Name: ___________________ SCI 6140: Science: Hist. & Phil. Persp. Date : ________________________ Assoc. Prof. David W. Rudge
Much, if not most, of the learning you do in connection with this course will be the product of the work you do alone and in groups on assignments outside of class. The following handout has been developed to structure your learning and help you make sense of the articles you will be asked to read in conjunction with this course. The handout also contains suggestions on how to complete Part 1 of a companion worksheet containing specific questions about a particular article.
What is a philosophical article?
For the purpose of our course, philosophical articles are academic articles written by professionals formally addressing a philosophical topic, such as the morality of euthanasia. Many works in literature address philosophical topics as well. What makes an article as distinctively philosophical, however, is the presence of a sustained argument in favor of a particular position (the author's thesis or main conclusion).
Some suggestions on how to read a philosophical article
The first goal of reading any philosophical article is to identify what the author's main conclusion is and what argument(s) he/she uses in favor of that conclusion. It's only when you understand the author's views that you are in a position to evaluate the argument and assess whether you agree or disagree with the author and determine which parts of the article are persuasive and which parts are not.
Surprisingly, the best way to approach an academic article for the first time is to skim the whole before actually reading it. Quickly reviewing the text will give you an idea of the overall structure of the paper, the author's writing style, and often some idea of how the author argues for a particular point of view. The most important thing to do is locate the author's main conclusion, as it is (usually) the main thesis that each of the various parts of the article support.
As you start to read the article, start keeping a list of terms and how the author defines or uses them. The strength of the author's argument as a whole often depends upon the extent to which he/she can win the assent of the reader to particular definitions of specific terms. Many arguments about the morality of abortion, to give you one example, depend heavily upon a specific definition of personhood. Sometimes during the course of the article the author will redefine a term, and if so, it's important to keep track of what the author's motivations are for adopting a different definition.
You should also keep a list of the evidence the author uses in support of the main conclusion. Making a list as you go along will greatly assist you in identifying the overall argument the author puts forth for his/her thesis. As you might expect, each piece of the author's argument in favor of the main conclusion must itself be justified and this often involves the use of subarguments for particular claims supporting the main conclusion.
Articles often contain other persuasive elements, which, while not part of the formal argument, can nevertheless work in the author's favor. An author's writing style, for instance, can serve to present the issues in such a way as to suggest that the author has truly considered all serious objections to his/her position. Vivid or striking examples can be so compelling as to win the reader's assent (e.g. photographs of fetuses at ten weeks are often used by anti-abortionists). Almost all academic writing has some rhetorical elements--for our purposes, it's important to recognize and distinguish these forms of persuasion from the author's formal argument.
Specific suggestions for filling out Part I of theDiscussion Sheet
The first part of your worksheet is meant to help you identify what the author said and how he/she argues for a particular claim, the thesis or main conclusion of the article. You should do this part in three steps: (1) skim the article to get a sense of what it is about, (2) read the article once or twice to identify what the author's evidence for the conclusion is, and (3) summarize and identify (reconstruct) the author's argument, rereading sections of the text as necessary.
1. You can find the title of the article and the author(s) name(s) on the very first page of the article. The topic or subject of the article may be contained in the title, but sometimes finding the topic of the article is less straightforward. The title, "A modest proposal," for instance, doesn't tell you what the article is about. Authors also sometimes introduce the topic of discussion by pointing out its connections to broader issues, and as such, the first paragraph may also be misleading. After skimming the entire article, ask yourself what the article as a whole is about.
Identifying the main conclusion or thesis of the article is the very next step. You may find it lurking in an introductory paragraph, as when the author announces his/her intentions: "The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that capital punishment is wrong." Sometimes it will appear in a concluding paragraph. As noted above, authors often provide subarguments for particular pieces of evidence they use to support their main conclusion. So the pitfall you must vigilantly avoid is mistaking a subargument for the main argument of the paper. (Hint: consider whether the claim you think is the main conclusion is supported by the bulk of the article or only part.) One of the best ways to identify the main conclusion is to consider, if you had to say it in one sentence, what the author(s) would like you to believe about the topic, e.g. "The central claim the author of this article would like the reader to believe is ....")
2. To identify the important terms of the article a useful rule of thumb is that you should (1) write down any terms that are unfamiliar to you, (2) write down any terms the author defines or otherwise characterizes, and (3) consider writing down terms that appear to have important roles in the author's argument. There are several reasons why an author may not define a particular term--the term in question has an established usage in the literature, the author believes the term is intuitively grasped by all intelligent readers, or perhaps part of the purpose of the article is to reveal an ambiguity regarding how the term is used.
To identify the author's evidence for the main conclusion, consider the relevance of particular claims in the article with regard to the author's thesis as a whole. Does the statement support the main conclusion or does it support some other claim in the paper? If a particular point seems tangential or only remotely connected to the main conclusion, chances are it is not part of the author's direct evidence for his/her thesis. The relevance of a particular line of evidence may also be revealed later in the paper. (The author may also use as evidence a claim he/she believes is so uncontroversial that it doesn't have to be explicitly stated. This is called a surpressed or unstated premise of the argument.)
You should be wary of ignoring whole sections of the author's article as unrelated to the argument for the main conclusion or some subargument. Peer-reviewed articles of the sort we will be reading have gone through multiple drafts, in which the author has repeatedly attempted to refine the prose of the article to clarify the connections between each of the points raised to the main conclusion and excise unrelated or tangential lines of thought.
3. Your goal in this section is to articulate in just a few sentences what the author's argument is for his/her main conclusion. The discussion worksheet breaks this down into two steps. First summarize the article, and second, with your summary in mind, reconstruct the author's argument. The summary should give you an overall perspective on how each of the various pieces of evidence you found earlier support the conclusion. (As you gain more practice, you may find that your summary looks a great deal like the argument.)
When you write the argument itself, you need to focus more on the logic of the argument, i.e. how does the evidence support the conclusion. State these connections explicitly.
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Last updated on 26 Apr 2010.