Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guidelines on Not Thinking

(Update: A more direct link.)

Oh! Rather, I mean Writing a Philosophy Paper at MIT or Harvard.

If you want to know why philosophy doesn't seem relevant to people anymore, the above is why. If it seems like philosophy has nothing to contribute that the sciences can't do better, see the same.

You probably know my style by now, so I'm skipping the rest of my introductions and going straight to the 'philosopher' butchering.
"A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a small point"
If you have anything substantial to say, don't bother.

The text following makes clear that they think they mean, "Don't try to prove too many claims at once." Sadly, they mean exactly what they said above.
"Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace."
Large advances are right out.

Einsteins will always go into physics where they know stuff like this is bullshit.
"will be accurate when it attributes views to other philosophers"
First reading: Will be accurate if someone else said something, anything.

Second reading: Will be accurate if you didn't say it, but rather someone else did.

Did you know that in the ancient world, it was considered arrogant to claim your ideas as your own? So dozens of people would write books all by "King Solomon," or "Buddha." I can't remember if it was limited to the East or not.
"It need not always break new ground."
Write something new and die.

Backs up this from earlier:
"Don't be disappointed if you don't make an utterly distinctive contribution to human thought in your first attempts at philosophical writing."
Laying it on a little thick?
"Your critical intelligence will inevitably show up in whatever you write."
We can tell if you're sucking up properly no matter what.

Imagine they're correct for a moment. They're saying that any philosophical piece you write, no matter how easy or trivial, will show the full range of your critical thinking skills.

Considering this is official, and thus not likely a throw-away bit of writing, I suspect that Jim Pryor's full critical thinking skills will show up in whatever he writes... (Check the very bottom of the linked article for authorship.)

Also, again assuming they're right, then I have to assume that the person who wrote this bit is a complete moron. They, presumably, also have tenure. (At, they mention down below, Harvard. This is representative of Harvard thought? Sweet chickens! It's like being a fox with a key to the henhouse.)

Gah. They're like plagiarists; they want to be found out. Their weaknesses are downright abundant.
"and will contain thoughtful critical responses to the texts we read."
If it's not like stuff we're already reading, we don't care. Dawkins forbid that we actually have to expend effort to understand your paper.

Again, laying it on a little thick, maybe? Everyone already knows this from elementary school of course, but good lord you'd think at least at Harvard they'd have the decency to be subtle about it.

I know I don't have to keep repeating myself, but it's just so tempting...
"If you do want to demonstrate independent thought, don't think you have to do it by coming up with a novel argument."
Write something new and die. Again.

I suppose it slightly addresses the subtlety thing; this is the red herring to let the professor fool themselves about what they're doing, plus of course it baits naive students who think they may be allowed to think for themselves, to better weed them out.

The tip-off is that the sentence actually says, "If you do want to think, you don't have to do it by actually thinking."
"Thinking about a philosophical problem is hard."
Honestly? Fuck that. Considering the only tripe allowed here is triple-rehashed and 'well-aged' pap, it better be downright trivial.

If thinking, about things that are only accurate if you cite other philosophers, is considered hard, you'll never do actual philosophy.

Which I guess is kinda the point here.

Incidentally, this bullshit is exactly why I wouldn't touch university philosophy with a bargepole. I took physics instead, and that was the best 20 grand I've ever spent. Not that I'm impressed with their thinking skills either, outside their narrow math-based expertise.
"You're not trying to craft some fancy political speech."
Pff. Please. Of course it's a political speech. Your party is you, and your grade. Your constituent is your professor, or rather the grader, and you're trying to convince them to vote for you in terms of marks. Just like a real politician, you do this by lying and misleading your constituents, in this case by pretending that you're not sucking up, but rather writing philosophy.

Every economy based on tax dollars is political. No exceptions.
"You're just trying to present a claim and some reasons to believe it or disbelieve it, as straightforwardly as possible."
Unless that claim is original, complex, or really does anything that might make your grader have to do actual thinking or work. Then you might as well quit and go with the rehashed stuff.

