Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish - something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept - together with grounds or justification for its acceptance.
Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.
Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. Sometimes this is called the "fortress approach." In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.
First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.
In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer's shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.
THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY
- Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
- Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.
- Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.
- Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
- Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
- When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER
- Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.
- Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in any philosophy essay.
- Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.
- Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.
- Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
- Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting - often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts - not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.
There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.
Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out.
In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.
Information on Writing Philosophy Papers
Please familiarize yourself with the university’s academic honest policies if you have not already done so. They are available here: http://www.rochester.edu/college/honesty/docs/Academic_Honesty.pdf . Note in particular that it is a violation of these policies to use material from any source (other than yourself) in your papers without attribution and, where relevant, use of quotation marks. This applies especially to copying and pasting material from websites, which should always be avoided. You may, of course, make limited use of academically respectable web resources where relevant, as long as they are properly cited (I'm not picky about the exact format of your citations, as long as they contain the relevant information) and any quoted material is clearly placed in quotation marks (though this should still be a very limited portion of your paper). However, you should never make any use at all of student 'essay mills'--websites that offer students canned student essays for 'research' purposes: these essays are not research and do not meet the standards for scholarly sources; they have no place in the writing of your papers.
General Guidelines for Writing Philosophy Papers
- Clarity and straightforwardness of thought and language are crucial: avoid flowery styles and long, superfluous introductions and conclusions. (No paper should ever start with a sentence like: "Since the dawn of time, mankind has pondered the question of...") The bulk of your paper should consist of philosophical exposition and analysis, in plain but precise language.
- If you are writing an essay in response to an assigned essay topic, the most important thing is simply to make sure you answer the question that was asked, carefully and thoroughly. Avoid getting off on tangents that are not crucial to your topic, and avoid sweeping generalizations you can't support in the paper. In addition to the quality of exposition, one of the central things we look for in a philosophy paper is how well the thesis in question is supported. Even if the reader thinks some of your claims are false, your paper can be excellent if you do a solid job of defending your claims.
- If you are asked to explain something, do not merely summarize what an author or lecturer has said. Explain and illuminate the relevant ideas or arguments in your own words, as if you were trying to help a fellow student gain a deeper understanding of them.
- Avoid excessive quotation! Stringing together quotes is not explaining a position or an argument, and does not display your understanding of the material. Even paraphrasing in your own words is not enough. Again, explanation involves clarifying the claims, bringing out hidden assumptions behind arguments, noticing ambiguities as they arise and nailing them down, and so on.
- In addition to careful explanation of positions or arguments, some paper topics ask for critical evaluation of those positions and arguments. An example of critical evaluation of an argument would be my lecture criticizing Thomson's argument for the conclusion that abortions wouldn't violate a fetus' right to life even if it were granted to have a full right to life. (I developed and used a distinction between positive and negative rights, and argued that the central parallel she appeals to in her argument fails to go through, since it involves a conflation of positive and negative rights.) Some paper topics ask you to do the same sort of thing, and if you're writing on such a topic, be sure that this component of your paper is strong and well developed.
- Proofreading of papers is a necessity. So is decent grammar: incoherent grammar makes the effective communication of ideas impossible.
- As for which topic you choose: You should choose something you're most interested in and have the most to say about. Beware of any topic that seems too easy: If it seems simple--like something you can dash off in a few paragraphs--then that's a good sign that you're not thinking deeply enough about it, and you should probably write on another topic. So choose your topic carefully.
- This is important: If you use someone else's words, you have to use quotation marks and cite the source in a footnote. If you don't, it's plagiarism, which constitutes cheating and is a violation of the honor code. See note at top.
Sample Short Paper and Commentary
For Illustrative purposes only
Sample Essay Question: Is Socrates' position in the Crito, concerning the moral authority of the state, consistent with his view that one should never do anything that is wrong? Is it consistent with what he says, in the Apology, about what he would do if commanded by the state to cease practicing philosophy, or about what he did when commanded by the Thirty to capture Leon of Salamis for execution? Explain.
(Note: page references are to a different edition than the one you have; paragraphs should be indented, but are not here due to limitations of html formatting; I have not here included footnotes for the same reason; and your papers should be double-spaced, rather than single-spaced.)
Socrates on the Moral Authority of the State
In the Crito, Socrates makes some surprisingly strong claims about the moral authority of the state, which might even seem to be inconsistent both with another fundamental claim he makes in the Crito and with certain claims he makes in the Apology. I shall argue that although these claims seem to be in some tension with each other, the crucial claims about the authority of the state in the Crito can plausibly be interpreted in such a way as to remove any real inconsistency with the other claims.
