Getting started – writing essays

Students are often confused how to set out their answers to philosophy and ethics questions at AS level.  There are two assessment objectives – 1 is Knowledge and Understanding (AO1) and 2 is critical evaluation (AO2). In AS AO1 is tested in part a – 25 marks is allocated to this. AO2 is tested in part b for 10 marks. Don’t mix the two up – do your explanation of the theory in part a and then evaluate it in part b.

The key thing to remember is that you must answer the question set and not a pre-prepared question on the general topic. If you look at the criteria, candidates whose answer focuses on the general topic rather than the specific question only get a band 2 (a D). This lesson has often been learnt the hard way in the examination – for instance there are often questions which ask for an explanation of a philosopher’s response to a theory in part a such as:

a) Explain Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument (25)

or

a) Explain Kant’s evaluation of the ontological argument (25)

These are AO1 questions so they do require knowledge and understanding – but not of the whole argument, just the criticisms from Hume or Kant. Candidates may be tempted to put down what they know about the argument anyway – they may only have a vague recollection of Hume’s criticism of it – but this will not gain them marks unless it is clearly related to what Hume says. It is important to remember that questions can be on any part of the specification – so if part of the spec says you should know a certain philosopher’s criticisms you need to know them!

The final thing to note is to be logical about the way you set out essays. For instance with theories (like Plato’s or Aristotle’s) or arguments (like Copleston’s or Kant’s) it is usually logical if you are explaining something that you first give the reasons why someone believes what they do before you go on to explaining it. For instance, with Aristotle’s theory of four causes you would do well to start by explaining the problem of knowledge of changing things that the Greek philosophers were concerned with – you could contrast his solution with Plato’s, and look into the ideas underpinning the theory such as potentiality, actuality, causation, substance etc. Then you can go on to actually list the four causes and explain them. It is not a good idea to start with something random like his view of the soul as the form of the body. This will show the examiner that you haven’t organised your ideas into a coherent explanation. An essay plan is a really good idea (it need only take 5 minutes and bullet point the main areas you will look at).

Part b essays are a bit trickier because evaluation is inherently harder to do than explanation – think about any subject when you’ve just learnt a new theory and it makes sense, until someone tells you the criticisms that it has had – then you might find it hard to accept the theory. However, this doesn’t mean the argument or theory is wrong, just that there are things that count against it – it is your job to decide whether they count against it decisively. This is unfortunately quite difficult. One thing that makes it easier is thoroughly understanding the theory – and the more reading you do the better you will understand it. The second thing to do is to really ask yourself what you think about the theory – try and explain what your reservations are – this will show engagement with the question, and is much better than a list of strengths and weaknesses from philosophers.

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