Thursday, 28 April 2016

The balance of description and criticism in philosophy essays

Another case of putting something on my blog because I often rehash the same broad idea and so should keep a copy.

Teaching on a Philosophy and Mental Health distance learning programme, Gloria and I are often asked by our mainly non-philosopher students about the nature and balance of criticism and description in philosophy writing. For some students, this may be the result of being familiar with the more descriptive style of literature review in the social sciences (though even here, such reviews must have an argumentative purpose). But it is hard to answer directly at the level of a given paragraph because all depends what that paragraph is for.

So here is a top down answer based on an analogy. Sadly this is an analogy that does nothing to explain how fascinating and mind blowing philosophy can be. Sorry.

A philosophy essay is like a report written by a civil servant making a recommendation to a minister or to a committee. The essay as a whole has a purpose: to persuade the reader of the case for something (thinking that something is true or something is right). And hence a critical style of writing is there for that purpose.

(So the analogy gives a ‘top down’ account of why philosophical writing is both critical and descriptive because this follows from the point or purpose of the essay as a whole which shapes the need for individual bits of critical writing.)

Here is an example. Near where I live, there is a proposal to build a new, higher capacity connection using very tall electricity pylons to link Sellafield nuclear power station (actually a new power station nearby called Moorside) to centres of population more efficiently. The proposal is contested because the pylons will be visually intrusive and they will be very close to, and thus visible from, the Lake District National Park.

In the main, the protesters don’t, however, say that there is no need for the new power connection. They could. That would be a ;pwerful argument against building one. (Contrast protesters against the proposed route of the high speed railway HS2 who do go back to basics to question the need as a whole for the line.) They generally accept the force of the arguments for one. (Some, of course, disagree to this whole way of getting power but that opens up a whole new argument so I will stick to those who accept the need but not the means.) So the protesters currently argue that
a) all or some of it could be underground;
b) it could take a longer route further from the Park
c) it could be submerged under Morecambe Bay
d) the pylons could be smaller.

Each of these counter-proposals (to the original idea) is opposed by counter-counter arguments. Burying is expensive. Longer routes cost more. In some countries the bigger pylons are regarded as works of sculptural art and hence are not visually intrusive anyway. Etc etc.

So imagine that you were writing a report for the minister or a planning committee, what would you do?

First, I suggest, you need to understand all the arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter-arguments etc. as their proposers understand them. To describe the lie of the land, you have to have a descriptive understanding of the arguments put forward.

Next, you will need to think about how the various ‘battles’ between opposing views stack up. For example, defenders of using pylons argue that burying the cable instead would cost too much money: 20 miles of buried lines would cost about £450m more than using pylons. ( But assessing this point will also involve seeing what one side makes of the argument. Eg., with respect to the cost of burying the cable, opponents of pylons have argued that this would add only about 40p a year to the average electricity bill in England and Wales. As you do this, you yourself will begin to assess what you think of these arguments. That is an exercise of critical assessment. Some reasons will turn out to be stronger than other reasons when you think them through in context. Some will probably be irrelevant, rhetorical red herrings.

(This point is an important one. One cannot in general take a merely spectator attitude to the assessment of reasons. Even if the result of the report as a whole is that one cannot take a clear view, assessing component reasons is ultimately a matter of weighing them oneself. I say 'ultimately' because in some debates one may have to assess the relative ranks of experts in order to inherit from them an assessment of empirical reasons.)

Once you have this global view of – descriptively – what everyone says for and against the main position and supporting arguments and – critically – your own assessment of which arguments work out which way, which reasons are stronger, you will have taken some view of the overall issue.

In a committee paper, there are then various possible outcomes:
  • One view may be obviously the best. Still, to show why it is the best, you will need to show why the arguments in favour of the other view fail. And that requires saying – descriptively – what those arguments or reasons or factors are and – critically – how strong they are.
  • That one view is better than another may depend on an issue that is tricky to resolve. For example, one reason for not building the pylons is economic: it will undermine tourism. But another is aesthetic: it will spoil the beauty of the country. Weighing the financial cost of burying the cable against the aesthetic loss of beauty isn’t straightforward and a civil servant might try to describe both cases and then leave this up to the minister / planning committee to judge.
  • The opposing views may both be flawed because of other factors (the sudden discovery that one cannot, after all, build the power-station that needs all the pylons). So both sides may have made assumptions that frame their case but both turn out to be wrong.
Once one has taken a view about what can be rationally concluded, there is need to be imaginative in working out a rational way to present the arguments to the minister/committee. One good way to do this might be to start by saying what the recommendation is (“This report will argue for limited burying of cables across some of the distance of the power line”) and then saying how that conclusion will be arrived at (“The report will describe the facts for and against including the relative costs. The argument that tall pylons are actually beautiful will be considered and rejected.” Etc etc)

The analogy may be plodding but a philosophy essay works in the same argumentative way. It needs a balance of descriptive and critical writing because it needs to present and to assess competing arguments to arrive at some sort of conclusion (even if that is that there is no clear answer). That isn’t a feature of the style of philosophy in the way that poetry may have a particular metre or rhyming structure. Rather it stems from what philosophy is for. And that is deciding what is true and what is good.

Philosophers are God’s civil servants!