Don't get me wrong, I think philosophical papers should be straightforward as possible. Minimal jargon, tangents used sparingly, (really they should be spun off as new papers) no unnecessary arguments or sub-proofs relying on controversial evidence, and so on. Naturally I fail at all of these, but it's an ideal to strive toward.

But reading the so called 'papers' I see from academic sources, they apparently don't actually believe any of this.

Just like all tax-funded programs, hypocrisy is the highest value; whatever you say you're doing, do the opposite unless you can do something totally unrelated.

Like foreign aid. It has nothing to do with aid and the target audience isn't foreign. Score!

Sadly Pryor takes a break from stating norms and actually gets into worthwhile details. Luckily they are blatantly obvious and any idiot could come up with them.
"In what order should you explain..." "In what order should you offer your criticisms..."
Pryor's belief, and indeed most professor's beliefs, that their students are childish at best and drooling idiots more likely shows up a little strongly here. You have to fail to plan completely before you forgo putting your arguments in order. What kind of idiot has to be reminded?

I guess the kind of idiot that writes this doggerel.
"I strongly recommend that you make an outline of your paper, and of the arguments you'll be presenting, before you begin to write."
Whoa! Never heard this advice before. My mind is being blown, man.
"This lets you organize..."
Outlines are for organization?! Holy freaking fencepost, batman! No wonder they weren't working for me.
"For instance, you want to be able to say what your main argument or criticism is before you write. If you get stuck writing, it's probably because you don't yet know what you're trying to say."

Only in academia would anyone set out to write a paper before having some kind of goal in mind.
"Give your outline your full attention."
"Uh, sir? I disagree. You see, I think when you're writing an outline, you should give it 50%, maybe 25% of your attention. This way, you can make mistakes, get distracted, write down things that were in the room but are totally unrelated and don't even notice. It's just wonderful, sir, because it makes you, yes you sir, feel superior. I have found that when your grader feels superior and enlightened, and yes sir I do have to degrade myself to this point before this happens, your grader magnanimously awards their corrections and 'help,' and feels like they're actually worth a crap. (Worthlessness is a common side effect of having to steal your bread and butter through taxes, sir.) It's crucial of course that you do this in the outline stage, before the final submission, because of course you get your kicks out of shattering the self-esteem of people who can't jump through your hoops."
"It should be fairly detailed. (For a 5-page paper, a suitable outline might take up a full page or even more.)"
When you're writing an outline, make sure it takes as much time and energy as possible. It should be basically your entire paper but with poor grammar. In fact, it should be even longer than your entire paper, taking the grammar into account.
"I find that making an outline is at least 80% of the work of writing a good philosophy paper."
Specifically, despite the fact that you're writing in bullet form, this outline should take you 80% of the time it would have taken you to just write the damn paper already. That's right, assuming a five-page paper takes five hours to write, you could have just taken the extra hour and finished it, if you didn't have to write a outline.

Oh wait, I got that wrong. Writing an outline in bullet form should take four times as long as it would have to just write the damn thing.
"If you have a good outline, the rest of the writing process will go much more smoothly."
Not thinking does make the work go faster, I must admit. Avoiding thought is of course a crucial task in any modern-day philosophical society.
"Your reader shouldn't have to exert any effort to figure it out."
Remember what I said about the graders and effort?
"...We've just seen how X says that P. I will now present two arguments that not-P. My first argument is..."
Your grader is mentally retarded. We know this because they're not tenured yet. IQ 65 or so. They couldn't ever figure out for themselves what you said. Basic reading comprehension is beyond them.

Writing like an asshole is the only way to get through to them.

Like the crack about critical thinking skills, this one actually has a seed of truth as well. It's overwhelmingly likely that your grader will be subsisting on caffeine and sunlight, and will have had roughly negative three hours of sleep last night, mostly because they actually decided to write an outline. (In math or physics, this sleep quantity becomes imaginary.) As a result, if your paper can't be read on autopilot, it probably won't be read at all, but faked. Don't worry; your grader has a large stock of horoscope-like comments to make in red pen for exactly this situation, and you'll get a D.
"You can't make the structure of your paper obvious if you don't know what the structure of your paper is, or if your paper has no structure. That's why making an outline is so important."
Increasing the time it takes you to write your paper by 80% is crucial, (or was that 400%?) and the only way possible that a paper could have structure.

