Tips On Writing A Philosophical Essay

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. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.

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 or justification for its acceptance.

Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.

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. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest 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. Sometimes this is called the "fortress approach." In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress 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.

Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only 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 range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.

In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those 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 elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.


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, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.

  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 selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.

  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 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. No writers whose views you have been asked to read 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) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.

  6. When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.




SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER


  1. Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the 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 in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first 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 the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. 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 any philosophy essay.

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

  4. Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some 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. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. 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? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.

  5. Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. 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. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at 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. 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 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. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not 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.

There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.

Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. 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 through 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.


CONTENTS:

THE PURPOSE OF THE ASSIGNMENT

The point of having you write a philosophy paper is for you to develop and practice certain important fundamental skills. They include the following: (1) the ability to comprehend, reconstruct, and analyze complex philosophical arguments; (2) the ability to critically evaluate such arguments; (3) the ability to argue persuasively for your own views; and (4) the ability to articulate your thoughts in a clear, concise, and well-organized manner.

ADOPTING A POSITION

Many students believe that there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy. I would disagree, but nevertheless students should not think that they have to adopt the position argued for in one of the lectures or readings in order to get a good grade. In actuality, the position a student takes in his/her paper is irrelevant to my assessment of it. Your paper will be evaluated, not on the basis of the position taken, but on the basis of the strength of the arguments presented. Therefore, I suggest that you adopt whatever position you believe is correct. This should make the task more interesting for you and will thereby increase your chances of writing a good paper.

DEVELOPING A THESIS

A thesis is a statement of one's position on a given issue. So the first step in developing a thesis (once you have decided upon a topic) is to decide what your position is. In order to do this, you will need to thoroughly review all the course materials relevant to your topic. In most cases, you will have been presented with a number of arguments on both sides of the issue. Carefully analyze and evaluate all these arguments. In the process, you should develop your own take on the issue.

It is vital that you clearly define your thesis before you begin writing. For it is your thesis that will guide you throughout the entire writing process. Everything you write should somehow contribute to the defense of your thesis. So unless you define your thesis at the onset, you won't know what to write since you won't know what you are arguing for.

Your thesis should narrow the focus of your paper. For instance, you may be asked to write about euthanasia. But, of course, it isn't possible to consider every important philosophical issue concerning euthanasia in a term paper. So your thesis should narrow your focus to something more manageable.

Lastly, your thesis should be neither trivial nor absurd. For instance, if your thesis is that it is morally wrong for a woman who is eight and half months pregnant to have an abortion just so she can fly to Hawaii for a vacation, the response to your paper is likely to be: "So what?" Almost no one would disagree. This is not to say that you have to take an absolutist position. That is, you needn't choose between the claim that abortion is always wrong and the claim that abortion is always permissible. Instead, you could argue for something like the claim that abortion is permissible in the case of rape, and you wouldn't even have to take stand on any other cases of abortion. Also note that your thesis doesn't have to make any positive assertion. Your thesis could be that X's argument against abortion is unsound (where X is one of the authors you read). Although this thesis doesn't establishe anything about the morality of abortion, it is still perfectly good thesis. For showing that the argument of an important philosopher is unsound is far from trivial. On the other hand, you also don't thesis to absurd; you don't want your thesis to be so controversial that you have no chance of persuading anyone.

ARGUING FOR YOUR POSITION

Writing a philosophy paper involves more than simply stating your opinions. You must support your views by presenting arguments in favor of them. Also you should try to defend your views against potential criticisms. That is, try to anticipate what objections might be raised against your views and then, in your paper, demonstrate both that you are aware of these possible objections and that you can respond to them.

A philosophy paper should be rationally persuasive. For one, this means that you should appeal to your reader's intellect as opposed to his/her emotions. Thus you should avoid the use of inflammatory language and name-calling. For instance, avoid statements such as, "Any doctor who would give a patient a lethal injection is a Nazi." Second, if your arguments are to be persuasive, they must not rest upon unsupported, contentious claims. Instead they should ultimately rest upon assumptions that even a reasonable person of the opposing view would accept. So if, for instance, you want to argue that abortion is morally wrong, you shouldn't begin by assuming that the fetus has a right to life. Realize that such an argument would unlikely persuade anyone who is "pro-choice." After all, the view that the fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception is precisely what most pro-choice advocates would contest. Of course, you can argue that the fetus has a right to life; you just shouldn't assume it.

The point is to avoid making any assumptions which someone of the opposing view is sure to reject. For you should think of your paper as an attempt to persuade someone of the opposing view, and if you are to have any chance of persuading such a person, you must first find some common ground from which to build your arguments.

