Tag Archives: philosophy


Tortoise Tuesday: “Yes, by Zeus!” — Thesis and Motive in Socratic dialogues

            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


Tortoise Tuesday: Orientation and Motive in “The Aptness of Anger”

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.

Key Terms, Spring 2018

Rethinking Moral Luck: What Conditions are Necessary for Moral Responsibility?

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.”

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Moral Luck and the Law

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


Explaining Values

 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.

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“A Smile on a Tormented Face”: Absurdist Consciousness and Post-Reflective Identity in Camus’ L’Étranger

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