Writing is especially important in philosophy because it allows you to clarify your ideas and arguments. Often times writing your ideas down reveals problems or areas that need improvement. Furthermore, writing is the primary medium for the exchange of philosophical ideas. Thus, to do philosophy well, one must write well. This page contains notes on form and standards for writing in the English language. I recommend reading this guide and then looking at a sample philosophy essay written by a college student, such as one of these:
- Frege’s philosophy of language – by Angela Mendelovici
- The analytic-synthetic distinction – by Christian Green
- Korsgaard’s meta-ethics – by Nicole Stommel
Note 1: If you need help figuring out how to write an essay in general, see my “How to Construct an Essay.” If you want to know how you will be evaluated on a paper assignment, see the “Grading Rubric for Paper Assignments” page.
Note 2: Much of this page was adapted from “How to Analyze a Philosophical Essay,” which was initially written by Dr. G. R. Mayes (of CSU Sacramento). I have used much of it here with his permission. I have made some changes to the original, however.
Table of Contents:
To write a philosophy paper, first, read the paper assignment prompt (a.k.a. topic prompt) several times. Make sure you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. (It’s also a good idea to reread your assignment prompt throughout the writing process, including when you are writing your final draft, to make sure you stay on topic.)
Sometimes the assignment prompt gives you very narrow and specific directions for what to write on (for example, explain and evaluate Anselm’s ontological argument). This is good. In general, your paper should have a more narrow than broad topic. And now the topic is already found for you.
However, often times you will be asked to find a topic on your own (for example, you are merely asked to critically analyze an article or text such as Plato’s Republic or Frege’s “On Sense and Reference”). If this is the case, then you will need to select an aspect of the text that you find particularly interesting, troubling, exciting, confusing, or problematic. By an aspect of the article, I do not mean a particular section of words or bits of language; I mean a claim or set of claims to which the author is committed, either by explicitly arguing for them, or presupposing them.
Note: before you can select a topic, you should make sure to read the text(s) of interest several times until you think you understand it fairly well.
Your paper should be concise and thorough. Absolutely do not engage in:
- Unnecessary editorializing
- Pointless repetition
- Personal attacks on the author or questioning of the author’s psychological motives
- Complaining about the author’s writing style or choice of words
In short, always strive to express yourself in the simplest, clearest, and most precise terms possible. The paper should demonstrate a strong grasp and command of the material from the course. Remember that accuracy is still important regarding fine details—even minor differences in words can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.
Furthermore, a good essay goes beyond a typed up version of your class notes by demonstrating that you know how all the material connects together conceptually. (For example, providing your own examples to illustrate a point, whether in someone’s argument or your own, can often help to demonstrate that you understand the material.)
Don’t write as if your reader is the instructor, teaching assistant, or whomever is going to grade your paper. Instead, write as if your reader is someone who is intelligent, about your level of education, but has not studied the material in your topic before. So, make sure to define all technical terms. (A good rule of thumb: if you first learned the word or phrase in the class, then you should probably explain what it means to your reader.)
There are two main types of philosophy paper assignments:
- Expository (Explanatory) – this type of paper assignment asks you only to explain something (for example, somone’s argument) and not to evaluate or critique it.
- Evaluative (Critical / Argumentative) – this type of paper assignment asks you to explain and evaluate something (for example, somone’s argument). This involves exposition like the previous assignment type but evaluation as well.
Expository papers should have the following sections:
- Summary (optional)
in that order.
Evaluative papers should have the following sections:
- Summary (optional)
in that order.
Construct each section of your paper along the following guidelines.
This section must accomplish the following tasks in the following order. A good option is to devote a single short paragraph to each task.
- Identify the article, and describe in one or two sentences what problem(s) it addresses and what view(s) it defends. Orient the reader to the topic and provide a conceptual map of the rest of the paper.
- State precisely which aspect(s) of the article your analysis will address and precisely what you intend to accomplish. This is something like a thesis statement. This must not be a vague statement like “I will evaluate the author’s views…” or “I will show where I agree and where I disagree….”. Rather, it must be a very specific and concise statement of the case you intend to make, and the basic considerations you intend to employ in making it. (You will probably find it impossible to write this section before your analysis has gone through the rough draft phase.)
Avoid lengthy or dramatic introductions, especially if they insult the discipline. For example, do not write: “From the dawn of time, philosophers have debated the free will problem, and it will never ever be resolved, even though philosophers will continue blathering on about it forever.”
The basic rules for constructing an exposition are as follows:
- For the most part, you should explain only those aspects of the article that are relevant to your evaluation. If you explain more than that, it should only be because anything less will not provide the reader an adequate understanding of the author’s basic concerns. Do not produce an unnecessarily lengthy or detailed explanation. As a general rule of thumb, the exposition and evaluation will usually be roughly equal in length.
