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Sunday, October 9, 2022


                    A Student Paper

The time has come to give a real example of a paper, submitted to my Introduction to Philosophy course in the Fall of 1990. I have chosen this paper because it has a great many serious problems, and yet has some interesting ideas in it which deserve to be stated clearly and forcefully.

We are going to look at this paper in three stages. First, I will simply reproduce the paper exactly as the student submitted it, complete with misspellings, grammatical errors, and typographical errors. I am going to highlight every misspelled word or typo, and you ought to check each highlighted word to make sure you know how it is spelled or why it is a typographical error.

Then I will take a few sample sentences or paragraphs which are ungrammatically written or poorly constructed, and analyze them, showing you what is wrong and how it might be fixed up. Please don't imagine that everything that is left alone is all right! After reading my analyses and reconstructions of the sample passages, you ought to see whether you can do the same thing with other problem passages.

Finally, I will offer a rewritten version of the entire paper, along the lines laid out above. It is not my aim to turn this into a perfect paper, just to show you how this student, following the guidelines in this Manual, could have turned the actual paper into a much better paper, one that made the thesis clearer, the argument more persuasive, and the exposition clearer.

The paper we are going to look at was written by a student who had read the Chapter on The Philosophy of Art in the textbook I wrote, About Philosophy and had viewed a Ted Koppel Nightline show devoted to the dispute surrounding the exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. The specific Paper Topic to which the student was responding was this:

The debate over whether the Mapplethorpe photographs should be exhibited in publicly funded museums has been long on hysterics and short on reasoned arguments. Choose one side of the controversy and defend it by explicit appeal to some theory of the nature and social value of art. Do not simply say whether you approve or disapprove of the exhibit. Defend your position by talking about what art is and what role art should play in our society.

Student Paper

Displaying explicit nude photographs in a public art gallery will hurt the credability of our society because of the fact that the artist has created these photos to capture attention by controversy not his own merit.

We as americans have established our own religion. Most of us say that we never go to church, but we do. These churches do not bear the characteristics of traditional houses of worship. These new churches have tellers, drive-up windows, and twenty-four hour express machines. All these now serve as modern day clergy and aid us in our worship to our new god, MONEY.

When did everything become about money? Why as a mature society have we let this get so out of hand? We sell everything for money, our bodies, our country and natural resources, and most of all our values. What's to stop us from selling our children like slaves, if the price is right? We have to stop prostituting our morals for money. We have to preserve things with value and authentic beauty.

If you look at a dictionary the definition of art will read as follows:

The activity of creating beautiful things, the authentic value of an artist expressed by his values. If we let the purpose of art be compromised, for many, we are therefore selling beauty. If we allow someone in our society to mock art, we are guilty of the destruction of a tradition that has existed since the beginning of time.

The Mapplethorpe photographs are a black mark on the history of art. They deface the idea of beauty that is associated with art. These photos are not art, they are not beauty, they are merely pornography in disguise. We are allowing this artist to destroy the ideal of art. This man is using us and our social values to gain publicity, not by his own merit, but instead by controversy. By drawing attention to the photographs we have fallen into his premeditated trap and are all therefore guilty of destroying a tradition. Art in its true form, gains monetary value due to the beauty it pocesses to the purchaser, not because someone set out to seek publicity.

This exhibit hangs in a museum with legitimate art. we can not be expected expected to make the distinction between the two to our children? We can not expect our chindren, after being brought up with the ideals that this is art, to respect significant pieces of art. If you go into a store you are accostomed to the fact that item of comparative value are placed next to each other. How would you explain the fact that two pieces of art placed side-by-side do not have the same "value"? (By value I do not mean money, but instead social value.)

We have to teach our children the difference between real art and pornography. If we don't we can not expect them to tell the difference between photographs taken by a genius like Anstel Adams and the centerfold of Penthouse magazine, they are both just pictures, right?

If we try to justify these photographs by saying that this type of behavior is now excepted by our society, we are beong selfish. There is no justification in saying that what is good for society now will also be good for societies to come. These future societies should be entitled to view past art works in the same way that we did, for beauty no controversy. Historians say that art reflects the society as well as the time in which it was created. This would give a message to the world that we have given up our morals.