We both know that your actual thought has no structure, so it has to be imposed artificially. This is probably because you've had to take crap like this seriously for at least 14 years in a row.
"To write a good philosophy paper, you need to be concise but at the same time explain yourself fully."

Do two opposite things, and do them well. Orwell? Who's that?
"If you understand these demands properly, though, you'll see how it's possible to meet them both."
It's so bad even Pryor realized this.

No it's not possible to meet them both, incidentally. Obviously you don't want to waste words. Explaining yourself fully, however, is not going to be concise, unless your thought is so puerile and vapid that its full extent is but a few words.

Admittedly, considering the restrictions above, this may actually be good advice.
"we don't want you to ramble on about everything you know about a given topic, trying to show how learned and intelligent you are."
Calling out the game is a big no-no. Keep up the pretense at all times. Don't be crude. I may not be subtle, but I have tenure; your work should be superior to mine, while, as I mentioned above, groveling in abject obeisance to make me feel superior.
"Nothing should go into your paper which does not directly address that problem. Prune out everything else."
I had to put this in here because it's actually good advice. It's so...novel. Where did this come from? What did you do with Jim Pryor?

"We tell you to explain yourself fully because it's very easy to confuse yourself or your reader when writing about a philosophical problem."

Well, sure, but nothing written to these specs will be philosophy, so what's the problem?

Notably the text following makes clear that this is another instance where Pryor has no idea what he's trying to say.

By explain fully he means "Don't be confusing."
"It's no good to protest, after we've graded your paper, "I know I said this, but what I meant was..." Say exactly what you mean, in the first place."
My irony circuit is blown out at this point, but maybe yours isn't.

"We've" graded your paper? Yeah, I'm sure Pryor's totally going to be grading papers. Even if he was, would that be fair to the students that didn't get his particular attention?
"Part of what you're being graded on is how well you can do that."
"So, you're going to magically divine what they meant so you can compare it to what they said?

"Like I'm having to? (Oh good my irony circuit is back online.)"

I give him an F. Actually an F is far too high. Pryor's total grade is currently at 4%, for that good advice I saw earlier.
"Pretend that your reader has not read the material you're discussing,"
Remember what I said earlier about politicking? Also, "Pretend that your audience is someone other than your audience, and integrity can go fuck itself."
"and has not given the topic much thought in advance."
Again, this is going to be the very opposite of concise.
"In fact, you can profitably take this one step further and pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean."
You will not have to pretend anything of the sort.

Second reading: We love our teaching assistants. No, really. Our students are just awesome people.

In reality, when exactly is a lazy and stupid person going to read philosophy? Fuck, Pryor!
"If you understand the material you're writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you'll probably get an A."
Like the soldier who loves his job, Pryor is literally advising you to think of him as an ugly little goblin. This of course is despite the fact that he's never going to see your paper except maybe to pass it on to his TAs. Needless to say this is not good advice, but I wanted to bring that idea to the fore. Again, this is probably just bait for people who can't politic properly.
"Don't shoot for literary elegance. Use simple, straightforward prose."
Entertaining your reader is a bad idea. A very bad idea. They should never delight in your essays, except in a holier-than-thou way. Outshining your masters is old-fashioned.
"We'll make fun of you if you use big words where simple words will do. These issues are deep and difficult enough without your having to muddy them up with pretentious or verbose language."
"And I'll make fun of you, Pryor, for being an insult to the human race. Naturally, you'll take it as lightly as I'll take your needling of my pretentiousness."

Because I have to admit pretentiousness is a bit funny.
"Don't write using prose you wouldn't use in conversation. If you wouldn't say it, don't write it."
Amusingly enough, yes I actually do talk like this.
"If your paper sounds as if it were written a third-grade audience, then you've probably achieved the right sort of clarity."
Another jab at the TAs? More bait? I'm not actually sure here. Both?
"It's OK to show a draft of your paper to your friends and get their comments and advice. In fact, I encourage you to do this. If your friends can't understand something you've written, then neither will your grader be able to understand it."
Man, I'm knocking Pryor's grade all the way up to 10% for this. Admitting only the grader counts! Honesty! More good, if stone-obvious, advice!
"Read your paper out loud. This is an excellent way to tell whether it's easy to read and understand. As you read your paper, keep saying to yourself"
I have to ask. Does this actually work for you?

