How To Write a Philosophy Paper

Writing a philosophy paper usually presents very different challenges than assignments in other courses. What the main objective of your paper should be and how you should address it is something you need to understand clearly before you begin to research or write your paper.

The Objective of a Philosophy Paper: Present a Reasoned Defense

Your paper must present a reasoned defense of some claim(s) that you make. The entire focus and content of your paper must amount to a carefully reasoned argument. It is not enough to present the opinions of other philosophers, nor is it enough to present your own opinions. You certainly should present your opinions (and the opinions of other philosophers), but where these form part of your argument they must always be rigorously defended. You must offer reasons designed to rationally convince someone who is unlikely to accept your claims on face value. This central focus on argument means that logic is a vitally important subject in philosophy---and that's why most philosophy programs insist that students have at least a basic working knowledge of the subject.

So the objective of writing a philosophy paper is to put forward some particular claim or argument for consideration. Now what do you do? You should take up at least one or two of the following strategies. (I owe this list to James Pryor's wonderful page Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.):

  • Criticize that argument; or show that certain arguments for the thesis are unsound.
  • Defend the argument or thesis against someone else's criticism.
  • Offer reasons to believe the thesis.
  • Offer counter-examples to the thesis.
  • Contrast the strengths and weaknesses of two opposing views about the thesis.
  • Give examples which help explain the thesis, or which help to make the thesis more plausible.
  • Argue that certain philosophers are committed to the thesis by their other views, though they do not come out and explicitly endorse the thesis.
  • Discuss what consequences the thesis would have, if it were true.
  • Revise the thesis, in the light of some objection.

There are even more strategies possible for a good philosophy paper. But whatever strategy you adopt you must critically defend each step in that strategy. It is never enough to simply state things as true.

Avoid Assuming Your Position is Obvious

The trap that you should try very hard to avoid is presenting your view or reasons for a position in a way that assumes they are obviously true. This is a natural thing to happen, since you are already convinced that your thesis is true. It can easily appear to be obviously true. Philosophy, however, is very much in the business of making the obvious problematic. When I read your papers, I constantly ask myself, at every step in your argument, "Why should I believe that?" or "Are things really as you claim they are?" or "Are the cases you are comparing really similar?" etc. You must write your essay in way that assumes your reader will be thinking critically about every important statement that you make. Your reader (me) will not be reading for information (although it certainly isn't a bad thing if your paper is informative), nor for the creative writing quality of your paper (even though this is nice to see as well).

Begin With Generally Accepted Assumptions or Premises

Although you should always avoid assuming that your conclusions (or their reasons) are obviously true, you do have to start somewhere. Generally, good arguments begin with assumptions that most reasonable people accept, and then proceed from these, by means of rigorous argumentation, to more controversial claims.

Example: Suppose that you want to show that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. It would be perfectly reasonable in this case to assume that murder is morally wrong. You could simply ask your reader to accept this assumption. The interesting or creative thing about an argument like this would be how you can, by means of reasoned argument, make your claim about abortion being as wrong as murder. This claim really would not be obvious; you would need to rigorously defend it.

It is often the case that, in order to focus on the issue you are interested in, you will need to begin from assumptions or premises which really are controversial. This is perfectly acceptable. But to avoid circularity or triviality you must move to a conclusion that would not be obvious for people who would accept the same basic assumptions or premises you are asking the reader to accept. This requires you to present and defend an argument which is philosophically interesting (i.e., non-obvious or non-trivial).

Example: Suppose that you wanted to defend a position which > assumes that fetuses do not have moral status. Again, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your reader to assume this position (i.e., that fetuses have no status), provided that you are not going to conclude something obvious---e.g., that therefore abortions are morally permissible. What you would need to do now is to move toward some issue which people might reasonably disagree about even thought they might all agree that fetuses have no moral status. An example of this sort of issue is whether or not such a position entails that infanticide is morally permissible or not. Many liberals on the issue of abortion (e.g., Peter Singer) argue that a liberal position on abortion does entail that infanticide is permissible, while many others deny this (e.g., Mary Ann Warren). The point here, again, is that you must start somewhere, and it is reasonable to ask your reader to accept such a starting point. But after this, things should not be taken to be obvious. They must be rigorously defended.

