- phase completed
- phase in-progress
Approximately 130 students are currently enrolled in the Department of Philosophy’s undergraduate major. The department’s 14 faculty members help students read and write about philosophy and its history, noting that a good philosophical education not only hones students’ academic skills but also enhances their capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life.
Writing in Philosophy
The Philosophy faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?”
- Complex (but not intentionally labyrinthine). It follows detailed lines of thought and considers various perspectives.
- Clear. It is not flowery or full of gratuitous, non-illuminating metaphor or unnecessary obfuscation. Premises, assumptions, and presuppositions are clearly identified, and patterns of support from premises to conclusion are made explicit. It is focused, cogent, and coherent.
- Critical. It examines positions, and arguments for those positions, and evaluates these arguments for weaknesses and defects. In doing so, it typically follows a path from problem or question, to possible solutions or answers, to critique of these solutions and answers (and, in some cases, to a positive defense of one of these solutions or answers).
- Constructive. It identifies an interesting philosophical question or issue, or raises a new question or issue of philosophical interest, and provides a positive contribution to new or ongoing debates about this question or issue.
- Logical. Its conclusions are well-supported by the premises, argumentation, and evidence mobilized in their support. This evidence takes many forms, including (but not limited to) intuition, a priori or logical reasoning, conceptual analysis, empirical data, and thought experiments.
- Historical. It is informed by, and engaged with, the views and arguments of important historical or contemporary figures, and tracks the development of key views and concepts.
Note: Not all good philosophy writing meets ALL these criteria.
In preparing this document, the term “philosophical writing” occurs a number of times. This is unfortunate, since there exists an ambiguity in the term “philosophical writing”. Unfortunately, in some places no alternative, non-artificial, synonymous expression seemed available. As a result, in what follows, this term “philosophical writing” should be understood as picking out academic writing within the philosophy profession or writing by students in philosophy courses that aspires to meet the standards set by academic writing in the profession. It should not be understood in the wider, generic sense as picking out writing that involves or is otherwise engaged with philosophical themes.
Writing Abilities Expected of Philosophy Majors
The Philosophy faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “With which writing abilities should students in this unit’s major(s) graduate?”
Minimum Requirements for Writing in the Major:
- To clearly identify different ‘voices’ – that is - to clearly track where one’s own arguments and views end, and where others’ begin (and vice versa).
- To select projects and issues of appropriate and reasonable scope and to explore them in sufficient depth, to focus their writing, and to effectively prioritize sub-topics and related issues.
- To state the thesis clearly and at an appropriate point (typically, but not necessarily, at the beginning of the paper).
- To organize arguments and discussion in effective patterns that makes transitions from issue to evidence to argument apparent, to draw important distinctions, and to keep separate issues and questions distinct.
- To effectively edit and revise their writing, and to pace themselves effectively during the writing process.
- To clearly present the arguments and ideas of others, to distinguish exposition from criticism (typically by first presenting the arguments and ideas of others, and then critiquing these arguments and ideas).
- To effectively align the critique of an argument with the exposition of that argument, and to effectively synthesize ideas and analyze the connections between them more generally.
- To provide a suitable survey of the available responses to, positions regarding, or views about the issues in question.
- To charitably reconstruct their opponents arguments in order to illuminate why someone might subscribe to the view in question, to illuminate what such views might get right or wrong, and to draw constructive, positive lessons, even from mistaken views.
- To identify an important or interesting problem or question (or cluster of related problems or questions).
- To use examples appropriately both to demonstrate weaknesses in rejected views and to illuminate how particular accounts work more generally.
- To present arguments and evidence clearly and concisely (both their own and their reconstruction of others’ arguments and reasoning) as sets of claims leading via clear reasoning from premises to conclusions
- To draw important connections between one line of reasoning or argumentation and another.
- To recognize, be able to evaluate, and be able to appropriately apply the distinction between good and bad, sound and unsound, valid and invalid reasoning, and to be able to evaluate evidence.
- To demonstrate an understanding of target philosophers’ ideas through effective paraphrase and argument reconstruction rather than merely relying on quotation.
- To demonstrate a familiarity with central figures in the history of philosophy and their views, and to understand how these views connect to contemporary issues and debates.
- To demonstrate a familiarity with the historical development of central concepts and problems, and how this development led to present understandings of these issues.
Menu of Grading Criteria Used in Philosophy Courses
- Drills down into the complex strata of a topic, going beyond the obvious.
- Effectively prioritizes sub-topics and related issues.
- Provides a substantive thesis statement that circumscribes the paper’s content and signals the philosophical significance of the topic.
- Organizes the discussion so that it progresses from topic to evidence to argument.
- Draws important, relevant distinctions.
- Distinguishes exposition (succinctly presenting the arguments and ideas of others) from criticism (critically analyzing these arguments and ideas in light of the exposition).
- Analyzes important connections between distinct ideas and argument components.
- Considers relevant alternative positions, responses, and/or views.
- Represents the ideas and arguments of others such that their logical progression and rational appeal is evident.
- Identifies both strengths and weaknesses of pertinent ideas and arguments.
- Draws out significant questions and/or problems.
- Uses illuminating examples in both the exposition and critique.
- Evaluates the coherence and cogency of the arguments and ideas of others,
- including the evidence offered to support them.
- Demonstrates an understanding of the arguments and ideas of others through effective paraphrase and argument reconstruction rather than merely relying on quotation.
Highlights from the Writing Plan
In implementing the third edition of their Writing Plan, Philosophy faculty have focused on providing consistent and ongoing support for graduate student TAs. This support takes the form of an annual workshop series (jointly facilitated by graduate students and faculty) and a companion website. Recent workshops have focused on conferencing with students, addressing clarity issues in student writing, and integrating the department’s WEC-generated writing criteria into the curriculum. In Spring 2016, the Department of Philosophy launched its Outstanding Undergraduate Paper competition, which judges essays using the department’s writing criteria.
The winner of the 2017 Outstanding Undergraduate Paper Award is William Marsolek for his essay, "Is Kuhn a Relativist?"