A good example of what I have in mind here is Judith Jarvis Thomson's arguments in "A Defence of Abortion."1 In this paper, Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible where the woman is pregnant as the result of being raped. Now what makes Thomson's arguments so compelling is that they are based on assumptions that even the most extreme anti-abortionist (i.e., one who holds that abortion is always wrong) would likely accept.

Thomson asks you to imagine waking up some morning to find yourself connected to an unconscious violinist suffering from a potentially fatal kidney disease. Suppose that last night the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped you and, without your consent, surgically connected the violinist to your circulatory system in a desperate attempt to save his life. So you now face the following choice. You can remain connected to the violinist for nine months by which time the violinist will be able to survive on his own, or you can unplug yourself from the violinist in which case the violinist will immediately die as a result.

Thomson assumes that in this situation you are under no obligation to remain connected to the violinist for the nine months. And thus you may unplug yourself from the violinist even if this entails killing him. Now this assumption seems relatively uncontroversial. But from this rather benign assumption Thomson is able to argue that abortion is sometimes permissible even if the fetus has a right to life. For the violinist surely has a right to life and yet it is permissible to kill him. And aborting a fetus whose existence is due to rape is, in all morally relevant respects, analogous to unplugging yourself from the violinist (or so Thomson argues). Thus Thomson concludes that it is permissible to have an abortion in certain circumstances (i.e., the case of rape) even if the fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception.

ARGUING AGAINST A CLAIM

The following are two of the most common strategies for arguing against a claim (You may find it useful to employ these strategies in your own paper.):

Reductio ad Absurdum

:
This strategy involves arguing against a claim by showing that it implies some absurdity. To illustrate, consider that some people claim that the reason human suffering is more important (morally speaking) than animal suffering is that humans have a kind and degree of intelligence that other animals lack. Here one could argue that we should reject such a claim given that it implies that the suffering of severely retarded infants (who also lack the kind and degree of intelligence that normal adults human beings posses) is less important than the suffering of normal adult human beings, which just seems patently absurd.2

Presenting a Counter-example:

Consider the adage "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." We can prove this adage false with the following counter-example. Iraq is the enemy of the United States, and Iran is the enemy of Iraq. But Iran is not a friend of the United States as the adage would imply.3

CRITICIZING AN ARGUMENT

Even if you are subsequently going to criticize an argument, state it first in a fair and sympathetic way, making clear why a reasonable person might be led to think in such a way. In some cases, it may even be necessary to make charitable revisions to an argument. That is, sometimes an argument is flawed in a way that can be easily fixed. In this case, you should explain how the argument can be revised and then focus your criticisms on this stronger, revised version of the argument. For instance, consider the following objection against Thomson's violinist example. Some people argue that Thomson's violinist example isn't analogous to pregnancy because being hooked up to the violinist for nine months is a greater burden for the person kidnapped than pregnancy is for the expectant mother -- at least, a pregnant woman can walk around and go places, whereas the person hooked up to the violinist is confined to a hospital bed. But it seems that Thomson could easily revise her analogy and still use it for the same effect. After all, even if we suppose that the violinist is a midget who could be carried on one's back for the nine months, it still seems permissible to disconnect yourself from him.

The point is you don't want to take the weakest argument for an opposing view an attack that. Rather you want to think of the strongest possible argument for an opposing view and show that even that argument fails. Only then will you have convinced others that the opposing view is indefensible.

Also, be sure that your criticisms focus on the relevant philosophical issues as opposed to any related empirical issues. In other words, I am not interested in papers that contest the empirical assertions made in the lectures and readings. The point of the assignment is to demonstrate your philosophical abilities, not your knowledge of any empirical facts. So if, for instance, your paper is about abortion, don't get too involved in empirical issues such as whether or not the fetus is sentient or self-aware. You should instead focus on the related philosophical issues such as how sentience and self-awareness can affect the moral status of an entity?

WRITING CLEARLY

Refrain from using fancy words and long-winded sentences. Being clear is far more important than appearing to have a sophisticated writing style. Avoid using vocabulary that you are unaccustomed to using in ordinary conversation. Too many students think that being philosophical involves being complex and obscure. Quite the opposite, simplicity and clarity are the ideals of philosophy.

You should choose your words very carefully. Ask yourself: Does what I've written precisely express the thoughts that I mean to convey? Do not leave something unclear and just assume that your reader will be able to figure out what you mean. For instance, don't write something like "Abortion is the same thing as murder."4 Abortion and murder are not the same thing. If abortion and murder were the same thing, then one could say that Jack the Ripper aborted many women. But, of course, this is absurd. Jack the Ripper murdered many women but aborted none. Of course, most people would understand that what you meant was that abortion is a form of murder. But whether or not your reader is able to figure out what you mean is irrelevant, because either way it is bad writing.

You will find that philosophers write with a degree of precision that is well beyond that which is customary in ordinary conversation, and I will expect the same degree of precision in your essay. The best way to ensure that you write clearly is to keep your prose simple and direct. Don't try to make your writing "colorful." For instance, don't use metaphors -- just plainly say what it is you have to say. Also, avoid overstating what you have to say. Overstatement is common in everyday conversation but unacceptable in a philosophy paper. For instance, in conversation someone might say, "Everyone in the tropics is so relaxed." But, of course, not everyone living in the tropics is relaxed. So be careful when using words like "every" and "all."

And avoid the following pitfalls:

Bad Diction:

This is where a word is used inappropriately.

Example: "Rachels's argument is false." (Statements, claims, beliefs, etc. can all be true or false, but not arguments. Arguments are valid or invalid, sound or unsound.)

Example: "'All human lives are valuable' infers that the lives of permanently unconscious humans are valuable." (To infer is to draw some conclusion from a set of statements or facts. But to draw a conclusion is a mental activity that only rational beings are capable of. The statement "All human lives are valuable" has no mind and so cannot perform any mental activity, let alone that of infering. In this example, proper diction demands that the word "infers" be replaced with the word "implies."

Vagueness:

This is where one fails to express what s/he means precisely.

Example: "Abortion is not the best solution to an unwanted pregnancy." (Does this mean that although you think that abortion is morally permissible, you believe that it would be preferable for women with unwanted pregnancies to carry them to term and then put their unwanted children up for adoption? Or, does this mean that you simply think that abortion is morally wrong?)

Ambiguity:

This is where one uses a word that can have more than one meaning but fails to specify which meaning is intended.

Example: "A fetus is an innocent human being." (By claiming that a fetus is human, are you merely claiming that it is a member of the species Homo sapiens? Or, are you claiming that it is human in the morally relevant sense of that term, the sense in which we think you and I are human but someone in a persistent vegetative state is not?)

DEFINING YOUR TERMS

A word must be defined if any of following apply: (1) it is a technical term that a layperson is not likely to know the meaning of; (2) it is an ordinary word whose meaning is not sufficiently clear or precise; or (3) it is an ordinary word that is going to be used to mean something other than what it ordinarily means.5 So define technical terms like "intrinsic value," "prima facie wrong," and "hedonism." And define words like "euthanasia" and "abortion." Although these are fairly ordinary words, they have no clear definition. For instance, in regards to abortion, it is not clear whether abortion necessarily involves killing the fetus. Can there be "live-birth" abortions? If a fetus is forcibly extracted by a physician and lives, was it an abortion? Our ordinary notion of abortion isn't precise enough to settle the issue.

Lastly, if you are going to use an ordinary word to mean something other than what it ordinarily means, you must make this clear to your reader. For instance, Peter Singer uses the word "person" to mean any rational, self-conscious being. Thus, as Singer defines "person," non-humans can be persons. Of course, it may seem odd to call anything but a human being a person. But this is only because Singer doesn't use "person" to mean what it ordinarily means. Yet there is nothing wrong with using an ordinary word in such a non-ordinary sense so long as you make it clear that you are doing so -- and Singer does.6

EXCLUDING THE IRRELEVANT

The rule regarding what is relevant is as follows. Unless it provides necessary background or supports your thesis it is irrelevant. And if it is irrelevant, it does not belong in your paper! Even if some point is interesting and pertains to your general topic, it still doesn't belong in your paper unless it is part of the defense of your thesis.

To illustrate, let's suppose that you are writing a paper on euthanasia and your thesis is that active euthanasia is never morally permissible. Now one thing that would be relevant to such a paper is a definition of euthanasia. Although a definition of euthanasia does not itself support any thesis, it is, in this case, necessary background. However, you shouldn't discuss the public controversy over Dr. Kevorkian. For although such a discussion would probably be interesting, it is not relevant to your thesis -- Dr. Kevorkian assisted many people in committing suicide but never actively euthanized anyone.

THE INTRODUCTION

Get right down to business! Avoid inflated, rhetorical introductory remarks (commonly known as "fluff"). If, for instance, your paper is on abortion, you shouldn't waste limited space with some irrelevant and long-winded spiel about what an important and controversial issue abortion is.