State Your Main Thesis Clearly

Your paper should begin by stating your main thesis and giving your reader a general sense of how you plan to defend it. Stating this in a direct, straightforward way is common practice among professional philosophical writing. There usually is no need to begin your essay with platitudes like:

"Rene Descartes was a very famous philosopher..."

or

"Abortion is a very difficult issue on which very few people agree...".

Get right to your claim with statements like:

"In this paper I will argue that... I will show this claim to be defensible in the following manner... etc."

or

"X (i.e., some philosophical issue) raises questions about the soundness of the idea that Y (i.e., some other philosophical issue or assumption). In this paper I will show that these concerns about Y are generally unfounded (or well-founded)..."

Maintain a Narrow Focus

You should aim at defending a conclusion that you really can manage to defend. Aim at depth and rigor of argumentation rather than comprehensiveness. You should thus avoid the following structure for your discussion:

  • Philosopher X claims that p.
  • I would argue that not p.
  • Philosopher X claims that q.
  • I would argue that not q.
  • Etc...

The problem here is that if that not p (or q) is worth bringing to your reader's attention, it should be something that is not obvious, and hence should require some defense. It is usually not provided in this straightforward manner. Furthermore, if the entire paper is of this structure, almost certainly you have been far too hard on yourself; you have raised more issues than you can deal with with the appropriate depth and rigor. You should also avoid concluding something that is stronger than your premises. A good philosophy paper makes a modest point, but makes it very clearly, straightforwardly, and rigorously. You usually need to narrow your scope or focus in order to do this. Also, by working with a narrow focus and staying with it, you show your reader (me again) that you can sort all of the various issues that arise with any philosophical problem, and then keep these issues sorted out as you continue with your discussion.

Be Creative

Students often seem puzzled when I tell them that they have not been philosophically creative enough. How can an entry-level philosophy student--they typically ask--be expected to come up with an entirely original solution to a problem that has baffled and avoided so many of the best minds in the past? Of course, this is not what is expected---although it certainly would be appreciated by me if it were to happen! Originality is shown by your ability to think critically and reflectively about some issue or problem. Doing this thoroughly usually involves considerable creativity, but a very disciplined form of creativity, almost like the sort of creativity that a scientist or mathematician uses. (It is this, I believe, along with its focus on the logic of good argumentation, which makes philosophy more like a science than a creative writing exercise. I realize that some other philosophers disagree about this. But for the purposes of this course, this is our focus. We can take this issue up when you are in graduate school...).

You can typically (but by no means exclusively) show creativity in the following way:

  1. Some particular philosophical claim is presented.
  2. You take a clear position with respect to this claim and defend it, possibly in way that has been done before.
  3. Try to think of how someone who defended the position you are challenging would object to your defense. (This is usually not something that has been thought of before.)
  4. Respond to this objection. (Again, this is something that you will have to think up on your own).
  5. Try to take this further; try to think of ways that someone defending the original claim would respond to your defense. (This will probably be something you need to think of on your own.)
  6. Respond to this response---again, you will need to think of this on your own.
  7. Etc.

Many students never really get past steps 1 and 2 above. If so, then usually much of what you are doing is reporting on the various sides of the existing debate, and not framing the issue in your own terms. There are, of course, many ways that you can show philosophical creativity. Here are just a few:

  • Show how the position you take on this issue is similar to a widely accepted form of reasoning (or conclusion) that people accept in some other, relevant case.
  • Illustrate the claims you make with concrete examples--never leave things completely abstract; show how your principles or solutions work in ordinary situations.
  • Make relevant distinctions between concepts relevant to your position/argument; show how these distinctions separate your view from other views that you want to avoid, etc.

Be Accurate

It is generally not good enough to show that you understand some particular philosophical claim or issue in general; you must show that you understand it precisely and exactly. You need to be very careful how you present another philosopher's arguments. You can almost be certain that if the view you are attributing to some philosopher we have considered appears silly or ridiculous you have probably interpreted inaccurately or uncharitably. I'm not particularly interested in stupid or silly arguments, and I would not ask you to read something that I thought was of this character. Even if, after every effort on your part to be accurate, the argument you are considering still seems ridiculous or silly, be as charitable as you can. Again, remember I am not interested in silly arguments, so it won't impress me that you have pointed out something that is obviously misguided. Try to see more charitable ways that this view might be defensible, and then direct your attention toward these claims.

