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Writing a Philosophy Essay

Many students encounter the challenge of writing a philosophical essay for the first time
at IHPST. It can be daunting. This brief overview is intended principally, but not
exclusively, for those of you who have never written a philosophy essay before. It will
introduce you to what a philosophical essay is supposed to do, and how you can go about
writing one.
1. The Objective of a Philosophical Essay
Your objective in writing a philosophical essay is to assert a thesis and to give the reader
the best available reason for believing it. The basic tool of the philosophical essay is
argument. A philosophical essay is judged on the cogency of its argument. Everything in
a philosophical essay is there in the service of the argument, which, in turn, is there solely
to support the thesis. The fun in writing a philosophical essay, and the challenge, are
found not so much in creating an exciting structure—philosophical essays are not thrillers
—nor in crafting aesthetically pleasing language—they aren’t poems—but in formulating
and defending the argument.
2. The Structure of a Philosophical Essay
The structure of the essay should serve the essay’s goals of presenting a thesis and
supporting it with a compelling argument. The structure should be evident to the reader. It
should guide the reader through your essay. If the structure of your paper is unclear, it
will detract from the impact of your argument. You want the reader’s efforts will be
expended in understanding and assessing your argument, and not in discerning your
paper’s structure.
There probably isn’t a single template that applies equally well to all
philosophical essays. But the following, generalized schema might help guide you
through construction of a good philosophical essay.
I. Introduction:
I.i A little background:
Say what the issue is and motivate your choice of topic. Is this a contentious
issue? If so, what are the positions one might reasonably take (very briefly). (You
will have a chance to say more about this later).
I. i Anticipate your thesis. “In this essay I intend to argue that ...”
There may well be prominent philosophers who agree with your view. At this
point you should say who they are. There will also be philosophers who disagree
with your view. You should say who they are too.
Are you proposing a new argument for the thesis, or are you going to lend some
novel support to an old argument for the thesis.
Perhaps you are going to suggest a way to reconcile what are thought to be
opposing views? Or perhaps you intend to split the difference between two
opposing views? This is the place to say.


i State your thesis. and why it is important. If the argument is a deductive one. If your argument is inductive. If you are making substantive assumptions. II.i Outline the Relation Between Premises and Conclusion Discuss how the premises support the conclusion. but the uninitiated or resistant reader may need further persuasion. Make it as simple and precise as you can II. II. . You may be convinced of your thesis. how you are going to support it. After this section the reader should understand what your central claim is and what considerations you will bring to bear in its support.ii Support the Premises Of course you need to do more than just demonstrate the relation between the premises and the conclusion. You must also give the reader a good reason to believe the premises. These should be laid out as clearly and succinctly as possible.iv Disclose your Assumptions. It should be clear to the reader how each subsequent part of the essay relates to this part. so say what they mean. All new terms in the premises should be defined. III. caution the reader against doing so here. The easier it is for the reader to follow the structure of the argument. They need to be short. The reader simply needs to know what you are going to say. This is often much harder to do than it seems. show its strength III. The remainder of the essay is pretty much all written in the service of this section.ii Make your argument. The Thesis and the Argument: Think of this section as the engine of your essay. Your argument will have premises and a conclusion. See it as a disinterested party would.iii Explain the Premises Say what the premises mean. reasons that should motivate others as well as they motivate you. This is the place to marshal them. this is the time to put them on the table.Graduate Mentoring Philosophical Essay Writing Introductions are difficult to write (see below). Try to hold your argument at arms’ length. The reader should be able to return to this part to remind herself what you are arguing for. show that it is valid. II. the easier it will be for her to engage with it. You typically have good reasons for (at least many of) the things you believe. III. The reader may have some difficulty interpreting them. Justify the Argument This section provides the reader with a reason for believing your argument. II. If there are inferences that might be drawn from the premise but shouldn’t be.

Nothing is gained by being evasive.i Significance and Scope. or at least as good as them. This is your opportunity to discuss. VI. IV. the stronger will be the impression that your thesis leaves on the reader. How might someone respond to your argument? How might a proponent of the other (or another) position respond to your central claims? When resisting these objections. You may not be able to do justice to all the opinions in the field. Implications At this point the hard work is done. your thesis and argument are situated in an ongoing debate. The better the objections you anticipate.ii Other Considerations Are there any other pieces of evidence that you can adduce for your thesis? You might want to introduce them here. as your own. and advert. and the more compelling your response. VI. you will simply invite the reader to do so. Objections and Replies This is your opportunity to anticipate and deflect any objections there might be to your thesis. Do they misapply a principle of reason that you have used? Do they misconstrue a premise? Do they conflate one concept with another? Be sure to subject your thesis to as rigorous a test as you can. V. say as clearly as possible why they are wrong. You may feel like taking a little time to reap the rewards. If you do not give the oppositions’ views their due. and to weigh the strength of opposing views and arguments against your own. to the others. some of the implications of your view. It is this section that will give the reader confidence in your thesis. The Context Ideally. briefly. dismissive or otherwise unfair. You will already have adverted to this context in your introduction. IV.Graduate Mentoring Philosophical Essay Writing This is an important section. This is your opportunity to discuss the context in more details. Pick a prominent one. . Say why you are concentrating upon it. At this point you will have established your thesis as the best amongst the alternatives. IV.i Opposing Views What are the opposing views in the field? What are the arguments for them? Where do they go wrong? You should treat opposing views and arguments with the same respect. and weigh them against the same standards. briefly. or at least will mitigate any reluctance on their part to accept it.

