An interview with Alasdair Richmond

Alasdair Richmond teaches in “Philosophy of Science 1“, “Philosophy of Time Travel“, and “Metaphysics“. He also sat on the founding board of the PPLS Writing Centre.

What led you to get involved with the writing centre?

Alasdair Richmond

I thought it was a good idea that there should be some supportive but non-legislative guidance.  I thought that a bit of advice from people who have marked a lot of essays but probably have written a few essays of that type might not come amiss.  Whereas medical doctors, presumably, have to treat a lot of conditions for which they have never been in the first-person perspective, we all of us have a first-person perspective to bring to bear on what it’s like to write essays as well as to mark them. 

What was your experience like as an undergraduate?  Did you enjoy writing?

I did.  I took to essay writing much more easily than I took to tutorials.  In fact, I was probably quite a way into my second year before I started speaking with any confidence in class, whereas the essay business seemed to be something that I took to quite early on and enjoyed.   The constraints of having a word limit.  You know, here are the things that you have to read, go and find them.  These are some suggestions for things you might want to pursue.  And I think one of the things that swung me towards doing philosophy for my degree (I went to university to do something else originally; I took one philosophy course as an outside and it gradually took over) was that I found that I really wanted to go and pursue the suggested readings.  I found it interesting to break an often considerable range of views down into something I could analyse, preferably, on my own.  Or at least to demonstrate that I’d weighed up the different sides.  I found that a really interesting exercise, and still do.  

How did you approach writing?

I don’t think I was very aware of an approach then, but looking back at it now, the way that I used to approach an essay in this subject is something like the way I urge my students to approach them now.  Which is to think about having three distinct parts or phases.  You don’t have to follow these in the essay; you don’t have to do part 1, part 2, part 3.  But I do think there’s a three-stage process of reflecting on the thesis that you’re trying to construct. One, what do I think?  Two, how might someone try to object?  And three, how might I try to meet those objections? 

And you also need to learn to see the view that you favour as if it wasn’t one of yours, but just a view on the table that is susceptible to criticism like any other.  Philosophy being philosophy, there’s scarcely anything worth asserting that somebody won’t be able to take issue with.  Anything that’s worth putting forward is going to be susceptible to some kind of criticism.  Thinking your way through possible criticisms and how you might respond, weighing up the differences between the criticisms that are fairly superficial versus the ones that might actually force you to completely rethink the view that you’re articulating, those were always very useful exercises. 

I’ve never been very sympathetic to the view that you should be able to argue for or against any position whatsoever.  I think that assumes a disconnection between conviction and argument that I don’t think is attainable (or healthy if it is attainable).  But I do think you have to be sensitive to possible challenges.  “Right, the fact that this is the view is mine doesn’t give it any authority.  Just because I’ve done quite a bit of reading, quite a bit of reflection, doesn’t necessarily mean that this view is conclusive.  People can fail to think what I think and be perfectly reasonable, rational, and worth talking to. So how might someone try to challenge my view, and how might I respond?”.  And sometimes reflecting on that can reveal weak spots that might not have occurred to you otherwise.  Or places where you might have let continuity of tone carry you across a gap in argument. 

And you should get clear on what your view is, what you think.  That can be the hardest part.  Because it’s much much easier, particularly if you’ve surveyed a lot of literature or if you’ve been teaching or if you’re a postgraduate who’s also a tutor, to articulate what half a dozen other people think about the topic: Hume says this, Descartes says this. But that’s only part of the game.  The main part, once you’ve been able to expound and articulate other people’s views, is putting that material to work in constructing an argument of your own.

I sometimes see essays that are very good at the level of exposition, but don’t have the confidence or the courage to take the expounded material and use it to articulate a view of their own. People often look at these issues, particularly the big problems like free will vs determinism, an issue that has notoriously been batted back and forth for hundreds if not thousands years and has drawn forth well-articulated views on every conceivable side, and find them very daunting. 

What sort of help do you get asked for?

Most of the questions I get asked about essay writing are often not about the essay construction, but about originality.  How much originality should I demonstrate?  And I say to people, well, obviously, if you managed to answer one of the great problems, then that would be fantastic.  But success can be achieved at a less spectacular level.  If you find a new way to state a law of nature or you solve Hume’s problem of induction or something really central in the subject, well, obviously we’d be very pleased.  We’d also be very surprised.  Because it tends to be the nature of problems in this subject that they get refined without being solved in any straightforward way.

What I say to tutors who are marking these essays is, look, originality can often take the form of how you frame a question and how you link or relate different answers together, using the materials to construct your statement of the problem and where you think the best answer or answers can be found.  It doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of proposing a whole new answer of your own.  I mean, brilliant if you’ve managed to do that.  But a good essay, a very good essay, could be written that doesn’t manage quite that level of engagement or originality.

