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 significant 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).

Contents


What Does One Do in a Philosophy Paper?


  1. A philosophy paper consists of the reasoned defense of some claim

Your paper must suggest 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 suggest 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 coaxing 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 demonstrate that Q is not true. “

“Descartes says that Q. I find this claim plausible, for the following reasons. “

There are a multitude 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:

  • Criticize that argument or thesis
  • Suggest counter-examples to the thesis
  • Defend the argument or thesis against someone else’s criticism
  • Suggest reasons to believe 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, tho’ 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 protestation

You’ll conclude by stating the upshot of your discussion. (For example, should we accept the thesis? Should we reject it? Or should we conclude that we don’t yet have enough information to determine 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 attempt to provide reasons for these claims that might coax someone who doesn’t already accept them.

  • A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a puny point ; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it

    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 total of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don’t be over-ambitious. Don’t attempt to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your Five page paper. Done decently, philosophy moves at a slow rhythm.

    The aim of these papers is for you to display familiarity with the material and an capability to think critically about it. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t make an utterly distinctive contribution to human thought in your very first attempts at philosophical writing. There will be slew of time for that later on. Your critical intelligence will inevitably demonstrate 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 fresh 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 suggesting fresh examples of familiar points, or fresh counter-examples, or fresh analogies.

    Major Guidelines

    Thinking about a philosophical problem is hard. Writing about it ought not to be. You’re not attempting to craft some fancy political speech. You’re just attempting 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.

  • Make an outline

    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 suggest your criticisms of your opponent? Do any of the points you’re making presuppose that you’ve already discussed some other point, very first? And so on.

    The overall clarity of your paper will greatly depend on its structure. That is why it is significant 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 example, you want to be able to say what your main argument or criticism is before you write. If you get stuck writing, it’s very likely because you don’t yet know what you’re attempting to say.

    Give your outline your total attention. It should be fairly detailed. (For a 5-page paper, a suitable outline might take up a total 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 slickly.

  • Make the structure of your paper clear

    You should make the structure of your paper demonstrable to the reader. Your reader shouldn’t have to exert any effort to figure it out. Hit him over the head with it.

    How can you do this?

    What you need to do is to make it clear what sort of budge 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 very first argument is. My 2nd argument that not-P is. X might react to my arguments in several ways. For example, he could say that. Another way that X might react 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 evident 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 significant.

  • Be concise, but explain yourself fully

    To write a good philosophy paper, you need to be concise but at the same time explain yourself fully.

    These requests might seem to pull in opposite directions. (It’s as if the very first said “Don’t talk too much,” and the 2nd said “Talk a lot.”) If you understand these requests decently, however, you’ll see how it’s possible to meet them both.

  • We tell you to be concise because we don’t want you to ramble on about everything you know about a given topic, attempting to demonstrate how learned and intelligent you are. Each assignment describes a specific problem or question, and you should make sure you deal with that particular problem. Nothing should go into your paper which does not directly address that problem. Prune out everything else. It is always better to concentrate on one or two points and develop them in depth than to attempt to cram in too much. One or two well-mapped paths are better than an impenetrable jungle.
  • 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.

  • We tell you to explain yourself fully because it’s very effortless to confuse yourself or your reader when writing about a philosophical problem. So take special anguishes to be as clear and as explicit as you possibly can.
  • 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 very 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 visible. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in elementary, bite-sized lumps. 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 most likely get an A.

  • Use elementary prose

    Don’t shoot for literary elegance. Use elementary, straightforward prose. Keep your sentences and paragraphs brief. Use familiar words. We’ll make joy of you if you use big words where plain 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 very likely achieved the right sort of clarity.

    It’s OK to demonstrate 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 noisy. This is an excellent way to tell whether it’s effortless to read and understand. As you read your paper, keep telling to yourself:

    “Does this indeed make sense?” “That’s not at all clear!” “That sounds pretentious.” “What does that mean?” “What’s the connection inbetween this sentence and the previous one?” “Does this sentence do anything more than repeat what I just said?” and so on.

  • Presenting and assessing the views of others

    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 requests 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 significant that you establish that X indeed 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 suggest 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 suitable 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 shocking things, but if the view you’re attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he truly does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Attempt 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 very 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, tho’ you can’t find any evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, tho’, 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 attempt to say everything you know about X’s views. You have to go on to suggest 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.

  • Miscellaneous points
  • Attempt to anticipate protestations to your view and react to them.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring up protestations to your own thesis. It is better to bring up an protestation yourself than to hope your reader won’t think of it. Of course, there’s no way to deal with all the protestations someone might raise; so choose the ones that seem strongest or most pressing, and say how you think they might be answered.