Selfishness is what is going to bring the world as we now know it to an end. We have already allowed it to destroy our faith in the church (thanks to T. V. evangelists), police department, etc... We can not allow it to interfere with the only faith we have left.

Even after the misspellings and typographical errors are corrected, this is not a good paper, but it does have some interesting ideas in it which, with a good deal of clarification and reorganization, might form the core of a good, solid argument. Let us try to identify some of the principal shortcomings of the paper as it now is, after which we will have a shot at improving it.

The very first problem with the paper is that a reader will have a great deal of trouble figuring out what its thesis is. The assignment was to choose one side of the debate over whether the Mapplethorpe photographs should be exhibited in publicly funded museums, and the author of this paper pretty clearly is opposed to showing the exhibit, so we might naturally suppose that the thesis of the paper is:

            |- The Mapplethorpe photographs should not be exhibited in publicly funded museums.

            But if you read the paper carefully, you will find that there is not a single argument in it that has anything to do with the public funding of the museum [in Cincinnati] where the show caused such a fuss. The arguments in this paper would apply with equal force to the exhibiting of the photographs in a privately funded museum. Thus, the paper's author never engages with one of the central issues in the debate, which is whether tax money, collected by law from all citizens, should be used to fund an exhibit that offends the moral, aesthetic, or religious sensibilities of some of them.

The second problem is that the paper has no very clear organization or focus. In all, there are ten paragraphs in the paper, including one ["We have to stop prostituting our morals etc"] which has not been indented properly. A close reading suggests that only six of the paragraphs - numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 - are about art and the Mapplethorpe exhibit. The other four - numbers 2, 3, 4, and 10 - are about something quite different, namely the establishment in the United States of a new religion in which we worship money. Now, the author clearly thinks there is a connection between these two themes. To put it simply, the connection seems to be that in exhibiting the Mapplethorpe photographs in public art galleries, the curators of those galleries are contributing to the on-going corruption of American values, a corruption that is manifested by the elevating of money above art or beauty. The last paragraph appears to claim that faith in art is the only faith we have left, now that selfishness has destroyed religion, so we ought not to allow the exhibiting of the Mapplethorpe photographs, since in showing them and looking at them we are falling into a trap selfishly laid by the artist.

The third problem with the paper is that the individual arguments are not clearly, coherently, or forcefully stated, nor are they assembled in a way that will lead a reader to the conclusion the author is trying to establish. Take a look, for example, at the rather interesting and imaginative argument in paragraph 7. The background premise of the argument in this paragraph is that the Mapplethorpe photographs are not true art. Incidentally, it isn't quite clear whether the author thinks this premise has been established in the previous paragraph, or is simply assuming it. At any rate, given that starting point, the argument of paragraph 7 proceeds like this:

            |- It is important to bring up our children to appreciate and respect the beauty of true art, to be able to recognize genuine artistic value when they encounter it.

            |- Just as our children learn, when they go shopping, that items of roughly equivalent monetary value will be exhibited in the same store [they wouldn't expect to find an expensive necklace in a K-Mart, or a cheap reproduction of a painting in a fine art gallery], so they should be able to expect that objects of roughly equivalent aesthetic value will be found together in a museum. If the Mapplethorpe photographs, which have no aesthetic value at all, are exhibited next to paintings or photographs of genuine artistic merit, our children will become confused, and our attempts to teach them the correct aesthetic standards of value will be undermined.

            |- Therefore, the Mapplethorpe photographs ought not to be exhibited in a public art gallery.

Whether you think this argument is persuasive or not, I think you will grant that it is interesting, imaginative, and forces the reader to think more deeply about the issue. But in the original language of paragraph 7, it is very unclearly and diffusely stated.

There are even more serious difficulties with the longest paragraph in the paper, paragraph 6. Let us first clear up one factual matter. The exhibit under discussion was actually a posthumous exhibit. Robert Mapplethorpe had died before it was assembled and exhibited, so the author is wrong to claim that Mapplethorpe is "using us" to gain publicity. However, it is at least possible that the people who organized the exhibit were doing so, although nothing in the materials presented to the class contained any evidence of such a plot.

