Section 5.13 Writing for Philosophy
Writing for philosophy is all about arguments. Philosophy essays create a conversation between the arguments of others and the author's own arguments, for the purpose of answering a philosophical question. While somewhat similar in structure to papers in other disciplines, philosophy papers follow unique conventions. Read this section to learn how to write a top-notch paper for your philosophy class!
Unless otherwise stated, all italicized quotes throughout this section are excerpted from the interview with Philosophy faculty members at the University of Puget Sound that informed this section.
“Have a question that you’re answering, look at a couple of different answers to that question, then explain what your answer is and why you’re not answering the question in other ways.”
The fundamental genre of philosophy is the argumentative essay. These are centered around a thesis that clearly states a position and develops a sustained argument for that position. In addition, philosophy papers have a few unique emphases. First, most papers include one or multiple counterarguments to the author’s claim. A good paper will fully explain these counterarguments and then defend against them; this should be a real section of the paper, not just an afterthought in the conclusion. Second, philosophy papers often use fewer sources than research papers in other disciplines. Using a few sources very fully and intentionally is much better than pulling in a lot of outside information in a cursory way. Finally, philosophy papers are often shorter than big research papers in other disciplines. However, this doesn’t mean that they are easier to write. Every sentence is important; a good paper might start at ten pages and be edited down to five. Papers in philosophy are generally single-authored, especially at the student level.
“Writing in philosophy... serves as a way of clarifying one's own views. Just going through that process of having to write it out helps people figure out what they believe.”
The purpose of writing in philosophy is to defend or clarify a philosophical position or view, contributing to a conversation that can take place across time and space. A good paper presents one or several existing positions on a topic, develops its own position, and responds to potential counterarguments. Writing in this field should be interesting and accessible to any intelligent reader, not just members of a specialized academic community. While potentially less complex, student papers serve this purpose in the same way a professional academic’s would. Writing a philosophy paper can also serve to clarify your own thinking about an issue: the process of interrogating your argument and considering counterarguments can help you realize what you believe and why you believe it!
“You should be constantly telling me what you're going to do. Like this that you're discussing on page three... what exactly is that relation to what you said on page two? Make that as explicit as you can as opposed to allowing your reader to sort of guess.”
Again, writing for philosophy is all about making an argument. A very clear argumentative thesis is the most important part of your paper. Make sure you know what you’re arguing and sustain the argument throughout the paper, laying it out clearly for your reader. Clarity is one of the most important elements of a good philosophy paper. Philosophical ideas can be confusing; don’t make them more difficult by trying to use artsy language! Likewise, philosophy papers should be clearly organized and roadmapped. Don’t be afraid to tell the reader exactly what you’re going to argue in each paragraph. Phrases like “Now I will argue…” are great here. Carefully chosen examples also make your argument more clear.
Creativity of thought is also valued in philosophy. Even if a text has been analyzed for centuries, think about novel perspectives you can bring to the conversation!
A good paper almost always presents a charitable, comprehensive summary of the perspective of at least one author’s argument. Read the argument you’re using several times and make sure you can explain it clearly. Charitable analysis is key: don’t try to make the position weak so it’s easy to argue against. A more nuanced, challenging argument will make a better paper.
“It’s a matter of using sources to create this conversation, this dialectic.”
Use of evidence in philosophy papers can take several forms. Evidence can be textual, often in the form of explaining an argument written by another author. These arguments should be put in conversation with each other. While quotes are okay, a good explanation of an author’s argument is often best. Remember to cite properly and to clearly distinguish the point of view you are paraphrasing from your own.
Empirical evidence—such as for instance data from the fields of neuroscience or psychology—can also be used to back up claims and support your argument. Avoid making broad claims about human nature without this kind of support. This form of evidence should also be cited.
Philosophy values logical thought, so some forms of evidence that aren’t common in other disciplines are also valid. These include thought experiments or well-thought-out examples or counterexamples that provide proof for a point. These often won’t come from an outside source and don’t need to be cited.
Again, using a few sources thoroughly and purposefully is better than picking facts from a wide number of sources.
Conventions and Tips.
Clarity of language is valued over style. Don’t be afraid to use repetitive language if it’s the clearest way to state something.
Clearly define any jargon you use.
Carefully distinguish between your argument and others you introduce. Cite (see Chapter 8)!
Use of “I” is encouraged in philosophy papers, and helpful to distinguish between your argument or contribution and the other arguments you are using. Distinguishing your novel contribution from the arguments of others is key!
Clearly roadmap your paper. Tell the reader “In this section I will be arguing . . .”, tell them “In this section I argued . . . .” Do all the work for them.
In the same vein . . . use of subsections with headings is encouraged, especially for longer papers.
The target audience for philosophy papers is an intelligent reader who is interested in philosophy but has no background on the topic. Your paper should make it clear and interesting to them.
Engaging your reader in the introduction is important, but avoid cliches and broad sweeping statements.
“They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein is a great resource for language and structure in academic writing. There are several copies available in the CWLT! Writing to Learn: An Introduction to Writing Philosophical Essays by Anne Michaels Edwards is another great book aimed at first time philosophy students.
Check out this very useful guide from Dr. Jim Pryor at NYU for a more indepth resource on writing philosophy papers. The guidelines provided by your professor in the prompt or other class materials are also a vital source of information.