  • Your paper doesn’t always have to provide a definite solution to a problem, or a straight yes or no reaction to a question. Many excellent philosophy papers don’t suggest straight yes or no answers to a question. Sometimes they argue that the question needs to be clarified, or that certain further questions need to be raised. Sometimes they argue that certain assumptions of the question need to be challenged. Sometimes they argue that certain effortless answers to the question are too effortless, that the arguments for these answers are unsuccessful. Hence, if these papers are right, the question will be stiffer to reaction than we might previously have thought. This is an significant and philosophically valuable result.
  • If the strengths and weaknesses of two contesting positions seem to you to be toughly identically 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 attempt to provide reasons for this claim that might be found coaxing by someone who didn’t already think that the two views were identically balanced.

  • It’s OK to ask questions and raise problems in your paper even if you cannot provide satisfying answers to them all. You can leave some questions unanswered at the end of the paper (tho’ you should make it clear to the reader that you’re leaving such questions unanswered on purpose ).
  • If you raise a question, tho’, you should at least begin to address it, or say how one might set about attempting to response it; and you must explain what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at mitt.

    Minor Guidelines


    Commence Work Early

    Philosophical problems and philosophical writing require careful and extended reflection. Don’t wait until the night before to embark your paper. This is very stupid. Writing a good philosophy paper takes a excellent deal of prep. You should leave yourself enough time to think about your topic and write a detailed outline (this will take several days). Then write a draft (this will take one day). Set your draft aside for a day or two. If you can, showcase it to your friends and get their reactions to it. Do they understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing? Ultimately, sit down in front of the computer again and compose the final version (this will take one day). When you’re writing the final version of your paper, it’s much more significant to work on the structure and overall clarity of your paper, than it is to clean up a word or a phrase here or there. See the tips on revising your paper (below). If your paper is going to be late, check out our policy for late papers.

    Mechanics

    Please double-space your papers and include broad margins. Your papers should be less than or equal to the assigned word limit. Your grade will suffer if your paper is too long. So it’s significant to ask yourself: What are the most significant things you have to say? What can be left out? Include your name on the paper, and number the pages. Don’t turn in your only copy of your paper.

    Secondary sources

    For most classes, I will put some articles and books on reserve in Robbins Library for extra reading. These are optional, and are for your independent probe. When you are writing your papers, I do not expect you to consult these or any other secondary sources we haven’t discussed in class.

    Beginning your paper

    Don’t begin with a sentence like “Down through the ages, mankind has pondered the problem of. ” There’s no need to warm up to your topic. You should get right to the point, with the very first sentence.

    Grammar

  • It’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s also OK to split an infinitive, if you need to. (Sometimes the easiest way to say what you mean is by splitting an infinitive. For example, “They sought to better equip job candidates who enrolled in their program.”) Efforts to avoid these often end up just confusing your prose.
  • Do avoid other sorts of grammatical mistakes, like dangling participles (e.g. “Hurt by her fall, the tree fell right on Mary ‘s gam before she could get out of the way”), and the like.
  • You may use the word “I” loosely, especially to tell the reader what you’re up to (e.g. “I’ve just explained why. Now I’m going to consider an argument that. “).
  • Don’t worry about using the verb “is” or “to be” too much. In a philosophy paper, it’s OK to use this verb as much as you need to.
  • Using words with precise philosophical meanings

    Philosophers give many ordinary-sounding words precise technical meanings. Consult the handouts on Philosophical Terms and Methods to make sure you’re using these words correctly. Use technical philosophical terms only where you need them. You don’t need to explain general philosophical terms, like “valid argument” and “necessary truth.” But you should explain any technical terms you use which bear on the specific topic you’re discussing. So, for example, if you use any specialized terms like “dualism” or “physicalism” or “behaviorism,” you should explain what these mean. Likewise if you use technical terms like “supervenience” and the like. Even professional philosophers writing for other professional philosophers need to explain the special technical vocabulary they’re using. Different people sometimes use this special vocabulary in different ways, so it’s significant to make sure that you and your readers are all providing these words the same meaning. Pretend that your readers have never heard them before.

    Don’t vary your vocabulary just for the sake of multitude

    If you call something “X” at the begin of your paper, call it “X” all the way through. So, for example, don’t begin talking about “Plato’s view of the self, ” and then switch to talking about “Plato’s view of the soul, ” and then switch to talking about “Plato’s view of the mind. ” If you mean to be talking about the same thing in all three cases, then call it by the same name. In philosophy, a slight switch in vocabulary usually signals that you intend to be speaking about something fresh.

    Can you write your paper as a dialogue?

    Many students find the dialogue form attractive. Done well, it can be very effective. But it’s utterly difficult to do well. The form tempts the author to sweetness, unnecessary metaphor, and imprecision. So you shouldn’t attempt to write dialogues for this class.

    How You’ll Be Graded

    When we grade your paper, we will be asking ourselves questions like these:

  • Do you clearly state what you’re attempting to accomplish in your paper? Is it visible to the reader what your main thesis is?
  • Do you suggest supporting arguments for the claims you make? Is it evident to the reader what these arguments are?
  • Is the structure of your paper clear? For example, is it clear what parts of your paper are expository, and what parts are your own positive contribution?
  • Is your prose elementary, effortless to read, and effortless to understand?
  • Do you illustrate your claims with good examples?
  • Do you present other philosophers’ views accurately and charitably?
  • The comments I find myself making on students’ philosophy papers most often are these:

  • “Explain this claim,” or “What do you mean by this?” or “I don’t understand what you’re telling here.”
  • “This passage is unclear (or awkward, or otherwise hard to read).”
  • “Why do you think this?”
  • “Explain why this is a reason to believe that P.”
  • “Explain why this goes after.”
  • Revising Your Paper


    Responding to comments

    When you have the chance to rewrite a graded paper, keep the following points in mind. Your rewrites should attempt to go beyond the specific errors and problems we’ve indicated. If you got below an A-, then your draft was generally difficult to read, it was difficult to see what your argument was and what the structure of your paper was supposed to be, and so on. You can only correct these sorts of failings by rewriting your paper from scrape. (Begin with a fresh, empty window in your word processor.) Use your draft and the comments you received on it to construct a fresh outline, and write from that. Keep in mind that when I or your TF grade a rewrite, we may sometimes notice strengths or weaknesses in unchanged parts of your paper that we missed the very first time around. Also keep in mind that it’s possible to improve a paper without improving it enough to raise it to the next grade level. Most often, you won’t have the chance to rewrite your papers after they’ve been graded. So you need to instruct yourself to write a draft, scrutinize the draft, and revise and rewrite your paper before turning it in to be graded.

    How to revise a draft

    When you’re revising a paper, it’s much more significant to work on the structure and overall clarity of your paper, than it is to clean up a word or a phrase here or there. Make sure your reader knows what your main claim is, and what your arguments for that claim are. Make sure that your reader can tell what the point of every paragraph is. It’s not enough that you know what their point is. It has to be visible to your reader, even to a lazy, stupid, and mean reader. It’s OK for you to demonstrate your drafts to your friends and get their comments and advice. I encourage you to do this.

    Further Advice

    The following sites suggest excellent further advice on writing good philosophy papers:

  • Writing tutor for Introductory Philosophy Courses
    This site walks you through the process of writing a philosophy paper in several drafts.
  • 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/

    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 significant 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).

  • A philosophy paper consists of the reasoned defense of some claim

    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. or: I find that the following considerations. provide a wooing 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 display that Q is not true. or: Descartes says that Q. I find this claim plausible, for the following reasons. There are a diversity of things a philosophy paper can aim to accomplish. It usually embarks by putting some thesis or argument on the table for consideration. Then it goes on to do one or two of the following:

  • Criticize that argument; or showcase that certain arguments for the thesis are no good
  • Contrast the strengths and weaknesses of two opposing views about the thesis
  • Revise the thesis, in the light of some protestation
  • No matter which of these aims you set for yourself, you have to explicitly present reasons for the claims you make. Students often feel that since it’s clear to them that some claim is true, it does not need much argument. But it’s very effortless to overestimate the strength of your own position. After all, you already accept it. You should assume that your audience does not already accept your position; and you should treat your paper as an attempt to persuade such an audience. Hence, don’t commence with assumptions which your opponents are sure to reject. If you’re to have any chance of persuading people, you have to commence from common assumptions you all agree to.

  • A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a puny point ; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it

    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 total of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don’t be over-ambitious. Don’t attempt to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5-6 page paper. Done decently, philosophy moves at a slow rhythm.

    The aim of these papers is for you to showcase that you understand the material and that you’re able to think critically about it. To do this, your paper does have to demonstrate some independent thinking.

    That doesn’t mean you have to come up with your own theory, or that you have to make a totally original contribution to human thought. There will be slew of time for that later on. 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 entirely fresh ground.

    But you should attempt to come up with your own arguments, or your own way of elaborating or criticizing or defending some argument we looked at in class. Merely summarizing what others have said won’t be enough.

    Three Stages of Writing


    1. Early Stages

    The early stages of writing a philosophy paper include everything you do before you sit down and write your very first draft. These early stages will involve writing. but you won’t yet be attempting to write a accomplish paper. You should instead be taking notes on the readings, sketching out your ideas, attempting to explain the main argument you want to advance, and composing an outline.

    Discuss the issues with others

    As I said above, your papers are supposed to demonstrate that you understand and can think critically about the material we discuss in class. One of the best ways to check how well you understand that material is to attempt to explain it to someone who isn’t already familiar with it. I’ve discovered time and again while training philosophy that I couldn’t indeed explain decently some article or argument I thought I understood. This was because it was truly more problematic or complicated than I had realized. You will have this same practice. So it’s good to discuss the issues we raise in class with each other, and with friends who aren’t taking the class. This will help you understand the issues better, and it will make you recognize what things you still don’t fully understand.

    It’s even more valuable to talk to each other about what you want to argue in your paper. When you have your ideas worked out well enough that you can explain them to someone else, vocally, then you’re ready to sit down and commence making an outline.

    Make an outline

    Before you begin writing any drafts, 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 suggest your criticisms of your opponent? Do any of the points you’re making presuppose that you’ve already discussed some other point, very first? And so on.

    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. It also helps ensure that you’re in a position to say what your main argument or criticism is, before you sit down to write a total draft of your paper. When students get stuck writing, it’s often because they haven’t yet figured out what they’re attempting to say.

    Commence Work Early

    Philosophical problems and philosophical writing require careful and extended reflection. Don’t wait until two or three nights before the paper is due to begin. That is very stupid. Writing a good philosophy paper takes a good deal of prep.

    You need to leave yourself enough time to think about the topic and write a detailed outline. Only then should you sit down to write a finish draft. Once you have a accomplish draft, you should set it aside for a day or two. Then you should come back to it and rewrite it. Several times. At least Trio or Four. If you can, demonstrate it to your friends and get their reactions to it. Do they understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them?

    All of this takes time. So you should begin working on your papers as soon as the paper topics are assigned.

    Two. Write a Draft

    Once you’ve thought about your argument, and written an outline for your paper, then you’re ready to sit down and compose a finish draft.

    Use plain prose

    Don’t shoot for literary elegance. Use plain, straightforward prose. Keep your sentences and paragraphs brief. Use familiar words. We’ll make joy of you if you use big words where plain 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.

    You may think that since your TA and I already know a lot about this subject, you can leave out a lot of basic explanation and write in a super-sophisticated manner, like one pro talking to another. I assure you that this will make your paper incomprehensible.

    If your paper sounds as if it were written for a third-grade audience, then you’ve very likely achieved the right sort of clarity.

    In your philosophy classes, you will sometimes encounter philosophers whose writing is obscure and complicated. Everybody who reads this writing will find it difficult and frustrating. The authors in question are philosophically significant despite their poor writing, not because of it. So do not attempt to emulate their writing styles.

    Make the structure of your paper visible


    Very first of all, use connective words, like:

  • because, since, given this argument
  • thus, therefore, hence, it goes after that, consequently
  • nevertheless, however, but
  • in the very first case, on the other mitt
  • These will help your reader keep track of where your discussion is going. Be sure you use these words correctly! If you say ” P. Thus Q. ” then you are claiming that P is a good reason to accept Q. You had better be right. If you aren’t, we’ll complain. Don’t throw in a “thus” or a “therefore” to make your train of thought sound better-argued than it indeed is.

    Another way you can help make the structure of your paper evident is by telling the reader what you’ve done so far and what you’re going to do next. You can say things like:

  • I will begin by.
  • Before I say what is wrong with this argument, I want to.
  • These passages suggest that.
  • I will now defend this claim.
  • Further support for this claim comes from.
  • For example.
  • These signposts truly make a big difference. Consider the following two paper fragments:

    We’ve just seen how X says that P. I will now present two arguments that not-P. My very first argument is.
    My 2nd argument that not-P is.
    X might react to my arguments in several ways. For example, he could say that.
    However this response fails, because.
    Another way that X might react to my arguments is by claiming that.
    This response also fails, because.
    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.

    I will argue for the view that Q.
    There are three reasons to believe Q. Firstly.
    Secondly.
    Thirdly.
    The strongest protestation to Q says.
    However, this protestation does not succeed, for the following reason. Isn’t it effortless to see what the structure of these papers is? You want it to be just as effortless in your own papers.

    A final thing: make it explicit when you’re reporting your own view and when you’re reporting the views of some philosopher you’re discussing. The reader should never be in doubt about whose claims you’re presenting in a given paragraph.

    Be concise, but explain yourself fully

  • We tell you to be concise because we don’t want you to ramble on about everything you know about a given topic, attempting to demonstrate how learned and intelligent you are. Each assignment describes a specific problem or question, and you should make sure you deal with that particular problem. Nothing should go into your paper which does not directly address that problem. Prune out everything else. It is always better to concentrate on one or two points and develop them in depth than to attempt to cram in too much. One or two well-mapped paths are better than an impenetrable jungle.
  • One thing I mean by “explain yourself fully” is that, when you have a good point, you shouldn’t just throw it off in one sentence. Explain it; give an example; make it clear how the point helps your argument.

