|Born||(1882-11-18)18 November 1882|
|Died||28 April 1973(1973-04-28) (aged 90)|
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
|Philosophy of religion, political theory, philosophy of science, metaphysics|
Jacques Maritain (French: [maʁitɛ̃]; 18 November 1882 – 28 April 1973) was a French Catholicphilosopher. Raised Protestant, he was agnostic before converting to Catholicism in 1906. An author of more than 60 books, he helped to revive Thomas Aquinas for modern times, and was influential in the development and drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope Paul VI presented his "Message to Men of Thought and of Science" at the close of Vatican II to Maritain, his long-time friend and mentor. The same pope had seriously considered making him a lay Cardinal, but Maritain rejected it. Maritain's interest and works spanned many aspects of philosophy, including aesthetics, political theory, philosophy of science, metaphysics, the nature of education, liturgy and ecclesiology.
Maritain was born in Paris, the son of Paul Maritain, who was a lawyer, and his wife Geneviève Favre, the daughter of Jules Favre, and was reared in a liberal Protestant milieu. He was sent to the Lycée Henri-IV. Later, he attended the Sorbonne, studying the natural sciences: chemistry, biology and physics.
At the Sorbonne, he met Raïssa Oumançoff, a Russian Jewish émigré. They married in 1904. A noted poet and mystic, she participated as his intellectual partner in his search for truth. Raissa's sister, Vera Oumançoff, lived with Jacques and Raissa for almost all their married life.
At the Sorbonne, Jacques and Raïssa soon became disenchanted with scientism, which could not, in their view, address the larger existential issues of life. In 1901, in light of this disillusionment, they made a pact to commit suicide together if they could not discover some deeper meaning to life within a year. They were spared from following through on this because, at the urging of Charles Péguy, they attended the lectures of Henri Bergson at the Collège de France. Bergson's critique of scientism dissolved their intellectual despair and instilled in them "the sense of the absolute." Then, through the influence of Léon Bloy, they converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1906.
In the fall of 1907 the Maritains moved to Heidelberg, where Jacques studied biology under Hans Driesch. Hans Driesch’s theory of neo-vitalism attracted Jacques because of its affinity with Henri Bergson. During this time, Raïssa fell ill, and during her convalescence, their spiritual advisor, a Dominican friar named Fr. Humbert Clérissac, introduced her to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. She read them with enthusiasm and, in turn, exhorted her husband to examine the saint’s writings. In Thomas, Maritain found a number of insights and ideas that he had believed all along. He wrote:
"Thenceforth, in affirming to myself, without chicanery or diminution, the authentic value of the reality of our human instruments of knowledge, I was already a Thomist without knowing it...When several months later I came to the Summa Theologiae, I would construct no impediment to its luminous flood."
From the Angelic Doctor (the honorary title of Aquinas), he was led to "The Philosopher", as Aquinas called Aristotle. Still later, to further his intellectual development, he read the neo-scholastics.
Beginning in 1912, Maritain taught at the Collège Stanislas. He later moved to the Institut Catholique de Paris. For the 1916–1917 academic year, he taught at the Petit Séminaire de Versailles. In 1930 Maritain and Étienne Gilson received honorary doctorates in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. In 1933, he gave his first lectures in North America in Toronto at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. He also taught at Columbia University; at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago; at the University of Notre Dame, and at Princeton University.
From 1945 to 1948, he was the French ambassador to the Holy See.
Afterwards, he returned to Princeton University where he achieved the "Elysian status" (as he put it) of a professor emeritus in 1956. Raissa Maritain died in 1960. After her death, Jacques published her journal under the title "Raissa's Journal." For several years Maritain was an honorary chairman of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, appearing as a keynote speaker at its 1960 conference in Berlin. From 1961, Maritain lived with the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse, France. He had an influence on the order since its foundation in 1933. He became a Little Brother in 1970.
Jacques and Raïssa Maritain are buried in the cemetery of Kolbsheim, a little French village in Alsace where he had spent many summers at the estate of his friends, Antoinette and Alexander Grunelius.
