Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper
Author: Jim Pryor, Princeton University
Philosophical writing is different from the writing you'll be asked to do in other courses. Most of the strategies described below will also serve you well when writing for other courses, but don't automatically assume that they all will. Nor should you assume that every writing guideline you've been given by other teachers is important when you're writing a philosophy paper. Some of those guidelines are routinely violated in good philosophical prose (e.g., see the guidelines on grammar, below).
1. Early StagesThe early stages of writing a philosophy paper include everything you do before you sit down and write your first draft. These early stages will involve writing, but you won't yet be trying to write a complete paper. You should instead be taking notes on the readings, sketching out your ideas, trying to explain the main argument you want to advance, and composing an outline.
Discuss the issues with othersAs I said above, your papers are supposed to demonstrate that you understand and can think critically about the material we discuss in class. One of the best ways to check how well you understand that material is to try to explain it to someone who isn't already familiar with it. I've discovered time and again while teaching philosophy that I couldn't really explain properly some article or argument I thought I understood. This was because it was really more problematic or complicated than I had realized. You will have this same experience. So it's good to discuss the issues we raise in class with each other, and with friends who aren't taking the class. This will help you understand the issues better, and it will make you recognize what things you still don't fully understand.
It's even more valuable to talk to each other about what you want to argue in your paper. When you have your ideas worked out well enough that you can explain them to someone else, verbally, then you're ready to sit down and start making an outline.
Make an outlineBefore you begin writing any drafts, you need to think about the questions: In what order should you explain the various terms and positions you'll be discussing? At what point should you present your opponent's position or argument? In what order should you offer your criticisms of your opponent? Do any of the points you're making presuppose that you've already discussed some other point, first? And so on.
The overall clarity of your paper will greatly depend on its structure. That is why it is important to think about these questions before you begin to write.
I strongly recommend that you make an outline of your paper, and of the arguments you'll be presenting, before you begin to write. This lets you organize the points you want to make in your paper and get a sense for how they are going to fit together. It also helps ensure that you're in a position to say what your main argument or criticism is, before you sit down to write a full draft of your paper. When students get stuck writing, it's often because they haven't yet figured out what they're trying to say.
Give your outline your full attention. It should be fairly detailed. (For a 5-page paper, a suitable outline might take up a full page or even more.)
I find that making an outline is at least 80% of the work of writing a good philosophy paper. If you have a good outline, the rest of the writing process will go much more smoothly.
Start Work EarlyPhilosophical problems and philosophical writing require careful and extended reflection. Don't wait until two or three nights before the paper is due to begin. That is very stupid. Writing a good philosophy paper takes a great deal of preparation.
You need to leave yourself enough time to think about the topic and write a detailed outline. Only then should you sit down to write a complete draft. Once you have a complete draft, you should set it aside for a day or two. Then you should come back to it and rewrite it. Several times. At least 3 or 4. If you can, show it to your friends and get their reactions to it. Do they understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them?
All of this takes time. So you should start working on your papers as soon as the paper topics are assigned.
2. Write a DraftOnce you've thought about your argument, and written an outline for your paper, then you're ready to sit down and compose a complete draft.
Use simple proseDon't shoot for literary elegance. Use simple, straightforward prose. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use familiar words. We'll make fun of you if you use big words where simple words will do. These issues are deep and difficult enough without your having to muddy them up with pretentious or verbose language. Don't write using prose you wouldn't use in conversation: if you wouldn't say it, don't write it.
You may think that since your TF and I already know a lot about this subject, you can leave out a lot of basic explanation and write in a super-sophisticated manner, like one expert talking to another. I guarantee you that this will make your paper incomprehensible.
If your paper sounds as if it were written for a third-grade audience, then you've probably achieved the right sort of clarity.
In your philosophy classes, you will sometimes encounter philosophers whose writing is obscure and complicated. Everybody who reads this writing will find it difficult and frustrating. The authors in question are philosophically important despite their poor writing, not because of it. So do not try to emulate their writing styles.
Make the structure of your paper obviousYou should make the structure of your paper obvious to the reader. Your reader shouldn't have to exert any effort to figure it out. Beat him over the head with it.
How can you do this?
First of all, use connective words, like:
These will help your reader keep track of where your discussion is going. Be sure you use these words correctly! If you say "P. Thus Q." then you are claiming that P is a good reason to accept Q. You had better be right. If you aren't, we'll complain. Don't throw in a "thus" or a "therefore" to make your train of thought sound more logical than it really is.
Another way you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by telling the reader what you've done so far and what you're going to do next. You can say things like:
These signposts really make a big difference. Consider the following two paper fragments:
...We've just seen how X says that P. I will now present two arguments that not-P. My first argument is...