Also, again, "Whoa! Never heard this before! Man I can totally see how you earned tenure."

The text following has questions that, if you can't think up on your own, you have no business anywhere near a philosopher.
"If you plan to discuss the views of Philosopher X, begin by isolating his arguments or central assumptions."
Again, don't think for yourself. Although, formalizing other people's arguments is a vital task if you intend to take them on philosophically. However, in the case of real people, (as opposed to the rehashed arguments of dead people) this is not a trivial task. Perhaps Pryor's infinite philosophical wisdom could give us some advice? (Hint: no.)
"Then ask yourself: Are the arguments good ones?"
Pryor's a master. Every time I think he can't go any lower, hey look! I am in awe.

Who the fuck doesn't think this to themselves? Chimpanzees and Pryor's colleagues? Pryor himself wouldn't of course, but he has it written down on a checklist somewhere, and doesn't forget anymore.
"Keep in mind that philosophy demands a high level of precision."
I don't even need to be here anymore. The man's just doing himself in.
"In this respect, philosophy is more like a science than the other humanities."
And yet it's even more full of pretentious bullshit. Interesting, isn't it?

Hey Pryor! That's what a philosophical question looks like! I know you've never seen any before except on papers marked "D" so pay attention!
"If you don't explain what you take Philosopher X's view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you offer of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on your misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X's views."
Good advice. 12%. No more because again it's entangled with anti-think memes.
"When a passage from a text is particularly useful in supporting your interpretation of some philosopher's views, it may be helpful to quote the passage directly."
Quoting; a lost art. No one would have thought of it before Pryor helpfully

I think something's wrong. But the way to figure it out probably isn't in the dead philosophy corpus, so I guess I'll never know what.
"However, direct quotations should be used sparingly."
Got me there. Though to be honest I'd never believe a tenured professor was this dumb without hard evidence, and I don't expect every reader to read the whole linked article.

Sadly of course this is considering my audience as my audience instead of its opposite, which as mentioned above is verboten.
"It is seldom necessary to quote more than a few sentences."
It's just one of those times. Not that Pryor lets his students make that determination, because it requires thinking. When he thinks 'never, ever, not in a million years' he writes 'seldom.' Again, bait.
"When you do quote an author, always explain what the quotation says in your own words."
Especially if they said it better than you, that way we'll know how superior we can feel compared to you.

Also a nice opening to wrench an argument around in circles, like a politician might. Not that you've ever seen a thinker attempt to do that...
"Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things..."
"but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says."
This is, as I mentioned above, actually why I have to quote Pryor so extensively. I'd never believe he was this much a lunatic without direct evidence.
"Use your imagination. Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that."
We of course reserve the right to mark you down if you're not exactly clear the first time.

Another loophole for spin-doctoring.
"It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, though you can't find any evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, though, you should explicitly say so. Say something like, "Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he might have believed it, because...""
Is there a song about spin doctoring? Because I think it might be Pryor's favorite, and I'd like to send him a small gift in exchange for his very useful insight into academic thinking patterns.

Yes, there is a more charitable reading of this. But Pryor's already authorized me to be mean, though naturally he would never authorize anyone to grade his Guidelines.
"Only summarize those parts of X's views that are directly relevant to what you're going to go on to do."
Sadly Pryor is actually quite good at being concise, and summarizing his idiocy is difficult.
"Try to anticipate objections to your view and respond to them."
"Thanks Pryor, no one's ever thought of that before! I think, just maybe, and I know this may come as a shock to you, but your students aren't actually three years old. I know! I know, isn't it crazy? Some of them, you know, the ones that breathe, thought of this on their own already."

I think this will be the last time I chastise him for wasting words. It's just too easy, and I'm bored of it.
"Of course, there's no way to deal with all the objections someone might raise"
"Yeah there is, actually. It's called being correct, something that I'm not sure you've seen, Pryor." Plus, if you can't answer all reasonable objections, it's overwhelmingly likely that you don't understand your own position.

