How to Write a Great Philosophy Paper
In approaching the task of writing a philosophy paper, it is important to keep in mind that what is involved in writing a paper in philosophy is different from writing a paper in another discipline, even when it is in one of the other humanities.
Philosophical writing is a practice that has its own standards and conventions. Some of these standards will be consistent with general academic paper writing standards. Many others are more specific to philosophy.
It is therefore especially important to have a clear idea of what it takes to write a philosophy paper that will receive a good grade.
The goal of writing a philosophy paper
Defending a claim
The concept of defending a claim is central to the activity of writing a philosophy paper. In fact, it would not be wrong to understand the whole point of a philosophy paper as the attempt to first put forth a philosophical claim that one believes and to then attempt to secure its position.
A philosophical claim is generally some statement or thesis whose truth is something that is not taken to be uncontroversial in philosophy.
To merely state a claim is not the same thing as defending a claim. It is not okay to just provide your personal opinion on some issue and to then be done with it.
Your philosophy instructors are not interested in your opinions, unless you also give them some good reasons to believe what you believe. On the same note, it is also not okay to simply write down the opinion of some philosopher whose work you read without at the same time also providing their reasons for believing it.
As a word of caution, make sure that the claim that you choose to defend isn’t too strong or ambitious to defend within the limited pages that you are allotted for your philosophy paper. It is far better to give good reasons for believing a less ambitious claim than to give bad reasons for believing a more ambitious claim.
Providing an argument
The way in which one defends a claim that one has put forth in a philosophical paper is by way of offering a convincing argument. In giving an argument, one is providing reasons as to why the readers should come to believe what you believe.
To put it in more concrete terms, it is not simply enough to write: “I believe that such and such is the case” or “John Stuart Mill believed that such and such is the case”. One must, in addition, provide reasons for holding that belief. For example: “I believe that such and such is the case because of reason X” or “John Stuart Mill believed that such and such is the case because of reason Y”.
Given that your aim is to try to give reasons to believe some controversial philosophical claim or other, the assumptions that you make when providing your reasons should be, as a matter of course, less controversial than your main claim.
Otherwise, you will not be providing convincing reasons to accept your claim since the assumptions you are making are themselves controversial and, by definition, not argued for. You should also make sure that assumptions you take to be uncontroversial are in fact so.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the argument of a good philosophy paper will usually possess something novel about it. This means either writing an original argument or writing an unoriginal argument in an original way.
Possible kinds of arguments
There are many different kinds of arguments that one can make in a philosophical paper depending on what one chooses as one’s main claim. They include the following:
1. Arguing that the argument some author provides in defense of the claim does not work
2. Showing that the main claim is false by giving a counterexample to it
3. Providing your own argument for the main claim
4. Defending your main claim against some objection
5. Showing that the main claim is false but that it can be modified in such a way as to be made true and still be relevant
6. Discussing the various other beliefs that one must also hold if one believes the main claim
What your paper will be graded on
In writing your philosophy paper, it is important to keep in mind the aspects you will be graded on. In evaluating a philosophy paper, your instructor will attempt to determine whether you satisfy the following conditions:
a. You adequately understand the philosophical import of the topic you are addressing.
b. You provide a good argument or good reasons to believe your main claim.
c. Your paper is written in a lucid and structured way.
The steps to writing a philosophy paper
STEP I: READING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER
Read the relevant passages several times
Philosophical works are usually very dense. Before starting to write, try to spell out what the author is saying in your own words.
Be charitable in your interpretation of the author
Do not interpret a philosophical work in an absurd or uncharitable way just to make things easy for yourself. Give the text you are considering the best possible interpretation.
STEP II: WRITING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER
In writing the introduction to your philosophy paper, make sure to introduce the main claim of your paper as well as provide the structure of the argument that you will be deploying in the body of your paper.
Basically, your aim in the introduction is to tell us what you are going to be up to in the rest of your paper.
Use simple language
Ornate language is not a virtue in philosophical writing. Avoid it. A rule of thumb to remember is: if you wouldn’t say something when speaking, don’t say it in your paper.
Be concise in your writing
Your philosophy paper should be as concise as possible. Make sure each one of your sentences is doing some important work.
Avoid long quotations
In writing philosophy paper, you should generally avoid long quotations. Instead, paraphrase an author’s point in order to demonstrate that you understand it.
Don’t make appeals to the dictionary
Students are often tempted to consult dictionaries in defining key philosophical terms and concepts. Dictionaries, however, are not good sources of authority for philosophical concepts. Philosophical terms and concepts often have specialized meanings that are not captured by dictionary entries.
Don’t discuss the historical importance of your topic
Another temptation that students of often have is to introduce the topic of their paper by discussing its historical development into a philosophical problem or by mentioning how it is an issue that has gripped human beings for countless generations. Avoid this temptation. Introduce your topic directly (e.g. “According to Kant, we have good reason to believe the following claim...).
It is acceptable to use ‘I’
In writing a philosophy paper, the use of the first person singular pronoun ‘I’ is acceptable when used to refer to the author and is even encouraged. Using other locutions such as ‘this author’ should be avoided as it is apt to create awkwardness in the flow of language.
Use terms correctly
Make sure that you have a solid grasp on philosophical terms before using them in your own papers. Don’t just assume you know what a word means just because you are familiar with it from other contexts.
Repetition is acceptable
In writing a philosophy paper, you will often find yourself repeating certain terms over and over until you are sick of them. This might tempt you to replace the term with synonyms. Avoid doing so. You should consistently use the same terms for the same concepts throughout your paper. Repetition is OK in a philosophy paper and is even the norm.
Use many examples
In writing a philosophy paper, one of the best ways to show you understand some issue or concept is by providing some concrete example of it. In giving examples, may sure they are relevant to the point you are trying to make.
Anticipate possible objections to your argument
In writing your paper, imagine how somebody might provide a strong objection to your position. Include the objection in your paper and figure out a way to respond to it in a convincing way. Doing this will make your argument that much stronger.
You do not need a conclusion
Unless your philosophy paper is very long or you are specifically asked to do so by your philosophy instructor, you will typically not need to write a conclusion to your philosophy paper. It is enough to tell the reader what you are up to in your introductory paragraph. You can just end your paper once you have completed your argument (and considered potential objections).
STEP III: REVISING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER
Make sure every sentence expresses exactly what you mean to say
In writing a philosophy paper, it is not enough to gesture towards a thought. In revising, make sure that the words you used to express your thoughts do an adequate job of it and are not ambiguous.
Get a friend to read your draft or read your own draft out loud
Given a student’s deep involvement in her own paper, she will often be unable to notice the presence of glaring holes in her argument or a lack of clarity to her sentences. For this reason, it is a good idea to get some distance in the revision process, either by having a friend or classmate read your draft or to read it out loud. This way, it will be far easier to detect awkward-sounding sentences as well as hazy thinking.
The goal in writing a philosophy paper
a. Defending a claim
The point of a philosophy paper is to put forth a philosophical claim one believes and to attempt to defend it. A philosophical claim is generally some statement or whose truth is not taken to be uncontroversial in philosophy.
b. Providing an argument
The way in which one defends a claim that one has put forth in a philosophical paper is by way of offering a convincing argument.
In giving an argument, one is providing reasons as to why the readers should come to believe what you believe.
-Possible kinds of arguments
-Arguing argument author provides does not work
-Showing main claim is false by providing counterexample.
-Providing own argument the main claim
-Defending main claim against some objection