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Molly Wilder

Writing in Philosophy
Writing well in philosophy is for the most part very similar to writing well in other academic disciplines.
However, there are certain demands of writing that philosophy particularly emphasizes:
Be clear.
Clarity is all-important in philosophy writing. Many of the following recommendations are in some way also
about clarity. tudents sometimes protest that being more clear will ma!e their writing redundant, overly
obvious, or otherwise rhetorically inelegant" these are never reasons to sacrifice clarity. #ood writing in
philosophy is clear $%& rhetorically elegant, and it is possible to achieve both. When in doubt, though, be
more clear.
'e careful when recommending that students emulate the writing of philosophers that they have read in class.
Many philosophers still read today wrote badly or were writing when philosophy had different goals and
standards than it has today. $nd as with any academic discipline, there are better and worse contemporary
writers. 'ut a good resource for students loo!ing for e(amples is Hugo 'edau)s Thinking and Writing about
Defend an argumentative thesis.
tudents should be wary of two e(tremes in choosing the aim of their papers. *n the one hand, they should not
be over-ambitious" the points made in good philosophy papers are usually small and modest. *n the other hand,
students should be ma!ing argumentative claims" their thesis should include some original thought and be a
claim that other philosophers could disagree with. +hey should ta!e a clear stance on an issue, although it need
not be a particularly dramatic stance. Here are some useful guidelines about what philosophy papers try to
+here are a variety of things a philosophy paper can aim to accomplish. ,t usually begins by putting
some thesis or argument on the table for consideration. +hen it goes on to do one or two of the
Criticize that argument" or show that certain arguments for the thesis are no good
&efend the argument or thesis against someone else-s criticism
*ffer reasons to believe the thesis
*ffer counter-e(amples to the thesis
Contrast the strengths and wea!nesses of two opposing views about the thesis
#ive e(amples which help e(plain the thesis, or which help to ma!e the thesis more plausible
$rgue that certain philosophers are committed to the thesis by their other views, though they do not
come out and e(plicitly endorse the thesis
&iscuss what conse.uences the thesis would have, if it were true
/evise the thesis, in the light of some ob0ection
$ll of these possible aims re.uire e(plicit and reasoned defense.
Make argument structure transparent.
$rgument structure should be as transparent and obvious as possible. tudents should ma!e fre.uent use of
connective and transition words. tudents should always err on the side of too much sign-posting" the reader
should always !now e(actly what is happening in the argument and how it relates to the thesis. tudents should
not shy away from using the 1
person when they are ma!ing their argument. +ransparency of structure is
especially important in the introduction:
,n 23eminism and &ifference,4 %ancy Chodorow argues against essentialism as a feminist
theoretical or political strategy. $t the same time, however, she ma!es sweeping claims about
what women, in general, are li!e" and these claims seem essentialist, at least in a wea! sense. ,n
this paper, , will show that it ma!es no difference whether we call Chodorow an essentialist. ,
will argue that what)s important is that, despite her insistence to the contrary, her allegiance to
5ryor, 6im. 2#uidelines on Writing a 5hilosophy 5aper.4 7http:88www.0impryor.net8teaching8guidelines8writing.html9
ob0ect-relations theory commits her to the idea that men and women are fundamentally different
from one another and will remain so under all conceivable circumstances.
Define specialized vocabulary and use it consistently.
5hilosophers use a lot of 0argon and specialized vocabulary. *ften they redefine familiar words for the purposes
of their arguments. +his ma!es it very important that students are careful with the vocabulary they use and
clearly define any terminology or vague terms in their papers. 3or e(ample, the writer of the above e(ample
would need to clearly define what she means by ;essentialism and ;ob0ect-relations theory.) 'ecause of the
constraint on clarity, students should use as little 0argon as possible and define those words they use as precisely
as possible. tudents should avoid using words they do not completely understand or are unsure of how to use
in philosophy writing. ,f unsure, they should err on the side of over-defining and over-e(plaining.
+his re.uirement of careful definitions can re.uire students to be more redundant than they wish to be.
/edundancy is often necessary, however, because even slight changes in vocabulary may ma!e their argument
unclear, or worse, inconsistent. tudents should be never vary the words they use for !ey concepts 0ust for the
sa!e of rhetorical diversity.
Eliminate gaps in argument.
+he ideal in philosophy is an airtight argument. +o that end, students should focus their effort on coming up
with and responding to any possible ob0ections in their argument. /esponse to possible ob0ections will often
constitute the ma0ority of their argument.
$bsolutely every step in an argument should be clear and e(plicit" the reader should not be e(pected to guess
what the student means or ma!e charitable inferences. tudents should imagine the most critical reader they can
as they write, and they should always be on the loo!out for possible ob0ections and counter-arguments. ,f they
recognize gaps or possible wea!nesses in their arguments, they should e(plicitly ac!nowledge them.
Make prudent use of quotations and tet summary.
tudents in philosophy are usually e(pected to include some te(t analysis8summary in their papers" how much
and in what detail will depend on the aim of their paper. $s mentioned above, these te(ts are often .uite
difficult to read and understand. <ven straight summary in philosophy often involves analysis, because any clear
presentation of the te(t will involve significant interpretation. $ ma0or part of the tas! in philosophic writing,
then is 0ust to ta!e a difficult te(t and present its argument clearly. +o this end, students should generally be
trying to paraphrase arguments into their own words, rather than giving 0argon-filled summary or using direct
.uotations. ,f students do use direct .uotations, they should be followed by a full analysis and e(planation in
their own words of what the .uote said and what it means for the argument.
!se lots of eamples.
,t is often a very good idea for students to give concrete e(amples to support their points or e(plain !ey ideas.
<(amples are one of the best ways to ma!e abstract arguments clearer. tudents should always clearly e(plain
how any e(amples they use are to be understood and how they support their argument or analysis.
Be concise.
While much of the above advice encourages students to e(plain their thoughts more than they might otherwise,
they should also be aiming to ma!e that e(planation as stream-lined as possible. <(planation should be to the
point and most importantly, relevant to the thesis being defended. 5hilosophy papers can easily get out of hand
if students try to e(plain everything they are thin!ing about" this is why it is so important to have a modest thesis
and to stic! to a tight structure.

'auer, %ancy. 21> teps to a Compelling 5hilosophy 5aper.4
+hough some of these recommendations come from my own e(perience tutoring and writing in philosophy, most of this material is a synthesis of the
material from the two sources cited from %ancy 'auer and 6im 5ryor.