A Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers

A Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers

By Tadeusz Zawidzki

Associate Professor of Philosophy

George Washington University

Overview

In some respects, writing an undergraduate-level philosophy paper is not unlike writing an undergraduate-level paper in any of the other humanities or social sciences.  In fact, one could argue that philosophical writing should act as a model for writing in other disciplines.  This is because one of the central aims of western philosophy, since its inception in Ancient Greece, almost two and a half millennia ago, has been to lay bare the structure of all forms of argument, and most undergraduate writing, in any subject, requires the use of argument to defend claims.  However, there are also important differences between the writing styles appropriate to philosophical papers and papers in other subjects.  Most notably, philosophy papers usually focus more on logical structure than on content: the point is not to synopsize exhaustive literature reviews, but, rather, to focus as much as possible on relatively narrow sets of claims, and investigate their logical inter-relations.  Philosophers are less interested in exhaustive cataloging of the latest information on a topic, than in the relations of logical, argumentative support that well-established claims bear to each other, and to certain enduring, controversial claims, like the claim that God exists.

In the following, I provide a four-part guide to writing an undergraduate-level philosophy paper.  First, I explain what philosophical arguments are, and how they can be evaluated.  The point of any philosophy paper is to formulate and/or evaluate philosophical arguments, so this brief, rudimentary discussion is essential as a starting point.  Second, I explain the structure and style appropriate for a philosophy paper.  Third, I give students some ideas about how to choose a topic and formulate a writing plan appropriate to a philosophy paper.  Fourth, and finally, I provide a short primer on logic, which can help students formulate and evaluate philosophical arguments.

Before proceeding, let me remark about the scope of this guide.  Although it is intended as a guide to writing philosophy papers for any philosophy WID class, many philosophy instructors would disagree with at least some part of what follows.  Western philosophy has been dominated by two divergent traditions for the last two hundred years or so: the “continental” tradition and the “analytic” or “Anglo-American” tradition.  The former is associated primarily with philosophers from continental Europe, especially Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault.  The latter is associated primarily with philosophers who worked in the UK and the US (though many of its most prominent representatives are German natives).  Frege, Russell, Carnap, Austin, Grice, Strawson, and Quine, are among the most famous figures associated with this tradition.  Although it is difficult to briefly characterize the difference between these two traditions, roughly speaking, while the analytic tradition takes logic, mathematics, and science as models for doing philosophy, the continental tradition is more literary and impressionistic in its approach to philosophical problems.  I am trained in the analytic tradition, and the following writing guidelines reflect this.  Thus, before using this as a guide to your philosophical writing, make sure that your class and instructor are in the analytic tradition.  Although much of the advice I offer below is, I hope, relevant to classes in the continental tradition, it might also seriously misrepresent philosophical writing as understood from the continental perspective.

Even within the analytic tradition, there can be substantive disagreements about student writing.  For example, a colleague who works in the analytic tradition read an earlier draft of this guide and was, for the most part, impressed; however, he disagreed with my view that external sources are better paraphrased than directly cited.  Although I think most instructors working in the analytic tradition would agree with most of the guidelines I provide below, you should have your instructor skim them to make sure that he or she does not take exception to any of them.  As a guide to an initial, rough, paper draft, the following is, I think, an invaluable resource.  Subsequent drafts should incorporate specific comments from the instructor whose class you are taking.

1. Philosophical Arguments

Understanding Arguments

The point of a philosophical paper is to make and evaluate philosophical arguments.  ‘Argument’ is a term of art in philosophy.  It means more than a mere dispute.  An argument, as philosophers use this term, is a set of claims, that is, a set of declarative sentences (sentences which can be true or false).  One of the claims is the conclusion of the argument: that which the argument attempts to prove.  The other claims are the premises of the argument: the reasons that are given in support of the conclusion.  The conclusion is a relatively controversial claim that the author aims to establish on the basis of relatively uncontroversial premises.  For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, famously provides five ways to prove the existence of God.  The conclusion of Aquinas’s arguments is that God exists – a controversial claim.  He tries to establish this conclusion on the basis of less controversial premises, e.g., that objects are in motion, that anything in motion must have been put in motion by a different thing already in motion, and that this chain of causes must begin at some point.

Because the construction and evaluation of arguments is the point of a philosophy paper, clarity, precision, and organization are of paramount importance.  One cannot determine whether or not some set of premises supports a conclusion unless both premises and conclusion are formulated clearly and precisely.  For example, consider the following argument: “Laws can be repealed by the legislature.  Gravity is a law.  Therefore, gravity can be repealed by the legislature.”   On one level, this argument appears to make sense: it appears to have the same form as many sound arguments, like, “Beverages can be warmed in the microwave.  Tea is a beverage.  Therefore, tea can be warmed in the microwave.”  However, there is obviously something wrong with the first argument.  The problem is that the world “law” is used in two different senses: in the first premise and the conclusion, it means roughly the same as “social rule enacted by political means”, while in the second premise, it means roughly the same as “natural law”.  Because the word “law”, as it is used in the second premise, means something entirely different from its use in the conclusion, the premise is of no relevance to the conclusion, and so, provides no logical support for it.  This shows why it is so important to be as precise and clear as possible in philosophical writing.  Words often mean different things in different contexts, and, unless their meaning is made as clear and precise as possible, it is impossible to tell whether or not the claims words are used to formulate support each other.

Organization is important to make clear the complex logical relations that different claims bear to each other.  Consider Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God, to which I allude above.  The conclusion is that God exists.  The premises are that objects are in motion, that objects can be put in motion only by other objects already in motion, that there is a chain of causes extending into the past, and that if this chain of causes were infinite then there would be no motion.  But how, exactly, do these premises conspire to establish the conclusion that God exists?  The key to answering this question is appreciating the structure or organization of the argument.  The structure of philosophical arguments can often be captured in a kind of flow-chart diagram.  Each ‘node’ is a claim (premise or conclusion), and links between nodes represent logical support.  So, for example, in Aquinas’s First Way, the node which represents the premise that objects are in motion does not link directly to the node which represents the conclusion: how can the claim that objects are in motion, alone, give sufficient logical support for the claim that God exists?  After all, atheists acknowledge that objects are in motion, yet deny that God exists.

