A note on writing a good philosophy paper:
It’s effortless. Fair.
1) Have a point. Your paper must be organized around a thesis.
This can be fairly modest in its aims, and normally will be modest in a brief essay at the introductory level. It is virtually unlikely to cogently defend a grand and complicated thesis in a brief essay, even for someone with good background skill of the topic. On the other forearm, your thesis shouldn’t be trivial or pointless either.
Suppose the assignment were: “Write a 2000-word essay discussing J.S. Mill’s argument that general happiness is a general good”.
Too ambitious: “In this paper I will showcase that via human history happiness has been regarded as a universal good by all the greatest thinkers.”
Too ambitious: “I will argue that Mill’s entire system of utilitarian ethics, predicated on eudaimonism rather than ordinary hedonism, fails in light of a range of problems.”
Too trivial: “My view is that morality is a difficult question. This much is certain: the debate will proceed.”
Too trivial: “Evil is bad. And good… isn’t!”
About right: “I will analyze Mill’s argument and shortly argue that it can be clarified in one significant way that makes it more plausible.”
About right: “Mill’s argument that general happiness is a general good commits a fallacy, which I will point out by very first reformulating his argument and then showcasing how an analogous argument fails.”
About right: “Although there are two tempting protestations to Mill’s reasoning, I will shortly demonstrate that both protestations fail. Mill’s argument at least does not give way to the most evident replies.”
Two) Say, with absolute clarity, what your point is. Do this in the very first paragraph. (The last sentence of the very first paragraph is often used for voicing the thesis.)
There’s no need for a superb deal of stage-setting, but an introductory paragraph should at least begin by talking about the topic somewhat generally, and quickly get more specific until the thesis statement is introduced. Four or five sentences in total should be slew for the introduction to a brief paper.
Trio) If you are writing on an assigned topic, reaction the question directly.
That’s it. Just write your essay in a way that clearly and directly answers the question. It’s astonishing to see the proportion of essays on assigned topics that don’t do this.
Four) Now just make the points that support your thesis.
For the most part you should make each point in a separate paragraph. They should be linked in a way that makes clear how each point supports the thesis, perhaps in conjunction with the other points.
The old “So what?” test can be useful here. Imagine a reader who grants that your stated thesis is interesting, and who looks at each paragraph in isolation and asks “So what?” Have you explained why that point bears directly on the case you said you would make?
It’s not enough just to write down points that you think are relevant. In fact, it’s not enough to write down points that are relevant. You have to demonstrate that they are relevant, by linking them to your overall thesis in a translucent manner.
Five) Write simply, directly, and grammatically.
Students often ask whether it’s acceptable to write in the very first person. Many schoolteachers have trained them not to use “I” in a formal essay. For my course, feel free to write in the very first person, or the third person. Heck, write in the 2nd person if it will help you to write in a elementary and direct style. The writing should display and not obscure the content and quality of your reasoning.
6) Anticipate protestations.
If you think that one or two challenges to your point are fairly demonstrable, and you have good replies to them, you can shortly attempt to defuse the protestations in advance.
7) Conclude by summarizing how you truly did what you said you were going to do.
8) Include a list of bibliographical references.
Much of your information, and even some of your essay’s good ideas, came from other sources. Clearly note this in the text of your paper, and then include a list of the sources, formatted correctly, at the end. There are a few different ways of doing this; your professor may ask for one in particular. For my courses, I don’t care which of the following methods you use – just use one of them consistently, and make sure to cite your sources accurately.
8) Spell-check the darned thing. Make sure you spell everyone’s names correctly!
Spelling mistakes in the title are particularly unfortunate.
II. What not to do:
1) Do not begin your essay with “Since the dawn of time” …nor with any remotely similar dreck that sounds like it came from “Mysteries of the Unexplained”.
Besides being stylistically absurd, it almost always completes up being false, e.g. “Since the beginning of the universe, humans have wondered about Descartes’ methodological scepticism.” This is indeed just a special case of the next “Do Not”.
Two) Do not attempt to be profound.
One of the key stylistic virtues for a philosophy paper is clarity. Many students begin off thinking that an essay should be convoluted and use the grandest possible vocabulary, because they believe these are hallmarks of profundity or depth. This is a serious mistake.
Of course technical terms, once you’ve defined them, are very useful; they help you to avoid awkward or repetitious phrases. But needlessly or inaccurately using orthogonal, arcane or abstruse words (like “orthogonal”, “arcane”, and “abstruse” in this sentence) simply for the purpose of appearing profound is (i) not profound and (ii) never successful. Elementary and direct writing is what shows clear thought and a mastery of the concepts.
Three) Do not determine your position without regard for the quality of the case you can make for it.
An argumentative essay requires that you defend a view. But it is not usually an exercise in merely picking a view and defending it. Many poorly argued essays result from choosing a position and then continuing to defend it, even as the writing process exposes its weaknesses. Let the strength of the arguments determine your thesis selection whenever possible.
A particular crimson flag is when students end up writing abusive or dismissive comments about opposing views or the people who hold them. If you are diminished to snark rather than counter-arguments, it very likely means you’ve backed the wrong pony relative to the arguments you can present. Of course, providing good arguments is flawlessly consistent with being snarky. In some contexts it is fine to do both. But in a brief essay with an emphasis on clarity, you should emphasize substance over rhetorical flourishes.
Four) Do not be afraid to delete.
Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn is that those hard-earned words, which you wrote – wrote! – with your very own fingers, are not sacred. If you’ve written down something that does not clearly, explicitly, directly support your thesis, get rid of it. Yes, even if you truly like the sound of it. Even if it uses some word or phrase that seems terribly clever. Even if it’s the paragraph that puts you over the minimum word-count! Delete it, hold a memorial service, then write something better.
Five) Do not remind me that my own work never goes after all of these guidelines.
III. Commonly misused words, phrases, and styles.
These especially tend to creep in when writers disregard II.Two above!
“begs the question”
This does not mean “raises the question”. It is a technical label for the argumentative fallacy of circular reasoning: that is, the fallacy of assuming the truth of what is to be proved. People (media commentators in particular) seem to use this phrase in order to sound sophisticated; yet it would be a very strange and clumsy way of telling “raises the question”. If you mean, “This raises the question of…”, then say “This raises the question of…”.
There are two grammatical ways of predicating equality: “X and Y are identically F”, or “X is as F as Y”. Keep them separate. “X is identically as F as Y” is awkward and redundant.
This can almost always be eliminated, leaving a cleaner phrasing. “What is that which gives me joy?” becomes “What gives me joy?”
“it is the case that”
This too can almost always be eliminated, leaving more direct and intelligible phrasing. “It is the case that utilitarianism is flawed” should just be “Utilitarianism is flawed”; similarly, “It is not the case that utilitarianism is flawed” should be “Utilitarianism is not flawed”.
This phrase relates a thing to a state or property. For example: “Jill is the President; as such, she has duties.” It does not generally mean therefore. thus. or hence. So it is ungrammatical and clumsy to write, “Jill went bowling last night. As such, her shoulder hurts.”