The following information has been prepared to assist students of philosophy, in particular students who have not previously studied philosophy, to cope with the terminology of philosophical inquiry and the task of preparing assignments.
Learning the skills of clear and precise expression, both orally and in writing, is an essential part of university education.
Standard dictionaries are often unreliable sources of information about philosophical terminology but philosophical dictionaries which may help include:
A comprehensive general reference which provides guidance on a broad range of topics (and which is also available in the Social Sciences and Humanities Library reference section in the form of a conveniently searchable CD-ROM) is:
Although now a little out of date on some issues, to help you get your bearings it is often worth looking up key concepts and topics (after checking entries in the Index) in:
Other fairly comprehensive general references are:
There are other resources which may assist with particular topics such as:
If you want to find out about recent research in topics in Philosophy the best source is The Philosopher's Index, most conveniently searched on a CD-ROM in the Central Library.
If you have enrolled in an advanced level course in philosophy and would like some introductory philosophy texts to help you get your bearings the following are recommended:
The internet is an ever-expanding information resource. The world-wide web in particular covers an enormous range of subject matter (including Philosophy) but its quality is extremely variable. You may find some useful material, but it is easy to waste a lot of time. In general, publications which have been printed have benefited from editors and their peer-review gatekeepers, who help to maintain a quality often absent from pages on the web.
There are several Encyclopedias of Philosophy on the web:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has been conceived as a dynamic encyclopedia with entries to be updated and maintained by experts in the field in response to new research. It should change and develop with the addition of new entries and the modification of existing entries.
See also the Episteme Links to Teaching and Studying Resources
In general, you should use simple language but avoid ambiguity, pretentious language and circumlocution. Technical terms should be used only if they are essential for precision and, whenever there is any doubt about the expertise of your audience, esoteric terms should be explained. Further suggestions about style are included under Technique and Strategy below.
George Orwell's 1945 essay 'Politics and the English Language' contains timeless advice about writing. Every student (and every veteran) should visit this essay at least once a year. The following rules, proposed by Orwell, should be inscribed in every author's soul:
General guides to style are:
Other useful references for style and layout which may assist the composition of essays are:
The following remarks are intended to assist you with the preparation of your essays. Amplification of these comments and excellent general advice about the preparation of essays can be found in:
Essays must have a completed and signed HPRC School cover sheet attached to them and should be deposited in the essay chute outside Forgan Smith Room E307 by the due date. Assignments need to be recorded so please don't hand (or post) them to your tutor or lecturer.
Essays must be submitted in hard copy. Electronic submission may be used only in exceptional circumstances by special arrangement with the course coordinator.
If you want your assignment to be returned and are unable to collect it, you should attach a stamped and addressed envelope for postage.
It is not unusual for students to find themselves bogged down or stalled on some point of difficulty or puzzlement with an essay. This is especially likely to occur with first essays in philosophy, though it can also happen later. If you have any difficulty with your assignment please seek assistance from your tutor or lecturer as soon as possible. It is important to plan your work for the semester. Please note that the mid-semester break is a study break for you to catch up with your University work, not a vacation.
If you know if advance that you will be unable to meet a deadline please inform the course coordinator
and request an extension before the due date. An extension of time to submit an assignment may be granted in accordance with School policy for the submission of late work. Justifying circumstances (illness, etc) may require a medical or a counsellor's certificate.
An extension to submit will normally be granted only if the request is made prior to the due date and (in the interests of
uniform treatment for all students) not for any of the following reasons:
Late essays may be subjected to a penalty. There is no standard penalty, but in some courses it is a deduction of one percent of the total 100 percent mark for the course for each week-day that the essay is late. Essays submitted on time will receive comments and suggestions as well as a mark. Unapproved late essays may be treated as summative rather than formative (that is, as well as attracting a penalty mark they may not receive written critical feedback).