The other question I get asked is how to write a first-class essay.  And that one is surprisingly difficult to answer.  After looking at a lot of essays, I tend to think that what makes the difference between an excellent performance and a very good performance is that an excellent performance will have a good judgement of material selection in that an excellent answer will think “right, for the purposes of this essay, I am not trying to offer a general helicopter view of a whole area of the subject.  I’m not aiming to survey metaphysics or the philosophy of science.  I’m not even going to survey a subproblem like what a law of nature is, how scientific theories should be assessed, or whether scientific theories aim to give us the truth or just aim to be useful.  Instead, what I’m going to do is show some selectivity in how I frame a specific problem, and I’m going to keep a careful eye on the materials that I muster in order to answer the question.”  Because it’s of the nature of philosophy that virtually any question can be pursued to the point that it connects up with something else.  You start off talking about laws of nature, and before you know it you end up talking about counterfactuals and theory of truth, and it can just ramify off into the infinite distance.

I also try to keep people’s essay expectations bounded.  “Look, this is something that you need to speak to for the purposes of your essay. This is crucial.  This is a core reading for your question. This is a philosopher whose views you need to take some account of.” Instead of including things that are potentially interesting but maybe not essential.  What I think makes a very good essay is that it has a very good sense of what it needs to address and what it can safely leave to one side.  And showing that kind of selectivity comes with a bit of practice.  It’s one of the key skills that you get from repeated essay writing.

Do you have any tips for students to help them attain that kind of focus?

It’s good to have an introductory paragraph that says “for the purposes of this essay, this is the view that I will take as crucial, and I intend to show this and this and this about it”.  I wonder if it has to do with confidence — I find that essays that don’t get off to a good start are ones that begin with a very general unexceptionable statement like “for a long time philosophers have debated X”.   But the fact that a bunch of philosophers have talked about something is not necessarily an index of value.  Philosophers have debated a whole bunch of things.  We can take it for granted that philosophers have kicked something around for centuries.  We want to find out what you think is interesting and which view you think should prevail.  Put that in a less vanilla, less general, more specific statement.   The more specific you can make it, the better.  The better the focus in the introduction, the more you can articulate the view that you want to criticise and then you can go on to articulating the problems with it and how you might respond.  

What about guidance on handling references?

I often get asked things like “How many sources should I cite?” or even “How many quotations should I have?”, and I say, well, it’s really a matter of what you find useful in building your argument.  The mere fact that most essays cite, let’s say, four sources, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way to success.  When you’re putting your sources together, reflect on what you found useful in building your essay.  If you want more advice, additional or alternative readings, by all means contact the staff who’ve lectured on this topic, and they can usually oblige with something over and above the core readings, or sometimes alternatives to the core readings.  And think to yourself, look, has this article or chapter or this book, if you’ve really done a lot of reading, has it helped me to articulate my view, has it helped me to develop my view, is this something that I need to cite?  If so, then cite it.  If it’s not helped you, if it’s not something that’s contributed, then don’t feel under any obligation to cite.  It isn’t how many things you’ve read, it’s the use that you make of them that’s important.

Of course, sometimes it can be very useful to point to a source.  I mean, many philosophers of science have said that science is a necessarily inductive process.  Karl Popper comes along and offers a totally non-inductive philosophy of science, and actually says “induction is a myth”. End quote. To be able to cite that is useful.  And sometimes it’s very difficult to achieve a better formulation of a philosopher’s view than the very ones of the philosopher concerned.  

I’ve seen very good essays which are engagements with one or two articles, but they found enough material to give a point-by-point articulated response, where they can develop their own take on the problem without feeling obliged to cite half a dozen things.

Again, the reading you do and the quotations you make are instruments.  They’re there to help you. They’re not ends in themselves.  You don’t have to demonstrate that you’ve read 15 things. 

So if we assume that the student has a handle on all that (making a clear claim, selectively choosing their references, accounting for objections, and so on), what distinguishes the essays at that point?

Right, well sometimes, you know, a really good essay will close with a sketch of directions for future interest and future research.  They’ll say that while this is an essay and so I don’t have room to develop these ideas now, you could develop them in this way and apply them somewhere else.  And you know, if someone can see a possible application for an argument, that is another notch again.  That’s sometimes where you’re getting sometimes even from first to high first territory.  When I get to 80+ marks, someone has already done all the things that we’ve outlined.  They’ve demonstrated engagement with the literature.  They’ve demonstrated some real originality in how they’ve framed the problem.  But if they can then go to the lengths of sketching a further application, a further argument, then that I think is getting into very very good territory.  I stress that you can get a very good mark, indeed a first-class mark, without that last step.  But when I look to work to which I’ve given high firsts, I feel like there’s a research direction that I might want someone to pursue, even if it’s in embryonic form.  If they’re a third-year student or an MSc student, I might say, look, are you thinking about what you might want to take as your topic for a dissertation?  Because you’ve demonstrated a willingness here not just to frame an interesting response to the problem that’s been set, but also to think about how to go on and apply this in another area.  That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of really excellent work.  

