Systematic Philosophy

to know what can be known

Organizing Theoretical Material: Basic Tips

If you try to build a philosophical system, you will eventually generate a lot of material. At first, you will just have a few arguments. Then you will have 20. Then 50. Then 150. Then more. And when you have more than 150 arguments, you only have two options: organize your material or be buried beneath it.

Tip #1: Name your documents clearly

Most people who build philosophical systems use multiple documents. If you use multiple documents, you should be sure to name all of your documents clearly. Do not use bland, uninformative filenames like these:

  • philosophy.doc
  • other thoughts.txt
  • stuff.docx

Use filenames that clearly indicate what each document contains. Pick filenames you will understand at a glance a year from now. Don’t be afraid of length. Use long filenames. Use spaces and hyphens. Did you just complete your first draft of your thoughts on metaphysics? Did you just finish your second systematic exposition of your views on ethics? If so, you could use filenames like these:

  • Thoughts On Metaphysics – First Draft.docx
  • Ethics – Second Systematic Exposition.txt

You may want to include your name or initials in the filename. You may also want to include the date. It takes a few extra seconds to type a longer, clearer filename. But long filenames can save you hours of time in the future when you want to look back at what you have written.

Tip #2: Use version numbers

As you work to build your philosophical system, you will inevitably go through multiple drafts. It is important to keep track of these drafts. This will make it easy for you to trace the development of your views on different matters.

One great way to keep track of drafts is using version numbers. Take your current draft of a document. Add “- working” to the filename. This will be the working version of your document. Now whenever you want to alter the document, alter the working version. Whenever you substantially alter the working document, save the working document and save an alternate version of the document. Name each alternative version by replacing the “- working” with some version number. The documents named with version numbers should then be left unaltered and will always be available for examination.

For instance, suppose that I am working on metaphysics and I have entitled the document I am writing “Metaphysics – GA.docx”. To use version numbers in the way just described, I first create a working version of the document, which I entitle “Metaphysics – GA – working.docx”. Henceforth, this will be the only version of this document I edit. Next, I save a copy, which I entitle “Metaphysics – GA – 1.0.docx”. Then I work on developing my metaphysical views. As I go, I edit the working document. Whenever I make substantial changes, I save the working version and additional versions of the document, which I entitle “Metaphysics – GA – 1.1.docx”, “Metaphysics – GA – 1.2.docx”, “Metaphysics – GA – 2.0.docx” and so on.

When using two-digit version numbers (e.g., 2.3), it is customary to increment the first number and reset the second number to zero after making a large revision to the content and to increment the second number and leave the first number unchanged after making a small but noteworthy revision to the content.

Tip #3: Break up walls of text

Imagine you are presented with a document. The document has no sections, no paragraphs, no lists of bullet points. No words are italicized. Nothing is bolded or underlined. It is simply an enormous, single-spaced wall of text.

It is hard to work with a wall of text. You cannot determine at a glance what it contains. Does it contain five claims? Or ten? Does it contain three arguments for the second claim or two arguments for the third claim? With a big block of text, the only way to know is to read it.

Luckily, it is possible to present material more clearly. Do not simply use long, unstructured sequences of sentences. Break the document into sections. Give each section an informative title. Use paragraphs. Put different ideas into different paragraphs. Underline or italicize important claims. Use numbered lists to present arguments. Make it obvious what the text contains merely by modifying its appearance. This will make it much easier for you to find things and understand them when you look at the document later.

Don’t let this be your text.

Tip #4: Use color coding and highlighting

In addition to indentation, underlining and so on, it is also extremely useful to use color coding and highlighting. Do you have old material you need to revise? Highlight it all yellow. Do you want to see the weak points of your arguments at a glance? Color all of the dubious statements red.

Tip #5: Use shortcut keys and macros

If you are building a philosophical system, you will end up using your word processor for hours and hours. As a result, it is worth taking some time to figure out how to use your word processor more efficiently. Learn the relevant keyboard shortcuts: keyboard shortcuts are much faster than using the mouse to navigate through menus. If possible, program in new keyboard shortcuts or macros for actions you perform frequently.

For instance, in Microsoft Word it is possible to use macros to program keyboard shortcuts for color coding text. If you color code text frequently, this is extremely useful.

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Written by Geoff Anders

August 3, 2011 at 3:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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