Philosophy and English: So Similar, So Different

Just a short post today as my procrastination (!). This week, I’ve been starting to look at essay writing for philosophy. In our coursebook for this week, the majority of the text focused on grammar tips. And, suddenly, I noticed how familiar these ideas were to my literature editing, eg. no dangling participles or clauses, no sloppy use of ‘it’.

And there are other similarities, of course:

  • As Philosophy is a humanities study, it involves essays through and through, with perfect grammar and a lack of vagueness. We are always told, when editing fiction, to keep to concision. Who is speaking and how? What does this scene look like? But without going into overwriting. Balance is needed.
  • Both need exact references in order to back up valid arguments. Writers need to research and research and make sure we have each piece of information correct before making our presumptions about a stereotype or era.
  • There is lots of room for reader interpretation. Sure, we writers want to portray a plot – and we philosophers want to bring out our theories – but we must also remember that not all readers will take phrases the same way as we will. Using the showing rule means that one character’s shrug could suggest hope to one reader but dejection to another. And, perhaps, as a writer we want that differing interpretation. Just look at the whole Snape-kills-Dumbledore incident.

In Philosophy, the interpretation is of theories, as some cannot be empirically proven. (Note: this does not mean the same as ambiguity.)

  • “You use words and argument to make…an argument. Also, most things are written by old men with beards.” << According to the English Literature student living next door.


The differences:

  • It’s analytic – Philosophy doesn’t mess around; it doesn’t elucidate with metaphors (the scandal!) or decorate with pictures of things that exist beyond our external world. Everything subtle in Philosophy are those twists of logic; otherwise, nothing stands as ultimately creative, especially in critical or comparative essays. Opinions and facts are.
  • There are no surprises in philosophy essays. Where in a story we want to leave the reader questioning and in suspense, philosophers and markers want to know of the conclusion, the direct answer to the essay question/proposition, immediately. In fact – in some sort of irony – the conclusion is outlined in the introduction.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. It’s funny how the topics overlap so.


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