Exam study guides

Here is the study guide for the midterm exam (exam will be held in class on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018). The following are the same document in two formats, and the information is also copied below.

Midterm Study Guide (Feb 2018) (MS Word)

Midterm Study Guide (Feb 2018) (PDF)

Here is guidance on preparing for and writing the essays, including a marking rubric. This document also provides a breakdown of how much the argument outline will be worth on the exam, and how much the essay will be worth (sorry I didn’t originally include this information in the previously posted study guide!).

This information is posted at the end of the page, below.

Midterm: Advice on preparing for essays, marking criteria (MS Word)

Midterm: Advice on preparing for essays, marking criteria (PDF)


Format of the exam

1. Outline an argument from a passage

You will be given a passage of text from one of the texts assigned as required reading for the course, from the beginning of the course (Socrates/Plato) through the Mill readings.

You will need to:

  • Outline the argument in the passage: give the premises (number them 1, 2, 3, etc.) and the conclusion. You can use quotes from the passage for premises and conclusion if you wish, or put them in your own words (the latter is sometimes more helpful for us to see why you might have picked the premises you did, because it helps us to see how you’re interpreting the passage).
    • The order of the premises won’t matter unless it’s the case that one logically follows from or is supported by earlier ones.
    • There is usually more than one way to outline premises for an argument (though the conclusion would usually be the same across these), so we’ll be looking for whether the way you’ve outlined the premises makes sense of the passage and the logical structure of the argument, not so much whether they match exactly how we would have outlined them.
  • Say which philosopher or philosophical theory the passage is from. So, for example, if the passage is from either Epicurus or Cicero, you could just say it’s “Epicurean” (you won’t have to distinguish between Epicurus and Cicero). Also, for Socrates/Plato, you don’t have to say which of the two texts we’ve read that the passage is from. Just say it’s from Socrates or Plato.
  • Explain how the argument in this passage connects to a larger argument the philosopher makes, or some other aspect of their overall view. The idea here is to help us see why you think the passage is from one philosopher rather than another, and for you to show that you understand more of the philosopher’s view than only that one passage.


2. Medium-length essay question

You will be provided with at least two essay questions, and you will need to choose one to write about during the exam. You should aim to spend about 25-30 minutes on this section.


What to study

For the part where you need to outline a passage, it should be enough if you’ve done the readings and followed along in class (including in discussion groups), for you to be able to: (a) know how to outline arguments, and (b) recognize a passage as belonging to one philosopher or another, and how it fits into another aspect of their views. We will choose a passage that, so far as we can tell, clearly identifies one philosopher or philosophical view over another, that connects with some main point in their view.

For the medium-length essay: if you are prepared to discuss the following, you should be good to answer any of the essay questions on the exam. The topics below are not the actual questions as they will be worded, but general topics. Also, it’s not the case that one question will include all of the bullet points under each of the two sections below. The questions would instead focus on one of those.

Possible general topics for the essay questions

You may be asked to do a comparison/contrast between the views of two philosophers:

  • Socrates/Plato and Epicurus on what is important in life
  • Epicurus and Nagel on whether death is a bad thing for the person who dies
  • Mill & Mozi on how we should treat others, and why


You may be asked to first explain and then evaluate an argument from one of the philosophers we’ve studied (where “evaluate” means explain what you find to be strengths and weaknesses, or only weaknesses as in the case of the third point, below):

  • Explain and evaluate Epicurus’ argument for one of:
    • Why we shouldn’t fear death
    • Why a life of static pleasure, focused on mainly natural and necessary desires, is most pleasant
  • Explain and evaluate Nagel’s argument for why death is a bad thing for the person who dies
  • What criticisms or objections could be to raised Mill’s utilitarian view of morality? Explain one part of his view that you think could be criticized and then explain why it’s problematic.


Advice for preparing for and writing
the in-class essay

Structure of the essay

Be sure to have a thesis statement, and provide it at the beginning of the essay. Then use the rest of the essay to support that thesis statement. You don’t need to have a long introduction; in fact, you could avoid having an introductory paragraph at all and just start with your thesis statement, then start into the first body paragraph that supports that thesis statement. You don’t need to have a concluding paragraph to the essay at all.

Explaining the views of the philosophers; audience you should write for

Be sure to discuss the philosophers’ views in enough depth to support the claims you make about them and any criticisms you might give. You do not need to give a summary of all parts of the texts—only those relevant to the argument you are making in the essay.  Consider that we can only recognize how much you understand of the works by what you write, so explaining what terms and concepts mean as much as you have space to do, and insofar as this is relevant to your argument, shows better what you have grasped from the course (and can thus earn more marks than not doing so).

To help you do this, imagine that you are writing your essays for someone who is not in the class, who has not read the texts or attended lecture.  Give as much explanation as would be needed to make the views and your claims about them clear to that person.

Depth vs breadth

It’s better to pick a smaller number of things to discuss in the essay, and discuss them in more depth, than to talk about a large number of things and only touch the surface of each. This is a short essay, and you won’t be able to talk about everything! Pick a couple of things that you think are important similarities/differences, or a couple of things you would like to emphasize in evaluating an argument, and go into as much depth on those as you can in the time allotted.

Memorize an outline

You can’t bring any notes or texts into class, so it can be helpful to memorize an outline of what you would like to say for the topics you have prepared. This would be the basic ideas for your thesis statement and the main points you’d like to cover to support it. Then, when you arrive at the exam, write that down in the booklet right away so you don’t forget. We won’t mark your outline, but it’s fine to have it in there the booklet.

Breakdown of marks on exam

Argument outline: 40 marks out of 100

  • Outline of argument: 30 marks
  • Stating which philosopher this comes from and explaining how it fits within some other part of their views: 10 marks

Essay: 60 marks out of 100

  • See below for what we will be looking for in the essay.

Marking rubric for essay question

The essay will be marked on the same categories we use for the out-of-class essays you’ve done, with some alterations. Below is what we will be looking for in an excellent in-class essay.

Strength of argument

  • The points in the body of the essay support the thesis well; they work together to give good reasons why one ought to accept the thesis as true; there are no gaping holes in what would be needed to support the thesis.
  • Arguments in the body paragraphs are also supported well. You don’t have to have quotes from the texts, but you should provide specific ideas from them where relevant.
  • There are no inaccuracies in your claims about what the philosophers say in their works.
  • There are no significant objections that could be raised to your arguments (beyond inaccuracies about what philosophers say).


  • There is a thesis statement stated clearly at the beginning of the essay, and the essay sticks to supporting that (rather than going off on other tangents).
  • We won’t expect the same level of organizational clarity beyond the thesis statement in these essays because you’re doing them under time pressure, but if we can’t follow your argument in the body paragraphs because it is too disorganized then this can affect your mark (because we will have trouble understanding your argument). Just do your best to make the organization clear!


  • Because the essay topics all ask you to go beyond simply repeating what was in lectures (to do a comparison/contrast, or critique an argument), we will consider whether the essays show some original thought beyond those lectures. Often, the more in-depth you can go in discussing the philosophers’ views and how they compare/contrast with others, or whether their arguments are strong or not, the more originality and insight you can show.

Mechanics: grammar, spelling, etc.

  • Because these are in-class essays, we won’t be looking very carefully at this—time pressure and lack of ability to look things up means this aspect of writing can be harder! But if your grammar or spelling are so problematic that we can’t understand what you’re writing, then this can affect your mark (not based on the grammar itself, but based on the fact that we can’t grasp what you’re saying so we can’t evaluate it well.