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Writing an Essay for an Intro Political Theory Class with Arash Abizadeh


Here's some guidance I give my students in Introduction to Political Theory about how to write an essay for the class:


1. Know the difference between a thesis, an argument, and the premises of an argument. A thesis is a claim you wish to defend in your essay. An argument is what you say in order to defend the thesis; it provides reasons in support of your thesis. Premises are claims used in your argument. An argument consists in a series of premises.


For example, one of the key theses in Wolff’s book In Defense of Anarchy is that there can exist no legitimate authority (except for unanimous direct democracy). An argument he gives for this thesis is the following:


Thesis: No authority can be legitimate.


Argument:

1 (premise). Authority is legitimate only if it is compatible with the autonomy of those over whom it is exercised.

2 (premise). Autonomy is incompatible with being subject to authority.

Therefore:

3 (conclusion). No authority can be legitimate.


Steps 1 through 3 all together constitute the argument for the conclusion 3. The conclusion 3 is the thesis Wolff wishes to defend. 1 and 2 are premises in the argument for his thesis.


2. State your thesis clearly at the beginning of your paper. The claim you will defend in your paper should be clear to your reader at outset. You don’t need to say, “I will defend the claim that XYZ”. But you do need to state XYZ clearly. Your thesis is your view, the claim you want to defend. You need to take a position on the question you are addressing and state it clearly. “This paper explores issues related to…” is not a thesis.


3. Provide arguments for your thesis. Once you have decided on your thesis, you must defend it with arguments. How many arguments you provide will depend on how much space you have. But once you state your thesis, the next thing your reader expects is an argument for it.


4. Know what it means to critically evaluate an argument. Sometimes your thesis is about other persons’ claims or arguments. For example, your thesis might be that Creon’s arguments for the thesis that an individual has a duty to obey the law are better than Socrates’s arguments for the same. If that’s your thesis, then you need to state it clearly, state Creon’s thesis and his argument(s) for it, state Socrates’s thesis and his argument(s) for it, and then critically evaluate the arguments.


To critically evaluate an argument is to (a) determine whether the premises of the argument are true and (b) determine whether the conclusion follows logically from the premises.


Consider the following argument for the thesis that Socrates is a man.


1. Socrates is a philosopher.

2. All philosophers are monkeys.

Therefore:

3. Socrates is a man.


This is an invalid argument: the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. If 1 and 2 were true, then Socrates would be a monkey, not a man. Even if the conclusion 3 is true, this is not a good argument for it. Someone who was critically evaluating the argument could say “The argument is illogical.”


Now consider a different argument for the thesis that Socrates is a man.


1. Socrates is a philosopher.

2. All philosophers are men.

Therefore:

3. Socrates is a man.


This is a logically valid argument. If 1 and 2 are true, then 3 must be true too. But someone critically evaluating this argument could now dispute the truth of its premises. Someone might say, for example, that premise 2 is false, because some philosophers are women. If premise 2 is false, then the argument for the conclusion/thesis is not a good one. The thesis may be true, but it has not been adequately defended.


In general, if you want to evaluate an argument for a thesis critically, you must state the thesis, state the argument, and then ask two questions: (a) does the conclusion follow logically from the premises? and (b) are the premises true?


5. Make sure the arguments for your thesis are good, strong arguments. This means that someone who critically evaluates your argument would not find obvious problems with it. (See 4 above).


6. Make sure your thesis is an interesting thesis. Let’s say you read the Apology and came up with the thesis “Socrates is a human being.” I’m certain you will be able to provide very good arguments for this thesis, but it is a rather uninteresting thesis. The reason why it is uninteresting is that it is difficult to see what the counterarguments to your thesis would be. If you can’t think of any good, strong counterarguments to your thesis or any objections to your own argument, then it’s not a thesis worth writing a paper about.


7. In your paper, you must seriously consider and respond to (a) counterarguments to your thesis or (b) objections to your argument. This is what makes the difference between an ok paper and a good paper. The stronger the counterarguments or objections that you consider and refute, the stronger your own position. A weak counterargument or objection against your own thesis or argument will leave your reader wondering why you even bothered considering it. If you cannot think of any counterarguments or objections, pick a different thesis.


8. Use your limited space wisely. Any argument for a thesis relies on premises. In political theory or political philosophy, some premises will be normative and some empirical/descriptive. Now, let’s say there is a claim you want to defend in your essay – in other words, your paper’s thesis. For a political theory paper, you must defend your thesis by providing an argument. The problem with providing an argument for your thesis is that the premises you use in your argument are themselves claims with which someone may or may not agree. A premise in one argument can always become the thesis of another argument. So, for example, recall Wolff’s argument:


1 (premise). Authority is legitimate only if it is compatible with the autonomy of those over whom it is exercised.

2 (premise). Autonomy is incompatible with being subject to authority.

Therefore:

3 (conclusion). No authority can be legitimate.


