ON WRITING PHILOSOPHY
by Dr. Kimberly Blessing
Writing a philosophy paper will be very different than other papers you have written for other courses. Philosophy papers are generally argumentative or persuasive essays that set out to convince the reader to adopt your position.
What distinguishes a philosophical paper from other papers is the manner in which you convince the reader to adopt your position; appeals to emotion, feeling, imagery, or even style, which are appropriate for an English paper, are unacceptable for a philosophical essay. Instead, you convince the reader of the rightness of your position through philosophical reasoning and argumentation, clear writing, and precise use of the English language. In other words, you must write critically.
"Philosophy is distinguished from theology, politics, and poetry by its dependence on reason as the ultimate criterion of evaluation. Reason demands internal consistency, and the basic principle of philosophy is the principle of noncontradiction: a thing cannot be both A and not-A in the same way at the same time... In all of philosophy, the flaw that always rules a position or argument out of play is lack of logical consistency. No appeal to authority, faith, beauty, bedazzlement, interest, morality, emotion, or force can override an internal contradiction. Thus, the first rule in philosophical wiring is Be consistent.
Philosophical writing is similar to scientific writing in the requirement that it be clear... In the name of clarity, plain writing is preferred to rhetorical flourishes. This requirement means that one must say what one means as nearly as possible with univocal words and phrases, in detail, and at sufficient length to avoid misunderstanding. This seldom results in beautiful or evocative writing, but...philosophical writing exhibits the elegance of precision... This demand for clarity...is in itself almost a definition of philosophy as an attempt to understand and to be understood fully without confusion. On this definition of philosophy based on reason, geniuses who write unclearly may persuade, but if their positions are not reducible to clear exposition, they eventually are classified as poets, prophets, or mystics, not as philosophers.
It is not enough for a philosophical paper to be consistent and clear; it must also have a point that is supported by an argument. Inspirational and edifying discourses have points, but they can be persuasive even if they are inconsistent and unclear. In philosophical writing, the point one wishes to make can be established only by presenting it as the conclusion of an argument... Arguments within a philosophical presentation are sequential logical developments of premises, statements of evidence, and inferences resulting in the position or statement that is the point of that presentation."1
How To Organize A Paper: Beginning, Middle, and End
Aristotle said that works that spin their way along through time need a beginning, a middle, and an end to give them the stability of spatial things like paintings and statues.
Build your paper in three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Do not be afraid to let these three parts of your paper be obvious to the reader. One of the biggest problems with papers is that they have no structure and this leaves no impression on the reader. Often the paper "just begins," the middle is jumbled, and the essay "just stops," but does not end. You have an idea -- a good idea -- now structure your essay and your arguments around that idea.
I. Beginning: Introduction & Thesis: The introduction should capture the reader's attention, drawing him or her into the problem or issue. This can be accomplished by (i) outlining what the issue is, (ii) indicating why it is an important issue, and (iii) clearly stating what position you are going to take. In other words, you must formulate a thesis. The introduction should also provide a road map for the reader to follow; i.e. a brief outline of what you are going to do in your paper. Do not introduce information that you are not going to discuss in your paper -- it's irrelevant. In short, "tell me what you are going to tell me": use FIRST-PERSON, FUTURE tense, ACTIVE voice.
A. Thesis Statement: Your position should be clearly stated in your thesis statement at the beginning of your paper. A thesis statement indicates what you are going to argue and why. You should be able to state your position in one, clear, grammatically correct sentence, e.g., "I shall argue that there is no moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia because the end result, namely death, is morally wrong." Or, "In light of Richard Dieter's article entitled "The Practical Burdens of Capital Punishment," in Criminal Justice Ethics (Winter / Spring 1994; pp. 2, 82-84), I shall argue that the practical burdens of maintaining the legalization of the death penalty do not warrant its continued employment." Or, "I shall argue that rape is not necessarily a justifiable case in which one may perform a late term abortion."
