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Paper Conference and Term Paper for Te Modern Mind (Spring 2018)
Paper Conferences will be held Monday, April 9–Tursday, April 12
Final Revisions Due Friday, April 20, by e-mail. Te e-mail should have the subject heading ‘PHIL
202 TERM PAPER’.
During your scheduled paper conference meeting (sometime during April 9–April 12), you will bring
two hard copies of your paper. You will read them out loud, and we will discuss the paper. Afer our
meeting, you will have until April 20 to revise your paper in response to our conversation. As a cover
sheet for your revised paper, please include a one paragraph summary of the changes you made afer the
paper conference. For example, “I corrected some typos in the second paragraph. Te third paragraph
has been completely rewritten. I added a section addressing the ♒︎♒︎♒︎ objection. …”
Even though you have an opportunity to revise your paper afer the paper conference, you should not
treat it is a rough draf. Make the paper you present at the conference as polished and complete as you
NB: You will not be required to turn in an outline ahead of time. Tis is a change from the syllabus. However, if you would
like me to look at your outline before your conference, feel free to send it to me by e-mail. In order to make sure that I will
have time to look at it before our conference, you should send your outlines several days before April 9. (Tis is true even if
your scheduled conference is late in the week. Keep in mind that I will not have very much time to review outlines during the
week of conferences.)
Unlike last semester, there is just one prompt for this paper. If you are interested in writing a paper on a
diferent topic, please speak with me ahead of time. It is a possibility, but you need permission.
Paper Requirements (form)
Word Count: Approximately 1,000–1,500 words. Include a word count at the top of the page.
Your paper must include
· an introduction with a clear thesis statement,
· paragraphs which give clear reasons defending your thesis statement (in other words, an
· paragraphs which raise at least one plausible objection to your argument,
· paragraphs responding to all plausible objections raised.
Be sure to proofread your paper. Your paper should be free from typos.
Tis is not a research paper. In fact, you do not even need to make direct use of the primary texts from
Hume or Descartes in order to write a successful paper (although doing so is certainly encouraged).
However, if you use any sources, you absolutely must cite.
Requirements for the introduction
Your introduction should be brief and to the point. It has three main purposes:
(1) to make the meaning of the thesis statement clear to your reader,
(2) to make sure that your reader has a road map for the rest of the paper, and
(3) to make it clear why the question you will be addressing is signifcant—why it is worth
answering. By the end of the introductory paragraph, your reader should know what your thesis
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statement is and care about whether it is true. Tis does not mean pretending that the topic you
are dealing with is of earth-shaking importance. It only means giving the reader a good reason to
keep reading past the frst paragraph.
Here are some things to avoid.
· Do not begin your paper with a history of human thought. For instance, do not begin as follows:
“Since the beginning of time, human beings have asked many questions. One such question …”
· Do not attempt to infate the importance of your paper artifcially: “Te question of whether abc
or xyz is truly the most important question that faces humanity.”
· Do not begin your paper with a quote from the dictionary: “Merriam Webster online defnes
belief as …”
Requirements for your thesis statement
Your thesis statement is the soul of your paper. An essay without a thesis statement is like a body
without a soul. You should know what your thesis statement is going to be before you begin your paper.
It is usually very obvious when you have not. Coming up with a thesis statement is usually the hardest
part of writing an essay. Even when working from a prompt, you should aim to say something original.
Your thesis statement should be formulated in such a way that someone could reasonably disagree with you.
Otherwise, there is no point in making an argument for it. (Do not say, “In this paper, I will argue that it
is unwise for people to spend their lives nursing feelings of rage and despair.” No one could reasonably
disagree with this, so there is no need to make an argument for it.) Your task is to convince your reader
of something he or she did not already think before
Your thesis statement is a promise you make to your reader. If you promise little or nothing,
then you have nothing to deliver on, and your discussion will founder without focus. Of course, you
must also avoid making a promise so grand that it cannot be fulflled. Say something true and defensible.
Ten defend it.
Te body of your paper
Remember that the goal of your paper is to persuade the reader that your thesis statement is
true. One mistake that is easy to make is to spend too much time giving background information and
not enough time making your case. For example, if you were to spend two thirds of your paper
summarizing positions held by Hume and Descartes, you would not have enough space lef to defend
your own position. Your argument would be much weaker.
Do not neglect the part of your paper that deals with potential objections to your position.
Avoid the straw man fallacy. Committing the straw man fallacy means setting up an opponent with a
weak or indefensible position (a straw man), and then claiming some sort of success by knocking it
down. Nothing is gained by showing that completely implausible positions are incorrect. What you
should do instead is to ‘steel man’ your argument—that is, imagine the best objection that someone
could make against your position and show that you have an adequate response even to this objection.
Present your reasons in an organized way. When you are preparing to write your paper, it a good
idea to make an outline ahead of time.
Use the concluding paragraph of your paper to see if you have fulflled your promise to the
reader. Restate the main ideas and leave the reader with an interesting fnal impression, but do not
introduce new information in the fnal paragraph.
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Paper Requirements (content)
At the beginning of his Meditations, Descartes says that, at one point in his
life, he realized that the number of false opinions he had accumulated had become
so numerous that he “had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from
the original foundations” (AT 7:17). He set for himself a goal of building all of his
beliefs on a solid, rational foundation. Presumably, the opinions that Descartes
held before razing everything to the ground had come from a variety of sources, and in a somewhat
disorderly way: he received opinions from his parents, from the culture around him, from whatever
friends he happened to have, from a gut feelings that such-and-such must be the case, from sense
experience, and so on. Descartes seems to hold that we should mistrust these sources of belief until we
have had a chance to test them against a reliable, rational standard (such as the standard the nothing I
clearly and distinctly perceive could be false (AT 7:35)). But he is also confdent that we can measure
these received opinions against rational standards.
By contrast, Hume thinks that if we were ever successfully to raze all of
our opinions to the ground (and doubt everything), we would never be able to
rebuild (EHU, 12.3). Hume is much less confdent that human reason is a very
good tool for acquiring substantive information about the world. For Hume,
reasoning can help us keep our thoughts consistent but not much more. Reason
(as Hume understands it) will not allow me to believe both that all human beings are mortal and that
the human being named Socrates is immortal. But reason alone cannot tell me whether Socrates ever
really existed, whether he was wise or foolish, or whether the Athenians were right to execute him. So
Hume rejects Descartes’ emphasis on reason as the great standard for deciding what to believe. But
Hume is much more willing to defer to custom than Descartes is. “Custom,” Hume says, “is the great
guide of human life” (EHU, 5.6).
How should we weigh (or balance) these two views against each other? Is there a middle ground
between them? Or is one side completely right?
Most likely, the easiest and best way to write a good paper on this topic is to try to stake out a
middle ground between the two positions, taking something true from each. But it is also possible to
take a more extreme position and defend a view that one side is completely right. In either case, you
should be sure that the argument you present is original and your own.
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