Write Clearly

This point cannot be stressed enough. The most important reason why clarity is absolutely central in a philosophy paper is that your main goal is to construct an argument. You are trying to present a series of reasons which support some conclusion or conclusions. An argument becomes immediately unsuccessful if the reader is unclear about what your premises or conclusions are. And to the extent that your premises or conclusions are unclear, you have failed to provide convincing argumentation in support of your position. And, in turn, if you haven't supported your argument, you have failed to achieve the main goal of a philosophy paper.

A philosophy paper can become unclear in a variety of ways, but there appear two main levels on which this can happen: (a) at the sentence level and (b) at the paragraph, or structural, level. In the first case, your diction (choice of words) can leave the reader insufficiently clear about what you mean. In the second case, the reader can be at a loss about the direction or thrust of your general argument. It becomes difficult to follow from paragraph to paragraph.

There are various ways that you can make sure to preserve clarity in your discussion:

  • If you use a term in a particular way in your paper, maintain that same meaning throughout---or explain very thoroughly why you have departed from the original meaning. Avoid worrying about changing terms merely for reasons of style or variety.
  • Avoid the interregnum implementation of poly-syllabic constructs. Avoid big words! Use simple, ordinary language. Do not use jargon, unless it is explained thoroughly and clearly. (And please spare me vulgarities and expletives---unless, of course, these terms are quoted/referred to for some deeper philosophical point. Example: You refer to the term 'screwed' or 'f--ked' to make a point about sexist language, or how current linguistic practices reflect violent assumptions about (male?) sexuality, etc.)
  • Avoid assuming that because I have more experience than you in dealing with philosophical terminology, that I will be able to sort out your terms. It is much better to assume that I don't know anything, and hence have to be "spoon-fed".
  • Walk your reader explicitly through your argument/discussion. Your reader should know without any doubt which direction you are headed in, what you are doing now, how it relates to your overall conclusion, and where you have been. If necessary, constantly sum things up. (Example: "I have just argued that p and that q. I will now maintain that not p and that not q entail difficulties that cannot be adequately dealt with. These difficulties are, first, ... second..., third... etc.")
  • Constantly and deliberately use the language or argumentation---i.e., logical indicator words like: 'since'; 'because'; 'entails that'; 'this shows that...'; 'thus'; 'therefore'; etc. Again, clearly indicate what statements you take to be reasons for (i.e., premises) other statements (i.e., conclusions).
  • Avoid the repetitive use of rhetorical questions rather than clear, indicative statements to make your argument. (Rhetorical questions are phrases like the following, usually in a series: "Would anyone accept this? Would anyone want to be treated this way? Would any reasonable person accept this as moral behavior?... etc.") An unanswered question is at best an ambiguous statement, and ambiguous statements do not make good arguments.
  • Philosophers use words that have a common usage in very precise, careful ways. But they are always very careful to explain and illustrate what they mean by these terms. (Example: In the abortion issue, philosophers standard use the term 'fetus' in a special way, to refer to all of the stages of a pre-born human being. This is a special use, since the term 'fetus' has a much more restricted biological meaning. It is used, however, to put a non-emotive term in place in a discussion where whether we are talking about a 'child' or a 'person' is being discussed.) You should thus avoid using ordinary terms in special, but unspecified ways. If you explain these terms carefully, however, it is generally okay to use ordinary-sounding words in particular ways. (Please note: this does NOT mean that you need to explain every single ordinary term that you use---e.g., 'argument' or 'valid argument' etc. You only need to explain those terms that have an ordinary use that you are using in a special way.)
  • Avoid verbosity. Be concise in your statements. Make every word count. In most philosophical issues it is hard enough to grasp the point. If too many needless words or terms are used, things can easily become unclear and confusing.

