One of my favourite jobs here at Flourishing Philosophy is providing a little extra help to students who want to improve their academic writing.
In philosophy, and I’m sure in many other subjects too, it is best to learn through doing the actual thing. If you want to write better essays, you need to write plenty of essays! More than this, at undergraduate level and beyond, the form of a philosophy essay should be at least partly determined by its content: different questions and arguments lend themselves to different ‘shapes’ of essay.
But sometimes it is helpful to focus on a particular aspect of the process, and at times the content can make this daunting. It can be hard to think about how to structure and introduce your arguments when you feel all churned up and anxious about whether the arguments actually work.
So this is where I use my super-hi-tech and highly sophisticated Ridiculous Thesis Generator. Here it is in all its complex glory:
That’s right, you are looking at three piles of notecards, each of which is a different colour.
On each set of notecards, I have written a different part of a thesis or statement to be argued for.
- The middle (pink) set are the sort of thing that you might recognise from exam questions (“…can explain…”, “…provides evidence for…”, “…can solve the problem of…”, etc.) You get the sort of thing.
- The last (blue) set are also vaguely recognisable from essay questions (“solipsism”, “moral obligation”, “freedom”). I also included a slight wildcard: “zombies”. This is actually a philosophical concept, but I was pushing it a little with that one.
- The first (green) set are mostly random nonsense that I cooked up with the help of my very obliging friends on Facebook (“politicians”, “mosquitos”, “biscuits”, etc.)
A student can then choose a card from each pile at random to generate the Ridiculous Thesis that they will defend.
So you can end up with combinations like this:
I have at least a few friends who take this one to be trivially true:
Well, the student is given a set amount of time to come up with some arguments, no matter how ridiculous, for the equally Ridiculous Thesis. This does not have to be very long (I gave 2-3 minutes). This part would work very well as a small group exercise.
It is important to stress that while arguments are needed, they don’t necessarily need to be very good. I don’t even know what good arguments would be for some of these.
In a recent version of this exercise, an amazing student I’m currently helping chose this combination. Since we were holding the session online, they picked by choosing a number instead of drawing one of the cards.
My student did not focus on philosophical zombies, instead choosing to consider the terrifying undead creatures from horror films. After a couple of minutes, they came up with these fabulous arguments:
- Cruise’s strange appearance resembles that of half-dead beings.
- Cruise frequently associates with lumbering crowds of creatures which move as one great mass and seem oblivious to the reasons and concerns that motivate most humans.
- Cruise’s diet would not sustain a living human being.
Now, before I am faced with a whacking great lawsuit from the Church of Scientology, I should stress that these do not need to be persuasive arguments, and there is no requirement for anyone to believe that they are true. The point is that we have three points written down, all of which support the Ridiculous Thesis. This is a game, and the Ridiculous Thesis is not being genuinely asserted (it is ridiculous, after all!)
So then we examine these points and look at how they might fit together, and how they result in the Ridiculous Thesis as a conclusion. In this case, my student decided that the first two points were supportive of the positive thesis that Cruise is a zombie. The third point was more of a negative argument suggesting that he is not a living human being. Often, the negative case (what something isn’t) works well at the start, so we put it there, with the other two following on from that.
But remember that the thesis being argued for is not that Cruise is a zombie, but that he provides evidence for their existence. So, even though it might look like it is stating the obvious, we need to connect those points. So we can say something like:
- If Cruise is a zombie, then zombies exist
- If there are reasons to suppose that Cruise is a zombie, then Cruise serves as (defeasible) evidence that zombies exist.
- There are reasons to suppose that Cruise is a Zombie (namely, those offered above, that he does not seem to be human, and that being a zombie is a better explanation)
- Therefore Tom Cruise provides evidence for the existence of zombies
So there we have it! A ridiculous argument for a Ridiculous Thesis, but importantly it has a structure that is starting to look like the stucture of an excellent philosophy essay.
All that was left was to write a mock introduction, which included this overview with a little additional explanation and clarification (see my guide here). This took around five minutes.
After that, we practiced exactly the same exercise with a real question from a past exam paper, and suddenly, the whole thing seemed less scary.
But maybe that was just because it wasn’t as scary as zombies!