The structure of Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God is approximated in the following diagram.

Note that the claim that objects are in motion (premise 1) must be joined with the claim that objects in motion are put in motion by other objects already in motion (premise 2), in order to support the claim that there is a causal chain of objects in motion extending into the past (premise 3), which constitutes the “sub-conclusion” of this “sub-argument”.  Premise 3 must then be joined with premise 5 – the claim that this causal chain begins at some point – in order to support the claim that there is a first cause responsible for all the motion in the world, identified by Aquinas as God (premise 6).  But premise 5 is not obvious on its own.  It needs support from still other premises.  For example, Aquinas claims that if there were no start to this chain of causes, none of the subsequent causes would occur (premise 4).  Together with premise 1, premise 4 then supports premise 5, which, together with premises 3 and 6, supports the claim that there must be a first cause, namely, God (C).  So premise 5 is another “sub-conclusion” of a “sub-argument”, which supports the ultimate conclusion (C).

The lesson from this example is that different claims have complicated relations of support to each other.  Some premises support the conclusion only when conjoined with other premises.  And other premises are like “sub-conclusions”, which must be supported by still other premises in “sub-arguments”, before they can be used to help establish the ultimate conclusion.  Since the goal of writing an undergraduate philosophy paper is to formulate and evaluate arguments, organization is crucial.  The author must make clear for the reader not just what the different premises and conclusions claim, but, also, how they relate to each other, that is, in what way they support each other.

Evaluating Arguments

There are only two ways that any argument can go wrong.  An argument is good when its premises count as good reasons for its conclusion.  What makes a premise a good reason for a conclusion?  First, the premise must be true, or at least more plausible than the conclusion.  For example, suppose I argue for the conclusion that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions on the basis of the following premises: the Bruins are likely the next Stanley Cup Champions, and they are based in Washington DC.  This argument fails because at least one of its premises is false: the Bruins are based in Boston, not Washington DC.  However, sometimes even true premises fail to qualify as good reasons for a conclusion.  For example, suppose I argue for the conclusion that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions on the basis of the following premises: the Redskins are likely the next Superbowl Champions, and they are based in Washington DC.  Here, the latter premise is true, and the previous premise may very well be true.  However, the argument is still bad.  The reason is that, even if these premises are true, they do not support the conclusion.  The claims that the Redskins are likely the next Superbowl Champions and that the Redskins are based in Washington DC, are irrelevant to the conclusion: the claim that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions.  So, there are two ways any argument can go wrong: either the premises it offers in support of its conclusion are false or implausible, or, even if they are true, they fail to support the conclusion because, for example, they are irrelevant to the conclusion.

Any philosophical writer must constantly keep these two potential pitfalls of argumentation in mind, both in formulating her own arguments and in evaluating the arguments of others.  Undergraduate philosophy papers are often devoted exclusively to evaluating the arguments of well-known philosophers.  Such critical papers must be guided by four basic questions: (1) What, precisely, do the premises and conclusion claim? (2) How, precisely, are the premises supposed to support the conclusion, i.e., what is the organization/structure of the argument? (3) Are the premises true/plausible? (4) Do the premises provide adequate support for the conclusion?  Note that philosophical critiques of arguments seldom attack the conclusion directly.  Rather, the conclusion is undermined by showing the premises to be false or implausible, or by showing that the premises, even if true, do not provide adequate support for the conclusion.  Conclusions are attacked directly only on the grounds of imprecision or lack of clarity.

Despite the fact that arguments can be criticized on the grounds that their premises are false or implausible, most philosophical writing is focused not on determining the truth of premises, but, rather, on determining whether or not premises provide strong enough support for conclusions.  There are three reasons for this.  First, the most enduring philosophical arguments take as little for granted as possible: they rely on premises that are maximally uncontroversial – likely to be accepted by everyone – in order to prove conclusions that are controversial.  Second, most philosophers have a strong background in logic.  Logic is the science of argument: it aims to identify what all good arguments have in common and what all bad arguments have in common.  But logic can be used only to evaluate the support that premises provide for a conclusion, never the truth or plausibility of the premises themselves.  Any argument must take some claims as unargued starting points; otherwise, the argument could never get off the ground, as any premise would require a prior argument to be established.  But logic can evaluate only arguments, so it cannot be used to evaluate the unargued starting premises with which any argument must begin.  Third, the premises upon which many arguments depend often depend on observation, either in everyday life, or in specialized, scientific contexts such as experiments.  But philosophers are not, for the most part, trained in experimental methodologies.  They are trained in determining what follows logically from experimental results established in science or from common, everyday observations.

I discuss strategies for evaluating and formulating philosophical arguments in more detail below, in section 4.  Now I turn to the structure and style appropriate for a philosophy paper.

2. Appropriate Structure and Style for a Philosophy Paper

Organizing the Paper

Although the philosophical canon includes a wide variety of styles and structures, including argumentative essays, axiomatically-organized systems of propositions, dialogs, confessions, meditations, historical narratives, and collections of aphorisms, most of these styles and structures are inappropriate for the novice, undergraduate, philosophical writer.  Because the main concern of undergraduate philosophical writing is the formulation and evaluation of arguments, style and structure must be chosen with these goals in mind.  As we have seen, precision, clarity, and organization are key to the understanding, formulation, and evaluation of arguments.  If one’s language is not clear and precise, it is impossible to know what claims are being made, and therefore, impossible to determine their logical inter-relations.  If one’s arguments are not clearly organized, it is difficult to determine how the different premises of an argument conspire to support its conclusion.  As we saw above, with the example of Aquinas’ First Way to prove the existence of God, arguments are often composed of “sub-arguments” defending “sub-conclusions” that constitute premises in overall arguments.  Unless such logical structure is perspicuously represented in a philosophy paper, the reader will lose track of the relevance that different claims bear to each other, and the paper will fail to enlighten the reader.

