Friday, January 5, 2018

Handout CL: Classroom Policies and Expectations

What it means to be a (good) student
Your primary responsibility in this context is to be a good student:

Good students attend all classes and arrive on time; put their electronic gadgets and other distractions aside; participate regularly, thoughtfully, and respectfully; consistently strive to produce high quality work and meet all deadlines; consult with the professor during office hours when necessary; seek out assistance when required; and, most generally, openly, deliberately, and with care and enthusiasm embrace this and other formal opportunities for intellectual, scholarly growth.

My class policies and expectations, consonant with this understanding of what it means to be or strive to be a good student, are as follows:

Missing class (or arriving late/leaving early) is not an excuse for missing a deadline or an assignment. Attendance is absolutely required to benefit from or contribute to the seminar. Even so, I will not take or grade attendance (except on those occasions when it is required for institutional record-keeping). Physically attending class is such an obvious and nominal requirement of any adult learner in a non-compulsory, post-secondary educational setting that it would be errantly paternalistic and ineffective to award any kind of “credit” for mere attendance. In short: please don't take my seminars if you plan not to attend or to arrive late.

Likewise, aside from the basic respect due all persons, I will not award any kind of special credit to those who, in fulfilling an equally basic and obvious duty as a member of a community of learners/scholars, regularly and effectively participate in classroom discussions and other activities. Even so, since each of my seminars is discussion-intensive, I expect all students to participate fully. Mandatory classroom participation schemes, however, like attendance policies, often are little more than paternalistic incentives designed to trick or force (adult) students into acting like adults. In short: please don't take my seminars if you plan not to contribute.

Despite the heavy financial and opportunity costs which attend post-secondary schooling, no one, independently of his or her scholarly performance, has purchased or contracted for a right to a good or passing grade. Rather, good grades must be earned. In an effort to resist the triadic wave of grade inflation, social promotion, and consumerism currently plaguing our educational institutions, I strictly adhere to a traditional understanding of the grades A-F (outstanding-abysmal) as articulated by the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

Furthermore, I fallibly grade students on their individual performance, not on some species of collectivist “curve.” Our role as teachers is to grade student work, not the students themselves. That is, I do not -- and do not think it fair or right for anyone to -- grade student effort, potential, intelligence, character, goals, needs, or any other feature of students' lives aside from their scholarly products. In short: please don't expect to receive a grade higher than the one you earn.

Unexcused Absences/Make-ups/Extra Credit/Incompletes and other Nonsensical terms
Aside from officially sanctioned reasons for absence or lateness as outlined in the official MCLA Student Handbook, I will – on principle and in fairness to those who do their work in a timely fashion – strictly enforce all course deadlines. Therefore, I will not offer (undocumented) "incompletes," “makeup exams," “partial credit” for late work, or “extra credit” for those hoping to improve existing grades. In short: please don't take my seminars unless you plan to do all of your work on time.

Civility/behavior/electronic distractions
I believe that nothing is more corrosive to our educational success than incivility (a broad category which includes all manner of inappropriate or disruptive behavior, including incessant joking, chatting, arriving late/leaving early, expressing anger, engaging in personal attacks (we discuss the merits of ideas here, not persons) and using a cellphone or any other electronic gadget, including laptops). While honest disagreement and debate (along with occasional laughter and surprise) are natural and welcome consequences of our inquiries, there is never a call for disruptive, disrespectful, abusive, or intimidating words or actions of any sort in our dealings with each other in a classroom setting (virtual or otherwise). For online coursework, always follow the basic rules of "netiquette."  In short: please don't take my seminars if you cannot remain considerate of others.

Special Accommodations/Extra-Academic Concerns
I will happily honor any officially documented requirements for special accommodations as outlined in the MCLA Student Handbook. Please consult MCLA's "Students with Disabilities" policy statement. MCLA's "Help Directory" usefully outlines all student-related services available on campus.

Handout QAHO: Q&As (honors, online, and 300-level sections)

What is a Q&A?
A Q&A is a relatively brief writing assignment that asks each student to answer one question (typically posed by the professor) and to raise two further questions about a particular subject/text (I could more accurately call these assignments "A&Qs," but that acronym sounds ugly to me). Typically, Q&As are posted by Friday evening on my main weblog on the Q&A page corresponding to the course and due the following Friday in hard copy at the close of class (the final exam period will serve as our final due date).

Why write a Q&A?
(1) Q&As encourage critical, careful, deliberate reading of texts — readings which begin with thorough exposition and end with critical interpretation; (2) Q&As create a more permanent (written) record of the reader's reflections on a text and its author's (apparent) intentions; and (3) Q&As can promote and assist classroom/online discussion of texts.