    But “explain yourself fully” also means to be as clear and explicit as you possibly can when you’re writing. 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 very 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.

  • Use slew of examples and definitions

    It is very significant to use examples in a philosophy paper. Many of the claims philosophers make are very abstract and hard to understand, and examples are the best way to make those claims clearer.

    Examples are also useful for explaining the notions that play a central role in your argument. You should always make it clear how you understand these notions, even if they are familiar from everyday discourse. As they’re used in everyday discourse, those notions may not have a reasonably clear or precise meaning. For example, suppose you’re writing a paper about abortion, and you want to assert the claim ” A fetus is a person. ” What do you mean by “a person”? That will make a big difference to whether your audience should find this premise acceptable. It will also make a big difference to how persuasive the rest of your argument is. By itself, the following argument is pretty worthless:

    A fetus is a person.
    It’s wrong to kill a person.
    Therefore, it’s wrong to kill a fetus. For we don’t know what the author means by calling a fetus “a person.” On some interpretations of “person,” it might be fairly visible that a fetus is a person; but fairly controversial whether it’s always wrong to kill persons, in that sense of “person.” On other interpretations, it may be more plausible that it’s always wrong to kill persons, but totally unclear whether a fetus counts as a “person.” So everything turns here on what the author means by “person.” The author should be explicit about how he is using this notion.

    In a philosophy paper, it’s okay to use words in ways that are somewhat different from the ways they’re ordinarily used. You just have to make it clear that you’re doing this. For example, some philosophers use the word “person” to mean any being which is capable of rational thought and self-awareness. Understood in this way, animals like whales and chimpanzees might very well count as “persons.” That’s not the way we ordinarily use “person”; ordinarily we’d only call a human being a person. But it’s okay to use “person” in this way if you explicitly say what you mean by it. And likewise for other words.

    Don’t vary your vocabulary just for the sake of multitude

    Using words with precise philosophical meanings

    Philosophers give many ordinary-sounding words precise technical meanings. Consult the handouts on Philosophical Terms and Methods to make sure you’re using these words correctly. Don’t use words that you don’t fully understand.

    Use technical philosophical terms only where you need them. You don’t need to explain general philosophical terms, like “valid argument” and “necessary truth.” But you should explain any technical terms you use which bear on the specific topic you’re discussing. So, for example, if you use any specialized terms like “dualism” or “physicalism” or “behaviorism,” you should explain what these mean. Likewise if you use technical terms like “supervenience” and the like. Even professional philosophers writing for other professional philosophers need to explain the special technical vocabulary they’re using. Different people sometimes use this special vocabulary in different ways, so it’s significant to make sure that you and your readers are all providing these words the same meaning. Pretend that your readers have never heard them before.

    Presenting and assessing the views of others

    If you plan to discuss the views of Philosopher X, begin by figuring out what his arguments or central assumptions are. See my tips on How To Read a Philosophy Paper for some help doing this.

    Then ask yourself: Are X’s arguments good ones? Are his 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?

    Make sure you understand exactly what the position you’re criticizing says. Students waste a lot of time arguing against views that sound like, but are indeed different from, the views they’re supposed to be assessing. Recall, philosophy requests 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.) A lot of the work in philosophy is making sure that you’ve got your opponent’s position right.

    You can assume that your reader is stupid (see above). But don’t treat the philosopher or the views you’re discussing as stupid. If they were stupid, we wouldn’t be looking at them. If you can’t see anything the view has going for it, maybe that’s because you don’t have much practice thinking and arguing about the view, and so you haven’t yet fully understood why the view’s proponents are attracted to it. Attempt tighter to figure out what’s motivating them.

    Philosophers sometimes do say shocking things, but if the view you’re attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he truly does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Attempt to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that.

    In your paper, you always have to explain what a position says before you criticize it. If you don’t explain what you take Philosopher X’s view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you suggest of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X’s views. So tell the reader what it is you think X is telling.

    Don’t attempt to tell the reader everything you know about X’s views, however. You have to go on to suggest your own philosophical contribution, too. Only summarize those parts of X’s views that are directly relevant to what you’re going to go on to do.

    Sometimes you’ll need to argue for your interpretation of X’s view, by citing passages which support your interpretation. It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, however you can’t find any direct evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, tho’, you should explicitly say so. Say something like: Philosopher X doesn’t explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he’s assuming it anyway, because.

    Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation. And when you do quote an author, you still have to 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, then indicate what that claim is. You may want to give some examples to illustrate the author’s point. If necessary, you may want to distinguish the author’s claim from other claims with which it might be confused.

