Philosophy Paper Guide

Over break, I did some work: I wrote a one-page guide for introductory philosophy students writing term papers. Feedback and criticism is welcome!


The goal in a philosophy paper is to give a good argument for your thesis. It is a stellar idea in making an argument outline to put your argument in one of the argument forms like we use in class. This format does not need to appear in your actual paper, but it can.

Giving a good argument for a philosophical thesis usually involves related tasks, like:

  • formulating and choosing a thesis that seems plausible and defensible in a term paper
  • clarifying what the issue is and bracketing other tangential issues
  • researching data and evidence to see if your premises and thesis are plausible
  • making your premises and methods clear and explicit
  • defending the premises that are used in your argument for your thesis
  • fairly presenting and critically discussing alternative theses
  • considering and critically replying to objections and implications of your thesis

In doing the above, you may find, as I often have, that a given thesis is not plausible and should be rejected. This—being wrong—is part of philosophizing, just as it is part of any scientic inquiry. As such, your paper may end with a devastating objection to your thesis or premises: it is perfectly acceptable to end your paper by rejecting your thesis with which you began. What I want to see, ultimately, is you critically arguing well.

Here are some further suggestions as to what a good philosophy paper does:

  1. Thesis Thesis is clear, concise, and at the beginning, perhaps after a brief introduction. The thesis is not trivial, like puppies are cute is. It is also defensible in a term paper.
  2. Issue The main issue is explicitly explained, perhaps by connecting it to the course content. No filler or bullshit is used. Why we should care about the issue is also explained.
  3. Premises The premises are clearly and explicitly stated, along with some basis for accepting them. The premises are first-blush plausible or well-supported by research.
  4. Clarification The thesis and premises, and the main issue, are claried with examples and explanations of key philosophical terms. Your non-philosopher friend should understand your thesis, premises, and the issue. Do not write as if I am the audience.
  5. Argument The thesis is cogently argued for using the premises. The argument for the thesis is persuasive to anyone who accepts your premises and methods.
  6. Alternatives Alternatives to your thesis or view on the main issue are fairly presented. Present them even better than their advocates do. Then critically discuss them. You might object to consequences of them, or agree with them to the extent that you do.
  7. Objections You fairly present and critically discuss concerns with your thesis and premises.
  8. Research Your sources and data are documented in a bibliography, and are acceptable in academic, scientic contexts wherein getting the facts right is the first, foremost goal.

Book Published!

I am happy to report that I have published my first book, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism: A Centenary Reappraisal! I co-edited this volume with Gregory Landini (University of Iowa), and contributed a chapter. You can see previews, buy chapters, or buy the whole thing at this link.

The volume collects fourteen original essays on Russell’s 1918 logical atomism lectures. The book is published with Palgrave Macmillan in their History of Analytic Philosophy series edited by Michael Beaney (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin / King’s College–London). The other books in this series are also quite good.

Palgrave collection 2018 cover.png

Peer-Review in Intro Philosophy Papers!

I am really happy to report that I will be working with the University of Iowa’s Writing Center to set up a peer-review component of my introduction to philosophy course this spring!

The Writing Center has a Writing Fellows program in which honors students are trained to give feedback on term papers across the curriculum. They then give comments on rough drafts of two longer paper assignments. They do not grade assignments, but only provide feedback and tutoring on the papers.

The program is such that the rough drafts of longer papers are turned in at least two weeks before the final due date. This gives Writing Fellows time to read papers, provide detailed comments, and then meet with students to go over their papers. Then students have a chance to revise their papers before the final drafts in a focused manner with helpful guidance. (To that end, I actually gave students just three weeks from the submission of their rough draft to the submission of the final version.)

Though I will have to judge by the results, I expect that this program will benefits all parties involved—my students, the Writing Fellows, and me as a teacher:

  • This will help my students improve their writing in light of comments and give them the task of writing like I suggest they do—as if they were explaining philosophy to a peer without any philosophy background—by supplying them with such a peer.
  • This program also focuses my students’ attention on the revision process. Good philosophy often takes multiple drafts. This program makes revising earlier writing part of their grade (rather than submitting a paper only to never return to it, which perhaps makes the experience of reading feedback from me, say, less fruitful).
  • This program helps Writing Fellows by giving them more experience giving feedback on peers’ writing—and exposes them to philosophical content, to boot!
  • This program helps me in delivering guidance for paper feedback to others, and in collaborating with undergraduates.
  • This also incentivizes me to design a more detailed paper rubric—which will no doubt assist Writing Fellows in giving helpful feedback, assist my students in understanding what I look for in longer papers, and assist me in grading with more focus.

