Philosophy Department


The Five Skills

Students enrolled in the course Philosophy 470–Thesis are to learn five skills. The thesis advisor evaluates how well a student’s performance exhibits these skills over the course of the academic year.

The five skills are 1) managing time, 2) locating a topic, 3) summarizing a debate, 4) situating an issue, and 5) writing a good thesis.

1. Managing Time

One of the things to be learned from writing a thesis over the course of a year, apart from what one learns about the subject, is how to organize one’s time efficiently. Most students will not have undertaken such a project before, and to do well, they will have to learn to manage their time well.

2. Locating a Topic

A student must also learn to locate within a general area a tractable specific question that can be handled in a piece of writing the size of a thesis. The requirement of a thesis proposal in the fourth or fifth week of the first semester provides a means to assess the student’s performance at finding a topic.

3. Summarizing a Debate

A student must be able to summarize where things stand on the student’s topic in a way that is clear, concise, accurate, and thorough. A student might have to do this several times over the course of the year. A student must be able to give an overview before the student can go on to make an original contribution to the student’s topic. This skill is primarily exhibited in the thesis itself.

4. Situating an Issue

The student must be able to place the topic and the student’s contribution to the topic in a larger context. The student must be able to recognize what has been left unresolved and what loose ends have been left to dangle. The student must also recognize how the thesis fits in with the larger area within which the topic is located. This skill is primarily shown in the thesis and the oral examination.

5. Writing a Good Thesis

A good piece of philosophical writing exhibits four virtues: 1) clarity, 2) accuracy, 3) thoroughness, and 4) originality.

5.1 Clarity
Good philosophical writing is clear in presenting sometimes difficult material and subtle ideas.

5.2 Accuracy
Good philosophical writing is accurate in reporting the views and in conveying the arguments in support of those views.

5.3 Thoroughness
Good philosophical writing is thorough in canvassing the views and arguments that have been offered. Within the limits of a thesis, a student takes into account the relevant literature.

5.4 Originality
The best philosophical writing also exhibits originality. It finds something new to say about the topic under discussion—even when the topic has been under debate since antiquity. Originality in philosophy may be displayed in many ways: a new and intriguing thesis with cogent supporting argument, a new but plausible interpretation of difficult material in the writing of an important philosopher, a genuinely novel argument for a well–known philosophical argument or interpretation, a genuinely novel criticism of an influential argument or interpretation, a novel defense of an argument or interpretation against a criticism widely thought to vitiate it, a derivation of heretofore unrecognized consequences from a well-known thesis, and a revised formulation of a thesis immunizing it against certain important criticisms—and this list is not exhaustive.

Standards for Thesis Grades

A grade in the A range (A+, A, A-) is given to a thesis that is almost flawless on the score of clarity, accuracy, and thoroughness and that at least contains some suggestive original ideas that remain relatively undeveloped. Higher grades in the A range are given to work that at least contains significant originality that is partially developed.

A grade in the B range is given to a thesis that gives a reader with no previous knowledge of the subject a knowledge of the basics marred by some localized misunderstandings brought about by a lapse or lapses that vitiate some significant part or parts of the thesis.

A thesis falls on the border between an A- and a B+ if it is a thesis that is almost flawless in clarity, accuracy, and thoroughness but lacks substantial original ideas. A reader with no previous knowledge of the subject would come away from the thesis with an accurate knowledge of the basics. Touches of originality move the grade up. Lapses in clarity, accuracy, and thoroughness move the grade down. In practice, most theses on this border show a mix of flashes of originality and lapses in the other virtues that more or less cancel each other out. 

A grade in the C range is given to a thesis with deficiencies serious enough to prevent it from accomplishing what a B thesis does. A reader with no previous knowledge of the subject would not come away from such a thesis with an accurate knowledge of the basics marred only by some localized misunderstandings.

At the end of the oral exam, the thesis advisor will ask the other members of the orals board for their evaluation of the student’s performance in the oral exam and their evaluation of the thesis itself. In giving a grade for the course, the thesis advisor will consider this advice, as well as the student’s performance over the course of the year in managing time, finding a topic, summarizing a debate, and situating a topic.