Summary

In writing your paper you should aim at realizing three main goals:

  1. You should formulate a clear statement of the problems and issues involved, giving the reader a sense of their interest and philosophical importance. The reader should not be left wondering "Why should I care?" In the course of doing this, you should exhibit an accurate interpretation of any texts on which your discussion is based, including the theses and arguments advanced to support them.
  2. You should provide a carefully argued critical perspective of your own on the central issues under discussion. This does not mean that your perspective should be completely original with you. Rather, you should at least try to take some position and be prepared to explain and defend it. (If the position does come from someone else, then this, of course, should be acknowledged.)
  3. You should arrive at an assessment of the issues, based on a discussion in which you should put forward the best possible defense of the position you think is the most satisfactory. This does not necessarily mean, however, that you should arrive at a firm and settled conclusion. Presenting your own position can quite well mean presenting a forceful dilemma which you are unable to solve. Many a successful paper is valuable precisely because it throws into sharp relief ambiguities and difficulties of interpretation and argument. Or sometimes such a paper will provide a multiplicity of perspectives which may be incompatible, but between which, for well argued reasons, the writer is unable to decide.

A Possible Structure for Your Paper

There is no 'recipe' for writing a good philosophy paper. It can be done in many different ways, since, as we noted above, it is largely a creative exercise in critical thinking. In spite of my hesitation about giving out a formula, it might be helpful to consider one possible structure that your paper might take:

  1. Introduction: State what your argument or inquiry is going to be and indicate briefly what method of challenge you propose. This should be only about a paragraph in length and should occur right on the first page.
  2. Exposition: Set out the views, theses or claims that you will be advancing and/or examining. You may construct the paper either around a thesis of your own, or around the views held by authors in the assigned readings. In either case, other views should be brought in as foils for your own discussion. Make sure you support your claims about your author's views by precise citations. Avoid, however, making extensive quotations. It's better, in this case, to paraphrase, citing page references to the text so that your readers can check up on you. Also, when discussing another author's argument it is always helpful to exhibit clearly the structure of his or her argument. Note the main premises, unexpressed assumptions required for the argument to have force, and the main conclusions. Pick out any crux of interpretation, define any special terms, and discuss any alternative definitions that might be appropriate. Sharpen any difficulty found by suggesting contrary alternative interpretations. When something remains unclear, don't gloss over it, but draw attention to it. That way, you will get points even for what you don't understand!
  3. Discussion: This will be the criticism of the views expounded in 2 (your exposition). In this step consider possible objections (perhaps taken from other authors, if you are highlighting a thesis of your own), and do your best to yourself or your author(s) against them. If an author's argument is bad, explain why. Ask yourself whether any of the main premises are false. If so, then the argument is unsound. Does the conclusion not follow from the premises? (This is what it means to say that the argument is invalid, if it is intended to be a deductive argument. If it is not intended to be a deductive argument, then the reasons may just be poor reasons for the conclusion.) Sometimes the best you can do might be to point out that the view you are criticizing has highly implausible consequences.Also consider whether the argument relies on assumptions that are unacceptable, arbitrary, highly controversial, and so on. The argument may contain crucial ambiguities or have rhetoric instead of sound argumentation at some crucial stage.
  4. Constructive Section: This is necessary only if you have started by considering other people's views. Here you may set out your own assessment of the issues in question, and show how it escapes the criticisms that you have leveled against the author(s) considered. You should also defend your view against any obvious objections that might or have been leveled against it.
  5. Conclusion: Here you should briefly recapitulate the gist of your argument and restate the central message that your paper has attempted to establish. Note, again, that this section should not be merely repetitive of what has been said above, nor should there be any particular surprises for the reader. What is best done here is the extension and summation of what has been argued for in detail in the body of your paper.

