Philosophical Reasoning Skills

A central part of philosophical writing and discussion is effort toward the reasoned persuasion of an audience, or philosophical reasoning.  A corresponding goal for students of philosophy is learning to interpret, evaluate, and engage in such argumentation. The knowledge and skills required to do these things well benefit students in many ways. Of course, students will learn more and perform better in philosophy classes, but they will also find that the same skills underlie successful reading and writing in most other courses at the university. Most important, perhaps, is the way in which these skills will serve students in life after Wesleyan: the need to think clearly and reason well does not go away.

Most of our introductory courses are designed to help students meet these goals, by incorporating material that makes explicit the fundamentals of philosophical reasoning, and teaching students the skills needed to understand and assess it. Below you will find some examples from some of our introductory courses. A web resource for further exploring these concepts is maintained by Prof. Springer; see this site.


Philosophy 201, Ancient Western Philosophy

This course will include an assignment analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a Socratic argument. Students will be asked to interpret a passage of no longer than two pages from one of Plato's early dialogues, and the assignment will consist of two parts. The first part requires identifying the conclusion of the passage, the premises that Socrates and his interlocutor agree on, and the reasoning that Socrates uses on the basis of those premises to arrive at the 
conclusion he wants. The second part requires evaluating the argument -- here, among other questions, students will need to consider whether each step of the argument is clearly articulated, whether it relies on any hiddenassumptions, and whether Socrates extracts concessions from his interlocutor that he isn't entitled to. Models of such argument 
analysis will be provided in handouts and feature regularly in class discussion.

Philosophy 205, Classical Chinese Philosophy

Two skills that will receive special emphasis are the interpreting complex or obscure texts, and identifying, assessing, and engaging in reasoning. Since we will at least tentatively presume that there is reasoning going on in the texts we are interpreting, the two skills are closely related. Some of the course's assignments will focus quite specifically on understanding philosophical reasoning, both in general and as seen in particular in our Chinese materials. To this end, three ''minipapers'' will be assigned, each asking students to think about how different argument forms and strategies apply to Chinese texts.

Philosophy 212, Introduction to Ethics

One goal of all introductory philosophy courses at Wesleyan is to familiarize students with vocabulary and skills that characterize philosophy as a methodical discipline. In this course, central concepts of philosophical reasoning will be discussed and used frequently, and these will need to be handled confidently on exam and essay work. For practice, participants will write one "micro-essay" per unit, where the basic task is (1) to interpret an important concern in our reading, (2) reconstruct key inferences connecting the author's premises and conclusion(s), (3) articulate a potential objection to the resulting argument, and (4) anticipate likely replies. The fine-grained reconstruction of premises and conclusions will be modeled in detail during class on several occasions, and much of our class discussion will be devoted to objections and potential responses. More specific reasoning concepts and patterns will be introduced alongside specific readings. See the course website for an overview of concepts and some examples of argument reconstruction.

Philosophy 214, Justice and Reason

Philosophical reasoning about justice is central to the course content: we consider how the concept of justice and its moral authority depend upon its reasoned connections to our understanding of mind, reality, knowledge and what it is to be human.  Since this course involves close critical reading of arguments embedded in philosophical texts, the primary assignment for the philosophical reasoning requirement is a series of ungraded argument analyses, in which students identify the premises, conclusions, and inferences in specific passages from the readings.  The instructor also attends closely to the students' own philosophical reasoning in their graded papers.