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Writing formal philosophy

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This is a guest contribution by Richard Pettigrew, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol for our series How Philosophers Write: Stephen Hawking speculated that every formula he included in A Brief History of Time would cut its readership in half. In the end, he included only one, E = mc2, and the book sold half a million copies every year for twenty years. You often hear a similar complaint from those who work in the more formal parts of philosophy--Bayesian epistemology, philosophical logic, formal semantics, decision theory, voting theory, formal approaches in metaphysics and ethics, for instance. They lament that their work is not so often read, not so often discussed as work on nearby topics that do not use a formal framework. Now, I don’t know whether the numbers support this gripe, but whether they do or not, there is certainly a lot of work in formal philosophy that is not easily accessible to people who aren’t fully immersed in the formal framework it uses. And while this is no doubt due in part to the difficulty of the mathematical techniques in play, it is also partly the result of the way in which some formal papers are written. And, indeed, mea culpa, I include a number of my own papers in this--I read them back sometimes and hate myself for not doing more to open them up to a wider readership. So I’m writing this not from the smug position of someone who claims to know all the secrets, but rather from the position of someone who’s trying to get better at making their formal work easier to read and digest. I’m not sure whether I’m succeeding, but here are some of the writing techniques I’ve been trying to use. I’d love to hear alternatives or supplements in the comments. Write like your best teacher We often talk about how our teaching feeds into our research. When we do, we usually mean one of two things: (i) teaching a topic, having to lay it out for your students, makes you understand it better; (ii) having to explain a problem to. . .

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News source: The Philosophers' Cocoon

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