Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Philosophy Position Papers

A significant proportion of introductory philosophy students have difficulty in understanding what makes a good philosophy paper. I like to require position papers--i.e., a paper providing the student’s reasoning or insights concerning a fairly precise assigned problem. Nevertheless, often position papers do not fare well in my introductory classes.

There are a number of excellent writing guides on the Web, and while I think these guides have some recommendations in common, for the most part the guides share a family relation of suggestions, depending upon the emphases of the course and instructor. Even so, I've found these guides only useful for upper-division classes.

In introductory courses, most students have difficulty understanding the nature of a philosophical problem, and, of those who do get it, many are baffled not only as to how to go about seeking possible solutions but also as to what to comment upon the selected topic. This is not surprising since the discipline of philosophy, as I see it, is concerned with problems which have no clear or established method of solution. To the beginning student, the confusion as to how to proceed is precisely what makes the project frustrating.

It seems to me one way some of the awkwardness of learning to do philosophy could be avoided if the instructor presented the beginning student with specific logically opposed quotations from different philosophers with respect to problems studied in the course.

In this manner, the focus of the assignment would be student’s attempt to clarify and to argue for a best solution to the opposing views where the student does not just defend one of the two views presented. The presented task is not intended just to resolve opposing viewpoints or opposing doctrines by choosing one over the other. For example, if a topic were based on reading James and Russell on truth, the paper should not be an attempt to defend one theory over the other.

The burden is on the instructor to construct a list of opposed views of a philosophical positions represented in short quotations or excerpts. For example, consider a passage where Lucretius argues that the soul is biological and a contrasting passage where Plotinus presupposing the soul is extra-natural.

(1) First, Lucretius writes, "The nature of the mind and soul is bodily … [and] mortal. If the soul were immortal and made its way into our body at birth, why would we be unable to remember bygone times and retain no traces of previous actions? If the poser of the mind has been so completely changed that all remembrance of past things is lost, I regard that as not differing greatly from death; therefore you must admit that the soul which as before has perished and that which is now has been formed." (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Bk. III.)

(2) Plotinus, second, writes, "Many times it has happened. Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the highest order; acquiring identity with the divine, stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatever in the Intellectual is less than the Supreme: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the Soul ever enter into my body, the Soul which even within the body is the highest thing it as shown itself to be." (Plotinus, Enneads, IV, 8. 1.)

I think the interesting aspect with respect to posing fairly precise problems of this kind is the student has a wide range of responses and positions which might be taken.


I'm reminded in this regard of Alexander Calandra's well-known “Barometer Story” where a student constructs multiple surprising solutions to the problem of calculating the height of a building with the aid of a barometer.

The burden for the instructor would be demanding in two respects: (1) the cataloging of specific passages from readings for such problem topics requires a good background in primary source readings, and (2) the evaluation of the paper on the basis of reasoning and insight (rather than the purported adequacy of solution along traditional lines) requires a open and charitable mind. Even so, I suspect position papers of this kind would offer much more opportunity for student excitement and interest.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Argument Analysis: Principle of Charity and Formal Logic

Regrettably, on occasion individuals conversant with the methods of formal logic and philosophy venture into new subject areas immediately applying their analytical skills before seeking understanding of the concepts, precepts, or beliefs being adduced. Instead, the tacit and provisional application of the principle of charity should be implicit in every new intellectual and cultural endeavor.

As an example, I'd like to recount the analysis of a passage from a computer science programming book brought to me by a former student of beginning logic. The passage is ...
Your computer, on the other hand, can understand only machine language, a compact series of computer-readable instructions that make no sense to people. They make sense to some advanced computer gurus, but my general assertion stands that they don't make sense to people. (Greg Perry, Beginning Programming (Indianapolis, Indiana: Sams, 2002), 14.)
The analysis and reconstruction skillfully provided by the student of this third-order enthymematic argument was as follows:
No (people) are (individuals who understand machine language).
Some (advanced computer gurus) are (individual who understand machine language).
[Some (advanced computer gurus) are not (people).]
and the form of the argument, EIO-2, of course, tests valid:
No P is M.
Some S is M.
Some S is not P.
Since the conclusion is obviously false, the implication is by reductio ad absurdum, that at least one of the premises is false, namely the general assertion that computer-readable instructions make no sense to people.

The heart of the analysis depends on the logical or precising interpretation of the notion of "generalization" as something all inclusive and applying to each and every individual distributively.

Certainly a charitable interpretation of the passage would indicate the author Greg Perry intended his "general assertions" to mean something like "Universally; with respect to all or nearly all ... As in A fact now g[enerally] received 1820." (William Little, et al. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles 3rd. ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 783.)

Of course, the student assumes that passage implies the author is asserting that computer-readable instructions make no sense to each and every individual person, whereas the common-sense interpretation of the passage implies the author is asserting that computer-readable instructions make no sense to most people.

It's certainly arguable that the student's logical analysis results from not so much the lack of tolerance or charity as it is a case of the fallacy of straw man, since the sense of the word "generally" to mean "almost all" is perhaps more common in everyday discourse than is the meaning "including each and every one without exception."