Brief reference guide for how to write a philosophy paper
- Number the pages of your essay. This should be obvious but I have yet to see the day on which all student papers from a given class for a specific assignment have page numbers. I am running out of patience with this problem; failure to insert page numbers will cost you.
- Your essay should be double-spaced with 1 inch margins and written in 12 points Times New Roman or some similar font. The instruction that your essay should be between, say, 6 and 8 pages does not mean that you are supposed to play around with the font, the spacing, and the margins until your essay fits on 6 to 8 pages, but rather that your essay should, in fact, be between 6 and 8 pages, based on the standard formatting just specified.
- Organize your paper. Think about what you want to say before you start writing. Preparing an outline might help in this respect.
- Never start a paper with a very general, uninformative paragraph or phrase like “For centuries philosophers have been thinking about x,…” or “In our modern times, it is especially important to think about x.…” A brief introductory paragraph is good, but it should be quite specific and tailored to the topic in question. For instance, you might want to give a brief overview of what you are planning to do in the paper.
- Avoid the ‘shotgun approach’. That is, avoid the strategy of bringing up as many different arguments, objections, or ideas as you can possibly think of in the hope of ‘hitting’ some good ones. Given that you only have limited space available, try to focus on those arguments/objections/ideas that you take to be the strongest or most interesting, and develop them in more detail.
- An important, basic condition for a well-organized paper is the division of your discussion into several paragraphs. Each paragraph should be a coherent unit that is devoted to a particular claim, objection, or line of argument. If you want to introduce a new thought, consideration, or topic, begin a new paragraph.
- Try to arrange the different paragraphs and sections of your essay in a way that mirrors their logical connections and so that they form a coherent discussion with a discernible dialectical structure.
- If, upon rereading your essay, you find that a paragraph does not quite fit into the overall structure of your discussion, this might be an indication that the content of the paragraph is not really relevant for the question at hand. If a paragraph is irrelevant, it ought to be deleted, no matter how beautifully crafted it is, or how short your essay falls of the required minimum length.
- Especially in the case of longer papers (12 pages and up), it is a good idea to end your essay with a concluding paragraph or a concluding section, in which you summarize the main line of your argument, or fit the different pieces of your discussion together, and highlight your main conclusion(s). As with the introductory paragraph, do not end your paper with a very general, uninformative platitude like “Despite its many shortcomings the ontological argument represents one of the most aspiring achievements of human intellectual history, and will continue to engage philosophers for centuries to come.” The concluding paragraph should be closely tied to YOUR discussion. Even though it is the conclusion of a philosophy paper, there is no need to connect it to the history of humankind, or the purpose of the universe at large. Be modest, and stay close to the specific question you addressed in your paper. Similarly, if in the main body of your paper you argue that a given argument is invalid or unsound, your conclusion should reflect this, i.e., you should conclude by rejecting the argument. For example, if in the main body of your paper you show that the ontological argument begs the question and is unsound, concluding with something like “Despite its problematic character, the ontological argument should not be rejected completely, because of the many good points it raises” is not a viable option.
- In the case of short papers (4 pages or less), you do not necessarily need a concluding paragraph. If the overall clarity of the paper can be improved by adding a well-crafted concluding paragraph with a point, by all means do so. But if the concluding paragraph would amount to no more than a somewhat awkward, dutiful regurgitation of what you already said in the foregoing four pages, your paper is better off without it.
- There are different argumentative strategies that you can employ to support a particular view or thesis. The main general strategies can be grouped into the following three categories: 1) Provide direct arguments for the view/thesis. 2) Attack possible opposing views/theses. 3) Anticipate and respond to possible objections to your view/thesis. All of these strategies can be employed in more or less effective ways. In particular, in the context of 2) try to avoid entering battle with an army of straw-men, and in the context of 3) aim to discuss the objections that are the most threatening.
- There are different argumentative strategies that you can employ to attack a particular view or thesis. The main general strategies can be grouped into the following three categories: 1) Provide direct arguments against the view/thesis. 2) Produce a counterexample to the view/thesis. 3) Show that the arguments that are commonly adduced in support of the view or thesis are defective, by establishing either that the arguments are invalid, i.e., that they contain a logical fallacy, or that they are unsound, i.e., that at least one of their premises is false.
- Clarity is a virtue. Only write down sentences that you yourself fully understand. In particular, if you are unsure about the precise meaning of some technical term or some less familiar word, either look it up in a dictionary or do not use it. You do not have to integrate grand or impressive words in your paper to make it good. Plain English will do.
- Brevity and precision are virtues. For each sentence ask yourself: “Would it make a real difference with regard to the content of the paper if I left this sentence out?” “Is this sentence really necessary to make my point?” If the answer to either one of these questions is 'no', you might want to consider deleting the sentence. In general, write short sentences.
- Try to monitor the progress of your discussion. Especially when writing longer papers (12 pages and up), it might be helpful and might contribute to the clarity of the paper to insert brief summarizing statements at the end of each longer section, and to indicate what role the section in question plays in your overall discussion. For instance, after a section on Berkeley’s critique of Locke’s account of abstract ideas you might say something like “So far we have reviewed Berkeley’s reasons for rejecting Locke’s account of abstract ideas, most of which seem to be based on a controversial understanding of the nature of ideas that cannot unambiguously be ascribed to Locke. In the following section we will discuss the use that Berkeley makes of this rejection of Lockean abstract ideas in the development of his idealist ontology.”
- Do not repeat your arguments. Repetition does not make an argument any better.
- Do not just express general opinions; try to be specific, and give reasons for why you hold the view you articulated. For instance, do not just say: “I am not convinced by Spinoza,” but rather “One might disagree with Spinoza’s proof for the thesis that God is the only genuine substance, for the following three reasons:…”
- Do not state views on topics/authors about which you are not sufficiently informed. Either get yourself informed, or gracefully avoid talking about it/him/her.
- In general, try not to show your belly, as it were. That is, try to formulate your arguments and claims in such a (modest) way that everything you say is backed up by reasons, or textual evidence, and can be defended if attacked. If you want to include a personal opinion or intuition in your discussion that cannot be backed up in this way, explicitly indicate that this is what you are doing, and that you are aware of the fact that you are doing it.
- Be hard on yourself. If you are not fully satisfied with what you have written, give it another round of revisions.
- Be sure to reread your paper after your last round of revisions one more time before you hand it in. Many stylistic ‘bumps’ and embarrassing typos can be caught in that way.
- If you are using an idea that is not your own, or if you are referring to something somebody else said, or if you are quoting somebody else directly, always provide the exact reference in parentheses, a footnote, or an endnote, preferably in Harvard referencing style (i.e., author-date style). At the end of your paper, give full bibliographical details for all of the works that are referenced in the essay. There is no established format for references to the internet (yet). As a general rule: try to be as specific as possible.
- Note that the purpose of providing references is not merely to acknowledge indebtedness to somebody else for a certain idea or argument, but also to document interpretative claims. For example, if you claim that Kant holds that, eventually, the good will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished, you need to provide textual evidence showing that this is indeed Kant's view.
- For your own benefit and protection, it is strongly recommended that you do not use the internet as a resource when writing your papers. The internet is very useful for all sorts of things, but not for gathering information for a philosophy paper. Just because something is posted on a flashy web-site does not mean that it is true, or smart, or even interesting. The only exceptions to this general recommendation to practice web-abstinence in times of philosophy paper writing are if you consult articles that are published in peer-reviewed, respectable electronic journals, or in electronic versions of peer-reviewed, respectable Journals that are accessible through the internet, or electronic versions of primary texts that are available through respectable (and legal) sources.
- As should have become clear from the previous comments, writing a good paper takes time. Bear this in mind when you plan your work. The appropriate amount of time obviously depends on the length and difficulty of the paper in question, e.g., a term paper can easily keep you busy for three solid weeks. But you should NEVER start a paper less than three days before it is due, even if it is only supposed to be three pages long. Many students do not realize how much work is still required to turn a first draft into a really good paper. (Many students, I strongly suspect, simply hand in their first draft.) A sure recipe for disaster: writing the paper the night before it is due.