A cause for beatification of him and his wife Raissa is being planned.
The foundation of Maritain's thought is Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Thomistic commentators, especially John of St. Thomas. He is eclectic in his use of these sources. Maritain's philosophy is based on evidence accrued by the senses and acquired by an understanding of first principles. Maritain defended philosophy as a science against those who would degrade it and promoted philosophy as the "queen of sciences".
In 1910, Jacques Maritain completed his first contribution to modern philosophy, a 28-page article titled, "Reason and Modern Science" published in Revue de Philosophie (June issue). In it, he warned that science was becoming a divinity, its methodology usurping the role of reason and philosophy. Science was supplanting the humanities in importance.
In 1917, a committee of French bishops commissioned Jacques to write a series of textbooks to be used in Catholic colleges and seminaries. He wrote and completed only one of these projects, titled Elements de Philosophie (Introduction of Philosophy) in 1920. It has been a standard text ever since in many Catholic seminaries. He wrote in his introduction:
If the philosophy of Aristotle, as revived and enriched by Thomas Aquinas and his school, may rightly be called the Christian philosophy, both because the church is never weary of putting it forward as the only true philosophy and because it harmonizes perfectly with the truths of faith, nevertheless it is proposed here for the reader's acceptance not because it is Christian, but because it is demonstrably true. This agreement between a philosophic system founded by a pagan and the dogmas of revelation is no doubt an external sign, an extra-philosophic guarantee of its truth; but from its own rational evidence, that it derives its authority as a philosophy
During the Second World War, Jacques Maritain protested the policies of the Vichy government while teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies in Canada. "Moving to New York, Maritain became deeply involved in rescue activities, seeking to bring persecuted and threatened academics, many of them Jews, to America. He was instrumental in founding the École Libre des Hautes Études, a kind of university in exile that was, at the same time, the center of Gaullist resistance in the United States". After the war, in a papal audience on 16 July 1946, he tried unsuccessfully to have Pope Pius XII officially denounced anti-semitism.
Many of his American papers are held by the University of Notre Dame, which established The Jacques Maritain Center in 1957. The Cercle d'Etudes Jacques & Raïssa Maritain is an association founded by the philosopher himself in 1962 in Kolbsheim (near Strasbourg, France), where the couple is also buried. The purpose of these centers is to encourage study and research of Maritain’s thought and expand upon them. It is also absorbed in translating and editing his writings.
Metaphysics and epistemology
Maritain's philosophy is based on the view that metaphysics is prior to epistemology. Being is first apprehended implicitly in sense experience, and is known in two ways. First, being is known reflexively by abstraction from sense experience. One experiences a particular being, e.g. a cup, a dog, etc. and through reflexion ("bending back") on the judgement, e.g. "this is a dog", one recognizes that the object in question is an existent. Second, in light of attaining being reflexively through apprehension of sense experience one may arrive at what Maritain calls "an Intuition of Being". For Maritain this is the point of departure for metaphysics; without the intuition of being one cannot be a metaphysician at all. The intuition of being involves rising to the apprehension of ens secundum quod est ens (being insofar as it is a being). In Existence and the Existent he explains:
"It is being, attained or perceived at the summit of an abstractive intellection, of an eidetic or intensive visualization which owes its purity and power of illumination only to the fact that the intellect, one day, was stirred to its depths and trans-illuminated by the impact of the act of existing apprehended in things, and because it was quickened to the point of receiving this act, or hearkening to it, within itself, in the intelligible and super-intelligible integrity of the tone particular to it." (p. 20)
In view of this priority given to metaphysics, Maritain advocates an epistemology he calls "Critical Realism". Maritain's epistemology is not "critical" in Kant's sense, which held that one could only know anything after undertaking a thorough critique of one's cognitive abilities. Rather, it is critical in the sense that it is not a naive or non-philosophical realism, but one that is defended by way of reason. Against Kant's critical project Maritain argues that epistemology is reflexive; you can only defend a theory of knowledge in light of knowledge you have already attained. Consequently, the critical question is not the question of modern philosophy – how do we pass from what is perceived to what is. Rather, "Since the mind, from the very start, reveals itself as warranted in its certitude by things and measured by an esse[clarification needed] independent of itself, how are we to judge if, how, on what conditions, and to what extent it is so both in principle and in the various moments of knowledge?"
