plato paper

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General Directions for Textual Interpretation and Critique Philosophy Paper

(One style of argumentative paper)


Purpose of this kind of paper

To practice following, explaining, and critiquing an argumentative passage—a line of reasoning that leads to a specific conclusion—in clear and succinct prose.


From writing to text based arguments

  • Writing in general
    1. Brainstorm on various types of and purposes for written work
    2. Arguments are a small subset of the above
  • Arguments in general
    1. Not persuasion (as in winning a debate)
      1. Rather, establishing a point (a truth) as honestly and fairly as possible
    2. Where do you encounter arguments?
      1. Law, politics, business, religion, philosophy, sciences, and of course mundane decisions like which milk to buy
      2. Everywhere and any time someone makes a decision based on evidence and reasoning you have an argument
  • Structure of arguments
    1. Premises
      1. Evidence (ideas and information) offered in support of a conclusion
      2. They are theimportantideas in a “line of reasoning”
    2. Inference
      1. This is the “mental movement”the mind makes to draw a conclusion from given premises
      2. This is often called “reasoning”
    3. Conclusion: (a.k.a. thesis)
      1. That which is proven in a good argument, and allegedly proven in a bad argument
      2. The conclusion must be something controversial
  • Side note
    • An explanation is not an argument
    • Explanations attempt to account for given, agreed upon, situations, or states of affairs
      • Arguments always try to prove something controversial
    • People do argue about which explanation best accounts for an accepted fact
  • Text-based arguments
    1. An argument that attempts to provethat a text’s argument about some controversial issue is either successful, or not
    2. There are better and worse interpretations of a text’s argument
      1. Good interpretations are fair, honest, complete, reasonable
      2. Bad interpretations are uncharitable, dishonest, selective, unreasonable, mangled
  • The primary evidence for any textual interpretation lies in the line of reasoning in the text (not in secondary sources)
    • Historical and contextual information and other interpretations can be helpful, but are not the primary source to start with
    • And disagreements usually must refer back to the text
  • Common problems
    1. Weak text-based argumentative essays often:
      1. Start with incorrect assumptions
      2. Contain basic misunderstandings of the text
  • Exhibit poor reasoning or scattered thinking
  1. Have significant grammatical errors that interfere with communication


