Paper Advice

Writing a Philosophy Paper

by Craig DeLancey (SUNY Oswego)

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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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 outline.

    4. 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.

    5. Restate and potentially evaluate your hypothesis. In conclusion, remind us of your hypothesis, and how your argument(s) support it. If possible, explain why your thesis is important. What are its implications? Why should the reader care?

Note that most great analytic philosophy papers follow only very slight variations of this form (e.g., mixing 3 and 4 together, or being very brief about II, or including some historical background to a problem before stating the hypothesis).

(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, concrete objections.

  • 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 anomalous 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.