How to Write Philosophy

Berkeley Connect Philosophy students get serious about the writing process

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“This is different from our usual discussions,” Mentor Arpy Khatchirian said, as I came in. “It’s much more serious today. More academic.” In this small-group discussion, Berkeley Connect Philosophy students explored how to write effective philosophy papers and came away with a lot of new insights into a very intensive process. “Last semester, when we discussed this, students were like, ‘What? We have to talk about work?'” Arpy added, laughing. “Philosophical research is not research in the sense that biologists do it. It does require looking at what others have said before you and what they have not, but mostly armchair reflection is our research.”

“Reading philosophy is very different from other kinds of readings,” Arpy noted at the beginning. “You have to be critical, but if you spend too much time dwelling on individual sentences, it’s hard to see the bigger picture.” In order to help students in this work, she passed out a few pages of her advice on everything from how to read philosophy to how to better engage with what is going on in class. Arpy suggested students do a quick first read. “It’s to get a sense of what the author’s main goal is and its overall stucture,” she said. “The first read is more like reading a novel. If you try to read too closely the first time, you’ll have difficulty making process.” Arpy especially urged students to do this before the class meeting at which the reading will be discussed.

The next part of the process is careful and detailed reading – from connecting various parts of the paper to questioning the author’s assumptions and arguments. “Diagrams can be helpful,” Arpy said. “It’s sometimes hard to keep track of the structure in your head, and drawing it out can be useful, especially for visual learners like me.”

“But how do you convert a diagram into a paper?” a student wanted to know. “That’s the subject of our class!” Arpy responded. “But remember, this work should be done before you even start writing. If you do that, a paper will emerge out of it.”

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“It’s important to keep asking questions,” she elaborated. “What is the author doing here? What is the goal? How are they doing it? You have to understand what philosophers are arguing to see where they falls short. These two tasks are intertwined in philosophy.”

Which brings us to the third step – evaluating the author’s argument. The best way to figure out if you’re ready for step 3, according to Arpy? “Put the pages away and see if you can write down the author’s goals and arguments without looking at the reading at all.”

When trying to decide whether you agree with an argument, the challenge is staying focused while being critical. “Sometimes I get a bad feeling, but don’t know what I’m disagreeing with,” Arpy noted. “In that case, I need to diagnose what is missing.” She also suggested keeping the prompt in front of you to make sure you are answering it.

She and the students then discussed their own processes, including whether to use outside sources. “I usually have enough readings in the class,” many students agree. Arpy agreed, warning, “The more you read, the more you have to judge whether it’s worth reading. Some sources are good, while others are not helpful. And especially with philosophy, this can be a lot of work.”

Students also shared tips on the ways they read. “I don’t usually like to annotate because it distracts me, but if I don’t understand it, I talk it out to myself,” one student said. “It’s different saying someone’s argument aloud and just reading them.”

Arpy and the students agreed that talking – whether to yourself or to someone else – can be a great tool for formulating ideas. “I spent three hours on the first page of an essay once, and then I talked to a friend about my ideas,” he said. “I wrote the next two pages in an hour after that. Articulating my thoughts helped me put everything together.”

“Philosophy papers should be straightforward, like trying to get a friend to understand,” Arpy agreed. “I used to say you want to try to write for a very curious, intelligent 11-year-old. I recently heard, however, the idea of writing for a mean, intelligent person. I think the idea is that this reader will try to catch the mistakes in your logic. I prefer it my way, but you should find what works for you.”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant