Writing is easy. Writing well: not so easy. Writing philosophy well—now things are really getting difficult, and if you've never written a philosophy paper before you probably don't even know where to start. This brief guide is meant to help make your task a little less difficult. It will tell you what the purpose of a philosophy paper usually is, and how a good philosophy paper is usually structured; it will provide you with useful rules of thumb that you can apply throughout the writing process to make your writing clearer and your reasoning easier to follow; and it will alert you to common mistakes and pitfalls that you should avoid if you want your paper to be as readable and as intelligible as possible. Let's get started!
01. The Philosophy Paper: What's the Point?
If you've been tasked with writing a philosophy paper and you're not sure where to start, it may be because you're not sure what the point or the purpose of a philosophy paper typically is. So, let's begin by getting clear on that. The first thing to note is that there are different kinds of philosophy papers, some more exploratory or open-ended than others. However, the great majority of philosophy papers—and, usually, the sort of philosophy papers that you'll be asked to write in a typical undergraduate philosophy course—are argumentative papers, and these are the sorts of papers that will be the focus of this guide. Simply put, then, the purpose of a philosophy paper is to provide an argued defense of some thesis. This means that a good philosophy paper will have at least two components: (1) a clearly stated thesis, and (2) a clearly stated argument supporting that thesis. Let's take a closer look at each of these in turn.
Your thesis is the main claim that you're making in your paper: it's the claim that you're hoping to convince the reader is true. In order to convince the reader of the truth of your thesis, you'll have to provide your reader with reasons for believing it—that is, you'll have to offer an argument. More on that in a minute.
It's important that your main thesis is clearly stated at or near the very beginning of your paper. Make it especially obvious to the reader what your main claim is, and do so at the outset so that the reader knows right away what she's getting herself into. If you can't cleary state your thesis in one sentence, chances are you aren't quite clear about what your thesis is just yet. If this is the case, you need to spend a bit more time thinking it through.
Finally, your thesis shouldn't be too broad or overambitious, and neither should it be too narrow or trivial. For example, "God doesn't exist" is probably much too broad and ambitious a thesis to be trying to defend in your paper. Conversely, "Some people claim that God doesn't exist" is trivial and uninteresting. Instead, your thesis should be specific but substantial. Here's an example, keeping with the theme: "Leibniz's Cosmological Argument fails to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God exists". If you're unsure whether your thesis fits the bill, it's always a good idea to consult with your professor.
In philosophy, the term "argument" has a very specific meaning. In particular, an argument is a set of claims, one of which is the conclusion—that is, your thesis—and the others of which are reasons offered in support of the conclusion (these reasons are what philosophers call the "premises"). Therefore, your argument should be a set of claims which together provide logical support for—and, thus, reason to believe—your thesis.
It is absolutely crucial that your argument is clear. After all, it doesn't much matter how clearly you've stated your thesis if your reader can't follow the reasoning you offer to support that thesis. In particular, your reader should be able to answer the following questions about your argument: (i) What is the conclusion being argued for (the thesis)? (ii) What are the premises (the reasons being given to believe the thesis)? (iii) Why should I believe that the premises are true? (iv) Why should I believe that the premises actually support the conclusion?
Keep in mind that making a good argument does not mean simply stating your thesis and the reasons you're offering to support it. You should do both of these things, of course, but you should also do more. Specifically, you should motivate the premises of your argument by justifying them, which means offering reasons to think that they're true. Furthermore, you should show how these premises logically support your thesis. For instance, if your argument is deductively valid, you should make that explicit.
Finally, you should state your argument, in full, somewhere near the beginning of your paper so that the reader not only has an idea of what you're going to argue for, but how you're going to argue for it. One way of doing this is to introduce your paper with a statement of your thesis, followed by a brief statement of your argument. Another way of doing this—one that will keep your introduction shorter—is to state your argument in the first paragraph of the main body of your paper. Finally, if you're able to, you should provide a formal expression of your argument in numbered-premise form: doing so will make the structure of your argument especially clear.
So now you know what you need to get started on your philosophy paper: a (clearly stated!) thesis and a (clearly stated!) argument that supports your thesis. Thus, a good thing to do before you begin writing the paper itself is to spend some time brainstorming, jotting down any thoughts or ideas that come to mind that are relevant to the topic you're writing about. For example, if you're tasked with writing a paper on free will, then you should take some time to think through the various arguments and views about free will that were discussed in class and in your readings. As you do this, you should take note of any claims with which you agree or disagree and then you should consider what reasons there may be to support your view. Doing this will help you to develop both a thesis and an argument for it.
At this point I should note that there are two main kinds of argumentative philosophy papers, each of which involves an argued defense of a thesis but which differ from each other in one key respect. To make things easier, we'll refer to one as a constructive paper and to the other as a reconstructive paper. In a constructive philosophy paper, your primary goal is to construct an argument of your own in defense of your specified thesis. In a reconstructive philosophy paper, on the other hand, your primary goal is to present an accurate reconstruction of an author's argument and then to evaluate that argument in order to determine whether or not its conclusion should be accepted. Crucially, however, a reconstructive paper still involves a significant constructive component. This is because evaluating the argument you've reconstructed requires constructing an argument of your own in defense of one of two theses: that the author's argument is ultimately unsuccessful and should therefore be rejected, or that the author's argument is ultimately successful and should therefore be accepted.
Reconstructing an author's argument isn't always straightforward. In fact, much of the time it's anything but straightforward. Like any complex task, however, it's something that will only get easier with practice. In any case, here are a few things to keep in mind in the process.
The Argument Reconstruction
First, it's absolutely crucial that you employ the principle of charity when reconstructing an author's argument. In brief, the principle of charity states that when reconstructing an author's reasoning, you should reconstruct the strongest possible version of her argument. This means assuming that the author is rational and informed, and it means not attributing logical fallacies and falsehoods to the author's statements and reasoning when a coherent, rational interpretation of her statements and reasoning is available. (On the other hand, it does not meaning putting words into the author's mouth. If her argument truly can't be made to be any good without attributing to her statements that she clearly does not endorse, then probably you're justified in rejecting her argument. Most of the time, however, this will not be the case. This is especially true about the arguments that you're likely to be considering in a philosophy class—most, if not all, of these arguments will be amenable to a charitable and compelling reconstruction.)
Second, you should motivate the author's argument. This means explaining why her view is worth taking seriously (even if you disagree with it!) and stating the reasons she offers for thinking the premises of her argument are true. You may also provide reasons of your own for accepting the premises, especially if the author says little in support of them herself.
Third, you should state the author's argument as clearly as you'd state your own. In particular, your reader should be able to answer the questions listed above about the argument you've reconstructed. (What is the conclusion? What are the premises? Why should I believe that the premises are true? Why should I believe that the premises actually support the conclusion?)
Finally, if you are objecting to an author's argument, you should be presenting an argument of your own. More specifically, if you believe that one of the premises of the author's argument is false, you should provide reasons for thinking so; likewise, if you believe that the conclusion of the argument doesn't actually follow from the premises, you should provide reasons for thinking so. Always keep in mind: good objections are supported by arguments.
Good—that covers the purpose of your typical argumentative philosophy paper. Next, let's discuss how such a paper should be structured.
02. How to Structure Your Philosophy Paper
Here's a simple and straightforward way to think about the structure of your paper: you begin with a roadmap (the introduction), set off on a journey following your roadmap (the argumentative body), and end with a brief recap of where you've been and, perhaps, of where you might go next (the conclusion). Let's take a closer look at each of these three components in turn.
In a philosophy paper, your introduction serves as a roadmap for your reader. This means that you should use the introduction to tell the reader what you're doing, why you're doing it, and the order in which you're going to proceed. Minimally, it should include a brief statement of the issue that you're writing about, a clear statement of your thesis, and a couple of statements describing what's to follow and in what order.
Here's what your introduction should not include. It should not include trite clichés: there is absolutely no need for such hackneyed banalities as "Since the dawn of time, man has questioned the meaning of his existence and has searched ardently for God"—avoid these like the plague. Likewise, it should not include autobiography: don't introduce your paper on the treatment of non-human animals with a story about that time you got into a heated argument with your uncle over the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Similarly, there's no need to tell your reader that the issue you'll be discussing is an important one, or that it's one that has "baffled the greatest philosophical minds for centuries on end". Keep your introduction simple, specific, informative, and relevant; don't include in it anything that isn't useful to your reader.
Example A. Here's an example of what a good introduction might look like for a reconstructive philosophy paper:
Descartes claims that we can never be certain that our perceptions are accurate. He argues for this claim by first noting that we can never be certain that we are not asleep and having a vivid dream, and then pointing out that we can only be certain that our perceptions are accurate if we can be certain that we are not asleep and having a vivid dream. In this paper, I evaluate Descartes' reasoning and argue that it is unsuccessful. I begin by presenting a formal reconstruction of Descartes' argument, defining the technical terms he uses, and motivating his premises. I then present an objection to one of his premises, consider two potential responses to this objection, and argue that these responses fail. I conclude that we are justified in rejecting Descartes' argument.
Example B. Here's an example of what a good introduction might look like for a constructive philosophy paper:
In this paper I present an argument meant to show that the mind and the brain are distinct things. In brief, my argument will appeal to the fact that the brain has properties that the mind doesn't have, and I will argue that we can infer from this fact that the mind and the brain must be distinct. I structure the paper as follows. First, I present my argument and define the technical terms involved. I then justify each of the premises of my argument by offering some reasons for thinking that they're true. Finally, I consider what I take to be the two strongest objections to my argument and argue that they are unsuccessful. I conclude by summarizing what the paper has achieved.
All right, let's turn now to the argumentative body of the paper.
The Argumentative Body
The body of your paper should include a summary or an explanation of the view that you're addressing, a clear statement of your argument (or, in the case of a "reconstructive" paper, of the argument you're reconstructing), and definitions or clarifications of any technical terms that you'll be using. Moreover, it's crucial that you present reasons for believing each of the premises of the argument that you're offering or reconstructing, even if one of these premises seems obvious to you. (After all, what is obvious to one person may be anything but obvious to another.)
It's also important that you consider and respond to potential objections to your argument. The way this works in a "reconstructive" paper is often a little different than the way it works in a "constructive" one. In a "constructive" paper, you simply respond to a potential objection to the argument you've proposed. In a "reconstructive" paper, on the other hand, what you'll usually do is present an objection to the argument you've reconstructed, consider how the author might best respond to that objection, and then consider whether her response is any good.
Note: it's normally much better to consider and respond to one or two objections that you take to be the strongest objections to your argument than it is to consider and respond to every possible objection you can imagine. Do the former, not the latter.
As for the conclusion of your paper:
It's best to think of your conclusion as a recap: use it to summarize what the paper has achieved. Sometimes it may be useful to mention in your conclusion some questions that had to remain unanswered or some further implications of your view that had to remain unexplored; likewise, you may want to suggest how the ideas you discussed in the paper may be further developed. Often, however, these latter bits aren't necessary, especially in the sorts of papers you'll be writing in an undergraduate class.
And there you have it: you now know how to structure your philosophy paper. In the third and final section of this guide, I'll offer some general advice and rules of thumb that will help to improve your writing, and I'll make note of some common mistakes that you should try to avoid.
03. Advice to Adopt and Snags to Shun
Support your claims. Philosophers are in the business of making arguments, not merely making claims. Whenever you have reason to think that your reader may not accept one of your claims, it is a good idea to substantiate that claim with reasons.
Define your terms. Philosophy is rife with technical jargon. It's therefore important that you define the technical terms that you use in your paper. Examples include terms like "consequentialism," "hard determinism," "externalism," "intrinsic property," and "counterfactual dependence". If you're unsure about whether a particular term needs to be defined, here's a good rule of thumb: ask your professor. (Here's another, in case the first one doesn't work out for some reason: if it's a term that your roommate who doesn't study philosophy wouldn't know, then you should probably define it.)
Keep it simple. Good writing is writing that is simple and clear. Don't use a long and complicated word where a shorter and simpler one will do. Likewise for sentences: long and complicated sentences don't make you sound sophisticated, they just make it harder for your reader to figure out what you're trying to say. (In this vein, writers like to admonish students to avoid "purple prose".) Here's an example, unrelated to philosophy: instead of saying "The client should be notified that a rectification has been implemented by company technicians regarding the prior complication imminent in the electronic communication database," just say "Let the client know that company technicians fixed the bug in the email system". Night and day, right?
Be active. As a general rule of thumb, it is good practice to stick to the active voice as opposed to the passive voice where possible. Sentences written in the passive voice tend to be less engaging and, more importantly, less clear. For example, consider the following sentence written in the passive voice: "It will be argued that direct realism is untenable due to its being unable to account for the argument from illusion". This sentence isn't horrible, but it's certainly cumbersome, and it's unclear who is doing the arguing. Here's the sentence rewritten in the active voice: "I will argue that direct realism is untenable because it cannot account for the argument from illusion". That's much better. (Another example, this time about birdwatching as opposed to philosophy, just to emphasize the distinction at play here: compare the passive "Birdwatching is liked by Jasmine" to its active counterpart, "Jasmine likes birdwatching". Once again: night and day, right?)
Post your signs. It's crucial that you make the structure of your paper as clear as possible for your reader, and the way to do this is by signposting. Signposting refers to the practice of telling the reader what you're about to do before you do it, as opposed to jumping into it without any warning. (Hence the name: what you're doing is, effectively, providing "signposts" for the reader to help orient her as she works through your paper.) Examples include saying things like "Having presented my argument and justified its premises, I will now consider what I take to be the strongest objection to my view. This objection states that...," or "Let's now evaluate the author's argument. There are at least two problems with the argument: first,...; and second,...".
Stay focused. When writing a philosophy paper, it's pretty easy to drift off into tangents given that you're usually writing about some really big, often abstract, and frequently open-ended ideas. It's important that you look out for this tendency in your own writing and quash it before your paper becomes a long-winded excursion into a topic that's only tangentially related to the one you're meant to be writing about. To combat this tendency, make sure to stick to your structure: state and explain your thesis, present your argument, clarify your terms, motivate your argument and justify its premises, respond to objections, and conclude.
Be consistent with your words. You may feel that your repeated use of some technical term is growing tedious and redundant, and you may choose to rectify this by sporadically replacing the word with near-synonyms. An example from Stitch and Donaldson's book Philosophy: Asking Questions - Seeking Answers: instead of simply using the term "god" throughout your paper, you may decide to replace the term here and there with "deity," "supreme being," and "divine being". Doing this, however, can easily confuse your reader, so you're better off sticking with the consistent use of a term.
Use transition and indicator words (correctly). Words like "therefore," "hence," and "it follows that" are known as transition words because they indicate a move from one claim (or set of claims) to another. Many of these words are also known as indicator words because they indicate the presence of a premise or a conclusion. Some conclusion indicators include therefore, thus, so, hence, consequently, for this reason, implies, entails, it follows that, and we may conclude that. Some premise indicators include because, since, for, given that, and for the reason that. Using words like these will help your reader to keep track of your reasoning. Philosophers are very serious about the use of these words, though, so make sure that you use them correctly. For instance, don't say "therefore" and then make some unrelated claim.
Edit, rewrite, and edit some more. The key to writing well is writing and rewriting often. It is extremely unlikely that your first draft will be suitable to submit as a final version of your paper. Instead, you'll likely have to restructure your paper and rephrase many of your sentences multiple times over the course of the writing process. In doing so, you should be looking to declutter, simplify, and clarify. Get rid of any excess verbiage by deleting any words or sentences that aren't necessary. Replace longer words and sentences with shorter, simpler ones wherever you can. If a single paragraph takes up a whole page, figure out how to divide it up. (A useful heuristic: new point, new paragraph.) Make sure that your sentences are as clear as possible and that your wording is precise. And, of course, double- and triple-check your spelling and grammar.
Avoid these common spelling and grammar mistakes. Speaking of spelling and grammar, here are a few of the most common mistakes I see in student papers. Make an effort to determine that your own papers are free of these mistakes:
Using "then" when you should've used "than," or vice versa.
Using one of "there," "their," or "they're" when you should've used another.
Incomplete comparisons. (E.g., "Our car model is faster, better, more efficient." Faster, better, and more efficient than what?)
Using "effect" when you should've used "affect".
Using "of" when you should've used "have". (For instance, "should've" is not a contraction of "should of," it's a contraction of "should have".)
Improper comma usage. (Way too big a topic to discuss in this post, but here's a useful article for you to read through.)
Run-on sentences. (Also way too big a topic to discuss in this post. Fortunately, there's another useful article for you to take a look at.)
Read aloud. Finally, reading your paper out loud—either to yourself or to someone else—is an excellent way to get a handle on the quality of your writing. In general, writing that doesn't sound right likely won't read well. Moreover, reading your paper aloud will also help you to catch sneaky mistakes that you may have otherwise missed.
04. Further Resources
I lied—this is the final section of the guide. Below I've provided you with a few of my favorite books for better writing. I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of any one of these books. (Better yet, get yourself a copy of each of them!) After all, writing is likely to be a significant part of your life regardless of your major or your career. The quality of your writing can spell the difference between getting accepted or rejected from grad school or for publication in a professional journal, and can even be the thing that sets you apart from other candidates when applying for a job. Moreover, working hard to develop your ability to write well is likely to make you a better thinker, too. This is because it will require you to clarify your reasoning, organize your thoughts, increase the precision of your wording, and work out ways of effectively communicating complex ideas. (As William Zinsser says in his book—listed below—On Writing Well, "Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other".) Suffice it to say that taking the time to become a better writer will pay off. Anyway, here's a list of those books:
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams.
Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.
A Professor's Guide to Writing Essays: The No-Nonsense Plan for Better Writing, by Jacob Neumann.
Well, that's it for this guide. Hopefully you've come away with a clearer, more robust idea of what writing an argumentative philosophy paper is all about. (If you haven't, then one of us is probably doing something wrong...) And if you enjoyed what you read here and found some of it useful, please feel free to share it with others. Now, stop procrastinating and go write that paper.