How to Write a Philosophy Term Paper

Dr. Janet Donohoe


1.            Selecting a topic


When selecting a topic for a term paper you should consider the texts we have read in class, think about what issues we have addressed and think about what issues and texts have interested you the most.  Is there an issue raised in the text that we didn’t talk about in class that is of interest?  Is there something troubling about a theory we’ve discussed?  Are there tensions in the text that are worth exploring?  Has the philosopher failed to consider an important aspect of any issue?

The aim of these papers is for you to show that you understand the material and that you're able to think critically about it.  To do this, your paper needs to show some independent thinking.  That doesn't mean you have to come up with your own theory, but you should try to come up with your own arguments, or your own way of elaborating or criticizing or defending some argument we looked at in class. Merely summarizing what others have said won't be enough.

Formulate the central problem or question you wish to address at the beginning of your paper, and keep it in mind at all times.  Make clear what the problem is, and why it is a problem.  Be sure that everything you write is relevant to that central problem.  In addition, be sure to say in the paper how it is relevant.  Don't make your reader guess.

2.            Research


Primarily, your term paper should be focused on a text or texts that we have discussed in class.  The goal is for you to express your own understanding and analysis of a text or texts.  If you want to do research into secondary sources, the best way to do so is to consult the Philosopher’s Index to see what kinds of articles might have been published that would be pertinent to your issue.  I would highly recommend that you not rely on the Web to get information on your issue.  Web sources are notoriously unreliable and can often be overly simplistic in their presentation of any philosophical view.  Scholarly articles and books are the best sources to consult.  Be sure that if you consult any secondary sources that you cite those sources.  Failure to do so can have dire results. 


The Department of English and Philosophy defines plagiarism as taking personal credit for the thinking of others as it is presented in electronic, print, and verbal sources.  The Department expects that students will accurately credit sources in all assignments.  Plagiarism is grounds for failing the course and may result in further consequences of being expelled from the University.


3.         The Written Work


A.  Make the structure of your paper obvious.

The structure of your paper should be obvious from the beginning paragraph, but should also be well signposted along the way.  Tell your reader where the paper is going in explicit terms.  There is nothing wrong with being overly clear!  Phrases like the following are helpful in providing direction to your reader.


I will begin by...

After providing an explanation of X’s view, I will pose three important questions…

These passages suggest that...

In the following I will argue that…

What I have shown here is that…


You can't make the structure of your paper obvious if you don't know what the structure of your paper is, or if your paper has no structure.  That's why making an outline is so important.

B.  Clearly Present and assess the views of the philosophers discussed

Explain what a position says before you criticize it.  A clear and concise explanation of the theory you are addressing is fundamental to making yourself and your critique of the position understood. It is important to provide explication only of those aspects of the philosophical position that are relevant to your main point, so keep the summary to a minimum so that you can get on to the important work of providing your analysis. 


Be sure to support what you say in summary of the text with quotations from the text itself.  Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation, but should be used to show that what you are explaining is explicit (or implicit) in the text.  When you quote an author, you still have to explain what the quotation says in your own words.  And be sure that when you are quoting from the text you provide a full citation. 

C.  Anticipate objections

Try to anticipate objections to your view and respond to them. For instance, if you object to some philosopher's view, don't assume the philosopher would immediately admit defeat. Imagine what the philosopher’s comeback might be and how would you handle that comeback.  Think of it as a dialogue between you and the philosopher.


D.  Provide a clear conclusion


Don’t allow your reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what you’ve accomplished in the paper.  Tell your reader precisely what you’ve shown and what questions or issues still remain.  There is nothing wrong with still having questions at the end of a philosophical investigation.  Sometimes the philosophical endeavor most importantly leads to more questions and issues than to some grand conclusion.  It is best to be clear and honest about that.