If you are attributing a view to someone else. The over reliance on the words of others will simply betray this insecurity. of course. They give the reader the chance to apply the concepts that you are introducing. What your Essay Should Include Use the simplest language possible. You will probably read many more articles and explore many more sources than you need for writing your essay. Use lots of signposting. This section is not obligatory. you will need to cite the sources that have helped you. (Short ones are fine) Quote only what is required to make your point. Try to minimise the use of long quotations.ii Novel Consequences Are there any surprising consequences. Cite only the sources that you actually use in your essay. Nothing new or surprising should crop up here. There is a temptation to rely on numerous and long quotations when you feel insecure about your grasp of the material. make it clear that you are not speaking in your own voice (“Smith has argued that …”). Short sentences are easier to follow than long ones. without compromising precision. 4. Be generous and fair in your use of citations. If someone has beaten you to the best argument. Rely on non-technical terms as much as possible. If there is one thing that you wish the reader to take from your paper this is your chance to make sure that they do. so be it. What your Essay Should Exclude Too much background and too much ancillary verbiage can obscure an otherwise good argument. Keep the reader apprised of where you are in the overall structure of the essay (“Having argued in the previous section that that p. You do not need to demonstrate a grasp of the entire history of your subject. . acknowledge that. try to illuminate it with an example. They may give you a chance to show how your argument works applied to a less contentious issue. Examples are really helpful in a philosophical essay. Apart from the thesis and the argument. If a thesis follows from a particular passage.Graduate Mentoring Philosophical Essay Writing Why is your thesis important? Does it require your opponents to make significant changes to their point of view? How does it augment what we already know about the thesis you are supporting? Does it link your view on this matter to other important debates in philosophy? VI. If you are introducing a new or unfamiliar idea. 3. or tantalizing suggestions about how to extend your position. signify this (“it follows that …). I now wish to show that this is incompatible with q”). VII Conclusion Short and to the point. Supply only the background that the reader needs in order to follow your argument and to see where it fits in the philosophical debate.

Ask yourself whether the proponents of the various views are really addressing the same issue. try to remember why you found it so compelling. If the debate is well conducted in the philosophical literature you will be drawn first one way and then the other by the various arguments. In philosophy.2 Writing Write and write again. try to get to the heart of the disagreement. it has already done its work. It teaches you about your thesis and about your argument. What you write in your early drafts has genuine didactic value—for you. That’s natural. It may take a long time.3 Introduction The introduction may be the most difficult part of your essay to write. it probably doesn’t belong in your essay. If you are convinced by an argument that you later come to doubt. You will probably be surprised how much a philosophical essay changes between drafts. Writing is part of the research process itself. .Graduate Mentoring Philosophical Essay Writing 5. 5. for you to formulate your own view on the matter. Are they talking past one another? Discuss your subject matter informally with friends and colleagues. Give yourself time to ruminate. 5. When approaching a debate in the philosophical literature. 5. let the changes happen. writing is not merely the process of summing up the research once it has been conducted. This is natural. If so. The best way to formulate your argument is to write it down—over and over again. Ask yourself whether an author’s argument really does support her position. and probably many other disciplines too.3 Editing Your paper should go through a number of revisions. It must be short and informative and devoid of any extraneous stuff. first about what the issue is and then about what position you should take. Write an outline with headings and sub-headings and stick to it.4 Final Draft By the time you come to write your final draft you should have a very clear concept of your essay’s structure. This will help you to persuade others who may have been taken in in the same way. Be prepared to edit rigorously and unsentimentally. Write it last. Attend to the quality of the various arguments on offer. You will probably find that while doing the background reading you will become confused.1 Preparation Start early. but these simple virtues are hard won. 5. It may be of less value to your reader. and much re-reading. Once you have even a vague idea of what position you would like to present. start to write. 5. be prepared to let it go. If you find that a certain passage doesn’t fit into your outline. How to Proceed The hallmark of a philosophical paper may be simplicity and clarity.

E. White (2009) Elements of Style. Wilder Publications.pdf Peter Horben has produced the following short and very good guide: http://www. Read your paper slowly and carefully. out loud if guide is available from the Harvard Writing Center: http://isites. 2nd edition. Try not to be too intimidated by that. I take some solace in the thought that those who find it easy probably aren’t doing it right.B. bear in mind that you have the advantage of being a member of a community that has in it some exceptionally good philosophers. in the way that the reader will. but it has many of the elements discussed above. (1963) Is justified true Belief Knowledge? Analysis 23: 121-123 It is probably a little too short to act as a model for your own term paper. and E. I have found the following sources very helpful in compiling this guide Martinich. It is really helpful if you can have a colleague proof read your work. The classic style guide for academic writing is: Strunk. but also remarkably difficult.topic564564. (2005) Philosophical Writing: An Introduction.jimpryor. quite .htm James Pryor’s guide for undergraduates has much of value: http://www.Graduate Mentoring Philosophical Essay Writing 5. Sources: There are numerous sources for guidance on writing an essay. Feel free to make the most of this valuable resource. Malden Ma: Blackwell Publishing.sfu. remember that philosophy is really difficult. Also. The following.5 Proof Reading This is extremely important. it is very difficult to approach it You will find that by the time you have finished the final draft of your essay you practically have it memorized.harvard. A. Finally. Here is an example of a paradigm of philosophical essay writing: Gettier.files/Philosophical_Writing. both students and faculty. W. So.