The Lawnmower Essay and the Problems of Philosophy

Among peripheral documents for undergrad courses, Jim Pryor’s “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper” is remarkably influential. As in other cases of virality, the magnitude of the resulting influence is not easily measured. But my first- and second-hand observation, the essay’s many glowing reviews, and the linked page’s excellent SEO combine to suggest that it has a status not unlike that of Plato’s Apology in some philosophical quarters: it has been received as a sort of holy text or perfect enunciation of principle. I suspect, however, that it is also like the Apology in that professional philosophers spend more time telling undergrads to read it than they do studying its details. Here I’ll examine some of those details and conclude that the professional obsession with “Guidelines” is unhealthy, or at least reflects something unhealthy about the discipline.

“Guidelines” is doing a few things at once: it sets out some of Dr. Pryor’s course policies; it gives advice about the mechanics of writing; and it describes successful pieces of writing in his class. Another way of saying that last thing is: “Guidelines” describes a particular subgenre of a literary form. I’m going to call that form, the one Pryor is requiring the reader to use in completing course assignments, the Lawnmower Essay.

The Lawnmower Essay has never been described more famously or cleverly than in “Guidelines,” but don’t conclude that it’s Pryor- or NYU-specific. It is even more ubiquitous in analytic philosophy classrooms than the five-paragraph essay is in high-school English classes. It is a variant of the argumentative essay in which clarity, explicitness, and exposure of logical structure are dialed as high as possible. Indeed, they are dialed so high that practitioners often ignore, miss, or renounce the Lawnmower Essay’s connection to the literary form of the essay. (The observant reader will notice that Pryor never once uses the word “essay” in the document).

I mentioned before that the Lawnmower Essay demands clarity, explicitness, and exposure of logical structure; here’s how meeting those demands can play out. In ordinary life you might write me a note: “Beans need to soak overnight before they’re within an hour’s cooking of being edible, so you should soak those beans.” If I’m a fair reader and a competent cook, I’ll understand what you said, but note that you’ve suppressed some premises in this note to me, if this is all you wrote. You implied, but did not say, that we plan to eat those beans tomorrow and are in a position to cook them today. You made some questions about the beans in question — e.g., that they’re not lentils (which cook up just fine without soaking); that they’re not canned (in which case they’re already relevantly “soaked,” though good luck defining that term with Myhrvoldian precision); that you have no reason to believe they’ll resist soaking (by having too much wax, say); that by “cook” you don’t mean “pressure-cook” or some other method powerful enough to render pre-soaking unnecessary; and so on. (How long is “overnight,” anyway? Do we need to make sure they’re submerged, or can we just let them float in a pot of water?)

Contemporary analytic philosophers tend to be addressing questions like “How much of my income must I give to charity?” and “What exactly does the name ‘Banquo’ refer to?,” not “Should I soak these beans tonight?.” But the process above — expand, clarify, refine, expand, clarify, refine, on and on — is what the Lawnmower Essay is about. Not all of what it’s about: you might also present examples that are intended to convince the reader to accept one premise rather than another; you might argue that certain premises are inconsistent; and so on. These operations are natural extensions of the fundamental work of exposing the logical structure of an argument, and are continuous with it. Our little bean soup inference, after all this work is done, would be likely to occupy 1000 or 2000 words: that’s impractical for a note left on the kitchen table, but it’s much more thorough.

That sort of work is what Pryor, and many other modern philosophy instructors, are looking for in a philosophy classroom; that work is what philosophy, as they teach it, is. What would seem pedantic or obnoxious or unhelpful in the case of bean stew — though I do tend to want a bit more intellectual rigor in the recipes I read — is much more helpful in the subjects academic philosophy deals with. And again, helpful or not, in Dr. Pryor’s class it is mandatory. You haven’t done your work, according to “Guidelines,” until: you are arguing from premises that any interlocutor would agree to; you have not missed the opportunity to clarify what might need clarifying; you have given examples where examples would help; and you have laid out in plain black ink every premise and inference you need to make your argument airtight. Hence my calling it a “Lawnmower Essay:” you can’t miss a spot, it won’t turn out right unless you go in perfect order, and attempts at elegant flourish figure to get you nothing but blemishes. If you’re not going slow, or if an observer would have any trouble figuring out what you’re doing, you’re not doing it right.