In contrast idealism inevitably ends up in contradiction, since it does not recognize the universal scope of the first principles of identity, contradiction, and finality. These become merely laws of thought or language, but not of being, which opens the way to contradictions being instantiated in reality.
Maritain's metaphysics ascends from this account of being to a critique of the philosophical aspects of modern science, through analogy to an account of the existence and nature of God as it is known philosophically and through mystical experience.
Maritain was a strong defender of a natural law ethics. He viewed ethical norms as being rooted in human nature. For Maritain the natural law is known primarily, not through philosophical argument and demonstration, but rather through "Connaturality". Connatural knowledge is a kind of knowledge by acquaintance. We know the natural law through our direct acquaintance with it in our human experience. Of central importance, is Maritain's argument that natural rights are rooted in the natural law. This was key to his involvement in the drafting of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Another important aspect of his ethics was his insistence upon the need for moral philosophy to be conducted in a theological context. While a Christian could engage in speculative thought about nature or metaphysics in a purely rational manner and develop an adequate philosophy of nature of metaphysics, this is not possible with ethics. Moral philosophy must address the actual state of the human person, and this is a person in a state of grace. Thus, "moral philosophy adequately considered" must take into account properly theological truths. It would be impossible, for instance, to develop an adequate moral philosophy without giving consideration to properly theological facts such as original sin and the supernatural end of the human person in beatitude. Any moral philosophy that does not take into account these realities that are only known through faith would be fundamentally incomplete.
Maritain advocated what he called "Integral Humanism." He argued that secular forms of humanism were inevitably anti-human in that they refused to recognize the whole person. Once the spiritual dimension of human nature is rejected, we no longer have an integral, but merely partial humanism, one which rejects a fundamental aspect of the human person. Accordingly, in Integral Humanism he explores the prospects for a new Christendom, rooted in his philosophical pluralism, in order to find ways Christianity could inform political discourse and policy in a pluralistic age. In this account he develops a theory of cooperation, to show how people of different intellectual positions can nevertheless cooperate to achieve common practical aims. Maritain's political theory was extremely influential, and was a primary source behind the Christian Democratic movement.
Maritain also corresponded with, and was a friend of the American radical community organizerSaul Alinsky and French Prime Minister Robert Schuman.
Major criticisms of Maritain have included:
- An overdependence upon late scholastic commentators at the expense of fidelity to Aquinas' own text. However, Maritain is frequently developing his own thought to address contemporary problems. His work is that of a philosopher who makes use of historical sources to develop his own positions rather than that of a historian of philosophy.
- Fr. Santiago Ramírez argued strongly that Maritain's moral philosophy adequately considered could not be distinguished in any meaningful way from moral theology as such.
- Tracy Rowland has argued that the lack of a fully developed philosophy of culture in Maritain and others (notably Rahner) was responsible for an inadequate notion of culture in the documents of Vatican II and thereby for much of the misapplication of the conciliar texts in the life of the Church following the Council.
- Maritain's political theory has been criticized for a democratic pluralism that appeals to something very similar to the later liberal philosopher John Rawls' conception of an overlapping consensus of reasonable views. It is argued that such a view illegitimately presupposes the necessity of pluralistic conceptions of the human good.
- "Vae mihi si non Thomistizavero" [Woe to me if I do not Thomisticize].
- "Je n’adore que Dieu" [I adore only God].
- "The artist pours out his creative spirit into a work; the philosopher measures his knowing spirit by the real."
- "I do not know if Saul Alinsky knows God. But I assure you that God knows Saul Alinsky."
