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.