Some remarks about grammar, semantics, and style
- Use present tense to describe the view of the author you are discussing, even if the author is dead. For instance, instead of writing “Descartes thought that there are two fundamental kinds of substances in the world,” write “Descartes thinks that…”
- When describing somebody's position or philosophical views, do not ascribe feelings to him/her. Similarly, do not present your own view as a feeling. What (usually) matters for our purposes are (more narrowly) cognitive propositional attitudes. For instance, do not write “ Berkeley feels that there are no material bodies” but “ Berkeley thinks…”, “ Berkeley believes…”, “ Berkeley argues…” etc.
- Avoid overly extensive use of the first person pronoun ‘I’. It’s not wrong to use it, of course, and it is becoming more and more common, but to older, more traditional ears it still sounds like bad style. For instance, instead of saying “I don’t agree with Locke’s position”, you could write “There are several reasons for disagreeing with Locke’s position.”
- Avoid using too many gerunds. In particular, gerunds cannot be used instead of predicates in main clauses. For instance, the following string of words “Meaning that space and time are pure intuitions” is not a sentence. You either have to connect it with the forgoing sentence, e.g., “Kant claims that space and time are forms of sensibility, meaning that space and time are pure intuitions,” or, preferably, you have to reformulate it, e.g., “This means that space and time are pure intuitions.”
- Parentheses should be used sparingly; also avoid too many remarks in brackets. Either the remark is needed to support your argument and/or to clarify the position you are discussing, in which case you should include its content in the main text; or the remark is superfluous or redundant, in which case you should leave it out. For instance, avoid sentences like “Descartes proves the existence of God based on our idea of God (this idea including existence as one of God’s essential predicates)”. Instead write something like “Descartes proves the existence of God based on our idea of God. He argues that this idea includes existence as one of its essential predicates, which implies that existence is a necessary property of God.”
- Quotation marks are NOT mere decoration. They have a number of well-defined functions, of which the following four are most likely to be relevant in the context of writing a philosophy paper. 1) All direct quotations must be enclosed in (double) quotation marks. 2) Titles of essays are given in quotation marks. 3) If you want to refer to words or concepts (as opposed to what the words signify or what falls under the concepts), use (single) quotation marks. Example: The word 'five' contains four letters. The concept 'mule' is usually acquired after the concept 'horse'. 4) Quotation marks can also be used to distance yourself from the expression that is enclosed in the quotation marks, e.g., if you want to indicate that you are speaking ironically, or if you want to indicate that you disagree with what is being said.
- Avoid speaking of the ‘logic’ of someone, or of the ‘logic’ of someone’s argument, unless it is really a particular logical calculus or the logical structure of an argument that you want to discuss. For instance, the sentence “one might disagree with Kant’s logic” only makes (potential) sense in a context where you want to contrast the logic expounded in Kant’s writings with some other logical calculus, say, para-consistent logic. If you want to express some other concern, the following formulations (or something like them) should be used, depending on what exactly you are concerned about: “Kant’s argument is invalid,” “Kant’s argument is unsound,” or, more generally, “Kant’s reasoning is not cogent.” Similarly, if you want to express that a certain thought experiment, argument, or claim is implausible or intuitively unconvincing do not say that it is "illogical"—no matter how popular this expression is in colloquial English. "To be illogical," strictly speaking, means "to go against logic." A thought experiment is illogical if it is logically inconsistent, an argument is illogical if it is fallacious, and a claim is illogical if it implies a contradiction. If that is what you mean, say it in those words; if it is not what you mean, say whatever you mean, but without using the word "illogical".
- Do not call the arguments of the author under discussion 'ridiculous' or 'ludicrous'. There is always the possibility that the argument in question is not ridiculous at all, but that you just did not understand it correctly. Even if the argument is ridiculous, bluntly stating this fact is rather impolite and disrespectful. (And even if the author is already dead, a minimal amount of respect is still a good idea.)
- It is no excuse for grammatical mistakes, mention-use confusions, category errors, imprecisions, or stylistic infelicities of any kind that the author you are discussing is guilty of the same blunders. Of course, if you are providing a direct quotation you are not to blame (and not supposed to change anything), but if you are reporting or discussing the author’s views in your own words it is your responsibility to avoid these problems. Similarly, if your author employs non-standard technical terms or an otherwise idiosyncratic terminology to state his views, it is your job to explain the terminology before making use of it yourself. To be sure, in some (many) cases it might not be exactly clear what the author wants to say or how he wants a certain term to be understood, but the way to handle a situation like this is, not by reproducing the problems and passing over them in silence, but by explicitly flagging them and offering possible ways in which to resolve them.
