Writing a Philosophy Paper

Robert Lane

University of West Georgia

rev. July 2013

 

 

I assume that you can already write an acceptable essay in English. If this is not the case, you may find assistance with the fundamentals of essay writing at the Writing Center (TLC 1-201; (770) 836-6513; http://www.westga.edu/~writing/ ; writing “at” westga.edu)

 

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I. What is a Philosophy Paper?

 

II. How You’ll be Graded

 

III. Technical Details

 

IV. Writing the Paper

 

V. Online Resources

 

VI. Bibliographic Formatting

 

VII. Plagiarism and Citation

 

 

I. What is a Philosophy Paper?

 

Essentially, a philosophy paper is an original, extended argument for some claim.

 

The entire purpose of the paper you will write is to make a philosophical claim and then support that claim with reasons, evidence, arguments. The point is to attempt to convince your reader to believe your claim by presenting the best reasons you can muster for thinking that the claim is true.

 

A philosophy paper contains original thoughts and insights. It is not a research paper in the sense of a paper that simply records what other people have already said. It is a research paper in the sense of an original attempt by you to answer some philosophical question. The point of this paper is not for you to read what other people have written about a subject and then report on what you have read. Rather, the point is for you to take a position on some philosophical issue and to give your own reasons for thinking that your position is correct.

·           This is not to say that you are not responsible for reading what other people have said before or during the writing of your paper. You are responsible for doing all of the reading assigned for the course for which you are writing the paper.

·           And if your argument depends on some factual claim (e.g., that very few abortions are performed in the third trimester of pregnancy; that polygamy is common in some-or-other part of the world), then you must cite the source of this information.

 

For an excellent (and far more detailed) answer to the question “what is a philosophy paper?”, please read James Pryor’s “What Does One Do in a Philosophy Paper?”:

 

http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html#PhilPaper

 

This is part of his “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper”:

 

http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html

 

Other documents worth taking a look at:

 

 “How to Write a Crap Philosophy Paper”  by James Lenman. (Note: You do NOT want to write a crap philosophy paper, so the point of this document is to list things you shouldn’t do!)

 

“Polishing Your Prose” by Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn.

 

 

II. How You’ll Be Graded

 

1.      Understanding of course material (20%). How well do you understand the topic (issue, argument, theory, etc.) on which you are writing? To what degree have you mastered the relevant material covered in class or assigned as reading for the class? Are your descriptions and summaries of this material accurate, clear and precise? Are you charitable in interpreting the philosophers about whose work you are writing?

 

2.      Clarity and strength of your arguments (20%). Is the thesis of your paper (the conclusion that you defend) clearly stated? Are your premises clearly stated? Do your premises support your conclusion? Are the premises on which you rely true, or at least plausible? Do you provide secondary arguments in support of your more controversial premises? Do you anticipate and respond to potential objections to your view?

 

3.      Originality (20%). Does your essay contain your own original thinking, e.g., an argument of your own, or a unique way of interpreting or extrapolating from something another philosopher has written? Do you provide original examples to illustrate the points that you are making?

 

4.      Organization (20%). Is the paper clearly organized, with section breaks where appropriate and “sign post” language to guide the reader from one idea to the next? Do the transitions between paragraphs in a given section make sense? Do the transitions between sections make sense? Are you making clear to the reader what work each section of the paper is supposed to be doing?

 

5.      Grammar, punctuation and spelling (20%) I expect your essay to be free from any grammar, punctuation or spelling errors. Errors that render your meaning unclear, and thus make it difficult for a reader to understand what you mean, will especially count against you.

 

I will assign a letter grade for each of these five criteria. The final grade for your paper will be the average of those five initial grades.

 

 

III. Technical Details

 

·           Your essay must be typed, double-spaced, with wide margins. This will give me plenty of room to write comments on your papers. No handwritten essays will be accepted.

 

·           Include a word-count at the end of your essay. (Microsoft Word displays the total word count of a document at the left side of the gray bar at the bottom of the screen. Your word count should include only the body of your paper (not its title or your bibliography).

 

·           Unless directed otherwise by me, do not put your name anywhere on your essay. Rather, identify your paper with your student number. This will help me grade your papers blindly (without knowing whose paper it is I’m grading).

