Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper
Philosophical writing is different from the writing you'll be asked to do in other courses. Most of the strategies described below will also serve you well when writing for other courses, but don't automatically assume that they all will. Nor should you assume that every writing guideline you've been given by other teachers is important when you're writing a philosophy paper. Some of those guidelines are routinely violated in good philosophical prose (e.g., see the guidelines on grammar, below).
Your paper must offer an argument. It can't consist in the mere report of your opinions, nor in a mere report of the opinions of the philosophers we discuss. You have to defend the claims you make. You have to offer reasons to believe them.
So you can't just say:
"My view is that P."
You must say something like:
"My view is that P. I believe this because..."
"I find that the following considerations...provide a convincing argument for P."
Similarly, don't just say:
"Descartes says that Q."
Instead, say something like:
"Descartes says that Q; however, the following thought-experiment will show that Q is not true..."
"Descartes says that Q. I find this claim plausible, for the following reasons..."
There are a variety of things you might aim to do in your paper. You'll usually begin by putting some thesis or argument on the table for consideration. Then you'll go on to do one or two of the following:
You'll conclude by stating the upshot of your discussion. (For instance, should we accept the thesis? Should we reject it? Or should we conclude that we don't yet have enough information to decide whether the thesis is true or false?)
No matter which of these aims you set for yourself, you have to explicitly present reasons for the claims you make. You should try to provide reasons for these claims that might convince someone who doesn't already accept them.
People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5 page paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace.
The aim of these papers is for you to display familiarity with the material and an ability to think critically about it. Don't be disappointed if you don't make an utterly distinctive contribution to human thought in your first attempts at philosophical writing. There will be plenty of time for that later on. Your critical intelligence will inevitably show up in whatever you write.
An ideal paper will be clear and straightforward (see below), will be accurate when it attributes views to other philosophers (see below), and will contain thoughtful critical responses to the texts we read. It need not always break new ground.
If you do want to demonstrate independent thought, don't think you have to do it by coming up with a novel argument. You can also demonstrate independent thought by offering new examples of familiar points, or new counter-examples, or new analogies.
Thinking about a philosophical problem is hard. Writing about it ought not to be. You're not trying to craft some fancy political speech. You're just trying to present a claim and some reasons to believe it or disbelieve it, as straightforwardly as possible.
Here are some guidelines on how to do that.
Before you begin to write, you need to think about the questions: In what order should you explain the various terms and positions you'll be discussing? At what point should you present your opponent's position or argument? In what order should you offer your criticisms of your opponent? Do any of the points you're making presuppose that you've already discussed some other point, first? And so on.
The overall clarity of your paper will greatly depend on its structure. That is why it is important to think about these questions before you begin to write.
I strongly recommend that you make an outline of your paper, and of the arguments you'll be presenting, before you begin to write. This lets you organize the points you want to make in your paper and get a sense for how they are going to fit together. For instance, you want to be able to say what your main argument or criticism is before you write. If you get stuck writing, it's probably because you don't yet know what you're trying to say.
Give your outline your full attention. It should be fairly detailed. (For a 5-page paper, a suitable outline might take up a full page or even more.)
I find that making an outline is at least 80% of the work of writing a good philosophy paper. If you have a good outline, the rest of the writing process will go much more smoothly.
You should make the structure of your paper obvious to the reader. Your reader shouldn't have to exert any effort to figure it out. Beat him over the head with it.
How can you do this?
What you need to do is to make it clear what sort of move you're making at each point in your paper. Say things like:
...We've just seen how X says that P. I will now present two arguments that not-P. My first argument is...
My second argument that not-P is...
X might respond to my arguments in several ways. For instance, he could say that...
Another way that X might respond to my arguments is by claiming that...
So we have seen that none of X's replies to my argument that not-P succeed. Hence, we should reject X's claim that P.
You can't make the structure of your paper obvious if you don't know what the structure of your paper is, or if your paper has no structure. That's why making an outline is so important.
To write a good philosophy paper, you need to be concise but at the same time explain yourself fully.
These demands might seem to pull in opposite directions. (It's as if the first said "Don't talk too much," and the second said "Talk a lot.") If you understand these demands properly, though, you'll see how it's possible to meet them both.
Formulate the central problem or question you wish to address at the beginning of your paper, and keep it in mind at all times. Make it clear what the problem is, and why it is a problem. Be sure that everything you write is relevant to that central problem. In addition, be sure to say in the paper how it is relevant. Don't make your reader guess.