I will argue for the view that Q.Isn't it easy to see what the structure of these papers is? You want it to be just as easy in your own papers.
A final thing: make it explicit when you're reporting your own view and when you're reporting the views of some philosopher you're discussing. The reader should never be in doubt about whose claims you're presenting in a given paragraph.
You can't make the structure of your paper obvious if you don't know what the structure of your paper is, or if your paper has no structure. That's why making an outline is so important.
Be concise, but explain yourself fullyTo write a good philosophy paper, you need to be concise but at the same time explain yourself fully.
These demands might seem to pull in opposite directions. (It's as if the first said "Don't talk too much," and the second said "Talk a lot.") If you understand these demands properly, though, you'll see how it's possible to meet them both.
Use plenty of examples and definitionsIt is very important to use examples in a philosophy paper. Many of the claims philosophers make are very abstract and hard to understand, and examples are the best way to make those claims clearer.
Examples are also useful for explaining the notions that play a central role in your argument. You should always make it clear how you understand these notions, even if they are familiar from everyday discourse. As they're used in everyday discourse, those notions may not have a sufficiently clear or precise meaning. For instance, suppose you're writing a paper about abortion, and you want to assert the claim "A fetus is a person." What do you mean by "a person"? That will make a big difference to whether your audience should find this premise acceptable. It will also make a big difference to how persuasive the rest of your argument is. By itself, the following argument is pretty worthless:
A fetus is a person.For we don't know what the author means by calling a fetus "a person." On some interpretations of "person," it might be quite obvious that a fetus is a person; but quite controversial whether it's always wrong to kill persons, in that sense of "person." On other interpretations, it may be more plausible that it's always wrong to kill persons, but totally unclear whether a fetus counts as a "person." So everything turns here on what the author means by "person." The author should be explicit about how he is using this notion.
In a philosophy paper, it's okay to use words in ways that are somewhat different from the ways they're ordinarily used. You just have to make it clear that you're doing this. For instance, some philosophers use the word "person" to mean any being which is capable of rational thought and self-awareness. Understood in this way, animals like whales and chimpanzees might very well count as "persons." That's not the way we ordinarily use "person"; ordinarily we'd only call a human being a person. But it's okay to use "person" in this way if you explicitly say what you mean by it. And likewise for other words.
Presenting and assessing the views of othersIf you plan to discuss the views of Philosopher X, begin by figuring out what his arguments or central assumptions are. See my tips on How To Read a Philosophy Paper for some help doing this.
Then ask yourself: Are X's arguments good ones? Are his assumptions clearly stated? Are they plausible? Are they reasonable starting-points for X's argument, or ought he have provided some independent argument for them?
Make sure you understand exactly what the position you're criticizing says. Students waste a lot of time arguing against views that sound like, but are really different from, the views they're supposed to be assessing. Remember, philosophy demands a high level of precision. It's not good enough for you merely to get the general idea of somebody else's position or argument. You have to get it exactly right. (In this respect, philosophy is more like a science than the other humanities.) A lot of the work in philosophy is making sure that you've got your opponent's position right.
You can assume that your reader is stupid (see above). But don't treat the philosopher or the views you're discussing as stupid. If they were stupid, we wouldn't be looking at them. If you can't see anything the view has going for it, maybe that's because you don't have much experience thinking and arguing about the view, and so you haven't yet fully understood why the view's proponents are attracted to it. Try harder to figure out what's motivating them.
Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things, but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments against that.
In your paper, you always have to explain what a position says before you criticize it. If you don't explain what you take Philosopher X's view to be, your reader cannot judge whether the criticism you offer of X is a good criticism, or whether it is simply based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of X's views. So tell the reader what it is you think X is saying.
Don't try to tell the reader everything you know about X's views, though. You have to go on to offer your own philosophical contribution, too. Only summarize those parts of X's views that are directly relevant to what you're going to go on to do.
Sometimes you'll need to argue for your interpretation of X's view, by citing passages which support your interpretation. It is permissible for you to discuss a view you think a philosopher might have held, or should have held, though you can't find any direct evidence of that view in the text. When you do this, though, you should explicitly say so. Say something like:
Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he's assuming it anyway, because...
Anticipate objectionsTry to anticipate objections to your view and respond to them. For instance, if you object to some philosopher's view, don't assume he would immediately admit defeat. Imagine what his comeback might be. How would you handle that comeback?