Leaving aside argumentation and the actual content of the essay, do students distinguish themselves in the actual communication of those ideas?  In how they put it all into prose?

In terms of sentence construction, philosophy is a subject where, sadly, stylistic excellence sometimes falls to the side, because the primary focus has got to be on articulating the argument, and that can involve technical terms.  It can involve sentences with subordinate clauses where you are in real danger of losing sight of the main verb. Philosophical prose is very unlikely to achieve argumentative strength, economy, clarity and stylistic excellence.  It can be done; there are examples of even modern philosophers who I think write prose that is admirable.  Among the recently deceased, the American philosopher David Lewis.  Among the living, Nancy Cartwright and Rae Langton. I think they write prose that is more than functional prose.  You can see that there has been some consideration given not just to putting the points in the right logical order, not just to writing the verbs and the clauses in the correct syntactical order, but also to presenting the argument so that the tone is consistent, the development is clear, and things receive the right emphasis.  But the constraints of philosophical argument being what they are, you don’t necessarily go to it for the prose.

What sort of difficulties do students encounter when getting used to writing in the subject?  Do they come with any misconceptions about what philosophical writing involves?

Sometimes when people are new to the subject, they want to have a decisive objection to established views.  But the chances are that if any of the major philosophical discussions were amenable to a really decisive objection right away, they wouldn’t have got as far as they did.  And so you have to learn that success needn’t take the form of articulating the way in which one of the great figures of the past has blundered into some obvious self-contradiction that no one else has spotted but you have.   It’s more likely that the business of arguing for a thesis in philosophy is going to take a costs-benefits form.  Are there going to be problems in making the view compatible with science?  Problems articulating the view in non-expensive ways in terms of the number of things you have to postulate?  Does this view outrage common sense?  Does it have implications for how to conduct ourselves?  Does it have moral or even legal implications?  It’s important to steer people away from thinking that the aim of an undergraduate essay is to come across the silver bullet that nobody has ever thought before that will decisively shoot down Hume or Popper or Descartes.  A better approach is articulating why you think that these costs are too heavy to be borne, or these benefits are worth buying at this cost.

Was there any particular advice you received either as a student or later on that made a difference in how you write?

As an undergraduate, I didn’t get any general writing advice, I’m sorry to say.   I got some really helpful particular advice, but we didn’t have sort of writing workshops and things like that.  So what I learned I learned by trying to abstract from particular examples.  “This essay seemed to go over well. Why did it go over well?  Well, I think I articulated the problem clearly, I linked together some useful alternatives. I sketched where I thought this problem could go.   Try that again and see what happens.”  So whatever essay writing I built up as an undergraduate, I built up through a process of trial and error. 

It was only when I became a postgraduate that I began to reflect seriously on what made for successful writing. Because I was working to a question of my own devising, where I was essentially framing the debate for myself, although of course in cooperation with my supervisor, and going out and finding my own sources, I learned the hard way that just because I had spent a long time reading up on a given topic, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was a strong candidate for including in my thesis.  I mean, yes, I spent two weeks climbing this particular ladder.   But I have to kick it away, because it doesn’t contribute.  It may well contribute somewhere else, and contribute to another project down the line, but this particular section I need to take out for now.

Do you follow any particular writing process or rituals now when you write?

No rituals.  As for process, what I usually do is have a phase of intensive reading in which I try to get a good sense of the debate to which I want to contribute, which may be something very narrow, or it may be something quite broad.  

And then there comes a point at which I have to stop reading and start writing, and that’s the bit where I can’t really do anything else.  I like to set aside days where I just sit staring at the screen.  I think, right, well, even if all I’ve got at the end of this is 250 words placed differently from the 250 words I had when I began, provided they help me get a better take on the problem, then I think that’s fine. 

What I watch for is the point where I have to stop reading and start actually articulating my view.  Because there’s always something else that you could be reading.  You could prolong the process of reading into the indefinite future if you wanted to.  There will always be a reply to the fourth reply to the fifth discussion on a topic.  You have to tell yourself to stop when you’ve read enough to articulate a view which should be worth defending.  

So I try to divide it into discrete phases of reading and writing.  I go back and read again in the light of what I’ve been developing.  That seems to work for me.  The downside of that is that it’s difficult to combine the writing phase with doing anything else.  I can’t really take it up and put it down in the middle of a day when I’m marking or teaching or attending meetings. That means that the process of writing sometimes gets squeezed out.  Sometimes weeks at a time go by without the chance to write anything.  But I don’t think that’s unusual.