Writing a Philosophy Paper
The first goal of an analytic philosophy paper is to present a clear
valid argument; the second goal is to present a sound argument; the
third goal is to advance knowledge (that is, present a sound argument
for a novel conclusion of some importance). In an undergraduate class
you are only expected to meet the first goal. In a graduate class,
you are expected to strive for the second goal. The ambition of
professional philosophers is to meet the third goal.
Meeting the first goal requires that you (A) clearly structure an
argument, and (B) use language that is neither ambiguous nor
vague in your argument.
(A) To ensure you develop a clear argument, all papers must
have the following form:
I. State your hypothesis. Your introductory paragraph must
have in it a clear sentence that states the hypothesis you will
defend. (If you are in doubt about how to phrase this, then just
write: "In this paper I will defend the hypothesis that....") If you
cannot state a single hypothesis, then unless you are writing a book
you must start over.
Note that most great analytic philosophy papers follow only very
slight variations of this form (e.g., mixing III and IV together, or
being very brief about II, or including some historical background to
a problem before stating the hypothesis).
II. State your outline. State in your second paragraph how
you defend your hypothesis. (If in doubt, just write, "I will defend
this hypothesis by arguing for the following 5 claims....") If you
can do so briefly, indicate why these claims will support your
conclusion. After having read paragraphs one and two, the reader will
know what you are claiming, and how you will defend this claim, and
why you will defend it in the way you do.
III. Follow your outline. Next, just as you promised in your
second paragraph, defend each piece of evidence in turn. Explain
clearly for each point why that point supports your claim. If there
are other claims you believe you need to defend to support your point
(for example, maybe you want to ward off an obvious objection to one
of your steps in your argument), explain why you are taking this
detour, and make it clear when you leave and when you return to the
IV. Consider objections. This is optional. You may want to
either address objections others have made (in print) to your
hypothesis, or you may want to predict objections. Say explicitly
that you are now addressing objections, say explicitly which ones you
will address (you should thus have a paragraph that is not unlike the
second paragraph of your paper, but now explaining how you will
proceed in this fourth section), and then address those objections in
the way you promised you would.
V. Restate your hypothesis. In conclusion, remind us of your
hypothesis, and how your argument(s) support it.
(B) To ensure your language is not ambiguous or vague, every
sentence and every word of your paper must pass the explanation
test. For each sentence in your paper, ask yourself "what does
this sentence mean?" Imagine someone demanding you explain why you
wrote this sentence. Also, imagine someone demanding you explain for
each word you used, why you used this word, and not some other.
If you cannot answer such questions, delete or revise the sentence or
word under consideration.
Some additional advice
Here are some random observations that address some
common mistakes I see.
- Every paper that draws from other works requires proper
citations. You already know this, but plagiarizers love to
say no one told them this, so let me reiterate it here.
- Every sentence of your paper should be in the service of
your hypothesis. If it is not, cut it. Do not write
vacuous filler. Examples of vacuous filler include:
- "Philosophers have thought about the mind for a
very long time."
- Anything beginning, "Throughout history...."
- "Many have written about the nature of the will."
- "Explaining rationality is very hard and will
take lots careful thinking."
- "Everyone is interested in the question of
whether God exists."
- "Plato was a great philosopher."
- "Ever since the ancient Greeks, man has debated
the nature of reason."
- Avoid rhetorical questions.
- Don't cite Websters or any other dictionary. Their
definition of a technical term like "ontology" or "valid"
or "value," and so on, is going to be very different than
our formal use in philosophy or in a science. They're
very likely to steer you in a wrong direction.
- Don't use Wikipedia. It's fine for what it is, and
not for writing your paper.
- Avoid referring to yourself ("I think...", "I
disagree...") in order to weaken your claims. Examples of
weakening your claims include writing "I think that Freud
proposed a three-part theory of the mind" instead of "Freud
proposed a three-part theory of the mind." On the other hand,
it's fine to refer to yourself for setting up context (and
it's hard and awkward to avoid such references to yourself);
that means, it's fine to write something like, "In this paper
I defend the hypothesis that ...."
- It's great if you want to create theory, by addressing
one of the big problems. However, this is by far the
hardest thing to try to do. Generally, an "I have a big
theory" paper should really be a book. Also, philosophy is
2500 years old and many of the key problems have been
discussed for more than 2000 years. Until you know
philosophy well, it will be hard to know when your theory is
original (it may have been proposed, discussed, and rejected
long ago). All that said, if you really feel compelled to
write a new defense of free will, or to solve the mind-body
problem, or anything else like that, go for it -- but
consider doing it in the context where you address another
scholar, ideally a recent philosophy paper that takes a view
opposed to your own. This will force you to address strong,
- You are writing an argument. Not a list of ideas or
anecdotes or opinions. Know what "valid" and "sound" mean,
and apply these concepts explicitly.
- In advanced classes, try to engage with a recent
philosophy paper or papers. This puts you into the
contemporary practice of philosophy.
- Your paper should be constructed as an argument, and thus
the outline (roughly paragraph 2) should be a summary of your
argument. The outline is thus not a list of, "I will talk
about Davidson. Then I will talk about Smith. Then I will
talk about me." It should be something like, "I will begin by
describing Davidson's theory of anamalous monism. Smith has
argued that anomalous monism is logically inconsistent because
.... I will review his argument, and then offer my own
version of his argument that shows another inconsistency in
Davidson's theory...." That is, by reading your outline, I
will know very roughly what your
argument is. (Imagine someone picks up your paper
and wants to know what it is about. An outline that says,
"I will talk about Davidson. I will talk about Smith." tells
that person very, very little.)
- Have fun. Philosophy is exciting
and it asks the most important questions we can ask. Enjoy
the fact that someone is actually asking you to consider and
answer one of these questions, and that the person wants to
hear what you have to say.
-- Craig DeLancey
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