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TIPS FOR WRITING PHILOSOPHY PAPERS

Richard Dean

 

1. If you’re writing a philosophy paper, your main aim is probably to state and defend some thesis. In other words, you’re trying to establish some point.  Or sometimes you’re just trying to explain some philosopher’s ideas, and the arguments for those ideas. In either case, the main thing you want to do is explain some central ideas clearly.  Here is some more specific advice about how to do that.

           

·        Use a thesis sentence or thesis paragraph to state what your goal is in the paper.  Also, most paragraphs should have a topic sentence stating what the main idea of the paragraph is.  Following these pieces of advice makes it harder for the paper to become confused and disorganized.

·         Make sure to answer the questions that the assignment asks about.  This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often a paper fails to even talk about the assigned question.

·        Don’t feel you have to use a lot of quotations.  Using your own words usually demonstrates more clearly that you understand the ideas.

·        Don’t feel you need to explain an entire text, or cover all of the points the author does, in the order she covers them.  To write an effective essay, you often must just pick out the ideas that are necessary for your purposes, leaving the rest unmentioned.

·        A good way to think about writing a paper is to think of it not from your viewpoint as a writer, but rather from the viewpoint of the reader.  Think of exactly what you’d need to see in the essay (if you weren’t already familiar with the topic), in order to understand the issue and be convinced by the author’s arguments.  Anything that helps to do that should be included in the paper (within length limits) and anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal should be left out.

 

2.  In a philosophy paper, you’ll usually be giving some argument of your own, either a criticism of some author whose view you’ve explained, or some original addition to the idea you’re explaining.  Here are some ways to make your own arguments effective and convincing. 

 

·             Do not rely heavily on rhetoric, like “Plato’s view is absurd. Only an idiot would believe it.”

·             Instead, make sure you are giving some reason or reasons for the reader to accept your conclusions.  Assume that the reader is mildly skeptical, and is swayed more by reasons than by emotional appeals.

·             If you’re criticizing some view, be fair, and make the view seem as strong as possible.  If the reader thinks you’re describing your opponent’s position unfairly, she won’t be convinced that you’ve shown your opponent’s actual position is mistaken.  If you make the opposing view seem strong and appealing at first, instead of stupid, it’s much more impressive when you disprove it.

·             Try to anticipate possible objections to your position and respond to them.

 

3.  Any time you get an idea from an outside source, cite the source.  You won’t be punished for borrowing someone else’s idea (unless all you do in the paper is borrow someone’s idea, without doing any real work), but you can get in serious trouble for using someone else’s idea without giving her credit.

 

4.  It’s okay to use “I” in philosophy papers, at least in my class.  For instance. “I question Thomson’s assumption that...”  Philosophers do this all the time, and trying to avoid “I” is often awkward.

 

5.  Avoid cliches and corny sentences like “For thousands of years, philosophers have wondered...” In fact, don’t use very general, supposedly “attention-getting” introductions like “The debate over human cloning will shape public policy for decades...”  It’s better to just use a regular thesis sentence saying what you’re going to do. 

 

6.  If you are confused or run into problems, ask your teacher for advice.