Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Tips for Writing Philosophy Papers

In my undergraduate classes, I normally distribute tips for writing philosophy papers along with my essay assignments. Perhaps others will find these tips helpful.

General Instructions on Writing Philosophy Papers

Philosophy papers can take a variety of forms; no single formula suffices to describe them all. However, most philosophy papers are built around two components: textual analysis and critical discussion. The simplest and most common form of a philosophy paper is the presentation of a particular author’s point of view, coupled with an argument against that view. Another common form is to contrast the views of two authors on a particular issue and to support one author’s view against the other.

The first element: textual analysis. The first element of a successful philosophy paper is an accurate, sympathetic, and cogent presentation of a point of view – typically the point of view of one or more of the authors we have been reading in the class. For longer papers, you should probably present not only a sketch of the author’s position, but also, as sympathetically as possible, some of the reasons the author gives for accepting his or her view. You might also offer your own, or others’, arguments supporting the author’s view. Using your own fresh examples, in the context of more abstract exposition, can especially effectively convey your command of the material.

You should put special care into accurately representing views with which you disagree, since it is tempting to oversimplify or caricature such views. You should also use citations to support your analysis (see below).

The second element: critical discussion. The second element of a successful philosophy paper is a critical discussion of the view (or views) presented. A plausible argument must be mounted either for or against at least one point of view. In constructing this argument, you may use ideas from the readings, lectures, class discussion, or any other source. When using an idea that you obtained from someone else, you must cite the source (see below). While it is not expected in most cases that you will discover wholly novel arguments, you will be expected to put the arguments in your own words, take your own angle on them, and use your own examples, going deeper into at least one issue or objection than we have in class. You should also bear in mind how an opponent might respond to your argument. The best papers often explicitly develop a potential line of criticism against the view the student favors and then show how the view advocated can withstand that criticism. (Of course, it is of little value to do this if the criticism anticipated is too weak to be advocated by thoughtful opponents of your position.) One or two powerful criticisms developed in convincing detail is almost always better than a barrage of quick criticisms treated superficially. Students sometimes relegate their critical discussion to the last paragraph or last page of their papers. Generally, that is a mistake. This is what the rest of the paper is building towards. Spend some time with it; work it out in detail.

One common mistake is to simply state (or restate) your position, or the position of one of the authors, as your critical discussion. Instead, you should mount an argument that brings new considerations to bear or shows some specific weakness in the position or argument you are criticizing. Give reasons for accepting the view you endorse.

Sentences. You should separately evaluate each sentence of your paper along the following three dimensions.

(1.) Is it clear? Although philosophers such as Kant and Heidegger are notorious for their opacity, opacity is not generally accepted in student papers. It should be clear what every sentence means, on the face of it. Avoid technical terms as much as is feasible. When you do use a technical term, for the most part it should be clearly defined in advance. Generally speaking, you should aim to write so that an intelligent person with no background in philosophy can understand most of your paper.

(2.) Is it true or plausible? Every claim you make in a philosophy paper – indeed, every element of every claim – should be either true or plausibly true. Claims that are true or plausible on their face (e.g., “damage to the brain can affect the capacity to think”) may be offered without further support. Claims likely to be questioned by an alert reader (e.g., “nothing immaterial can cause the motion of a material object”) should either precede or be preceded by some sort of consideration or argument in support, although in some cases the support may be fairly simple or preliminary, especially if the point is subsidiary or taken for granted by all the relevant parties.

(3.) Is it relevant? Often, the aim of a philosophy paper is to criticize the view of some particular author. In that case, most of the sentences should serve either to articulate relevant parts of the view that is to be criticized, or they should somehow support the criticism, or they should serve summary or “signpost” functions. In longer papers, digressions and speculations, if they are of sufficient interest, are also acceptable. In more purely interpretive papers, relevance may be harder to assess, but generally you should try to confine yourself either to a single interpretive thesis (e.g., “Descartes would not have accepted Malebranche’s occasionalism”) or you should focus on a narrow enough range of ideas that you can present an insightfully deep exploration of one aspect of the author’s view (as opposed to a scattered, superficial treatment).

Paragraphs. The basic unit of writing is not the sentence but the paragraph. As a general rule, every major point deserves its own paragraph. To make a claim clear it is often desirable to do at least one of the following: Restate it in different words, qualify and delimit it, contrast it to a related point with which it may be confused, present an example of its application, or expand it into several subpoints. To make a claim plausible, it is often desirable to present an example or application, show how it is supported by another claim that is plausible on the face of it, rephrase it in a way that brings out its commonsensicality, or cite an author who supports it. In your critical discussion, it is generally desirable that every major objection you raise receive at least a full paragraph of explanation.

If you treat the paragraph as the basic unit of writing, you will find that only a few points can truly be made well in any one paper, and five or even seven pages will start to seem (if it does not already) a narrow stricture.

