Thursday, December 28, 2006

Phrases rarely used in good philosophy papers/test answers

There are a number of phrases very commonly used in philosophy exams and papers, but rarely used in ‘A’ papers. The reason in most cases is that they are incurably vague relative to what is required in context. Good philosophy papers define terms to a high degree of precision. Truly excellent ones often just use plain English words with careful qualifications; they say things specifically enough that no technical terms are needed. When students write imprecisely, it is difficult for the reader to know whether the student is careless, poorly studied, or afraid to say something definite.

So here’s the rogue’s gallery. The fact that the distinctions on display, so obvious to me, seem not obvious to students, indicates that we all need more philosophy.

‘based on’: this is one of the most annoying ones. To say that ‘X is based on Y’ could mean, variously, that:

- X requires Y
- X is inspired by Y
- X is made plausible by Y
- X is made likely by Y
- X’s existence is conditional upon Y
- X only can be understood given Y
and lots more.

‘subjective’: criticism does not apply when a specific meaning of ‘subjective’ is under examination, for example, Kant’s formulation. This word could mean:
- dependent on the observer’s subjective impressions
- dependent on one’s capricious whims
- understood only by the individual
- privately held/known
- bad
- incapable of precise formulation

‘objective’: the flipside. The most annoying construction here is ‘more objective’. According to dictionaries, works apparently unopened (and unclicked!) by many students, ‘objective’ is a strict superlative, so ‘more objective’ is literally nonsensical. But even without this perhaps pedantic objection, ‘objective’ is usually in student writing a confused amalgam of some or all of the following.
- independent of the individual’s views/whims.
- correct
- good
- binding on all people/societies
- publicly understandable
- tending to involve people in general

‘scientific’: again, criticism does not apply when there is a specific meaning of the word under examination. Often it means a confused amalgam of:
- good
- rational
- true
- in accordance with scientific findings
- subject to rational/public examination

‘logical’ means in student essays any number of good qualities, many of which have nothing to do with logic as such.

‘mindset’ and similar words:
- set of beliefs
- general attitude
- theoretical orientation
- theory
- hypothesis
- bad attitude

‘is considered…’: the phrase ‘X is considered to be Y’ is a wildcard used for
- X is Y
- the author I’m talking about says X is Y
- unspecified people think that X is Y
- I think that X is Y
Here as elsewhere, it is possible that the student is being tentative due to timidity about his/her understanding.

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