Advice for philosophy papers

What distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines? Probably not much. But, for what it’s worth, here are my views about good philosophical writing.

Philosophers analyze arguments. That’s the great secret to writing a philosophy paper: you should take it primarily as an exercise in evaluating arguments.

So, for example, you should pay special attention the relationship between a conclusion and its premises.

This doesn’t mean that philosophers are indifferent to such matters as the truth of the premises (or the conclusion, for that matter). A logically valid argument based on wildly false premises isn’t very interesting. But it does mean that philosophers will pay a great deal of attention to the internal workings of an argument.

Good philosophy does at least one of these two things:

  1. It shows that a complicated issue can be broken into simple parts.
  2. It shows that an issue that seems simple is actually complicated.

What should I do to write a great philosophy paper?

First, your paper should have all of the normal virtues of a good paper. It should be: correct in spelling and grammar, written clearly, and stylistically engaging.

There are some specific things that may be more important in a philosophy paper than in other kinds of papers. (At least, these are the kinds of things that I look for in an excellent philosophy paper). So, in writing a philosophy paper, do the following, when appropriate.

Answering the question

1. Answer the question asked

Be creative in answering the question, not in coming up with a new one on your own.

Why? Well, doesn’t it just make sense to answer the question I asked? It would be strange to answer a different one. “I’ll have a ham on rye” is not an appropriate answer to “How was your weekend?”

Seriously, though, remember that a philosopher’s first love is argument. Answering exactly the question asked shows that you understand the importance of working through precisely what follows from a question worded like the one you were given.

2. Break the problem down

What are the steps you have to take to complete the assignment? (Hint: look at the questions). When you take them, how will each be related to the others? Ask yourself this before you start and after you’ve finished (many papers change in the middle of the writing process — make sure that all the changes you made are consistent with one another).

3. Warning: not all questions are created equal

Compare: “what does author A say about point P?” with “what, in your opinion, is the correct answer?” Which one offers you the greater opportunity to say something creative and impress the person reading the paper? Allocate your attention accordingly.

It’s all about arguments

1. Show an appreciation of what an opponent might say.

Raise objections to your own position. Imagine ways for your opponent to evade your objections. Answer them. This shows that you see the strength of the other side’s position, but can still defend your own.

Let me put that same point in a more theoretical way by asking a question: how do we move forward by using philosophical argument? Answer: by starting with an apparently compelling position or puzzling question and using arguments and objections to show us something about that position or question. For example, we might learn that the position would be more compelling if it were modified a bit. Or we might learn that the question isn’t as interesting as it seems. And so on.

Argument leads us somewhere by taking us through a process of objection, reply, and possible modification.

Of course, don’t take that too far: get most of your objections out of the way early in the writing process so that your paper only presents truly compelling or productive objections to the reader.

2. Set limits on what you’re trying to do

Don’t worry if you can’t settle an issue completely. Your task is to analyze arguments . On matter X, does conclusion C follow from premises A and B? If the answer is “no” it still may be possible that conclusion C is the right conclusion: perhaps there is a different argument that establishes C. You will still have shown something very important if you’ve shown that a particular argument does not establish C, even if some other argument might.

3. Don’t be afraid of a subtle conclusion

We have a natural tendency to try to see all considerations as favoring one side in a dispute as opposed to the other. But sometimes one side is right about one thing and the other side is right about something else.

4. Take a position and argue for it

Would someone know where you stand on anything after reading your paper? We can’t always give conclusive proofs for our conclusions. But it’s always better to explain why you reached the conclusion that you did than just stating that it’s your conclusion, even if you don’t have a killer proof in its favor.

General procedures

1. Ask questions

Feeling confused? Don’t fully understand how the arguments work, what the readings say? You’ve already paid a highly qualified teacher to address just these concerns. You’d ask your piano teacher how to play a scale, right?

More generally, philosophy is dialogical. See the above remarks about the importance of the back and forth of position and objection. Talking about arguments is, really, the most natural way to do this.

2. Read your paper aloud

Once you have the copy that you're ready to turn in, read it aloud. Quietly, of course, because it's late and you don't want to wake up your very tolerant roommate.

You'll be surprised how many typos you find. Your readers will be impressed by how few typos they find.

3. Have fun

I mean that. Everyone likes arguing about something, so, you must enjoy arguments. Try to enjoy these too.

What should my paper look like when it is finished?

Here are some questions that you should be able to answer after your paper is done. Keep these in mind while revising.

  1. Has it identified an interesting problem? An interesting problem is one in which there are at least two apparently compelling answers.
  2. Is it accurate? An accurate paper characterizes the major arguments and objections correctly and economically, focusing on the essential points. Giving the appropriate weight to a point is a way of being accurate.
  3. What happens between the beginning and the end? Does the paper make dialectical progress: does the back and forth of argument lead us somewhere? Where, stated briefly, does it lead?
  4. What is the conclusion? What would you like your reader to come away saying that the paper showed? An important question to ask here is whether it seems that you’re trying to force a conclusion, namely, the one you originally had in mind? Is there a somewhat different, perhaps more modest conclusion to be drawn that is better supported by the arguments? Alternately, have you pushed hard enough: does the main argument of the paper show us anything about a live dispute? Why might someone care about the conclusion you’ve reached?