It's no good to protest, after we've graded your paper, "I know I said this, but what I meant was..." Say exactly what you mean, in the first place. Part of what you're being graded on is how well you can do that.
Pretend that your reader has not read the material you're discussing, and has not given the topic much thought in advance. This will of course not be true. But if you write as if it were true, it will force you to explain any technical terms, to illustrate strange or obscure distinctions, and to be as explicit as possible when you summarize what some other philosopher said.
In fact, you can profitably take this one step further and pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He's lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious. He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he's going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you're writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you'll probably get an A.
Don't shoot for literary elegance. Use simple, straightforward prose. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use familiar words. We'll make fun of you if you use big words where simple words will do. These issues are deep and difficult enough without your having to muddy them up with pretentious or verbose language. Don't write using prose you wouldn't use in conversation. If you wouldn't say it, don't write it.
If your paper sounds as if it were written a third-grade audience, then you've probably achieved the right sort of clarity.
It's OK to show a draft of your paper to your friends and get their comments and advice. In fact, I encourage you to do this. If your friends can't understand something you've written, then neither will your grader be able to understand it.
Read your paper out loud. This is an excellent way to tell whether it's easy to read and understand. As you read your paper, keep saying to yourself:
"Does this really make sense?" "That's not at all clear!" "That sounds pretentious." "What does that mean?" "What's the connection between this sentence and the previous one?" "Does this sentence do anything more than repeat what I just said?" and so on.
If you plan to discuss the views of Philosopher X, begin by isolating his arguments or central assumptions. Then ask yourself: Are the arguments good ones? Are X's assumptions clearly stated? Are they plausible? Are they reasonable starting-points for X's argument, or ought he have provided some independent argument for them?
Keep in mind that philosophy demands a high level of precision. It's not good enough for you merely to get the general idea of somebody else's position or argument. You have to get it exactly right. (In this respect, philosophy is more like a science than the other humanities.) Hence, when you discuss the views or arguments of Philosopher X, it's important that you establish that X really does say what you think he says. If you don't explain what you take Philosopher X's view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you offer of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on your misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X's views.
At least half of the work in philosophy is making sure that you've got your opponent's position right. Don't think of this as an annoying preliminary to doing the real philosophy. This is part of the real philosophical work.
When a passage from a text is particularly useful in supporting your interpretation of some philosopher's views, it may be helpful to quote the passage directly. (Be sure to specify where the passage can be found.) However, direct quotations should be used sparingly. It is seldom necessary to quote more than a few sentences. Often it will be more appropriate to paraphrase what X says, rather than to quote him directly. When you are paraphrasing what somebody else said, be sure to say so. (And here too, cite the pages you're referring to.)
Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation. When you do quote an author, always explain what the quotation says in your own words. If the quoted passage contains an argument, reconstruct the argument in more explicit, straightforward terms. If the quoted passage contains a central claim or assumption, give examples to illustrate the author's point, and, if necessary, distinguish the author's claim from other claims with which it might be confused.
Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things, but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that. It is pointless to argue against a position so ridiculous that no one ever believed it in the first place, and that can be refuted effortlessly.
It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, though you can't find any evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, though, you should explicitly say so. Say something like, "Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he might have believed it, because..."
You don't want to summarize any more of a philosopher's views than is necessary. Don't try to say everything you know about X's views. You have to go on to offer your own philosophical contribution. Only summarize those parts of X's views that are directly relevant to what you're going to go on to do.
Don't be afraid to bring up objections to your own thesis. It is better to bring up an objection yourself than to hope your reader won't think of it. Of course, there's no way to deal with all the objections someone might raise; so choose the ones that seem strongest or most pressing, and say how you think they might be answered.
If the strengths and weaknesses of two competing positions seem to you to be roughly equally balanced, you should feel free to say so. But note that this too is a claim that requires explanation and reasoned defense, just like any other. You should try to provide reasons for this claim that might be found convincing by someone who didn't already think that the two views were equally balanced.
If you raise a question, though, you should at least begin to address it, or say how one might set about trying to answer it; and you must explain what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at hand.
When we grade your paper, we will be asking ourselves questions like these:
The comments I find myself making on students' philosophy papers most often are these:
The following sites offer excellent further advice on writing good philosophy papers:
THIS DOCUMENT IS COPIED MORE OR LESS WORD FOR WORD FROM JIM PRYOR'S UNBEATABLY WONDERFUL "GUIDELINES ON WRITING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER," WHICH CAN BE FOUND AT http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~jpryor/general/writing.html.