How does one successfully complete a Q&A? 
A complete Q&A consists of these four parts (their approximate value indicated in percentages):

1. (70%) Each student produces a 500-750-word (two-to-three full double-spaced pages) answer to the question I pose.  Answers should be typed and free of grammatical/stylistic errors (see the "Writing Checklist"). All answers must take the form of well researched, argumentative (or "critical" or "persuasive") essays.  I've outlined the format for composing these essays in Handouts CR1, CR2, and CR3.  Two related components, therefore, must be present:

2. (15%) A complete CRITO outline (on a separate page from the main essay; see the example in red included on Handout CR3); and

3. (10%) Full bibliographic reference to and use of, minimally, one outside resource (a resource other than the target reading I assign).  Properly cite all quoted or paraphrased material.  Any established style is acceptable (MLA, APA, etc.)  My only concern is that the method you choose is consistent, complete, and accurate.

And finally,

4. (5%) each student then composes two well-formed and thoughtful questions related to the topic at hand, avoiding rhetorical ("who's to say what is really true?") or simple ("how do you pronounce Kant?") questions in favor of substantive issues of genuine concern to the student. It is not necessary to answer the questions you raise.  Simply number the questions "1" and "2" and position them at the bottom of your essay.

How are Q&As graded?
Each student will receive, in traditional, face-to-face courses, a grade of "check minus minus," “check minus,” “check,” or “check plus,” corresponding to the letter grades D, C, B, and A (I will simply assign letter grades for all online courses).  Though grading is a fallible affair, in general, most Q&As will receive a “check” or "check minus" (B or C) unless obviously deficient or exemplary in some respect.  For an explanation of any abbreviations included in my commentary, consult my "Editorial Suggestions Key."

Note well: Q&As and quizzes are the only graded components of the course, so missing an assignment/quiz or two beyond the two allowable typically leads to failure.  I collect hard copies of papers on the due date at the close of class.  I do not accept papers in electronic form.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Handout CR1: Brief Essay Desribing the CRITO Method

"Critical Thinking and the Argumentative Essay"
DKJ, 2001
National Critical Thinking Conference
Atlanta, GA

It has always been my nature never to accept advice from any of my friends unless reflection shows that it is the best course that reason offers.  ---- Socrates, in Crito

In this brief essay I introduce a writing technique (CRITO) easily adaptable to any discipline whose curriculum includes formal writing in which the student makes and supports substantive claims (the so-called "argumentative" or "evaluative" essay). Following the philosopher Harvey Siegel, I begin with the idea that a critical thinker is one who is appropriately moved by reasons. This characterization of critical thinking combines a reason assessment component (the principled assessment of reasons and their ability to warrant beliefs, claims, and actions; that is, the domain of arguments) and a critical attitude component (the disposition to engage in principled reason assessment). It follows that the fully critical thinker is both able and disposed to engage in principled reason assessment:

"Such a person habitually seeks evidence and reasons, and is predisposed so to seek -- and to base belief and action on the results of such seeking. She applies the skills and abilities of reason assessment in all appropriate contexts, including those contexts in which her own beliefs and actions are challenged (emphasis mine)." (H. Siegel, Educating Reason, p. 32)

As the final line of this passage suggests, the critical temper is often least spontaneous as we confront our most basic prejudices or deeply held convictions. In these situations, to paraphrase Siegel, we may possess the ability, but not the disposition, to assess critically certain of our beliefs or claims.

CRITO (formed acronymically from the logical terms Conclusion, Reasons, Inference, Truth, and Objections) addresses both the principled reason assessment and critical attitude components of critical thinking. The technique requires students to assess critically (carefully, impartially, consistently) the validity (or strength) of their own inferences, the truth of reasons supplied in defense of conclusions, and, finally, the soundness (or cogency) of those inferences. I claim no originality for the individual elements of CRITO, which simply mirror (in C, R, I, and T) the essential components of any cogent (inductive) or sound (deductive) inference and, not surprisingly, provide an effective outline for (or first draft of) an argumentative or evaluative essay. Although I have chosen to describe its components in the language of formal logic, CRITO requires only a general understanding of the nature of rational argumentation.

C: First, each student must identify clearly the central claim or conclusion (C) he or she hopes to defend. The central claim of an argumentative essay ought to be straightforward, singular, substantive (non-tautological and the object of possible or actual debate), ostensibly defensible, and of genuine interest to the student. (C) is often tentative, in the sense that the student is aware that it is potentially criticizable and open to revision. This first step in producing an argumentative essay – deciding exactly what to write about -- is perhaps the most important. I have devised, therefore, a separate technique (“STEP-I,” an acronym formed from five stages of “C” production – selecting a topic of interest and ensuring its truthfulness, explicitness, particularity, and importance) to help students think critically about choosing and refining the central claims of their essays.

