Strategies for Students Who Have To Write About Philosophy

tl;dr: 1) start personal 2) read around / think around–if it feels too narrow a topic, it is too narrow 3) they say, I say–find opinions to work with or critique. Whatever you do, start writing, start making notes, keep it real. Do not take being in class for granted, no matter how useless it seems at a given moment. Being a teacher has made me radically revise what classes I thought good, which ones I thought bad.

What I propose here will probably get you in trouble with your instructors. I wonder to what degree I’m writing for them. It took me a long time to realize that polished research papers which advance a specific question or insight are only one part of the field. I don’t even know that it’s a part of the field for which Socrates himself would care, despite his lust for knowledge. One of the most eye-opening moments I had teaching philosophy was when a student said “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Thrasymachus’ defense of tyranny, reminded them of people close to them who were repeating “all’s fair in love and war” like a mantra. How this student felt they were demanding love and respect because of their cynicism, because of their need to feel power no matter the cost.

I guess what I need to say is this: if that kind of moment matters to you as a teacher or student, then what follows will be of use. I get that different teachers do things very differently. A teacher may spend most of their resources modeling professionalism, showing how much effort and consideration goes into meeting obligations. It matters: it helps us remember to respect deadlines, dress properly, stay organized, be orderly and sensitive to what others have to do. When it comes to writing for academic purposes, a teacher can definitely emphasize formal, clean writing–clear thesis, evidence that supports the thesis, headings and subheadings and a “look” to the paper that demands it be taken seriously.

All of this is important. If you hold yourself to higher standards, professional and otherwise, you build confidence. You know the standards and you know you’re meeting them or doing your best to meet them. It’s a lot harder for others to bully you and a lot easier for you to do more. Write one nice paper and the second is much easier. Give an organized talk from which others learn, and next thing you know you’re the most watched TED talk in the world.

So I feel a bit strange giving recommendations which could come from a New Age YouTuber who has reviewed a variety of healing crystals. If the structure and standards of a given class benefit someone, shouldn’t they simply respect the structure and meet or exceed the standards? When I propose “strategies for writing about philosophy,” I’m asking people to meet certain standards anyway, no?


The problem is that standards and structure don’t just have to be perceived as beneficial. They have to be seen and felt as credible. It’s hard enough for me as a teacher, an academic, to feel like certain job requirements should be embraced with enthusiasm. Here you are, in a 101 philosophy class–you’ve been thrown into a different world if you’re majoring in finance or nursing or computer science. What are you supposed to do with any of this stuff? How is it possible that trying to write about philosophy is beneficial?

Let’s be real. You’ve been told to write a paper or contribute to a discussion, and you’re staring at a passage like this, from Wittgenstein’s “Lecture on Ethics:”

Now instead of saying “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good” I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.

What are you supposed to do with this? What you probably want to do is rewrite it in your own words in the hope you’ll think of something to say. That’s actually not a bad plan, but it’s going to run into an obstacle very quickly. The statement “ethics is the enquiry into what is good” is a trap–it sounds too obvious, it sounds like it closes off any other thoughts. It can lead one to say things like “Goodness depends on morality or ethics” in increasingly repetitive ways.

You may want to try to find some hidden inner logic to the text. There is a distinction between “what is good” and “what is valuable,” perhaps. There is certainly a distinction between both “good” & “valuable” and “the meaning of life,” even if Wittgenstein ties the three together (“worth living” would be about value, “right way” would be about what is good). But I don’t think you should always have to solve a puzzle in order to write thoughtfully.

What habits can you build that will help here and in other situations like this one? I believe there’s a few directions you can go with pretty much any text or prompt. First, though, you do have to find a part of the text or a philosophical issue that’s rich enough to talk about. The habits/strategies I’m going to give are useless if you haven’t done any work and are looking to write something at the extreme last minute. You’ve got to read or think about an issue in philosophy and have a few notes or questions to begin with. The notes and questions are how you know what you’re working with is viable. It is easy to pick a topic which can go nowhere–there’s a lot of knowledge which has been lost or where it’s hard to appreciate its full significance.

So. Strategy one: Start personal. A lot of teachers ask you to talk about your life experience when answering a prompt, or to find aspects of a text or topic that strike you a certain way. They’re doing this in part because if you can make one part of the class personal, you’ll be eager to follow up on other parts of the classwork. I got into this teaching thing on the off-chance that someone might actually find something enormously important to them. Why isn’t everything personal? After all, Wittgenstein is really concerned with what on earth it means to inquire into what is good. That doesn’t seem like a small thing for him. Why should it be for us?

“Start personal” goes a lot of places. In the case of something seemingly as bland as “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good,” how did you learn what is good? How did you learn to question what is good? Did you ever seriously question what is good? If you didn’t–and I’m not sure I have myself–then where did we learn to ask questions from? Have any of us ever, properly speaking, asked an ethical question, or just a lot of questions about ethics?

