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Writing papers in philosophy

These notes may provide some useful guidance about writing papers for philosophy courses. Let us say first that, while we do not expect every student to be a gifted writer, we do expect every student to be able to say clearly what s/he means. We believe that what you actually say is the measure of what you think. There may be a real sense in which what you "really mean" is distinct from what you say or write, but that meaning is not accessible to us. We must literally take you at your word, and assess your claims and arguments on the basis of what you put on paper for us to read.

Acquiring a reasonable degree of competence in writing means acquiring intellectual discipline. This discipline includes the practice of such general intellectual virtues as respect for evidence, scrupulousness in argument, and the courage to be clearly wrong rather than vaguely right.

Part 1: Organization

  1. Organize your ideas before you begin to write. This immediately puts you ahead of the game because it means you must have thought about a topic sufficiently to have ideas. Prepare some kind of tentative outline or sketch that starts with a statement of your thesis, that is, a generalization that includes the major points you expect to discuss or for which you intend to offer support by means of an argument. Then jot down these major points in the order you expect to discuss them. Think of your outline as a flexible table of contents. You may add points as you develop your argument; conversely, you may find that some of your initial ideas become irrelevant as you proceed.
  2. Begin your writing by constructing a first paragraph that tells the reader exactly what you propose to do. You may decide not to include this paragraph in the final version of your paper, but once you have constructed such a paragraph you will be much more likely to carry out your task in a clear and clearly organized manner.
  3. Do what you have promised to do and do so systematically. If your intentions change as you develop your ideas, revise your first paragraph accordingly.
  4. End your paper with a brief summary of you main points.

Part II: Argument

  1. A philosophical essay is principally an extended argument even if you see your immediate task as exposition, interpretation, analysis or criticism. There must be something statable that you want to claim or argue for, and you must give reasons for thinking that your claim, hypothesis, theory or view is preferable to its competitors, or why it is at least as acceptable as any of them.
  2. Do not mistake mere assertions, however plausible they seem to you, for arguments.
  3. Do not expect the reader to fill in the gaps in your argument. Lay out your argument step by step. One of the most common weaknesses of student papers is the failure to give a clear account of the argument(s) supporting the claim(s) made in the papers.
  4. Anticipate and meet obvious objections to your claims. You cannot expect to make much of a case if you show yourself to be unaware of the apparent weaknesses of, or counter-arguments to, your position.

Part III: Style

  1. This above all: write simply. Avoid jargon and long words used for their supposed philosophical weight. You should know that the use of the first person singular pronoun, I, is acceptable to and even preferred by most of us. Do not strain after a spurious impersonality, as you are then more likely to produce a wooden or flabby essay than a crisp and engaged one. Do not attempt to bury your uncertainties in equivocation. Use no word or phrase of whose meaning you are not certain.
  2. Be as clear as possible. Incoherent paragraphs and long, unwieldy sentences in the passive account for most unclear writing. A coherent paragraph is devoted to explaining or developing a single idea, most often introduced by a topic sentence. A short sentence in the active voice makes your point quickly and efficiently. Do not expect labyrinthine paragraphs and convoluted syntax to bolster up an insecure thesis or to hide a weakness in your argument.
  3. Be precise. Avoid using any word that does not say exactly what you mean to say. Look up in a good dictionary every word about which you have the slightest doubt. A thesaurus can also be of help in choosing exactly the word needed to express a subtle point or distinction. Remember, your readers know only what you write, not what you really had in mind. You must make your ideas available by putting them into words.
  4. Be as brief as is consistent with being clear. If you know precisely what you want to say, you should be able to say it concisely.

A final thought: Many teachers of philosophy find that the most interesting papers to read, and the ones they think most highly of, are those that take clear and clearly argued positions on philosophical or scholarly issues. You should not hesitate, then, to take a position, even a position contrary to that of your instructors, and to argue vigorously for it.

Further Resources

Additional guidelines for writing a philosophy paper can be found here.