Writing A Philosophy Paper


The following tips and information will help you avoid the most common problems students have with philosophy papers.

Getting Started.

1. Start early. The more work you put into your paper, the more you will get out of it and the better it will be.
2. Pick a view you are interested in defending.
3. Read up on your topic. See my Doing Research In Philosophy page for some places to get started.
4. Read the "How To Organize Your Paper" tip below!
An Easy Way to Boost Your Paper's Score by a Full Letter Grade.
Proof Read It. Justice Brandeis once observed that there is no good writing, only good rewriting. He's right. After you've written your paper, set it aside for a day or so, and then go back and re-read it. Are there any typos? Does it still make sense? Proof reading can only result in a higher grade.
Things I Look For When Grading Your Paper.
1. I want to see that you understand the philosophical issues surrounding your topic.
2. I want to see plausible arguments supporting your own view and plausible objections to the views you reject. Make sure that your arguments are not vulnerable to the sorts of objections raised against arguments and views discussed in class.
3. I want your discussion to be as clear as possible.
One Thing I Do NOT Look For When Grading Your Paper
Whether I ultimately agree with the conclusion of your original argument does not effect the grade I give. I can believe that your conclusion is 100% right and give your paper an "F" and I can believe that your conclusion is both false and morally bankrupt and give your paper an "A" (and this usually happens at least once in every class I teach!). This is because I try to take into account only what you could be expected to know given what we have covered in the course, any research you may have attempted for your paper, good reasoning skills and common sense. Thus, for example, maybe you write a paper concluding that all abortions are morally wrong and perhaps I personally feel that this conclusion is mistaken. I would consider my personal feelings irrelevant when grading your paper. What would matter is whether you've taken into proper account what we have said in class about abortion, morality, etc. Maybe your argument for your view makes some assumptions about issues in ethics which were not included in the course (after all, we can't do everything in just one class!), and even though your views about these issues may seem plausible to someone who doesn't have a Ph.D. in philosophy, I happen to know they are mistaken. I would NOT lower your grade for this reason, because I believe this would be unfair to you. If you have taken into proper account what has been included in the course, good reasoning, common sense, etc., that's all I expect you to do to get a good grade. I may take the liberty of writing a page-long comment at the end of your paper explaining why I think your argument is completely mistaken, but this is simply to give you some guidance should you wish to further explore the issue outside the course - it won't effect your grade!
Thinking About Arguments.
It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin when evaluating arguments. Some find it helpful to have a series of examples of bad arguments whose flaws have been identified. I provide such a list on my Some Common Fallacies page. (Clicking on the "Back" button of that page will take you back to this one.)

How To Organize Your Paper.

Begin with a one paragraph introduction which states (1) what your topic is, (2) the individuals view you will be critiquing and (3) the view you will be defending.

EXAMPLE: "In this paper I will discuss the morality of euthanasia. J. Gay Williams, in his paper "Why Euthanasia Is Immoral" gives several reasons for thinking that euthanasia is morally wrong. In Part I of my paper, I will explain why the arguments he gives for his view are mistaken. In Part II of my paper, I will present my own argument for believing that euthanasia is morally permitted."

Part I
Indicate that you are beginning the critical part of your paper by giving it a heading.

EXAMPLE: "Part I: A Critique of Williams' Arguments Regarding Euthanasia"

In the critical part of your paper, you want, for each argument you discuss, to (1) clearly state the argument so that someone who had never heard of the argument would fully understand it and (2) clearly state why you think the argument is mistaken.

EXAMPLE: "Williams' first argument against euthanasia states that euthanasia is morally wrong because it violates the Biblical principle "Thou shalt not kill" (Williams 1976, p. 3). He claims that all morality is based on the Bible and that it always wrong to act contrary to God's commands (Williams 1976, p. 4).
"My first objection to Williams' argument is that the moral principle "Thou shalt not kill" is false. One reason it is false is that it implies that it is morally wrong to kill plants, but it is obvious that this is not true. A second reason it is false is that it fails to take into account acts of self-defense. For example, if a murderer being chased by the police turns and shoots at the police, they would clearly be justified in shooting and killing the murderer, if necessary, to save their own lives.
"My second objection to Williams' argument...." etc.

Note that no argument is given in favor of euthanasia itself, i.e., no objection is made to Williams' view that euthanasia is morally wrong. It is merely argued that Williams' arguments fail to show that his view is correct. In Part I of your paper, you do not want to object your opponent's conclusion; rather, you only want to object to the reasons they give for their conclusion.

Part II
Indicate that you are beginning the original argument part of your paper by giving it a heading.

EXAMPLE: "Part II: An Original Argument for Thinking that Euthanasia is Morally Permitted"

Begin Part II by laying out your original argument in premise ... conclusion form as done in class.

EXAMPLE: "My original argument for thinking that euthanasia is morally permitted is as follows:

P1 Euthanasia is an act of killing in self-defense.
P2 Killing in self defense is morally permitted.
C Euthanasia is morally permitted."

Next, explain why your argument is sound (if it's deductive) or cogent (if it's inductive).

Then, for each and every premise of your argument, do the following:

1. Define the key terms used in the premise.
EXAMPLE: "An act is an act of killing in self-defense if it meets the following criteria:
First, there is unjustified threat posed to the defender...." etc.

2. Give two or more reasons for believing that the premise is true.
EXAMPLE: "One reason for thinking that P1 is true is that...." etc.

If you like, write a brief conclusion to your paper indicating what you have done and what you have concluded. Ta-daaaa! You've just written a clearly organized philosophy paper.
References and Bibliography.
Some paper assignments require references and for others they are optional. You can use whatever format you like as long as I have enough information to find the document and page you mention in your paper. Be very sure that you cite the source after every sentence you use from it.

Some Do's and Don'ts

1. Don't just give your opinion. Any time you state an opinion, you need to give an argument to show that it is true.
2. Never use rhetorical questions - they tend to be unclear.
3. Never use the phrase "Who's to say..." Focus on presenting arguments rather than on who's presenting arguments.
4. Be sure you follow all the instructions given for the paper.
5. Be sure to keep a copy of your paper in a safe place. Dogs eat professors' homework too.
6. If you are using a word processor, spell check your paper.
7. If you need some help with your paper, don't hesitate to discuss it with your instructor!
Additional Resources Specific to Philosophy Papers

NOTE: Be sure not to follow any advice which is contrary to what I have told you about your assignments!

Writing A Philosophy Paper - some tips from Peter Horban.

Guidelines On Writing A Philosophy Paper - by Professor James Pryor.

John Arthur, Studying Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004). - a general guide to taking a philosophy class with an extensive section on writing philosophy papers.

Anne M. Edwards, Writing to Learn: An Introduction to Writing Philosophical Essays (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1999).

Joel Feinberg, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2014).

Anthony J. Graysbosch, et al, The Philosophy Student Writer's Manual (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2013). - a very detailed guide.

Martinich, A. P., Philosophical Writing (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2015). 

Zachary Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009). - a brief but useful book.

James S. Stramel, How to Write a Philosophy Paper (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995). - focuses on philosophical thinking.

Additional Resources For Writing College Papers
Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language - a guide published by the NCTE.

Strunk's Elements of Style - a standard textbook on usage available online.

Online English Grammar - detailed index of common problems with usage.