R: Second, (C) requires for its defense a set of premises or reasons (R). Logic demands only that each argument has at least one premise, though the number ought to be sufficient to convince the reader of the truth (accuracy, reasonableness, and so on) of (C).

I: Third, the student must assess the inference (I), or logical connection between (R) and (C), to ensure that the reasons are sufficient to produce (C), either with some degree of probability (inductively) or with certainty (deductively). In less formal terms, this step determines the validity (or, with induction, the strength) of the inference, since an argument can fail despite all of its parts being true (as one might try to defend a true conclusion with irrelevant premises). Failing the (I) test, the student must add to or qualify the existing reasons and conclusion to produce a new argument.

T: Fourth, the student must assess the truth (T) of the reasons, since even a valid or strong argument (that is, a valid or strong argument that passes the (I) test) may contain any number of false parts. The student must replace or refine false premises. Only the best (deductively sound or inductively cogent) arguments will pass both the (I) and the (T) tests.

O: Fifth, the student must construct the strongest imaginable objection(s) (O) to the argument, testing further its ability to withstand critical scrutiny. This is, perhaps, the most difficult stage of CRITO, for it sanctions a potentially unsettling fallibilism; that is, it asks the student to imagine that his or her considered judgments remain susceptible to revision. Finally, the student should respond to the objection(s), adjusting the original argument as necessary.

Since its original publication, CRITO has assisted secondary and post-secondary instructors' efforts to teach philosophy, music, sociology, mathematics, and English composition. While the method has naturally evolved to suit individual teaching styles and pedagogical concerns, several core skills remain invariant across all applications, including CRITO's basic attention to the adequacy of reasons and the process of reasoning itself, the notion of authorial fallibility, the refinement of students' own pre-critical views, and the development of the habit or disposition systematically to question such views.

I will close with three general comments on the method. First, despite its somewhat formulaic appearance, CRITO (together with its complement, STEP-I) merely provides well-placed and potentially rewarding prompts for student activity and reflection. Like other critical thinking techniques, CRITO does not guarantee, but only promotes and directs, critical thought and behavior. It is no routine or easy task, however, to accept even partially CRITO's challenge to engage in principled reason assessment or, especially, to construct and consider nontrivial objections to one's current beliefs.

Second, CRITO presents an opportunity to have these challenges to the students' considered judgments issue, not from the instructor, but from the students themselves, as they learn to apply general rules of good reasoning to their own beliefs and arguments. As an affective strategy, the impersonal, seemingly objective, nature of CRITO's demands may help to provide the emotional space in which students can accept and learn from nontrivial challenges to their most basic assumptions.

Finally, in addition to its obvious value for both "writing-to-learn" and "learning-to-write" programs, CRITO is compatible with most forms of collaborative learning. Small group work, especially pairs , in which students alternate between presenting their work and listening to and commenting critically on another student's work, can facilitate each successive stage of principled reason (and objection) assessment.

(A longer version of this essay, co-authored by Matt Silliman and published in Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, 17, 4, is available in my office or the library.)

Handout CR2: CRITO-Based Argumentative/Persuasive Essays

Mechanics (form): Your essay — excluding footnotes, bibliography, and CRITO outline (see handout CR3) — should be approximately 1-2 (nonhonors sections) or 2-3 (honors and online sections) pages in length; it should have, as a maximum, one-inch margins all around; it should be double-spaced in 10-12 point, non-italicized font of your preferred type and be left justified only; it should include your name and date, single-spaced, in the upper left-hand corner; it should contain no grammatical or spelling errors and conform to the basic conventions of academic, or formal, writing (for example, no contractions (can't, don't, etc.), slang, or inappropriate gender-specific language (mankind vs. humankind, he vs. he or she, etc.); minimal use of the passive voice,* nominalizations,** and "mere opinion" (CRITO will be invaluable here);*** and proper — meaning consistent — use of footnotes and bibliography). See also the philosophy department's Style Checklist. Edit your work frequently and carefully: Poor form and style seriously distract from and often undermine the quality of the content.

Grading: (as outlined in your syllabus and/or in the handout on Q&A's).

However, when assigning letter grades, I attempt to adhere to a traditional understanding of the grades A-F (outstanding-abysmal) as articulated by the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

Content: At times I will determine the specific focus of your essay (this is especially true for Q&A's); other times the topic will be one you choose (with my approval). Your task is to research, construct, and refine a sophisticated yet clear, philosophical yet interesting, argumentative essay. I expect that your thinking and research efforts will take you well beyond the texts I assign in class — these essays are your opportunity to shine as a researcher, writer, artist, and scholar.


*Avoid the passive voice whenever possible.

For example:

Good: "Good writers avoid the passive voice."
Not so good: "The passive voice is avoided by good writers."

**Avoid nominalizations by expressing important actions as verbs, not nouns.

For example:

Good: "He decided to write clearly."
Not so good: "He made a decision in favor of clarity in his writing."