Components of the paper

  • Thesis
    1. The central claim of your paper
    2. In this type of paper you attempt to prove that the line of reasoning in a text, about an issue, is good or bad, convincing or unconvincing, successful or unsuccessful, or something in between
    3. Examples of what doesn’t count as a thesis and why
      1. “In this paper I will show how Plato talks about justice.”
        • Descriptive claim, not argumentative
      2. “Plato is concerned with establishing the nature of justice.”
        • Descriptive claim, not argumentative
  • “In this paper I will argue that Plato is wrong about justice.”
    • This probably introduces an argument about the topic rather than text’s line of reasoning regarding the issue
  1. “Plato has a naïve view of justice.”
    • Again, this introduces a paper that is probably not related to text, but rather is about the topic.
    • Although the word “naïve” sounds combative, it doesn’t make the thesis argumentative
  2. “Justice is discussed in Plato’s Republic.”
    • Descriptive claim, not argumentative
    • Passive voice. Aim for active voice.
  3. “In Plato’s Republic, he make some weighty observations of justice.”
    • Descriptive claim, not argumentative
    • Several grammar problems
      • Republic not italicized
      • ‘Plato’ and ‘he’ are redundant
      • Verb make should be makes
      • Weighty sounds like a “thesaurus word”, and is ambiguous here
      • ‘of’ is close to slang. It should be ‘about’.
    • “Is Plato’s concept of justice true, or not?”
      • This is a question rather than a claim
    • “I believe Plato’s argument is pretty good.”
      • Avoid weakening phrases such as, “I think”, or“I believe”.
        • Be bold. There’s no need to prove what you think because you are the best judge of that
  1. Examples of good thesis statements
    1. In this paper I will prove that the author’s reasoning in support of the thesis that it is important to think before acting is weak.
    2. Although I agree with the author’s conclusion that it is important to think before acting, the argument presented in this text is inconclusive.
  • While Anon’s conclusion, that it is important to think before acting, is provocative and entertaining, I will prove that since the line of reasoning is fictional, based on mistakes made by an overconfident Chicken, the story doesn’t actually prove this point.
  1. Anon’s conclusion, namely that it is important to think before acting, is conclusively proven through the text’s flawless line of reasoning.
  • Introductory Paragraph
    1. Assume your audience knows nothing about the topic. What do you need to do to get the paper started?
      1. Introduce the author and the text
      2. Introduce the time period and any helpful historical context
  • Note the issue(s) the text deals with
  1. Narrow the focus of your paper, as needed. What you will, or won’t be talking about
  2. Include the text’s conclusion about the issue
  3. Give an explanation of why the topic is important
  • Your thesis about the quality of the text’s argument
  • Body
    1. Think of the thesis as a promise to the reader. What you need to do to fulfill this promise constitutes the body of the paper
      1. Present the author’s line of reasoningregarding the issue in question
        • It is usually best to present this as a linear set of steps, from start to finish, in sequence
          • Jumping around within the argument makes it difficult for the reader to understand how the argument develops, and so, why your critiques are relevant
        • The summary should include an appropriate level of detail such as the points you might later criticize, and any material that helps the reader to understand the flow of the author’s line of reasoning
        • The line of reasoning should be clearly comprehensible to someone who hasn’t read the text (i.e., without mysterious gaps), but also without unnecessary details
        • The summary should be fair and honest
          • The “author” should be able to agree this represents their line of reasoning
          • This step is important in order to establish a basis for communication regarding the line of reasoning
          • Without this all you can prove is that a straw-man (a watered-down version) of the line of reasoning has the quality you claim
  1. Explain the reasons for the development of the argument as you present the argument. This can help your reader understand the line of reasoning.  For example:
    • “In order to introduce the topic the author . . .”
    • “Anticipating a potential objection . . .”
    • “Responding to the objection that . . .”
    • “The author clarifies their understanding of the term ‘X’ by . . .”
    • “The first piece of evidence is . . .”
  • Critique the line of reasoning
    • Again, this is about honesty and “truth”, not about persuasion, or demolishing another’s text to support your own ego
    • Critiques can be positive, or negative
    • They should aim to deepen reflection on the topic, highlight areas for further inquiry, and provide evidence for a final evaluation
    • It’s generally better to wait to critique until the presentation of the text’s line of reasoning is complete, otherwise the critique may end up feeling like a “shotgun” attack, in which the significance of your concerns is easily lost
    • A few things you might critique:
      • The flow of the line of reasoning
      • The truth of the premises
      • The consistency (avoidance of implicit or explicit contradictions)
      • The assumptions
      • The sufficiency of the evidence to establish the conclusion
      • The relevance of the reasons offered in the text
      • Places where evidence or reasons are missing
      • Places where reasoning, evidence, or insights are particularly strong
    • A few things to avoid when composing a critique
      • Avoid critiques based on your own opinions/beliefs, because trying to prove these in such a short paper would be either impossible, or a distraction
      • Avoid relativity, “It’s true for them, but not for me.” This is simply an excuse for not thinking
      • Avoid the “we all believe this” syndrome. Write as if you were writing for a skeptic
      • Don’t be artificially critical
      • Don’t critique the author’s thesis, rather critique the line of reasoning
  1. Additional reflections on the text as a whole
    • If you would like to, you can present and discuss anything else that is important from (or regarding) this text—anything that has a bearing on what you’re proving: such as literary devices, writing style, historical considerations, etc.
    • This is optional
  2. Style
    • Write in a manner that is stylistically accessible
    • Your language should be clear, direct, to the point, and without fluff.
      • Avoid “academic” language, unless you are confident in your use of specific terms and devices
    • The flow of the body of your paper (i.e. your reasoning)should be clear, logical, and well organized
    • But, write in a style that is comfortable for you and that reflects any deeper complexities you wish to communicate
  • Conclusion
    1. Review briefly what you set out to prove, and how you proved it
    2. Stay within the level of evidence you’ve provided. Don’t exaggerate, or understate, what you’ve accomplished
  • Indicating the level of certainty you have about your conclusion can be helpful

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