II. Middle: The Argument: The middle of your paper sets out to prove your case by offering the strongest argument[s] for your position. Propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons, or arguments. Textual evidence, see below, is one of the best ways to support your claims. There are others (documented appeals to authoritative sources, logical argumentation, language analysis, comparison and contrast, appeals to experience, etc.) yet whatever you chose, be sure that you do have support for your claims. Also, be sure to stick to the point, it will only confuse the reader if you digress to other points. In short, "tell me": use THIRD-PERSON, PRESENT tense, ACTIVE voice.
A. Textual evidence: Be sure to (i) give a full citation of the passage and text[s] under consideration, using the standard MLA formatting, (ii) briefly explain the passage, outlining the author's argument or position, and (iii) apply it to your position or argument. (Every time you use someone else's words or ideas, both quotation marks and citations are needed.) If you do not know how to properly cite material, make it your business to find out!
B. Topic Sentence: Just as your paper has a thesis, or topic sentence, each paragraph should have a topic sentence; i.e., one clear, grammatically correct, sentence that states the topic of the paragraph.
C. Objection and Rebuttal: A very effective way to develop an argument in support of your position is to consider an objection to your argument and include it in your paper. If there are no objections, your point is probably trivial. If you can respond or rebut the objection, your position is strengthened. At the very least, even if a rebuttal is not possible, you have shown the reader that you have thought seriously about the strengths and weaknesses of your position and argument.
III. End: The Conclusion: Your conclusion should tie the loose ends together. You must indicate what your thesis is, and tell the reader how you have defended it. In doing this it is important to make sure that you have done what you think you have done. Never introduce new information or arguments in a conclusion, this should have been taken care of in the introduction and body of your paper. In short, "tell me what you told me": use FIRST-PERSON, PAST tense, ACTIVE voice.
GENIAL TIPS ON WRITING PHILOSOPHY
- Clearly identify the MAIN POINT (thesis) early in the paper.
- AVOID EVASIVE WEASEL CLAIMS which make and evade a point at the same time. E.g. "It seems to me that Plato might have meant X." Take a stand! Think! Did Plato mean X or not? The following are examples of "weasel claims" of the most repugnant sort: "Nobody really knows," "Who's to say what's true?," "Who really knows?," "No one can ever really know the answers to questions in philosophy," etc. These claims are repugnant to philosophy for they put an end to rational discourse, they seek to evade questions, and these types of weasel claims are often signs of intellectual laziness and immaturity. YOU are to say! YOU are to figure out what is true and what is false!
- AVOID VAGUE ATTRIBUTIONS: attributing positions to groups without offering documented details. E.g., "Virtually all Christians oppose abortion," "Most feminist philosophers favor abortion", etc.
- AVOID VAGUE APPEALS TO "COMMON SENSE" OR COMMON KNOWLEDGE: sweeping generalizations. E.g. "Everybody knows that lying is wrong," "Of course all knowledge comes from experience," etc..
- BE A PHILOSOPHER, NOT A PARROT. DO NOT MERELY PARAPHRASE OR SUMMARIZE. Note the difference between merely reporting what a philosopher said; e.g., "Heraclitus claimed that "you can't step into the same river twice,"" and explaining what a philosopher said; e.g., "Heraclitus believed that you can't step into the same river twice, for the waters are always moving." In other words, Heraclitus argued that reality was constantly changing, or in a perpetual state of flux. Indeed, it is true that reality does appear to be always changing. It is also the case, however, that some part of a river, for example, does not change; e.g., we are able to identify the Nile over time." Some summary is necessary, to show me that you understand what you've read. In addition, however, you should examine, critique, explain , prove, disprove, support, defend, reject, etc., what you read!
