A new Portugese edition of Philosophy: The Basics (Elementos Básicos de Filosofia), i.e. a translation of the English fourth edition, has just been published by Gradiva. Further details here. It is translated by Desidério Murcho.
Below is a revised version of the entry on the Principle of Charity for the third edition of my book Thinking from A to Z. Charity, Principle Of Interpreting arguments or positions adopted by others in the best possible light. Rather than setting an opponent’s pronouncements up as an easy target, those who adopt the principle of charity look for the best case that this person could consistently be making rather than the worst. Adopting the principle of charity is the opposite of setting up a straw man. Rather than caricaturing an opponent’s position, charitable thinkers give everything about it the benefit of the doubt. The appropriateness of this depends entirely on the context.
Most everyday discussions are incomplete in many ways. Speakers omit key moves, or don’t make their underlying assumptions clear, for example. Consequently, many contributions to a discussion are open to interpretation. Those who adopt the principle of charity interpret, or at times reconstruct, another’s comments or ideas. There can be value in thinking about others’ challenges and arguments in their most plausible form. The process can be intellectually stimulating because it typically requires an act of creative imagination to recreate a strong argument from a series of assertions.
For example, in a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might state that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim ‘All animals should have equal rights’ as being a shorthand for ‘All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm’ and then to address that. Someone who adopted the principle of charity here would be forced to think through the strongest form of this argument rather than be satisfied with an easily refuted (see refutation) straw man. The process may result in a more stimulating discussion than if the speaker had simply refuted his or her opponent with a knock-down argument.
One problem with this approach, however is that it might simply be an intellectual exercise. There is no guarantee that your opponent would really want to defend the reconstructed argument, so the charitably interpreted argument may be the wrong argument to consider altogether if you are trying to engage with another person’s actual thought rather than an idealised version of it. And even when put in their strongest form, arguments may still be open to counterargument, or refutation.
There is no obligation to adopt a principle of charity, and in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate, labour-intensive, and unrewarding. But it can provide an occasional antidote to knocking down straw men, and the kind of relentless negativity that clear thinkers are sometimes accused of.
Here is an honest reaction to Cornelia Parker's ‘The Distance (a kiss with string attached)’ Parker had carefully wrapped Auguste Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’ in string. It is from M. Simmons, who, in a letter published in METRO, (Thursday Feb. 27, 2003) wrote:.
‘I cannot begin to describe how angry I am about Cornelia Parker’s string tied around Rodin’s beautiful work of art The Kiss.’
He/she does in fact go on to reveal how angry he/she is, and also makes the following critical judgment of the work:
‘It is indeed a load of crap [then makes a point about the nature of art] but the public should not be surprised at what the Tate calls art. Just look at the bricks, the unmade bed, the lights that go on on their own (which, incidentally, happens in our office and has done for the last ten years) and so on.’
It is easy to make fun of such comments. But they are sincere and raise interesting questions.
This was the starting point for a talk I gave at Tate Britain in 2003 when my book The Art Question came out. Extract from this book.
Essay writing is at the heart of education. The process of writing an essay may be a struggle, but it is worth it. It is one of the best ways of gaining an active understanding of your chosen subject. Writing is a kind of thinking. It also leaves a trace that allows your tutor to give you feedback and help you move forward. The key ways in which students learn in the Humanities, and in most other subjects too are: reading, listening, discussing and writing. But without the last of these, the discipline of writing essays, study can become unfocussed and progress slower. Most people don’t achieve a good grasp of any topic until they have tried to explain it clearly to someone else in writing.
Everyone can improve their essay writing. There is no mystery about how to do this. You need to practise. But as in all effective practice, you have to work on acquiring and reinforcing good habits and eliminating bad ones. Realise that there is always scope for improvement.
1. GET STARTED. Don’t procrastinate. Get down to it now. If you have an essay to write it is amazing how easy it is to find other things to do. It’s also easy to underestimate how long the process of writing and rewriting will take. If you find yourself lapsing into an avoidance strategy, trick yourself by just writing the first paragraph, or committing to a focussed ten minutes of writing. Once you’ve started, everything gets easier.
2. ANSWER THE QUESTION. The worst mistake you can make is failing to answer the question set. No matter how brilliant your writing if it is an answer to a different question it won’t get you any marks. If the question is a direct question, give a direct answer. All your work on your essay, including the planning, research, writing and rewriting, should be driven by your awareness of the question and your angle on it.
3. RESEARCH YOUR ANSWER. Unless you are writing under examination conditions you should research your answer. Read the question first, though. Pay particular attention to TMA notes, lists of recommended reading and any advice your tutor gives. Don’t, however, let research become an excuse for not planning or writing the essay. Research should be driven by the question set and your angle on it. Don’t think of your research as something that you complete before beginning writing. Often it is only when you try to explain a concept or defend a position that you realise that you need to research some facts. Remember that you may not know what you need to research until you have attempted to answer the question.
