The learning guides to this course list various learning objectives or competencies with each module, and these are described in terms of some verb: identify, describe, distinguish, diagram, define, use, construct, explain, evaluate, compare, discuss ... (I think that's all of them).  Let me offer brief descriptions of what I have in mind with each of these terms.


Compare: This involves describing two or more things (objects, practices, ideas, etc.), emphasizing those aspects where the things are similar and where they are different.  If the things have much in common, then the differences should be highlighted; if they seem widely dissimilar, then interesting commonalities should be mentioned.  See Distinguish.

Example: A comparison of the methods of capital punishment would involve a description of lethal injection, the gas chamber, the electric chair (etc.), while highlighting the similarities and differences.  Here, the comparison would look not just at the technique, but how well the technique meets certain criteria (e.g., of not violating the “cruel and unusual punishment” protection of the U. S. Constitution).

Construct: All sorts of things require construction, but in a philosophy course these are usually limited to arguments and truth-tables.  A formal construction of an argument involves writing a list of numbered premises and a conclusion that can be inferred from the premises; an informal construction involves writing out, in a narrative form, the conclusion and the reasons for why the conclusion should be believed.  The construction of a truth-table requires drawing a table of rows and columns, with a separate column for each simple statement made in the argument, as well as for each premise and the conclusion. There need to be as many rows in the truth-table as there are possible truth combinations of the simple statements (viz., 2n, where ‘n’ is the number of simple statements).

Define: A definition is a verbal description of the meaning of some general term (e.g., we could define ‘human’ but probably not ‘Socrates’).  This skill might involve nothing more than remembering some learned definition; but to arrive at a definition on your own requires a close understanding of the thing whose name is being defined.  In general, when defining ‘X’, the definition needs to include all X’s, and exclude all non-X’s.

Example: One definition of ‘capital punishment’ is “the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime.”

Describe and Explain: In this present list of skills, ‘describe’ is most similar to ‘explain’; in some instances, they differ only in one’s intention.  A description will list some of the properties or features of a thing (or process or event, etc.), but an explanation will relate the thing or event to a larger context, thereby making it “more understandable” to a third party.  Offering a description might also do this (depending on which features are mentioned), but often a description simply will help a third party to recognize or identify the thing. 

One might offer a bald description of the facts, without bothering to explain what they mean.  One might describe a single thing or event in isolation of its surroundings or any other context, but this isn’t possible with an explanation.  To explain something is always to make reference to a larger context that helps ground its meaning; or else to relate two or more things together in a way that makes each more understandable than were they described in isolation. 

Finally, to describe something is to give a list of properties or qualities of a thing (or process or event, etc.), but to do this always with some purpose and sense of relevance in mind.  For instance, a description of Abraham Lincoln normally won’t mention that he possessed a nose and two feet, or that he was a human being.  Some properties are more important than others, which is determined by the context.

Example: A description of capital punishment would amount to little more than a definition of the term and the means by which it is carried out.  An explanation of capital punishment, on the other hand, might go in any of several directions — a sociological explanation (what it is about a certain society that makes the practice of capital punishment desirable or possible), or political (how certain political forces have led to its implementation, limitation, or rejection), or historical, etc.

Diagram: This is limited (in this course) to diagramming extended arguments.  More abstractly, a diagram is the description of something in a graphic form.

Discuss: A discussion involves examining the various reasons for and against some claim, or else a multi-faceted exploration of some topic.  The core meaning of ‘discussion’ is a conversation between two or more people, and so a discussion here should have at its heart the even-handed consideration of a topic, looking at it from various sides. This involves rather more than reciting facts or describing something.  It is closer to evaluation, only it neither requires nor expects you to come down on one side of the issue.  You need to make use of background information surrounding that claim or topic. 

Example: A discussion of capital punishment would mention some of the history of the practice, describe how it is carried out, and describe (and perhaps offer some evaluation) of arguments for and against the practice.

Distinguish: Closely related to compare, this involves describing two or more things (actions, ideas, etc.) in such a way that highlights their differences.

Explain: (See Describe, above.)

Evaluate: An evaluation is similar in complexity to a discussion, the primary difference being that evaluations will make use of criteria for deciding whether one thing is better or worse than another, whether some practice is morally permissible, and so on.

Example: An evaluation of capital punishment would involve a discussion of the practice, and then an assessment of whether it is effective (in deterring would be criminals, in meting out justice, in making wise use of public resources), or whether it is moral, or whether it is constitutional, or some combination of these and others.

Identify: Identification typically involves little more than the ability to pick-out some X from a line-up of individuals; in other words, it involves recognition skills.  Sometimes ‘identify’ is used in the sense of describe.

Use: You might be asked, for instance, to properly use some newly-learned concept in a sentence, or use an inference pattern in a new argument.  In this course, you will be asked to make use of completed truth-tables for determining validity, and to make use of the method of counter-example to determine invalidity.  That’s it.

Prepared by Steve Naragon [email].     Last update: 29 Aug 2009