The central difficulty with the paragraph is the unclarity of its line of argument. The author starts out by saying that the photographs are destroying the ideal of art because they are pseudo-art, pornography. Then he/she goes on to a quite different claim, that Mapplethorpe has set a trap for us by creating a controversy that draws audiences into the museum and further destroys the authentic tradition of great art [presumably by leading us to confuse pornography with art]. Finally, in the last sentence, which in a properly constructed paragraph would sum up the argument of the paragraph, the author makes an entirely new point, namely that true art becomes monetarily valuable because of its aesthetic appeal to the person who purchases it [and thereby confers monetary value on it.]

This is a mess! At least three different arguments jumbled together, with no indication of the connections among them. Clearly, the only way for the author to salvage this paragraph is First, to decide exactly what argument it is supposed to present, Second, to remove from the paragraph anything that doesn't serve to advance that argument, and Finally, to rewrite what remains so that it lays out a single argument clearly and logically.

How could the author reorganize and rewrite this paper so as to make it a clear, forceful, persuasive argument? The first step is to decide what the thesis of the paper is going to be. Since the author never really addresses the question, whether public financing should be used to support the exhibition of the Mapplethorpe photographs, let us set that matter to one side, and instead formulate a thesis that can draw under it as many of the lines of argument in the paper as possible. Pretty clearly, the natural thesis for this paper is something like this:

            |- Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs ought not to be exhibited in art museums.

Now let us construct a defense of that thesis out of the materials in this paper. As I go along, I will indicate which paragraphs I am drawing on in reconstructing the argument. Remember: the aim of this exercise is not to write a completely new paper. Rather, it is to reshape the materials already in the actual student paper so that they are clearer, more orderly and coherent, and thereby more persuasive. The result won't be a perfect paper. It may not even be a paper that deserves the grade of A. But if we are successful, it will be the best paper that can be created from the ideas about this subject that the author seems to have had in mind. Here goes:


Reconstructed Student Paper

In this paper I am going to defend the thesis that Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs ought not to be exhibited in art museums. [You don't actually have to begin a paper this way, officially announcing your thesis, but it can't hurt, and it may help to keep you focused on your thesis, so that you don't drift off into side issues that fail to advance the argument for the thesis.] When I speak of art, I mean either the activity of creating beautiful things, an activity engaged in by the artist, or else the beautiful and aesthetically valuable works resulting from that activity. [This is Step 2, the explanation and analysis of the thesis. See paragraph 5 of the original paper.] There is a long tradition in our society of cherishing and preserving true works of art. [This seems to be one of the unstated premises of the paper - see paragraph 5, for example.] Exhibiting the Mapplethorpe photographs mocks that tradition, and undermines it.

The Mapplethorpe photographs are a black mark in the history of art exhibits. Their appearance in an art gallery defaces the true works of art exhibited there. [Paragraph 6. The image of defacing is a good one, given the subject of the paper, but strictly speaking, it isn't used properly here. Nevertheless, we are trying to rewrite this paper, not write a new one. Notice that we must change "history of art" to "history of art exhibits'' since the author doesn't think the photographs are art.] These photos are not art, they are not beautiful, they are merely pornography in disguise. By exhibiting the photographs in an art museum as thogh they were art, we are allowing Mapplethorpe and the people putting on the exhibit to destroy the ideal of art. They are using us and our respect for art to gain publicity for the photographs, not on the basis of their merit but merely as a consequence of the controversy surrounding them. We have fallen into a trap laid for us by the people promoting the exhibit, and we are thereby as guilty as they of destroying the tradition of true art in our society.

We have a duty to keep the tradition alive by teaching our children the difference between real art and pornography. If we don't, we cannot expect them to tell the difference between truly artistic photographs, such as those taken by the great photographer Ansel Adams, and cheap pornography like the centerfold of Penthouse Magazine. Our children are likely to think that they are both art, since they are both pictures. [Paragraph 8. Notice the way I have altered the language of the paragraph to bring out the connection of its argument with the premise laid down at the end of our first paragraph.]

The Mapplethorpe exhibit hangs in a museum together legitimate art. How then can we hope to make the distinction between the two to our children? After all, our children are accustomed to finding, when they go into a store, that items of comparable monetary value will be placed side by side on the shelves. They would not expect to find a costly bracelet exhibited next to a cheap imitation. How can we possibly explain to them the fact that cheap pornography is banging side by side with aesthetically valuable art? li our children are brought up to suppose that such photographs are art, we cannot expect them to respect significant pieces of art. [Paragraph 7. This is probably the most interesting and original argument in the paper, It deserves to be spelled out clearly so that the reader can appreciate its force.]

