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Writing

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Writing in Philosophy

Preparation

  • Read: You have to have read the given texts at least two times before getting started. It’s important that you understand what the philosophers are trying to say before you decide to agree or disagree with them.
  • Notes: Philosophical texts are notoriously difficult so don’t be discouraged if you’re still having trouble understanding the material. Consult your class notes as a way of trying to approach the material in different words and with the professor’s examples. 
  • Secondary Sources: Sometimes, taking a trip to the library for a little background can help to put things in perspective. Ask the professor if he/she recommends any secondary sources that are particularly useful. Getting commentary on a philosopher sometimes is not only helpful for understanding, but can be useful in getting ideas for developing arguments as well. Here are some general sources that can come in handy:

*Both of the websites are reputable sources but that does not mean that you can quote online sources in a philosophy paper. It is best to use these sites as guides, not sources.

  • Office Hours: Most professors are willing to help out so long as you seek them out. Don’t approach them by simply saying that you don’t understand what’s going on. Come up with a short list of questions to direct your office hours conversation constructively.
  • Solidarity!: We are all often puzzled by what philosophers mean and what they are even trying to get at in the first place, so we should not be ashamed to say “I don’t know,” and ask our fellow students questions. It is always helpful to talk through a paper idea before your pen hits paper.

Thesis Development 

Question: How do I answer the question? / How do I formulate the question?

  •  If it is a yes or no question, (i.e. “Do you agree with Hume’s theory of personal identity? “) ask yourself what your answer is and then ask yourself if  your position is defensible. This may seem obvious but it is important that you identify reasons that you have for your position. In philosophy, and in    any academic paper, your opinion is irrelevant, unless it’s supported by an argument. 
  • Or, if you need to formulate your own question, make sure that it’s one that can be answered yes or no.
    • Ex./ “Is Hume’s theory of personal identity tenable?”
  • Your answer forms the basis of your thesis statement.
    • Ex./ “Hume’s theory of personal identity is untenable given that it relies on a self-referentially incoherent epistemology.”

Argument: How do I support my claim?

  • Exposition – accurately characterize what both sides of the argument are trying to say.   A good way to do this is to find some good quotes to support your exegesis. Ideally your reader should be able to go through your exposition and find the equivalent of everything you say in the text. If you are paraphrasing, don’t hesitate to give a page number so that your reader can find what you are drawing from. 
  • Defend your argument with examples of your own, or, depending on your paper, evidence from the text. This supports your “yes” or “no” claim by demonstrating it as a more valid or thorough world-view.

Counter-Argument: What are the shortcomings of my argument?

  • No philosophical argument is perfect, which is why we’re still doing it after 2,500 years. Don’t try to conquer the world!
  • Acknowledge that your argument is not an absolute by pointing out its shortcomings. If you are criticizing a particular philosopher come up with some responses to your argument on his or her behalf. Don’t give up your thesis, just admit some issues that it may leave open or that the other side accounts for better. The best papers are those that acknowledge the shortcomings of the arguments they contain.

            **Try responding to those claims in support of your thesis.

            Potential brainstorming methods: Venn-diagram, free-write, bubble map, etc.

Writing

 Approach

  • Ideally, the way you go about writing your paper should not be the same way that the paper looks when you’re finished. Most academic papers in general are not written from start to finish as, in many ways, it is difficult to anticipate when first writing the potential changes an argument will undergo. Thus, the order you should try to write in is as follows:

                        Exposition

                        Argument

                        Counter-Argument & Response

                        Introduction

                        Conclusion

            But, the paper should be organized as follows:

                        I. Introduction (w/ thesis statement)

                        II. Exposition

                        III. Argument

                        IV. Counter-Argument & Response

                        V. Conclusion

Introduction

  • It is a good idea to write an introduction dialectically. This means that it helps to present two sides of an issue and then to make a claim about which side you want to take. 
  • Accounts of the two sides of an issue do not need to come from philosophers. One of the views could come from popular opinion.
    • Ex./ “We often say to ourselves that it is the ‘thought that counts’ when people have the right intentions but fail to reach a moral goal, yet John Stuart Mill’s consequentalist ethics would disagree with this. . .”
  • After giving a brief discussion of different views, your thesis should indicate clearly which side of the issue you want to defend.

 

Some Thoughts on Style 

  • The best philosophy papers are mechanical and precise. A mistake that people often make, including professional philosophers, is that they try to get too fancy. There is no reason to have long winding, sophisticated sentences with huge million-dollar words like ‘obstreperous,’ or ‘orthogonal’ unless it actually contributes to your paper. Think like an architect: whether or not a building is pretty matters very little if it can’t stand on its own.
  • While your paper should be clear and, on some level mechanical, it does not follow that it needs to be boring. Coming up with precise metaphors, images and examples to support your argument will not only make your paper fun to read but it will strengthen your argument as well.
  • Often, we are not the best judges of our own work. GET SOMEONE ELSE TO READ YOUR PAPER. You might think that you have a tight argument (and you just might) but sometimes students leave steps of the argument in their heads, not on paper. The way one sentence follows from another may be perfectly evident to you, but you need to make it perfectly evident to your reader. This is one of many reasons why it is helpful to get someone else to read your paper. If you are self-conscious about your writing and you don’t want your friends or professor to see your work, then just come on down to the ARC!

Citing

  • Unless otherwise noted by the professor, philosophy papers are cited according to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). See Chicago: Quote, Paraphrase, Summarize for citing sources within the text.  For a quick guide to the most common citations that you’ll use, see Chicago Style Quick Guide.
  • A “works cited” page or “bibliography” is absolutely essential. This page should be alphabetical according to the authors’ names.
  • How many quotes should I have? The paper is your own work and so it should mostly consist of your own interpretations and conclusions but they have to be supported by quotes. Keep in mind that too much evidence makes it unoriginal but too much of your own work makes it ungrounded. We would recommend that your paper consist of 20% quotes and 80% your own words.

When should I cite?

  • Any time you use an argument (either as a direct quote or a paraphrase) which is not your own. If it’s from the text, cite it; if it’s your own interpretation of the text, then don’t.
  • For persuasive or dramatic effect. Sometimes, using a particularly eloquent line from a philosophical work serves well to improve the aesthetic of your paper.

Links to other resources