None of that is intended as disparagement. I love the Lawnmower Essay. I’m proud of the semesters I spent grading Lawnmower Essays and of the intellectual muscles I developed writing my own. It’s a form that develops epistemic virtues of rigor and straightforwardness. Its strictness makes you develop new skills: when you can’t use elision, metaphor, or most of your vocabulary, you develop new capacities of expression. I’m grateful to have written so many Lawnmower Essays, just as I’m grateful that forms of “to be” were forbidden in my ninth-grade English assignments and that my undergrad poetry workshop put us through all the ordinary paces and then some (we did scansion, we wrote sonnets and sonnets and more sonnets, we wrote villanelles and sestinas, and then we were presented with new and tougher rules). Our public discourse would be healthier and more honest if we replaced some shrieking op-eds with Lawnmower Essays. It’s not just that doing the chores is good for you; there really are lawns out there that need mowing.

But, again, “Guidelines” is not just a record of Dr. Pryor’s course policies. It is also a statement of what it is to do philosophy. Sometimes Pryor speaks of “this course,” of his teaching assistants, and of what’s done “here,” but more often he simply talks about what philosophy is and what we must do to meet its norms. And the document would not be so widely reproduced, distributed, assigned, and adored if it were not taken as a description of philosophy itself.

In its first role, that of recording course policy, I have no fundamental beef with “Guidelines,” and not just because it’s not my place to tell Dr. Pryor how to run his courses. It’s because, again, mowing lawns is good for you, and the Lawnmower Essay is a perfectly good form to constrain students with, at least sometimes. I do have some non-fundamental beefs here, though; I’ll mention two.

First, Pryor says that we should “start from common assumptions [your audience would] agree to,” and we later learn that this audience should be imagined as maximally hostile. But is this really possible? Isn’t it more accurate to say that we should make our premises as plausible as possible, and fully explicit? I think this is just loose phrasing on Pryor’s part, especially since his examples of model writing tend to involve premises being made explicit rather than completely obvious truths being enunciated. It’s an unfortunate slip, however, because there is such a great difference between “start from something your opponent must agree with” and “start from a reasonable place while making it fully clear that’s where you’re starting from.” It’s the difference between starting at the edge of the lawn and starting at the edge of the world.

Second, because Pryor is telling the reader to adhere not just to the formal and rhetorical strictures of the essay but to those of the Lawnmower Essay, an element of his FAQ — “Can you write your paper as a dialogue or story?” — comes off as a bit disingenuous. (The answer is, unsurprisingly, a polite “no.”) By presenting dialogues and stories as the relevant alternatives to the form he’s laying out, he implies that the form in question is The Essay, not The Lawnmower Essay, to which the most relevant alternatives are not dialogues and stories, but other kinds of essays.¹ There plainly are many other such kinds: the essay is the form of Montaigne and Emerson and on and on, but an Emersonian essay will not satisfy Dr. Pryor’s TA, who is expecting a Lawnmower Essay. It would be more honest, or at least more informative, to openly acknowledge that the document describes a subgenre, which certain kinds of professional philosophers employ disproportionately (though not at all exclusively), and that Dr. Pryor expects his prompts to be answered in that subgenre — not with a dialogue or story, but also not with any other kind of essay.

Again, though, “Guidelines” is a very fine course handout, and these are small complaints with it in that capacity. They point the way, however, to far more serious complaints with it in the other roles in which it is routinely deployed: the professional manifesto and/or general guide to written argumentation. Here we need to recall that Dr. Pryor recommends that the Lawnmower Essayist imagine and write toward a reader who is “lazy, stupid, and mean.” Quickly glossed: so lazy that you need to explain everything you say, because he won’t bother to look up or recall anything; so stupid that he needs taking by the hand, inch by logical inch; and so mean that you must relentlessly disambiguate terms he might otherwise maliciously misconstrue, anticipate and parry even unpromising/sophistical objections, and otherwise cover your rhetorical behind from every direction.

Note I said “write toward,” not “write for.” You can’t — nobody can — truly write for a reader who so deeply lacks the epistemic virtues necessary for proper reading. We continue to teach reading at the university level because there is, beyond the mechanics of literacy we teach in elementary school, a receptivity to good writing that requires those epistemic virtues. (Educated people sometimes speak of “where they learned to read.” They aren’t talking about preschool, and they also aren’t speaking loosely, though they are using a specific sense of the verb.) The audience Pryor has us imagine isn’t an audience of readers at all, and you can’t write for someone who’s not a reader any more than you can feed a doll. The best we can do is write at them, as boxers work on punching bags or children serve tea to stuffed animals.