***Opinions require substantiation.

For example:

“Informed” opinion: "I think Clive Bell is right (or wrong) for reasons X, Y, and Z."
“Mere” opinion: "I think Clive Bell is right (or wrong)."

CR3: Creating a CRITO Outline

CRITO (formed acronymically from the terms Conclusion, Reasons, Inference, Truth, and Objections) addresses both the principled reason assessment and critical attitude components of critical thinking, by requiring students to assess critically (carefully, impartially, consistently, logically, accurately, and relatively autonomously) their beliefs or claims. The individual elements of CRITO mirror the essential components of any cogent or sound inference and provide an effective outline for an argumentative or evaluative essay.

Creating a CRITO Outline

C: State conclusion (or claim) (C). (C) ought to be explicit and clear, particular or singular, important and substantive (the object of possible or actual debate), truthful and accurate, and of genuine interest to the student.

R: State reasons (R), premises, or evidence, sufficient to convince the reader of the truth (accuracy, reasonableness, and so on) of (C).

I: Test the inference (I), or argument, to ensure that reasons are sufficient to produce (C).

T: Test the truth (T) of (R), since even a valid or strong argument (that is, a valid or strong argument that passes the (I) test) may contain any number of false parts. Only the best (deductively sound or inductively cogent) arguments pass both the (I) and the (T) tests.

O: Construct the strongest imaginable objection(s) (O) to the argument. Finally, respond to the objection(s), making any necessary revisions to the original argument.

Therefore, a complete CRITO outline should look something like this and fit easily on one page:

Student's Name

C: Central claim of essay (one sentence).
R: All reasons or evidence required to defend C (one sentence for each R).
O: Strongest imaginable objection(s) to C (one sentence for each O).
RO: Response to the objection (one sentence for each RO).

(Note: There will typically be 2-3 R's and at times more than one O.)

Relation of CRITO Outline to Final Essay/Q&A
A CRITO outline produces merely the rough content for an essay, the exact form of which ought to follow the guidelines for producing critical/persuasive essays (see handout CR2) and will be determined by the effort, talent, and imagination of its author. (Note: only the content of stages C, R, and O will be noticeable in both the outline and final essay. I and T are logical tests designed solely to strengthen the overall argument of the essay.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

MCLA Students with Disabilities Policy Statement

MCLA: Students with Disabilities

Any student who believes he or she may need an accommodation based on the impact of a psychological, physical, auditory, medical or cognitive/learning disability may be eligible for accommodations that provide equal access to educational programs at MCLA. Students should contact Katie Sutton, Learning Specialist in the Center for Student Success and Engagement (CSSE) as soon as possible at 413-662-5318 or In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Katie coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. Students who wish to request accommodations should do so within the first four weeks of the semester. Once accommodations have been determined, the student will provide a copy of his/her accommodation worksheet to each individual instructor. Students must fulfill all course requirements in order to receive passing grades in their classes, with or without reasonable accommodations. Please note that accommodations cannot be granted retroactively.

Last revised March 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Philosophy Toolkit

(Co-authored by Matt Silliman, Dave Johnson, Gerol Petruzella, and Paul Nnodim.  Philosophy Program, MCLA, Third Edition, 2011)

The Sub-domains of Philosophy:

(theories of the nature, scope, and limits of knowledge)

(theories of what there is and how it works)

Ethics/Moral Philosophy/Axiology
(theories of value and norms)

+ Logic
(principles and structures of good reasoning)

This toolkit is a bit more challenging than an ordinary vocabulary list. Many of these concepts will only begin to make sense over time, as you apply them in reading, thinking, and conversation. Our purpose is to provide a helpful and accessible guide as introduction and reference, but to accomplish this we must be as concise as possible, so many entries will seem forbidding at first. Patience is an intellectual virtue you will want to cultivate, but patience is not passivity. Our main purpose is to create a basis for thoughtful discussion and further inquiry– ask questions!

The sub-domains of the discipline are all interrelated. We cannot make ontological claims about what there is without invoking some epistemological claims about how we know that to be the case. Likewise, we cannot make epistemological claims in the absence of ontological assumptions about the nature of knowers and the known. Lastly, we cannot settle questions about either knowledge or being without raising questions of value or worth (axiology), such as whether and to what extent knowledge and truth are good or worth seeking.

You will encounter most of these terms and ideas outside of traditional philosophical contexts. This is because many other intellectual disciplines derive from philosophy historically and conceptually – the main reason scholars of most fields, from biology to literature to history, earn Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degrees. For example, the physical and life sciences are branches of applied ontology and employ epistemological methods; pedagogy and cognitive science are, in part, applied epistemology; and fields like political science, economics, and literary criticism are applications of axiology. Indeed, all serious inquiry, not to mention everyday life, employs logic (and the other branches of philosophy).

