WRITING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER
Philosophical writing is different from the writing you are asked
to do in other courses; these guidelines might be helpful, but do not
assume that following them is enough to write a good philosophy
1. What you are trying to accomplish: The virtues of a philosophy
A philosophy paper consists in a critical analysis of a thesis and
in a reasoned defense of some claims. If you advance a claim, your
claim should be supported by argument. If you attribute a view to
someone, you should support your attribution with reference to the
original text and interpretative remarks. When you make claims about
a philosopher you have read, make sure that you support your
interpretation with references to specific passages. When you take a
specific formulation of a point from a text, use quotations.
The virtues of a philosophy paper are:
- clarity: say what you have to say simply and
- depth of analysis and critical questioning: offer a
critical analysis of a philosophical issue, present and question
different approaches to the same issue, and compare them.
- consideration of arguments: the reader is not
interested in your own opinion, but in the way you reason about a
particular issue, how you argue about it, how you defend your
claims. You must exhibit reasons for what your hold, not just
voice your concern about a particular matter. Make your reasons
- logical organization: everything that you write must be
justified: there should be a reason why you wrote what you wrote
the way you did. Use only the sentences that you need to express
your claims. In order to construct an argument, each step of your
reasoning should be clear and in the right order. Each paragraph
should follow the previous one logically, that is, your paper
should exhibit logical organization. The paper should a precise
structure: remind the reader of where you are in your argument,
where are you going, what she should expect. That is, make the
structure of your argument clear and the progression of your
- originality: you have to show that you wrote your paper
for a reason, because you really had something to say about this
issue. Your paper should show that you have thought about the
issue seriously, and that you have been able to think critically
about it. It is not enough to list and summarize all the opinions
and arguments you have heard from others: you need to critically
examine them and to come up with your own view of the matter. Of
course, this does not mean that you are required to give an
original contribution to philosophy every time you write a
response paper! It simply means that through careful consideration
of the arguments, you must show to have formed your reasoned
opinion about an issue, and you must be ready to defend your
position by argument.
2. How to start
Usually, the most difficult step in writing is to start. The
opening section should be devoted to explain to the reader what you
are up to. But what it is going to be eventually the opening
paragraph of your paper is probably the last to be written. When you
start writing, the first step is to focus on the topic and try to
understand what you are required to do. The first paragraph should be
written after everything else is in place: when you have a claim, an
argument, and a conclusion.
To start off: Listen to the question first.
You might be asked to write two kinds of papers: one whose aim is
mainly reconstructive and exegetical, or one whose aim is to
consider an argument for or against a certain thesis.
- In the first case, you are asked to offer an explanation of a
thesis, e.g., what Kant thought of virtue. You are better off
starting with selecting the relevant passages. Start your paper
with a critical examination of a passage that you think crucial in
showing Kant's view of virtue. Then, try to make sense of passages
that concur or clash with the one you selected and commented, and
offer your conjecture about how to interpret Kant's view of the
matter. In case you were required to read some secondary
literature, make reference to it by pointing out whether or not
your conjecture is supported by other scholars. Compare different
interpretations, explain what is best and why. In this kind of
exercise, you are often required to comment on a passage and thus
to paraphrase a philosopher. Be careful about paraphrasing: try to
make your comments valuable, make the philosopher's view explicit.
Do not merely repeat what s/he said: try to explain what s/he
meant, in the light of other passages and other considerations,
make her/his view explicit. Although this kind of paper is mainly
exegetical, you might want to state your claims not only about the
view to attribute to Kant, but also about whether his view makes
- In the second case, you are asked to address a philosophical
problem, e.g. euthanasia, without reference to specific texts.
First try to define clearly the issue. What is euthanasia? How do
philosophers define it? What are the reasons for it?What are the
reasons against it? What are the tacit assumptions on which these
arguments rest? Give most charitable reconstruction of each
argument for and against it. Offer examples that concur with the
thesis you are elucidating or proposing, imagine counterexamples
that show your thesis does not work, and try to reply. After
considering all reasons for and against, reach for a conclusion.
In some cases, the conclusion might be merely negative: you
conclude that no arguments presented in the most charitable manner
are decisive. In some other cases, the conclusion might be
positive: you have shown that X is the best argument for Y.
3. How to go on?
- Do not try to do much 'background setting': get to the point!
- Make clear your claims
- Support your claims with reasoning and argument
- Make clear the structure of the argument
- Make sure you are fair in the attribution of a claim
- Be concise, but explain yourself fully
- Use simple prose (do not shoot for literary elegance)
- Be careful when using words with precise philosophical
meanings: if you are not clear about a term, look on a philosophy
dictionary (see my
Links for a list of dictionaries and encyclopedias on line).
- Use examples to illustrate a thesis or to argue that there is
a counter-example to the claim you are considering. Examples are
crucial in philosophical discussions.
About the structure:
- Make sure that the structure of the paper is obvious to the
reader: the reader should not exert any effort to figure it out.
- Give a brief introductory paragraph that says what the paper
will do and how it will do it.
- Remind the reader where you are in your argument, why this
step is necessary to reach your conclusion, what are we going to
do next. Make the structure of your argument explicit.
- State the thesis at stake clearly, directly and
straightforwardly: why are you considering this thesis?
- Why is it important?
- Who is committed to such thesis?
- How can you support the attribution?
- State what follows from the thesis and what follows from the
- What examples might explain the thesis?
- What objections and counter-examples have been offered?
- What objection can you offer?
- What are the author's actual replies?
- What are other possible replies?
- What is the upshot of the critical discussion?
4. Make an outline
A philosophy paper should have a clear structure and its arguments
should be well organized. In order to give logical organization you
should make an outline of your argument before starting to write. The
outline should be very detailed: state precisely your aims and
claims, how you want to support them, what arguments you adopt,
describe each step of the argument, and say how the conclusion
follows. (Example of a first paragraph: "My thesis is that Aristotle
holds thesis X. I will argue for this claim on the basis of a
critical analysis of Book I. First, I will show that if we interpret
Aristotle as defending X, then Y follows. Then, I will show that Y is
confirmed by Aristotle's example E, while the contrary claim runs
5. Make several drafts
A clear exposition and a compelling argument are hard to achieve.
Try different ways of organizing your thoughts and arguments before
submitting the final draft.
- Do not hold on your first set of sentences: try different ways
of arranging and presenting your claims.
- Do not be afraid of editing ruthlessly.
- Try your argument with your roommate, or with somebody who is
not a philosopher: is s/he convinced by what you are arguing? how
can you convince her/him?
6. Quotations and Footnotes
If you quote from a source, the quotation must be marked by quotes
and set off from the rest of the test and footnoted. If you quote an
idea without quoting it directly from the source, you should
acknowledge it in a footnote. Footnote must the relevant information
to allow the reader to find the passage you are referring to (author,
title, publisher, date, page/ line)
7. Plagiarism and Academic Integrity
Clearly acknowledge and reference ideas that you have derived from
others, especially when you are using secondary literature as sources
of interpretation. This is required by academic integrity. Quoting a
passage without quotation marks and without acknowledging the author
or rephrasing passages from a source without acknowledging the author
are serious violation of academic integrity: they result in
Cases of plagiarism will be dealt with according to the Philosophy
Dept. Policy (available at CRT 612)