First, some background: many departments have different guidelines and setups for junior independent work. Most departments require two junior papers; some require one. In the philosophy department, all juniors take a small (4-5 person) topical junior seminar in the fall to guide them into the process of writing independently. This fall’s topics were Consequentialism & Common Sense Morality, Newcomb’s Problem, and Skepticism, Reason, & Faith. In seminar sessions, students discuss issues central to these topics.
I spent my semester in Consequentialism & Common Sense Morality reading Shelly Kagan’s Normative Ethics and debating features of the text with my classmates. The literature was vast, spanning metaethics (what are the fundamental bases of ethical theories? are they valid?), normative ethics (what are relevant factors that make actions good or bad?), and applied ethics (what are answers to moral questions people face in their lives?). Any one of these categories holds thousands of unanswered, often-debated questions. So by the second half of the semester, when it was time to choose a junior paper topic, I felt predictably lost.
The first step was to decide on an area to concentrate in. Since I had never before explored metaethics, I decided to read more about it. I started in places as mundane as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and followed links to different topical articles, printing and annotating articles that interested me. I also decided to look up the papers on metaethics written by professors in the philosophy department, found mainly by following CV pages from the department homepage. After printing and reading many of these papers, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to learn more about.
Looking at the research of Princeton philosophy professors was a very useful move. I was exposed to the current work of my potential mentors, and have been able to follow up with professors in person about papers they authored and arguments they constructed. Researching and reading papers independently was a must, and it took a lot of time! But following up with professors in the department helped me narrow down what reference leads I should follow and how to structure my argument. My follow-ups with Princeton faculty are ongoing– and non-Princeton professors who authored relevant papers have helped me test arguments and find sources, too!
So when you’re writing your JP, remember that a few focused conversations with professors can be your best resource! Don’t limit yourself to consulting your individual adviser. Instead, construct an advising “team” for yourself out of a few relevant professors (both on campus and off campus!), and consult them when you need advice in their areas of expertise!
–Vidushi Sharma, Humanities Correspondent