A philosophy paper writing guide

30 May

Students often find philosophy papers difficult to write since the expectations are very different from those in other disciplines, even from those of other disciplines in the humanities.

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.
Most philosophy assignments will ask you to demonstrate your understanding of the subject through exposition of arguments and theories, and many will also test your ability to assess these arguments and theories by writing a critical evaluation of them.

Philosophy papers usually involve both exposition and evaluation.  In the expository part of the paper, your task is to explain the view or argument under consideration. Make sure that your explanation is as explicit as possible.

Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. 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.

Organize Your Ideas into a Logical Structure.
Because philosophy papers proceed by logical argument, creating a point-form outline that captures the structure of your argument is generally a good strategy. An outline will allow you to spot problems in your argument more easily.

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.

As you write, think about your intended audience.  You should not write your paper as if it is a personal communiqué to me.  Instead, imagine your audience as someone who is intelligent and interested in the subject but has not studied it.
Try to make your expository writing as clear and accurate as possible, and try to show the logical connections between the different parts of a philosophical system. Avoid vague or overly brief exposition, serious omissions, or misunderstandings.

Do not be afraid to re-use the same terms over and over, especially when they are key terms in an argument.  If you mean to talk about the same concept throughout, use the same term throughout.

In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic.  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.

As you think about your topic, read the course materials, and take notes, you should work out and assemble the following:
the strengths of a philosopher’s theory
the arguments the philosopher gives in support of the theory and those the philosopher did not provide but which might still support it
possible criticisms of those arguments
how the philosopher has replied or could reply to these criticisms

As a rule, you should not use quotes.  A series of quotes strung together, even creatively strung together, is not a paper.  The main reason to quote a passage is to make it more convenient for you to talk about what the passage says
writing a philosophy paper
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.

You should, however, include textual references.  Whenever you make a claim about what is said in the text, it is appropriate to provide a specific reference to back up your claim.

Edit boldly. 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.