Working in Philosophy

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Working in Philosophy

Paul Brownsey

Guidance for Level 1 and 2 students on:

(1) Producing an essay in philosophy;

(2) Answering gobbet questions;

(3) Originality and regurgitation;

(4) The importance of correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar and correct understanding of the meanings of words.


(I) The reading and how to use it

1. Don’t assume that the subject-matter of the essay must have been covered in the lectures. Sometimes we deliberately set essay topics that are not, or at least have not yet been, covered in lectures.

2. Don’t expect to be able to write your essay out of what was said in lectures and out of the lecturer’s handout. Do some reading.

3. Look on the reading as a stimulus to your thinking, not as the source of a ready-made answer.

4. Don’t try to read everything you can get your hands on: a few items carefully read and though about are better than a lot of items skimmed.

5. Remember that books usually have indices: you may not have to read the whole of a book that is listed. (But do read enough to make sure you understand the relevant bits in their context.)

6. Don’t try to write an essay on a particular text without reading the text: reading commentaries or cutting and pasting bits from the web is not an adequate substitute.

7. Don’t produce an essay that is merely a series of summaries or paraphrases of items read: anything taken from the reading must plainly contribute to an overall position or thesis which (whether or not original) is genuinely yours. Writing a university essay should not be regarded as a matter of plundering and putting together bits from books or websites.

8. Don’t use material from the reading (whether or not it is directly quoted) without giving a full and accurate reference (including the edition and page number): otherwise the marker may think you are trying to pass of someone else’s product as your own and you may be disciplined for plagiarism. Each and every quotation, paraphrase, or use of an idea from a source must be given separate acknowledgement: it is not adequate just to list your source in a general bibliography of works consulted. For more information, see the section on plagiarism earlier in this handbook.

9. Be careful how you use quotations: you cannot prove a point by quoting someone who expressed it, no matter how eminent that person. If you try to prove something by quoting someone who said it, you invite the response, “So what? Maybe he was mistaken.”

(II) Writing the essay

1. Focus on the precise question set: a question on morality and religion, for instance, will probably not call for a comprehensive survey of everything said in the relevant section of the lectures (if, indeed, the question was addressed in the lectures at all), and few questions on Descartes will require you to go into everything he goes into in the Meditations.

2. Plan your essay beforehand. Consider what view or thesis the essay as a whole is going to advance, and make sure that everything in the essay plainly contributes to the development of that view or thesis. Work out what your conclusion is going to be before you begin to write the essay, otherwise, your essay is very unlikely to possess proper overall shape and coherence.

3. Don’t try to cover everything. Any essay can be approached in a number of different ways, and material that would be relevant to one approach may be irrelevant to a different approach. Think of the essay topic as constituting a territory through which you are going to hack one particular path: there is no requirement that everybody must put in the same things to get a good mark. It is better to examine a few claims or arguments in depth rather than to try to cover them all, which would probably result in a shallow and unfocused essay. If you are worried that you might be taking too narrow a focus and so get criticised for ignorance of the broad picture, it might be useful to say something like this: “There are four main objections to the Thingy theory, namely,… In this essay I shall concentrate on the last of these.” That way, you give yourself space for depth and focus and also indicate that you are aware of the broader context.

4. Include in the introduction a statement of the conclusion you intend to establish. This should be a determinate conclusion (“I intend to show that X’s theory is wrong because…”). Don’t just tell us that you are going to ‘look at various views’ and ‘hopefully come to a conclusion’. That’s waffle.

5. Make sure you argue for the views that your essay is intended to express. The core of a philosophy essay is its arguments, and the marker is likely to be more interested in the reasons you give for your views than in the truth of those views or whether s(he) agrees with them. “I personally think that…” is not an argument and doesn’t support the view it introduces. A good way to ensure that you argue a case in the essay is to imagine an objector looking over your shoulder who says, each time you make an assertion, “Yes, but what reason is there to think that?” If you want to advance a view which you think can’t be justified by reasons, say why you think it can't be justified by reasons.

6. Make clear how the particular parts of the essay are related to each other and to the structure of the whole. You can hardly be too generous with such links and ‘signposts’ as: “This argument is open to three objections. First,... The second objection is... The third objection to the above argument is... Having considered objections, I shall now discuss a significant implication of the argument”, etc.

7. Demarcate your various points clearly, otherwise the marker may be uncertain whether a given passage is meant to make (say) one long point, two separate points, or one point expressed in two different ways. It is often sensible to begin a new paragraph for a new point.