The first, rather striking claim about the moral authority of the state occurs at 51b of the Crito. Socrates argues that, because of the state's role as a provider of security, education, and various important social institutions (such as marriage), the citizens of the state are its "offspring and servants"; and from this he concludes that citizens are subordinate to the state and its laws to such an extent that if a citizen ever disagrees with the state's laws or orders, he "must either persuade it or obey its orders," even if the latter amounts to suffering death. The implication for his own case is clear: Socrates had tried to persuade the court of his innocence and of the injustice of his execution (as detailed in the Apology), but he had failed; therefore, he argues, he must now obey the court and accept his death sentence--even though he still thinks that he is in the right on this matter.
The second, closely related claim, comes only a few paragraphs later, in 51e and 52. Socrates there argues that by virtue of remaining in the state, a citizen enters into an implied contract with it to obey its commands. More precisely, the claim is again that a citizen who has a disagreement with the state must either persuade it that it is wrong, or else obey it. In the voice of the personified laws: "either persuade us or do what we say" (52a). The implication, again, is that if one fails to persuade the state to change its mind, for whatever reason, then one must obey its orders. A citizen has no moral right to continue to resist the state, even if he is convinced that he is in the right and the state is in the wrong.
Now as mentioned above, these claims seem directly opposed to certain other claims Socrates makes. Most importantly, earlier in the Crito itself, Socrates had stressed that "one must never do wrong" (49b). Indeed, this serves as the driving principle behind the rest of his argument in the Crito. But is this really consistent with maintaining that one must always obey the state, if one fails to persuade it that something it orders is wrong? The obvious objection is that the state might well order one to do something wrong--e.g. because one of its laws is an unjust one, as Jim Crow laws were. In that case, Socrates' claim that one should never do anything wrong would entail refusing to do what the state orders--even if one is unsuccessful in persuading the state that it is wrong. Thus, Socrates' claim that one should never do wrong seems inconsistent with his claim that one must always obey the final orders of the state.
Secondly, it might be objected that Socrates' view of the moral authority of the state is inconsistent both with what he did when ordered by the Thirty to capture Leon of Salamis for execution, and with what he says he'd do if ordered by the state to cease practicing philosophy (both from the Apology). When the Thirty ordered him to capture Leon, he refused, on the grounds that this would have been wrong (unjust and impious). (Apology, 32c-d) This seems to be a recognition that one is morally obligated or at least permitted to disobey the state when what it commands is wrong--even if one fails to persuade it of its wrongness. And similarly, Socrates makes clear that he would disobey the state and continue philosophizing if it were to order him to stop--again, on the grounds that it would be wrong for him to stop philosophizing (recall that he saw philosophy as his life's mission, given him by the god). (Apology, 29c-d) Again, this seems to contradict what he says in the Crito about the supreme moral authority of the state and its laws and orders.
I believe, however, that it is possible to read the crucial passages about the authority of the state in the Crito in such a way as to render them consistent with Socrates' exhortation never to do wrong, and with his remarks about disobedience in the Apology. To see this, it is necessary to distinguish first of all between two issues: (a) what the law might require you to do, and (b) what the law might require you to endure. With this distinction in mind, consider the following possible interpretations of Socrates' claim about the moral authority of the state in the Crito:
(i) Citizens must obey any law or order of the state, whatever it asks them to do or to endure;
(ii) Citizens must endure whatever any law or order of the state says they must--including the law that verdicts arrived at through proper procedures shall be carried out--but citizens need not and morally should not do what is prescribed by an unjust law.
Now which of these positions is it most plausible to attribute to Socrates in the Crito?
There are passages that might seem to suggest i (e.g. 51e, 52a), but again, the obvious problem is that it seems inconsistent with his fundamental principle that one should never do wrong (49a)--at least on the assumption, which Socrates clearly accepts in the Apology, that the state is not infallible as regards judgments of right and wrong. Thus, a more charitable reading would interpret the passages about the moral authority of the state as referring implicitly to cases where the state does not require one to do anything unjust, but merely to endure something (or perhaps to do something that is not itself unjust, such as rendering some political service).
