In a Tortoiseshell: In his paper for Aesthetics and Film, David Veldran discusses immoral fictional characters and their potential benefits for improving our moral intuitions. He weaves together a complex scholarly motive, which allows him to clearly demonstrate the necessity of his original argument, “aufheben.”
Applying to grad school this past fall was disturbing on an existential level. I couldn’t decide whether my desire to spend at least five more years studying philosophy was merely ill-advised or downright unhinged. However, the application process was also unsettling on a more mundane level: for my writing sample, I decided to revise a philosophy paper that I wrote at the end of freshman year. Revisiting old writing projects is like opening a mysterious container at the back of the fridge that’s probably been there for months, or like reluctantly glancing into the mirror after a long illness. You hope that you won’t find anything unpleasant or grotesque, but you’re not too optimistic about it.
Indeed, the first time I reread my paper, I ended up filling the margins with question marks rather than constructive comments. If a student had given me that paper during a writing center conference, I would not have known where to start. I ultimately gave up on trying to remember precisely what I had intended to argue. Instead, I highlighted all of the potential motives and theses, even ones that I hadn’t originally intended to develop. I also made a reverse outline to remind myself of the paper’s structure.
Finally, I managed to reconstruct the argument that the paper was currently making, such as it was. I was using textual analysis of sections of Plato’s Republic to explain his (questionable) claim that a philosopher lives 729 times more happily than a tyrant. It was a fine argument given the original expectations of the assignment. However, now I was no longer writing for my professor, who is specifically interested in ancient philosophy, but instead for a panel of philosophers with varying research interests. These philosophers would be looking for a scholarly or a global motive in addition to my in-text motive. I therefore had to reframe my motive and thesis to make them relevant to current scholarly debates.
I discovered that my initial draft had an implicit motivating question: is it possible to quantify happiness? I soon realized that if Plato had found a way to quantify happiness, it would be extremely relevant to philosophers today. After considering my audience, I decided that it would be best to begin with my scholarly motive (scholars disagree about whether we can quantify happiness) and then transition to my in-text motive (Plato tries to quantify happiness, but he appears to do so very badly). I was thus able to retain the basic methodology of my original paper, while making it more groundbreaking by adding an extra layer of motive. Once I figured out my motive, my thesis fell into place. I could retain my original thesis (Plato’s attempt to quantify the philosopher’s and the tyrant’s happiness is in fact partially successful, because it builds on his complex theory of pleasure) and simply add a section that responded to my new motive (philosophers today can learn x, y, and z from Plato’s attempt to quantify happiness).
In addition to improving my paper, I had to substantially shorten it. This helped me to develop a tight—and newly framed—argument. There were certain passages that were fascinating, but irrelevant to my revised motive and thesis. Other passages contained unnecessary summaries of Plato’s arguments. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t need to salvage all of these sections—I deleted entire paragraphs and pages.
In the end, I managed to shorten my paper even more than I had intended. This gave me extra space to improve my existing analysis. My advisor pointed out that my paper didn’t need more analysis per se, but that I did need to explain my analysis using examples. I incorporated a whole range of examples drawn from daily life, ranging from the relief of finishing a difficult workout to the fear inspired by horror movies.
If you ever need to edit an old piece of writing for publication (or, God forbid, apply to grad school), perhaps you can learn from my struggles with Plato’s 729 problem. First of all, consider whether your target audience has changed, and whether you should alter your framing, motive, and/or thesis accordingly. Keep in mind that you might be able to expand on your current motive and thesis rather than starting from scratch. Secondly, don’t be afraid to delete sections that aren’t working out! Few pleasures compare to that of excising a paragraph and realizing that your argument is now much clearer. Finally, try to approach your paper as a stranger would. Consider counterclaims, flag dubious analysis, and take note of any logical leaps. In other words, don’t give your past self the benefit of the doubt. Your readers (or admissions committee) won’t be that understanding.
–Frances Mangina, ’22
I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.
I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.
In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.
Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.
