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Guide to the Study of Philosophy

Welcome to the study of philosophy; I hope that you will enjoy your pursuit
of the discipline and find it rewarding in many ways. In this document, I've
gathered some information that may be of assistance to you as you proceed
through a formal course of study.
You may also wish to consult the Teaching and tudying !esources page of
"pisteme #in$s and the %ictionary of &hilosophical Terms and 'ames.
!eading &hilosophical Te(ts
)sing "lectronic Te(ts
&hilosophical %ialogue
The "lectronic *orum
Writing &hilosophy
Writing !esearch &apers
Writing "ssay "(ams
!eading &hilosophical Te(ts
The assignments in your course re+uire you to engage in a close reading of
significant te(ts written by the major philosophers of the Western tradition. ince
you may have had little e(perience in dealing with material of this sort, the
prospect may be a little daunting at first. &hilosophical prose is carefully crafted
to achieve its own purposes, and reading it well re+uires a similar degree of care.
,ere are a few suggestions-
%o the assigned reading
The philosophical te(ts simply are the content of the course; if you do not read,
you will not learn. .oming to class without having read and listening to the
discourse of those who have is no substitute for grappling with the material on
your own. You can't develop intellectual independence if you rely for your
information on the opinions of other people, even when they happen to be correct.
.onsider the conte(t
&hilosophical writing, li$e literature of any genre, arises from a concrete historical
setting. /pproaching each te(t, you should $eep in mind who wrote it, when and
where it was published, for what audience it was originally intended, what
purposes it was supposed to achieve, and how it has been received by the
philosophical and general communities since its appearance. Introductory matter
in your te(tboo$s and the Internet resources accessed through the course syllabus
will help you get off to a good start.
Ta$e your time
.areful reading cannot be rushed; you should allow plenty of time for a leisurely
perusal of the material assigned each day. Individual learning styles certainly
differ- some people function best by reading the same te(t several times with
progressively more detailed attention; others prefer to wor$ through the te(t
patiently and diligently a single time. In either case, encourage yourself to slow
down and engage the te(t at a personal level.
pot crucial passages
/lthough philosophers do not deliberately spin out pointlessly e(cessive verbiage
0no, really12, most philosophical te(ts vary in density from page to page. It isn't
always obvious what matters most; philosophers sometimes glide superficially
over the very points on which their entire argument depends. 3ut with the practice
you'll be getting wee$ by wee$, you'll soon be able to highlight the most
important portions of each assignment.
Identify central theses
"ach philosophical te(t is intended to convince us of the truth of particular
propositions. /lthough these central theses are sometimes stated clearly and
e(plicitly, authors often choose to present them more subtly in the conte(t of the
line of reasoning which they are established. !emember that the thesis may be
either positive or negative, either the acceptance or the rejection of a
philosophical position. /t the most general level, you may find it helpful to
survey the e(am study +uestions in your course study aids file as you read each
assigned te(t.
#ocate supportive arguments
&hilosophers do not merely state opinions but also underta$e to establish their
truth. The methods employed to support philosophical theses can differ widely,
but most of them will be e(pressed one of the forms of logical argumentation.
That is, the philosopher will 0e(plicitly or implicitly2 offer premises that are
clearly true and then claim that a sound inference from these premises leads
ine(orably to the desired conclusion. /lthough a disciplined study of the forms of
logical reasoning is helpful, you'll probably learn to recogni4e the most common
patterns from early e(amples in your reading.
/ssess the arguments
/rguments are not all of e+ual cogency; we are obliged to accept the conclusion
only if it is supported by correct inference from true premises. Thus, there are two
different ways in which to +uestion the legitimacy of a particular argument-
o /s$ whether the premises are true. 0!emember that one or more of the
premises of the argument may be unstated assumptions.2
o /s$ whether the inference from premises to conclusion is sound. 0,ere it
will be helpful to thin$ of applying the same pattern of reasoning to a
more familiar case.2
If all else fails, you may +uestion the truth of the conclusion directly by proposing
a counter5e(ample which seems obviously to contradict it.
#oo$ for connections
ince these te(ts occur within a tradition, they are often directly related to each
other. Within your reading of a particular philosopher, notice the way in which
material in one portion of the te(t lin$s up with material from another. /s the
semester proceeds, consider the ways in which each philosopher incorporates,
appropriates, rejects, or responds to the wor$ of those who have gone before.
*inally, ma$e every possible effort to relate this philosophical te(t to what you
already $now from courses in other disciplines and from your own life
/bove all else, don't worry1 You'll spend most of your class time going over
the assigned readings, often in great detail. You'll have plenty of opportunities to
learn what other readers have found, to as$ +uestions for clarification of pu44ling
passages, and to share your own insights with others. /s the semester proceeds,
you will grow ever more confident in your own capacity to interpret philosophical
)sing "lectronic Te(ts
The philosophers' pages here will provide you with convenient access to
electronic versions of most of the te(ts you'll be reading and to other te(ts by the
same or related authors. &lease learn to ma$e use of these materials regularly. I
thin$ you'll find that e5te(ts offer a number of advantages for research in
With a little practice, you'll find the virtual library easy to get around in.
Well5designed hyperte(t files are particularly useful, but even straight te(t
files are often easier to manipulate than physical boo$s.
It is much more convenient to compare related te(ts in electronic than in
print form. 0The trilingual version of %escartes's Meditations is an
e(cellent e(ample.
)sing the utilities provided with your browser or word5processing
software ma$es it easy to search the te(t for $ey words or phrases and to
e(cerpt crucial passages for further study.
"(citing prospects1 /s %avid ,ume wrote in a different conte(t, 6When we
run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we ma$e76
3efore committing any of our old print volumes to the flames, however, we might
consider a few words of caution-
'ot every significant te(t is available in electronic form. /lthough many
worthwhile projects are busy e(panding the number of te(ts on5line, the
process of conversion from print media to reliable e5te(t is time5
consuming and labor5intensive. It will be a long time before Internet
resources can begin to rival the holdings of even a small research library.
3ecause of copyright restrictions, the electronic te(ts available on the
Internet rarely include the best critical editions or the most recent
translations of the wor$ of major philosophers. 0*or those we must still
rely on more costly print or .%5!89 media.2 When using e5te(ts in the
preparation of a written assignment, you'll want to refer to the more
definitive print versions before +uoting directly.
'ot all of the readily available e5te(ts are of the highest +uality; scanning
errors are common, and proof5reading is sometimes spotty. /lthough I've
tried to identify reliable versions, I've certainly not chec$ed every word
myself. /gain, be sure to double5chec$ against a more standard print
version of the te(t.
*inally, in my own e(perience, at least, for the $ind of leisurely,
ruminative reading that most philosophical te(ts re+uire, a physical
volume:the $ind of thing you can spread out on your lap or mar$ up with
a pencil or even heave across the room:is still hard to beat.
&hilosophical %ialogue
;erbal discussion of serious topics is in no way tangential to the practice of
philosophy. *rom ocratic gatherings to the philosophical conventions of today,
thin$ing things through out loud:and in the presence of others:has always been
of the essence of the philosophical method. 09ost philosophical te(ts embody this
give5and5ta$e, either in e(plicit use of dialogue form or by a more subtle
alteration of proposal, objection, and reply.2 Your philosophical education
demands that you enter into the great conversation of Western thought. / few
suggestions may help-
3e prepared
&roductive dialogue presupposes informed participants. This means that during
every class session, each of us will have read the material assigned for the day, we
will pay careful attention to what others have already said, and we will thin$
carefully before spea$ing. 8f course, each of us will often be mista$en, but none
of us should ever spea$ randomly.
!espect others
<oint participants in dialogue show a deep, personal respect for each other. We
owe it to each other to listen well and to give each other the benefit of doubt in
interpreting charitably what has been said, trying always to see the worthwhile
point. /lthough we will rarely find ourselves in total agreement on the issues at
sta$e, we will never attac$ or ma$e fun of each other personally.
"(pect conflict
%isagreement with an e(pressed opinion and criticism of its putative support is
not disrespectful; it is an ac$nowledgment that we are ta$ing the matter seriously.
The more significant the issue under discussion, the more li$ely our e(changes
will become passionate, even heated. 3ut we must always deal with each other
fairly, helping each other to see the light.
=uality counts more than +uantity
'o discussion will be perfectly balanced among its participants, and each of us
will have days on which we are +uieter or more vocal. 3ut no one should
dominate the conversation, nor should anyone be utterly silent. If you find
yourself spea$ing too much, try to listen more; if you find yourself saying too
little, loo$ for opportunities to contribute. 3ut always remember that it is what
you say, not the fact of your spea$ing, that matters.
/s$ +uestions
'ot every contribution to the dialogue needs to be the proposal or defence of a
thesis. It is always proper to as$ for a clarification of the meaning of something
that has already been said or for the justification of a claim that has already been
made. 0Those who are naturally +uiet may find that a well5timed +uestion is the
most comfortable way to participate in the dialogue.2
/bove all, remember that philosophical discussion is a cooperative activity,
aiming at a mutual achievement of truth 0or, at least, convergence on a shared
opinion2. It is not a competition in which 6points6 are to be scored against an
opponent. We are wor$ing together, and each can learn from all.