If the passages are read in this way, we can interpret Socrates' claim as ii above. When he says that one must obey the state's final laws and orders, what he means is that one must do anything it tells one to do within the bounds of justice, and that one must endure anything it tells one to endure. Thus, Socrates was not obligated to capture Leon of Salamis, and would not be obligated to cease philosophizing if ordered to, since that would be doing something wrong (i.e. something that is not within the bounds of justice); but he is obligated to accept and endure his punishment, as long as it was arrived at through proper judicial procedures. The latter is true, according to Socrates, even though the punishment is wrong; for by suffering it, he is not himself doing anything wrong, but only enduring something wrong. This is perfectly consistent with Socrates' exhortation never to do anything wrong.
Thus, what at first appears to be a blatant contradiction among Socrates' various claims is fairly easily remedied if we interpret the relevant passages in the Crito as making the claim in ii rather than the claim in i above. This interpretation is supported not only by the fact that it helps to reconcile Socrates' seemingly contradictory claims, but also by the fact that Socrates' examples of obedience to the state over one's own objections all involve having to endure something, rather than having to do something. He speaks in Crito 51b, for example, of having to "endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be wounded or killed, you must obey." Though he does not explicitly formulate his claim as in ii above, his focus is clearly on the issue of having to endure something prescribed by the state, over one's own objections. Therefore, it is consistent with the text to interpret him as making only the claim in ii, which is fully compatible with his claim that one must never do wrong, and with his claim that under certain conditions one should refuse to do something the state orders (such as refusing to capture someone for an unjust execution, or refusing to cease carrying out your divine mission as long as you live).
As for the plausibility of Socrates' view, I believe that it is still overly demanding, even when qualified as in ii above. It's unclear why any of the factors Socrates mentioned should give the state such overriding moral authority that one should be morally obliged to endure execution without resistance even in cases where the state is genuinely in the wrong. It seems more plausible to hold that if one stands to be unjustly executed, one can rightly resist this punishment (even if it would equally be permissible not to resist). One could do this, I think, without showing any contempt for the laws, or challenging their authority, since one still grants the state's authority to do its best to carry out the punishment, and simply asserts a moral right to do one's best in turn to avoid such wrongful punishment. But that's a topic for another paper.
Note, first of all, the concise, crisp introduction. The problem is plainly stated, and then I explain clearly what I'm going to do in the paper--all in just a few sentences. There's no rambling introduction with sentences starting with "Since the beginning of time, mankind has pondered the mysteries of etc."
The style is straightforward, striving for clarity rather than literary flair. Jargon is avoided as far as possible.
After the introduction, the problem is stated in more depth and detail, with textual references. Notice the spare use of quotes. I quote only a few words here and there, where necessary to illustrate the points. This might be extended to a few sentences, if necessary, but beware of over-quoting and letting someone else's words do your work for you. (The worst mistake is just stringing together quotes, which accomplishes nothing.) Notice also that textual references are given for the quotes, as well as for paraphrased passages. (Normally, I'd use footnotes and have complete citations, but I'm limited by html format here.)
Notice how, in describing the problem, I try to elucidate it, rather than just summarizing it.Summary is not explanation. Instead, I try to make clear where exactly the tensions among the various claims seem to arise and why, and how they apply to Socrates' own case. I've tried to go well beyond the superficial statement of the problem in the essay question, to illuminate and develop it.
Now having done that, one might just stop and claim to have answered the question: "No, the various positions are not consistent, and Socrates is just contradicting himself." But that would be a very superficial paper. Instead, I tried to dig beneath the surface a little bit, and to notice that the central claim can be interpreted in more than one way. So I first of all made a distinction between two possible interpretations, which in turn depended on a distinction between what you might be commanded to do and what you might be commanded to endure. That distinction enabled me to argue for an interpretation of what Socrates is claiming about the moral authority of the state that renders this claim consistent with his other claims. (Noticing and exploiting distinctions is a large part of what doing philosophy is all about.)
Whether or not you agree with that particular argument, you can see the difference between bringing the discussion to that level of detail and merely staying on the surface. So even if you would have taken a different position, the point is that a good paper would still be engaging with the issues at that level of depth, rather than remaining on the surface. If you think Socrates really is contradicting himself, for example, you might then also discuss the distinctions I pointed out, but then argue for an interpretation along the lines of the first interpretation instead, despite the inconsistencies with other things he says. (Of course, you'd have to be able to give an argument for why the text should be understood in that way, despite the fact that Socrates winds up with rather glaringly conflicting claims on that reading.)
Again, notice that I am striving for clarity, precision and thoroughness, along with a straightforward organization for the paper.