Intellectual Virtues: Seven habits of highly reasonable people

1. Passion for Truth – Whether in epistemology, ontology, moral philosophy, or life generally, a persistent desire to get things right.

2. Critical Thinking – An attitude of curiosity and respect toward all potential sources of knowledge, and an unwillingness to accept important claims uncritically or on mere authority.

3. Judgment – A refined capacity for making judicious and useful distinctions, avoiding gratuitous ones, and framing issues in their appropriate context.

4. Intellectual Honesty – An openness to re-examining one’s views and frankly and openly assessing their merits, contrary to one’s prior assumptions or personal and material interests.

5. Intellectual Humility – A preparedness to acknowledge one’s ignorance or error while proceeding with inquiry (not to be confused with a deflective skepticism or dismissive claim of ignorance. See Fallibilism).

6. Intellectual Courage – A willingness to consider with an open mind ideas or lines of reasoning that are unpopular or potentially dangerous, to follow reasoning and evidence where they lead undeterred by any potential risk their conclusions may pose.

7. Interpretive Charity – A preparedness to give others the benefit of the doubt, interpreting their statements in the best possible light and on the working assumption that their thoughts are valuable. To interpret charitably is not to read or listen uncritically, but to be disinclined to condemn others’ views except as a last resort. It is the practical basis for civility in discourse, as well as prerequisite for grasping unfamiliar texts and approaches.

Some key terms and how philosophers use them

General Philosophical Terms

Absolute/Certain: If there is anything absolutely the case, it is permanent and unchanging. Certainty is a psychological state of a believer who is convinced of the truth of his/her belief. Thus, an absolute claim is (mostly) about metaphysics, while a claim of certainty is (primarily) epistemological.

Ambiguity/Vagueness: These are easy to confuse. An ambiguity is a potential confusion between two or more possible meanings where each is distinct: absent clarifying context,’ head’ might be a body part, a coastal prominence, or the leader of an organization. Vagueness, by contrast, is a potential confusion due to the scalar nature of the quality a term refers to (scalar qualities come in degrees). The term ‘hot’ is vague, for example, because there is no fixed boundary between hot and cold except relative to some stipulated reference temperature. Thus a term, statement, or experience can be ambiguous but not vague, vague but not ambiguous, or at once vague and ambiguous.

Aporia, or Socratic ignorance, is neither a simple lack of knowledge nor a deflective skepticism, but rather acknowledges our lack of full understanding as something for which we seek a cure. It yokes the principles of intellectual humility and intellectual honesty to a relentless and rigorous drive to learn.

Atheism/Agnosticism: Atheism and Theism are (mostly) metaphysical claims, the one denying and the other affirming the existence of God. Agnosticism is the (mostly) epistemological claim that the question is undecidable on the basis of present evidence.

Axiology, Ethics, Moral Philosophy: The study of value and norms. Areas of study within axiology include Social and Political Philosophy and Aesthetics. (Terms for further research: deontology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, virtue theory, hedonism, emotivism, cognitivism/non-cognitivism.)

Description/Prescription: Description involves factual claims; prescription involves moral or valuational judgments. For example, after observing a wild party, one could give a straightforward report of what went on (description), which would be distinct from criticizing (judging) anyone's behavior or asking them to change it (prescription).

Epistemology: The study of the nature, scope, and limits of knowledge or understanding. Related Areas of study include Logic, Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Mind, Pedagogy (teaching and learning). (Terms for further research: rationalism, empiricism, positivism, pragmatism, constructivism, phenomenology, phenomenalism, a priori, a posteriori, teleology.)

Fallibilism: An active recognition of the limitations of our knowledge and judgment. As Socrates understood with his principle of aporia, a balanced sense of our fallibility as investigators is methodologically indispensable to honest inquiry (see intellectual humility above).

Imagination and Feeling: Contrary to popular misconception, philosophy properly concerns itself with feelings, wonder, and imagination as well as with reason. These are the raw materials of thought without which reason would have no focus. We build all systematic thought out of information supplied by subjective experience and narrative, rooted in our emotional responses, which also ground its aims and purposes.

Knowledge: Classically, philosophers conceive knowledge as beliefs that are both true and based on adequate evidence (“knowledge = justified true belief”). There are competing ideas of knowledge, and many subtleties in the details, but this is a good place to start.

Metaphysics & Ontology: The study of what there is and how it works. Areas of study within metaphysics include Cosmology, Ontogeny, and Systems Theory. (Terms for further research: materialism, existence, essence, nominalism.)

Morality/Ethics: Many philosophers define ethics as the systematic study of morality, while others view ethics as the application of moral theory to particular areas of life (e.g., medical ethics). Still other philosophers use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably. Where usage varies so much within a discipline, not to mention in everyday speech, it is especially important to pay close attention to how a particular writer or speaker is using these terms.