The "lectronic *orum
.onducting an e5mail discussion during the semester enables us to e(pand
our study of philosophy beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of class
meetings. If you've not used e5mail e(tensively before, it may ta$e a little energy
to get started, but you'll soon find this medium a comfortable one for
communicating with the entire group. "arly in the semester, everyone will be
subscribed to the mailing list for your course and can use it to send a message to
the entire class.
,ere are a few general ground rules for getting started on the electronic
.hec$ your mail fre+uently
"very member of the class will be contributing multiple e5mail messages each
wee$:perhaps one or two substantive efforts and several short comments. This
means that your mail will pile up pretty +uic$ly. You'll want to read it daily, or at
least several times a wee$, so that you have a chance to chime in on a subject
before we move on to something else.
/void lengthy +uotes
When responding to someone else's comments, don't +uote the whole message:
we've all seen it already. <ust mention the person's name, the date of the message,
and +uote the few crucial lines that provide a conte(t for what you want to say.
0ome identification is a good idea, since we'll all be 6spea$ing6 at once.2
'ever be deliberately offensive
#ac$ing the visual cues present in face5to5face communication, typed electronic
messages can easily seem more harsh than they were intended to be. "ven in the
passion of a vigorous philosophical e(change, let's try to be considerate of each
other on both sides:in writing and in reading:by assuming the best. 'o
6flaming,6 please.
!emember that this addition to the more traditional methods of discussion is
still e(perimental, at least for us. That's no reason to be timid- let's plunge in, try
everything we can thin$ of, learn from our mista$es and from our successes, and
enjoy the adventure.
Writing &hilosophy
Write to learn. "(pressing your thoughts is an e(cellent way of discovering
what they really are. "ven when you're the only one who ever sees the results of
your e(plorations, trying to put them down in written form often helps, and when
you wish to communicate to others, the ability to write clear, meaningful prose is
vital. ,ere are some suggestions for proceeding-
)nderstand the assignment
Whether you're completing a specific assignment from me or developing your
own project, it is important to have the aims firmly in mind. *ocus on a single
+uestion you wish to address, be clear about your own answer to it, and e(plicitly
state a thesis that answers the +uestion. You will often want to divide the central
issue into several smaller +uestions, each with its own answer, and this will
naturally lead to a coherent structure for the entire essay.
Interpret fairly
9ost of your writing projects will begin with a careful effort to interpret a
philosophical te(t, and this step should never be ta$en lightly. Your first
responsibility is to develop an accurate reading of the original te(t; then your
criticism can begin. *ocus primarily on the ade+uacy of the arguments which
support the stated conclusions. If you disagree, you can loo$ for the wea$nesses
of that support; if you agree, you can defend it against possible attac$s.
upport your thesis
%on't just state your own position; ma$e it the conclusion of a line of reasoning.
.laim only what you can prove 0or are, at least, prepared to defend2, and support
it with evidence and argument. &hilosophy is not just a list of true opinions, but
the reasoned effort to provide justification.
.onsider alternatives
3e sure to e(plore arguments on all sides of the issue you address. 8f course you
will want to emphasi4e the reasoning that supports your thesis, but it is also
important to consider li$ely objections and to respond with counter5arguments. 3e
especially carefully in your use of e(amples- the best positive e(ample can only
clarify meaning and lend some evidentiary confirmation, but a single counter5
e(ample disproves a general claim completely.
8mit the unnecessary
Include in your written wor$ only what is germane to your topic- after the first
draft, mercilessly eliminate from your te(t anything that does not directly and
uni+uely support the thesis. &adding with irrelevant or redundant material is never
worthwhile. 3e particularly careful in your use of material prepared by others- do
not plagiari4e, paraphrase without attribution, +uote directly often or at length, or
rely e(tensively on a single secondary source.
Write clearly
It is your responsibility as writer to e(press yourself in a way that can be
understood. )se specific, concrete language in active voice whenever you can.
%efine your terms e(plicitly and use them consistently throughout your paper.
*inally, you may find it helpful to $eep an appropriate audience in mind as
you write. %on't write just for the instructor and your classmates:that is, don't
assume that your audience has professional $nowledge of the philosophical te(ts
or total awareness of every conversation that has ta$en place, inside and outside
the classroom. )nless otherwise directed by the details of a particular assignment,
thin$ of yourself as presenting the material to a friend, your parents, or a class-
intelligent, interested people who are well5informed generally but who lac$ your
$nowledge of the philosophical issues. Write to teach.