You may be wondering how to build the connection between your personal experience and what you have been assigned for class. There’s a number of stock phrases you can use of the “he seems to be saying” sort. “He seems to be saying” introduces an interpretation, and once you have an interpretation, you’re very close to telling what the assignment means to you and what questions it raises. This is not unimportant—you’re in dialogue with an author or idea. You’re figuring out, in a way, how you yourself think. I’m just gonna say this: it is possible to be a lot more direct. You can write in the first person and talk about what you understood and didn’t understand. You can talk about what you thought you saw and what you hoped to see. One of the original inquiries into ethics is Aristotle’s “Ethics,” which supposes we can find happiness by living rightly. Maybe every paper written on the “Ethics” should only be in the first person: if happiness is at stake, that’s rather important on a personal level.

Start personal, even though you may not end personal. If I had to write on this passage, I’d probably talk about how the “meaning of life” has changed for me, but “what is good” hasn’t quite changed the same way. I think I was more ambitious earlier–now I just want to be visible enough to have a positive impact and survive. “What is good” should correspondingly change, and in some ways, it has, as I can talk about what I value more now. But I can speak at length about a bunch of ideas I have that haven’t changed.

Strategy two: Read around, think around. If something feels too narrow, then it is too narrow. So if the above passage seems to be saying the same thing over and over, then ask if there are parts which strike one differently.

It turns out in the case of the above passage, Wittgenstein has prefaced it with an incredibly thoughtful idea:

And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical—say—Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics.

Wittgenstein’s idea: Galton took a bunch of photos of different faces. They were overlapping, so it became readily apparent what each face had in common with others. Just as Galton did this, Wittgenstein wants to define “Ethics” with a focus on what is similar.

Just like “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good,” it’s possible to say “so what? Don’t we all know this already? Ethics has to do with the good, and looking for similarities is what you should do when trying to find out what a thing is.” But ethics having to do with the good opened up any number of personal stories, if one cares to share. And looking for what’s similar in the domain of ethics is actually a peculiar strategy.

How do we know right and wrong? Do we know it because of a strict emphasis on what is right and good? Or are we very much aware of punishment, of learning the hard way what is not acceptable? You could take the time here to talk about how different Wittgenstein’s approach to ethics is—that maybe it raises a whole set of different emotions and ideas that could be linked to ethics on an everyday level. It is the case the “Lecture on Ethics” becomes somewhat mystical by the end. “He is a good man” does not resolve in a similar manner to “he is a good tennis player”–the former points to some kind of ideal of a person. The latter can be broken down into propositions about the quality of play by a tennis player which can be observed and tested.

If you took the idea about finding what is similar to define ethics and then looked at the next paragraph, where Wittgenstein wondered how ethics as the “enquiry into what is good” compared with ethics being “valuable” or about the “meaning of life,” you could write whether the verbal illustrations of these three notions–“good,” “valuable,” “the meaning of life”–can be put on the same plane, allowing what overlaps to be clearly seen. Do our descriptions of things work like comparing images? This is a tough, interesting question–what I’d be interested in is how you got to it. Then we can begin speaking of how a visual and verbal reality relate.

Strategy three: They say, I say. There’s a whole book on this which I revisit periodically to remind myself that I need to learn how to write. Roughly: What do other people–it can be scholars, it can be a different interpretation than yours–say about what you’re looking at?

So. You can begin by imagining someone reading the text you’re reading and reacting differently. If someone is saying that ethics asks questions about what is good, valuable, the meaning of life, is it possible to argue with any of that? Sure–I know plenty of people who would say “Why are you wasting your money on a class on ethics?” What does it mean to inquire into what is valuable on a philosophical level? Why might the inquiry into what is valuable be considered useless? Is it useless?

But you can also consult other voices. I like it when people consult scholars after they’ve made some notes or jotted down their own thoughts or are hopelessly confused. I myself am in the last condition most of the time, so I tend to be bad about writing down notes or my own thoughts. In the case of the “Lecture on Ethics,” Deirdre Smith points out something really interesting: Galton looked for similarities in order to produce an archetype. He failed badly. Does Wittgenstein think the search for similarities will fail to produce what we need in terms of ethics? Does he think the search is worth doing, regardless, or is he up to something else?

You now have 3 strategies for approaching something philosophical and making something of it. Notice how little of the text we’ve actually engaged: in this blogpost, I’ve close read two paragraphs, tops. And I’ve spent abundant time speaking about what one can do with those paragraphs and suggested multiple ideas for papers. You can do this too, and it is of value. As we’re learning the hard way every day, we need leaders who appreciate what is good, not just destroy things, bluster about, create imaginary enemies. We need leaders who are willing to engage in repair, who have the courage to apologize and the integrity needed for peace. Writing about philosophy isn’t going to create those leaders. But it’s one small step toward seeing the good, seeing each other. If I had to go back in time and do my classwork over again, I’d be far more interested in what my peers were writing and asking about than I was.

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