There are a number of recognized conventions for citing references. You can use any of these, but please be consistent. For traditional (text-based) sources I recommend some variant of the "author-date" (or "Harvard") style, but this isn't mandatory. It is more economical on the reader's time than most other systems. For example,
In the text:
" ... blah blah blah" (Coady 1991, p. 378; Thomson 1976, p. 210; cf. Callahan 1988, Ch. 8)
In the bibliography:
Callahan, Joan C. (ed) 1988. Ethical Issues in Professional Life. Oxford University Press.
Coady, C.A.J. 1991. 'Politics and the Problem of Dirty Hands', in Peter Singer (ed) A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 373-83.
Thomson, J. J. 1976. 'Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem', The Monist 59: 204-217.
The major competitor to the Harvard System is the so-called Chicago method, described in the 6th edition of Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.
Endnote has justifiably become the market leader in bibliographic software and is a powerful tool for organising and storing references and constructing bibliographies. It is worth acquiring and learning this program. Endnote can be obtained from the Library, which also provides courses on using it. Endnote can be configured for Harvard, Chicago and many other systems of referencing.
Electronic sources, such as electronically-accessible information downloaded by ftp, web-based material, CD-ROMs, email, listserv, and news list sources are used increasingly in essays and publications. You should acknowledge these as well as any other sources which you use in preparing your assignments. A Style Sheet for Citing Internet Resources provides useful guidance for citing internet and electronic resources. For further suggestions see Citing Sources. A major problem with internet resources is that often they are ephemeral. It is a good idea to retain electronic or hard copy of internet material cited in essays. As well as citing the URL of web documents you should include the date on which they were accessed. Here is an example of an acceptable style for electronic citation:
The Philosophy Criteria and Marking Annotation Sheet for Essays presents the criteria used in assessment in detail. These criteria are applied in accordance with the School's Assessment Criteria. In general, the CHOP factors are of central importance in the assessment of essays. These are:
In more detail, each of the following will be taken in to consideration in assessing your assignment:
In even more detail, each of the following points may be taken into consideration when assignments are assessed:
The importance of fostering high standards of written and oral academic English language among students is emphasized in the University of Queensland's English Language Proficiency Taskforce Report, which recommends a number of strategies for attaining better standards.
The purpose of the exercise is to communicate your ideas to someone else. This is easier if you respect some basic methodical principles:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
And he will probably ask himself two more:
You may find the following annotations have been used in marking your assignment. (They are based on a system developed by Rob Cummins.) If you don't understand why any annotation appears where it does please ask. (We sometimes make mistakes too!)
X (or "SP") "spelling". The word indicated is misspelled.
PARA (or "¶") paragraph break needed.
SEC (or "§") section break needed.
WW "wrong word". This is not the word you meant to use, or not the word that you should have used. This includes poor choice of word(s), the use of slang, sloppy or careless wording, and otherwise infelicitous idioms. The offending word(s) will usually be underlined (or included in parenthesis). Sometimes an alternative will be suggested. (Often related to CR.)
RW "redundant word(s)". The word or phrase indicated in parenthesis could be omitted without loss of grace or sense — and often with gain!
SS "sentence structure". There is something wrong with the syntax of the sentence. It could be a grammatical mistake, or it may be an awkward or clumsy construction which is difficult for the reader to understand.
CR (or "CRP") "cryptic" (or "cryptic phrase"). Vague, ambiguous or unclear. It's not clear what you are trying to say or what the point is. Usually this indicates confusion. Perhaps you are trying to express something you have not thought through properly. Try to rewrite the passage so that it expresses the idea more clearly. Often the problem is related to SS, ?R or EXP.
EXP "expand or explain". More careful or detailed exposition is required. (See also CR, -SUP.)
DNF "does not follow". A non sequitur.
?FCT "dubious claim". Mistaken or dubious factual claim.
NQR "not quite right". Your formulation is loose, misleading, or slightly off-beam.
