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Kris McDaniel

Amen. Amen. Amen.


Although I can't disagree that brevity when appropriate is a virtue (and of course I encourage my UG students to precisely this virtue), there does seem to be something very odd to me about this suggestion as it is directed at this audience. Is the assumption that the work of a philosopher is simply to make an argument and non-inferential speech acts are (mostly) extraneous? Seems an impoverished view of philosophy in the service of "efficiency."

Kyle Whyte

This seems to get the heart of the question of what the purpose of the academic article is. Are there good reasons to suggest that articles are best conceived as glimpses? And fuller versions of anyone's work must be saved for the future book. Or, is this last question really just the cover for some movement in academia toward greater efficiency that does not respect the ultimate meaning and quality of academic (here philosophical) research?


I'm puzzled by 3 (especially given 2!). Why, exactly, does being able to state an argument in premise-conclusion form show that a paper is in need of revision?

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone.


Not sure why, but I get the impression that you agree with me. :)


I would say that non-argumentative (or non-reasoned) speech (e.g., opinion, speculation, etc.) has no place in academic publishing. If one has something to say, one must be able to support it with reasons and evidence. Why is that an impoverished view of philosophy?


I think that a paper that presents an argument in premise-conclusion form is not a glimpse, but rather a fully worked out argument. Plus, it saves readers time and effort that would otherwise be spent on reconstructing the argument from the text.


I am thinking here of the standard roughly-20-page paper one usually finds in philosophy journals. If one can take the main argument of such a paper and state it clearly and succinctly in premise-conclusion form, then it means that the rest is probably extraneous stuff.

Kyle Whyte

What is the filter for "extraneous"?


Thanks for the advice, but I prefer to include extraneous content in my papers.

Moti Mizrahi

That’s a good question, Kyle.

The filter would filter out things like speculation, opinion, and preferences (see Nick’s comment). It would keep arguments, of course, as well as objections and replies. I think you are right that books are the appropriate venue for extraneous content.


There are many non-inferential speech acts such as explanation, contextualizing, illustration, compare/contrasting,conceptual explication, narration, interpretation, to name just a few that might have a central role on academic philosophy. Frankly if all a paper offers is a syllogism, I suspect it is not worth presenting-- perhaps of we had poster sessions....

Moti Mizrahi


This is precisely what I am talking about. You have asserted—without argument—that a paper that presents an argument in premise-conclusion form is not worth publishing. I argued that a paper that doesn’t have a clear and concise argument (which may or may not be presented in premise-conclusion form) is not worth publishing *because* such a paper is probably not ready for publication. As additional support, I’ve also mentioned the professional benefits of writing short papers with clear and concise arguments. Just think of all the brain power and key strokes that are wasted in trying to interpret unclear texts.

As for the non-inferential content you mention, such as explanation, that, too, should be presented in the form of an argument. If your paper offers an explanation for X, you better tell me why your explanation is any good. Please see my follow-up post on this point.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I have to side with CA on this, and I do think there is an argument to be made. It can be good to present the heart of one's argument in premise-conclusion form, but as we all know, arguments have premises and so one has to argue in turn that one's premises are *true*. Illustrations, etc., can be very important in this regard. Now, I imagine you would say that those illustrations and their import should be put in premise-conclusion form, but at this point I'm not sure it's true one can do all that in premise-conclusion form. Examples take time -- and prose -- to develop. So does marshaling considerations for believing a given premise is true. I suppose it is *possible* to do all this in PC form, but in case case the argument would have so many premises and conclusions that it would be unwieldy. Part of the point of using PC form is to draw attention to the *heart* of the argument. Putting *everything* into PC form puts all details and the heart of an argument on one and the same attentional plane, thus obscuring the real heart of things. Anyway, I guess that wasn't a real argument on my part. I probably just find the prospect of a paper with nothing more than PC form boring. I like good prose. I like a good story. Maybe not philosophically necessary, but so what?

David Morrow

I think I'm mostly on Moti's side on this one.

Moti's standard is that you should be *able* to state your argument in premise-and-conclusion form (or, better yet, draw an argument map of it). This doesn't mean your paper must be published as a numbered list of statements. So, I don't think Marcus's aesthetic concerns undercut Moti's point.

I do think there's room for illustrations, explanations, etc., but I think their proper role is (usually?) to help the reader understand one or more statements in the main argument. Contextualizing and interpreting can function as reasons to believe (i.e., arguments) for the importance of the main argument. In other words, the kinds of "non-inferential speech acts" that CA identifies seem to be most appropriate when they either help the reader to understand the argument or convince the reader that the argument is important. And Marcus's "considerations for believing a given premise is true" are just more premises in the argument.

I don't want to claim that there are *no* other tasks appropriate to the academic philosopher, but I don't think I can produce a list of them at the moment.


Can you say more about what you mean by calling an article a "glimpse?"

Marcus Arvan

Good points, David. I'm sort of going back and forth on it. Sure -- one should be *able* to put one's argument in PC form -- but I (mis?)understood Moti as arguing for more than that. Moti seems to suggest that a philosophy paper should really be little more than an argument in PC form. I say this, first, because he suggests the standard 20 page paper is too long, and second, because the paper of his that he linked to (on scientific realism) is less than 6 pages long. I was under the impression that Moti thinks papers in general should be something like this length...but perhaps I misunderstand.

Moti Mizrahi


I can understand your aesthetic concerns. But I think that style is less important philosophically than clarity and argumentative rigor. Perhaps when one is writing a book, one can sacrifice clarity for style, since one is trying to reach a wider audience. But when one is writing an academic paper, one should not sacrifice clarity and rigor for style, since one is writing for a professional audience. It might even be argued that one has a professional obligation to make one’s argument as clear and concise as possible, so as not to waste the time of one’s peers.

Of course, as you point out, some arguments are longer and more complicated than others. So it might take more than 6 pages to make a certain argument. In that respect, I think that David’s suggestion that one should be able to draw an argument map is very good advice.

Nick Smyth


You seem to have missed the irony in my comment. Obviously, if I thought content was extraneous, I would remove it. A call to eliminate extraneous content is therefore more than a little bit comical.

Now, you've gone on to suggest that extraneous content is non-argumentative content, and I here I must take issue with you, from a sub-disciplinary perspective. As an ethicist, I cannot help but think that you are importing stylistic standards from an area of philosophy in which they may be appropriate into one in which they clearly are not. As a matter of fact, the position that ethics papers should contain only argumentative content will only make sense to an ethical rationalist, someone who thinks that ethics is ultimately a premise-conclusion sort of phenomenon. Non-rationalists, who think (for example) that emotional experience is central to ethics, will obviously be hobbled by your requirement.

Now, perhaps ethical rationalism is true, perhaps it isn't. But it is absurd to make this decision at the stylistic level. This entails allowing non-rationalists to appeal to a huge number of other devices: illustrative examples, literary figures, expressions of emotion, metaphorical allusions, genealogical stories, etc...

In other words, the Turing machines who inhabit certain other areas of philosophy can premise-conclusion themselves into oblivion if that's what they decide is best. But no one should make catch-all proposals about what philosophical writing as such should and should not be like: here, words like "rigor" and "clarity" are not neutral descriptors, they are thinly disguised weapons which smuggle substantive theoretical assumptions into places they don't belong.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Nick,

Thanks very much for the clarification.

You write:

“the position that ethics papers should contain only argumentative content will only make sense to an ethical rationalist, someone who thinks that ethics is ultimately a premise-conclusion sort of phenomenon. Non-rationalists, who think (for example) that emotional experience is central to ethics, will obviously be hobbled by your requirement.”

Now, I am no ethicist, but I very much doubt that non-rationalists make meta-ethical claims without any evidence to back them up. Take Hume, for example. He puts forward several anti-rationalist arguments, such as the argument that morals cannot be derived from reason alone, since reason alone cannot move us to act, and morality influences our actions. Perhaps Hume’s arguments are not very good, but that’s a different matter.

Nick Smyth

Yup. But as commenters here have mentioned, you need to clarify what you're saying. Falling back to the position that a paper should contain an argument is to fall back on something that almost everyone agrees on. If that was the point of your post, then consider yourself in agreement with just about every living philosopher. But that can't be all you're saying, because a 1,000-page paper with a single argument on page 657 would meet this standard.

However, you have suggested that "extraneous" content should be removed, and you have contrasted this allegedly unimportant content with argumentative content. The natural conclusion to draw from this is that you think that non-argumentative content is extraneous. Will you now deny this claim and assert that a good paper can contain many other kinds of non-inferential stylistic devices?

Moti Mizrahi


My claim was, and remains, that academic papers (to be published in academic journals) should contain arguments and nothing but arguments. Your example from ethics doesn’t undermine this claim because you seem to have confused making an argument for a meta-ethical claim (namely, moral non-rationalism) and the meta-ethical claim itself. As exemplified by Hume, and many others, moral non-rationalists are not committed to refraining from making arguments in support of their meta-ethical claims.