The best way to impose clarity and structure on a philosophy paper is to begin with a brief, clear, and concise introduction, outlining the organization of the rest of the paper.  This introduction should be treated as a “map” of the rest of the paper that will prepare the reader for what is to follow.  Alternatively, one may think of it as a “contract” with the reader: the author promises to discuss such and such related claims, in such and such an order.  The introduction should make clear the logical inter-relations between the different claims that the paper will defend, and the order in which the claims will be discussed.  With such an outline in hand, the writer can then organize the rest of the paper into numbered, sub-titled sub-sections, each devoted to the different parts of her argument, in the order outlined in the introduction.  This helps maintain focus and clarity throughout the paper for the reader.

One of the greatest pitfalls in philosophical writing is distraction by tangential topics.  Philosophical themes are extremely broad, and many of them are relevant to almost anything.  So it is very tempting for a novice philosophical writer (and even for seasoned veterans) to stray from her original topic in the course of writing the paper.  This throws the writer’s main goal – that of clearly articulating an argument capable of convincing a reader – into jeopardy; however, this danger can be avoided if the writer makes clear in the introduction exactly what components of a topic, and in what order, she intends to discuss and why, and then uses this to organize the rest of the paper.  If the writer does this, readers should know exactly “where they are” in the overall argument, at any point in the paper, simply by noting the number and title of the sub-section they are reading, and referring to the introduction to understand its role in the paper’s overall argument.

A good introduction to a 10-page philosophy paper should take up no more than two-thirds of a page.  It should accomplish three main objectives: (1) setting up the context for the paper, i.e., which philosophical debate or topic is the focus, (2) expressing the thesis of the paper, i.e., the conclusion it aims to defend, and (3) explaining, in broad terms, how the paper aims to defend this conclusion, i.e., what are the components of the argument, and in what order they will be discussed.  The first objective, setting up the context, often requires reference to historically important philosophers known for defending claims related to the thesis of the paper.  The components of the argument might include, first, an overview of how others have argued for or against the thesis, then a few sections on different assumptions made in these arguments, then a section in which the author provides her own argument for the thesis, and then a conclusion.

Consider the following example of an introduction to a paper about Aquinas’ First Way to prove the existence of God.

Aquinas, famously, provides five arguments for the existence of God.  In the following, I focus on his First Way to prove the existence of God: the argument from motion.  The claim that there can be no causal chains extending infinitely into the past plays a crucial role in this argument.  In this paper, I argue against this claim, thereby undermining Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God.  First, I explain Aquinas’s argument, and the role that the claim about infinite causal chains plays in it.  Second, I explain Aquinas’s defense of this claim.  Third, I raise three objections to this defense.  I conclude by drawing some broader lessons for the question of God’s existence.

Notice that, despite its brevity, this introduction is very specific and clear regarding what the author intends to accomplish in the paper.  The thesis is stated clearly and concisely.  Brief reference to Aquinas, his five proofs for the existence of God, and the specific proof on which the paper focuses provide necessary context.  Specificity and clarity are aided further with the use of numbering.  The reader knows to expect four sections following the introduction, and she knows exactly what each section will try to accomplish, and its role in the overall project of the paper.  She knows to expect three objections to the argument that is the main target of the paper, in the third section after the introduction.  And the writer can now easily structure the paper into five, numbered sub-sections (including the introduction), with appropriate titles, meant to periodically remind the reader of where she is in the overall argument.

When the writer starts with such a well-defined structure, it is relatively easy to avoid the pitfall of tangential distractions.  Beginning with such an introduction is not meant to be unreasonably constraining.  In the course of writing the paper, an author might revise her thinking about the topic, and be forced to reconceptualize the paper.  She would then have to begin by revising the introduction, and, consequently, the organization of the paper.  This is a natural part of paper revision.  So, the introduction should not be treated as though it were written in stone.  In early drafts, the introduction should serve as a provisional source of constraint for organizing one’s thoughts about the topic.  As one’s thoughts evolve, the introduction can be rewritten, and the paper reorganized, to reflect this.  But beginning with an introduction that specifies the organization of the paper in substantial detail serves as an important constraint on one’s writing and thinking, insuring that one’s topic is investigated systematically.

Style

1. Plain Language for a Non-Specialist Audience: Much canonical philosophy is opaque and difficult to understand for the novice.  A common reaction to this in undergraduate writing is the use of obscure “academic-sounding” language, of which students have only minimal mastery, in an attempt to sound intelligent and equal to the task of explaining and criticizing canonical philosophical arguments.  This must be avoided at all costs.  Good philosophy papers must employ clear, plain language, in short sentences and short, well-organized paragraphs.  It is impossible to evaluate the cogency of arguments unless they are expressed in terms that are easily understood.  Students must not assume that instructors know in what senses they intend esoteric, philosophical vocabulary, nor what lessons they have drawn from the sources they have been reading.  Unless a student can express and defend claims using words with which they, and any educated layperson are familiar, it is doubtful that they fully understand these claims.  Students should write for an imagined audience composed of family members, friends and acquaintances.  They should use words that any educated, non-specialist would understand in order to explain the more opaque canonical arguments their papers discuss, and in order to formulate their own responses to these arguments.  This attitude both insures that the language students use is clear and precise, and shows the instructor the degree to which students have understood the more opaque canonical arguments they discuss.

2. Illustration with Examples: One of the most important components of a good undergraduate philosophy paper is the copious use of concrete, everyday examples to illustrate abstract and sometimes obscure philosophical points.  For example, the claim that a moving object must be put in motion by a different object already in motion is one of the key assumptions of Aquinas’s first argument for the existence of God.  But this is a fairly abstract and potentially confusing way of expressing a familiar fact.  Such abstract and potentially obscure means of expression are inevitable in philosophy because philosophers aim to defend maximally general conclusions: claims that are true in all circumstances, everywhere and always.  In order to defend such general claims, familiar observations must be couched in the most general terms possible, and this often invites obscurity.  Undergraduate philosophical writers must clarify such potentially confusing language by appeal to concrete, everyday examples.