Don't be afraid of mentioning objections to your own thesis. It is better to bring up an objection yourself than to hope your reader won't think of it. Explain how you think these objections can be countered or overcome. Of course, there's often no way to deal with all the objections someone might raise; so concentrate on the ones that seem strongest or most pressing.
What happens if you're stuck?Your paper doesn't always have to provide a definite solution to a problem, or a straight yes or no answer to a question. Many excellent philosophy papers don't offer straight yes or no answers. Sometimes they argue that the question needs to be clarified, or that certain further questions need to be raised. Sometimes they argue that certain assumptions of the question need to be challenged. Sometimes they argue that certain answers to the question are too easy, that is, they won't work. Hence, if these papers are right, the question will be harder to answer than we might previously have thought. These are all important and philosophically valuable results.
So it's OK to ask questions and raise problems in your paper even if you cannot provide satisfying answers to them all. You can leave some questions unanswered at the end of the paper. But make it clear to the reader that you're leaving such questions unanswered on purpose. And you should say something about how the question might be answered, and about what makes the question interesting and relevant to the issue at hand.
If something in a view you're examining is unclear to you, don't gloss it over. Call attention to the unclarity. Suggest several different ways of understanding the view. Explain why it's not clear which of these interpretations is correct.
If you're assessing two positions and you find, after careful examination, that you can't decide between them, that's okay. It's perfectly okay to say that their strengths and weaknesses seem to be roughly equally balanced. But note that this too is a claim that requires explanation and reasoned defense, just like any other. You should try to provide reasons for this claim that might be found convincing by someone who didn't already think that the two views were equally balanced.
Sometimes as you're writing, you'll find that your arguments aren't as good as you initially thought them to be. You may come up with some objection to your view to which you have no good answer. Don't panic. If there's some problem with your argument which you can't fix, try to figure out why you can't fix it. It's okay to change your thesis to one you can defend. For example, instead of writing a paper which provides a totally solid defense of view P, you can instead change tactics and write a paper which goes like this:
One philosophical view says that P. This is a plausible view, for the following reasons...Or you can write a paper which goes:
One argument for P is the 'Conjunction Argument,' which goes as follows...Writing a paper of these sorts doesn't mean you've "given in" to the opposition. After all, neither of these papers commits you to the view that not-P. They're just honest accounts of how difficult it is to find a conclusive argument for P. P might still be true, for all that.
3. Rewrite, and Keep RewritingNow you've written a complete draft of your paper. Set the draft aside for a day or two.
Then come back to the draft and re-read it. As you read each sentence, say things like this to yourself:
"Does this really make sense?" "That's totally unclear!" "That sounds pretentious." "What does that mean?" "What's the connection between these two sentences?" "Am I just repeating myself here?" and so on.Make sure every sentence in your draft does useful work. Get rid of any which don't. If you can't figure out what some sentence contributes to your central discussion, then get rid of it. Even if it sounds nice. You should never introduce any points in your paper unless they're important to your main argument, and you have the room to really explain them.
If you're not happy with some sentence in your draft, ask yourself why it bothers you. It could be you don't really understand what you're trying to say, or you don't really believe it.
Make sure your sentences say exactly what you want them to say. For example, suppose you write "Abortion is the same thing as murder." Is that what you really mean? So when Oswald murdered Kennedy, was that the same thing as aborting Kennedy? Or do you mean something different? Perhaps you mean that abortion is a form of murder. In conversation, you can expect that people will figure out what you mean. But you shouldn't write this way. Even if your TF is able to figure out what you mean, it's bad writing. In philosophical prose, you have to be sure to say exactly what you mean.
Also pay attention to the structure of your draft. When you're revising a draft, it's much more important to work on the draft's structure and overall clarity, than it is to clean up a word or a phrase here or there. Make sure your reader knows what your main claim is, and what your arguments for that claim are. Make sure that your reader can tell what the point of every paragraph is. It's not enough that you know what their point is. It has to be obvious to your reader, even to a lazy, stupid, and mean reader.
If you can, show your draft to your friends or to other students in the class, and get their comments and advice. I encourage you to do this. Do your friends understand your main point? Are parts of your draft unclear or confusing to them? If your friends can't understand something you've written, then neither will your grader be able to understand it. Your paragraphs and your argument may be perfectly clear to you but not make any sense at all to someone else.
Another good way to check your draft is to read it out loud. This will help you tell whether it all makes sense. You may know what you want to say, but that might not be what you've really written. Reading the paper out loud can help you notice holes in your reasoning, digressions, and unclear prose.
You should count on writing many drafts of your paper. At least 3 or 4!! Check out the following web site, which illustrates how to revise a short philosophy paper through several drafts. Notice how much the paper improves with each revision:
Beginning your paperDon't begin with a sentence like "Down through the ages, mankind has pondered the problem of..." There's no need to warm up to your topic. You should get right to the point, with the first sentence.