— Frances Mangina, ’22
In one of my courses this semester, “Philosophy and Psychopathology,” we spent some time trying to understand anger. The concept, we learned, has been the subject of philosophical debate for a long time, but the importance of anger is only starting to be understood as it pertains to particular avenues of expressing emotions. One optional reading was Amia Srinivasan’s article, “The Aptness of Anger,” which discusses anger in the context of political philosophy.
Srinivasan begins her article with a historical incident that illustrates two sides of a debate about politics and anger: In 1964, James Baldwin argued that “the American dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro,” and William F. Buckley responded with a “pragmatic challenge”: “What in fact shall we do about it?” Buckley’s argument, Srinivasan explains, is part of a long tradition that finds anger wrong because it is counterproductive. Beginning with the Stoics and moving up through history to modern philosophers, she gives a historical overview of the “counterproductivity critique.” Then, in contrast, she cites the opposing view in political philosophy, the one Baldwin demonstrates with the quoted argument: Anger actually is productive as an aid to clarifying a problem and as an impetus to social change. This view, she writes, is often held in Black and feminist thought.
At the end of her first section, Srinivasan steps back from the established debate she has presented and writes that the debate “tends to obscure something specific about anger.” She wants to take the question of anger in another direction. She does not want to consider anger from the perspective of whether it is effective in bringing about change or in achieving goals, which has been long-debated. She wants to ask the philosophical question about the emotion or reaction itself: is it ever, even if not effective, apt in a normative sense?
Srinivasan is successful at orienting the reader into the scholarly conversation that considers anger, and she uses that orientation directly to motivate her own argument, claiming that both sides miss an important point in the conversation. She does this orienting and motivating in an engaging way, with her example right at the beginning and several others as she explicates the standing positions. That overlap between the orientation and the motive is ideal in writing: the two should always be directly linked and lead logically from one to the other.
“[T]his debate between critics and defenders of anger’s productivity tends to obscure something significant about anger. There is more to anger, normatively speaking, than its effects. For any instance of counterproductive anger we might still ask: is it the fitting response to the way the world is? Is the anger, however unproductive, nonetheless apt?”
–Tess Solomon ’21
Srinivasan, Amia. “The Aptness of Anger.” The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2018.
In a Tortoiseshell: While the entirety of Katie’s “Rethinking Moral Luck: What Conditions are Necessary for Moral Responsibility?” is an excellent showcase of how to navigate key terms, this section is particularly special. Here, not only does Katie introduce her own key term (which skillfully arises from the specific problems she identifies with the key terms that already exist in the scholarly conversation) but she also goes on to give a carefully crafted analysis of the key terms that appear within that overarching key term she proposes! This section not only allows Katie’s readers to fully understand what her term means but more importantly allows us to really see how her “Revised Control Condition” is in direct conversation with the concerns she addresses in Nagel’s “Strong Control Condition” and Rosen’s “Moderate Control Condition.”
In a Tortoiseshell: In this exemplary feature piece, published in full, Daniel Teehan intertwines contemporary urgency to the philosophical concept of moral luck, exploring how one’s background and circumstance can affect how one is treated in modern America’s criminal justice system. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: These two paragraphs exemplify clear and necessary orienting, albeit couched in the distinct style of a philosophy paper. They are excerpted from an essay that examines and critiques P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment.” In first paragraph, the author introduces the key terms and ideas in Strawson’s paper. In the second, he outlines his own argument, handing us a roadmap that would guide us through the rest of the paper.
In a Tortoiseshell: This essay analyses the character of Meursault in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger), contextualizing him in the space of the novel as well as in a larger scholarly conversation. The author analyses a set of critical reviews, and motivates his argument by suggesting that there is something the critics are missing — a clear understanding of Sartre’s existentialism. The author posits the term “post-reflective” consciousness, and develops a thesis with this term to refine the scholarly criticism and propose his own interpretation of Meursault.
The thesis (and paper as a whole) involves complicated and philosophical literary criticism, and succeeds in clearly orienting the reader to the text, scholarship, and a very sophisticated argument. What is excerpted here are the first three pages of a twenty-page paper. Continue reading