Preparation for the paper. In preparing for the paper, I advise that you review the readings and notes relevant to the topic in question. If you have thought of what you consider to be a convincing objection to something in the texts or the lectures, you might want to build your paper around that, carefully describing the view or argument you oppose and then showing why you think we ought not accept that view or argument. If you raise your objection in class discussion, in office hours, or in discussion with friends, then you can see whether others find it convincing and perhaps how someone who disagrees with you would be inclined to respond.

Use of sources. Frequent citations should be used to back up the claims you make in your paper, both in describing an author’s view and in mounting your criticisms, if you depend on the ideas of other people in doing so. Citations serve two purposes: (1.) They credit people for their views, omission of this credit being plagiarism. (2.) If I disagree with your interpretation or recollection of what an author has said, a page reference allows me to check what you have said against the text – otherwise, in cases of disagreement I will have simply to assume that you are mistaken. Citations to particular authors and pages should be included parenthetically in the text, and the bulk of your references should be paraphrases, not direct quotations. Quotes take a lot of space and do not make clear what it is you mean to highlight or extract from the quoted passage, nor do they effectively convey that you understand the quoted material.

Below are two examples of parenthetical citation format for paraphrases. Both are written in the student's own words, not quoting from but rather conveying the crucial idea of the cited text:

It might be thought that materialism cannot be true because people can talk quite intelligently about mental states without knowing anything about brain states – without even believing that the brain is involved in thinking. Consider, however, the case of lightning as an electrical discharge: One can talk intelligently about lightning without knowing about electrical discharges, but this does not prove that lightning is not an electrical discharge (Smart, p. 171).


In support of the view that the mind continues to exist after death, Paterson cites evidence from reports of near-death experiences. Occasionally, Paterson claims, people who have near-death experiences report details of objects and places it would have been impossible for them normally to observe, such as friends unexpectedly arriving in the hospital waiting room (p. 146).

It is not necessary to appeal to secondary sources in discussing your interpretation of the texts. If you do choose to refer to such sources, you should always make your own judgment about whether what they say is plausible and back up your judgment, if possible, with references to the primary texts. Information found on the internet should be treated with special caution. Wikipedia is an unreliable source for philosophy; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is usually much better. If you find information on the internet that in any way informs your paper, you should be certain to cite it (including the U.R.L.) as you would any other sort of secondary material.

Audience. Imagine the audience of your paper to be a mediocre student taking this class. You need not explain such basic things as who Descartes is. However, you should not assume that your reader has any more than the most rudimentary acquaintance with the texts and arguments or any knowledge at all of literature not assigned in the class. Jargon should be minimized. When you do use jargon, explain carefully what you mean by it.

Introductions. For such a short paper, there is no need for a general introduction to the issues or the particular thinkers being discussed. Get right to the point. The first paragraph should probably contain an explicit statement of what you take your primary point or points to be. There is no need to keep the reader in suspense.

Drafts, outlines, sketches. Many people find it helpful to create an outline of the paper before writing. At a minimum, one should have a general idea, in advance, of the main points one will make. One potential danger with outlines for philosophy papers is that it is often difficult to judge in advance the proper amount of time to spend on any particular sub-claim. Brief sketches of one’s main points and arguments – e.g., a summary of the main project of the paper in one or two paragraphs – are sometimes more helpful. Once you have completed the paper, it can be very rewarding to set it aside for a few days and then return to it, rewriting it from scratch from the beginning. Such rewriting forces you to rethink every sentence afresh as you retype it, which generally results in a clearer, tighter, and more coherent paper. (I rewrite my own essays multiple times before submitting them for publication.)


Anonymous said...

Every professional professor go against these rules that are used to discipline students only. Don't believe them.

KMB said...

"along the following three dimensions"?

Eep, that's an awkward construction. There are others, but that one really stands out.

These sort of hand-outs are not fun or interesting to write, to be sure, and it's hard to mask the exasperation that prompts them to be written in the first place. But this could really stand some adjustment of tone to make it more sympathetic and engaging, I think.

clasqm said...

Worthwhile tips here. Mind if I adapt it to a different humanities discipline with a link to the original?

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, when you rewrite do you do so while referring to the original, or truly from scratch?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

KMB: Fair enough. But lively verbs, active voice, etc., really shouldn't be the key point of emphasis for their papers, nor was it mine in writing the tips.

Clasqm: Of course!

Anon: I refer to the original. I will sometimes go whole paragraphs retyping word for word with no changes. Other times I will veer entirely off, never coming back to the original or only coming back at the start of a new section. Typically I will read aloud, which sometimes reveals awkward constructions that can be phrased more clearly without compromising the content.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great article. I am a philosophy student and I never use my own examples in my papers. I am a little scared to make a stupid example and/or I cannot think of any example like at all. How can I improve this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Give some examples a try! If you put your mind to it, you will probably come up with some good ones, and if it's tricky to come up with a good example, that itself can raise interesting questions about what the abstract statements really mean. (Relevant to my post today, actually!)