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Eric Dayton, Philosophy Faculty

Common Errors

What are common errors in Philosophy essays?

Well, I mean, there are all kinds of common errors that aren't particular to philosophy, like, not reading the text, not organizing your thinking ahead, trying to write it all the night before, those kinds of things. And, I mean, those aren't peculiar to philosophy, per se. I think very often students who are not yet philosophy-savvy cannot understand the idea of, or the value of, considering an argument for one proposition, and then considering an argument that argues exactly the opposite, and then comparing them and seeing which one has a better defence. They want to know what's right. They want to know what they're supposed to write down. They want to know what the facts are. They want to know what the truth is. And, you can't write a philosophy essay if you want to know what the facts are because philosophy essays aren't about the facts; they're about the exploration of possibilities in a disciplined way. So, this raises the second problem that students have, [which] is [that] they very often get on the idea that, 'oh, I'm supposed to have an idea,' and then they have a... they come up with an idea in a completely undisciplined way. One of the most dangerous things to clear thinking is the-- I don't even have a name for it -- the kind of sentences that people say, like, 'everybody's selfish, really,' or 'people's values come from their culture,' or things that are so vague and they really have no...they're not testable. They pass for truths, because they can't be challenged. They can't be challenged because they really don't make any claims. (So, are you recommending that students be more ... precise and specific and that they back up claims with research?) Yeah, and also not so much research as thinking clearly. If you think clearly about what you're committed to, when you make a claim, then you begin to see what follows from it and what would count against it. And seeing what follows from a claim and what counts against a claim shows you what the claim means, and there isn't really any other way of understanding what the claim comes to than seeing those things. Philosophy is learning how to negotiate this territory between what the facts are and what the wider sea of possible truths are when we don't know what the facts are.