Lesson 16: Concluding
Your culminating assignment for this course is a term paper of at least ten pages in length, typed, double space. In this brief concluding lesson, I will provide guidance in the selection of a topic and the development of it.
Philosophy is, methodologically speaking, the discussion of questions which are important but whose answers are not evident. That is, prima facie, there seem to be several possible and incompatible answers to a given question. If you consider Thomas Aquinas's procedure in the Summa theologiae, you will find a vivid illustration of the dialectic of philosophical discourse.
Each article in the Summa addresses a specific question. For example, Does happiness consist of riches? Many people would answer in the affirmative, but there is also a kind of folk wisdom to the effect that you cannot buy happiness. No doubt you have an initial hunch as to how the question should be resolved. Let us say that you doubt that happiness consist of riches. Very well, then the first thing you must do is formulate the best arguments you can on behalf of the opposite answer. This will enable you to see the difficulty of an easy answer, the attractiveness of arguments you may not find decisive but which nonetheless acquaint you with obstacles you will have to overcome in establishing your answer.
Having seen the attraction of the alternative answer, you then set about formulating as clear and strong an answer as you can for your own solution. A sign that it is a good one will be that you can, after having established it, indicate why arguments on behalf of the opposite view, whatever their attractions, and you will generously acknowledge them, cannot convincingly establish the alternative.
So much for the general technique for developing a philosophical essay. Now for the kind of problem you might select. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of problem, one more historical, the other more theoretical. An example of a historical or textual problem would be: A pagan answer and a Christian answer to the question as to the meaning of human life must necessarily be opposed.
In order to state the alternative, you must refer to determinate historical examples of the two views. In the course of these lessons, we found it necessary to ask whether Aristotle's conception of ultimate end is compatible with that of St. Thomas. The fact that the former was a pagan and the latter a Christian, makes it prima facie unlikely that they would give the same answer. Furthermore, it seems likely that their answers will not only differ but be opposed to one another such that if one is true, the other is false. In a historical or textual paper, the emphasis is on as accurate a statement as possible of the views you wish to discuss. The resolution is more than historical, although the emphasis is only indirectly on the truth of the matter.
A paper on a theoretical matter might be: The death penalty is indefensible. Of course, it is unlikely that you would discuss a theoretical problem independently of referring to what others have had to say about it, just as it is unlikely that you would write the first kind of paper solely to establish what others have said.
Given the structure of the paper, the kind of preparatory work you must do is clear. You must test a proposed topic to see if it is indeed controversial and thus in need of a resolution. The best way of testing this is to think of some good arguments on either side.
Given the length of the paper, you will want to divide the parts accordingly, allotting a fitting proportion of your space to each phase of the paper.
The papers you have been writing on assignment as you went through these lessons are invaluable experience for the longer undertaking you must now begin.