Essay titles frequently contain one or more propositions: points of view which are open to discussion. Sometimes they are obvious, for example, if language is used in the phrasing of the question which is clearly emotive or not objective. A quotation from one of the text's contemporaries, or a modern critic, are clear invitations to discuss the validity or applicability of that particular viewpoint.
What are the propositions in the following title?
"Defoe is less a novelist, in the sense in which we might understand the term, than a propagandist for a new social and economic order." Discuss.
The propositions here are:
- that we share a common understanding of the term 'novelist', and that Defoe is not one
- that Defoe is a 'propagandist'
- to be a propagandist for a new social and economic order is incompatible with being a novelist
Propositions might also be expressed implicitly in the essay title. It is useful to get into the habit of identifying and challenging viewpoints, even when they appear to be presented with the authority of 'facts'. The kind of knowledge with which the discipline of English is primarily concerned is not the establishing of facts, but negotiating valid interpretations and explaining how they are constructed in the text. In the following examples, the propositions contained in the titles are not explicit, but may nonetheless be explored and challenged.
Consider the relationship between 'improvement' and landscape in Mansfield Park.
- The proposition here is that there is a close relationship between 'improvement' and landscape in Mansfield Park. This could be disputed.
A student might write an essay demonstrating the validity of these propositions without thinking to challenge whether they are correct, or even whether other views are possible. Alternatively, propositions can rarely be completely dismissed; there is enough truth in them to be valid opinions and pose a genuine problem, and to reject them completely might mean you have not recognised the complexity of the issue. If you are setting your own essay title, consider which of your own points of view are contained within the title, and if you need to examine them more closely.