How To Write a Philosophy Essay


I. Basic Guidelines

1. Your essay must be

2. Refer to your student style manual for guidelines regarding quoting, paraphrasing, works cited, and other matters. Generally in the humanities, the preferred method for citations, etc. is the MLA (Modern Language Association) style.

3. Proof read your final draft before printing it out or handing it in. Deductions will be made for grammatical and spelling errors. Do not rely solely on spell checking programs as these will not catch all your mistakes.

II. Some Basic Writing Tips

1. Be sure you understand exactly what is expected of you. Most essay assignments will ask you to analyze and critically evaluate a specific philosophical issue. Make sure that you understand the issue that you are to analyze and that you focus on the right issue. A common mistake students make is to write an essay on a related but different issue.

2. Your essay as a whole should be clear, coherent, well-organized, and concise. Make sure both you and the reader know at every stage what you are doing, where you are going, and how what you are writing is relevant to the central task of defending your thesis.

3. Each essay assigned this semester requires a defense of a thesis in which arguments are given in support of your thesis. Your thesis should reflect your considered judgment on the particular assigned issue. It need not but may reflect any of the positions that have been presented in the class readings or discussion.

A thesis is a statement that makes some clear, definite assertion about the subject matter under discussion. For example, if the topic of your paper is the morality of abortion, here are some of the many theses you might choose to defend:

Each of these is a clear, definite statement that takes a position on the morality of abortion, a position that the rest of the paper will attempt to defend. A statement such as "Abortion, pro and con" would not be an appropriate thesis for it doesn't assert anything. Nor would the statements "Why I believe in a woman's right to choose" or "I personally believe abortion is wrong" be appropriate. A philosophy paper is not a personal report of how you feel or what you believe. It is an argument for a thesis. Also, try to avoid picking a wishy-washy thesis that hedges your bets, like "There is much to be said on both sides of the abortion question," or "There are good arguments for and against abortion." The object of a philosophical essay is to move beyond merely reporting on the various perspectives on an issue. You should take a stand, plant your feet squarely on the ground, and argue for your thesis as well as you can.

4. The heart of your essay will be the arguments in support of your thesis. You have to come up with arguments that are designed to persuade your reader that your thesis is an acceptable one.

What is an argument? To put it as simply as possible, an argument for a thesis is a reason for believing that the thesis is acceptable. When you are putting forward an argument in support of your thesis, ask yourself, "If I didn't already believe my thesis, would this convince me that the thesis is acceptable? Would it tend to convince a reasonable reader who is open-minded enough so that he or she is willing to listen to reasons?" If the answer is yes, then you have your hands on a genuine argument. If the answer is no, then leave it out of the paper and look for a better argument.

Your arguments should be well developed and thought out. The number of arguments in an essay is not necessarily as important as the quality of the arguments. It is often better to develop one strong, persuasive argument in support of your thesis than several weak and unrelated arguments.

5. Asking a question without answering it is not an appropriate way to give an argument. For example: "What would happen if every woman who wanted an abortion got one?" is not an argument. "If every woman who wanted an abortion got one, millions of innocent lives would be lost" is an argument, or at least part of an argument.

6. Do not beg the question when arguing. Begging the question is a form of reasoning in which the conclusion of an argument merely restates the premise. Such an argument assumes or takes for granted precisely what it is supposed to establish. Consider the following:

I believe abortion is wrong. It is not right for people to have abortions. I think it is terrible that so many innocent children are being murdered.

This passage does not present any arguments. It is circular and repetitious, merely repeating the first statement with slightly different words. In other words, this passage begs the question and should convince no one that abortion is wrong.

7. Merely citing or repeating known facts seldom constitutes an argument. If you are opposed to abortions and wish to argue that abortions are immoral, merely citing the fact that thousands of abortions are performed weekly does not in itself constitute adequate support for your thesis. Facts need to be interpreted. They require a philosophical framework in which the reader is made to understand their significance.

8. It is perfectly all right to use an argument from a lecture you have heard or an essay or book that you have read, including your textbook. When you adopt an argument as your own, you take responsibility for it. By including it in your paper, you are saying that you believe it is a convincing argument. If you are aware of criticisms of the argument, you should attempt to address these criticisms when you adopt the argument. If you are paraphrasing or quoting remember to supply the necessary documentation.

9. Using examples and counterexamples can often be a good strategy in explaining your points and offering some support for your thesis. Be careful, however, not to rely too heavily on isolated examples. The mere fact that one person you know died from complications due to an abortion does not mean that abortions are unsafe nor does it adequately support such a thesis.

10. Do not introduce assumptions or speculations into your essay unless you can adequately defend them as reasonable and they are consistent with everything else we know.

11. Don't wander from the issue that you are to analyze and don't mix together materials that belong in different parts of the paper. Set forth your argument in logical order, supporting your thesis with arguments. Leave out anything that does not advance your argument or further your point. Don't be afraid to edit your own work, deleting passages that do not advance your argument.

12. Don't leave any important claims unsupported. If you argue that abortion is immoral because the fetus is a person with a right to life you need to support your claims that the fetus is a person and has a right to life. Any claims that may be controversial and not accepted by most reasonable people should be supported. Any claims or arguments that have already been discussed and criticized in class must be supported if you introduce them into your essay.

13. Avoid merely reporting, summarizing, or describing other people's views. Don't summarize other philosophers' views in your essay. Also don't confuse describing your views with arguing for them. Merely describing or explaining what you believe is not sufficient to justify your belief and wouldn't persuade someone who didn't already agree with you.

14. End your paper with a summary and a conclusion that briefly reviews your main argument and leaves the reader with the essay's most important points. It is seldom appropriate to introduce new points, material, or arguments in the conclusion.

15. Try to use language as precisely as possible. Vague words like "stuff" or "thing" are evidence of a sloppy mind. Your prose should be proper to the subject-not forced or stilted, not full of words you would never use except in a philosophy paper, but nevertheless carefully chosen.

III. Web Sources

There are some excellent resources available on the Internet to help philosophy students with their writing. Some of the more informative cites are:

IV. Abbreviations for Grading

If a number is written down on your paper it refers to one of the tips above that you failed to take into consideration in writing your essay. I will also occasionally use the following abbreviations when evaluating and commenting on your essay.

G Grammar Grammatical errors
SP Spelling Spelling errors
AKW Awkward Awkward sentence or paragraph structure
O Organization Your essay or a section of your essay is poorly organized
T Thesis Your essay lacks a clear and well-defined thesis
E Elaborate You have made a good point that needs to be further developed
NC Not clear The point or claim you are trying to make is confusing or not clear
IS Issue You have strayed from the assigned issue
S Support A claim you have made needs to be supported
B Begs the question A claim you have made begs the question
W Weak An argument that you have made is weak
NO No A claim that you have made is wrong. You have made a factual error or misunderstood what a philosopher has said.
R Relevance You have not demonstrated how a claim or argument is relevant to the issue or to your thesis
I Inconsistent You have made inconsistent or contradictory claims
NQ Not quite Your claim may be acceptable but only under certain conditions or may be partly correct but requires further qualification
RP Repetitious You are repeating unnecessarily a claim or argument
V Vague A claim or passage is vague
AMB Ambiguous A claim or passage is ambiguous
C Condense You should condense this passage or material
WW Wrong Word You have chosen the wrong word for a particular context
_ Check Mark You have made a good claim or argument