Objective/Subjective claims: A claim is (epistemologically) objective if we possess a public method for investigating whether or not it is true. A claim is (epistemologically) subjective if the primary evidence for determining its truth is a matter of individual experience, opinion, or taste. "The Earth is round" and “Murder is wrong” are objective claims, whereas "I have a headache" is a subjective claim. Either sort of claim, of course, might be true or false.

Ockham’s Razor: We are never entitled to a more complex explanation if a less complex one will serve the available data (the principle of explanatory parsimony). In the words of William of Ockham: “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” A more complex explanation might well turn out to be true, but intellectual honesty prevents us from subscribing to it unless and until all the simpler ones fail to explain.

Realism/Idealism: There is an ongoing debate between philosophers who think we can know at least something about a world external to our own minds (realists), and those (idealists) who deny this categorically. Notwithstanding the many great minds who have defended versions of idealism, common sense and most of the compelling arguments favor a fallibilist version of realism, to which most philosophers now subscribe. This is not to say the debate is finished, but a heavy burden of proof at this point rests with idealism.

Reductionism: This is a powerful method for simplifying our understanding of complex, interactive systems by explaining away some elements of a system in terms of others. It is useful but can be dangerous, because a reductive analysis is easy to mistake for a full and adequate account of all features of a system, which it rarely is. The notion of efficiency in economics is an example: producing electricity by burning coal is efficient, according to standard cost-benefit analysis, since downwind environmental, social, and health costs do not figure in the equation. Economists can thus misleadingly reduce real total costs to mere financial costs, leading to destructively narrow policies and behavior.

Relativism: The skeptical assertion that there is no objective measure of something (for example, morality). Some philosophers take a relativist view of knowledge (epistemological relativism) or being (ontological relativism) as well. Whereas it is clear that some things really are (notice the non-relativity in that phrase) relative to something else – we can only measure velocity in terms of a specified frame of reference, for example – relativist assertions often flirt with exaggerated skepticism, and are frequently fallacious and intellectually lazy.

Skepticism: Although it is important to adopt an attitude of cautious doubt (moderate skepticism) toward novel claims as a matter of intellectual humility and critical thinking (see intellectual virtues above), it is equally important not to exaggerate the dubiousness of philosophical or everyday propositions. To do so is to fall into a radical skeptical fallacy, which deflects rather than advances serious thought.

Theism/Deism: Theism is the claim that there is an all-knowing, all powerful, etc., god who creates and governs the universe. Deism is the supposedly milder claim (held, for example by many of the founding fathers of the U.S.) that such a god created the world, but no longer plays any active role in it.

Truth as Correspondence/Truth as Coherence: Many philosophers hold that statements are true if they correspond with the way the world is. Coherence theories of truth deny that such a correspondence is discernable and propose instead that we test a statement’s truth by how well it fits in with other statements – it is true if it coheres, false if it does not. Most (but not all) philosophers who defend realism generally favor a correspondence conception of truth; those inclined to idealism tend to defend coherence.

Logical Terms

Truth: the correspondence of a statement with the way the world is. Philosophers disagree about this definition (see above), but it is a good place to start.

Premise: a claim that a writer or speaker presents in support of some further claim (conclusion).

Logical argument: A set of claims consisting of one or more premises presented in support of a conclusion.

Inference: the intellectual move from premise(s) to conclusion in a logical argument.

Deductive arguments have conclusions intended to follow necessarily from their premises due exclusively to the arguments’ structure or form (thus we call their study formal logic). A deductive argument whose conclusion follows necessarily from its premise(s) is valid; it is sound if it is valid and has true premises. Here is one valid form, called modus ponens:

P1: If A then B
P2: A
C: (Therefore) B

Inductive arguments have conclusions intended to follow from their premise(s) with some degree of probability. An inductive argument whose conclusion follows with a high degree of probability (greater than 50%) is strong; it is cogent if it is strong and has true premises. One example of a fairly strong inductive argument:

P1: Fred has stubbed his toe and is writhing on the ground with tears in his eyes.
P2: As far as we know, Fred is not involved in a theatrical production or deliberate subterfuge.
C: (Therefore) Fred is experiencing pain.

Nonarguments: It takes some practice to distinguish logical arguments from other things we do with language that may at first look like arguments, including disputes, explanations, descriptions, reports, illustrations, and conditional (if…then…) statements. The latter may sometimes represent truncated inferences, but it is usually best to interpret them as single propositions.

Law of Non-Contradiction: Identified by Aristotle as a basic logical principle, the law of non-contradiction claims that something cannot be both true and not true at the same time. For example, the desk in President Obama's office cannot, at one and the same time, be entirely made of wood and not entirely made of wood.