- The exposition should present the author’s views in the best possible light. It must be a thorough, fair, and completely accurate representation of the author’s views. Misrepresentation of the author’s views, especially selective misrepresentation (i.e., misrepresentation for the purpose of easy refutation) is wrong and will be heavily penalized (recall the straw man fallacy).
- The exposition should contain absolutely no critical/evaluative comments. (This restriction does not prevent you from expressing some uncertainty about what the author is saying, however. )
- The exposition should be organized logically, not chronologically. Each paragraph in the exposition will ordinarily present argument(s) the author makes in support of a particular position. This means that, depending on the organization of the article itself, a single paragraph from the exposition may contain statements that are made in very different places in the article. The exposition itself should be organized in a way that makes the author’s views make sense. Under no conditions are you to simply relate what the author says the way she says them. An exposition that goes something like: “The author begins by discussing… Then she goes on to say… then, etc.” is very bad.
Your evaluation (a.k.a. critique) should be organized in a way that reflects the structure of your exposition. This is easy to do since you have selected for exposition only those aspects of the article about which you have something to say. Be sure your evaluation obeys the rules laid out in the Writing Style section above.
Here are three different approaches to doing an evaluation:
1. Negative Evaluation
For a negative evaluation, define your project in terms of arguments and views with which you disagree. In your evaluation, show how the author’s conclusion is problematic either because:
- the author’s reasons (or premises) are false (or implausible), or
- the author’s reasoning is faulty or fallacious (the reasons don’t make the conclusion true or probable), or
- the author has failed to make other important considerations that tend to undermine the conclusion.
2. Positive Evaluation
For a positive evaluation, define your project in terms of arguments and views with which you basically agree. In your critique, consider ways in which the author’s views might reasonably be criticized. Then attempt to strengthen the author’s position by showing how these criticisms can actually be met. If you use this technique, be sure you don’t consider criticisms that the author actually does respond to in the context of the article (unless, of course, you think that the author has failed to answer the objections effectively).
3. Undecided Evaluation
For an undecided evaluation, define your project in terms of arguments and views that you find interesting, but which you are currently disinclined to either accept of reject. Carefully articulate the strongest considerations in favor of the view and the strongest considerations against the views. Then carefully explain why one ought to remain undecided and indicate precisely what sort of information or arguments would be required for one to make a rational decision on the matter.
Note: The evaluative part of your analysis should demonstrate an awareness of other relevant readings. You should be careful to note when you are reproducing criticisms that are made by other authors, especially those read in the class. You should be careful to include or consider important criticisms made by other authors when they are clearly relevant to your own concerns.
4. Summary (Optional)
A summary is optional (note: a summary is often misleadingly called a “conclusion”). However, if your analysis is sufficiently complicated, it may help the reader to briefly recapitulate the steps you have taken in reaching your conclusions. The summary should be very short and it should contain no new information or claims. This restriction prevents you from making closing comments which are not sufficiently articulated in the body of the paper. For example, do not write: “Thus, the problem of free will remains unresolved as it always will, for it is one of the many mysteries in this great universe that our feeble human minds cannot fully comprehend.”
There isn’t an official style for citing sources in philosophy. The norm seems to be a mix between Chicago (a.k.a. Turabian) and APA (American Psychological Association), although the trend seems to be that many philosophy journals are looking more like the latter these days. It’s best, then, to adopt one of those (or some variant, such as those that appear in some philosophy journals), unless of course your instructor says otherwise.
However, most instructors, especially for philosophy courses, will allow you to deviate quite a bit from such formal citing styles. For example, if you are only supposed to be writing on and using information from a single philosopher’s work (such as Descartes’s Meditations or Nagle’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”) or just from a few sources that are in the textbook for the course, then the instructor may ask you simply to cite the author and page numbers within your paper and relieve you of the need to attach a bibliography or references page. Training you to cite using some specified style is not one of the main goals of philosophy (even though it is an important one in, say, English). We want train you primarily to explain and evaluate philosophical arguments and theories in a clear, rational, and rigorous way.
- Sample Philosophy Paper – by Angela Mendelovici (Western Ontario).
- The Source of Bad Writing – short essay by Steven Pinker, one of the best academic writers around (see also his book).
- Video on the Sense of Style – a video on writing in the 21st century by Steven Pinker.
- The Elements of Style – a popular, albeit increasingly dated, style guide by Strunk and White.
- Harvard’s Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper – short and useful.
- Pryor’s Philosophy Writing Guidelines – guidelines on writing a philosophy paper – by Jim Pryor.
- Heumer’s Guide to Writing – geared toward philosophical writing, but good for essays in general.
- How to Construct an Essay – my guide to writing essays in general.
- Top 10 Grammatical Errors – by Robert Pasnau at Boulder.