So this program seems like a win for everyone. I thank my colleagues, Professors Carol Severino (Director) and Megan Knight (Assistant Director), for providing me and other faculty at the University of Iowa, plus our students, with this golden opportunity.

A Group Exercise from my Intro class

I meant to post this two months ago: my 20 intro students do a group-work exercise in which they split into three teams. The goal was to most accurately depict what is going on when we perceive, according to the theory of Russell’s Problems Chapters 1-3. So they needed to depict:

  1. A perceiving subject
  2. A physical object causing a perception
  3. A sense-datum that is the object of perception

The idea was to have them get a handle, visually, on the appearance-reality distinction in Russell’s view, and to compare the appearance (sense-datum) with the reality (physical object) in that theory.

Then, after each group worked, they drew their team’s picture of Russell’s account. Then the other teams got to critique their competitor’s picture. The winning team got donuts! So not only did they get an incentive to talk to each other, but they got an incentive to critically compare the text with their competitor’s drawing.

The results of this group exercise were terrific. The discussion was student-led and lasted the whole class. I will definitely do this again next semester. As a bonus, I have included the pictures below.

Academics: Read Your Institutional Histories!

I am reading Stow Persons’ 1990 The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History. (Persons was a professor and chair of the University of Iowa’s history department from 1948 to 1981.) The book actually starts with the university’s founding in February 25th, 1847. I bring this up because reading this book was deeply rewarding and gave me a geological view of my home institution – a sense for how it came to have its present shape, and a sense for how the current challenges the institution faces are ones that have been around since the beginning. I would strongly encourage academics wherever they work to read their institutional history, if it has one. (This is not a given, and it is a great service to the University of Iowa that Persons wrote this one.)

My home university has historically had an intrastate rivalry with Iowa State University. The University of Iowa was set up as the state’s academic institution in 1847. Its chosen location of Iowa City was sensible, as this was the territorial capital. But the choice was “unfortunate” because it was not as central in the state and because the fact that Johnson County was a “wet” county—one that permitted saloons and alcohol—caused some citizens to keep their children away from the university for fear of their moral corruption (Persons, pages 2-3). This is rather similar to the modern fretting about students being taught by “liberal professors” and the bills that propose hiring “conservative professors” in response.

Further, the University of Iowa’s emphasis on liberal arts education caused folks to lobby for a separate agricultural college on the grounds that “students educated at a university would not deign to dirty their hands at honest manual labor” (page 2). But despite the ostensible divorce of the liberal arts at the University of Iowa and technical training at Iowa State University, these two both competed for students and state funding, fighting to establish themselves as the premier with graduate and undergraduate programs that were duplicated—contrary to the legislature’s explicit charter, but in accordance with the wishes of partisans of and stakeholders in each institution (pages 75-76). (The alleged problem of “duplication” was arguably not a real problem anyway (pages 76-77).) This is a theme that was taken up by the Iowa’s Board of Regents in 2014.

The recurrence of these themes in the modern university is what is striking to me. There were problems then with state funding, just as there are now. The state would not even fund the construction of a university library, despite the state education board’s repeated requests for the allocation (pages 79-80). This tidbit is accompanied by a rather amusing and horrifying description of the working conditions at the university library: the librarian describes summers with “unbearable heat in the reading room”, the heating being constantly too high or low in winter, and the windows without any screens, which allowed “hordes of flies which keep the Librarians employed in such unprofessional tasks as arranging new sheets of fly paper” (page 80). This is not so different from the biannual switching from cooling to heating in the English-Philosophy Building, though I happily have no need for fly paper.

There was also an athletic scandal which resulted in a one-month expulsion from the University of Iowa’s athletic conference in January 1929:

…athletes had been given commissions for the sale of yearbooks; athletes were being subsidized from a slush fund; athletes had been permitted to draw on an illegal fund to make payments on tuition in arrears; and the registrar had failed to certify the eligibility of athletes as required by conference regulations. (page 98)

Such athletic scandals, sadly, are with us today.

The most remarkable thing to read about was the development of various colleges and departments, the introduction of a Graduate College, a college of business (“College of Commerce”), and the varying degrees to which the administration worked with, or ignored, the Faculty Senate. It gives me a different view on the present day challenges, how longstanding they have been, how they were overcome (or not) by past academics, and how the institution arrived at its current structure and curriculum. It gives me some respect for the current structure to see its origin story. And it gives me some hope that our present challenges are not new, and have been overcome in the past.