Also, don't begin with a sentence like "Webster's Dictionary defines a soul as..." Dictionaries aren't good philosophical authorities. They record the way words are used in everyday discourse. Many of the same words have different, specialized meanings in philosophy.
Secondary readingsFor most classes, I will put some articles and books on reserve in Robbins Library for additional reading. These are optional, and are for your independent study.
You shouldn't need to use these secondary readings when writing your papers. The point of the papers is to teach you how to analyze a philosophical argument, and present your own arguments for or against some conclusion. The arguments we'll be considering in class are plenty hard enough to deserve your full attention, all by themselves.
Can you write your paper as a dialogue or story?No. Done well, these forms of philosophical writing can be very effective. That's why we read some dialogues and stories in Philosophy 3. But these forms of philosophical writing are extremely difficult to do well. They tempt the author to be imprecise and to use unclear metaphors. You need to master ordinary philosophical writing before you can do a good job with these more difficult forms.
[NOTE from Sandy LaFave: Students in my classes are allowed to write dialogues.]
MechanicsAim to make your papers less than or equal to the assigned word limit. Longer papers are typically too ambitious, or repetitious, or full of digressions. Your grade will suffer if your paper has these defects. So it's important to ask yourself: What are the most important things you have to say? What can be left out?
But neither should your papers be too short! Don't cut off an argument abruptly. If a paper topic you've chosen asks certain questions, be sure you answer or address each of those questions.
Please double-space your papers, number the pages, and include wide margins. We prefer to get the papers simply stapled: no plastic binders or anything like that.
Include your name on the paper. And don't turn in your only copy! (These things should be obvious, but apparently they're not.)
You'll be graded on three basic criteria:
More specifically, we'll be asking questions like these:
Your paper should do some philosophical workA kind of complaint that is common in undergraduate philosophy papers goes like this:
Philosopher X assumes A and argues from there to B. B seems unattractive to me. Philosopher X just assumes A and doesn't give any argument for it. I don't think A is true. So I can just reject A and thereby avoid B.This line of thought may very well be correct. And the student may very well be right that Philosopher X should have given more argument for A. But the student hasn't really philosophically engaged with Philosopher X's view in an interesting way. He hasn't really done much philosophical work. It was clear from the outset that Philosopher X was assuming A, and that if you don't want to make that assumption, you don't need to accept X's conclusion. If this is all you do in your paper, it won't be a strong paper and it will get a mediocre grade, even if it's well-written.
Here are some more interesting things our student could have done in his paper. He could have argued that B doesn't really follow from A, after all. Or he could have presented reasons for thinking that A is false. Or he could have argued that assuming A is an illegitimate move to make in a debate about whether B is true. Or something else of that sort. These would be more interesting and satisfying ways of engaging with Philosopher X's view.
Responding to comments from me or your TFWhen you have the opportunity to rewrite a graded paper, keep the following points in mind.
Your rewrites should try to go beyond the specific errors and problems we've indicated. If you got below an A-, then your draft was generally difficult to read, it was difficult to see what your argument was and what the structure of your paper was supposed to be, and so on. You can only correct these sorts of failings by rewriting your paper from scratch. (Start with a new, empty window in your word processor.) Use your draft and the comments you received on it to construct a new outline, and write from that.
Keep in mind that when I or your TF grade a rewrite, we may sometimes notice weaknesses in unchanged parts of your paper that we missed the first time around. Or perhaps those weaknesses will have affected our overall impression of the paper, and we just didn't offer any specific recommendation about fixing them. So this is another reason you should try to improve the whole paper, not just the passages we comment on.
It is possible to improve a paper without improving it enough to raise it to the next grade level. Sometimes that happens. But I hope you'll all do better than that.
Most often, you won't have the opportunity to rewrite your papers after they've been graded. So you need to teach yourself to write a draft, scrutinize the draft, and revise and rewrite your paper before turning it in to be graded.
AcknowledgementsI don't want to claim undue credit for this work. A lot of the suggestions here derive from writing handouts that friends and colleagues lent me. (Alison Simmons and Justin Broackes deserve special thanks.) Also, I've browsed some other writing guidelines on the web, and occasionally incorporated advice I thought my students would find useful. Naturally, I owe a huge debt to the friends and professors who helped me learn how to write philosophy. I'm sure they had a hard time of it.
If you're a teacher and you think your own students would find this web site useful, you are free to point them here (or to distribute printed copies). It's all in the public good.
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