how to write a philosophy paper

A philosophy paper aims to provide reasons in support of an answer to a question.  It doesn't aim to present the results of an experiment, summarize past research, produce beautiful prose, express your feelings, or tell the world what you did on Spring Break. (We already heard about that from your ex-best friend.  Whoa, baby!)  

Keeping this aim in mind right the way through the writing process is crucial to the success of your paper. The three most important pieces of paper-writing advice that we can give you spring directly from it:

1. Argue for a thesis. Your paper must attempt to establish a specific answer to the question that you are discussing. That answer is your "thesis". 

2. Support your claims. You must give the reader reasons to believe the points that you make in support of your thesis. Just stating them is not enough: you need to substantiate them.

3. Anticipate objections. If the question that you are discussing is at all interesting, other people will have answers to it that differ from yours, as well as objections to your own answer. To fully support your thesis, you therefore need to explain (respectfully) why these people are mistaken, both about the merits of their own position and about the demerits of yours.

That's your aim: a reasoned defense of a controversial thesis.  How do you go about achieving it?  Let's move on to Professor Pink’s fail-safe 10-step plan for paper perfection!

STEP 1. Choose a paper topic:
Think carefully about which of the assigned paper topics you find most interesting and which you have the most to say about.  Make sure that you understand what the question is asking and which material covered in class is relevant to answering it.  Ask your instructor to clarify the topic for you if you find any part of it ambiguous or unclear.

STEP 2. Review the relevant course materials: Look through your class notes and course readings to isolate those that are relevant to the topic you have chosen.  If you haven’t already done so, make notes in your own words on the main points and arguments covered.  Follow the advice on reading philosophy papers and active note-taking here.

STEP 3. Decide on your thesis: Read over your notes and jot down the ideas that occur to you in response to the arguments that you have studied.   Go back to your paper topic and consider what your thoughts on it are, now that you have re-familiarized yourself with the material studied in class. If your topic asks you to compare two different positions on a given issue, think about which of the positions you have studied you find most persuasive, and why.   If your topic asks you to explain and evaluate an author’s argument for a given conclusion, ask yourself some of the questions suggested here.   Try to settle on a broad answer to the paper topic early on.  Then try to get that answer clearer and more precise in your mind.  It’s fine to revise your thesis later on in the writing process, but you will only be able to do that successfully if you have a relatively well-defined thesis to begin with.

STEP 4. Outline your arguments in skeletal form.  Jot down your arguments for your thesis in short, succinct sentences.  Consider how an opponent might respond to them, note down those objections, and respond to them in turn.  Consider running your argument past a friend, family member or your instructor in order to ferret out further possible objections that you can then anticipate and respond to in your paper. 

STEP 5. Construct a paper outline.  Once you have settled on a provisional thesis, and on the arguments that you will make for it, think about how you will organize your paper in order to most clearly and effectively present your position.  You should aim for the following very general structure:

i. Introduction.  A good introduction is concise and to the point.  It ideally contains the following three elements:

(1) a description of the problem, question or issue your paper addresses

(2) a statement of your main thesis

(3) an outline of the structure of your paper.  

ii. The body of the paper.  This will standardly include:

(1) a brief exposition of the concepts, positions and arguments you aim to discuss

(2) your arguments in defense of your thesis

(3) a discussion of potential objections to your thesis and your responses to those objections.

iii. Conclusion.  The conclusion should restate your paper’s thesis and summarize the main argument(s) that you have used to support it.

Beyond that, there is no single correct way to organize a philosophy paper.  Different paper topics will invite different structures.  If your paper topic consists of 2 or 3 separate questions, sometimes it will be best to respond to those questions in the order given in the topic; other times it will be best to rearrange the order.  Sometimes you will decide to respond to points made by an author as you introduce them; other times you will find it best to outline an author’s position in its entirety and then go on to evaluate it in the following paragraph. Keep this in mind throughout:

“[Y]ou should aim at writing an orderly discussion supported by evidence, not a summary with occasional comment.  Similarly, if the scope of the discussion includes a number of works, as a rule it is better not to take them up singly in chronological order but to aim from the beginning at establishing general conclusions.”

Strunk and White (2005)

STEP 6. Write your paper: Write a first draft of your paper, following the outline that you have decided upon.  Write the body of the paper first, saving the introduction and conclusion for lastCheck that you follow each of the writing guidelines listed here. 

Writer's block?  Here are two pieces of advice that we've found useful:
  • Try the "All Caps Puke" technique.  Just start writing, in a free-flowing way, to get some of your ideas down on paper.  You can rearrange, amend, supplement or delete some of this material later (transforming it into lower-case letters when you want to keep it).
  • Organize the body of your paper into sections (each with its own heading or number) and work on different sections at different times.  You can either keep the section headings in the final piece of work or remove them before handing it in.

STEP 7. Set your paper aside for 1-2 days.  This step is very important, as it will allow you to come back to your paper with a fresh perspective and more critical eye.

STEP 8. Read and revise your paper. You should expect to go through at least two drafts of your paper before handing it in for comments, and a further draft after you have had the paper returned to you for revision (if required).  Don’t be afraid to revise your paper dramatically if you find that you have changed your mind or have missed an important point the first time around.  

STEP 9. Check for spelling mistakes and typos. Either using your own amazing self-correcting brain or a word processor's spell-and-grammar check.

STEP 10. Format your paper according to the guidelines provided.  Generally, papers should:

·      be double-spaced, in 12-point, readable font, with standard-sized margins

·      include page-numbers

·      provide a word count at the end

·      have your paper topic printed in full at the top of the first page

·      display your name and the name of your instructor in the top right-hand corner of each page.

"Yearning for more detail?  Why, you eager little whippersnapper, you!"