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Welcome to the study of philosophy; I hope that you will enjoy your pursuit of the discipline and find it rewarding in many ways. In this document, I've gathered some information that may be of assistance to you as you proceed through a formal course of study.
The assignments in your course require you to engage in a close reading of significant texts written by the major philosophers of the Western tradition. Since you may have had little experience in dealing with material of this sort, the prospect may be a little daunting at first. Philosophical prose is carefully crafted to achieve its own purposes, and reading it well requires a similar degree of care. Here are a few suggestions:
Above all else, don't worry!
You'll spend most of your class time going over the assigned readings, often in great detail.
You'll have plenty of opportunities to learn what other readers have found, to ask questions for clarification of puzzling passages, and to share your own insights with others.
As the semester proceeds, you will grow ever more confident in your own capacity to interpret philosophical texts.
The philosophers' pages here will provide you with convenient access to electronic versions of most of the texts you'll be reading and to other texts by the same or related authors. Please learn to make use of these materials regularly. I think you'll find that e-texts offer a number of advantages for research in philosophy:
Exciting prospects! As David Hume wrote in a different context, "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?" Before committing any of our old print volumes to the flames, however, we might consider a few words of caution:
Verbal discussion of serious topics is in no way tangential to the practice of philosophy. From Socratic gatherings to the philosophical conventions of today, thinking things through out loudand in the presence of othershas always been of the essence of the philosophical method. (Most philosophical texts embody this give-and-take, either in explicit use of dialogue form or by a more subtle alteration of proposal, objection, and reply.) Your philosophical education demands that you enter into the great conversation of Western thought. A few suggestions may help:
Above all, remember that philosophical discussion is a cooperative activity, aiming at a mutual achievement of truth (or, at least, convergence on a shared opinion). It is not a competition in which "points" are to be scored against an opponent. We are working together, and each can learn from all.
Conducting an e-mail discussion during the semester enables us to expand our study of philosophy beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of class meetings. If you've not used e-mail extensively before, it may take a little energy to get started, but you'll soon find this medium a comfortable one for communicating with the entire group. Early in the semester, everyone will be subscribed to the mailing list for your course and can use it to send a message to the entire class.
Here are a few general ground rules for getting started on the electronic forum:
Remember that this addition to the more traditional methods of discussion is still experimental, at least for us. That's no reason to be timid: let's plunge in, try everything we can think of, learn from our mistakes and from our successes, and enjoy the adventure.
Write to learn. Expressing your thoughts is an excellent way of discovering what they really are. Even when you're the only one who ever sees the results of your explorations, trying to put them down in written form often helps, and when you wish to communicate to others, the ability to write clear, meaningful prose is vital. Here are some suggestions for proceeding:
Finally, you may find it helpful to keep an appropriate audience in mind as you write. Don't write just for the instructor and your classmatesthat is, don't assume that your audience has professional knowledge of the philosophical texts or total awareness of every conversation that has taken place, inside and outside the classroom. Unless otherwise directed by the details of a particular assignment, think of yourself as presenting the material to a friend, your parents, or a class: intelligent, interested people who are well-informed generally but who lack your knowledge of the philosophical issues. Write to teach.
All written assignments should be submitted in the designated form, and should include a clear indication of the course and assignment number. Be sure to observe the designated due date; work that is turned in late will automatically receive a significantly reduced grade.
It is reasonable to expect any assignment prepared outside class to be written well, with careful attention to grammar, spelling, and usage. Philosophical writing should avoid offensive sexual, racial, ethnic, religious, and material or physical bias. You will find useful examples of appropriate writing styles in the American Philosophical Association's Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language.
You may employ any one of the methods of attribution described in The Chicago Manual of Style, but must be consistent in both notes and bibliographies. Direct quotations from the philosophers should be taken from the standard edition of the works or the definitive English translation as listed in Richard T. DeGeorge, The Philosopher's Guide or from the texts you have been asked to read for this course.
If you make significant use of an electronic source, remember that this deserves documentation, too, including the author's name, titles for both the page and the site, a complete Uniform Resource Locator, and the date on which you viewed it on-line. Thus, for example, work on George Berkeley's philosophy might include references to:
In addition to these formal criteria, please consult the general suggestions for Writing Philosophy above.
Since a significant portion of your grade for this course will depend upon assessment of your knowledge and skill as reflected in examinations, here are a few suggestions for dealing with essay exams:
For further guidance, please consult the general suggestions for Writing Philosophy above.
©1996-2006 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 19 October 2006.
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