Senior Literature Review Fall 2017

Reviewing Literature Reviews


We spent half of our time talking about literature reviews that Peter and Will found. The rest of our session was spent doing individual work.

Will and Peter both brought literature reviews. Will’s was the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on social epistemology and Peter’s was an introduction to a book of collected essays on race and philosophy. Octave thought the class met on Friday (I thought it started at 1:45, so I sympathize), and Lucas was sick.

Literature Reviews

Both Will and Peter said that their reviews were best when they explained how different author’s works were related to one another: Author A said X, Author B responded to A by saying Y, Author C modified A’s position in the light of B’s point by saying Z, and so on.

They thought that the reviews were at their worst when they were just lists of apparently unrelated items: A said X, B said Y, C said Z.

In addition, we agreed that it was important to explain the motivation for the philosophical writing under discussion. For example, Will’s review had sections devoted to highly technical discussions. While that is certainly part of the literature in the area he is working on, the review did not explain why people were interested in the technical stuff in the first place, aside from taking pleasure in working out a problem. So that was one of the less satisfying parts of the review.

Similarly, Will’s review grouped three quite different things under the heading “Social Epistemology.” That reflects the way people in the profession describe their work: people doing three very different kinds of things all say they are working on social epistemology. But from the reader’s perspective, that is not a very interesting reason for putting them all together in one long review.

Making Reading Lists

Having done that, we spent the rest of our time working individually. I’m going to describe something that Octave and I did because it illustrates a particular research technique.

Octave talked with Prof. Thielke about what he might do and he shifted a bit to the topic of the absurd. Then Octave and I talked about how he might get a list together. We started with something he knows he likes: Thomas Nagel’s article “The Absurd.” So we plugged that in to google scholar and clicked the “cited by 245” link. Voila! We had 245 sources that have all cited Nagel’s paper.

Now, many of those were irrelevant or not very useful. But we scanned about half the google results and came up with a list about 8-10 sources that looked promising either on their own or as guides to further reading. For instance, one article that we glanced over did not seem helpful on its own but it did tell us that Robert Nozick had written something on this topic in his doorstopper of a book Philosophical Explanations. We both thought “that’s probably interesting!” and put it on the list.

This is not as good as finding a real literature review. We’re relying on a machine to give us results while a real author would select only the best and most relevant stuff. But we got some pretty good ideas and some decent leads which is not bad for thirty minutes of work with a laptop.

In the end, Octave and I were musing about whether he might want a split list. Say, half devoted to historical sources like Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre and half devoted to more contemporary ones like Nagel, Nozick, and journal articles. Another possibility is that he might make the historical sources his theme. He might, for instance, intersperse readings from these primary sources with readings from secondary sources, that is, present day scholars whose works interpret the primary sources.

Use Book Reviews

Peter wants to start with a book; he read it before and now wants to study it. But do we read the whole thing? And how do we make a list of stuff to follow the book?

One shortcut is to read book reviews. They will tell us what is in the book and, perhaps, enable us to pick and choose the parts we want to read. Book reviews are great for this sort of thing. You can find them by doing the good old google scholar thing. A better way, though, would be to use JSTOR since that allows you to narrow your search to reviews.