Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.

Introduction

On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.

Organization

According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART 1: READING AND WRITING

  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources

PART 2: REFERENCE GUIDE

  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)

VALID FORMS

 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

 INVALID FORMS

 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)

Assessment

Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.

Footnotes

[1]https://books.google.com/books/about/Doing_Ethics.html?id=x3P1ugEACAAJ&source=kp_author_description.

References

Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

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