“Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity.”
(Nietzsche, Gay Science §173)
The study of philosophy, among other things, trains students in the skills of critical thinking. Such skills lie at the heart of liberal education. Contrary to popular conception, quiet absorption in one’s thoughts is neither the most distinctive mode of practicing philosophy nor the privileged route to acquiring wisdom. Rather, it is through speaking with others and especially writing that one does philosophy.
For this reason, all philosophy courses at Wheaton require thoughtful class participation in which students read responsibly and listen actively to the arguments of others. Save for Phil 125, all courses include writing assignments designed to improve one’s ability to read and reflect on philosophical texts and to produce philosophical arguments. These assignments are not tests of philosophical wisdom; they are inducements to the practice of philosophy. When carried out with sincerity and academic integrity, writing philosophy holds out the promise of making students into active inquirers of a difficult subject matter. To write philosophy is to become philosophical.
The centrality of writing to the practice of philosophy enhances, not dispels, the need for responsible listening, reading, and speaking. All are components of the training in critical thinking. Students must first of all listen and read actively. This means engaging intellect, imagination, and feeling in the tasks of reflecting patiently, interpreting fairly, considering alternatives, and rearticulating thoughtfully. Students must also develop competence in oral defense of their arguments and examination of the arguments of others. Here quick-mindedness and concision are the chief virtues. Finally, students must bend their prose before the demand of clearness. Vague writing conceals muddled thinking, but only briefly. Lucid prose, stripped free of jargon and cant, cliché and emptiness, is praised by all philosophers, even if rarely practiced by them.
All writers, at some stage in the writing process, find it worthwhile to consult at least one other individual for guidance and feedback. At Wheaton, students may receive such guidance from peer writing tutors who have taken a tutor education class with Professor Susan Dearing. These tutors can help writers brainstorm, organize, focus and develop ideas. They can also assist writers with using sources by helping them to paraphrase, introduce, and cite other writers’ ideas. Once students reach the editing phase of their work, they can work with the tutors to learn about punctuation, mechanics and proofreading strategies. Tutors work in the Kollett Center for Collaborative Learning, and their schedules are available through the Writing Program webpage.
Students should avoid the use of sexist language (e.g., “mankind,” using the masculine pronoun “he” generically, etc.). For more information, see the American Philosophical Association’s statement.
Finally, there is an excellent guide to writing philosophy available online.