- If you incorporate partial direct quotations in your discussion it is your responsibility to fit the quotation into your text in such a way that, (a), the original meaning of the quoted passage is preserved, and, (b) a grammatically correct construction results. For example, (a) may require adding brief indications in brackets about the reference of certian personal pronouns or possessives.
- If you use the impersonal ‘one’ instead of the second or third person pronoun, you need to stick to it throughout the whole sentence, including potential uses of the genitive case. Example: “If one wants to get a straight A, he needs to get his grammar straight” is incorrect; you should say “If one wants to get a straight A, one needs to get one’s grammar straight.”
- Avoid elisions. That is, instead of writing 'isn't' or 'doesn't', write 'is not' and 'does not'.
- In colloquial English 'to beg the question' is more and more used in the sense of 'to raise the question'. This is not what the phrase means. Begging the question is a form of fallacious reasoning, which consists in (implicitly) already assuming a particular answer to a question that is ostensibly in dispute, or in assuming (implicitly) in the premises of an argument what the argument is supposed to prove. For example, by defining the mind as a mental thing you are begging the question against the materialist (who holds that the mind is material), or by assuming that God, understood as a necessary being, is possible the ontological argument begs the question, because the only way for a necessary being to be possible is to actually exist.
- 'One in the same' is no idiom in English–the correct idiom is 'one and the same'. Example: “The materialist claims that, ultimately, the mind and the brain are one and the same.”
- The phrase 'per say' does not exist; the correct phrase is 'per se'. Example: “The awful taste of Budweiser does not speak against drinking beer per se, but only against drinking American beer.”
- If you want to express that a given argument is valid, what you want to say is, NOT that the conclusion 'flows from' the premises, or that it 'follows the premises', but that it 'follows logically from the premises'.
- Arguments are not 'based off of' certain premises, but based on, or constructed from certain premises. In general, 'off of' is something your dog might say on a bad day, but if you add an unnecessary 'of' to a perfectly fine and sufficient 'off' you are guilty of a grammatical mistake.
- A lone 'next' tacked onto the beginning of a sentence makes for a rather ungraceful transition to a new thought or a new line of argument. In many cases, the sentence in question can be improved immensely by simply deleting the flat-footed 'next'. In some cases, you might want to substitute 'next' with something more specific. For example, instead of saying "Next, Leibniz turns to developing his account of how we acquire innate ideas," you might want to say something like "After criticizing Locke's argument against the existence of innate ideas, Leibniz turns to developing..."
- Please avoid speaking of 'holes' in arguments, or of 'arguments falling apart'. It is not exactly wrong to do so, but it is bad style. Holes can be found in socks, not arguments. For instance, do not say “Upon closer investigation it turns out that the argument is full of holes/falls apart,” but “upon closer investigation it turns out that the argument is fallacious/unsound/invalid/can be contested…."
- Avoid speaking of somebody's 'thought process' when you want to talk about his/her arguments or line of reasoning. For example, instead of saying "Descartes' thought process starts with the statement that the idea of God has infinite objective reality" write something like "Descartes' argument is based on the premise that...", or "The first step in Descartes' reasoning is to claim that..."
- The following phrases are not exactly the hallmark of elegant writing: “Descartes furthers his argument by…,” or “Descartes is quick to point out that…”. Possible alternatives: “Descartes provides further support for his thesis by...”, “Descartes points out that…”, “Descartes emphasizes that…”.
- Another pet phrase of undergraduate philosophy writing that is overused is 'to delve deeper into the argument'. To be sure, philosophy can be deep, but I recommend putting all forms of delving off until your summer break.
- The use of ‘argue’ in the sense of ‘dispute’ is colloquial. For instance, if you want to say that Berkeley disputes the viability of Locke’s primary-secondary quality distinction do not write “Berkeley argues Locke’s distinction,” but something like “Berkeley questions/objects to Locke’s distinction,” or, if you have a soft spot for the word ‘argue’, you could write “Berkeley argues against Locke’s distinction.”