4. MAKE A CASE. In almost any subject, when you write an essay you need to make and defend a case for your conclusion. This typically involves using argument, evidence, quotations and so on, to back up generalisations. It also involves considering counterarguments and evidence that seems to challenge your reasoning or conclusion. By the end of your essay your reader should be completely clear about where you stand on the question set. This sounds obvious, but many students fail to make a case for their conclusions, and some fail to draw any conclusion whatsoever.
5. STRUCTURE YOUR ANSWER. The structure of your essay is the logical framework of the case you make. Structure helps your reader understand the significance of any point you make. One useful three-part structure that works for most paragraphs is this: 1. make a general point, 2. back it up with some evidence, quotation or argument, and 3. show the significance of this point to the question you were asked. If you are unsure whether or not your essay has a coherent structure, try reading just the first sentence of each paragraph. Do these sentences reveal the framework of your essay? If not, rewrite them.
6. AIM FOR CLARITY. Here are some suggestions for achieving greater clarity in your writing. Be economical with adjectives. Be concise. Avoid using adverbs wherever possible. Avoid complex syntax. Explain any technical terms. Don’t show off your knowledge of obscure jargon. Use the active voice rather than passive constructions. Use shorter rather than longer sentences. Whenever you read a particularly clear passage in a book, try to analyse how the writer achieved this clarity.
7. GET THE TONE RIGHT. An easy way to irritate your readers is to use colloquial language in an academic essay or to make over-familiar asides. Getting the tone right requires sensitivity to the genre within which you are writing. A peppering of exclamation marks in an academic essay is a sure sign that the writer doesn’t appreciate this point.
8. AVOID PLAGIARISM. Don’t try to pass someone else’s work off as your own. It’s immoral and you may well get caught, not least because many institutions are now using software that detects plagiarism. Resist the temptation to cut and paste unattributed paragraphs from weblogs and webpages. Even if you manage to get away with plagiarism, you deprive yourself of the chance to think the topic through for yourself, and reduce the chance of learning from the process of writing. Always be sure to distinguish your own notes from copied sentences and longer quotations: when you come to write your essay there should be no risk of including someone else’s writing without acknowledging its source.
9. EDIT YOUR ESSAY. If you have the luxury of re-writing or at least revising your essay, use it. Obviously this won’t usually be an option in an examination, but in other circumstances you should leave yourself enough time to edit and amend your first draft. Try reading what you have written out loud – poor phrasing and bad grammar will be more obvious, as should any weaknesses in argument. Make sure keywords and the names of people you discuss are correctly spelt. Although you may not lose marks for poor spelling, it is likely to colour any reader’s view of your writing ability.
10.LEARN FROM FEEDBACK. Many students are more concerned with the mark they get than with the other feedback their tutors give them. This is a mistake. Try to find patterns in the feedback you get and remind yourself of the criticisms of your previous essay before you start the next one.
Below is a draft new entry for a proposed 3rd edition of Thinking from A to Z I'm working on at the moment. Comments very welcome (and you don't need to use the principle of charity when reading this).
Principle of Charity Interpreting arguments or positions adopted by others in the best possible light. Rather than setting an opponent’s pronouncements up as an easy target, or even a straw man, those who adopt the principle of charity look for the best case that this person could consistently be making rather than the worst. Adopting the principle of charity involves reconstructing and evaluating others’ arguments. Most everyday discussions are incomplete in many ways: speakers omit key moves, or don’t make their underlying assumptions clear, for example. Consequently, most contributions to a discussion are open to interpretation. Those who adopt the principle of charity will interpret, or at times reconstruct, another’s comments giving that person the benefit of the doubt, and thereby considering a stronger rather than a weaker version of the speaker’s or writer’s ideas. There is great value in this approach in that it forces the you to consider others’ challenges and arguments in their most plausible form, and in the process can be intellectually stimulating because it typically requires an act of creative imagination to recreate a strong argument from what might seem like a series of assertions. Of course, even when put in their strongest form, arguments may still be open to counterargument, or refutation.
For example, in a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might argue that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim ‘All animals should have equal rights’ as being a shorthand for ‘All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm’ and then to address that. Someone who adopted the principle of charity here would be forced to think through the strongest form of this argument rather than be satisfied with an easily refuted (see refutation) straw man.
There is no obligation to adopt a principle of charity, but it can be a good antidote to pedantry, knocking down straw men, and the kind of relentless negativity that clear thinkers are sometimes accused of.UPDATED BETTER VERSION HERE
The most important thing to remember when beginning to study Philosophy is that what you are doing is learning skills as well as acquiring information about what the philosophers of the past have said or written. It isn't a spectator sport. You are learning to be a philosopher at some level not to parrot philosophers' ideas. Even when you are reading the work of long dead thinkers you will be expected to engage with their ideas, reconstruct their moves in argument, formulate criticiss of their work, and so on.
There There are four principal ways to study Philosophy:
1) Active Reading
2) Active Listening
3) Active Discussion
4) Active Writing
My book Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide (I wanted to call it The Four Habits of Highly Effective Philosophy Students, but my publisher wouldn't let me), discusses all of these. There is an extract from the book available here.