?TXT "questionable text". You got the text wrong (misquotation or misattribution), or your interpretation of the text is either wrong or requires further defence.
REF? "reference". The source of the quotation, example or idea needs to be indicated. Citation may be absent or insufficiently identifying. Specific passages or page numbers should be provided.
?R "questionable relevance". It isn't clear what the indicated passage contributes to the argument or exposition of your thesis. You may also find this annotation if the passage is not relevant to the question you were asked. (See also DNF, PAD.)
PAD Given the required length for this essay, this paragraph does not contribute much to the overall essay and should have been considerably shortened or deleted altogether. (See also ?R.)
-SUP "not adequately supported". More supporting argument, explanation, or justification is needed. This often indicates a bald assertion of a controversial claim. (See also CR, ?R, EXP.)
RQ "rhetorical question". Inappropriate use of a rhetorical question. In general you should try to avoid the use of rhetorical questions. They are almost always an ambiguous or lazy way to try to make a point. For instance, you might give an example and then ask rhetorically at the end — "Is this just?" An appropriate response from the reader is: "I don't know. You tell me if it is or not, and your reasons for thinking this." If this is not done then the reader will have little idea of your arguments, reasons and views. You need to write them down, not ask questions about them.
! "golly!" Surprising, implausible or counterintuitive. (Do you really think that?) There's glory!
WA "wrong audience". Papers should be written so as to be comprehensible to a reader with experience comparable to your own. Don't presume complete ignorance, but also don't assume either the reader is familiar with the lectures, texts and examples that you are. Don't write, "As you said in the class ..."
ASGN You did not stick to the assigned problem or topic.
Using fresh metaphor is always defensible, but minting new meanings for familiar words should be resisted where the expressive resources of language are already adequate. There are a lot of neologisms which are both ugly and otiose; they are prevalent in technospeak, "officialese" (also known as "bureaucratese") and other gobbledygook.
The first column below provides examples of gratuitous verbs which have been added to our vocabulary and the second column indicates alternatives which are almost always to be preferred. This list could no doubt be extended (and updated regularly) as new semantic monstrosities are coined by the educated illiterati.
Another personal dislike (no doubt my generation gap is showing) is the use of "to go" for "to say". Fortunately its increasing prevalence in spoken English is not yet matched by its use in writing.
Perhaps some will view this opposition as a Canute-like reactionary stance against the inexorable tide of semantic change. By all means coin new words, and adapt old ones to fill in any semantic gaps which you create or discover, but only when these gaps really exist. When good words are mangled, through their misguided deployment for semantic tasks already adequately catered for, we impoverish rather than enrich our vocabulary.
There are some misuses of words ("malapropisms") which are so prevalent that it is perhaps questionable to categorise them as mistakes. Usage after all is semantically sovereign, so some of the following may be losing or even lost causes. However it is worth fighting for distinctions worth preserving, if only to obviate the need to invent neologisms to recapture lost meanings. I have appropriated some of the following criticism of these semantic solecisms from R.L. Franklin's Advice On Writing Philosophy Assignments. Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University has compiled a much more extensive list of Common Errors in English. Brians also provides links to many other useful sites addressing the use and abuse of English.
"True" and "valid". Propositions, beliefs and statements are true or false. Arguments are valid or invalid. Don't talk of a valid proposition, or of true or false inferences or arguments. Arguments can of course be fallacious — that is a synonym for invalid. It is idiomatically acceptable (just!) to talk of valid conclusions, when this means a conclusion which has been reached by valid argument.
"Falsehood" and "fallacy". A pair of terms related to the above (their negations, in fact) generate a related confusion. A fallacy is an error of inference — the process of thought which takes us from premises to conclusion. A falsehood, in contrast, is an error of fact. They are connected in that fallacies typically (though not invariably) produce falsehoods. Avoiding fallacies is, in general, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for avoiding falsehood.