Intensional/Extensional definition: An intensional definition refers to the concept of a term or symbol; its extension is that to which it refers. For example, the intension of the term ‘dog’ includes dictionary and commonplace descriptions of this kind of animal, while the extension of ‘dog’ is the set of all animals that fit this description, past, present, and future.

Necessary/Sufficient Conditions – we intensionally define a term by specifying conditions for it which are both necessary and sufficient. A condition is necessary for X if something could not be an X without having that characteristic (a thing could not be a tree without being made of cellulose, though many things are made of cellulose that are not trees). A condition is sufficient for X if having that characteristic is enough to determine that something is an X (being an oak makes something a tree, though many trees are not oaks).

Tautology: A statement that is true by virtue of its redundancy (e.g., “everything is what it is”). Tautologies are undeniably true, but can never be sources of new information. For example, the truth of fatalism does not follow from the tautology “what will be, will be.”

Types of Definition: Thinking well and clearly demands that we are systematic about what we mean by the terms we use. In clarifying usage, we can appeal to lexical meanings (those reflecting everyday usage and locatable in dictionaries), or we can stipulatively declare a meaning for an existing or coined term (for example: “In formal logic, soundness is a property of deductive arguments such that they are valid and have true premises” or “By ‘frupal’ I mean all and only friends who are cautious with money”). Other means of defining terms include theoretical definitions, which propose hypotheses about a term's meaning to be explored further, and persuasive definitions, which attempt to fix a given meaning rhetorically.

Informal Fallacies

These reflect some of the systematic ways that reasoning can go wrong. Notice that one of the reasons why these mistakes often mislead us, whether intentionally or accidentally, is that they closely resemble good arguments. Thus we need to exercise intellectual humility and interpretive charity whenever there appears to be a fallacy in our own or someone else’s reasoning. Named fallacies are useful tools for noticing possible mistakes in thought or speech, but the search for truth is not a game of “gotcha;” identifying a possible fallacy is the beginning rather than the end of a respectful conversation. Here is a short list of common informal fallacies with an example of each.

• Appeal to the People or ad populum – A claim that something must be the case because many people believe it. Child labor is a widespread historical practice, and still common in much of the world. Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with buying products made with child labor.

• Argument Against the Person or ad hominem – Shifts focus from the substance of your opponent’s statements to an irrelevant attack on his or her person, character, or situation. She's a member of the Republican Party. Therefore, I have no reason to listen to what she says about anything.

• Appeal to Unqualified Authority – My hairdresser thinks we should invade Iran. He's the best hairdresser I've ever found, so I can only conclude that a war with Iran is our best option.

• Appeal to Ignorance – An assertion that some substantive conclusion follows from the mere fact that we don’t know something. No one seems to know where my keys are. It follows that aliens must have taken them.

• False Cause – Misidentifies the actual cause of something, or misinterprets a coincidence as a causal relation. My government research grant application was turned down shortly after Barack Obama became president. It's obvious that the new administration is afraid of what my research might reveal.

• Slippery Slope – Some slopes really are slippery; this fallacy makes it seem like an undesirable outcome is causally inevitable when it really isn’t. If we let students have a say in what the cafeteria serves, they will soon want to help decide how the academic side of the college is run. Before we know it, students will demand the power to assign their own grades, which would undermine the credibility of academic credentials, and then civilization would crumble. Clearly, therefore, we must not let the students influence cafeteria offerings.

• False Dichotomy – Artificially closes off the range of available options. Either we fight the terrorists over there, or we'll have to fight them over here. We don't want to fight them here. Thus there is no alternative to fighting them over there.

• Equivocation – An error in reasoning that results from sliding between alternate uses of an ambiguous term. Some triangles are obtuse. Obtuseness is a form of stupidity. It follows that some triangles are stupid.

• Begging the Question -- Covertly assumes what you're trying to prove. It is perfectly natural for humans to eat animals. Therefore, vegetarianism/veganism is a violation of nature.

Writing Checklist

Writing Checklist

Good writers are multiply literate, able to choose appropriate styles for different purposes. These guidelines apply to writing formal English where, as in acacemic contexts, it is important to write clearly for an unknown or open-ended readership. This checklist is an ongoing collaboration between Matt Silliman and David Johnson; we offer it to our students and colleagues for their use, adaptation, and amusement. [Updated 2/2014]

I.  Grammar – hard-and-fast rules

___  1.  Aviod misspelling, and use the write word, not just the won that looks or sounds              rite, to.    Spell-check programs are no substitute for your own critical eye.

___  2.  Also using sentence fragments and incomplete sentences that are too long and run-on
sentences.    A complete sentence has a subject, a verb, and an object, normally in that order, and punctuation that closely mimics the cadence of the spoken word.

