Writing the Philosophy Paper
Philosophy papers may be about a pressing moral issue, such as whether cloning should be allowed or whether the death penalty is ethical. They may be about a topic of scientific interest, such as whether the mind is the same thing as the brain. Or they may center on a more abstract issue, such as the nature of infinity. Philosophy papers sometimes focus on interpreting other philosophers, for example, on how best to interpret some of Descartes' arguments for God's existence.
Politicians write about ethical issues, psychologists write about the mind and brain, mathematicians write about infinity, and theologians write about God. So what makes a paper on any of these topics a philosophy paper? A philosophy paper presents a reasoned defense of some thesis. So a philosophy paper typically does at least one of the following:
- Defend a thesis by offering plausible reasons to support it
- Defend a thesis by showing that arguments against it are unconvincing
- Criticize a thesis by showing that the arguments for it are unconvincing
- Contrast two or more views on a given issue and argue for one view over the other
In advancing a position on something like the death penalty, a philosopher may need to discuss certain facts (like the racial make-up of the death row population, or the cost of life imprisonment versus execution). However, philosophy papers are not primarily factual reports or research papers. Similarly, philosophy papers are not primarily summaries of other people's views, nor are they mere statements of opinion.
Central to philosophy is the idea of an argument. Arguments consist of a conclusion and reasons offered in support of the conclusion. The reasons offered to support a conclusion are called 'premises'. Typically, philosophy papers have a central argument. They often have subsidiary arguments as well. So, a paper arguing against the death penalty, as it is currently instituted, might have the following structure:
- Premise 1: The death penalty is a racially discriminatory practice.
- Premise 2: Racially discriminatory practices are immoral.
- Conclusion: The death penalty as it is currently carried out is immoral.
In fact, the central argument of a philosophy paper is typically more complex than this, but the above gives us a starting point. If this were the central argument of the paper, the author would then be expected to support each premise. The conclusion simply follows from the premises, so the bulk of the paper would be devoted to supporting the premises. In defending premise 1, some appeal to facts would be made. Additionally, the author would need to determine what constitutes racial discrimination, and what does not. In defending premise 2, further subarguments would be needed. For instance, you would need to discuss what constitutes immorality.
If you do not have an assigned paper topic, then you'll need to start by picking a topic. It's probably best to pick a topic that at first seems too narrow. For example, the topic of whether God exists is way too broad. A more appropriate topic might be whether one particular argument for God's existence is successful or not. A paper might even focus on a narrower topic, such as whether one objection to one argument for God's existence is satisfactory. Picking such a narrow topic might strike you as boring at first. But many philosophy assignments call for relatively short papers, and it's better to make one small point thoroughly and convincingly than it is to cover a lot of ground.
After you've picked your topic, you may want to try setting aside some time to figure out what you think about the issue. And you may find it helpful to make an outline which reflects the structure of your argument. On the other hand, you may find that your view emerges or changes quite a lot as you write. For this reason, it's a good idea to leave yourself plenty of time for rewrites. A second draft is likely to be hugely better than a first draft, and a third draft better than the second.
Don't begin your paper with phrases like "Since the dawn of time, people have asked..." This is pure torture for your reader. Furthermore, this phrase is unlikely to be more pertinent to your particular philosophy paper than to thousands of other philosophy papers. Imagine if every philosophy paper began this way! Instead, begin your paper in a way that takes the reader right into your topic. Here are a couple of different approaches. The second example is from a Supreme Court decision, but it could serve equally well as an introduction to a philosophy paper on the death penalty.
In this paper, I will examine the argument that the death penalty should be abolished because it has been and will continue to be imposed in an arbitrary manner.
"This argument has been central to discussion of capital punishment since the Supreme Court ruling in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia. (Stephen Nathanson, "Does It Matter If the Death Penalty Is Arbitrarily Administered?" Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14, No.2, 1985)
On February 23, 1994, at approximately 1:00 A.M., Bruce Edwin Callins will be executed by the State of Texas. Intravenous tubes attached to his arms will carry the instrument of death, a toxic fluid designed specifically for the purpose of killing human beings. The witnesses, standing a few feet away, will behold Callins, no longer a defendant, an appellant, or a petitioner, but a man, strapped to a gurney, and seconds away from extinction. (Justice Blackmun, Dissenting Opinion in Callins v. Callins)
Make the structure of your paper clear to your reader
One way of doing this is to divide your paper into sections and to state at the outset of the paper what you will do in each section. Another is simply to give the reader guideposts along the way. You might say you're going to discuss three objections to a certain claim, and then introduce each objection as you get to it with a phrase like "turning to the second objection", or "the final objection is..."
Also, use of words like "therefore," "thus," "because," "since" indicates which of your claims are conclusions and which are being made in support of conclusions.
If you find yourself using phrases like "before addressing X, I will discuss Y..." more than a couple of times, you may want to consider an alternative organizational strategy.
Finally, think about the contribution each paragraph is making toward your overall point. If a paragraph isn't contributing, it shouldn't be there. If it contains some point you really want to make, even though the point doesn't contribute to your main thesis, try putting the point in a footnote. Once you know what role each paragraph plays in your paper, think about how and whether each sentence contributes to the paragraph of which it is a part. Finally, look at the word choices you've made. Have you picked the best words to convey your meaning?
Word Choice and Tone
Make Careful Word Choices
In writing philosophy, it's important to make careful and thoughtful word choices. Sometimes you'll need to make explicit for the reader how you are using a given term. Terms should be used consistently. Also, it's important to be careful when using what might seem like synonyms.
For example, in a paper concerning the morality of abortion, it would be a mistake to use the words "person" and "human being" interchangeably, at least without saying at the outset that you are going to do so. Philosophers typically assume that the word "person" refers to beings with some sort of moral standing. "Human being" on the other hand is considered a biological term. So to many philosophers, the claim that persons have rights is much less controversial than the claim that human beings have rights.
Finally, be sure you understand how the philosophers you are writing about are using important terms. For example, if you are writing about Plato's view of Justice, you should not assume he is using the word in the same way it gets used in Law & Order.
This doesn't mean you should never repeat yourself in a paper. You may need to repeat the most important points. But take into consideration the length of your paper. In a twenty page paper, or a thesis, it's appropriate at times to remind the reader of what was said before. In a four page paper, there' s not much need to do this.
If you are criticizing the work of a philosopher, first present that person's work in the most charitable light. Also, don't say things like "In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle shows his stupidity when he says..." These sorts of statements not only fail to contribute to your overall argument, but come off as arrogant.
Use Quotations Wisely
Many philosophy papers call for some use of quotation. Papers discussing how to interpret a text typically require much use of quotation. If you are discussing how to interpret a certain passage of text, you will definitely need to quote that text for the reader. Furthermore, quotations can be used effectively to support points in your paper. However, don't include more quotations than necessary. Sometimes students include four quotations where one would do. This can give the impression that you don't have enough to say and are using quotations to take up space. Also, the excessive use of quotes in an exposition of a philosopher's view may be taken to indicate that you don't understand the position well enough to explain it in your own words.
One Final Tip
Read Your Paper Out Loud
Read your paper out loud to yourself or someone else. It's a great way to catch places where you are insufficiently clear and places where your writing is awkward.
- Philosophy eResources folder from the Digital Library at Dartmouth
- Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper (James Pryor, Princeton University))
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:05 EDT
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