Qualifying for the highest marks on offer

Syllabuses like these indicate the importance of key concepts both in the courses you’re studying, and in the essays you’re expected to write. By analysing them you not only give your essay a relevant structure, but, equally important, you qualify for the highest marks on offer. If, at this stage, you don’t acknowledge the significance of these concepts by analysing their implications, you will almost certainly fail to analyse them in your essay.

This will indicate not only that you haven’t seen the point of the question, but, more seriously, that you haven’t yet developed that thoughtful, reflective ability to question some of the most important assumptions we make when we use language. It is as if you’re saying to the examiner that you can see no reason why these concepts should raise any particular problem and, therefore, they deserve no special treatment.

In the next chapter

In the next chapter we’ll look at a particular concept and show how you can prise it open to reveal its implications. In so doing you’ll see how you can capture more of your own ideas and insights.

Open and closed concepts

What you might describe as closed concepts usually have an unchanging, unambiguous meaning. Words like ‘bicycle bachelor and ‘triangle’ each have a structure to their meaning, which is bound by logical necessity. We all agree to abide by certain conventions that rule the meaning of these words. So, if you were to say ‘this is a bicycle with one wheel’, or ‘this triangle has four sides’, no-one would be in any doubt that you had made a logical mistake. When we use these words according to their conventions we are, in effect, allowing our understanding of the world to be structured in a particular way.

But with open concepts it tends to be the reverse: our experience of the world shapes our concepts. As a result, such words cannot be pinned down just by looking them up in a dictionary. Their meaning responds to and reflects our changing experience: they change through time and from one culture to another. A dictionary definition, then, can only ever be a single snapshot taken in a constantly moving reel of images.

Start with the way we use them

As you can see from this, if any of the concepts in essay questions are up for grabs in this way, if there is any doubt about the way we use 16 Interpretation of the Question them, then we need to analyse them. In most cases this means we start with words we use in everyday speech, in some cases sharpening and tightening them, in others just unpacking their ambiguities. In the process, this will more often than not give us the structure of our essay, in terms of the arguments we need to explore and develop

So, start by asking yourself, ‘How do I use the concept  do I use it in more than one way? Take the concept of freedom. We tend to talk about being free from things, like repression, constraints, and restrictions of one form or another. I might say with some relief that I am finally free from pain having taken tablets for pain relief, or that a political prisoner has at last been freed from imprisonment. In both cases we’re using the word in a negative way, in that something is being taken away, the pain or the imprisonment.

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