Inspiration/rationale: For intellectual, understanding-hungry people like us, it’s extremely gratifying to be able to see how a philosophical concept or theory is manifest in some current event, world view, cultural trend, work of popular or fine art, etc. This is the kind of insight that prompted philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to equate philosophical understanding with the true elite of society. Whether that classification is warranted, no one can deny the inherent pleasure of making a connection between abstract philosophy and concrete reality. Moreover, the ability to derive these connections is an excellent index of how well you really understand the concept or theory under consideration. A good philosopher is able to interpret the world and sometimes even be at a practical advantage because she can understand the world through a philosophical lens.
Description/Definition: A “Connections” paper is an interpretation, analysis, or evaluation of a current or historical event, world view, social institution, cultural trend, or work of art (including literature, music, and film!) from the perspective of a specific philosophical theory, concept, or argument. The essay should present some relatively new insight into the phenomenon which is its focus. At the very least, the paper should fully explicate the theory, concept, etc. which is its basis, and provide detailed supporting analysis for the connection it asserts.
Inspiration/Rationale: Our study this semester has shown that even the most ancient philosophers have some knowledge of and opinions about their predecessors or contemporaries. Even when philosophers don’t explicitly refer to these other philosophers, their influence is apparent. Therefore, we students of philosophy can further our understanding of philosophy and particular philosophers if we assume that philosophy is a great, inter-generational, organic conversation. For one thing, it’s humanizing. We can begin to see that philosophers are persons pursuing understanding who often disagree with others doing the same. Secondly, understanding what a later philosopher is objecting to furthers the understanding of both the earlier and the present philosopher, and deepens the overall comprehension of the issue.
Description/Definition: A “Conversation” paper is an interpretive, comparative analysis of at least two distinct philosophers which shows both the common ground and the points of divergence between them. The analysis may focus on a particular theme or issue or be somewhat broader in scope. In addition to expounding upon the two thinkers’ basic views and clarifying the similarities and differences, a good philosophical “convo” paper would also include an evaluation of which “voice” has the stronger account. In other words, your “voice” would be the third, necessary interlocutor in the dialogue, and it should be a voice which critically evaluates the debate and declares a winner.
TYPE III—New Horizons (Deeper Knowledge, Further Knowledge)
Inspiration/Rationale: Due to the inherent limitations of a survey course with a broad scope, we simply cannot study every aspect of every philosopher with a depth and completeness which would be ideal for the ultra-comprehension that many of us crave. In some cases, an entire, important topic has not been studied! Recall how many times Florek says something like, “In another book which we have not read . . .” or “In another chapter of this book which we are now reading . . .” Or, perhaps, most frustratingly, “There’s more to be said, but we must move on!” This is your chance to remedy these limitations, and become a real scholar in the process. Read more! Find out information which fills out the picture. Draw your own well-supported, informed conclusion about what some ancient, modern, or cotemporary philosopher really meant. Present your findings in an exciting, persuasive, enlightening manner.
Description/Definition: A “New Horizons” essay is a detailed but organized report on your further investigation of the original writings and subsequent commentary upon a particular philosopher. Your investigation should include both primary and secondary sources, with a goal of constructing the best, most reasonable interpretation of the texts under consideration.
TYPE IV—Traditional Position Paper
Inspiration/Rationale: The essence of philosophical activity is critical thinking about matters of fundamental importance for self-reflective beings. We have witnessed that whether it’s Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Nagel, or Martha Nussbaum, philosophers—to deserve the name—must present an argument toward which we can apply our critical thinking. Philosophers want us to think about what they find to be important, but they also seek to convince us that their points of view are correct. Therefore, critical thinking is directed to the goal of rational justification of important beliefs arising from human experience. But rational justification is always an attempt which is more or less successful. From Socrates’ time to our own, ultimately, philosophical dialogue and writing is devoted to either presenting one’s own attempted rational justification, or assessing another’s. And this is the essence of the “Traditional Position Paper.” If you have found yourself strongly agreeing or vehemently disagreeing with a position or argument expressed by a particular philosopher, then this might be the paper for you!
Description/Definition: A “Position” (a.k.a. “Response”) paper is a well-reasoned, clearly written critical evaluation of an argument encountered either in an assigned reading or lecture. Most importantly, a good position paper should provide convincing proof for your thesis through a variety of argumentation including logical analysis, examples (both real life and hypothetical), facts, and consideration of likely objections and counter-arguments. Once you have established your narrowed down topic, your essay should present a well-supported answer to a very specific question about that narrowed-down topic. For example, “Is Aquinas’ version of the cosmological argument sound?” Or, “Does Nagel’s counter-argument to Epicurus really defeat his stance on the proper evaluation of the significance of death?”
Moving Forward . . . What Should You Do?
Expect that I will provide further information to you on format, length, standards, etc. Specific examples of possible topics will continue to be suggested as the class progresses, and there will be time set aside in class for your questions. Once you think you have a good idea, bounce it off of me well before the formal proposal is due. Brief conferences are an option, but not mandatory.
Regardless of the type of paper you choose, your essay must contain a clearly stated thesis and extensive supporting material. The nature of this material will vary somewhat depending on the type of paper you’re writing. But what you are aiming for is a coherent, clear essay on a philosophical matter which is both interesting to you but also of concern to a broader, philosophical audience. Teach your audience. Persuade them. Enlighten them.
So, within the next two weeks, you should figure out what you are going to write about, and select your preferred type. Your choice of topic and type are intertwined, so you need to think this through very carefully! Soon, a date will be announced for the submission of the proposal. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions.