguments will detract from your work. o Proof read the essay to pick up on any errors or moments of awkwardness in expression, thereby ensuring that your argument will be easy for the reader to follow. Poorly expressed work can ruin the fluency of your argument and detract from all your hard work. o Ensure that you don t make any careless mistakes, like misspelling key terms or the names of key philosophers. Finally, presentation is also important. As is standard practice in universities, make sure your essay: o is printed (not hand written); o uses on one side of the page only; o has 1.5 line spacing; o leaves reasonably wide margins on the sides of the page for marker comments; o has numbered pages; o is accompanied by a completed and signed cover sheet, and the task criteria sheet; o be submitted by the due date unless an extension has been officially sought and granted by the lecturer in charge of the unit. Note that penalties apply for late submission: see your unit outline for details. o NB: ACU cover sheet and extension forms are available from the Assessment and Assignment Forms webpage. 3/ Using Scholarly Sources University level essays need to be informed by quality sources. Anyone can surf the net to find opinions people have about any number of vaguely relevant topics to the one you are working on. You need to ensure you are reading the most reliable material, as published by key scholars in the field you are working on. (a) What are reliable published philosophical texts? It is crucial that you are clear on this before you start researching and writing your essay. Scholarly sources include: hard copy books and book chapters (especially those recommended in your unit outline); ebooks accessed through the library catalogue; academic journal articles (usually located via a library database); reliable scholarly reference works, including refereed online philosophical encyclopedia like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (both open access), and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available through the library). If you are unsure about open access sources, please check with your lecturer.

4 They don t include: Internet websites found via Google, no matter how well-informed they might seem; Unrefereed encyclopedia such as Wikipedia; University lecture notes (whether they come from your own class, or are found on the web at another university). (b) Referencing/Citing your sources: Not only do you need to use quality texts, but you also need to integrate them into your essay in the appropriate way. This includes both: Collating all your sources at the end of the essay in a List of Works Cited or Bibliography (which includes one or two texts you used but didn t actually cite). Properly referencing/acknowledging all quotes, paraphrases and borrowings of ideas using a standard citation/referencing system. Quoting from sources is an important feature of most philosophical essays, but quoting correctly and judiciously is important. As a rule, you should incorporate: lots of short (2 or 3 word) quotations, as a way of enhancing your exposition and paraphrasing of key texts; regular slightly more lengthy quotes (up to a short sentence); very few lengthy quotes of a long sentence or longer (in which case you should place the quote in block indentation and remove the quotation marks. Note that a quote establishes nothing in itself, and it is only useful if it assists you to develop your own argument. That is why frequent lengthy quotations can be problematic, since it requires you to unpack it at length, and demonstrate its relevance to your argument. You may use any of the major referencing styles (Chicago 15 th, APA, MLA, Harvard), so long as: you use it consistently and well (on this, see the helpful Academic Referencing guides on the ACU Academic Skills Unit website); and you include page numbers for all citations. (NB: this is something of a variation to the APA style) Page numbers are important, since your reader needs to be able (if s/he wishes) to easily trace an idea that you are claiming came from one of your sources. So when you are quoting from a text, you need to provide not only the author, title and date, but also the page reference for that quotation. For example, it is not enough to write Leslie Stevenson says that Descartes dualism forced him to make an absolute distinction between those who possessed incorporeal souls and that which lacked them. (Stevenson, 1981) because this reference does not tell the reader the page from which the quotation is taken. Instead, you need to write: (Stevenson, 1981, 81). If the material you are summarizing or quoting from comes from an internet source, then you are generally unable to provide a page number since pagination is usually absent. In this case, just cite the internet address together with the date on which you accessed it (as per the citation style instructions). (c) Plagiarism: In the writing of academic essays, it is standard practice (as well as a simple matter of honesty), to acknowledge the fact that at this or that point in your essay is drawn from someone else s ideas and arguments, or indeed uses someone else s actual words. If you deliberately fail to provide such acknowledgment, you will be guilty of plagiarism and the