Nick Smyth

Moti, I did not say, nor would any sane person say, that moral non-rationalists are committed to "refaining from making arguments". That would be ridiculous. I am saying that in addition to arguments, many non-rationalists are commited to the importance of many other kinds of communicative devices. In the name of so-called "clarity" You are denying them these devices, and your requirement is thereby heavily biased towards rationalism in ethics. Make sense?

Moti Mizrahi


First, I hope we can continue having a respectful discussion about the issue at hand without resorting to insults. If you cannot do that, I will be forced to moderate your comments.

If you can do that, then perhaps you could clarify what you mean by “communicative devices,” and tell us how they help convince others that what one is saying is worthy of acceptance?

Kyle Whyte

David: By glimpse I just meant a slice of one's overall thought on the topic more broadly conceived. Perhaps I have an overall theory of political justice in my head, a lot of which is not fully worked out. But there are some parts of it that I can break off, formulate in PC, and turn into an individual article. So it seems, when writing one of those papers, I might feel inclined to tell the reader all sorts of things about my overall theory, but that this would be extraneous. So, I was primarily following along some of Moti's ideas and referring to glimpse as some portion of one's broader thought that is capable of being expressed in PC form.

David Morrow


As an ethicist (with non-rationalist sympathies) who agrees with Moti, maybe I can mediate here. Suppose a non-rationalist were to use, e.g., a literary example in a paper to get the reader to accept some (first-order) ethical claim. Because it's offered as an allegedly epistemically respectable way to get the reader to accept a claim, I'd say that it's part of an argument for that claim, and so including it passes Moti's standard. Putting the argument in premise-and-conclusion form might require the non-rationalist to make explicit some methodological claims (e.g., that having feeling F when reflecting upon case C is a reason to think that p) that he or she wouldn't normally state in the paper. Thus, it might not be appropriate to use premise-and-conclusion form in the paper itself, but this doesn't mean that it couldn't be done.


Thanks. That's helpful. I'd say that the "things about [your] overall theory" that you'd "feel inclined to tell the reader" would be relevant if and only if they give the reader a reason to think that the main argument of the paper is important: "My argument is important because it is an essential piece of or step toward plausible and interesting theory T. Here's a sketch of theory T, which I offer as evidence that T is plausible and interesting." If that's what you're doing, then it's still argumentative, even if it's an auxiliary to your main argument.

Marcus Arvan

Nice to see such a lively discussion, everyone -- but please, try to remember the guiding principles of this blog. This is supposed to be a safe and supportive environment. Please be conscientious with respect to the tone of your posts.

Nick Smyth

Hi David,

I certainly think that this is the only way the principle in question can be at all acceptable. But it's worth noting a couple of things: this is now a very wide net, such that any device that contributes in any way (rational, rhetorical or otherwise) towards the justification of a paper's claims is included as "argumentation". I wonder if that's what Moti had in mind.

Second, I was assuming that "argumentation" here had to be, at least, valid. That is to say, when someone asks for argumentative content, they are usually asking for statements which are connected via entailment-relations, normally inductive or deductive. The problem with describing cases as argumentation is that the "intuitive responses" that cases are meant to elicit (your "Feeling Fs") are never entailed by the cases themselves, nor is it clear what the rational relation is between them. Indeed, a committed Humean will say that there is no such relation, that the case is meant to cause emotions, that emotions are basically constitutive of ethical life, and that the case is therefore instructive without being reducible to a series of rationally related propositions.

And please, forgive my tone everyone (though I don't think I insulted anyone?). I've been in enough conference rooms where metaphysicians and philosophers of mind will openly declare that most philosophical ethics is useless because it isn't "rigorous" enough, and you start to get just a little defensive. Calls for rigor are not always neutral attempts to make writing better.

David Morrow


I assume Moti didn't mean to include rhetoric under argumentation. I'd tried to exclude that by saying that the literary example was offered as an "allegedly epistemically respectable way to get the reader to accept a claim." Rhetoric, I take it, is not epistemically respectable. That is, when rhetoric works, it's not because the reader now has an (additional) epistemic reason to accept the relevant claim. One way to see the dispute between rationalist and non-rationalists is as a dispute over whether, e.g., emotion-inducing cases are "epistemically respectable" in ethics.

I don't think Moti meant to exclude--nor should he--the use of "intuitive responses" from the category of arguments. He might think the use of intuitive responses is *bad* argumentation, but it's certainly a common form of argumentation in every area of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, language, mind, etc. Think of Lumpl and Goliath, Barn Facade County, "arthritis" of the thigh, and the Chinese room. None of the desired responses to those scenarios are strictly entailed by the scenarios themselves, but they are each offered as part of an argument for or against various theories.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, David.

