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Bob Hargrave 2011

Rodin's Thinker

How to Fail Philosophy Exams

This is a copy of the famous bronze. If you would like to see a crap 3-D
rotating version, click here. And those anoraks amongst you who prefer
Lego to bronze could try here. But whichever way you take it, he is locked
into thinking.
And that is how to fail philosophy exams. Time spent thinking about how
to express your thoughts on paper is time wasted. And, with one caveat
(noted below), time spent thinking how to structure your material is time

Bob Hargrave 2011

wasted. All of that should have been dealt with at the revision stage. We
present our simple 9-step programme for getting it right:

The Questions the Candidates Actually Answered | What the Examiners

want | Word Limit | Practice Without Tears | Structure | Knowledge of the
Text | Opening Paragraph| Closing Paragraph | Authorial Voice | Oofle
Dust | Hitler

The Questions the Candidates Actually Answered

Marking examination scripts is drudgery, and the sodden examiner must
needs play all kinds of silly intellectual games just to avoid falling into
clinical depression. One of them is"Guess the Question", and its object,
given the assumption that the answer you are staring at is an honest,
decent attempt at the question set, to work out what the question must
have been. Here are some samples from recent examinations.
Q.1. Write down all you can remember about Locke on Personal Identity,
in no particular order. Abandon any attempt at accuracy or rigour. Above
all, do not draw any conclusions.
Q.2. Think up a really stupid view on Personal Identity, which no
philosopher has ever held, and blame it on Hume. Remember to end your
essay in the middle of a sentence.
Q.3. Compose a brief piece on Personal Identity parodying the style
of Readers' Digest, and beginning with the phrase "Ever since the dawn of
Q.4. Copy out from memory your tutorial essay on Personal Identity.
Q.5. Confuse Hume with Berkeley. If you have never heard of Berkeley,
just confuse Hume.
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Bob Hargrave 2011

What the Examiners want

Philosophy examiners know what they are looking for. Much more so than
in Politics or Economics, surprisingly enough. When papers are doublemarked, the two philosophy marks are usually near-as-dammit the same.
Which is not true in the other two subjects. So it is well worth your
while knowing what they are looking for.
So what do they want? Well, here is a typical comment from the
Examiners' Reports. They say something similar every year.
.....All candidates would have done better if they had concentrated
on clearly explaining simple points which they did understand, and which
were under their command, rather than gesturing vaguely at more complex
or sophisticated condiderations which they did notunderstand, and which
were not under their command.
And they mean it. All candidates. They want to see if you have acquired
the art and skill of making a philosophical case, that you have grasped how
to explain a simple point so as to really make it stick. You are not being
tested on how much you know about philosophy. You are being tested on
how well you can explain and argue what you do know.
And everything else follows from that thought......

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Word Limit
Before you begin practising exam essays, you need to know your own
personal word-limit, namely how much you can write in the time allowed.
So: copy out something (anything) atthinking speed, as if the words flowed
from your mind through your pen, for ten minutes. Then multiply by 4
(for prelims essays you should allow 5 minutes of thinking time) or by 5
(for finals essays you should budget for ten minutes of thinking time).
This will give you your personal limit, and in exam practice you will write
essays up to that limit. Remember, philosophy exams are not a speed test,
or a volume test.. They are a clarity test.

Bob Hargrave 2011

Nota Very Bene Indeed:

Do not practice essays by sitting down and trying to write an essay from
scratch under time-constraints. All you are practising there is being underprepared and under pressure. Instead, take an exam question, and spend
as much time as you have available on putting together the best essay you
can (at your word-limit). Use books, use lecture notes, ask other people, do
some further reading if you need to. But make it your best shot. Result:

If anything like that title comes up in the exam, Bingo!

If a closely related question comes up, at worst you may have to

think about how to restructure your material under this new title:
the material itself will be at your fingertips.

There are many individual points you will want to make

in any essay in the area: again, the material will just flow from your
pen onto the page.

And following that last thought where it leads.....

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Practice: How to Practice Exam Essays Without

Writing Any
When revising, you will - over and over - come across a point that you
want to make, and want to make well. STOP RIGHT THERE. Take time
out and really work on expressing that point as clearly, concisely and
elegantly as you can. Concentrate on producing a gem of a paragraph. The
effort will be well worth the while. Not only will you be practising writing
accurately, but you will be storing up in memory how you make your
point. And when you need to do it for real, you will find that it flows from
the pen.

Bob Hargrave 2011

Given a store of points superbly made, you have the makings of superb
essays under a variety of titles. All you need on top is:

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There is a very simple way to think about structure in philosophy
essays. Any piece of philosophy argues a case - that's what philosophers do.
And so the structure of the essay will be the structure of the argument.
Full stop.
Think of your task as that of persuading an intelligent, philosophically
trained (but not necessarily philosophically well-informed-on-the-topic-inquestion) audience of your view on the question in hand. And work out the
flow of argument you would use to persuade them. Of course, this requires
that you know your view on the matter. Which requires in turn that you
actually have a view on the matter. Which leads to
SOME VERY IMPORTANT ADVICE: Don't answer questions upon
which you do not have a settled view. Authorial Voice is important here.
Authors have things to say. And if you haven't got anything to say, it will
come across in your prose. Loud and clear.
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Knowledge of the Text

Some of you will be taking text-based papers. So you should know your
texts inside out, and be able to locate every major quote, argument, topic
or theme. And not just to locate them textually, but intellectually as well.
Indeed, the second is the more important. For those of you not taking textbased papers, it is still a very good plan to demonstrate awareness of
classic texts in philosophy. (See also Oofle Dust).
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Opening Paragraph

Bob Hargrave 2011

Whisper it only in safe and secluded places, but examiners are human
beings like the rest of us. Well, like some of the rest of us, at least. I was
forgetting John Redwood. For them, as for us, first impressions make
a big difference. Inscribe this in letters two feet high on your wall:
You don't get a second chance to make a first impression
Which means that the most important part of any essay is the opening
paragraph. And the most important element of your script as a whole is
the opening paragraph of your first essay. So practice your opening
paragraphs. It matters.
Make your opening paragraphs crisp, clear and punchy. No flannel. No
waffle. No clumsy constructions. No mis-spellings.
The authorial voice should be of one in command of the material. It should
directly engage with the reader: no passive or impersonal constructions,
for they distance the author from the reader; no questions left hanging, for
they depower the author.
If possible, your opening paragraph will exhibit a propensity for
formalism where appropriate. (See also Oofle Dust).
For examples of good and bad, click here.
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Closing Paragraph
And the same applies to your closing paragraph. For that is the second most
salient matter in an examiner's mind. We look at your opening paragraph, to see
where you think you are going. We look at your closing paragraph, to see
where you think you have ended up. And then we look at the rest of the essay,
to see if the considerations therein deployed do indeed link starting-point to
So don't
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Authorial Voice

Bob Hargrave 2011

Vital. If you have the right voice, you can get away with murder. Your essay
will sound like the right stuff, even if it is intellectually deficient on closer
scrutiny. And if you have the wrong voice, you will have to display a most
impressive understanding of your material to correct the powerful initial

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Oofle Dust

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And finally, a most useful piece of advice: avoid Hitler.
I quote from a recent examiner's report on the Ethics paper:
"The name most often mentioned in candidates' scripts was that of Kant, who
featured in 97% of scripts. The second most often mentioned name was that
of Hitler, who appeared in 91% of scripts. Almost all of this latter group
would have been crude moral relativists if they had not suddenly thought of
Hitler halfway through their answers"

Bob Hargrave 2011

Bob Hargrave 2011