Suggestions for Writing your Philosophy Paper

 Hettinger, Fall 2008

The paper must show awareness of the class discussions and reading assignments pertaining to your topic. It should also continue to develop the discussion of these ideas in its own way. You can do this by arguing for an original thesis, by synthesizing the issues into your own framework, and by using your own examples. Concrete examples that illustrate your points should be an important part of the paper. Make distinctions which are crucial for analyzing the issue and critically examine the categories within which the discussion takes place. Probe the assumptions behind the various positions on the issue and trace their consequences. Try to be fair to positions you criticize.

Be clear. Perhaps the greatest mistake is to write in a way that the reader can't understand your point. If you use technical words (e.g., “intrinsic value” or “utilitarianism" ) don't assume that your reader knows what you mean--define them. One way to check for clarity is to read what you have written to a roommate (or out loud to yourself) and see if he or she can understand it.

Argue, give reasons, present evidence, and support what you say. Presenting your own ideas is not simply a matter of stating your opinions and leaving it at that. You must defend and justify the claims you make. Anticipate objections: Imagine what those who object to your views would say and then respond to those objections. State whatever weaknesses you see in your position and then do your best to shore up your views. Mention any other issues that need to be resolved in order for the position you take to be completely supported. Make your presuppositions clear and defend them the best you can.

Get involved in the details of the discussion of the issue you choose: Get beyond sweeping general comments about the issue from the perspective of an outside observer. If you disagree with a position, make it clear exactly in what way you think the position is mistaken. If you support some position from the readings or class discussion, do not just repeat the reasons given in the text or class, but add your own original support.

Think (and write) in paragraphs, not in sentences or pages. One sentence is never enough to constitute an argument with supporting reasons. If you find yourself going on for a page or more without a paragraph break, you can be sure that you are rambling and that your ideas are not sufficiently well organized. Paginate your paper. Avoid rhetorical questions (questions where no answer is expected because the author thinks the answer is obvious). Avoid vacuous introductions. Make sure your paper has a title that reflects what is in the paper.

My interest is not so much in what you argue for, but how you argue for it. It is the quality and depth of your reasons that I will evaluate. Better and deeper arguments are those to which it takes a lot of thought to respond. If there is an easy and obvious objection to your argument, then it's not a very strong one.

Never use another's words or ideas without quoting them or noting that you got them from someone else. Cite the reference in whatever format you have learned, but make sure that the reader could actually find you citation with the information given. (You need at least the author (of the book or article and if it is a article in a book, also provide the names of the editors of the book), title of the book or of the article and journal it is in, date of publication, publisher and page numbers). Talk to me first before you write the same paper or related paper to one you have or are writing for another course. Quotes need to be explained in your own words: Don't assume that the meaning of quotes are self evident. Proof read you paper using a dictionary before you turn it in. Papers with misspelled words or incoherent or ungrammatical sentences are not acceptable.

Be skeptical of internet sources and make it clear in your reference who is providing the information from the Internet site. (That is, list this person’s credentials or who the sponsor of the website is. Is it a refereed site?) Do not write a paper where all your references come from the Internet and there is no documentation of the quality of the sites you are using.

One typical way of writing a philosophy paper is to have an exposition section followed by a critical analysis section. In the exposition, you explain some position that you are interested in defending or criticizing. In the critical analysis section, do just that: critically evaluate the position you have just explained. Show why it is a good position (how it accounts for more than one might have thought) or explain its defects (why the position isn't tenable). These tasks can be done by bringing forth supporting examples or counter-examples, by giving arguments which support the position, or by presenting reasons against it. You don't have to come out either for or against a position you describe. A careful and thoughtful discussion of the positions strengths and weaknesses is perfectly appropriate.

Some Philosophical Argument Strategies

          Show how your opponent begs the question (presupposes what she is trying to prove). Make sure that your own arguments don't implicitly assume the very conclusion you are trying to establish.

          Shift the burden of proof onto your opponent. Since it is often harder to prove a point yourself, see if you can show that the burden of proof lies with your opponent. If so, then showing what is wrong with the arguments for the position you oppose may be a sufficient defense of your position.

          Find self-referential difficulties in your opponent's position. Show that something your opponent believes can be used against her own position (and in support of yours).

          Show that the opposing position leads to absurd consequences (that it entails positions that no one in their right mind would believe).

          Show that an opposing position is internally inconsistent (what your opponent says in one place is not compatible with what she says in another place).

          Reject or undercut distinctions or dichotomies your opponent relies on by showing how they obscure or hinder our understanding of the issue. Make distinctions your opponent ignores and show how this helps your position or undermines your opponents.


Some Virtues and Vices of Philosophical Writing (From Robert Solomon)

          Be thorough: sift through all the evidence and don't ignore possible alternative hypotheses or interpretations. Don't be neglectful, careless, or plainly ignorant.

          Be thoughtful, organized, and coherent: Have a thesis, plan ahead, don't just throw a lot of ideas together that don't add up to anything. Don't be disorganized or incoherent (when your ideas don't interrelate well) or self-contradictory.

          Try to argue for something significant or at least interesting and original: Have something to say that is new, surprising, or thought provoking. Don't be obvious, superficial, or boring (by making the same old points).

          Be clear or easy to understand.

          Be honest or fair: give proper credit to your sources, state the facts as you find them and don't make them up as you need them. Don't engage in intellectual dishonesty (when you say or argue for something you don't believe).

          Say what is true, or at least plausible. Don't be wrong, or even worse, ridiculous.

          Finally, make sure your paper is well argued and supported. Don't make dogmatic statements which are weakly supported or not argued for at all.


          Did you staple your paper proposal to the back?

          Did you keep a copy for yourself?

          Does the paper have a title?

          Is the paper paginated?

          Does it include (and use) a reference to an article/book that we did not read for class and that is either written by a philosopher or is in a philosophy journal (or at the very least a scholarly journal)?

          Is this reference fully cited? Author of the article, title of article, title of journal (or book and who edited or authored the book), date of publication, beginning and ending page of the article.

          Does it include class material/reading relevant to your topic?