On Term Papers and Intellectual Integrity

I have a confession to make: I’m a terrible philosopher. Putting aside the minor fact that prior to this semester break I hadn’t completed a single non-introductory philosophy module over two years of study, my recent classes have cast further doubt on whether I’m even cut out for the craft of philosophy — you know, critiquing an argument and all that jazz. It’s fair to say that I’m the type of person who is easily intrigued by thought experiments, paradoxes, and profound questions about the nature of humanity and everything that surrounds it (if there is such a thing). But the reality of the philosopher’s craft, which my minor has to some degree introduced me to, might prove my academic Achilles heel. (Not that being a slow reader is any drawback at all…)

I enrolled in two courses last semester: one on a contemporary school of thought which has dubbed itself the New Realism and the other on George Berkeley, the famed 18th-century bishop who moonlighted in anti-materialist fallacies (you know, with the tree that fell without making a sound). Both of these courses I entered with dim expectations, which is to say, I had seen how (or rather, for whom) philosophy classrooms work and wasn’t particularly heartened by it. That said, I was ready to engage in discussions in the event that I would find access to them.

As was to be expected, my engagement fizzled out soon enough, but it did keep at a steady-enough level for me to submit my essays on the New Realism in time. Berkeley, however, was different — both academically and in terms of primary sources. We only had one assigned reading throughout, which was a slim volume compiling his annotated Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, the fictional record of a debate between a Berkeley alter ego and his intellectual opponent (characterized, of course, as an impressionable and stubborn would-be philosopher ready to make all kinds of unnecessary logical concessions).

Now, in my philosophy career there’s some precedence of dialogues that made for a torturous reading experience (looking at you, Socrates), but I still hold that it’s not the genre in and of itself that pisses me off. After all, it’s a pretty convenient format for anyone willing to engage with dissenting points of view before putting their ideas out into the world. But do you have to make it so tedious and predictable? Do you really have to make your opponent’s rhetoric so weak and defeatist that they couldn’t spot a non sequitur in your reasoning if you screamed at them, “Two plus two equals ice cream”?


Okay, I might have gone a little overboard with that last criticism; Berkeley deserves more credit for his work. But isn’t my hyperbolic ranting just further evidence that I’m a bad philosopher? I get turned off by superficial things like that, oblivious to the fact that I’m not in the business of deciding whether I like the participants in the debate. It’s my job to fill in for the intellectually inferior opponent and get down to the nitty-gritty of postulates and conclusions where his objections fell short. I’m supposed to jump at every inadequate modus ponens and sneakily tweak my term paper draft with every flaw of logic I detect. But more often than not, the frustration drains all of my reserves: it completely outweighs any pleasure I might take in attacking a given point of view. Fast-forward to the end of the semester, and the prospect of outlining an argument of my own seems entirely beyond the scope of my ability.

John_Smibert_-_Bishop_George_Berkeley_-_Google_Art_Project
Oh George, where did we go wrong?

As a silver lining, we were given a choice as to the “mission” of our term papers. One was the traditional essay: find an interesting cluster of arguments, take it apart, and put forth some compelling ideas of your own about its validity. The second one was basically an in-depth version of the presentation we had held in class: take your bite-sized piece of dialogue and analyze every argument made, without any lengthy criticism on your part. The first is a full-blown exercise in critical thinking and the second is a brain teaser for the lazy, disgruntled minors desperate for their credit. Now take a guess which route I took!

This is where, for a conscientious but hopelessly inept philosopher like me, a matter of intellectual integrity arises. Having introduced you to my dislike of the text, I’ve made it pretty easy for you to account for my decision; yet for the very same reason I want to get it all over with as quickly as possible, I have this nagging desire to go full philosopher on Berkeley and posthumously show him the error of his ways. Obviously, I wouldn’t be the first (or last) to do that, but don’t I owe it to myself to justify my disapproval in a logically sound, coherent way so I can get away with it at a philosophy department? I know I do, and I hate myself for not following through with it. Instead, I’ll just take another easy way out here and say I have to choose my battles carefully. And sheer spite, it turns out, is rarely an advantageous battleground.

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