&aper ubmission >uidelines
/ll written assignments should be submitted in the designated form, and
should include a clear indication of the course and assignment number. 3e sure to
observe the designated due date; wor$ that is turned in late will automatically
receive a significantly reduced grade.
It is reasonable to e(pect any assignment prepared outside class to be written
well, with careful attention to grammar, spelling, and usage. &hilosophical writing
should avoid offensive se(ual, racial, ethnic, religious, and material or physical
bias. You will find useful e(amples of appropriate writing styles in the /merican
&hilosophical /ssociation's >uidelines for 'on5e(ist )se of #anguage.
You may employ any one of the methods of attribution described in The
Chicago Manual of Style, but must be consistent in both notes and bibliographies.
%irect +uotations from the philosophers should be ta$en from the standard edition
of the wor$s or the definitive "nglish translation as listed in !ichard T.
%e>eorge, The Philosopher's Guide or from the te(ts you have been as$ed to read
for this course.
If you ma$e significant use of an electronic source, remember that this
deserves documentation, too, including the author's name, titles for both the page
and the site, a complete )niform !esource #ocator, and the date on which you
viewed it on5line. Thus, for e(ample, wor$ on >eorge 3er$eley's philosophy
might include references to-
>eorge 3er$eley, A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human
Knowledge, ection ??. ,T9# edition by %avid !. Wil$ins.
,umanBnowledgeA,umanBnowledge.htmlCect??D /ccessed EF
eptember GHHI.
6>eorge 3er$eley,6 The Internet ncyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by
<ames *ieser. @http-AAwww.utm.eduAresearchAiepAbAber$eley.htmD
/ccessed ?J /pril GHHH.
>arth Bemerling, 63er$eley's Immaterialism,6 Philosophy Pages.
@http-AAwww.philosophypages.comAhyAKr.htmD /ccessed GK 8ctober
&eter 3. #loyd, 63er$eley's 9etaphysics,6 !er"eley Studies.
@http-AAeasyweb.easynet.co.u$ALursaAphilosAber$meta.htmD /ccessed ?E
<une GHHH.
/lthough you're welcome to use such sources, it is not possible to write an
ade+uate research paper using on5line materials alone. &rint resources are far
more e(tensive, detailed, and reliable.
In addition to these formal criteria, please consult the general suggestions for
Writing &hilosophy above.
Writing "ssay "(ams
ince a significant portion of your grade for this course will depend upon
assessment of your $nowledge and s$ill as reflected in e(aminations, here are a
few suggestions for dealing with essay e(ams-
3e prepared
!ely heavily upon the study +uestions distributed at the outset of the course- loo$
over them at the beginning of each unit; use them to guide your reading of the
te(ts and our discussion in class; and review them before the e(am. If you have
considered these issues fully, nothing on the e(am itself can surprise you. /rrive
promptly for the e(am, and try to be well5rested, and rela(ed.
)nderstand the +uestion
3efore beginning to write, read each +uestion carefully and completely; it will as$
that you address a specific issue in a particular way. &ay close attention to words
0such as 6%escribe...,6 6"(plain...,6 6.ompare and contrast...,6 6/ssess...,6 and
6"valuate...62 that suggest the appropriate mode of response. If you are uncertain
what a +uestion means, as$ me for a clarification. Ta$e a moment to organi4e
your thoughts on the subject, and dive in.
tic$ to the point
9a$e sure that your essay is directly relevant to the +uestion as$ed. /lthough you
will $now a great deal more about the philosopher or topic at issue than your
answer re+uires, it will be read only for information andAor argumentation that
responds to the specific +uestion. If you believe that additional material is
re+uired, indicate clearly and e(plicitly how it connects with the matter at hand.
)se your time wisely
/lthough essay e(ams in philosophy are not meant to be intensely time5pressured,
they must be completed within certain limits. You may be as$ed to write four or
five short essays during an e(am, allowing fifteen or twenty minutes for each.
%on't get so absorbed in one +uestion that you spend much more than its share of
the available time; if you have more to say, jot down a note or two, move on to
another +uestion, and return to complete your answer if time allows.
9a$e every word count
/lthough it is always helpful to write clearly:that is, in complete, grammatically
correct sentences:there is no need to craft beautiful prose. /void lengthy
prefatory, transitional, and summary verbiage. >et the essentials down on paper,
and trust the instructor to evaluate your essay by its +uality, not its +uantity.
*or further guidance, please consult the general suggestions for Writing
&hilosophy above.

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