Whilst students can critique a theory or idea verbally, writing this train of thought down in an essay is a different ball game completely. Not only do you have to understand the question, work out which arguments are relevant but you also need to criticise them. What stands between you and your A grade is writing convincing, clear and coherent evaluation. This will be an on-going struggle of development throughout your first year on Philosophy, Ethics and Christian Thought but the battle will be won.
So here are some of my top tips that will get you started:
Tip One: Criticise Don’t List
You will have covered a number of philosophers per topic, each with their own ideas, quotes and key words. Your instinct will be to cram them all into your answer. Unfortunately this needs to be avoided. It is not how many philosophers you use but how you use them.
So: Do not just list philosophers:
- Bertrand Russell says …
- However Big Bang says…
- On the other hand Descartes says…
You must look at them critically saying why they support or criticise the question/ philosopher.
Instead of “Hume says…” you must look at Hume’s argument critically =
- Hume rightly says…
- A good point from Hume
- Descartes’ argument can be seen as illogical because
- The best argument put forward against this is…because …compared to…
(Tip: Whenever you say an argument is the worst you must compare it with another argument that you think is better or vice versa)
Tip Two: Making Critical Comparisons
This means that throughout your essay you are exploring whose arguments are strong/logical or weaker. This is not from your point of view but third person: some may say, this can be viewed, Hume can be seen as, Hume is logical because…
Tip Three: Use the Words in the Question in your Answer (Think: If an examiner read my answer could they tell which question I was answering?)
To make it crystal clear which question you are answering: use the same words that the question uses. E.g. ‘Severe blow’ ‘useful method’ ‘cannot be defended’ ‘serious weaknesses’ ‘pure invention’ ‘random evil’.
Even better explore the meaning of these words – the subjectivity of the words i.e. “The use of the word ‘serious’ can be seen as subjective depending on who is judging the severity of the weakness. For example a scientist such as Dawkins may argue this is a serious weakness whereas a Theologian such as Aquinas may argue it is not serious. Therefore this answer will explore the different perspectives on what makes a weakness ‘serious’ and whether this affects the credibility of the arguments presented.” – (obviously apply to the topic in the question)
At the end of every paragraph (if not more often) make a link to the question to really emphasize what you are saying is relevant!
Tip Four: Eek I’ve Run out of Ideas
If you run out of ideas the God of Gaps, Burden of Proof and Reductio ad absurdum fit into most answers (and sound brilliant don’t they!).
God of gaps is the perspective (used by many philosophers such as Dawkins) that where there is a ‘gap’ in our knowledge there is a tendency to put God into this gap – arguing that this is not a valid conclusion to draw. Could even be adapted to Plato’s World of Forms, Aristotle’s Prime Mover or Kant’s Summon Bonum not just arguments which directly mention God.
Burden of Proof is the argument that when you present a point/ argument you need to present evidence to verify your claim. It is not the place of the opposing person to prove you wrong. The ‘burden’ to ‘prove’ the point is on the claimant of that argument.
Reductio (reducing) ad absurdum (absurd) basically reducing an argument down to an absurd conclusion. Most commonly found in the Ontological argument (used by Gaunilo against Anselm) it can be applied to most arguments.
Tip Five: How to Word an Argument (see post: Are you arguing with me? for further tips)
Two sides must be presented. The easiest way to show the examiner you have argued two sides is through using connective words such as:
- On the other hand
- In contrast
- Then again
I personally feel that using ‘I think’ is very GCSE R.E, we are dealing with deeply philosophical arguments so it is the development of your understanding of others’ arguments rather than your own. You will not lose marks but I think you can show more maturity in your answer through starting paragraphs off using:
- You could argue that
- One common argument is to suggest
- Plato’s (or whoever) theory can be defended/ criticised because
- On the one hand
- Firstly, secondly,
- It could be argued that
The question will ALWAYS want you to draw a conclusion on whether or not the point made in the question is true or not. Try:
- In conclusion
- To summarise
My pet peeve:
Do not put in part b) – “the statement” or “the question” i.e Kant would agree with the statement…(the examiner will find it difficult to see what you were arguing as they will have to keep going back to read the statement (question) – lazy writing!)
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