An introduction is best thought of as a reader's guide to your paper. It should help make it easier for the reader to follow and understand your paper. So it should define for the reader any important terminology. And it should include an explicit statement of what it is that you will be arguing for (that is, your thesis). Also, it is sometimes useful if the introduction maps out for the reader the structure of your paper, explaining the order in which you will argue for various points and then explaining how all those points come together in support of your thesis.

The following is an example of the type of introduction I am looking for (It is Mary Anne Warren's introduction to her paper "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion."7):

We will be concerned with both the moral status of abortion, which for our purposes we may define as the act which a woman performs in voluntarily terminating, or allowing another person to terminate, her pregnancy, and the legal status which is appropriate for this act. I will argue that, while it is not possible to produce a satisfactory defense of a woman's right to obtain an abortion without showing that a fetus is not a human being, in the morally relevant sense of that term, we ought not to conclude that the difficulties involved in determining whether or not a fetus is human make it impossible to produce any satisfactory solution to the problem of the moral status of abortion. For it is possible to show that, on the basis of intuitions which we may expect even the opponents of abortion to share, a fetus is not a person, and hence not the sort of entity to which it is proper to ascribe full moral rights.8

YOUR AUDIENCE

You should imagine that you are writing, not for your instructor or TA, but for an intelligent and knowledgeable layperson who knows almost nothing about philosophy. Pretend, for instance, that you are writing for a roommate who hasn't taken the course. Thus you should explain all technical terms, and you should use examples wherever this will help to illustrate your points. Of course, you are actually writing for your instructor or TA -- that's who is going to read and grade it. So you may ask yourself, "Why do I have to explain terms that my instructor/TA is already quite familiar with?" The answer is that it is your job to demonstrate that you understand the relevant material. And you can do this best by showing that you can explain what you've learned to even someone who knows nothing about philosophy.

QUOTING

Do not rely on quotations as a means of making your points. Rather you should explain things using your own words. The ability to explain someone else's position using your own words demonstrates to the reader that you have a clear understanding of that person's viewpoint.

Use quotations only in order to support a particular textual interpretation. So don't quote unless you intend to discuss the quoted passage and how it supports your interpretation of the author.

PLAGIARISM

"Plagiarism is the act of using another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source...to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from someone else.... Other forms of plagiarism include repeating someone else's particularly apt phrase without appropriate acknowledgment, paraphrasing another person's argument as your own, and presenting another's line of thinking as though it were your own."9

If you are at all unclear about what counts as plagiarism, then you should see your instructor because plagiarism often carries severe penalties, ranging from an F on the assignment to expulsion from the university.

STYLE AND LAYOUT

Grammar, spelling, and punctuation do count. So be sure to proofread your paper for such mistakes. I recommend that you read your paper to yourself out loud. It is surprising how useful this technique is in discovering mistakes in your writing. For some reason the ear seems to be able to pick up mistakes that one fails to catch by simply proofreading silently. And be sure to spell authors' names correctly. For example, it's "Thomson" not "Thompson," and it's "Rachels" not "Rachel."

The presentation of your paper should exhibit the pride you take in your work. In other words, don't turn in a bunch of half crumbled sheets of paper which you haven't even bothered to staple together. Your paper should be neatly typed, double-spaced, in twelve-point font with one inch margins all around. But note that almost all instructors dislike plastic binders -- a staple is quite sufficient. Always make and retain a photocopy of your paper.

If you quote or paraphrase the words of another, you must give that person credit. And unless you are using outside sources (which is usually not recommended), this can be done simply by including in parentheses: the author's last name; space; date of publication; comma; space; the page number of the passage from which you are borrowing -- for example, (Thomson 1986, 38). For more information on citing your sources please see The Chicago Manuel of Style located at http://library.usask.ca/ustudy/writing/chicago.html

Contrary to what you may have been taught in high school, there is nothing wrong with using the first person in your paper. In fact, a phrase like "I will argue..." is preferable to the overly verbose "My argument will be...." But you should avoid phrases such as "I believe..." and "I feel..." because what you believe and feel is, in almost all cases, irrelevant. For instance, the fact that you believe that abortion is wrong is no reason for anyone else to believe that it is so. Thus there is no reason to talk about what you believe and feel in a thesis-defense paper. Simply stating that you believe your thesis to be true isn't likely to convince anyone that it is.

GETTING HELP

There are many sources of help available to students writing philosophy papers. Unfortunately, few students take advantage of these resources. This is a shame, because those who do seek help seem to get more out of the assignment while at the same time improving their grade.

