Dr. Pennock's Study Tips

  1. Lectures
  2. Discussion
  3. Examinations
  4. Papers
  5. Reading
  6. What To Study
  7. What To Think About


Readings and lectures are meant to complement and supplement one another. Lectures will not be a repetition of the material from the readings; rather they will elucidate and expand upon what you have read in preparation for class. Lectures will often include new material not covered in the texts. Similarly, some reading material may not be addressed directly in class unless it comes up in discussion. What this means is that in order to get all the material of the course you must do the reading and attend lectures and discussions. (SO be aware that exams will include material that is from lecture, reading, or both.)

Feel free to interrupt with questions during lectures; you will learn better if you actively participate and interact with the material (and it will make the class more interesting for me as well). If on rare occasions time constraints don't allow questions I'll let you know at the time. Also, sometimes fully answering a particular question may take too much time, or may be tangential to the main topic. If I judge that to be the case, I may have to ask you to temporarily accept a quick answer on authority rather than taking the time to continue to explain it and convince you during the class period. In such a case I'll ask you to talk with me after class or to see me during office hours so we'll be able to discuss it individually.

Also, you should be prepared for me to ask questions of you in class. I may ask about a specific point from the reading or I may ask you to speculate about a freshly posed problem. Most times I will choose those who volunteer an answer, but I will sometimes ignore regular volunteers and pick out (not on) students who don't participate. Philosophy has often been characterized as an ongoing conversation among thinkers across time. I take that notion seriously and expect your active participation in the conversation. Not only will active involvement help you earn the portion of the grade that is based upon class participation, but also it will greatly improve your understanding of the material in general.


Socrates taught his students by engaging them in discussion and getting them to try to analyze a problem and articulate a position by asking them a series of pointed questions - that's why that pedagogic technique, still used regularly in law school, is called "the Socratic method." Philosophy has been called a great conversation, and the best way to learn philosophy - which really means learning to think philosophically - is to participate in the conversation.

Most students are initially hesitant about speaking in class, either because of shyness or because they think they have nothing important to say and would rather be told what is important by the professor. You can be sure that I will give you the basic material, but an equally, if not more important, part of philosophy is developing thinking skills. As in music or sports one can't get very far if one only listens or watches while others do it; you can learn the rules but that is not really the same as actually playing. To really learn to think philosophically you have to practice; you have to join the debate. Now it is true that at first you may not be very good at it - you will draw invalid inferences, assume unjustified premises, get lost in inconsistencies, and find yourself spouting clichŽs instead of logical arguments - but that is no different then when one takes up an instrument or sport. And, as in these areas, practice in thought and debate will develop your abilities. So don't worry too much about fumbling a point in discussion, because you will learn from such mistakes.

For those who worry about grades, let me reassure you that, although students who make brilliant comments will of course receive higher marks than those who make less than brilliant ones, even someone who makes consistently fumbling comments will always get better marks for class participation than one who doesn't try.


General Instructions and Policies


  • Read through the entire exam before starting to answer anything. This will give you a sense of what will be required overall and may allow you to plan a strategy for answering individual questions and for the amount of time you should spend on each.
  • Leave some time at the end to allow yourself to quickly go over what you have written. Far more often than you might imagine, even very good students wind up losing many easy points simply because they forgot to answer all the questions and never went back to check. You may also find that answering later questions may have helped you remember something to add to your answer of earlier ones.


    General instructions

    Your general objective for writing assignments in this class is to present a position (or explanation or interpretation) and convey supporting arguments and facts in a clear, precise and logical manner. Assume that your audience is interested in learning about the topic (rather than about your opinion about the topic), but has no previous knowledge of it. You should write as though your piece would be read and made use of by people who are satisfying their curiosity, and NOT just as though it will be read by me for the purpose of assigning a grade.

    Of course, it is possible to argue a position and convey information in a variety of ways. In professional situations, for example, your audience will demand a factual, objective formal style, while in other cases, such as the popular press, you will have to couch your information in an entertaining and more informal form; and each style would be inappropriate in the other's setting. Therefore, though there is not one "correct style" of writing overall, there are standards once we know the particular context.

    Note however, that there are certain standards that are applicable in all contexts. Grammatical and spelling errors will distract from the content of any written material, and avoiding them is a minimal requirement for writing of any sort. This is not "nit-picking", for in the real world readers will in fact dismiss an author and the author's point of view as stupid or untrustworthy if this basic level of care has not been taken. Of course, any paper that is written to convey information must be clearly organized, with technical terms defined and new concepts explained.