- "We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve"
Significant works in English
- Introduction to Philosophy, Christian Classics, Inc., Westminster, MD, 1st. 1930, 1991.
- The Degrees of Knowledge, orig. 1932
- Integral Humanism, orig. 1936
- An Introduction to Logic (1937)
- A Preface To Metaphysics (1939) (1939)
- Education at the Crossroads, engl. 1942
- The Person and the Common Good, fr. 1947
- Art and Scholasticism with other essays, Sheed and Ward, London, 1947
- Existence and the Existent, (fr. 1947) trans. by Lewis Galantiere and Gerald B. Phelan, Image Books division of Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1948, Image book, 1956. ISBN 978-0-8371-8078-6
- Philosophy of Nature (1951)
- The Range of Reason, engl. 1952
- Approaches to God, engl. 1954
- Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, engl. 1953
- Man and The State, (orig.) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ILL, 1951.
- A Preface to Metaphysics, engl. 1962
- God and the Permission of Evil, trans. Joseph W. Evans, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, WI, 1966 (orig. 1963).
- Moral Philosophy, 1964
- The Peasant of the Garonne, An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1968; orig. 1966.
- The Education of Man, The Educational Philosophy of Jacques Maritain., ed. D./I. Gallagher, Notre Dame/Ind. 1967
Other works in English
- Religion and Culture (1931)
- The Things that are Not Caesar's (1931)
- Theonas; Conversations of a Sage (1933)
- Freedom in the Modern World (1935)
- True Humanism (1938) (Integral Humanism, 1968)
- A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question (1939)
- The Twilight of Civilization (1939)
- Scholasticism and Politics, New York 1940
- Science and Wisdom (1940)
- Religion and the Modern World (1941)
- France, My Country Through the Disaster (1941)
- The Living Thoughts of St. Paul (1941)
- France, My Country, Through the Disaster (1941)
- Ransoming the Time (1941)
- Christian Humanism (1942)
- Saint Thomas and the problem of evil, Milwaukee 1942;
- Essays in Thomism, New York 1942;
- The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1943)
- Prayer and Intelligence (1943)
- Give John a Sword (1944)
- The Dream of Descartes (1944)
- Christianity and Democracy (1944)
- Messages 1941-1944, New York 1945;
- A Faith to Live by (1947)
- The Person and the Common Good (1947)
- Art & Faith (with Jean Cocteau 1951)
- The Pluralist Principle in Democracy (1952)
- Creative Intuition in Art and History (1953)
- An Essay on Christian Philosophy (1955)
- The Situation of Poetry with Raïssa Maritain, 1955)
- Bergsonian Philosophy (1955)
- Reflections on America (1958)
- St. Thomas Aquinas (1958)
- The Degrees of Knowledge (1959)
- The Sin of the Angel: An Essay on a Re-interpretation of some Thomistic Positions (1959)
- Liturgy and Contemplation (1960)
- The Responsibility of the Artist (1960)
- On the Use of Philosophy (1961)
- God and the Permission of Evil (1966)
- Challenges and Renewals, ed. J.W. Evans/L.R. Ward, Notre Dame/Ind. 1966
- On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus (1969)
- On the Church of Christ: The Person of the Church and her Personnel (1973)
- Notebooks (1984)
- Natural Law: reflections on theory and practice (ed. with Introductions and notes, by William Sweet), St. Augustine's Press [distributed by University of Chicago Press], 2001; Second printing, corrected, 2003.
Original works in French
- La philosophie bergsonienne, 1914 (1948)
- Eléments de philosophie, 2 volumes, Paris 1920/23
- Art et scolastique, 1920
- Théonas ou les entretiens d’un sage et de deux philosophes sur diverses matières inégalement actuelles, Paris, Nouvelle librairie nationale, 1921
- Antimoderne, Paris, Édition de la Revue des Jeunes, 1922
- Réflexions sur l’intelligence et sur sa vie propre, Paris, Nouvelle librairie nationale, 1924.