Here the philosopher might object: those other essayists have goals other than arguing for the truth of propositions and the correctness of explanations. So I’m wrong to have implied that the Lawnmower Essay is merely one form among many that is suitable if one’s mission is as narrowly truth- / explanation-correctness-directed as the contemporary analytic philosopher’s. Making everything explicit and disambiguating wherever possible just are the intellectual work of clarifying claims and arguments (or so the objection would go); those other kinds of essays use methods that are strictly worse for the purposes of philosophical argument.

This objection doesn’t work. First, it relies on an controversial definition of philosophy; we (not just the objector and I, but very many of us, very much of the time) notoriously disagree about what philosophy is. Moreover, none of the candidate definitions carves out something the pursuit of which Lawnmower Essays are uniquely suited for. So, for example, if you think that philosophy is just about arguing for truths, or about arguing for truths about less-empirical things: don’t mathematicians do that too? Why, then, don’t mathematicians use (analogues of) the Lawnmower Essay, except in problem sets?²

I think that’s enough to be done with the objection, but if you aren’t convinced yet, note that the objection admits of other refutations, too. One set of such refutations begins with the observation that the Lawnmower Essay can be very good for defending oneself rhetorically while still being very poor for communicating truths and correct explanations. Because we write essays (and sonnets, and epics, and ghazals, and jingles, and grocery lists) in order to communicate, essays — even of the most rabidly truth-seeking sort — are thus governed by norms of communication other than the maximization of self-defense. When we put things in logical order, we risk taking them out of rhetorical or epistemic order. If we keep them in rhetorical/epistemic order, and so pass up the chance to put them in logical order, we risk a wagging finger from a lazy, stupid, and/or mean reader. What should we do? If we are students of Dr. Pryor’s, and acting in that capacity, we should avoid the wagging finger and restore logical order just for the sake of logical order: for the practice of doing it, for proving we know what it is, and for proving that what we’re saying suits it well. If we’re acting as writers, though, we should write for actual readers and choose the best rhetorical order. The finger-wagging audience is terroristic and not to be negotiated with. Even if we do give in, they’ll just ask for more.

Finally, the very norms of the Lawnmower Essay that usually lead us away from epistemic sin sometimes lead us into it. Consider, for example, the device of disambiguation: if we use a technical or possibly unfamiliar term, we are told to say exactly what we mean by it, as early as possible in the essay. But what if the term is something like “consciousness” or “reason” or “rule,” where the relevant paraphrase might be more confusing than the term itself? Even worse, what if all available paraphrases distort the term so badly that we end up discussing something neither we nor or readers have any intuitive grasp of or reason to care about? There are regions of lawn so gerrymandered that mowing them accomplishes nothing. The skilled philosopher will not make errors like these, but the best way to avoid them is often to abandon the Lawnmower Essay.

Time and human attention are finite and precious. When we spend them by writing, we must remember that there are, at least potentially, readers out there waiting to spend, in turn, their finite, precious reserves on our work. We owe it to them to use the best tool for the job — the best communicative tool for the job. Sometimes that’s the Lawnmower Essay; often it’s not. Choose wisely.

  1. Maybe this isn’t fair. As we’ve already noted, Pryor never uses the word “essay” in the document. Perhaps he thinks of The Philosophy Paper as an entirely different form, or as a kind of argument so pure it shouldn’t be thought of as having any relationship to any literary form. But I don’t think Pryor has this in mind, because (i) it would render his FAQ even more disingenuous / odd and (ii) I can’t charitably assume that anyone as smart and educated as Dr. Pryor would believe that philosophical essays are not really essays.

  2. A quick aside here. You will sometimes hear philosophers claim that philosophical explanation is like mathematical explanation, with similar norms and techniques. Do not believe this (and certainly do not take this as permission to submit philosophy papers that obey the argumentative and stylistic norms of mathematical proofs). When you hear this, the speaker is almost always best understood as asserting one of two other claims. Either: (A) that philosophers write the way the speaker imagines mathematicians write, which in turn means: that philosophers write the way philosophers write. To the speaker’s credit, this claim is true. Or: (B) that philosophy classroom exercises (by which they mean Lawnmower Essays) are conducted the way mathematics exercises (e.g., problem sets) are. This is not tautologically true, nor is it perfectly accurate, but it’s accurate enough.