    Sometimes when students are attempting to explain a philosopher’s view, they’ll do it by providing very close paraphrases of the philosopher’s own words. They’ll switch some words, omit others, but generally stay very close to the original text. For example, Hume embarks his Treatise of Human Nature as goes after: All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which inject with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions, and emotions, as they make their very first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint pictures of these in thinking and reasoning. Here’s an example of how you don’t want to paraphrase: Hume says all perceptions of the mind are resolved into two kinds, impressions and ideas. The difference is in how much force and liveliness they have in our thoughts and consciousness. The perceptions with the most force and violence are impressions. These are sensations, passions, and emotions. Ideas are the faint pictures of our thinking and reasoning. There are two main problems with paraphrases of this sort. In the very first place, it’s done rather mechanically, so it doesn’t demonstrate that the author understands the text. In the 2nd place, since the author hasn’t figured out what the text means well enough to express it in his own words, there’s a danger that his paraphrase may inadvertently switch the meaning of the text. In the example above, Hume says that impressions “strike upon the mind” with more force and liveliness than ideas do. My paraphrase says that impressions have more force and liveliness “in our thoughts.” It’s not clear whether these are the same thing. In addition, Hume says that ideas are faint photos of impressions ; whereas my paraphrase says that ideas are faint photos of our thinking. These are not the same. So the author of the paraphrase emerges not to have understood what Hume was telling in the original passage.

    A much better way of explaining what Hume says here would be the following: Hume says that there are two kinds of ‘perceptions,’ or mental states. He calls these impressions and ideas. An impression is a very ‘forceful’ mental state, like the sensory impression one has when looking at a crimson apple. An idea is a less ‘forceful’ mental state, like the idea one has of an apple while just thinking about it, rather than looking at it. It is not so clear what Hume means here by ‘forceful.’ He might mean.

    Anticipate protestations

    Attempt to anticipate protestations to your view and react to them. For example, if you object to some philosopher’s view, don’t assume he would instantaneously admit defeat. Imagine what his comeback might be. How would you treat that comeback?

    Don’t be afraid of mentioning protestations to your own thesis. It is better to bring up an protestation yourself than to hope your reader won’t think of it. Explain how you think these protestations can be countered or overcome. Of course, there’s often no way to deal with all the protestations someone might raise; so concentrate on the ones that seem strongest or most pressing.

    What happens if you’re stuck?

    Your paper doesn’t always have to provide a definite solution to a problem, or a straight yes or no response to a question. Many excellent philosophy papers don’t suggest straight yes or no answers. Sometimes they argue that the question needs to be clarified, or that certain further questions need to be raised. Sometimes they argue that certain assumptions of the question need to be challenged. Sometimes they argue that certain answers to the question are too effortless, that is, they won’t work. Hence, if these papers are right, the question will be tighter to reaction than we might previously have thought. These are all significant and philosophically valuable results.

    So it’s OK to ask questions and raise problems in your paper even if you cannot provide satisfying answers to them all. You can leave some questions unanswered at the end of the paper. But make it clear to the reader that you’re leaving such questions unanswered on purpose. And you should say something about how the question might be answered, and about what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at forearm.

    If something in a view you’re examining is unclear to you, don’t gloss it over. Call attention to the unclarity. Suggest several different ways of understanding the view. Explain why it’s not clear which of these interpretations is correct.

    If you’re assessing two positions and you find, after careful examination, that you can’t determine inbetween them, that’s okay. It’s flawlessly okay to say that their strengths and weaknesses seem to be harshly identically balanced. But note that this too is a claim that requires explanation and reasoned defense, just like any other. You should attempt to provide reasons for this claim that might be found coaxing by someone who didn’t already think that the two views were identically balanced.

    Sometimes as you’re writing, you’ll find that your arguments aren’t as good as you originally thought them to be. You may come up with some protestation to your view to which you have no good reaction. Don’t funk. If there’s some problem with your argument which you can’t fix, attempt to figure out why you can’t fix it. It’s okay to switch your thesis to one you can defend. For example, instead of writing a paper which provides a totally solid defense of view P, you can instead switch tactics and write a paper which goes like this: One philosophical view says that P. This is a plausible view, for the following reasons.
    However, there are some reasons to be doubtful whether P. One of these reasons is X. X poses a problem for the view that P because.
    It is not clear how the defender of P can overcome this protestation. Or you can write a paper which goes: One argument for P is the ‘Conjunction Argument,’ which goes as goes after.
    At very first glance, this is a very appealing argument. However, this argument is faulty, for the following reasons.
    One might attempt to repair the argument, by.
    But these repairs will not work, because.
    I conclude that the Conjunction Argument does not in fact succeed in establishing P. Writing a paper of these sorts doesn’t mean you’ve “given in” to the opposition. After all, neither of these papers commits you to the view that not-P. They’re just fair accounts of how difficult it is to find a conclusive argument for P. P might still be true, for all that.