Man, this guy makes me feel like a genius. If you notice me being overly obvious, let me know so I can stop. In fact if you notice me being like Pryor at all, let me know.
"Your paper doesn't always have to provide a definite solution to a problem, or a straight yes or no answer to a question"
Yes, solving problems is simply not what philosophy does these days. Having a definite, clear opinion just gums up the works.
"Many excellent philosophy papers don't offer straight yes or no answers to a question."
Thought makes us angry. If you manage to write a 5-page paper without any, but while keeping up appearances, you'll get an A. If you write well, (but not too well) you'll even get A+.
"Sometimes they argue that the question needs to be clarified, or that certain further questions need to be raised. Sometimes they argue that certain assumptions of the question need to be challenged."
Does the question need to be clarified? (What is philosophy, and how do we advance it when writing a paper?) Yes. Do further questions need to be raised? (Precision, humanities, bullshit? Strange combo there...) Yes. Are some of the assumptions questionable? (Does Pryor have a brain?) Yes.

"These are yes/no questions, Pryor. You idiot." Fuck, this retard is tenured? At Harvard?

I wouldn't be so hard on him if he wasn't supposed to be a professional. As the lawyers say, he knows or should have known. He knows or should have known everything I've said here.

Instead, let me just say that I think, just maybe, that I've discovered how String Theory got so fucked up.
"Sometimes they argue that certain easy answers to the question are too easy, that the arguments for these answers are unsuccessful."
Being right in a simple way is impossible, you see. We've proven it with our precise humanity. Well, a dead person proved it. Philosophy today isn't about answering questions like this.
"Hence, if these papers are right, the question will be harder to answer than we might previously have thought. This is an important and philosophically valuable result."
It's philosophically valuable to point out that a question is hard? This is somehow better than simply pointing out it's wrong?

On the other hand, I appreciate this anti-bait. It's a hint on a technique for successfully navigating the hoops; pretend that an answer is wrong because it's easy to understand. Professors like to hear that they're better than everyone, and this is right up that alley. It can also easily be twisted into the right shape for the rest of the hoops.

On the other hand I have no idea how to do this legitimately. Unless the previous argument was wrong due to oversimplification, which I would assume is equivalent to just 'wrong' (perhaps a bad assumption when dealing with Pryor) you cannot prove that an unknown truth will be 'easy' or 'hard' to discover.

For instance, how hard will it be to discover the fifth force of nature? Will we stumble upon it a la photoelectric effect, or will it be a more concerted effort? (I don't actually think a fifth force exists.)

I just got the weirdest sensation. I felt a thought go by. The contrast with Pryor is incredible. I wish I could get him to try it.
"If you raise a question, though, you should at least begin to address it, or say how one might set about trying to answer it; and you must explain what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at hand."
As mentioned previously, your reader is stupid and cannot figure this out on their own.
"Philosophical problems and philosophical writing require careful and extended reflection."
Can you imagine Pryor ever saying the opposite?

"My job is tolerant of carelessness and not at all time-consuming. You barely have to think at all."

It's just like me, specifically, claiming to a credible source. (I've done that, haven't I? This is why philosophy requires peer review...)
"Don't wait until the night before to start your paper. This is very stupid. Writing a good philosophy paper takes a great deal of preparation."
Whenever I hear this I take it as a challenge. I found out in OAC English that the more cramped for time I am, the better my mark.

Eventually I found out that this is by far the most important factor, because I maximized the mark (yes, 100%, twice, once on my Moby Dick review and once on my freaking Hamlet essay) using this technique to the maximum.

I would guess that, taking Pryor's assumptions, that this is because your audience is freaking stupid. As a result, the faster writing, which is presumably using much less thought per word, is much closer to their level.

Ooh, thought again. It tingles, like having sensation run back into an organ that's gone to sleep.
"You should leave yourself enough time to think about your topic and write a detailed outline (this will take several days)."
Just in case you had any doubts that it was busywork, to prepare you for your future union or HR job.
"Then write a draft (this will take one day)."
It occurs to me that Pryor knows an inordinate amount about how you best go about writing. He must be psychic. You know what they say about village idiots; they can hear the Gods most clearly.

