Philosophy Paper Guidelines

EMMER: General Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper
[ORGANIZATION, CONTENT, etc.: best to read this BEFORE writing]
O-1.) Your paper should have a TITLE which makes its BASIC POINT (THESIS) clear. Do not place it in quotation marks. (Please do not give your paper a title page or a plastic binder.)

O-2.) VAGUE, FLOATING GENERALIZATIONS make for irrelevant and boring OPENINGS. Avoid opening (or concluding) your paper with such sentences as, “For centuries, man has quested to know the nature of…” or, “Since the beginning of time, humanity has sought to discover...” Another sure-fire way to make your paper mediocre is to start it with these or similar words: “Many philosophers have thought many different things.” or “Different philosophers have had different opinions about different things.” Instead, start your paper by immediately getting to its point. Also: as a rule of thumb, it is not a good idea to start a paper with a dictionary definition — it is difficult to make a dictionary definition not feel like filler or a sign of desperation.

O-3.) If you are writing about a particular philosopher, do NOT heap EXCESSIVE PRAISE on him or her. Do not write, for instance, “The greatest philosopher of all time was Immanuel Kant.” Such praise does not necessarily impress your instructor. You are writing a philosophy paper, not an advertisement. Furthermore, such sentences are almost never relevant to the point the paper is making. Finally, such sentences are very difficult to support — in order to back up such a sentence, you would have to at least mention, and rule out, the generally recognized contenders, such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Hegel, Pierce, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Such a task would be a lot of work, and would almost certainly pull you from the point your paper should actually be making instead.

O-4.) CHOOSE your words CAREFULLY. Ask yourself if the word you are writing really is the right one for the task at hand. (And be sure that you know what a word means before you use it.) A favorite default word among students in introductory philosophy courses is “concept.” Often, in the very same paper, a doctrine, an argument, an opinion, a premise, a conclusion, an emotion, a sensation, are all identified indiscriminately as “concepts.” Why? Instead of saying “concept” when “emotion” or “argument” would be more precise, say “emotion” or “argument” (etc.). In addition, most philosophers at least attempt to give arguments for their positions instead of just spouting their opinions. Therefore, do not speak of their “opinions” unless you are discussing an idea which receives no direct (or indirect!) argumentation or which they have explicitly stated is merely an opinion or personal preference of theirs.

O-5.) On a related note: in philosophical writing especially, it is a BAD STRATEGY to VARY words (with or without a thesaurus) when you have the SAME CONCEPT in mind. Some high school teachers may encourage students to vary their words, but if you vary key terms in a piece of philosophical writing, the reader will usually assume that by this change in terms you mean to make a distinction between two different concepts. (If you are going to use different words for the same concept, tell your reader exactly which words you are using for which concept.)

O-6.) Heed the USE / MENTION distinction. If you are mentioning or discussing a word, rather than the entity to which that word refers, put the word in quotation marks. If you are discussing the entity itself, then you are using the word and it should be left out of quotation marks.
Thus: What I call “soda” my Canadian friends call “pop.” But: I drink too much soda.

O-7.) Have the right kind of READER in mind as you write. Imagine that you are writing for an idealized reader, one who has mastered English, understands the rules of argument and the conventions of rhetoric, knows a good deal about philosophy in general, but, for some reason, has managed to remain completely ignorant about the topic you are discussing for your paper. Thinking in this way, you will be forced to explain ideas the knowledge of which could be presupposed if you were writing the paper for someone who knew as much about the topic as your professor did. If you have to spell things out, it is much more likely that you will master them. Furthermore, it is better to be overly clear than to be overly murky. Since a tendency to be overly murky is more common, if you aim at being overly clear, you will probably land at just the right amount of clarity for a good paper.

O-8.) Unless you have been assigned to discuss a contemporary topic, try to avoid bringing up, for comparison, “modern society,” “today’s society,” “American society today,” etc. Try to appreciate the topic you are investigating on its own terms, rather than feeling compelled to make it “relevant” by seeing how it matches up to contemporary popular sentiments. Even if you have been asked to apply a philosophical idea to a contemporary situation or debate, make sure that you discuss something from today which has a strong and clear connection to the particular philosophical idea you are working with, and discuss something specific and concrete instead of floating generalizations (for example, connect the idea to the specific problem of anorexia or a particular discussion of ethics from a specific editorial rather than “people today” or “the way people see things nowadays” — see above).

O-9.) DO NOT SIMPLY LIST IDEAS from the philosopher you are discussing. The paper should not consist of a random list of whatever you can remember about the philosopher in question. Rather, in papers which discuss a particular thinker, you should mention and discuss those ideas of the philosopher which either a.) make the context for your discussion clear; b.) directly move your argument forward; or c.) give support to one of its points. If the connection between some idea of Kant’s, say, and the argument you are making is not clear, spell it out for the reader so that it is not assumed that you did not see it yourself.