8. Never forget you are supposed to be communicating to a reader. Remember, too, that the reader is a different person from you. That may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is surprising how many students write as though the reader had magical access to the contents of the writer’s mind. It is not enough that you know what you mean. You cannot be too clear in a difficult subject like philosophy. It may help you achieve the necessary clarity if you write the essay as if you had to explain your position and the arguments for it to an intelligent friend who knows nothing about philosophy.

9. We will not tell you what to say. We will not give guidance on these lines: “In your first paragraph you should say blah-blah-blah…In your second paragraph you should mention such-and-such and thingummyjig…Every essay must include some reference to Smith’s theory and Chapter 5 of Bloggs’s book…In your conclusion you should point out the weaknesses of the whatsit theory and show why the thingy theory is best.” We won’t give such guidance because this is university.

10. Don’t think that there is some particular answer that you have got to come up with. There isn’t. In particular, don’t think your conclusion has to be the same as the lecturer’s. It doesn’t. All markers are prepared to give the highest possible mark to something they profoundly disagree with, provided the essay shows understanding of the issue and is a well-reasoned attempt to reach a conclusion about it.

11. No matter what is said in other subjects, Philosophy has absolutely no objection to your using the grammatical first-person. Authors of philosophy books often do this.


A gobbet question is a question that requires you to comment on an extract from a prescribed text. In such a comment you should:

(a) Explain the general context from which the extract comes. If it is part of a particular doctrine or argument, which it often is, outline this doctrine or argument.

(b) Explain any key terms or notions that feature in the extract.

(c) Give any wider significant that the extract might have for the major themes in the text being studied.

(d) Comment critically on the above.

A gobbet question usually requires you to comment on more than one extract. In that case keep each comment corresponding brief.


Students sometimes ask whether, to succeed in the course, they must or may merely reproduce the lectures; or whether they must or may develop their own ideas. There is no simple answer to these questions, but the following points may help:

1. Since the class is intended to suit students not specialising in philosophy it would be unreasonable for us to demand a lot of original ideas, but it is not enough simply to reproduce things from lectures or books: it must also be evident that you understand the material.

2. Beware of thinking there is no middle way between regurgitation and originality. Even if you propose to stick closely to what was said in lectures, to show that you understand it you will need to explain it in your own words, invent your own examples, indicate the implications or relevant of what you say, etc; and doing this requires a degree of creativity.

3. By all means set your mind to work in philosophy. You will not fail just because you dissent from what the lecturer says, and a scholarly well-reasoned piece of work will earn a good mark even if the marker disagrees with it. And remember: you are not doing arithmetic: often there is no right answer that you have to reach in your conclusions. (That does not entail that there is no right answer.)

4. But if do seek to develop your ideas, do make a genuine and sustained effort; and it might help to consult your tutor. Some students who claim to be offering their own ideas give offering one’s ideas a bad name. These are often students who, having done little work, don’t begin to think about the topics until confronted by questions in the exam. It is then not surprising if what results is muddled, shallow, grounded in ignorance and gets a low mark. In general, anything that could have been produced without study by anyone hauled at random out of Byres Road is likely to get a very low mark.

  1. The notes 1-4 above are phrased with special reference to examinations. But the lessons should be applied where appropriate to essays, too.

Correct spelling, correct grammar, correct punctuation and correct understanding of the meanings of words are very important, because they are not optional extras to writing clear English, that is to say, English which can readily be understood by the reader. Instead, they are means of writing clear English.
Although we expect your written work to display correct spelling, correct grammar, correct punctuation and correct understanding of the meanings of words, this does not mean that we penalise every error: anyone can make a slip, we read with charity rather than pedantry, and in particular we are aware that in the hurry and stress of exams even people with a good command of English may go wrong.
The primary requirement is that what you say should be clear, but if your spelling, punctuation, grammar and grasp of meaning are askew, then it will be harder for the reader to understand you. Some departures from standard written English will probably not impair clarity, and all staff know what it is to read ‘around’ language errors to try to penetrate to what the student means to say. Nevertheless, we will not award marks where the written English is so confused as to leave the reader unable, after a reasonable time, to form a clear idea of what the student is saying. We will not make guesses at what the student means and will not award marks just because ‘some of the right phrases are in there’: it needs to be clear that the student understands the phrases in question and can deploy them appropriately.
It may help if you bear in mind the obvious truth that in writing an essay you are writing to be understood by another person, someone different from you who has no access to your thoughts beyond the marks you make on the page. It is not enough that you know what you mean: the reader has to know, too, and your assistants in bringing what you mean home to the reader are correct spelling, correct grammar, correct punctuation and a correct hold on the meanings of words. It can be a form of lack of consideration for others to force the marker to read what you say several times in order to work out what you are getting at, when correct punctuation, grammar, etc, would have enabled your meaning to be grasped in a single reading.

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