- Trois réformateurs : Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, avec six portraits, Paris [Plon], 1925
- Réponse à Jean Cocteau, 1926
- Une opinion sur Charles Maurras et le devoir des catholiques, Paris [Plon], 1926
- Primauté du spirituel, 1927
- Pourquoi Rome a parlé (coll.), Paris, Spes, 1927
- Quelques pages sur Léon Bloy, Paris 1927
- Clairvoyance de Rome (coll.), Paris, Spes, 1929
- Le docteur angélique, Paris, Paul Hartmann, 1929
- Religion et culture, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1930 (1946)
- Le thomisme et la civilisation, 1932
- Distinguer pour unir ou Les degrés du savoir, Paris 1932
- Le songe de Descartes, Suivi de quelques essais, Paris 1932
- De la philosophie chrétienne, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1933
- Du régime temporel et de la liberté, Paris, DDB, 1933
- Sept leçons sur l'être et les premiers principes de la raison spéculative, Paris 1934
- Frontières de la poésie et autres essais, Paris 1935
- La philosophie de la nature, Essai critique sur ses frontières et son objet, Paris 1935 (1948)
- Lettre sur l’indépendance, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1935.
- Science et sagesse, Paris 1935
- Humanisme intégral. Problèmes temporels et spirituels d'une nouvelle chrétienté; zunächst spanisch 1935), Paris (Fernand Aubier), 1936 (1947)
- Les Juifs parmi les nations, Paris, Cerf, 1938
- Situation de la Poesie, 1938
- Questions de conscience : essais et allocutions, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1938
- La personne humaine et la societé, Paris 1939
- Le crépuscule de la civilisation, Paris, Éd. Les Nouvelles Lettres, 1939
- Quattre essais sur l'ésprit dans sa crudition charnelle, Paris 1939 (1956)
- De la justice politique, Notes sur le présente guerre, Paris 1940
- A travers le désastre, New York 1941 (1946)
- Conféssion de foi, New York 1941
- La pensée de St.Paul, New York 1941 (Paris 1947)
- Les Droits de l'Homme et la Loi naturelle, New York 1942 (Paris 1947)
- Christianisme et démocratie, New York 1943 (Paris 1945)
- Principes d'une politique humaniste, New York 1944 (Paris 1945);
- De Bergson à Thomas d'Aquin, Essais de Métaphysique et de Morale, New York 1944 (Paris 1947)
- A travers la victoire, Paris 1945;
- Pour la justice, Articles et discours 1940-1945, New York 1945;
- Le sort de l'homme, Neuchâtel 1945;
- Court traité de l'existence et de l'existent, Paris 1947;
- La personne et le bien commun, Paris 1947;
- Raison et raisons, Essais détachés, Paris 1948
- La signification de l'athéisme contemporain, Paris 1949
- Neuf leçons sur les notions premières de la philosophie morale, Paris 1951
- Approaches de Dieu, Paris 1953.
- L'Homme et l'Etat (engl.: Man and State, 1951) Paris, PUF, 1953
- Pour une philosophie de l'éducation, Paris 1959
- Le philosophe dans la Cité, Paris 1960
- La philosophie morale, Vol. I: Examen historique et critique des grands systèmes, Paris 1960
- Dieu et la permission du mal, 1963
- Carnet de notes, Paris, DDB, 1965
- L'intuition créatrice dans l'art et dans la poésie, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1966 (engl. 1953)
- Le paysan de la Garonne. Un vieux laïc s’interroge à propos du temps présent, Paris, DDB, 1966
- De la grâce et de l'humanité de Jésus, 1967
- De l'Église du Christ. La personne de l'église et son personnel, Paris 1970
- Approaches sans entraves, posthum 1973.
- La loi naturelle ou loi non écrite, texte inédit, établi par Georges Brazzola. Fribourg, Suisse: Éditions universitaires, 1986. [Lectures on Natural Law. Tr. William Sweet. In The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain, Vol. VI, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, (forthcoming).]