5 University may take action against you for breaching Academic Honesty, For further information on what constitutes plagiarism, see the section on plagiarism on the ACU Academic Skills unit page, and check with your lecturer if you have any questions. 4/ The Structure and Stages of your Essay It is important that you adhere to any specific directions your lecturers provide in terms of the required form or structure of your essay. However, the following provides some general points that are required of all Philosophy research essays. (a) Introduction, Body and Conclusion: This is, of course, the overall structural requirement: The introduction must state clearly the view you will put in the essay, and you main reasons for putting it (to be discussed in the essay). The body of the essay develops and defends your argument by (a) clarifying the nature of the question under discussion (exposition), (b) what others have thought about it (also mostly exposition); and (c) providing some key arguments in favour of your own position, addressing potential objections along the way (critical discussion). The conclusion restates your core argument and how you have argued for it (not proven it) in the essay. (b) Exposition: Exposition refers to your ability to explain and summarize clearly, concisely and accurately the ideas and arguments that you are considering in the essay: A good philosophical essay must provide this kind of firm foundation, in order that it can be built on through critical discussion (in which your own position is argued for). As a rule, the first paragraphs of the essay body tend to be more expository in nature as you ease the reader into your argument proper. This involves outlining (explaining/ summarizing) the ideas and arguments or the theory or position or view that your chosen topic invites you to reflect on. So if your topic asks you to critically discuss The Utilitarian Theory of Punishment, or Cartesian Dualism, or The Relativist View of Knowledge, then your first task is to explain what the particular theory or position or view that you are discussing involves. For example, you might begin with something like this: Descartes is said to be a dualist because he believes that the mind and the body are radically distinct kinds of things: an extended, non-thinking thing and a thinking, non-extended thing (Descartes, 1991, 54). By this he means that... Notice that the use of small quotations can be very helpful in ensuring your exposition is accurate and focused precisely on the text you are wanting to summarise. This basic exposition stage need not be too long; rather, it should be concise, clear and, above all, accurate. (If you have misunderstood some key idea or argument, then your whole essay may head off in the wrong direction.) NB: You do not need to say anything at the start of your essay about the life of the philosopher(s) whose views you are discussing, nor anything, if you are discussing a theory, about its history, unless such information is directly relevant to the topic you have chosen. In most cases, potted life stories and the histories of theories are useless padding which should be avoided. This basic exposition section should then be filled out in more detail, bringing in some recent scholarly work in the area. For example: Descartes supports his dualistic view of mind and body with what has come to be known as the argument from indivisibility and the argument from clear and distinct perception. As Smith (2006, 79-80) has shown Descartes argument from indivisibility... Exposition also involves providing an outline of what some philosophers have said in critique or

6 support of the view you are examining. So, for example, you might write: Williams (2009, 79) criticizes Descartes argument from clear and distinct perception on the grounds that... Or: One major alternative to the Utilitarian theory of punishment is the Retributivist view. Retributivists such as Michael Davis generally argue that Utilitarianism fails to account for our feeling that wrongdoers deserve to be punished (Davis, 2002, 161)... NB: Exposition is necessary for a good philosophical essay, but it is not sufficient for a high grade: o If you are unable to provide sound exposition of the problem you are dealing with, and the views of the major philosophers you are discussing, your essay may not pass. o If you do this and nothing else, you will perhaps achieve a low pass, but no better. o In order to do well, you need to move past exposition alone and to then go on to argue for your own position, giving reasons for your view. This is the critical discussion section of your essay. (c) Critical Discussion: Critical discussion relies on a sound exposition of the issues being discussed. Nonetheless, once the exposition is done, the real substance of your essay can begin. Critical discussion requires you to demonstrate and practice higher-order thinking skills in philosophy, such as o drawing distinctions, o analysing arguments, o evaluating arguments in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. In a sense, this is where you get to do philosophy, and it is what your essay is eventually all about (which is why many essay topics in philosophy begin or end with the phrase Critically discuss... ). After you have summarized an objection to a theory or argument whether your own or some other philosopher s you need to discuss whether that objection is a good one or not. That is, you need to analyse and evaluate the objection to see whether it is relevant, coherent and strong, or possibly even decisive, or whether it is a weak objection which misses the point, or is muddled, or shallow, or trivial. How do you conduct this kind of critical discussion? Think about the relevance of a particular philosopher s view on the topic of your essay. Is it in agreement with your own position (your essay s central argument), or not? o If so, outline his argument, and show how it supports your own. E.g., Williams offers some compelling reasons for thinking that Descartes is right when he says that the language we use to describe our mental lives is radically different from the language we use to describe our bodies (2009, 42). o If not, how does it challenge your argument? What is right about it, but how is it wrong, and why is your own argument to be preferred? If you are confronted with a strong opposing argument to your own, perhaps someone has already read and answered the objection? If so, you can say something like, Kenny responds to Williams criticism by arguing that... [NB: This will require a brief (and clear and accurate!) summary of Williams reasons (exposition again), but it will also mean that you are now required to explain why you think those reasons are indeed compelling ones.] Otherwise, how can you go about demonstrating that a philosopher s argument is not a good

