The philosophy paper is a different breed from the average essay, one that needs special treatment in order to flourish. Much of the common advice about essays remains the same, but an approach notably different from the norm is needed to write a strong philosophy paper.
A philosophy paper serves the purpose of proving a position, so an introductory paragraph ought to be as straightforward and practical as possible. Stories, personal anecdotes, historical background and so forth are unnecessary filler. A workable intro simply states the point of the paper (the Thesis) and tells the reader how you intend to get there (the layout of your paper). Both the thesis and argumentation should be clearly stated so that the rest of the paper unfolds according to this plan.
Example of an adequate intro:
Anselm’s ontological argument attempts to prove that God necessarily exists as a result of existence being a part of the very definition of godhood; God must exist because he is defined as perfect, and only an existing being can be perfect. However, Anselm’s argument does not stand. Kant topples Anselm’s theory, arguing that to rely upon “existence” as a predicate for being is logically incoherent.
This intro is clear, provides just enough background for the reader to understand the issue, and exhibits both a clear thesis and guiding argument.
Example of an inadequate intro:
For countless millennia, philosophers have pondered the question of God. Is he there? If so, what is he? What does it mean to be God? One such philosopher tried to answer this question: Anselm of Canterbury. In his famed “ontological argument for the existence of God,” he tries to explain that God’s nature means he must exist, but he isn’t as successful as he would have liked.
This introduction fills up space with melodramatic, sweeping generalizations, only vaguely mentions the paper’s point, and fails to direct the reader as to how the argument will progress.
A philosophy paper is designed to present a position that critiques someone else’s argument, compares different philosophical ideas, or takes a stand on an issue. With these goals, it is of utmost importance that the essay involve clear and rational communication every step of the way.
Regardless of the type of essay, it is likely that you will have to summarize or reconstruct someone else’s argument at some point. Here are a few tips on how to reconstruct effectively.
An easy error to make, especially if you have a strong opinion about a particular philosophy, is to present a philosopher’s argument as less than it actually is, making a “straw man” or caricature of it. Double-check yourself as you reconstruct the argument, giving as accurate a representation of it as you can, regardless of how you may feel about it. A skewed or inaccurate explication of a text makes you look amateurish as a writer and harms your main argument. Stay true to the author’s own meaning. It may be helpful to consult secondary sources or even work with a classmate in interpreting the text.
If neither you nor your readers can understand what you wrote, then it will be no more useful than if you had just drawn a picture and handed it in. Be precise and systematic.
Objections and Replies
When advocating a philosophical idea, it is often best to mention and evaluate potential critiques of your position. This serves to strengthen an argument’s convincing power as well as give you (as arguer) a broader perspective of the meaning and implications of what you say.
Use only the best objections to your argument that you can find. Answering every conceivable objection would overwhelm the reader. Simply cover what is needed to make your point tenable.
Answer all objections charitably. Truly consider what they have to say; do not simply dismiss or take counterpoints lightly.
General Tips on Arguing
- Persuade clearly and rationally: Philosophy depends on clear, rational thought progression to get a point across. Be certain your points make sense both in what they say and how they cohere with one another.
- Support every statement: If you cannot prove a point rationally and/or empirically, then don’t say it. Simply saying something doesn't make it true.
- Choose sources wisely: When using a text, make certain it’s a trustworthy source that is also appropriate to the point being made (e.g. do not cite the Bible unless it has something particularly relevant and universally applicable to contribute). Cite whatever sources you use.
- Consider critiques: It cannot be stressed enough. Consider as many angles of approach to your position as conceivable and take them into account while arguing.
- Don’t Over- Fortify: Using too many veins of proof would simply confuse and overwhelm the reader or make the paper too disjointed. Use only the best arguments you can find or come up with and flesh out this smaller number of points.
- Clarity is key: Say exactly what you mean as clearly as you can.
A conclusion serves to wrap up your thesis. Go back over the points you made and what the goal of the paper is. Having supported your thesis is enough.
- Quoting yourself out of the paper: only use quotations when a text says a point that would be more poignant or otherwise better said in its own words. Otherwise, paraphrase.
- Pointless or reckless statements: believe it or not, a philosophy paper is supposed to make a point. Take a position even if you aren't certain of it. Don’t give up and say you aren’t qualified. Also avoid loaded statements that could be entire papers by themselves, e.g. throwing in a sentence about free will in your conclusion to an epistemology paper.
- Vocabulary choices: be careful not to misuse words that have nuanced meanings in philosophy. For instance, don’t say “absolute” unless you mean it, be wary of the difference between “idea” and “concept,” etc.