    In most instances when you do any written work in professional contexts you will have to stay within rather strict constraints on length. Submissions to professional journals, magazines & newspapers are all limited by total word number (e.g. the journal for the History of Science Society requires that articles be 8000 words or less). If you write grant proposals to try to get funding for some project, you will be required to state the various aspects of your plan in the precise format required by the foundation to which you are applying. In business you will often be called upon to write reports or recommendations that may not exceed 5 or 10 pages. And even in cases where writers may be allowed to go on indefinitely - governmental agencies sometimes publish position papers that run for hundreds of pages - you will usually have to write an introductory summary that will provide the major elements of your argument, and this will likely be the only thing that people will have the time or desire to read, so it will have to be written clearly and persuasively for you to achieve your desired objective.

    For this course we will simulate such constraints by restricting the paper length and by occasionally requiring that a specific structure be followed. If a paper is to be between 10 and 12 pages long you will loose points for turning in one shorter than 10 pages or longer than 12 pages. (See below for standard formatting instructions). I will provide specific requirements when I assign each assignment.

    Every journal, periodical, company, agency, etc. will have its own preferred stylistic formatting constraints. Some periodicals, for example, do not allow footnotes, while others require them. And those that do will often follow different formats for the way in which references are cited (e.g. A.P.A. bibliographic style).

    Unless I say otherwise you need not use any particular format for your bibliography, but whatever you use you must then be consistent throughout. Also, you must give citations for all important information and for all quotes. These may occur parenthetically within the body of your text, or as footnotes, or as endnotes.

    General Formatting Rules

    Basic Grammar
    (With thanks to Harold Evans. Editor of London's SUNDAY TIMES.)

    The work you turn in should be your own. It is never appropriate to use even a single sentence or even a single well-written phrase of someone else's work unless you quote it and reference it. It is absolutely essential that you give credit where credit is due. Plagiarism will be cause for receiving a failing grade for the course.

    - I grade papers primarily based on relevant content, philosophical argumentation, and clear explanation of the material, but also on overall organization, style, grammar, spelling, length, bibliography, and proper referencing of sources.
    - Late papers will be accepted but will receive a 5 point penalty per day.


    The assigned readings for each day should be read before the class period that day. In some cases I will futher explain concepts from the reading, but in other cases I will take the reading material as a given and move forward from there. In any case, for lectures and discussions I will assume that you have read the assigned material and that we can build upon that base, so you will find the course easier and get more out of it if you come prepared. To give you some extra incentive to do what is in your interest, I reserve the right to give surprise quizzes on the reading at the beginning of class. I realize that no one likes these, but the fact of the matter is that they work. More than almost any other subject, philosophy cannot be "crammed". You will need to learn to think hard and deeply about inherently difficult problems and this will take disciplined and sustained work. Here are a few hints that will make this process a bit easier.

    How to read & take notes on a philosophical text.

    (1) Read it twice. This is the best single piece of advice I can give and it will do the most to improve your understanding. You will no doubt think that you do not have enough time to do this, but it will not take twice as long, and may even save you time in the long run. When one reads just once the tendency is to read very carefully, trying to figure out puzzling passages, and highlighting any and all portions that seem to be important. But often it is not possible to tell what will be most important until the end of a philosophical article. Major conclusions may not appear until the end, and intermediate conclusions may be sprinkled throughout the text. The most efficient way to trace the premises of an argument is to use the same technique that often helps in solving a maze - work backwards. Once one knows the conclusion it is far easier to pick out the premises and inferences that support it, and this can save time. Also, since the strands of an argument have to tie together it is very often much easier to understand a puzzling passage in light of something that comes later that is related to it - another time saver. Often an author will repeat the most important points several times in different ways, and the second or third version may be clearer than the first. Also, philosophers are very fond of starting out with a tentative or approximate position, then pointing out its difficulties, and then giving a refined version. Sometimes there may be three or more iterations of this procedure before the final version emerges. Knowing that this is going on can save you a lot of time.

    The first time just skim quickly through the article. Do not stop to figure out anything in detail. Do not take notes. Do not highlight passages. Do indicate what appear to be important points by putting a small tick in the margin next to them. If you can't skim everything, at the very least look briefly at section titles, opening and closing paragraphs, and anything that is set off from the main body or italicized or numbered.

    The second time is when you actually read the thing, highlight passages and take notes in the way that you normally do. Focus upon positions and arguments as described in the first section. That is the material that you will need to know.

    {If you want to really be in control of the material you should add a third reading. On this system for the second reading you only highlight and make marginal notes in the book. Only take notes the third time, since now you will be able to rearrange the arguments into a more accessible sequence. This is a way of interacting with the material and gets you thinking about the reasoning, which should be your main goal. By summarizing the steps of the argument in your own words you will be in a much better position to remember the material and, more importantly, to begin to be able to reason about the positions yourself and eventually evaluate them.}

    (2) Quote Definitions, Paraphrase Arguments. A philosopher may make a career out of what may appear to be tiny and insignificant differences in the formulation of a particular view. This is not unreasonable because many lines of arguments have been played out to great depth and very subtle distinctions have come into play. In order to be able to compare one philosopher's position with another's thus requires having them in as precise a form as possible. And since it is sometimes difficult to tell in advance exactly what element of a definition will become distinctive or significant the best strategy is to quote definitions and key conclusions verbatim in your notes. Be sure to actually use quotation marks so that you will later know that these are the author's words and not your own (you wouldn't want to inadvertently plagiarize someone by using the material later without attribution), and cite the page reference, too, so that you can quickly find the quote in context if something you read later leads you to reevaluate your interpretation of its meaning.

    Other elements of the argument are best paraphrased when you are taking notes. By rewriting something in your own words you are already taking a big step towards understanding the material as opposed to simply memorizing it, and the former is far more important than the latter.

    What To Study

    For each philosophical position and its variations one should be able to answer the following questions:
    1. What is the theory?
    2. How is the theory justified?
    3. What arguments could be given against the theory?

    Answering the first question involves stating what the position is that is being proposed. This should be done as precisely as possible. What are the elements of the view? We need both the general picture, and also the special details and distinctive features. It is important to know not only what the view is but also what it is not. One should be able to say what specific statements the theory would endorse (the positive view), and also what statements it rules out (the negative view).

    HINTS: Look for definitions. Look for conclusions (signaled by words such as "therefore," "thus," "for that reason," and so on). Look for statements that are italicized or underlined or set off from the body of the text in some way. Often philosophers will number or give a letter abbreviation for important principles. One most commonly finds succinct statements of the theory at the beginning or end of an article or section of an article.

    Answering the second question involves stating reasons why one should accept the theory. What arguments support the position? What are the premises upon which its conclusions are based? Tracing and evaluating arguments is the main business of philosophy, so being able to do this is the key to the whole enterprise. The most important question that philosophers ask is not "What?", but rather "Why?" Anyone can state an opinion and some people can even do so clearly and precisely. But that is only the first step for a philosopher who will ask why that opinion ought to be accepted. If one cannot engage in critical debate on an issue and give good reasons and logical arguments to back up a view, then one is not really doing philosophy.

    To answer the third question, one should not simply have the first line of arguments that justify the theory, but one should also consider the counter-arguments that might be made against the theory and against the arguments that purportedly support it. What is wrong with a given view? Does it rest upon empirically false premises? Perhaps the arguments supporting it are fallacious? Are there counterexamples one can find to claims that are made? Does it entail absurd consequences? Of course, a proponent of the view will try to come up with rebuttals to these counter-arguments, so the debate may continue. In chess, a key characteristic that distinguishes ability is how many moves ahead the player can think. Novices may be able to plan only a move or two in advance, but a chess master may regularly think ahead to a depth of six or more moves. The same holds true in philosophy; an indication of one's level of philosophical understanding is the depth to which one can extend the chain of reasoning. Being able to trace the lines of argument and counter-argument is "basic training" for this key element of philosophizing.

    HINTS: Many of the same suggestions apply, except that it is often more difficult to tease out the premises and inferences of an argument than to pick out the conclusions. Of course, if a conclusion is signaled by a "therefore" or similar word or phrase, you can be pretty sure that the conclusion comes after it and the premises came just before it. Look for "IfÉ thenÉ" statements, which often signal inference moves. Look for familiar argument patterns, such as reductio ad adsurdum arguments or analogical arguments. Look for counter-examples - showing an exception to a purported rule is one of the best and most common ways to challenge the rule.

    What To Think About

    The primary things to think about should be obvious from what has already been said. Since the basic material of philosophy is argument and reasoning, that is what one must mull over. Do the arguments, pro and con, that you have traced regarding a particular position actually make sense? If not, then why not? Can they be made to make sense by minor repair, or is a major overhaul required? How does a position fare when it comes up against a competitor? Could both be held simultaneously or does adopting one necessarily require denying the other? (The latter is the more common case). If you had to choose between only these two options, which would you pick? Such questions may go on and on. They deal with the plausibility and coherence and inter-relatedness of the positions themselves on a theoretical level.

    The next thing to think about is how the positions work on a more concrete level. Try to think of examples and illustrations of how the theory would apply in specific cases. This will give you a better grasp of what may often seem very abstract and will also allow you to begin to evaluate the worth of a theory.

    Finally, think about the concepts. Philosophers often use common notions in uncommon ways. If you find yourself wondering what in the world someone is talking about or how someone could say such a bizarre thing, then that is likely to be a sign that a term is being used in a technical sense. (Of course it could be that the philosopher IS totally bonkers, but try not to leap immediately to that possibility.) Often the point is to jolt you out of a mental rut and to see things in a new way. Be open to that and philosophy really can be a mind-expanding experience.

    17 January 1996
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