O-10.) Remember that, ideally, EVERY PART of the paper — title, paragraph, sentence — should CONTRIBUTE to the ARGUMENT OR THESIS of the paper. When the function of a paragraph is not obvious to the reader, make it clear. Make sure you know what the function of each paragraph is! Parts of the paper that do not function in an obvious way for the wider argument should be revised to do so or eliminated. Furthermore, the reader should always understand why something is being mentioned at that place in the paper — in other words, the order which the ideas are following in the paper should be either intuitively obvious or spelled out for the reader. Use transitional devices to help make clear what each part of the paper is doing. (A transitional device is a phrase which makes the connection to the previous element clear, such as the phrases, “On the other hand, …”; “But this point raises a question…”; “But why should that be the case?”, etc. Transitional devices should not be simply thrown into a paper, however, since they would then make the paper more confusing and less organized.)
*Some ideas here have been borrowed wholesale from a similar guide written by Justin Smith 2009 version “b”
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    EMMER: General Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper [STYLE, GRAMMAR, PUNCTUATION, etc.: best for use AFTER first drafts finished]

This sheet is not a substitute for a good style manual
, but it covers the most common mistakes, which (along with the less common mistakes) I do not expect to see in your papers. Tip: to avoid getting stuck because you are worried about making mistakes, write your paper first, and only correct the penultimate draft for such mistakes.

S-1.) The paper should be written in academic (standard English, somewhat elevated) prose; therefore you should avoid double negatives (“He did not read nothing.”), contractions (“He didn’t read anything.”), and “you” for “one,” unless you are actually giving instructions to the reader (“It is difficult for you to understand.”).

S-2.) “Its” vs. “it’s”
        its = the possessive (e.g., “Its position is hardly assured.”).
        it’s = it is (e.g., “It looks like it’s going to rain”) but note that you should not be using contractions in any case.
        Extra note: in English, we usually indicate the plural with an “s,” without an apostrophe ( ’ ).
            Therefore: not “We made many shoe’s,” but instead “We made many shoes.”

S-3.) Sentence fragments
        not “John Chrysostom was taken to the amphitheater. Where they cut off his head.”
        (In this ↑ example, the word “where” begins a dependent clause, which cannot stand on its own.)

        But instead “John Chrysostom was taken to the amphitheater, where they cut off his head.”
         or “John Chrysostom was taken to the amphitheater. There they cut off his head.”

        not “Irenaeus attacked the gnostics. Fulminating and seething with every word.”
                                    (In this ↑ example, the second “sentence” lacks a subject or active verb.)

        But instead “Irenaeus attacked the gnostics, fulminating and seething with every word.”
        or “Irenaeus attacked the gnostics. He fulminated and seethed with every word.”
        or “Irenaeus attacked the gnostics, and he fulminated and seethed with every word.”

S-4.) Run-on sentences (also called a “comma splice”) — joining two sentences with a comma
            not “Kant wrote a universalist moral theory, Aristotle wrote a non-universalist ethics.”

            But instead “Kant wrote a universalist moral theory. Aristotle wrote a non-universalist ethics.”
            or “Kant wrote a universalist moral theory; Aristotle wrote a non-universalist ethics.”
            or “Kant wrote a universalist moral theory, and Aristotle wrote a non-universalist ethics.”

S-5.) Book, newspaper, and magazine titles are indicated with italics, and titles of articles by quotation marks                  Therefore:
          Plato’s Republic / the Republic by Plato / Smith’s article, “Aristotle Lives,” in the New York Times

S-6.) Quotation marks used with periods and commas (the punctuation precedes the final quotation mark)
            [Look at the examples above. Exception: with citation in parentheses — see examples below.]

S-7.) Cite ideas and words from other people, placing them in quotation marks in the case of their exact words (see the note on plagiarism from the syllabus). Be sure to cite also even when paraphrasing or simply referring to others’ ideas. (Look to almost any published academic article for examples. It is better to cite too much than not enough.)
            According to Kant, the virtues of character “are far from being properly described as good without qualification” (61, orig. 394).

S-8.) In series of more than two items, place a comma after every item but the last.*
            Orthodox Christians valued freedom, universality, and equality.

S-9.) Introduce quotations or work them into a sentence, instead of just dropping them in unannounced.
        As Kant points out, “This principle of humanity … as an end in itself … is not borrowed from experience” (98, orig. 430-431).
        Kant claims that committing suicide “is entirely opposed to the supreme principle of all duty” (89, orig. 422).

S-10.)
Be sure to check the spelling of your words. At the very least take advantage of the spell-checker bundled with any good word-processing program. But don’t use it lazily, or else it might replace a wrongly spelled word with an incorrect homophone (e.g., it might replace “perr” with “pear” when what you needed was “pair”). If you’re not sure, look it up.


* This rule is not universally recognized, but I think it should be (it makes the writer’s understanding of what counts as an “item” clear). At any rate, I expect you to follow it in papers written for me, if not everywhere else!
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