"Begging the question". The phrase "that begs the question ..." is often — perhaps usually — used to mean something like "that invites (or raises) the question ...". Even incorrigible pedants (such as Stuart Littlemore, formerly of 'Media Watch', ABC TV) get this one wrong. To beg the question in (philosophical) argument is to assume what one is supposed to prove. That is standardly categorised as a fallacy of inference, also characterised as circularity, or petitio principii.
"Disinterested" and "uninterested". 'Disinterested' means 'not self-interested'. To be disinterested is to lack an interest, that is to have no personal stake in a matter. To be uninterested is (roughly) to find that something of little concern or boring. It might be said, for example, that ideally academic research is the disinterested pursuit of truth — that is to say academic scholars ought not be motivated by self-aggrandisement. That is quite different from supposing that research is an uninterested pursuit of truth — indeed it is hard to imagine how it could be that. (Why would anyone bother?) Again judges are (or should be) disinterested, but not (one hopes) uninterested, in the cases that they try.
"Infer" and "imply". Either people or arguments can imply; only people can infer. Don't say: "This argument infers that ...". To infer is to draw a conclusion, not to suggest one. You may use "She implied that I was a fool" to mean that she suggested I was one, but do not use "She inferred that I was a fool" in that sense.
Speaking strictly we don't imply, though it is idiomatically acceptable to say that we do. We make assertions and our assertions do the implying: in the above example the speaker made an assertion which implies that I am a fool. If you infer that I am a fool it is typically because of something that I say. If you imply that I am a fool it is because of something that you say. Inferring is something that people do on the basis of assumptions. Implying is a logical relation: it is something that assertions and arguments may do, directing us inexorably to a particular conclusion. Inferring is an epistemic process of forming a belief on the basis of other beliefs — a dynamic cognitive process. Implication, in contrast, is a timeless logical relation.
"Reject" (or "deny") and "refute". This common misuse rests on an important distinction between process and achievement words. The following exposition of this important distinction is itself a bit of philosophy — a typical example of philosophical clarification.
Process and achievement What is the difference between saying:
Stop and think before reading on.
I hope you can see that, if you are speaking carefully, the difference is this. In (1), the use of "reject" (or "deny") leaves it open for you to go on and add, "But I was still right". However, "refute" in (2) does not allow this. If someone refuted you, you must have been wrong. And if you weren't wrong then you couldn't have been refuted, though they might have claimed to refute you, believed they had refuted you, etc.
The point involved is this. Some verbs are achievement words, which can only properly be used to say some result has been achieved. Others merely refer to a process or activity. "Win" is an achievement word, "run" a process word; so you can run a race unsuccessfully, but you cannot win it unsuccessfully. Similarly, "refute" is an achievement word, "reject" and "deny" are process words. So you can deny (reject) a point unsuccessfully, but you cannot refute it unsuccessfully.
Watch out for this distinction when you are talking about arguments in your essay. E.g. suppose you are discussing a conflict between two philosophers, Jill who defends position X and Bill who challenges it. If you write, "Bill refutes X by saying that ...", and then later offer X as your own conclusion, you have, strictly speaking, contradicted yourself. If Bill has refuted X, X must be false, and if it is not false he cannot have refuted it, though he may have denied it, have tried to refute it, etc..
Here is a list of some common words. Those before the semi-colon indicate opposition, those after support.
Achievement words: refute, disprove, (rebut); prove, establish show (point out). (Words in brackets may sometimes be neutral).
Neutral or non-achievement words: reject, deny, argue against; argue for, defend, maintain, claim, contend. (And any achievement word when used with "try to ...", aim at ..." etc.).
If you are contemplating (or undertaking) honours in philosophy at the University of Queensland, detailed information about the honours program can be found at:
If you are undertaking (or contemplating) postgraduate research then the following may be of interest, and may be a useful source of issues for discussion with your (actual or potential) supervisor(s):