Criteria that I Use to Grade Your Papers

It should be clear from what I have said above, but just to be as clear as possible, let me list the main criteria that I use when grading your papers:

  • Interpretive Accuracy: : Have you interpreted any arguments or counter-arguments that are presented in an accurate, charitable fashion?
  • Cogent Justification: : Are your own arguments strong and plausible? Do the premises of your main argument really support what you intend them to support (i.e., your main conclusion)?
  • Coherent Justification: : Are your own arguments presented in a coherent fashion? Are there aspects which stand in contradiction to each other? Is your argument logically coherent?
  • Consideration of Counterarguments: : Do you sufficiently consider the arguments of others that would object or take exception to your position? Are these counter-arguments sufficiently strong?
  • Concrete Application/Illustration: : Do you present your position and/or arguments in a purely abstract fashion? Do you sufficiently explain your terms/arguments/claims, etc., with the use of concrete applications or illustrations?
  • Definition of Central Terms: : Are the central terms sufficiently explained? Are you relying too much on jargon? Do you make the distinctions that you need to make for your argument?
  • Originality/Creativity: : Have you sufficiently framed the issue in your own terms? To what extent does your discussion represent your own thinking or ideas, rather than the thinking or ideas of others? Even if your discussion largely relies on the ideas of others, have you presented these ideas in an intriguing and insightful way?
  • Presentation: : How clear and accurate is your prose/diction? Does your prose get in the way of the reader's understanding of the issue(s) in question? Have you been sufficiently concise? Do you explain things sufficiently in your own words?
  • Organization: : How well organized is your discussion? Do you present/unfold your argument in way that makes your case the strongest it could be? Is your line of discussion hard to follow? Do you sufficiently explain things before your engage them philosophically? How easy/difficult is it for the reader to determine what your main premises and main conclusion(s) is (are)?
  • Philosophical Depth/Rigor: : Even if you have a good argument, and have present some important arguments, have you developed an argument which is philosophically deep enough? Have you taken things as far as could be expected from an excellent student working from the level of the course and within the space requirements of the assignment?

The Psychology and Practice of Writing Philosophy

If you have the option to choose a paper topic, always choose the one that interests you most. If you have no choice, get as (temporarily) interested as you can on the assigned topic. This is not as difficult to do as it sounds, and the point of it is especially noteworthy: your level of interest in the task at hand is usually transparent to your reader. If you are bored by an issue, it is almost certain that you will equally bore the reader.

If you are having trouble settling on topic you would like to write on, I always recommend to beginning students that they should focus on some argument that they very strongly disagree with---that simply appears or seems wrong. In following this, you will at least have some place to start. Furthermore, it is a lot easier to react to some existing view in a critical way, than to think up a positive view of your own about a philosophical subject.

Once you have done enough reading on a topic, most of your working time on the paper should be spent trying to understand and reflect on the issue before you. One of the reasons for getting you to write an essay is to reveal your grasp of the particular philosophical ideas and concepts involved in the topic assigned. To accomplish this you must express those ideas clearly in your own words, point out differences, similarities, and other relations between them, and then evaluate them, all within the confines of carefully structured and reasoned arguments. This takes time and care. It simply can't be crammed on the night before the due date.

Once you have read and thought about the topic sufficiently and have come to the point where you believe that you have something to say about it, write your ideas down in point form. Brainstorm, that is, don't labor over details at this point. Then work out a more organized sketch of your paper noting only the most essential points you want to discuss and the (logical or reasonable) sequence in which you will present them. The idea is to make sure you know where you're headed generally. Since the process of writing and rewriting a paper is itself a thinking process, the specific details of your work will usually become evident only after you have finished a first draft.

There seem to be two ways to get through the task of writing a philosophy paper, both of which I have just alluded to. First, one can focus on getting a very well-thought out, clear outline of your paper. If you really have done this right, sitting down to write your first draft is usually a fairly easy business. Second, one could begin by writing a draft and then re-writing and re-writing until the final draft is achieved. Many philosophers that I know use one of these methods. I personally prefer the former method, since it seems to involve less writing. Furthermore, once I get something written down, I seem too easily impressed by seeing it in writing, and perhaps become less critical of it. Once written down, I also find it difficult to throw out. So I prefer to do as much of this sort of thing in my head or on an outline. However, if you seem to have trouble thinking complex issues out entirely in your head (as I do with mathematics...), you may want to work with the latter approach. Many people it seems do not know what they think about an issue until they write it down. Hence the act of writing becomes a catalyst for thinking one's way through the issues.