For example, Aquinas’ claim about the causes of motion is actually a claim about the causes of any change in any object, including what we typically call “motion,” like a rolling ball, and other changes, like the rising temperature in a heated pan of water.  A student should make this clear by illustrating Aquinas’s claim with such everyday examples.  For example, one might write something like, “Aquinas claims that every moving or changing object is caused to move or change by a different object that is already in motion or changing.  For example, a rolling ball is caused to move by a kick from a swinging foot, or a boiling pan of water is caused to boil by a flame giving off heat.”  Such illustration of abstract philosophical principles with concrete, everyday examples serves two extremely important functions.  First, it makes one’s exposition and evaluation of others’ arguments clear and tangible for the reader.  Second, it shows one’s instructor that one has understood obscure yet crucial philosophical assumptions in one’s own terms.

3. The Principle of Charity: The point of any work of philosophy, from the most canonical treatise to the humblest undergraduate effort, is to determine which claims are supported by the best reasons.  The point is not to persuade some particular audience of some claim using rhetoric.  Philosophers always aim at identifying the best possible reasons to believe some claim.  For this reason, when criticizing the arguments of others, philosophical writers should adhere to a principle of extreme charity.  They should interpret arguments with which they disagree in the most favorable terms possible.  Only then can they be sure that they have done their utmost to identify the truth of the matter.  Criticism is inevitable in an undergraduate philosophy paper.  In order to responsibly defend some conclusion, the student must give a thorough overview of what others have said about it, criticizing those with whom she disagrees.  But students must bend over backwards to insure that these criticisms are fair.  Since her goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter, a student author must not stack the deck against those with whom she disagrees.  She must empathize with her antagonists; appreciating as deeply as possible the reasons why they disagree with the conclusion she defends.  This puts the student author in a position to criticize those with whom she disagrees fairly and responsibly.

Consider, once more, Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God.  It is relatively easy to criticize this argument by appeal to modern physics.  Aquinas assumes that every object in motion must have been put into motion by another object already in motion.  But he was working with pre-Newtonian physics.  According to post-Newtonian physics, an object can be in uniform motion without being acted upon by an outside force.  So, technically, Aquinas’s premise is false.  However, this is a nit-picky point that is unfair to Aquinas, and misses the spirit of his argument.  Aquinas’s argument from motion can easily be rephrased as an argument from acceleration to make it compatible with post-Newtonian physics.  Even if uniform motion does not require an external force, acceleration does, and once Aquinas’ premise is rephrased to respect this, the rest of the argument proceeds as before.  Anyone seeking to criticize Aquinas’s argument is well served by considering the most charitable possible interpretation.  If fatal flaws remain even after one has bent over backwards to accommodate Aquinas’s ignorance of later developments in physics, etc., one’s critique of his argument is more effective.

4. Self-Criticism: There is another implication of the philosopher’s commitment to discovering the claims that are supported by the best reasons, as opposed to just winning arguments.  Works of philosophy must include self-criticism.  The responsible philosophical author is always cognizant of potential pitfalls in her own arguments, and possible responses by antagonists she criticizes.  In the course of criticizing an opposing view on some matter, a philosophical writer must always consider how her target might respond.  In the course of defending some claim, a philosophical writer must always anticipate and respond to possible objections.  Papers by professional philosophers often include whole sections devoted entirely to possible objections to the theses they defend.  It is a good idea for undergraduate philosophical writers to follow this example: often, it is useful for the penultimate section of a paper to address possible criticisms of or responses to the arguments provided earlier in the paper.  Not only does this constitute a fair and responsible way of writing philosophy, it helps the student think about her own views critically, improving the final product.

5. Undermining an Argument Vs. Criticizing a Conclusion: Suppose I raise some insurmountable problems for Aquinas’s first argument for the existence of God.  It is important to keep in mind that this is not the same as arguing against the existence of God.  Just because one argument for the existence of God fails, does not mean that there are not other arguments for the existence of God that succeed.  Students should not think that criticizing an argument requires disagreeing with its conclusion.  Some of the greatest critics of certain arguments for the existence of God were themselves theists.  In fact, if you agree with the conclusion of a bad argument, it makes sense to criticize the argument, showing where it is weak; this can help you construct an alternative argument that avoids this problem.    Criticizing an argument is never the same as arguing against its conclusion.  To criticize an argument is to show that its premises do not provide adequate support for its conclusion, not to show that its conclusion is false.  In order to do the latter, one must provide a new argument that supports the claim that the conclusion is false.  For example, in order to show that God does not exist, it is not enough to show that no arguments for God’s existence are sound; one must also provide positive reasons to deny God’s existence.

An analogy to criminal trials makes this distinction clear.  The goal of the prosecution in a criminal trial is to prove that the defendant is guilty.  They must construct an argument that provides good reasons for this conclusion.  However, the goal of the defense in a criminal trial is not to prove that the defendant is innocent.  Rather, the defense aims to criticize the prosecution’s argument, to show that the reasons provided by the prosecution for the conclusion that the defendant is guilty are not strong enough to support this conclusion, because there remains a reasonable doubt that this conclusion is true.  The difference between the tasks of the prosecution and the defense in a criminal trial parallels the distinction between arguing against (or for) a conclusion, and merely criticizing an argument for a conclusion.  Students should keep this distinction in mind when writing philosophy papers.  When they are defending any conclusion, e.g., that God exists or that God does not exist, they must provide arguments for this conclusion, much as the prosecution must provide evidence and reasons that prove the defendant guilty.  When students are criticizing an argument, they are not defending the denial of the argument’s conclusion.  Rather, like the defense in a criminal trial, they are merely undermining the reasons given for the conclusion.

6. References: Undergraduate philosophy papers must be grounded in relevant and reputable philosophical literature.  Attributing claims to others, including canonical philosophers or discussions of them in the secondary literature, must be supported by references to appropriate sources.  However, direct quotation should, on balance, be avoided.  Instructors are interested in whether or not students understand difficult philosophical concepts and claims in their own terms.  For this reason, paraphrase is usually the best way to cite a source.  Using one’s own words to express a point one has read elsewhere, however, does not excuse one from referring to one’s source.  Any time a substantial claim is attributed to another person, whether or not one uses the person’s own words, the source should be referenced.  There are occasions when direct quotations are appropriate, for example, when one is defending a controversial interpretation of some philosopher’s argument, and the precise wording of her claims is important.

It is important for a student author to get a sense of what the recent philosophical conversation about a specific topic has been.  Otherwise, she has no way of knowing how to contribute to it. There are many ways for a student to explore the philosophical literature relevant to a topic she has chosen.  It is advisable to begin with readings assigned for class.  Textbooks, most recent philosophical journal articles, and recent secondary literature usually include detailed lists of references, which provide a useful guide to the relevant literature.  Works cited in multiple places are particularly good sources for students to consult. The Philosopher’s Index and the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are good on-line starting points for exploring the philosophical literature. These sources provide references to recent articles written about most philosophical topics.  Students may also want to explore less specialized internet-based resources, like Google Scholar.  However, one must be careful with on-line content.  Many web-based resources are not subject to appropriate professional review, and are therefore unreliable. Students must insure that the claims they make are supported by recent, reputable philosophical literature.  Simply asking one’s instructor can assuage any worries about whether or not a paper draft meets this standard.

As for citation format, philosophers are generally flexible: some journals require Chicago Style formatting, while others require MLA style.  Most instructors will accept any style as long as it is used correctly and consistently.  So students should consult their instructors about which citation format to follow.  Non-standard sources like websites and lecture notes should also be cited in a format that instructors approve.

7. The First Person Pronoun: In high school composition classes, students are often taught to avoid using the first-person pronoun, “I”.  The reasoning behind this is that use of “I” tends to encourage the expression of subjective opinions, whereas the goal of much essay writing is to provide an objective defense of some thesis.  However, this rule of thumb is an overly blunt instrument.  Certain uses of the “I” are typical of academic, philosophical writing.  For example, authors often express their plans for a paper, e.g., the thesis they intend to defend, using the first-person pronoun, as I did in the sample introduction provided above.  As long as the “I” is used in the context of laying out one’s intended plan for the paper, or circumscribing the scope of one’s claims, it is entirely appropriate.  For example, it is entirely legitimate to write, “In the following, I defend Aquinas’s Fifth Way to prove the existence of God against a common criticism.  However, space limitations preclude me from considering every version of this criticism, so I focus exclusively on Hume’s.”  The spirit behind the “anti-‘I’” rule must, however, be respected.  Students must avoid expressing subjective opinions.  Expressions like “I feel that …”, or “It seems to me that …”, or “In my experience…” should be avoided.  The point of a philosophy paper is to defend a thesis by appeal to objective reasons, that is, reasons that any reasonable person should accept.

8. The Present Tense: Another stylistic feature that is typical of philosophical writing is the almost exclusive use of the present tense.  Tense consistency is often a challenge for undergraduate writers: often past, present, and future tenses are used within the same sentence or paragraph.  This must be avoided.  In philosophy papers, the rule of thumb is: always use the present tense, even when discussing arguments proposed by philosophers in the past.  The fact that some argument, for the existence of God for example, was first proposed in the past is irrelevant for philosophical purposes.  Arguments are treated as timeless contributions to the philosophical conversation, and students should treat canonical arguments as though they still constitute persuasive reasons for believing some claim.  Thus, in the introduction provided as an example above, I write, “Aquinas, famously, provides five arguments for the existence of God.”  The present tense should always be used when explaining any philosopher’s argument, any reason he or she provides for accepting some conclusion.  This simple rule also insures tense consistency.  In the rare circumstance in which some kind of historical context must be provided, e.g., a discussion of Descartes’ education by Jesuits, the past tense may be appropriate.  But such circumstances are exceptional because philosophy papers focus on the timeless arguments that have been provided in defense of claims that are still controversial, not on the historical details or biographies that led particular philosophers to formulate these arguments.

9. Repeating Words vs. Using Synonyms: Another rule-of-thumb often promulgated in high school composition classes prescribes the use of synonyms over repetition of the same word.  The motivation for this is clear: when students are forced to avoid repeating words, they must search for synonyms and this helps expand their vocabulary.  However, by the time a student enrolls in a University-level philosophy course, her vocabulary should be sufficiently developed.  Philosophy instructors value clarity and precision far above conspicuous displays of vocabulary.  This is because, as we saw above, the soundness of an argument often depends on the precise meanings of the terms with which it is expressed.  The meanings of so-called “synonyms” often vary in very subtle, nuanced ways.  And these variations in meaning are often very significant in the context of philosophical arguments.  Consider for example the words “liberty” and “freedom”.  In some contexts, these words are interchangeable; they constitute synonyms.  However, there are many philosophical contexts in which these words are not interchangeable.  For example, the question of whether or not our decisions are free, or determined by our genetic endowment and environmental influences is a perennial philosophical puzzle.  However, “freedom of the will” cannot be paraphrased as “liberty of the will”.  The reason is that “liberty” has certain connotations which restrict its use to political contexts, while “freedom” can be used to characterize both political freedom, and freedom from natural constraints, like one’s genetic endowment, as well.  Substituting the word “freedom” with the word “liberty” in a philosophy paper would only compromise clarity: the reader would not know whether freedom from political or from natural constraints was at issue.  For this reason, it is best to repeat precisely the same terms for the same key concepts throughout a philosophy paper.

3. Strategies for Choosing a Topic and Formulating Arguments

Philosophical creativity and imagination, like their scientific or artistic counterparts, are mysterious.  It is difficult to formulate rules for coming up with topics and arguments for philosophy papers.  Different individuals will succeed at this task in different ways.  Here, I discuss three broad strategies for conceiving and composing an undergraduate philosophy paper; however, this list is not meant to be exhaustive.  Philosophy papers can be characterized as (1) narrow focus papers, (2) broad focus papers, and (3) application papers.

Narrow Focus Papers

The narrow focus strategy is perhaps the most straightforward strategy for composing a philosophy paper.  The point of such a paper is to focus as much as possible on a specific argument by a specific philosopher and to discuss the strengths and weakness of this specific argument.  One begins by correctly explaining the target argument.  Then one raises objections, either by showing that one or more of the premises is false or implausible, or by showing that the premises, even if true, fail to support the conclusion.  One then considers how the author of argument might respond to these criticisms, and ends by replying to these responses.  In the course of writing such a focused, critical analysis, the student should include a survey of other criticisms that have been raised, and make clear how her criticism is unique.

Such papers can be extremely narrow.  For example, they might focus on just one premise, or sub-argument of a larger argument.  The introduction provided as an example above focuses just on Aquinas’ argument that there can be no causal chains extending infinitely into the past.  The focus is on just one crucial sub-argument of one of Aquinas’s five arguments for the existence of God.  Another possibility is to look at some historical debate about a particular premise of some canonical argument, and contribute to it.  For example, one might consider one objection of an early critic of Aquinas’s arguments, imagine how Aquinas might reply to this objection, and then raise an improved objection of one’s own, for which this reply does not work.  Or one might look at a classic criticism of some premise Aquinas uses in an argument, and offer a novel response on behalf of Aquinas.

Another kind of narrow focus paper concerns philosophical definitions.  One of the principal projects of canonical philosophy, since Plato, has been the attempt to define philosophically important concepts, such as TRUTH, JUSTICE, and KNOWLEDGE.  This has given rise to an important kind of philosophical debate.  Philosophical definitions provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as an example of some concept.  For example, one classical definition of knowledge states that for a person to know some claim, the person must believe the claim; she must have good reasons for believing it, and the claim must be true.  This definition claims that belief, truth and justification are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for knowledge.  However, one of the classic papers of Twentieth Century philosophy raises a counterexample to this definition: an example of a justified true belief that, intuitively, should not count as knowledge.  This counterexample shows that belief, truth and justification are not sufficient for knowledge, contrary to the classical definition.  This has spawned a cottage industry, involving attempts to modify the definition of knowledge to accommodate the counterexample, followed by new counterexamples to these new definitions.  Such give-and-take about the meanings of important philosophical concepts is typical of much academic philosophy.  It also constitutes a great strategy for composing a narrow focus, undergraduate philosophy paper: identify some classic philosophical definition of a philosophically important concept, raise a counter-example to the definition, and then consider ways the definition might be modified to accommodate the counter-example.  This cycle can be repeated through numerous iterations, including new counter-examples to new definitions, followed by newer definitions accommodating these counter-examples, etc.

Narrow focus papers are mainly critical: they aim to undermine particular arguments, assumptions, or definitions proposed by specific philosophers.  For this reason, it is useful for a student writing a narrow focus paper to think of her role as analogous to that of a defense attorney in a criminal trial.  Her goal is not to prove that the conclusion to some argument is false.  Rather, her role is to show that the reasons some philosopher has provided for a specific conclusion are insufficient to establish that conclusion.

Broad Focus Papers

Unlike narrow focus papers, broad focus papers do not restrict their scope to particular arguments, assumptions, or definitions made by particular philosophers.  Instead, such papers identify a broad topic that has been discussed by many philosophers throughout history, identify different positions that have been taken on this topic, sketch the different kinds of arguments that have been provided for these different positions, and then take a stand on the topic by defending one of these arguments as superior to the others, or providing a new argument.  For example, rather than focusing on just one assumption in one of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God, a student may choose to treat the question of the existence of God more broadly, sketching the different positions on this topic, and some of the classical arguments that support them.  The student may then defend theism or atheism by offering an improved version of one of these arguments that avoids some of the classic criticisms of it, or by providing an argument of her own.

Broad focus papers are, in general, more challenging than narrow focus papers.  Undergraduates are rarely asked to draft papers longer than 15 pages.  However, it is extremely difficult to do justice to a broad topic in philosophy in so little space.  Philosophical questions and claims tend to ramify: they tend to open cans of worms – other questions and claims that are equally if not more difficult to resolve.  For this reason, the best advice for undergraduate philosophical writing is to focus on as narrow a topic as possible.  It is possible to write a decent broad focus undergraduate paper.  However, it is very difficult, and students who focus as much as possible on specific claims and arguments make life much easier for themselves.

Application Papers

Perhaps the most interesting strategy for composing an undergraduate philosophy paper – the strategy that allows the most scope for individual creativity – is to illustrate some philosophical concept, claim or argument with a concrete example drawn from art, film, fiction, popular culture, science, or one’s own experience.  For example, a classic dispute in epistemology – the philosophical study of knowledge – concerns our justification for believing the testimony of others.  On one view, this justification is derived from our own observation that people are, for the most part, reliable.  On the opposing view, trusting testimony is justified in itself, not in virtue of observing that people are typically reliable.  A classic argument for this opposing view is that young children could never learn anything from adults if they had to wait to observe that people tend to be reliable before trusting their testimony.  This argument makes substantial assumptions about how young children learn.  It therefore suggests an interesting topic for an application paper: see whether the latest literature in developmental psychology supports this assumption.

Often, showing how some common experience, drawn from everyday life, fiction, film, or popular culture, illustrates some philosophical principle, argument, or claim is very useful.  Not only does this help clarify the philosophical principle, argument, or claim; if the common experience is sufficiently vivid and compelling, it might even provide some support for the philosophical principle, argument, or claim.  For example, consider the classical philosophical definition of knowledge mentioned above, in the discussion about philosophical definitions.  According to this definition, a person knows some claim just in case she believes it; she is justified in believing it, and it is true.  The counterexamples that philosophers have raised to this definition have been fairly abstract and contrived.  However, it is possible to illustrate the problems with the definition by more plausible, real world examples.  For example, consider the claim that the sun moves.  We know this to be true today.  But what about people who lived prior to Copernicus?  Copernicus proposed that, contrary to the assumptions of astronomers that lived before him, the earth moves around the sun rather than vice versa.  So pre-Copernican astronomers believed that the sun moves around the earth.  This means that they also believed that the sun moves.  Since we know the sun moves, this belief of theirs was true.  Furthermore, they had good reasons for this belief, and were therefore justified in believing that the sun moves.  Copernicus had not yet formulated an alternative hypothesis and all the evidence seemed to support their view.  So pre-Copernican astronomers had a true justified belief that the sun moves.  But, arguably, they did not know this, since the reason they thought the sun moves – that it circles the earth – is not the true reason it moves – that, like any star, it is caught up in the motion of the galaxy of which it is a part.  This concrete historical example illustrates what is wrong with the classical definition of knowledge.

Working through such a concrete example from the history of science not only clarifies a philosophical point, it also provides some support for this point by showing that it is easily illustrated with concrete examples from the history of human knowledge.  Furthermore, it immediately suggests how a paper focused on this example can be further extended.  For example, one might imagine how a defender of the classical definition of knowledge would reinterpret this case in a way that vindicates the classical definition.  One could then respond to this reinterpretation.  In general, application papers can be based on very clear and simple argumentative structures: they argue that some concrete example illustrates a philosophical thesis, and then they consider how those who deny the thesis might deal with the example.

4. A Short Primer on Logic

As we saw above, in section 2, although philosophical arguments can go wrong in two ways – either the premises are false or implausible, or they fail to support the conclusion – philosophers tend to focus on detecting and avoiding failures of the latter kind.  Here, I provide a short primer on the various ways that premises in philosophical arguments succeed and fail to support their conclusions.

Kinds of Support

There are broadly two kinds of support that premises provide for conclusions of arguments.  First, in deductively valid arguments, the premises guarantee the conclusion, i.e., if we assume the premises are true, we cannot, at the same time, deny the conclusion.  Here is a classic example: All humans are mortal.  Socrates is a human.  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  If we accept the premises, we cannot, at the same time, deny the conclusion.  So, this is the strongest kind of support that premises can provide for a conclusion.  Notice that, when determining whether or not an argument is deductively valid, it is not necessary to establish whether or not the premises are true.  Validity is a matter of the support the premises provide the conclusion, not their truth.  The question is: if the premises were true, would the conclusion also have to be true?  So, for example, the following argument is deductively valid, despite its questionable premises:  All George Washington University students are Dalmatian.  Barack Obama is a George Washington University student.  Therefore, Barack Obama is Dalmatian.  Note that this argument has the same logical form as the previous argument about Socrates: “humans” has been substituted with “George Washington University students”; “mortal” has been substituted with “Dalmatian”, and “Socrates” has been substituted with “Barack Obama”.  Despite the fact that the second argument’s premises and conclusion are false, it is a deductively valid argument because the premises guarantee the conclusion.  That is, if the premises were true, the conclusion would also have to be true.

In deductively valid arguments, the premises supply the strongest possible support for the conclusion.  One can refute an argument claiming to be deductively valid by showing that even if the premises were true, the conclusion could still be false, i.e., there is still at least a slight probability that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.  For example, the following argument, though plausible, is not deductively valid: Every morning I’ve lived, the sun has risen.  Therefore, tomorrow morning, the sun will rise.  As we’ll see next, this is an inductively strong argument: the premise provides strong support for the conclusion.  But the argument is not deductively valid because the premise does not guarantee the conclusion: it is possible that the premise is true but the conclusion is false, e.g., if the sun explodes tonight, it won’t rise tomorrow morning.

The second kind of support that premises can provide conclusions is evident in inductively strong arguments.  In such arguments, though the premises do not guarantee the conclusion, as they do in deductively valid arguments, they make the conclusion more likely.  Such arguments are common in science and politics.  Most arguments in which the conclusion is based on a public opinion poll are inductive arguments.  For example, suppose you do a blind taste test comparing Coke to Pepsi with 5% of the GWU student population, finding that 60% of this sample prefers Coke to Pepsi.  If you then generalize, concluding that 60% of the GWU student population prefers Coke to Pepsi, you are making an inductive argument: the premise is the result of the poll, and the conclusion is the generalization from the 5% sample to the whole GWU student population.  The strength of the support this premise provides this conclusion depends on the size of the sample, and how it is obtained.  Sometimes, for example, such arguments rely on samples that are not obtained randomly, and therefore contain biases relative to the population to which they generalize.  This is one way of criticizing an inductive argument: if the sample is biased, the argument is inductively weak.

In another sort of inductive argument, the premises express certain observations that need to be explained, while the conclusion is a plausible explanation of those observations.  Such forms of inductive argument are common in criminal trials.  The prosecution presents the jury with facts, e.g., the defendant’s alleged motives, her presence at the crime scene at around the estimated time of the crime as testified to by a reliable witness, etc.  They then conclude that the best explanation of all these facts is that the defendant committed the crime of which she is accused.  However, such premises never guarantee the conclusion, since there may always be alternative explanations for the evidence.  The defendant may have been at the crime scene by coincidence, or the witness may be lying, or the prosecution may be trying to frame the defendant, etc.  This is why, in such arguments, the premises never guarantee the conclusion, as they do in deductively valid arguments.  At best, they provide defeasibly strong reasons to accept the explanation that constitutes the conclusion.  But such arguments can always be criticized by providing an alternative explanation of the evidence that is just as good or better.

A classic philosophical argument of this type is the argument for the claim that nature is the product of intelligent design. Proponents of this argument begin with a list of facts about nature, e.g., that it is orderly, complex, goal-directed, and dependent on highly unlikely background conditions.  They then argue that the best explanation for these facts is that nature was designed by a supernatural intelligence.  However, as with the case of arguments made in court, these facts do not guarantee this conclusion.  There may be alternative explanations of these facts that are just as good or better.  For example, Darwin argues that many such facts can be explained by his theory of evolution by natural selection, with no appeal to intelligent design.

Fallacies

Argument types in which the premises do not support the conclusion are called “fallacies”.  Philosophers have studied the ways that arguments can go wrong for millennia, and they have identified dozens of fallacies.  Here are five common fallacies that it is useful to keep in mind when evaluating or formulating arguments in a philosophy paper.

1. Begging the Question: Arguments that commit this fallacy are also known as circular arguments.  Such arguments assume what they are trying to prove.  Recall that the point of philosophical, and, indeed, any argumentation, is to try to prove a controversial conclusion on the basis of less controversial premises.  For example, as we saw above, Aquinas tries to prove the controversial claim that God exists on the basis of uncontroversial premises, like the claim that objects are in motion.  But sometimes the premises of an argument are equally or more controversial than the conclusion.  In fact, sometimes the premises of an argument covertly assume the conclusion they are trying to prove.  Consider the following argument for the existence of God, for example.  “God wrote the Bible.  Therefore, everything the Bible says is true.  The Bible says God exists.  Therefore, God exists.”  This argument is circular, or begs the question, because it assumes what it is trying to prove.  For God to write the Bible, he has to exist.  So, in this argument, the premises provide no independent justification for the conclusion: they are just as controversial as the conclusion because they covertly assume the conclusion’s truth.

2. False Alternatives: Arguments that commit this fallacy rely on at least one premise that claims that there are fewer alternatives than there actually are.  Consider the following example: “Either France supports the United States or France supports the terrorists.  France does not support the United States.  Therefore, France supports the terrorists.”  This argument is fallacious because the first premise is a false alternative.  France might not support either the United States or the terrorists.

3. Unjustified Appeal to Authority: Arguments that commit this fallacy rely on premises that appeal to an authority with no justification.  Consider the following example: “There are passages in the Bible that prohibit homosexuality.  Therefore, homosexuality is immoral.”  The conclusion is not supported by the premise because the argument fails to establish that the Bible is a legitimate authority on moral matters.

4. Ad Hominem: The name of this fallacy is a Latin term meaning the same as “to (or against) the man”.  Such fallacies are often committed in the course of critiquing another argument.  For example, suppose an Evangelical Christian has just finished arguing that abortion is immoral, and a critic responds not by identifying any weaknesses in the argument but, rather, by pointing out the arguer’s religious beliefs as a reason for dismissing the argument.  The critic may say something like, “Clearly we cannot accept the reasoning of someone with such superstitious convictions!”  This is an example of the Ad Hominem fallacy: instead of criticizing the argument, the critic is attacking the person who presents the argument.  In logic and philosophy, we are interested in whether or not the premises of an argument support its conclusion.  The identity of the person making the argument is irrelevant to this.  People with whom one disagrees on many matters can nonetheless produce sound arguments.  A person’s personal convictions or personality are irrelevant to the strength of her arguments.

5. Straw Man: This is another fallacy that often arises in the course of criticizing someone else’s argument.  It occurs when the critic misrepresents the argument she is criticizing, formulating a version of it that is easier to refute.  This is where the fallacy gets its name: a “straw man” is easier to knock down than a “real man”.  Consider the following example.  Suppose a person defends abortion rights on the grounds that no law regulating a person’s control over her own reproductive decisions is equitably enforceable.  If someone were to criticize this argument on the grounds that (1) it claims killing a fetus is morally unobjectionable, and (2) this assumption is false, then the critic would be guilty of a Straw Man fallacy.  The argument makes no claims about whether or not killing a fetus is morally unobjectionable.  The critic has burdened her target with a difficult to defend assumption that she never made.  In terms discussed above, such a critic does not respect the principle of charity that guides all good philosophical writing.  Philosophical writers have an obligation to present their antagonists’ arguments in as favorable a light as possible before criticizing them.  Only then can they be sure that they are seeking to establish claims that are supported by the best reasons, rather than merely scoring rhetorical points.

Conclusion

Undergraduate philosophical writing is about evaluating and constructing arguments.  A good argument is one in which strong reasons are provided in support of some claim.  In order to evaluate and construct arguments, the claims that comprise them must be expressed in clear and precise language.  In addition, these claims must be perspicuously organized, such that the complex relations of support they bear to each other are apparent to any educated reader.  The goal of philosophical writing should be discovering which claims are supported by the best reasons, not scoring cheap rhetorical points.  For this reason, philosophical writing must be guided by a principle of extreme charity: views antagonistic to the author’s must be considered carefully and fairly, and presented with the utmost sympathy.  The author must anticipate likely criticisms of her own views and respond to them.  Undergraduate philosophical writers must master the art of conveying abstruse philosophical concepts in clear, plain language, writing for an imagined audience of educated non-specialists, like family and friends.  This makes undergraduate writing clearer, and demonstrates to the instructor that the student has understood difficult concepts in her own terms.  The use, as much as possible, of concrete examples to illustrate abstract philosophical concepts is strongly recommended.

Finally, the best undergraduate philosophy papers focus on relatively narrow and specific topics, e.g., a specific argument or assumption made by a specific philosopher.  One cannot establish an ambitious philosophical claim in the 10-15 pages usually allotted for undergraduate philosophy papers.  Thousands of years and pages have been devoted to determining whether or not God exists, for example.  Yet the question remains controversial.  Do not assume that you can accomplish, in 10-15 pages, something that professional philosophers have failed to accomplish in thousands of years.  Philosophical arguments tend to open cans of worms because they invariably make assumptions or raise difficult issues that go beyond the topic on which they focus.  The art of writing philosophy consists in avoiding such potential digressions, and contributing to specific, constrained debates.

The foregoing is a good guide to composing an initial rough draft of a term paper for an undergraduate philosophy class.  Different instructors might not agree with all of my recommendations; however, most will agree with most of them.  Once a student receives feedback from her instructor on a rough draft, she will be able to fine-tune the paper to the instructor’s particular preferences.  Although the foregoing should help students make a good start on a philosophy paper, there is no substitute for frequent consultation with one’s instructor.  Do not fear “bothering” your instructors about helping with paper drafts.  As long as you follow the relevant instructions on their syllabi and give them plenty of time, they are obligated to help you with your writing.  The persistent pursuit of detailed feedback from one’s instructor is the best resource you have for succeeding at undergraduate philosophical writing.  This guide provides a solid foundation from which to start.

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