On Writing a Philosophy Response Paper

Professor Janet Donohoe


Writing a philosophy paper should not be an overly difficult task.  The aim of the paper is to be able to exhibit that you understand the material you have read and that you have thought about the material enough to have some kind of response to it.  Below are some guidelines to help you in preparing a clear and thoughtful paper. 


1.            Determine the main philosophical issues.  After doing the reading, put the text aside and tell yourself what the main points of the reading were.  In doing this, you help yourself determine what is important about the reading.  The main philosophical points should provide the focus for the opening section of your paper.  In the opening section, briefly identify what those main philosophical points are and explain why they are important.  Don't treat the philosopher or the views you're discussing as stupid.  If they were stupid, we wouldn't be looking at them.  Philosophers sometimes do say outrageous things, but if the view you're attributing to a philosopher seems to be obviously crazy, then you should think hard about whether he really does say what you think he says. Use your imagination. Try to figure out what reasonable position the philosopher could have had in mind, and direct your arguments towards that.


2.            Think about the issues.  Having identified what is important about the text, you should be prepared to think about and respond to the text.  In doing this, it might be helpful to ask yourself some questions, e.g., how do these ideas apply to me?, is the author right about the importance of these ideas?, is there another way to think about this issue?, etc.  Think of your process of questioning as a possible discussion between you and the philosopher you’re writing about.  How might the philosopher respond to some of the questions you pose?  Are those responses reasonable?  Try very hard to avoid the easy and common responses to the questions you raise.  Philosophers don’t usually subscribe to the common, easy responses.  Try to think beyond and beneath those answers.  Once you think you have an answer, ask yourself why that is the answer you come to and whether that is an answer that most people would give.  If it is, ask again WHY.  And again ask how the philosopher would respond to you.


3.            Describe your response and why that is your response.  The second section of your paper then should be an explanation of the thinking that you did in number 2 above.  Explain the issues that arose when asking yourself those questions and how you resolved those issues in your own mind, if you resolved those issues.  Sometimes things remain questions and it is certainly acceptable to explain that they remain questions.  As philosophers, we are not expected to have pat answers to difficult issues, so it is ok to describe the process of questioning.  Explain WHY those are the answers or questions that you come to.


4.            Draw Conclusions.  Finally, one should draw some conclusions.  This does not mean answers.  Conclusions are things we can conclude from the process, which may mean that some things remain questions for further thought, but you should give an indication of where that further thought might take us.

Remember, the important thing is to show that you have thought about the text.  You should NOT summarize the text, or reiterate the class discussion about the text.  You should engage yourself honestly with the text doing your best to put aside preconceptions and common clichéd responses to issues.


5.            Sources and Citations. 


This paper does not require that you do any outside research, however, if you desire to do some research to see what other people have said on an issue, then you MUST cite the sources you have consulted. 


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.