When writing philosophy, I recommend the following six goals:
- Philosophical writing should emulate the spoken word and its simplicity, directness, and personality. Any complexity and subtlety that it carries should be in the content of the concepts involved and the paper’s logical development, not in its choice of words.
- The premises and conclusions of any arguments contained within should be clearly stated, so that the reader knows what claims to focus their attention. Not everything said in a paper is equally important to the matter at hand. Relatedly, there should be no obfuscation of any knowingly weak or prejudicial claims. That is the province of rhetoric.
- Philosophy should not exaggerate the strength of its claims. If you are unsure of the truth of some claim or its logical relation to others, admit it. Don’t “fake the funk.” Such fakery is usually obvious to a careful reader anyway. Be willing to do the necessary, sometimes “dirty,” work to support your claims.
- Even when not in agreement, philosophical writing should value alternate interpretations, opposing viewpoints and perspectives, other disciplines, and any experience or detail that has any chance at truth. Inspiration and ideas can come from any and all sources.
- Philosophical writing should challenge the reader to question their own assumptions, views, and prejudices; it should undermine the security and surety the reader may feel. The dogmatic reader should feel especially uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that the reader is wrong. It is just that the reader should feel unsure at some point in their reading of the paper. Bertrand Russell put it aptly: “Dissipate certainty.”
- Whether or not any knowledge or agreement has been reached, it should become evident that it is not you or your agenda that is the most important feature of your piece of writing. It is rather the issue under discussion, and ultimately the truth. In other words, the virtue of humility applies not only to a person’s character but also to writing.