Why then are the Mapplethorpe photographs allowed to be exhibited in a museum supposedly dedicated to preserving the tradition of aesthetic value? I suggest that the answer is the corrupting influence of money. [The paper needs something like this as an introduction to the paragraphs on money and art. Other- wise, il is difficult to see their connection to the materials on educating children.] We Americans have established our own religion. Most of us say that we never go to church, but we do. These churches do not bear the characteristics of traditional houses of worship. These new churches have tellers, drive-up windows, and twenty- four hour express machines. All these now serve as modem day clergy and aid us in our worship to our new god, MONEY. [Paragraph 3]

When did everything become about money? Why as a mature society have we let this get so out of hand? We sell everything for money, our bodies, our country and natural resources, and most of our values. We would even sell our children like slaves if the price were right. Now it appears that we are allowing our selfishness to lead us to sell the last things of value we have left, our art. [Paragraphs 3 and 10. l have left in the rather lurid bit about selling our children. It is too dramatic to be rhetorically effective, but as 1 have already noted, l am trying to rewrite this paper, not write a new one. Notice that the last sentence spells out something that seems to be implicit in several of the paragraphs of the original paper, and yet is never actually stated clearly by the author.] True art gains monetary value as a result of the beauty it possesses for the purchaser, not because of any publicity that may be associated with it. [Paragraph 6, last sentence. This isn't true, of course. What the author really means, I suspect, is that art shouldn't acquire monetary value merely as the result of publicity, but of course it does. In a paper like this, it is very important to keep clear the distinction between what is and what ought to be.]

Some people might try to justify the Mapplethorpe photographs by saying that the behavior represented in them is accepted by our society, and therefore that it is all right to show them [Paragraph 9. This is the one place in the paper where the author attempts to state and rebut possible objections to the thesis. I am not at all sure that my interpretation of the first sentence of Paragraph 9 is correct. The language of the original is unclear, and I have been forced to choose an interpretation that may differ from the author's intention. This is one of those places where it is especially important to ask yourself whether a reader will be able to figure out exactly what you had in mind.] But I believe that if we were lo adopt that attitude, we would be acting selfishly, ignoring the interests of generations yet to come. Past generations have handed on to us museums in which true works of art arc exhibited solely for their beauty, not because they caused controversy. [This seems to be what the author has in mind. Il is, of course, quite false! Past generations have been swayed as much by controversy as our generation is. However, let us continue.] Future generations have a right to expect that we will hand on to them museums governed by the same concern for aesthetic value. Historians say that art reflects the society as well as the time in which it was created. If we allow the Mapplethorpe exhibit to appear in our museums, we will send a message to the world that we have given up our aesthetic principles. [The rest of Paragraph 9. I have changed the end of the last sentence from "morals'' to "aesthetic principles'' because the author hasn't actually said anything thus far about moral principles, only about aesthetic or artistic principles.]

To sum up, the exhibitors of the Mapplethorpe photographs arc prostituting their principles for money. We have to preserve things with aesthetic value and authentic beauty, and keep them separate from things that have no aesthetic merit, such as the Mapplethorpe photographs. [Paragraph 4, with alterations.]

Well, there it is. If you examine the rewritten paper and the original version carefully, you will see that the rewritten version incorporates almost all of the original paper, together with some clarifications and additions. The big difference is that the new version is better organized, more coherently stated, so that a reader can follow the argument. It begins with a thesis; briefly analyzes and explains the thesis; spends most of its time arguing for the thesis; states possible objections [or at least states one possible objection - this is the weakest part of the paper]; replies to the objections; and ends with a brief summation.

If you will subject your own first drafts to the same sort of close analysis and criticism, following the procedures set forth in this Manual, you will very quickly find yourself writing good, solid expository papers. Good luck!



1 comment:

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Dear RPW,
could it be that you wanted to give us a hint about reviewing the way we sometimes argue here in the comments? :) If it should be so, yes you are right and I "touch my own nose" (that's what we say in Germany when you discover the faults of others by yourself).