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. What follows is some general advice about how to go about writing short (4 - 5 page) philosophy papers on pre-assigned topics.
Make sure that you have read all of the relevant texts very carefully. Even though you have probably read these texts previously, it is a good idea to reread them in light of the question you plan to answer.
sure that you have spent some time thinking about the question itself. You want to make sure that everything you write is relevant
to the question asked, and if you don’t understand the question, then you
won’t be able to write an assignment that is to the point.
Answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question. First, address the question that is asked. (This again points to the need to understand what the question is asking.) Second, be sure that your answer is complete. If the question has different parts, be sure that you have addressed each part. Third, make sure that you do not pursue tangential issues. Your answer will be evaluated in connection with the question that was asked. Even a brilliant essay cannot get a good grade if it does not answer the question.
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. The evaluation part of the paper is your chance to do some philosophy of your own. It is not enough merely to state whether you agree or disagree with the philosopher’s conclusion. You should engage with her reasoning. Some questions you might consider: does her argument succeed in getting to the desired conclusion? Which premises are the weakest points of the argument? What objections might be raised to these premises? Are there any ways that her argument could be bolstered to defend against such objections?
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. (Think of yourself, before taking this class, or perhaps of your roommate.)
When you use
an unfamiliar or “technical” term (i.e. a term that we have given some
specific meaning in this class) be sure to define it.
In general, a thesaurus is not the friend of a philosophy student. Do not be afraid to re-use the same terms over and over, especially when they are key terms in an argument. Do not use different terms just for variety’s sake; unfortunately, synonyms listed by a thesaurus often vary in connotation and meaning. If you mean to talk about the same concept throughout, use the same term throughout.
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 (and to make it more convenient for your reader as well). Thus, you should not rely on a quotation to answer a key part of the question. Answer in your own words instead.
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. Do not make claims like “Socrates believes that …” without supporting them. For short papers using class texts, footnotes are not necessary; it is sufficient to make parenthetical references, such as (Meno 77b).
Write until you have said what you need to say, not until you hit the page limit. (Incidentally, if you find that you don’t have enough to say to reach the word limit, you’re probably missing something. The problem should be to confine your paper to the page limit, not to stretch out your paper to the minimum required.) You may end up with a first draft that is too long, but at a later stage you can go back through your work and see whether there are sentences or paragraphs that are not really necessary or that can be made more concise. The point is that you will be better able to evaluate what is truly important if you have included everything on your first draft.
Finally, do not try to compose your paper, from start to finish, in one session – especially not the night before it is due. Make sure that you have the chance to write a first draft and then let it percolate for awhile. Very few people are able to dash off a good paper in one sitting!
Don’t begin with a very general opening statement: “Plato was one of the world’s greatest philosophers…” or “The definition of virtue is something that philosophers have debated for centuries…”
Do briefly tell your reader what your paper is about and what your main thesis is. Notice that there is a difference between telling your reader what you are going to talk about and telling your reader what you will argue. Compare:
In the Meno, Meno presents Socrates with a paradox about inquiry. There is no way to inquire into something that you don’t know, since you don’t know how to begin, but there is also no way to inquire into something that you already know, since you already have the knowledge in question. Thus, we reach the paradoxical conclusion that inquiry is impossible. Socrates attempts to unravel Meno’s paradox by presenting his theory of recollection. In what follows, I will discuss Meno’s paradox and Socrates’ criticism of it.
In the Meno, Meno presents Socrates with a paradox about inquiry. There is no way to inquire into something that you don’t know, since you don’t know how to begin, but there is also no way to inquire into something that you already know, since you already have the knowledge in question. Thus, we reach the paradoxical conclusion that inquiry is impossible. Socrates attempts to unravel Meno’s paradox by presenting his theory of recollection. In what follows, I will argue that Socrates does not adequately defend his theory of recollection. However, I will also suggest that even if we were to accept the theory of recollection, this would not provide an adequate answer to Meno’s paradox.
The second of these introductions is superior to the first. Notice that only the second presents an actual thesis statement.
you will be in a better position to write an introduction after you have written
the main body of your paper, for you will then have a better idea of what your
argument really is.
Don’t feel as though you must summarize all of your results. You have written a short paper; the reader recalls your argument and will only be annoyed if you repeat yourself.
Don’t end with a hedged claim like “Though Socrates’ argument is strong, his opponents also have good points.” Also try to avoid the temptation to end with an empty prediction about continued debate: “Though Meno’s definition of virtue is a good one, the philosophical debate over what it means to be virtuous will no doubt continue.”
Do find some nice way of wrapping up your essay. This does not mean that you should claim that every facet of the issue has been addressed. Sometimes a conclusion sets out problems that still remain. There is nothing wrong with defending a qualified conclusion, such as “Socrates’ theory of recollection can be defended against this criticism,” rather than an unqualified conclusion, such as “Socrates’ theory of recollection is entirely correct.” In fact, you will probably not have argued for the latter conclusion in your paper, since it requires that you have shown not only that some criticisms fail, but also that there are not any other criticisms that might succeed against Socrates’ theory. Make sure that you do not claim that you have shown more than have actually shown in your paper. (It is especially tempting to exaggerate your accomplishments in a grand-finale-style concluding paragraph; resist this temptation.)
For example, here is a conclusion that avoids exaggeration:
As Socrates’ discussion with the slave suggests, it is plausible to suppose that someone can discover, without being taught, a geometrical claim that they did not already know. However, as I have argued, we cannot generalize from the case of geometrical knowledge to knowledge of other sorts of facts. Thus, Socrates fails to provide an adequate reason to believe his claim that all learning is recollection.
the conclusion does not claim that Socrates’ claim is shown to be false, but
only that Socrates has not adequately defended it.]
The principal virtue in philosophical writing is clarity. As you reread each sentence of your draft, ask yourself: “Is this point expressed clearly?” Your prose should be simple, direct, and to the point.
As you re-read your paper, think about whether it is organized in the best way. Would it be more effective if this paragraph went here, and that one went there? Very often, our first efforts need a rather serious structural overhaul. Also, look for opportunities to improve your paper, such as adding an example here, rewriting an awkward sentence there, and so on…
Proofread your paper carefully. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors can distract a reader and divert her attention from your argument. It may also give her the impression – a false one, perhaps – that you simply don’t care enough about your work to run it through a spell-check program.
what distinguishes an excellent paper from a merely decent paper is the depth
and quality of their explanations. The
decent paper may not make any obvious mistakes or omit anything crucial; it
often just does not communicate its message as clearly and effectively as the
excellent paper does. Thus, always
try to find ways of strengthening your explanations.
Examples will help here. Almost
all philosophy relies on the use of examples, both for illustrative and
As a professor of mine used to tell his classes, “There is, and can be, no direct correlation between the grade you receive on a paper and the amount of time or effort you have spent on the paper; which is not to say that hard work does not produce results, but only that some people can do with great ease what others cannot do at all or can only do with great effort. In an hour, Mozart could produce a piece of music that I would be unable to match even if I spent my whole life working at it.”
remember that the grade that you get on the paper represents my judgment of the
quality of the results – not what you meant to say, but what
you actually said.