Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

What is a Literature Review?


We discussed Andrew Valls’s introduction to Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy. Our goal was to get a sense of what a literature review is and what you would like your literatures to be like.

Things we liked

I said that I appreciated how the first sentence or two of each section makes it clear exactly what the section is about.

I also liked the paragraph level organization. Each paragraph makes a point and each paragraph’s point is connected to the one made in the previous paragraph. You move right along from point A to B to C without muss or fuss.

Finally, I thought the summaries were unusually informative. In particular, I thought he showed good judgment in deciding when to simply state what the authors believe and when to add some indication of why the authors say what they do. Usually, you want a summary to tell you whether you are interested in pursuing the matter further by going to read the piece of writing being summarized; you don’t want the whole argument. But sometimes you need to know more of the reasoning in order to understand what is being said.

Russell added that he thought Valls did a good job at defining the key terms, such as “race” and “racism.” I agree.

What we want our literature reviews to be like

Our literature reviews can’t be exactly like this. We aren’t introducing material that readers might want to pick up for themselves. Rather, we’re trying to explain what philosophers are talking about within a certain area. That will involve going into more detail about their arguments than Valls does. It also involves some evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, which, again, is not really appropriate in the kind of essay Valls was writing.

Many of our members are at least thinking of going to graduate school in philosophy. You will want to view the literature review as practice for graduate education. You can select topics that you think you want to know more about going in. But the main thing you should get out of this is some experience at identifying an area of the professional literature and figuring out what is going on in it. That’s pretty much what your first couple of years in graduate school involve.

Of course, your primary motivation should be curiosity. You need that to do this successfully no matter what your post-graduate plans are.


Valls, Andrew. 2005. “Introduction.” In Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, edited by Andrew Valls. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.