If you write on Plato, you should start in medias res. If you write on Thomas Aquinas, you can do the same (unless you are writing for a journal specialising on something completely different, say, business ethics). If you write on a slightly less known author, I would suggest adding at least the dates of birth and death and perhaps a short description of their main work (say “the epistemologist XW (1200–1250)”). What about writing on a niche topic, say, South Asian philosophy? If you are writing for a non-specialist journal, you will need to explain a lot, since no one will know even the main authors, ideas and schools you will name. Nonetheless, this does not mean that each new piece on that niche topic should resemble a pale summary of scholarhip on it. Even if you need to tell, say, who Jayanta was and what nyāyā means, this does not mean that you cannot make an original contribution to the debate.
- Just start with what you discovered. Did Jayanta think that justification is not needed in the case of the “ought” domain? Are you the first one who noticed this move? Be sure that this is your departing point.
- You can then move to the background needed to appreciate the depth of your discovery. Do not just start with the background, otherwise your reader will think there is nothing new and close your article before reaching its core.
- Be sure that theme and rheme are well distinguished in your article. The reader should not be confused about what is just a short summary of the background and what is your new and original contribution.
- Please remember that an article is not a book. You can only convey one point. Don’t try to overdo or you will not manage to convey anything at all.
What do other readers working on niche topics do? What do you recommend to your students?
Cross-posted, with minor modifications, on my personal blog
This is tremendously helpful, Elisa! I like your approach very much. Thank you for posting this.
Thank you, Jeffery!
I think I would approach this question somewhat differently. For me the first question is: why would anyone care about your discovery? If you can’t answer that question, the discovery may not be worth publishing. It doesn’t have to be a large audience that would care, but you should have a sense of who this discovery is relevant to and why they might want to spend your time on it. And that question – of why your discovery matters – should guide the way you write. This is especially important when you are writing for nonspecialists: if your point is that Jayanta thought justification is not needed in the case of the “ought” domain, you should say something in the abstract and the opening paragraphs about where this thought of Jayanta’s fits into larger debates, whether within classical Indian philosophy or (often ideally) within broader cross-traditional philosophical debates. Otherwise most of your potential readers will ignore your piece, and they will have reason to ignore your piece.
(My way of showing that one should phrase one’s point in a way which is a) accessible and b) relevant was speaking of justification within the ought domain instead of saying that Jayanta thought that for the sādhya svataḥ prāmāṇya holds.)
Thanks for this, Elisa.
Following somewhat on Amod’s point about knowing your audience, I’d add:
1) Think about descriptions from analogy (and their limitations). E.g. Yogacara is like Berkeley’s Idealism, but is it? Could it be more akin to Phenomenology? Nagarjuna’s ideas align with those of Wittgenstein (this should catch the eye of a Western philosopher, if that is your target audience), now let’s look at how and why, and where they differ.
2) be attentive to, but not consumed by, language and definitions. You’ll be using technical terms that are sometimes just glossed over. Yogacara is sometimes simply called “Buddhist Idealism” but this completely conceals the meaning of that term. But “Yoga Practice school” isn’t any better; so early on in a paper, one should note some of the technical terms and some of the range of meanings. Don’t worry, however, about giving a full dictionary entry for each term in the body of the paper.