Writing a Timed Essay (Sample Attached)

This is a slightly different post. Recently I’ve been practicing for Cambridge Philosophy Admissions Test, which requires an essay written in 40 minutes. It is daunting. Here are some of my reflections. This is, of course, also a self-therapy session.

  1. Plan. Plan. Plan! The most important part is to think through one’s response. To know how exactly one is to structure the essay, and whether the logic of one’s argument is internally coherent. The typing and actual writing down of sentences, after a few practices, will take little to no time (I wrote 900 words in 30 minutes). It is the thinking through of the structure that counts.
  2. Strive not for word count, but for a coherent argument—in short, quality over quantity. The professors reading the response, frankly, won’t care whether you have written 1200 words or 700. What they will care is whether it looks like you can think clearly and insightfully, constructing an argument that surprises but also makes sense.
  3. Don’t worry whether you have hit all of your points, but make sure that the structure is clear and the general outline and the point that you are making is completed. It doesn’t matter how well the essay is written, if it is half-way done, or lacking a conclusion that ties everything together. Again, it is about the wholeness of the argument.
  4. When in doubt, take examples, construct scenarios or sentences that you can examine. This makes what abstract things you say more understandable, and will help you ground your thought concretely.

Below is a question response, done in 40 minutes. This one, perhaps more than my other essays, required a long time of thinking beforehand, for I found hard to separate opinion and belief. At last, I settled on a distinction that was interesting, sort of worked (though not always, because ordinary language is quite fluid and we sometimes use Opinion and Belief interchangeably), and did not think back on whether it was 100% accurate, powering through despite some doubts.

How does opinion relate to belief?

I will argue in the response that opinion is social, whereas belief is philosophical. They relate each other in that they are all statements about a subject’s view of the world, and are different in that they concern two realms, and are therefore of—as Gilbert Ryle may say—different categories.

Opinion is social in the sense that it is not subject to the law of non-contradiction—there may be two valid opinions that contradict each other. Belief, in contrast, is subject to the law of contradiction—a belief is either true or false, and for a belief to be true is for its obverse to be false. We can intuitively hear this difference between opinion and belief in how “in my opinion” sounds softer and less assertive than “I believe”. I may have the opinion that Capital Punishment should be used in extreme circumstances whilst acknowledging the legitimacy of your opinion that it should never be used, whereas I cannot believe one and acknowledge the other.

This does not, however, mean that there is no difference between valid or invalid opinions, just as there are true and false beliefs. It is just that the way that we determine validity (not in the logical sense, but in the most elementary sense of: whether this opinion is worth acknowledging and considering) and truth—and therefore opinion and belief—that differs.

Opinion is social in that it exists in the intersubjective world, where we argue with each other to try to reach a “common ground.” This connection can be seen more clearly through the Greek equivalent of opinion, doxa. Doxa is what Athenian citizens hold in the marketplace as they deliberate with each other on how the city is to be run. Each person’s doxa rises out of their special position—history, story, friends, families—in the world (hence we have the metaphoric use of “it seems to me…”/doxa moi). So long as they authentically represent what one can see due to one’s specific experience and place in the world, one’s opinion is to be respected. The validity of an opinion is tested through questioning, as Socrates (in the Early Platonic Dialogues) did to Athenians, to assess whether the opinion one holds stems out of one’s life-history, and therefore one can hold firm to it despite challenge, or whether it is a chance opinion one has adopted from someone else as mere ideological discourse. This is why Plato’s Early Dialogues end in aporia—for once Socrates has cleansed the interlocutors’ opinions of inauthenticity, thus making it valid, there is no way to reconcile their opinion with his own. (The prime example, perhaps, is Socrates’ dialogue in Gorgias, arguing for the existence of Justice against the young Sophist, hopelessly failing to convert him.) Therefore, in the social world, we learn to compromise with each other in order to exist with our diversity of opinions, each acknowledging the legitimacy of another’s opinion, and giving them credit by satisfying some of the other’s demands (Trade Union against Big Capital, Mother against Child). It is this distinct social nature of opinion, of both becoming valid through social interactions and questioning by another (or even from self-questioning, which is also social insofar as the Self splits into two, the questioner and the defender), and the consequent necessity of compromising into a consensus because of the impossibility to convert an authentic, valid opinion, that makes opinion social.

Belief, in contrast, is philosophical, in the sense that it is concerned with the sole truth—one that cannot be peacefully contradicted. This is philosophical because the principle of non-contradiction, starting from Aristotle (and even earlier, when Socrates proclaimed that “it is better to suffer justice than to do injustice”—proclaiming that contradicting my conscience is the worse event that can occur to oneself—the principle of non-contradiction, in its moral, rather than logical form, was already posited).  If someone believes that “The Earth is Flat,” then his belief is just false, and we, if we think that there is value in making people believe what is true (or more likely to be true), will try to convert him, again and again until he is converted into believing that “The Earth is Round.” We will not stop half-way, as we did in opinion, and acknowledge the validity of his belief. (Note also that it sounds strange to the ear if we say “It is my opinion that the earth is round”, for this proposition lies not in the realm of opinion, but in the realm of true/false belief.) Belief, also, is philosophical because it does not need the validation of others in the social sphere, nor is it contingent on the life-history of any sThis is a ingle person: true belief is universally true, for every single person. There is no compromise or tradeoff in the realm of belief and Philosophy. There is only the lone quest for what is true. Therefore, throughout the history of philosophy, there are numerous examples of geniuses who were not recognized in their times, such as Vico, Nietzsche, Herder, Kierkegaard—but this does not make their belief any less true.

In sum, opinion relate to belief as the social side of human beings relate to its philosophical side. One is concerned with validity/invalidity as one’s position in the world, the other is concerned with truth and falsity. Therefore, one is done with others, another, can be done by oneself.

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