- USE EXAMPLES AND COUNTER-EXAMPLES. Use the "method of counter-example" to disprove a claim, i.e., prove that the claim under consideration is false. For example, Sam claims: "All Pre-Socratics were monists." One can prove this false by producing a counter-example: "Democritus was a Pre-Socratic who was not a monist."
- AVOID EXCESSIVE USE OF PRONOUNS.
- JUSTIFY AND SUPPORT ALL CLAIMS, OPINIONS, BELIEFS. CLAIMS TO TRUTH MUST BE SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE! Philosophers are not in the business of merely exchanging opinions, but in determining whether a given opinion is true or false; we determine the truth or falsity of a claim by evaluating evidence offered for a claim!
- DO NOT USE THE WORD 'FEEL.' Don't use this word when you mean 'say,' 'assert,' 'maintain,' 'think,' 'argue,' etc.; e.g., "Plato feels that the Forms are most real, and exist independently of the world of our senses" reduces an argued theory to a mere hunch.
"This is a great deal to make one word mean,"
Alice said in a thoughtful tone
"When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty,
"I always pay it extra."
-- "Oh!" said Alice.
She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.
I am not interested in what you "feel," but in what you THINK! To be a critical thinker, one must respond to what you read or hear from your head, not your heart.
ON WRITING A ONE PAGE PAPER
Prepare your one-page paper as follows: 1) determine what is your position, 2) determine what reasons and evidence you have to support your position, 3) explore the opposing positions by critically assessing some of the arguments on opposing sides, 4) determine what are the strongest points in support of your position, and 5) organize your points in a logical manner. At this point, write an outline of your paper. Write a first draft of the paper which follows that outline.
Write your paper as follows. Your paragraph should begin with a topic sentence; i.e., one, clear and complete, grammatically correct, sentence that states the topic of your paper. For example, "In this paper I shall argue that what is or is not pious is not determined by the gods." Remember that your goal is to convince the reader that what you claim is true. To accomplish this goal, you will need to defend your position with an argument; a set of logically consistent reasons (premises) which lead to your conclusion, i.e., the proposition expressed by your topic sentence. You must develop each point (premise), or reason, of your argument by drawing upon examples, counter-examples, analogies, textual evidence, analysis of language, etc.
Proofread your draft, making necessary changes to grammar, mechanics, style and content. Have someone else proofread your paper. Write a second draft of your paper, making any necessary changes. Put it away for two days. Proofread your second draft. Type your final version. Proofread your final version by reading the paper out loud. Make sure there are no careless errors that will annoy your instructor.
SAMPLE ONE-PAGE PAPER
In this paper, I shall argue that Euthyphro fails at defining "piety" as "that which is loved by the gods" (Euthyphro, 7). First, the gods disagree over many matters. For example, Zeus may believe that Euthyphro is wrong in punishing his father, and Apollo may disagree. In this respect, the activities of the gods reflect the activities of mortals. It is very difficult to arrive at universal agreement over many matters, especially matters concerning ethics and morality (Ibid., 7d). Even if the gods could arrive at universal agreement, the fact that the gods love a particular act only points to a quality, or characteristic, of the act in question. In other words, being god-loved (or god-hated) only suggests what may be true of pious things. "Being god-loved" does not, however, explicate the nature, or essence, of piety; i.e., that which makes a given act pious, or impious. For example, all the gods may love Euthyphro's act of prosecuting a wrongdoer; the fact that this act is "god-loved" does not explain what it is that makes this act pious. The assumption underlying Socrates' argument is the thesis that the gods do not determine the nature of piety. Instead, the nature of piety is eternal and unchanging, and exists independent of the gods, or any god. Unfortunately, the truth of this claim cannot be determined within the confines of this paper. What has been shown, however, is that Euthyphro's definition of piety is no definition at all.
SAMPLE INTRODUCTION AND CONCLUSION
The following is an example of acceptable introduction (beginning) to a philosophical paper, the subject of which is "Plato's Theory of Forms". Note: (i) introduction to the subject of essay, (ii) clear thesis statement, (iii) "road map", or outline of essay. (About 1 page, double-spaced.)
The modern reader of the ancient Greek dialogues of Plato often finds is difficult to distinguish the historical Socrates from his bright and able student Plato. One way to distinguish the philosophies of these two men is to consider and examine Plato's Theory of Forms, and to contrast it with Socrates' position on universal definitions. The development of Plato's Theory of Forms can be traced throughout the Euthyphro, Meno, and Phaedo. If we consider two early dialogues, the Euthyphro and Meno, we see the gradual emergence of Plato's Theory of Forms which culminates in the later dialogue Phaedo. By the time the Phaedo is written, Plato's Theory of Forms is fully developed, independent of Socrates' position on universal definitions.
In this paper, I shall compare and contrast Plato's Theory of Forms with Socrates' position on universal definitions. I shall argue that Plato's Theory of Forms, is indeed distinct from Socrates' position on universal definitions; Plato's theory is, however, vulnerable to the following objections: (i) it leads to an infinite regress of Forms, and (ii) there is no Form for "formness". In order to support my position, I shall first distinguish Socrates' position on universal definitions from Plato's Theory of Forms by citing specific passages from each of the three dialogues. I shall then provide a brief account of Plato's Theory of Forms. Finally, I shall consider the following objections to Plato's Theory of Forms: (i) infinite regress, and (ii) the Form of "formness". To further support my position, I shall consider Plato's unsuccessful attempt to answer the objection of infinite regress in the Meno, as well as considering Aristotle's objection to the Theory of Forms.
The following is an example of an acceptable conclusion. Note: (i) restatement of thesis, (ii) discussion of key points of essay, (iii) final appeal to the reader. (About 1 page double-spaced.)
After having provided an account of Plato's Theory of Forms as developed throughout the Euthyphro, Meno, and Phaedo, as distinct from Socrates' position on universal definitions, it is clear that Plato cannot overcome the objections outlined in this paper. The Theory of Forms leads to an infinite regress of Forms; Plato's attempt at responding to this objection in the Meno is perhaps admirable, but ultimately unsuccessful. Furthermore, in expounding his Theory of Forms in the Phaedo, Plato does not include a Form of "formness"; thus, it seems that Aristotle's claim that the Theory of Forms is "useless" is, to an extent, tenable.
The most significant aspect of Plato's Theory of Forms is just that. It is Plato's Theory of Forms. Theoretically, Plato's Theory of Forms is not without problems. Practically, however, it can provide a way for the modern reader of the ancient Greek dialogues to distinguish the philosophy of Plato from the philosophy of Socrates. Perhaps there is wisdom in Socrates' position on universal definitions, for he anticipates the problems with a theory like that of Plato's. Plato is certainly Socrates' brightest and most able pupil, but he is not wiser than his master. Ultimately, Plato's Theory of Forms goes too far and tries to prove too much. Plato did not learn from Socrates the greatest lesson he had to offer. Plato did not learn from Socrates the wisdom of ignorance.
COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS IN PHILOSOPHY PAPERS
1. However: "However you may feel about the matter, I do not, however, agree with Plato."
"I do not however agree with your point." / "You may set the table however you like."
In the first case, 'however' is used as a conjunction. In the second case 'however' is used as an adverb, meaning "in whatever way you like."
NB: Avoid beginning a sentence with 'however' when you intend to mean "nevertheless." E.g., "However, I do not agree with Plato" is better expressed: "I do not, however, agree with Plato."
2. Split Infinitives
"to work diligently' / to diligently work'
The second case is an instance of a split infinitive, 'to work diligently' is the preferred expression. Don't split your infinitives.
3. its / it's: "It's odd isn't it that the dog was not returned to its owner?"
The former is the possessive form of 'it,' e.g., The dog was returned to its owner. The latter is a contraction of "it is"; e.g., "It's really just a matter of usage."
4. accept / except: "I would accept your proposal for marriage, expect I've already accepted another."
'Expect' connotes "exception" or "exclusion"; e.g., We are open every day expect Sundays." 'Accept' connotes "inclusion," "to receive with consent"; e.g., I accept your proposal."
5. they're, their, there: "You must stay here and cannot go there, even if they're all going with their parent's permission."
The first is the contraction for they are; e.g., "They're all going, so why can't I?" The second indicates the possessive; e.g., It is of no importance what their parents allow them to do." The third indicates a location; e.g., "I cannot be there if I am here."
6. affect / effect: "The effect of my behavior will probably affect our friendship."
"Affect, " which is a verb, means "to influence"; e.g., "I hope that this will not affect our relationship in any way." As a noun, 'effect' means "result"; e.g., "The effect of your action was damaging to the project.
7. quote / quotation: "Be sure that your quotations are not too lengthy when you quote a text!"
The former is a verb; e.g., "I like to quote Plato when I write philosophy papers." The latter is a noun; e.g., "That was a rather lengthy quotation."
8. further / farther: "I pushed myself further once I realized that she could throw the ball farther than me."
'Further' is a word that indicates a time or quantity; e.g., "I'm sure you will pursue your philosophy studies further than this course." 'Farther' is a distance word; e.g., "She threw the ball farther than I was able."
9. less / fewer: "One will be less unhappy if one has fewer troubles."
The former refers to quantity; e.g., "Her mistakes are less than mine" means "Her mistakes are not as great as mine." The latter refers to number; e.g., "Her mistakes are fewer than mine" means "Her mistakes are not as numerous as mine."
10. then / than: "Once I realized that she received a better grade than me, then I began to do my homework."
'Then' is a term used to refer to time; e.g., "I ate dinner, and then I did my homework." 'Than' is a term used in comparison; e.g., "She received a better grade than me."
11. principle, principal: "The principal reason I called you here is to discuss the first principles of Descartes' philosophy."
'Principal' means "most important"; e.g., "The principal reason that I called you here is to discuss the budget." 'Principle' means a fundamental law, rule, or code; e.g., "The first principle of Descartes' philosophy is the cogito."
12. among / between: "Just between you an me, I think Dr. Blessing should have divided the work among five students."
'Among' is used when referring to two or more things; e.g., "The work was divided among six students." 'Between' is used when refereeing to two things; e.g., "This is just between you and me."
13. different from / different than: "Plato's philosophy is different from that of Socrates'".
The former is preferred to the latter; e.g.,
14. i.e. / e.g. : "All bachelors are unmarried adults, i.e., no bachelor is married, e.g., George Clune is a bachelor."
The former expression means "that is"; "All Roman Catholic priests are bachelors, i.e., all Roman Catholic priests are unmarried male adults." The latter means "for example"; e.g., "All bachelors are unmarried male adults, e.g., George Clune is a bachelor."
15. in regard to ' in regards to: "As regards/in regard to the previous point, I disagree."
The former is acceptable, the latter is not. NB: 'As regards' is correct, and means the same thing as 'in regard to.'
16. shall / which: "Although he will argue against Plato's view, I shall argue in favor of his Theory of Forms."
The former is used for the first person future tense; e.g., "I shall argue that Plato was a nut." The latter is used for the second and third person, future tense; e.g., "He will argue that Socrates is a nut."
17. that / which: "The witch that came to the door, which that other witch was watching, was witty."
'That' introduces a restrictive clause, which is not parenthetic, i.e., it is not set off by commas; e.g., "The student that was sitting next to me fell asleep." 'Which' introduces a restrictive clause, which is parenthetic, i.e., it is set off by commas; e.g., "The problem, which is of interest to me, is relevant."
18. unique / more unique
The definition of 'unique' is 'without like or equal." There are no degrees of uniqueness.
1 Richard Watson, Writing Philosophy, 1992.