Your comments are very helpful.

So, as I understand it, when a moral non-rationalist uses a literary example to make an ethical point, s/he is implicitly relying on something like the following reasoning:

1. I (most/all people?) have emotional reaction F to case C.
2. If I (most/all people?) have emotional reaction F to case C, then that is a (strong/conclusive) reason to believe that p (where p is a first-order ethical claim).
3. (Necessarily/Probably) p.

Nick: Wouldn't it make your job as a reader easier if authors made their arguments explicit in this way? It may not be pretty (I grant you that, Marcus), but it seems effective.

Nick Smyth

Hi David,

Do I have you right? As you've been describing it, this kind of paper contains five distinct stages:

1. Description of a case.
2. Stated response to the case.
3. The (perhaps covert) claim that the response provides epistemic support for P.
4. Therefore, P.
5. The use of P in a larger argument.

(3), as I see it, is what allows you to view this as a kind of inference to P. But is this the correct view of how many cases work in philosophy? In the case of the Chinese Room, my response to the question just *is* that the person doesn't understand Chinese. I do not need some further principle that links my response to P, my response is P. So it is with Gettier cases, and with quite a few ethics cases, too. Perhaps I've got you wrong, though.

Furthermore, I am unconvinced that rhetoric has no place in philosophy, though I recognize that I am in a minority on this one. I think that we have a lot to learn from Nietzsche, for example, and I don't think that his genealogical method contains any neat principle that allows us to understand why his histories are "epistemically respectable" or how they establish some conclusion (this is a notorious problem for his scholars). You may disagree, and say that if there is no such principle we have nothing to learn from him. But as I say, this is manifestly not a stylistic disagreement we are having: it is a substantive philosophical issue, and to take sides on it is not just to take a side on what kind of prose is best.

Nick Smyth


Even if papers included your 1-3, notice that you'd still need a prior description of case C, in all its necessary details. When you said that a paper should contain "only argument", you implied that this long description ought to be excluded, which is obviously not feasible. And, as I've said, the emotional reaction itself is both crucial to the process and non-inferential.

So if you're now willing to say that non-argumentative, non-inferential content that contributes in any way to an argument is fine, then consider the issue resolved!

Moti Mizrahi


If one’s argument is something like the one I sketched in my previous comment, then both case C and emotional reaction F are part of one’s argument, which makes them part of the argumentative content.

Now, one should make that (i.e., that one is making an appeal to emotional reaction F to case C) as clear and as explicit as one can in one’s paper. Otherwise, one is making it unnecessarily difficult for others to evaluate one’s argument, and thus figure out whether what one argues for is worthy of acceptance or not.

David Morrow

Nick & Moti,

Yes, you're both understanding the kind of regimentation that I have in mind. The reason some non-rationalists think such arguments are important is because they think that we come to know the moral truth only by responding (appropriately) to various real or imaginary cases. Compare: The way to figure out whether a joke is funny is to tell it to people (with a good sense of humor?) and see if they laugh.

Your response, Nick, is one that I think many people would share. But I think it's deeply mistaken. I won't deny that when you read the Chinese Room case, you form a belief, B, with the intentional content "The Room does not understand Chinese." In particular, I agree that the content of B is not: "It seems to me that the Room doesn't understand Chinese." However, I think that one is epistemically entitled to retain belief B only if one believes that B is correct (or justified or formed via a reliable mechanism or whatever). What plays the role of (3) is your regimentation above is the implicit belief that one has (probably?) formed the correct response to the Chinese Room case. Compare your looking at something and forming a belief with the content "That's red." You're entitled to retain that belief only if you think that you observed the object in proper lighting, you know how to distinguish red from orange and from green, etc. In the normal course of things, if someone asked how you know that the thing is red, you'd say, "I looked at it and saw that it's red." Only in an unusual context would you say, "I looked at it in normal lighting, etc., and I saw that it's red, and I'm good at making color discriminations in normal lighting." One way to read Moti's initial claim in this post is that academic papers in philosophy are unusual contexts in just this way.

Now I'm tempted to write a paper called "The Myth of the Philosophically Given"....

As for Nietzsche, I'm inclined to say that 'epistemically respectable' is a thick term. As such, its application is bound to be contested in certain cases, and it's probably impossible to give a clean principle that neatly distinguishes epistemically respectable moves from non-epistemically respectable moves. But I think I'm on Moti's side when I say that you ought to be *able* to say why you think your paper gives the reader an epistemically respectable reason to accept its conclusion.

At any rate, I agree with you, Nick, that these issues involve philosophically substantive disputes, and not just stylistic concerns.

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