Tips on Writing Philosophy
Last updated: 10/2009
- The single most important feature of your prose is its clarity. Since
you're writing a philosophy paper, you might feel that you must wax profound
and use complicated sentences with lots of subordination (as the authors youre
reading often do!). Resist this temptation! Aim for simple, clear, and precise
prose. (What's clear is relative to your writing skills.)
- Work hard to say exactly what you mean. If you're unsure of the word
you want, look it up: figure out precisely which word makes your point.
- Make sure that your thoughts follow a well-organized pattern. Don't skip
from idea to idea or wander from point to point. Plan your paper to have one
central thesis, and make every part of the paper serve the argument for this
- Write an introduction and a conclusion. Your introduction should, well,
introduce the reader to the themes and issues you're discussing, as well as
state compactly the thesis you're going to defend. Philosophy papers are not
mystery stories: let the reader know your conclusion up front. The concluding
paragraph should at least restate the conclusion of the paper, as well as,
perhaps, point to unresovled issues, remind the reader of assumptions for
which you have not argued in the paper itself, and/or remind the reader of
the train of your argument.
- It is usually, though not always, a bad idea to qualify a thesis, observation, or assertion with a phrase like "I think that" or "I believe." Such phrases tend to undercut the force of your assertion by suggesting that the idea is just something you believe, rather than something you're willing to argue for. There are times, of course, when it's most precise to use "I believe," as for example when you're making an observation about what you believe. (And I've found that I must indicate that according to me it's just fine to use the first-person singular pronoun, of course only when it's relevant and appropriate. "I will argue that" is often a clear and simple way to let your reader know what you plan to do. Don't overuse such phrases, however, or you risk running afoul of the next tip.)
- Do not present the autobiography of your paper writing experience. Don't
write that first you thought x, and then you thought y, etc.
Discuss the material.
- When you present an argument of your own, or an objection to someone else's
argument, be sure to consider responses to your argument or objection. One
trick is to imagine that you're a philosophical lawyer and that you have to
convince a (rational) jury of your case. Every time you present an argument
or objection, the other lawyer will have a chance to respond. So, you must
anticipate objections and come up with responses to them. In your paper, I
want to see you actually do this: say how a critic might respond to what you're
saying, and then defend yourself against the response.
- How many objections should you consider? A general rule to observe is that
exploring fewer and more challenging objections is better than more but less
challenging objections. Partly the answer lies in how long a paper you're
- If the asisgnment is for a five page paper (as it always is in
my introductory courses, Phil. 1, 2, and 7), then use only one objection.
That is all you have time for in a five page paper.
- For my other courses, in which you're writing longer papers:
the longer the paper, the more objections you can follow out. Note, however,
that it is often more useful to consider an objection to a response than
to open up an entirely new line of objection.
- How does one respond to an objection? A response to an objection is most
often, in effect, an objection to an objection.
- Do not quote too much. Too much quotation is not only boring, but takes
up valuable space that should be used for the development of your own explanations
Consultation, Credit, and Research
- When you attribute a claim to an author, be sure to back up your attribution
with a reference. I have no specific requirements concerning citation style.
Whatever you do, use some consistent system of citation.
- Be sure to be meticulous about giving credit to sources, whether they be
books or discussion partners. Note that plagiarism is a violation of the Honor Code. Make
sure you know what it is, so that you don't do it by accident!
- Do not do any research on the Web (except, perhaps, locating original
sources). Anyone can post any unedited piece of non-sense on the Web. You
use the Web as a research tool at your own intellectual peril. The Web is
almost entirely useless as a research tool. (Students in introductory courses,
such as Philosophy 1, 2, or 7, see also note #24.)
- Do not rely on dictionary definitions of terms that are "in play" in your
discussion. For example, do not turn to a dictionary to settle the definition
of "free" or "responsible" or "real."
Grammar and Style
- Make sure that the basics are in order: don't misspell words, don't use
incomplete sentences, and so on. Especially annoying are apostrophe errors,
and they will be treated harshly.
- See my Tips on Style & Grammar.
Additional Tips for My Students in Introduction to Philosophy
- Your second paragraph should be a brief "strategy paragraph,"
in which you describe how you're going to argue for your position, as well
as mention the objection(s) you are going to discuss.
- Leave out all biographical and historical data about the authors whom you
discuss. They are irrelevant.
- Leave out broad brush stroke intellectual history. Don't tell me that some
problem is "perennial," or that philosophers have long questioned
- The paper assignments in this class do not ask you to express your feelings
about the topics, nor do they ask for your "personal reflections"
on the issues. They call upon you to reason and to argue for
some position, in either agreement or disagreement with an author. This requires
you both to interpret the author plausibly and to provide cogent considerations
for your positions.
- Don't go to the library to get help. Lots of the books
in the library are not very good and will fill you with misinformation. And
in any case, I want to see your thoughts, not someone else's. Your
ability to generate ideas from your own resources is part of what I will be
evaluating in your paper.
- Do feel free to consult with your classmates, however. Since philosophy
requires that you engage in dialog with other views, it makes good sense to
run your ideas up against a classmate. The paper must in the end, nonetheless,
be yours. So, if you get an idea from a classmate, give him or her
credit in a footnote.