Attending office hours and participating in class discussions are probably two of the best ways to prepare yourself to write a philosophy paper. For it is important to discuss your ideas with someone of philosophical training. Doing so will make you aware of the kinds of objections that can be raised against your views and gives you a chance to practice defending your position.

I strongly recommend submitting a rough draft of your paper to your instructor if s/he is willing comment on it. But please note that rough drafts should be neatly typed and proofread prior to submission. So, actually, they shouldn't be "rough" at all. The draft you turn in should be as good a paper as you are capable of writing. Otherwise you will be wasting both your time and your instructor's time.

I also recommend purchasing William Strunk's The Elements of Style, 3rd Edition. It sells for only a few dollars and is an excellent writing guide. However, you may want to save those few dollars and settle for the first edition which is located on WWW at http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html.

HOW TO PROCEED

Step One (Choose a topic): Choose a topic that interests you. Writing a philosophy paper is hard work, but it can also be interesting and rewarding when you write on an issue that intrigues you. Also, be sure that you write on a topic about which you have something to say. Don't write on a topic where you have nothing to add to what has already been said in the lectures and readings.

Step Two (Review the relevant course materials): Once you've chosen a topic go back over all the relevant course materials (e.g., lecture notes and readings) and make careful notes on all of the arguments presented. Then go over these arguments and jot down your ideas about them.

Step Three (Develop a thesis): Hopefully, after reviewing the course materials, you will have developed your own take on the issue. If not, then consider two philosophers with opposing viewpoints and try to work out which one has the more plausible position and why. In the process, you should develop your own position on the issue. This will be your thesis. Now work on articulating it as clearly and precisely as you can. But don't be afraid to revise your thesis as your paper develops. Often times, you'll find that your first thoughts on the matter aren't as defensible as they first seemed. In this case, you'll need to change your thesis to something that you can defend. Of course, your thesis needn't be a defense of any positive claim. Instead you can choose to defend a negative claim. For instance, your thesis can be that philosopher X's argument is unsound. This is a perfectly good thesis.

Step Four (Make an outline):

Before you start writing it is important to make an outline. Your outline should sketch out all your arguments and map out the structure of your paper. Making an outline will save you time in the long run. All too often, if you haven't thought out your paper carefully enough in advance, you'll end up writing paragraphs and perhaps even pages of useless prose. For often you'll make false starts. You'll start out with one line of argument that will prove to be logically flawed. Other times, your premises will turn out to be indefensible. Expect to encounter such setbacks when writing a philosophy paper. Don't be afraid to start over from scratch if your paper isn't developing as you would like.

Step Five (Take a break): At this point, you should take a break (anywhere from a few days to a week) so that when you come back to paper you'll have a fresh perspective on it. This is an important step. You'll be surprised at how those arguments that seemed clear and well put a week ago now seem unclear and poorly stated.

Step Six (Go over your arguments with a critical eye): At this point you should come back to your paper refreshed. Now go over the arguments you outlined a week ago and look at them from the perspective of someone with the opposing viewpoint. Would they accept your premises? Would they accept your reasoning? How are they likely to respond to your arguments? What objections might they raise? Often it will be useful to seek out someone with a skeptical mind; it can be a friend, a parent, or the instructor. Ask them what they think of your arguments. Try to respond to whatever potential criticisms they come up with, and decide how to incorporate your responses into your paper. You might choose to address these objections as they surface. Alternatively, you can consider all potential objections at the end of your paper.

Step Seven (Write your paper): Write your paper following your outline. But save the introduction and conclusion for last. Write the introduction and conclusion together. They should mirror one another. The introduction should state your thesis and map out the structure of your paper. The conclusion should restate your thesis and rehearse the main line of argument.

Step Eight (Proofread your paper): After you finish writing, take a break again for a few days. Then go back to your paper and proofread it. Check that you phrased every sentence as clearly and precisely as you can. Don't be afraid to rewrite sentences and restructure paragraphs for the sake of clarity. Also check your paper for errors in spelling and grammar. I advise reading your paper out loud. The ear will often detect grammatical errors that you didn't pick up while proofreading silently.

OTHER GUIDES TO WRITING PHILOSOPHY

In print...

  • Stephen M. Garrison, Anthony J. Graybosch, and Gregory M. Scott, The Philosophy Student Writer's Manual (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998).
  • A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996).
  • Jay F. Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995).
  • Zachery Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999).

On the Web...


NOTES:

One thought on “Tips On Writing A Philosophical Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *