HOW TO WRITE PHILOSOPHY PAPERS (THAT DON'T SUCK)
Last updated 09.08.14
Summary: This handout covers information that can prevent you from writing an especially bad philosophy paper. Yes, this handout is long, but that’s because there is a lot to know. Section one of the handout covers the general principles for writing philosophy papers. In section two, it makes explicit the six elements needed for any paper you will submit in this course (this is a particularly important section, especially if you haven’t written a philosophy paper before). The third section discusses issues of style and tone. The fourth and final section will help you understand how I grade—so keep this handout available until you have gotten your paper back.
I. GENERAL PRINCIPLES
Understand the nature of a philosophy paper. This is a paper about arguments. It is not a biographical paper, exploring your feelings or personal experiences as you see them pertaining to the topic. It is not a record of your stream of consciousness, detailing whatever thought happened to float through your head the evening before the paper was due. It is not an exercise in poetic writing. It is definitely not an invitation to make declarations about your religious convictions or your favorite divinely inspired text. It is a paper about only one thing: arguments.
Your goal is to provide excellent arguments in favor of your view, to consider the strongest potential criticisms of your view, and to provide a thoughtful response to those criticisms. If you can do all that with clarity of language, your paper is unlikely to suck.
What should you assume about your reader? Assume your reader is my mom. Yeah, I said my mom. My mom is someone who doesn’t know much about philosophy but is pretty smart and a generally reasonable person. She hasn’t read the articles you will be assigned for this class. However, she won’t need to because you will explain to her in clear and concise sentences what she needs to know in order to understand the issue you are addressing. Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though: because my mom is pretty smart, she is likely to make good observations or criticisms to obvious weaknesses in the paper. So be precise, cautious, and thorough—because I endeavor to be these things, at least when grading your paper. Don’t make rookie mistakes!
• In papers of the size you will be writing, the narrower the topic, the better. It is a red flag if you think that in a short paper you have to take on an all aspects of an argument that a professional philosopher spent 40 pages developing. You are probably not focusing narrowly enough on the topic.
• Make sure you have read the whole text of what you are writing about. Students sometimes think they can get away with reading only one section and then get confused when they get hammered because they never got to the part where the philosopher explains his or her more complicated views on the subject. Similarly, if we read several articles on the subject matter, make sure you have read all the relevant articles. You will read all the articles for the class anyway, right? • Avoid coming up with interesting synonyms for philosophy terminology. Most concepts in philosophy have well-defined terminology. Thus, you are wasting time trying to introduce synonyms for what are effectively technical terms. You wouldn’t try to think of coming up with a synonym for ‘enzyme’ or ‘molecule’ in a science class. Don’t try to come up with a synonym for ‘freedom of the will’ or ‘substance dualism’ in this class. • Never say something like “since the dawn of time, humans have wondered about . . .” It is trite and unhelpful. Plus, humans weren’t at the dawn of time (if there was such a thing). Plus, we don’t know have reliable records about what the first humans thought about the issues on which you will be writing. So please don’t try to tell me anything that makes reference to the thoughts of prehistoric peoples.
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