- Oeuvres complètes de Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, 16 Bde., 1982-1999.
- G. B. Phelan, Jacques Maritain, NY, 1937.
- J.W. Evans in Catholic Encyclopaedia Vol XVI Supplement 1967–1974.
- Michael R. Marrus, "The Ambassador & The Pope; Pius XII, Jacques Maritain & the Jews", Commonweal, Oct. 22, 2004
- H. Bars, Maritain en notre temps, Paris, 1959.
- D. and I. Gallagher, The Achievement of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain: A Bibliography, 1906–1961, NY, 1962.
- J. W. Evans, ed., Jacques Maritain: The Man and His Achievement, NY, 1963.
- C. A. Fecher, The Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, Westminster, MD, 1963.
- Jude P. Dougherty, Jacques Maritain: An Intellectual Profile, Catholic University of America Press, 2003
- Ralph McInerny, The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life, University of Notre Dame Press, 2003
- Hanna, Martha (1996). The Mobilization of Intellect: French Scholars and Writers During the Great War. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674577558.
- The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain (1955)
- W. Herberg (ed.), Four Existentialist Theologians (1958)
- The Philosophy of Jacques Maritain (1953)
- Jacques Maritain, Antimodern or Ultramodern?: An Historical Analysis of His Critics, His Thought, and His Life (1974)
- ^Donald DeMarco. "The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain". EWTN.
- ^Hanna 1996, p. 39
- ^Piero Viotto, Grandi amicizie: i Maritain e i loro contemporanei, 38, https://books.google.com/books?id=aonOg8KLOdIC&pg=PA38 Accessed 28 February 2016. Jean Leclercq, Di grazia in grazia: memorie, 60. https://books.google.com/books?id=jxKnMfTj81AC&pg=PA60 Accessed 28 February 2016
- ^Hilton Kramer, "What was the Congress for Cultural Freedom?" The New Criterion, Volume 8, January 1990, page 7, January 1990.
- ^The most comprehensive biography of the Maritians is: Jean-Luc Barre, "Jacques And Raissa Maritain: Beggars For Heaven", University of Notre Dame Press.
- ^Beatification process for Jacques and Raissa Maritain could begin on YouTube (8 February 2011)
- ^Hanna 1996, p. 40
- ^Richard Francis Crane (2011). "Heart-Rending Ambivalence: Jacques Maritain and the Complexity of Postwar Catholic Philosemitism". Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations. 6: 8–9.
- ^Maritain, An Essay on Christian Philosophy, (NY: Philosophical Library, 1955), pp. 38 ff.
- ^Wolfe, C.J. “Lessons from the Friendship of Jacques Maritain with Saul Alinsky” he Catholic Social Science Review 16 (2011): 229-240Archived 26 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Doering, Bernard E. (1987). "Jacques Maritain and His Two Authentic Revolutionaries". In Kennedy, Leonard A. Thomistic Papers(PDF). 3. Houston, Tex.: Center for Thomistic Studies. pp. 91–116. ISBN 0-268-01865-0. OCLC 17307550.
- ^Fimister, Alan Paul (2008). Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe. p. 131. ISBN 978-90-5201-439-5. OCLC 244339575.
- ^Denis J. M. Bradley. Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good: Reason and Human Happiness in Aquinas's Moral Science. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.
- ^Tracy Rowland, "Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II" (Routledge Radical Orthodoxy)
- ^Thaddeus J. Kozinski, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It, (Lexington Books, 2013)
- ^Maritain,, Jacques (1946). St. Thomas Aquinas: Angel of the Schools. J. F. Scanlan (trans.). London: Sheed & Ward. p. viii.
Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish - something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept - together with grounds or justification for its acceptance.
Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.
Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. Sometimes this is called the "fortress approach." In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.
First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.
In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer's shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.
THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY
- Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
- Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.
- Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.
- Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
- Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
- When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER
- Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.
- Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in any philosophy essay.
- Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.
- Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.
- Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
- Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting - often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts - not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.
There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.
Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out.
In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.