That thing that you are writing might look better as a fern. Yep. One of those green frondy things that grows in damp corners.
Before you conclude that I have totally lost my mind, let me explain. I often talk to people who are having difficulty jumping to the next stage up with their writing: maybe they have written short essays before, but now they need to write an 8000 word dissertation. Suddenly they need to hold all their thoughts together over a much longer and more complex piece, and it’s hard to see how the thing can have any shape to it. Sometimes they might be moving on from undergraduate dissertations to a masters thesis, or a PhD, or even a hefty book. How to you even begin to think about structuring a BIG THING? This is where I think that the fern analogy can help.
Here’s the basic summary if you don’t have much time:
Tiny parts of ferns look much the same as the bigger bits that they comprise, and the bigger bits look like the whole fern of which they are a part.
They do this by following the same basic rule at different scales.
You can think of your writing in the same way: a section is like a mini-chapter, a chapter is like a mini-book.
By applying the same simple rules at different scales, you get a surprisingly complex finished product.
This breaks down at a certain scale because the basic units create limitations. This is true of ferns and of your dissertation, thesis, or book.
Ferns are amazing!
When we moved into the house where we now live, we inherited a shady, damp, north facing garden, overcanopied with several mature fruit trees. For several years I tried to grow showy flowers, but nothing really stuck. I decided to give in and work with plants that loved those conditions, and many ferns are the perfect candidates.
Gradually I became fascinated with these plants. I’m in good company: the amazing neurologist Oliver Sacks was a huge fan, and just about everyone during a certain period in the nineteenth century. Importantly for us, they have also often been objects of interest for mathematicians.
Optional historical bit:
Pteridomania was the name given to the Victorian fashion for ferns. Between the 1850s and 1890s, fern designs were everywhere: on crockery, fabric, glassware, and even gravestones (death, of course, was another Victorian preoccupation).
I’ve heard it said that fern collecting was regarded as a suitable activity for young women because ferns reproduce asexually, so unlike flowers, it wouldn’t lead them to have impure thoughts. This sounds to me like one of those myths about Victorian censoriousness, like all that stuff about covering table legs. Nonetheless, there was definitely a view that appreciating ferns, unlike appreciating flowering plants, involved a certain sophistication and a well-trained attentive eye that could enjoy the subtler beauty of the natural world. The hobby allowed many young women to spend time in wild places alone, which must have been incredibly liberating.
So why do maths fans like ferns so much? There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, many ferns have a form that is very close to a fractal. Fractals are patterns that look the same at different scales. If you zoom in on one part, it will resemble the whole. Zoom in on part of that, and it will resemble the larger part, and so on. This picture shows a baby Japanese shield fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) that I’ve been growing in a pot, ready to transplant to a pile of slowly rotting old logs.
You can see that there are a number of branches coming out from the main stem. Each of these branches looks like a smaller fern. The leaves coming out from the branch look like miniature versions of the branch itself.
Another reason why maths geeks often love ferns is that the new emerging ferns form interesting spiral shapes, which can in some cases be described according to the Fibonacci sequence.
This connects with the fractal thing in a really cool way – the emerging main stem of the fern is wrapped in a tight spiral, and inside that are the curled up branches, each itself a smaller spiral with the same properties. Inside each of those spirals, the miniscule leaves are curled into tiny spirals of their own. As the whole thing gradually unfurls, the spirals on every scale unwrap themselves, revealing a living moving dynamic piece of mathematical loveliness.
Complexity from Simplicity
Why do ferns often look like this? One reason is that they are among the oldest plants still surviving on the planet. The first ferns emerged around 360 million years ago, well before flowering plants allowed for sexual reproduction. In evolutionary terms they are really quite simple. Although the final shape of the fern looks very complicated, it is created by following exactly the same rules on lots of different scales.
Flowering plants and animals are rather different from this: the different parts of our bodies look very different from each other, our organs don’t much resemble our bodies as a whole, and our different bits work in different ways. That means that you need loads of different rules to make an organism like us, according to which bit you are making and what job it needs to do. For ferns on the other hand, you simply follow the same rule over and over again at different scales, until you get from your one simple rule to an object that looks very complex.
Writing like a Fern
Good pieces of writing in English-language philosophy often resemble ferns, not just because they are very old and sexless (although there’s often that) but because the parts have a similar structure to the whole.
Think about the short 1500-word essays that you might write in the first year of an undergraduate degree – these typically have an introduction in which you provide context for what you will say, a main body where you make your arguments, and a conclusion where you sum up what you have argued. Usually, for each argument, you also want to give a mini-version of this structure – you explain what you are about to do, do it, and then tell the reader what you have done. So we can already see something like the fern shape here. When you scale it up, to a MA thesis, your chapters might be about 1500 words long, and they will ideally look a bit like those first year essays (although rather better, you might hope) but when you put them together, they also look much the same shape as a whole. In turn, a PhD thesis or a chonky book might look rather like a collection of MA theses, which when put together also have a thesis shape.
So how do I do it?
What does this mean in practice? Well one way to do it is to think about your BIG question, and work out which smaller questions you need to answer in order to answer it. Then each of those smaller questions will involve answering even smaller questions. This could be one way to determine how to split up your thesis into chapters, chapter sections, and maybe even subsections. Think of it as the fern unfurling. In your introduction you are showing the tight little spiral of the main stem: inside that are all the other smaller spirals at every scale, but we can’t see them yet. Then it unfurls in the main body of your thesis: each chapter begins with the tightly spiralled branch in the chapter introduction, which then unwraps itself as the chapter goes on, and so on.
Mathematical fractals can go on forever: you can keep zooming in indefinitely, and each part is a microcosm of the whole. In the everyday world of plants and animals, things don’t work like that. Eventually you get down to scales where different rules need to apply, whether we’re talking about the level of plant cells (which, even in ferns, don’t look like tiny ferns) or whether we’re talking about departing from the everyday to the quantum level where really weird stuff starts to happen and none of the normal rules for anything seem to apply. In fact, it starts to break down much sooner even than the cellular level – when you look at the lobes on a fern leaf, they look a little bit like the leaf (and the branch, and the fern…) but they are already starting to look less detailed.
This is equally true in writing, where the way that language works imposes some limitations on how far down your fern structure can go. Some analytic philosophers are fond of saying that the sentence is the basic unit of meaning. I’m not sure if that is absolutely true, but it seems to apply here. A sentence cannot be a microcosm of a thesis, because it can’t really announce what it will do at the beginning, say the thing, and then summarise what it has said. A paragraph can do this to a certain extent, but in a much shorter simpler way than a multi-paragraph section.
So if you’re stuck on structuring your thesis or dissertation, try breaking it down, then break each section down further, and so on. What are the lobes, leaves and branches of your fern? Finally, there’s no point in making something as beautiful and apparently complex as a fern without showing people what you have done, so remember always to make it clear through introductions and conclusions – look! I made a fern!
And with all that said, I think it’s time to do some gardening.
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!
My name is Liz McKinnell, and I have spent many years working in academic philosophy. I am now starting out as a private tutor, and also providing help and resources for teachers and for anyone else who wants to know more about the wonderful and perplexing world of philosophy.
I will also (fingers crossed) soon be starting to train as a counsellor, and I am fascinated in the ways that thinking philosophically can help us to lead more flourishing lives.
So this is where the name comes from: I want to help you flourish in your study of philosophy, but I also want to help you use philosophy in a way that will make you flourish.
This site is pretty basic so far, but as time goes on I will be uploading plenty of helpful resources and activities for students, teachers, and anyone who has a passing interest in this amazing subject.