___  3.  Be sure the verb and the subject agrees in number.   In particular, use ‘they’ and ‘their’ only with plural nouns. There is no gender-neutral singular pronoun in formal English, and although ‘they’ may someday fill that role, as it already does informally, we must work around it for the time being.

___  4.  Kept noun and verbs consistent in number and tense.

___  5.  Remember not to boldly split where no infinitive has gone before.    Form the infinitive of an English verb by placing the preposition ‘to’ in front of it. Let nothing come between them.
___  6.  Its important alway’s to use ones apostrophe’s correctly.    With few exceptions, form possessives by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s.’

___  7.  Like, Don’t use contractions or slang in formal writing.    Like overworked clich├ęs and colloquial language, contractions are the epitome of linguistic informality.

___  8.  Semicolons separate independent clauses of a sentence; each of which is, in itself; a
complete sentence on its own.    A semicolon links two closely related thoughts, often where one explains or depends on the other.

___  9.  Everyone that refers to persons as objects is a brick.   That’ is for objects. Use ‘who’ for persons.

___  10.  It is harder to read-sentences with misplaced hyphen disorder.    Hyphenate to combine confusing two-word modifiers into a single compound adjective. However, the ‘ly’ of an adverb replaces the hyphen.

II.  Style – Use your judgment, but know what you are doing.

___  11.  Doesn’t everybody know rhetorical questions are dismissive and obnoxious?    A rhetorical question is really a disguised statement. To be respectful of your readers and avoid putting them on the defensive, state your position declaratively.

___  12.  Save “quotation marks” for when you are directly “quoting” a “person” or “text.”   Writers use scare quotes to express their suspicion of certain terms, but far better either to say what is misleading about a term, or choose one that conveys your meaning..

___  13.  The passive voice is to be avoided; it is generally preferred that the subject be identified
clearly.    Passive voice, or indirect discourse, conceals the subject altogether (as in Rumsfeld’s faux apology for the Iraq war: "Mistakes were made") or tags it on awkwardly at the end of the phrase ("The bathroom was gone to by me").

___  14.  Since before the dawn of time, writers have sought to express themselves clearly and simply, eschewing vague, grandiloquent compostion and lugubrious tracts of laborious periphrasis.    Be clear and direct, and avoid making global claims for which you lack evidence.
___  15.  Mankind can no longer tolerate, in his language, the presumption of maleness as
the norm.    Misplaced gender-specific language is both imprecise and offensive. Use ‘humanity’ instead of ‘mankind,’, and look for similar ways to say  gracefully what you really mean.

___  16.  I feel it is misleading to express your thoughts and claims as though they were
sensations or emotions.    Feelings are important, but they are not the same as thoughts. A thought is more public, and subject to intellectual challenge and question, whereas a feeling is something you have, like an emotion, sensation, or intuition, that you do not expect others to challenge. Formal writing should almost always invite correction or challenge, so never use ‘feel’ where ‘think’ will do.

___  17.  Keep[1] footnotes[2] to[3] a minimum,[4] but as some great writer once said:  "Always
acknowledge the sources of your ideas."    Notes should credit and direct readers to all substantive sources of your ideas and language, not distract them from what you are saying.

___  18.  Rely primarily on your choice of words, rather than {extra punctuation!!!!!}, non-standard fonts, CAPITALS, underlining, or italics, to express emphasis or creativity in your writing.    Unless a particular task demands a different format, present your writing in Times New Roman 12-point type, double-spaced, flush left, one inch margins, black ink on one side of 8.5” x 11” paper, stapled if more than one page. If you set the defaults in your word processor to these parameters, most of the time you will not have to think about it.

[1] rhymes with peep. 
[2] i.e., notes at the foot of the page.
[3] as contrasted with too, or two.
[4] I owe this thought to my writing teacher. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Editorial Suggestions Key

DKJ's Editorial Suggestions Key
(See also Handout CL/"grading")

G: Basic grammatical errors (see Writing Checklist/"grammar” for details). 

S: Basic stylistic errors (see Writing Checklist/"style” for details).

(Typical marginal notes include: "pass" = passive voice; "ww" = wrong word; "awk" = awkward; "ss" = single-space; "ref" reference; "SI" = split infinitive; "frag" = fragment; "ro" = run-on.) 

R: More research required/research element missing or too brief/insufficient attention to details of the text(s).

C: CRITO outline missing/incomplete.

B: Complete/accurate bibliographic information missing (here are several acceptable citation styles).

Q: Student-generated questions missing/incomplete.

A-papers contain very few to none of the errors above; B-papers contain a small degree of one or more of the errors above; C-papers contain a significant degree of one or more of the errors above; D-papers contain a borderline unacceptable degree of several of the errors above; F-papers contain an entirely unacceptable degree of several of the errors above.