If someone disagreed with premise 1, and provided a good argument for why it is false, Wolff would be forced to provide an argument for premise 1. But then the premise of the argument above would become the thesis of another argument.


This means that the potential length of your paper is infinity. Since you have word limits (and a limited lifespan), you need to make choices. For example, you may wish to provide an argument with premises that are relatively uncontroversial. Or if you employ a controversial premise, then you may want to briefly defend the premise too (i.e., provide an argument for it). But at some point you have to stop defending yourself and hope that the premises you use will carry your reader. There is no formula here; you have to exercise your own judgement.


9. Again, use your limited space wisely. Since you only have limited space to state your thesis, provide your arguments, and consider counterarguments or objections, you can’t waste any words. Don’t say anything that is not necessary to clarify or defend your thesis. Don’t start off your essay, for example, with grandiose pronouncements about how important the question is or how many great thinkers have for centuries and millennia thought about it. Your political theory course with me is not in a history class, so it’s very unlikely that such claims would matter one way or the other to your thesis. Every sentence counts. With each paragraph, and with each sentence in each paragraph, ask yourself: Why am I telling my reader this? If you can honestly say “because saying this is necessary for defending my thesis,” leave it in. If not, think again.


10. Use the key concepts in your essay in a clear, precise, and consistent fashion. Key concepts in your course might be (for example) obligation, right, authority, etc. When you use a fancy word, make sure its meaning is clear to you and to your reader. For every word you use in your essay, be sure that you can define it. If you can’t, either figure out what it means, or don’t use it. If the meaning of the word is clear to you, but it’s a word used in different ways by different people, then define it for your reader so that it’s clear what you mean by it. (Words such as “objective,” for example.)


11. Spelling, grammar, and style count. For grammar, pay special attention to a common pitfall. You already know that nouns and verbs must agree with each other (so if it’s a plural noun, you need a plural verb: not “we talks”). But don’t forget that pronouns must also agree. It is preferable to avoid gender-specific language when gender is irrelevant to the point. One strategy, when singularity is not important, is to replace a singular noun with a plural one: for example, rather than writing “An individual must never compromise his dignity,” you might write “Individuals must never comprise their dignity.” Another strategy, increasingly accepted in English usage, is to use “they” as a gender-neutral or non-gendered singular pronoun: for example, “An individual must never compromise their freedom.” This has the disadvantage of not explicitly marking singular versus plural. (It’s less explicit whose dignity the person must never compromise: the individual’s own dignity or other people’s?) But often context can make up for that; you just have to be more careful, making sure that context does the job for you. So using “they” as a gender neutral pronoun is entirely acceptable, but doing so is not license for a pronoun free-for-all. You must be consistent.


For style, try your best to avoid the passive voice (“It has been argued that…”), in favour of the active voice (“Socrates argued that” or “I argue that…”). (Yes, it is perfectly OK to use the word “I” or “my” in your essays, especially since you will often need to assert your thesis; you just don’t want to distract your reader’s attention by gratuitously inserting yourself into your essay.)


12. Take a look at the marking criteria outlined on the syllabus.


13. See also the extremely valuable guidance provided by Professor Alison McQueen on how to write a political theory paper at: http://www.alisonmcqueen.info/new-page-1





Addendum for Upper Level Political Theory Classes


For an advanced political theory class there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of papers you might choose from: papers that advance a philosophical thesis, and papers that advance an exegetical thesis. (The guide above assumes we are dealing with the first kind.) A philosophical thesis advances a substantive claim on some philosophical question: for example, that democracy is the best form of government, that Locke is wrong to think there is a right to revolution, that tacit consent does not ground any political obligations, that there is a human right to subsistence, etc. An exegetical thesis, by contrast, advances a claim of interpretation about a particular text: for example, that Hobbes’s theory of the social contract actually commits him to freedom of conscience, that Hobbes is a proto-liberal, that Locke would defend the government’s right to redistribute wealth, that Rousseau is an enemy of participatory democracy, etc. Of course these two kinds of paper often overlap in practice, but they are in principle distinct.


If you choose a substantive philosophical thesis, you can still engage texts in the history of political thought, by using these texts as a source of arguments, theses, etc., with which you may agree or disagree.


If you choose an exegetical thesis, you will need to pick a thesis about which there is some plausible controversy. For example, a paper defending the thesis that Locke is a social contract theorist is not very interesting at all. (The contrary thesis would of course be very interesting, but it would be rather difficult to defend and render plausible.) A good source for exegetical (or interpretive) disagreement is obviously the secondary literature, and of course you are welcome to use it to deepen your understanding of a text. But you should always be sure that your paper remains a paper about the primary text, not the secondary literature. You should never give a secondary piece of literature as a reference to show that Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. believe X. You need to give evidence from the primary text for that. Your reference to the secondary literature only serves as evidence for what such-and-such interpreter of the primary text believes.

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