    Trio. Rewrite, and Keep Rewriting

    Now you’ve written a accomplish draft of your paper. Set the draft aside for a day or two.

    Then come back to the draft and re-read it. As you read each sentence, say things like this to yourself: “Does this truly make sense?” “That’s totally unclear!” “That sounds pretentious.” “What does that mean?” “What’s the connection inbetween these two sentences?” “Am I just repeating myself here?” and so on. Make sure every sentence in your draft does useful work. Get rid of any which don’t. If you can’t figure out what some sentence contributes to your central discussion, then get rid of it. Even if it sounds nice. You should never introduce any points in your paper unless they’re significant to your main argument, and you have the room to indeed explain them.

    If you’re not blessed with some sentence in your draft, ask yourself why it bothers you. It could be you don’t indeed understand what you’re attempting to say, or you don’t indeed believe it.

    Make sure your sentences say exactly what you want them to say. For example, suppose you write ” Abortion is the same thing as murder. ” Is that what you truly mean? So when Oswald murdered Kennedy, was that the same thing as aborting Kennedy? Or do you mean something different? Perhaps you mean that abortion is a form of murder. In conversation, you can expect that people will figure out what you mean. But you shouldn’t write this way. Even if your TA is able to figure out what you mean, it’s bad writing. In philosophical prose, you have to be sure to say exactly what you mean.

    Also pay attention to the structure of your draft. When you’re revising a draft, it’s much more significant to work on the draft’s structure and overall clarity, than it is to clean up a word or a phrase here or there. Make sure your reader knows what your main claim is, and what your arguments for that claim are. Make sure that your reader can tell what the point of every paragraph is. It’s not enough that you know what their point is. It has to be demonstrable to your reader, even to a lazy, stupid, and mean reader.

    If you can, display your draft to your friends or to other students in the class, and get their comments and advice. I encourage you to do this. Do your friends understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them? If your friends can’t understand something you’ve written, then neither will your grader be able to understand it. Your paragraphs and your argument may be ideally clear to you but not make any sense at all to someone else.

    Another good way to check your draft is to read it out noisy. This will help you tell whether it all makes sense. You may know what you want to say, but that might not be what you’ve truly written. Reading the paper out noisy can help you notice fuckholes in your reasoning, digressions, and unclear prose.

    You should count on writing many drafts of your paper. At least Three or Four. Check out the following web site, which illustrates how to revise a brief philosophy paper through several drafts. Notice how much the paper improves with each revision:

  • Writing tutor for Introductory Philosophy Courses <http://web.williams.edu/wp-etc/philosophy/jcruz/jcruz/writingtutor/ >.
  • Minor Points


    Beginning your paper

    Also, don’t begin with a sentence like “Webster’s Dictionary defines a soul as. ” Dictionaries aren’t good philosophical authorities. They record the way words are used in everyday discourse. Many of the same words have different, specialized meanings in philosophy.

    Grammar

  • It’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s also OK to split an infinitive, if you need to. (Sometimes the easiest way to say what you mean is by splitting an infinitive. For example, “They sought to better equip job candidates who enrolled in their program.”) Efforts to avoid these often end up just confusing your prose.
  • Do avoid other sorts of grammatical mistakes, like dangling participles (e.g. “Hurt by her fall, the tree fell right on Mary ‘s gam before she could get out of the way”), and the like.

  • You may use the word “I” loosely, especially to tell the reader what you’re up to (e.g. ” I’ve just explained why. Now I’m going to consider an argument that. “).

    Secondary readings

    For most classes, I will put some articles and books on reserve in Bobst Library for extra reading. These are optional, and are for your independent explore.

    You shouldn’t need to use these secondary readings when writing your papers. The point of the papers is to instruct you how to analyze a philosophical argument, and present your own arguments for or against some conclusion. The arguments we’ll be considering in class are slew hard enough to deserve your utter attention, all by themselves.

    Can you write your paper as a dialogue or story?

    No. Done well, these forms of philosophical writing can be very effective. That’s why we read some dialogues and stories in Philosophy Three. But these forms of philosophical writing are enormously difficult to do well. They tempt the author to be imprecise and to use unclear metaphors. You need to master ordinary philosophical writing before you can do a good job with these more difficult forms.

    Mechanics

    Aim to make your papers less than or equal to the assigned word limit. Longer papers are typically too ambitious, or repetitious, or utter of digressions. Your grade will suffer if your paper has these defects. So it’s significant to ask yourself: What are the most significant things you have to say? What can be left out?

