Midterm Exam Prompts
Instructions: For this exam, you need to complete both of the two longer essay questions below.
Your response to each should be at least 750 words for a total of about 1500. You can format them
(font, size, margins, etc.) however you wish, as long as you meet the word count on each.How you
structure your answers is up to you, but in general avoid fluff (e.g. long-winded introductions which
don’t have much argumentative or interpretive substance, etc.). The deadline is 8AM on Sunday,
May 7th. If you have problems meeting that deadline, get in touch with me and we will figure it out. I
realize this is a fair bit of writing, but please remember this is a 200-level course.
A good way to think about how to write for a philosophy course is to imagine you are explaining an
idea to a smart 6th grader who doesn’t know anything about the subject—breaking down obscure or
technical vocabulary into more easily-intelligible language, and trying your best to imagine how to
make it understandable and less foreign for a layperson. In other words, think less about reporting
information to a specialist or teacher, and more about how you would teach these ideas yourself to, say,
your grandfather or one of your friends. Imagine why something might seem implausible or
confusing and aggressively move to make it intelligible or, as much as you can, reasonable. Your
answers should be grounded in the text but at the same time do not overuse quotes (and when you do,
always explain them in your own words, not just dropping them in).
Confucianism: Humanity, Power, and Politics
1. How do our readings from Mencius and Confucius (Mengzi and Kongzi) confound our
common concepts of humanity and power? In your answer, you should discuss (concisely but
clearly) our prevailing, common sense notions of both terms, and then lay out how these
early Chinese figures depart from them, or exceed them. (Things immediately to think about:
how does Mencius’ approach to talking about what humans are differ from the way a social
scientist would likely approach the matter? What is a greater human versus a petty one, why
do we use those terms, and how does that relate to the issue of power?) Make your best
effort to construct an essay which connects these two issues instead of just talking about
‘humanity’ and then ‘power’, and furthermore discuss how and why it is difficult to separate
ethical considerations from political ones in these particular ‘Confucian’ thinkers. Do your best
along the way to discuss not only what they believe but explain also why it might be a
plausible thing to think.
Buddhism: No-Self, Suffering, and Mindfulness
2. What are death and suffering according to the Buddhist doctrine we have studied and
discussed in our course, and how do these terms relate to the concept of anatta, or no-self?
You should discuss the term dukkha in the full range of its senses, to explain how a statement
like ‘life is suffering’ takes on a unique meaning within the Buddhist framework, connecting
it as best you can to the statement in The Fire Sermon that everything is burning (what does
this statement mean?). Next, what is the significance or effect of ‘seeing in wisdom’ (as in Dh.
277-9) that all things are dukkha, what relation does this have to mindfulness? Is mindfulness
becoming free or becoming restrained (consider and discuss the apparent contradiction between
Dhammapada 348 and 361)? Lastly, make sure your answer addresses the issue of
‘reincarnation’ and how the no-self concept complicates a picture in which nibbana would be
like ‘going to Heaven’.
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