7 one? This raises the issue of the vast range of formal and informal argumentation available to you in philosophy. Learning about these various strategies is central to your formation as a beginning philosopher. Here are just a few strategies open to you: o Perhaps it is a fine argument, but for a conclusion different from the one that is being claimed. (As such, it turns out not to refute your view, even though it may claim to). o The argument may misunderstand or distort your argument, or that of someone else that you accept. (Consequently, the argument attacks a straw man version of the more sophisticated argument you accept.) o The argument may only work if a prior assumption is made that you have reasons to reject. (This is called rejecting the premise of the argument.) o Perhaps the argument is not so much wrong, but fails to go to the heart of the position you wish to defend; or it bears on an issue of comparatively minor importance? o Perhaps the argument is half right : i.e., while it fails to refute your position (for reasons you provide), it does nonetheless helpfully qualify your own position or refine it. In short, critical discussion is the hallmark of a good philosophical essay: Those who make a good effort to engage with (and not just summarise) the views of others can do well on criteria associated with critical discussion, perhaps achieving a Credit. A Distinction in this area requires an intelligent and perceptive discussion that demonstrates a strong understanding of the issues. A High Distinction in this area requires a depth of understanding and insight that genuinely illuminates the topic and challenges the reader to review his or her own thinking. 5/ The Research Essay Assessment Criteria Philosophy staff make use of the following assessment criteria (see next page) in grading essays. You will notice that all the major aspects of the essay discussed above are represented among these criteria. It is important that you pay full attention to these criteria as you work on your essay, and ask for clarification concerning anything that is unclear. ENJOY YOUR PHILOSOPHISING!

8 Unit Code: PHIL Unit Title: Student Name: School of Philosophy - Criteria-based Marking Sheet for Research Essay Task Ticks indicate achievement level on a continuum KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING Understanding of the question Grasp of the major issues with which the question deals Correct usage of major relevant concepts and terms Accurate exposition of chosen texts RESEARCH Range and depth of reading of appropriate philosophical sources Accurate referencing of quotations and paraphrasing from sources, and consistent use of a standard citation style Complete bibliography of works cited using a consistent style ARGUMENT Clear articulation of a coherent position of student s own Sustained relevance of the essay to the chosen research question Quality of analysis of chosen texts Validity of arguments developed, with clear justification/evidence Engagement with relevant contrary arguments STRUCTURE Clear introductory paragraph, setting out the essay s argument and principal points Clear line of argument maintained throughout the essay (using appropriate sign-posting ) Clear summation of the essay s argument in the conclusion WRITTEN PROFICIENCY Proficiency of English syntax, punctuation and grammar Coherent structuring of paragraphs Linking of paragraphs so as to support the overall argument High Distinction (HD) Distinction (DD) Credit (CC) Pass (PP) Unacceptable (NN)

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