In other words, what happens if you're done early? Does the rest of the day spontaneously combust?
"Your papers should be less than or equal to the assigned word limit. Your grade will suffer if your paper is too long. So it's important to ask yourself: What are the most important things you have to say? What can be left out?"
My Hamlet essay - the one that got 100% and prompted my teacher to suggest I take University English, whereupon I avoided, just barely, strangling her with my bare hands - was over 30% too long. In short, this is a just an ordinary everyday lie.

Have you noticed that the advice about how not to waste the TA's time is much more precise, practical, and in general followable than the rest of the guidelines? Despite being a blatant lie?
"Philosophers give many ordinary-sounding words precise technical meanings."
And I don't have to quote the rest. This is an ordinary everyday contradiction. Write like how you talk, explain your words like your reader is stupid, but use our jargon correctly, fool.

Notably, real philosophers tend to avoid doing this unless the ordinary word is invalid as-is and is therefore useless. Why? Because it only manages to confuse the layman. Hell, it sometimes confuses the philosopher.

Hopefully I'm not too guilty of doing this myself. I'm sure I've done it at least once.
"Even professional philosophers writing for other professional philosophers need to explain the special technical vocabulary they're using."
This is advice I wish many philosophy blogs would follow, because I don't see the ROI on looking up what 'analytical' vs 'continental' philosophy. It's terribly likely that this is a ridiculous spat founded by the likes of Jim Pryor.
"Many students find the dialogue form attractive. Done well, it can be very effective. But it's extremely difficult to do well. The form tempts the author to cuteness, needless metaphor, and imprecision. So you shouldn't try to write dialogues for this class."
Attempting to write highly effectively is banned for this class. (Effectiveness makes Jimmy cry.)

Also, if you fail to write effectively, and I agree the dialogue is a tricky form to not screw up, Jimmy won't even attempt to help. Ambition is also banned.

There's a section called "How You'll Be Graded." Naturally, nothing mentioned here is relevant, let alone true. The next bit is about revising your paper if it has been sent back.
"You can only correct these sorts of failings by rewriting your paper from scratch. (Start with a new, empty window in your word processor.)"
Laying it on thick with the busywork thing. Just in case you thought university wasn't about wasting huge portions of your valuable time. (I admit I wasn't quite sure with physics if this was the case or not.)

Imagine if it were true. The mark cited by Pryor is A-. But the only reason to completely rewrite a paper is if it had negligible value, or was going about literally everything wrong. Which means that A- papers are worthless.

Again, I can totally see this if Pryor's acolytes are marking, or indeed if Pryor himself is writing, because Pryor's writing does have negligible intrinsic value, and his acolytes probably can't tell the difference.

In total contrast...
"Keep in mind that when I or your TF grade a rewrite, we may sometimes notice strengths or weaknesses in unchanged parts of your paper that we missed the first time around."
So, erase everything and start afresh. Then we're going to notice strengths (Ha ha! As if!) or weaknesses in your unchanged portions. That don't exist. Using our mind powers.

Most likely the ones that let Pryor know so much about your personal best essay writing practices, and let him know what you meant when it isn't what you said. Those mind powers.
"Also keep in mind that it's possible to improve a paper without improving it enough to raise it to the next grade level."
Even if you do all this busywork, we might not give a crap.

I will now give my overall evaluation of Pryor's 'work.' (By which I mean intellectual vomit.)

Pryor managed, in my completely arbitrary marking system, (much like his, so he can't complain) to amass 12% out of a possible 100%, and I usually allow bonus marks. Now, I'm a fan of letter grades, and yet also precision. So, lets say A is 100-91%, B is 90-81% and so on. Pryor didn't even manage to score F, 50-41%.


12% corresponds to 'I' but just doesn't have that 'fail' ring to it, so I'm going to give Pryor his well deserved FFFF-. "See me after class Pryor, where hopefully the Dean will sign off on having you horsewhipped.

"For the abuse you're handing out to your students, it is the least you deserve."

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