WRITING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER[1]

Adapted by Joel L. From, Ph.D.

 

 

Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts.

 

One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?

 

Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish—something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept—together with grounds for its acceptance. A thesis should be non-trivially true, unified (not an unrelated collection of points), specific, highly-focused, and at least somewhat controversial. If you cannot formulate your thesis in this way, odds are that you are not clear about it.

 

Poor Thesis: In Book One of the Republic Socrates criticizes several people and ideas.

 

Improved Thesis: In Book One of the Republic Socrates’ attack on Polemarchus’s definition of justice is unsuccessful because Socrates erroneously assumes that justice is a craft.

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The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position because you already accept it. But how will your “friendly critic” respond? It is best to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.

 

Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. This might be called the back-the-truck-up-and-dump-the-whole-load approach. It is almost certain that this approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.

 

First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions. It is usually best to concentrate on a particular argument (or two).

 

Second, the arguments that will stand out will be the very best and the very worst ones. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including the weaker ones gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.

 

Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to roam the whole intellectual world in a superficial manner.

 

In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader has no access to your thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer's shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.

 

There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential.

 

 

THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY

 

1.      Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, or one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. Avoid wide-ranging preambles and surveys.

 

2.      Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. Never allow a quotation to make your point for you. Only use quotations to supplement the ideas you are developing. After all, it is your argument.

 

3.      Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you, a neophyte undergraduate, cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.

 

4.      Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. None of the writers in the standard philosophical literature are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.

 

5.      Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to prove. Here is an example.[2] Someone may argue that Shakespeare is a greater writer than Milton because people with good taste in literature prefer Shakespeare. And if asked how one tells who has good taste in literature, the reply comes that such persons are to be identified by their preferring Shakespeare to Milton. This argument is begging the question. Its author presupposes (as a premise) what the argument is intended to demonstrate (as a conclusion), namely, that Shakespeare is superior to Milton. In this alleged argument the conclusion merely reiterates what has already been assumed.

 

 

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER

 

1.      Organize carefully. After you have written your first draft you should be able to make an outline of your argument. There should be a logical progression of ideas—one that will be easy for your reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about with no clear account of your transitions, your reader will balk. If it takes real effort to follow you, your reader may feel that the labour is not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before writing your second draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.

 

2.      Use correct words. You must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. English and philosophical dictionaries are essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in a philosophy essay.

 

3.      Support your claims.  Assume that your reader is constantly asking questions such as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly sceptical of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing your paper. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your friendly critics would not grant them.

 

4.      Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give a citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger, not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? Appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of the relevant literature on the subject.

 

5.      Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are reasons which have led some people to reject it. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. Good thinking involves what R. S. Peters calls taking the objector into your own mind.[3]  This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to use it on you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words, “in examining a question, one usually has different kinds of proofs; first one destroys the opposite sentiment, then establishes one's own.[4] The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their initial (prima facia) plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.

 

6.      Edit boldly. Every first draft can be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting—often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts—not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.

 

Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. And again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out. In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.

 

 

February 2010



[1]Adapted from “Writing a Philosophy Paper” (1993) by Peter Horban.

[2]This example is adapted from Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 97-98.

[3]R. S. Peters, Authority, Responsibility and Education, 3d ed. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), 134.

[4]Jean J. Rousseau, "Idea of the Method in the Composition of a Book," in The Discourses and other early political writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 301.