Seminar on Philosophical Writing (I)

PHIL 6903: Graduate Seminar in Philosophy. Ohio University, Fall 2020. Fridays 2:00-4:00pm.

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Course Description

Contemporary philosophers are writers, and most of what they publish are articles in academic journals.

This course is part of a two-semester course on philosophical writing and methodology that introduces graduate students what a philosophy journal article needs to do and how to write one. (For the last year’s syllabus for Part II, click here.) This part focuses on the clarity and coherence of philosophical writing and considers the choice of writing styles.

Through regular assignments and discussion, students will learn the principles of clear and coherent writing and their psychological basis.

Technology Requirements

This course is offered online. To be successful, you will need to have reliable internet and a computer with audio and video capabilities. You will also need to have Microsoft Word (or equivalent) to do assignments.

Course Policies

Note that some of the policies may not apply to this course because there may not be any relevant assignments.

Assignments and Final Grade

This is a pass/fail course. To pass, you should do the readings before each class, regularly participate, and make a good faith effort on all weekly assignments. This last point is important: you will learn most from the process of doing the assignments rather than from the products themselves.

Required Texts

  1. Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press, 2011.
  2. Joseph M. Williams. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press, 1990.

You should have these books. The 1990 edition of Williams’s Style is out of print but widely available used. We’ll talk more about that in class.

Essential Reference Works

  1. A good English dictionary.
  2. The latest style manual of your choice (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA).
  3. A good book of English usage like Garner’s Modern English Usage.
  4. A good book of English grammar. I recommend Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Some of these books can be expensive, so don’t try to buy them all. The first two items are available online at the library. If you’ve never used a book of usage like the third item, you should learn how to use it (more on this in class). Huddleston and Pullum’s book presents a descriptive grammar, but you can of course rely on a more prescriptive grammar manual. For a short coverage of both grammar and usage, see Chapter 5 of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), which is available online at the library.

Optional Texts

  1. Helen Sword. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press, 2012.
  2. Steven Pinker. The Sense of Style. Viking, 2014.
  3. William Zinsser. On Writing Well. Harper Perennial, 2006 [1976].

You don’t need to have these books. But some assignments will be based on Sword’s book. Pinker’s book discusses the ideas of our core texts from the point of view of cognitive science. We’ll discuss some of the studies cited by Pinker. I recommend Zinsser’s book to any academic or nonfiction writer.

Schedule of Topics

Class 1: Introduction

Class 2: Causes of Unclear Writing

Required Reading
  • Epley, N. Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. Knopf, 2014. We’ll read Ch. 8: How, and How Not, to Be a Better Mind Reader (pp. 161–184).
  • Williams, Preface (pp. ix–xvii) and Ch. 1: Causes (pp. 1–14).
  • Hayes, J. R., and D. Bajzek. (2008). Understanding and reducing the knowledge effect: Implications for writers. Written Communication 25: 104–118.
  • Keysar, B. (1994). The illusory transparency of intention: Linguistic perspective taking in text. Cognitive Psychology 26: 165–208.

Class 3: Clarity of a Sentence

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 2: Clarity (pp. 17–43).
  • Sadoski, M., E. T. Goetz, and J. B. Fritz. (1993). Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest, and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design. Journal of Educational Psychology 85: 291–304.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63: 81–97.

Class 4: Clarity of a Paragraph (I)

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 3: Cohesion (pp. 45–65).
  • Gibson, E. (2001). The dependency locality theory: A distance-based theory of linguistic complexity. In A. P. Marantz, Y. Miyashita, and W. O’Neil (eds.), Image, Language, Brain (pp. 95–126). MIT Press.

Class 5: Clarity of a Paragraph (II)

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 4: Emphasis (pp. 67–79).

Class 6: Coherence of a Paragraph

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 5: Coherence I (pp. 81–95).
  • Bransford, J. D., and M. K. Jonshon. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning And Verbal Behavior 11: 717–726.

Class 7: Coherence of a Paper

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 6: Coherence II (pp. 97–112).
  • Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist 46: 107–119.

Class 8: Concision

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 7: Concision (pp. 115–133).
  • Zinsser, On Writing Well, Ch. 2: Simplicity (pp. 6–9); Ch. 3: Clutter (pp. 12–16); Ch. 4: Style (pp. 17–23).

Class 9: Usage

Required Reading
  • Williams, Ch. 10: Usage (pp. 169–198).
  • Zinsser, Ch. 10: Bits & Pieces (pp. 67–91).

Class 10: Style of Writing

Required Reading
  • Thomas and Turner, pp. 1–24.

Class 11: Classic Style (I)

Required Reading
  • Thomas and Turner, pp. 24–44 (skim pp. 45–56); pp. 109–119.

Class 12: Classic Style (II)

Required Reading
  • Thomas and Turner, pp. 57–86; pp. 124–130.

Class 13: Classic Style (III)

Required Reading
  • Thomas and Turner, pp. 97–105; pp. 136–137; pp. 140–143.

Class 14: Review and Conclusion