    But neither should your papers be too brief! Don’t cut off an argument abruptly. If a paper topic you’ve chosen asks certain questions, be sure you reaction or address each of those questions.

    Please double-space your papers, number the pages, and include broad margins. We choose to get the papers simply stapled: no plastic binders or anything like that.

    Include your name on the paper. And don’t turn in your only copy! (These things should be evident, but evidently they’re not.)

    You’ll be graded on three basic criteria:

  • How well do you understand the issues you’re writing about?
  • How good are the arguments you suggest?
  • Is your writing clear and well-organized?
  • We do not judge your paper by whether we agree with its conclusion. In fact, we may not agree amongst ourselves about what the correct conclusion is. But we will have no trouble agreeing about whether you do a good job arguing for your conclusion.
    More specifically, we’ll be asking questions like these:

  • Do you clearly state what you’re attempting to accomplish in your paper? Is it visible to the reader what your main thesis is?
  • Do you suggest supporting arguments for the claims you make? Is it evident to the reader what these arguments are?

  • Is the structure of your paper clear? For example, is it clear what parts of your paper are expository, and what parts are your own positive contribution?

  • Is your prose elementary, effortless to read, and effortless to understand?

  • Do you illustrate your claims with good examples? Do you explain your central notions? Do you say exactly what you mean?

  • “Explain this claim” or “What do you mean by this?” or “I don’t understand what you’re telling here”
  • “This passage is unclear (or awkward, or otherwise hard to read)” “Too complicated” “Too hard to go after” “Simplify”
  • “Why do you think this?” “This needs more support” “Why should we believe this?” “Explain why this is a reason to believe P” “Explain why this goes after from what you said before”
  • “Not truly relevant”
  • “Give an example?”
  • Attempt to anticipate these comments and avoid the need for them!

    Your paper should do some philosophical work

    A kind of complaint that is common in undergraduate philosophy papers goes like this: Philosopher X assumes A and argues from there to B. B seems unattractive to me. Philosopher X just assumes A and doesn’t give any argument for it. I don’t think A is true. So I can just reject A and thereby avoid B. This line of thought may very well be correct. And the student may very well be right that Philosopher X should have given more argument for A. But the student hasn’t truly philosophically engaged with Philosopher X’s view in an interesting way. He hasn’t truly done much philosophical work. It was clear from the outset that Philosopher X was assuming A, and that if you don’t want to make that assumption, you don’t need to accept X’s conclusion. If this is all you do in your paper, it won’t be a strong paper and it will get a mediocre grade, even if it’s well-written.

    Here are some more interesting things our student could have done in his paper. He could have argued that B doesn’t indeed go after from A, after all. Or he could have introduced reasons for thinking that A is false. Or he could have argued that assuming A is an illegitimate stir to make in a debate about whether B is true. Or something else of that sort. These would be more interesting and satisfying ways of engaging with Philosopher X’s view.

    Responding to comments from me or your TA

    When you have the chance to rewrite a graded paper, keep the following points in mind.

    Your rewrites should attempt to go beyond the specific errors and problems we’ve indicated. If you got below an A-, then your draft was generally difficult to read, it was difficult to see what your argument was and what the structure of your paper was supposed to be, and so on. You can only correct these sorts of failings by rewriting your paper from scrape. (Embark with a fresh, empty window in your word processor.) Use your draft and the comments you received on it to construct a fresh outline, and write from that.

    Keep in mind that when I or your TA grade a rewrite, we may sometimes notice weaknesses in unchanged parts of your paper that we missed the very first time around. Or perhaps those weaknesses will have affected our overall impression of the paper, and we just didn’t suggest any specific recommendation about fixing them. So this is another reason you should attempt to improve the entire paper. not just the passages we comment on.

    It is possible to improve a paper without improving it enough to raise it to the next grade level. Sometimes that happens. But I hope you’ll all do better than that.

    Most often, you won’t have the chance to rewrite your papers after they’ve been graded. So you need to instruct yourself to write a draft, scrutinize the draft, and revise and rewrite your paper before turning it in to be graded.

    Acknowledgements

    I don’t want to claim undue credit for this work. A lot of the suggestions here derive from writing handouts that friends and colleagues lent me. (Alison Simmons and Justin Broackes deserve special thanks.) Also, I’ve browsed some other writing guidelines on the web, and from time to time incorporated advice I thought my students would find useful. Peter Horban’s site is worth special mention. Thanks to Professor Horban for permitting me to incorporate some of his suggestions here.

    Naturally, I owe a giant debt to the friends and professors who helped me learn how to write philosophy. I’m sure they had a hard time of it.

    If you’re a teacher and you think your own students would find this web site useful, you are free to point them here (or to distribute printed copies). It’s all in the public good.

    Utter licensing details are here.

    Related video: Song of Myself Part 1


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