Philosophy Essays

Active reading of philosophical texts is itself a skill which you should seek to acquire, and one that you will find has wide application beyond the dissection of purely philosophical texts. One well-tried technique is to begin by reading through a text (a difficult article, say) fairly quickly, to get the general idea, and without taking notes.That can be useful if it helps to know where the author is going and what the conclusion being aimed at is; and it very often does help to know that.

You have some idea of the terrain, and some interest in exploring it further (that's why you're doing philosophy), but you (like the rest of us) need help, and that help is readily available in the form of the writings of the great classic philosophers, and the commentaries on them and continuing discussions of their problems provided by modern philosophers.

Reading these writings will put you in touch with the issues, and it will also (as I stress in my notes on Grammar and Style) acquaint you with the formal aspects of writing philosophy: it will supply you with stylish and grammatically accomplished models of philosophical writing. Some are able to read philosophical texts as if they were novels, perhaps without even taking notes, but most of us need to approach these difficult texts more circumspectly.

As far as preparing to write a philosophy essay goes, the most important single piece of advice that can be given (obvious, but still worth stating clearly) is: .

Unless you are a genius, you will not be able to excogitate from nothing what the interesting philosophical questions in any given area are, and how one should go about addressing them.

" Descartes feels that there is no certain way of distinguishing dream from reality, and even the fact that he is questioning his dreams is subject to doubt, for he could be dreaming at that moment in time also.

He recalls that while dreaming it has felt so real, and only upon waking has he realised it a dream.When you are writing an essay, for instance, you should certainly try to read more widely in relevant primary sources than just the extracts which Cottingham (or similar) provides.Writing a philosophy essay to be handed in (i) Preparation Use the essay question as your guide in deciding what to read.When you have finished a cursory reading of the text, you should re-read the same text carefully, taking notes, and trying to understand as much as you can, before moving on to other relevant texts.Alternatively, you might prefer to continue applying the technique of rapid, fairly superficial reading to other texts in the same area, to get an even more general (though still superficial) grasp of the terrain, before returning (as you should) to all these texts (or as many of them as you can manage) and subjecting them to thorough re-reading.[...] In the state of nature described by Locke, all men have the right "to dispose of himself and his possessions as he thinks fit" (Plamenatz, 1992, p338).This broad conception of property makes it equivalent to freedom and is limited only by man's obligation to God to not destroy himself and by the recognition of the same right of others.These notes are written in a fairly forthright style, peppered liberally with injunctions and prohibitions, but I suppose I should say by way of disclaimer that I do not necessarily think that there is only one correct way of going about writing a philosophy essay, either under examination or under non-examination conditions.So treat these notes as guidelines which you may find of assistance (though, on many points, I don't myself see that there is a realistic alternative).In the past there was no such gap: students and professionals read exactly the same texts and were thus in a sense equals.I do not think the gap need be harmful so long as you are aware that it exists and, where possible, try to overcome it by going direct to publications of complete texts.


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