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I am a joint-honours Philosophy and Politics student in my final year of university.
For politics modules, my essay preparation is fairly straight-forward: choose a question, read around the topic, formulate an argument, write the essay.
For philosophy modules, my essay preparation is significantly more convoluted: choose a question, read around the topic, formulate an argument, start writing the essay, discover holes in the argument, try to reformulate the argument, begin writing the essay with the reformulated argument, discover holes in the reformulated argument, and so on. Eventually, I arrive at an argument which seems sufficiently hole-proof for an undergraduate paper, and submit the essay (any remaining holes usually ‘fall outside the scope or space of the essay’).
The process is long, rigorous, and frustrating. Sometimes the essay does well and sometimes I am disappointed. When the latter occurs, it can be incredibly disheartening. Recently however, I have begun to realise that whatever the outcome, the process in invaluable.
Before the development of digital communications, philosophy was conducted primarily through correspondence. When a philosopher came up with an idea or treatise that they were pleased with, they sent it to various intellectual contemporaries. These contemporaries would respond with endorsements and disputes (usually the latter), which the philosopher would then rebut or use to inform their argument (usually the former).
Before publishing his Meditations on First Philosophy for example, Descartes sent a manuscript to contemporary thinkers in the way described above. When Descartes then published the manuscript, he included five salient and recurring objections which had been raised, and argued against them to the strength of his argument.
By undergoing the process of discovering potential holes in his argument, Descartes was able to expound his argument so that it could withstand such criticisms.
While my philosophy essays are not as complicated or impressive as Descartes’ work, I have realised that the process is the same. Whether I tweak my argument or revise it entirely, I would not have developed the improved version had I not formulated the inferior version first. Furthermore, had I not begun with the inferior version (i.e. if I had instead formulated the improved version on first attempt), then I would not have learned nearly as much.
This realisation has not made my convoluted philosophical process any less frustrating. However, it has made it feel more worthwhile. When I am sitting in the library, spiraling into confusion, I gently remind myself that the confusion is important; the process necessitates it.
The wider lesson that I have taken from this realisation has been to remind myself that life functions in the same way. Contrary to what social media might tell us, life is not a perfect, linear product. Life is messy and mottled with missteps, each of which shapes and informs us. If we do not make mistakes, we do not learn. If we do not allow life’s processes, we lose out on the good things that may come from them.
It can be hard to remember that the process is necessary. Each philosophy essay now serves as a reminder of this for me, and I hope that this article might serve as a reminder of this for someone reading it. Remembering the necessity of the process is important, because once we do, we can work towards accepting and embracing it.
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