 

A note about blind grading: in a perfect world, I would not know who wrote a given paper until after I had read and graded it. However, if you choose to talk with me about your paper as you are writing it (and I encourage you to do so, if you wish), then I will almost certainly know that it’s your paper when I’m grading it. This is not ideal, but obviously, it’s important that you be able to talk with me about your paper while you’re working on it, so my grading cannot always be blind.

 

·           Do not hand in your paper in a binder, folder, etc. Simply staple the pages together in the upper left corner.

 

·           The minimum and maximum length of your essay will be specified in the instructions for your specific assignment.

 

 

IV. Writing the Paper

 

Begin by deciding on a general topic. As you are reviewing your lecture notes and your assigned reading, look for something—a claim, an argument, a theory, an example--that genuinely interests you. Make a note of anything that you find truly exciting or troubling. This is the best way to choose a paper topic—the question about which you are writing should be something that you want to think more deeply about.

 

Think about what you want to say. Try to articulate why you find the issue or question interesting, exciting, or troubling. What is it about this topic that draws you to it, that makes you want to spend more time thinking about it?

·           Do you disagree with what some philosopher has said? If so, you have the beginnings of a paper topic: “I will argue that Philosopher X is wrong when she says that...” This is typically the easiest sort of philosophy paper to write, especially for beginners. It is much easier to say something original when you are criticizing something that someone has already said. I strongly recommend this approach to students who never written a philosophy paper before.

·           Do you agree with what some philosopher has said and think that you can extend his or her claim in some original way? If so, your paper topic might be: “I agree with X’s claim that ..., and I believe that this claim can be applied in a way that X doesn’t consider...”

·           Do you agree with a conclusion for which some philosopher has argued, but think you can give a better, or at least a different, argument for that conclusion? If so, your topic might be: “X is right for thinking that ..., but the argument she gives is unsound; I will give a sound argument to support this claim.”

·           For a list of other general approaches to writing a philosophy paper, see the document by James Pryor, referred to above.

 

Keep notes on your topic. Before you begin to actually write the paper, you should make notes for yourself that articulate any original thoughts you have about the subject you’ve chosen. Any time you are studying lecture notes or doing assigned reading, you should be prepared to jot down anything you come across, or anything you think of, that might be relevant to your paper. As this collection of notes grows, you should start to get a better idea of the specific point you want to argue in your paper.

 

As you are writing the paper...

·           Do not think of it as an assignment that you will write from beginning to end at one sitting.

·           Instead, think of the paper as containing a central idea, one central argument, that you will construct from the raw materials of your assigned readings and your own original notes.

·           This means that the first thing you get down on paper may be something (a sentence, or paragraph, or page) that ends up occurring in the middle or at the very end of your final draft, or that does not end up in your final draft at all.

·           Return to the draft of your essay again and again, with an eye to expanding it, strengthening its reasoning, polishing it, and just generally improving it each time you work on it.

·           Do not be afraid to write something down, even if you are not sure about it. The worst that can happen is that you read what you’ve written, decide you don’t want to keep it, and set it aside.

 

 

Your final draft should...

 

·           be written in first-person (e.g., say “I will argue that Socrates is wrong...” rather than “It will be argued that Socrates is wrong...”). Don’t hide yourself from the reader.

 

·           be well-organized, so that a reader who knows nothing about your subject can follow you from beginning to end and never lose sight of what you are doing. You should assume that your reader knows nothing about your topic and that you need to guide him or her “by the hand” through your essay and the arguments it contains.

 

·           be divided into sections, each of which does one specific job. Section breaks serve as useful signals to the reader (and to the author!) that one portion of the paper has ended and another one has begun. As an example, consider the following way of organizing a philosophy paper:

 

Sec.1: Introduction

 

Sec.2: Explaining the views of philosopher X

 

Sec.3: First criticism of / argument against philosopher X; how X might respond; why that response would not work

 

Sec.4: Second criticism of / argument against philosopher X; how X might respond; why that response would not work

 

Sec.5: Conclusion/summary

 

·           contain (in its introductory section) a thesis statement, a sentence in which you state exactly the point that you are arguing. For example, suppose that you have chosen to criticize James Rachels’ argument against ethical egoism. Your opening paragraph might read as follows:

 

In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels argues that ethical egoism, the view that the moral thing to do is always whatever is in your own best interest, is false. But I believe that Rachels’ argument is unsound. In particular, I think that his argument relies on a premise that is false. In this essay, I will show that Rachels’ argument is unsound by providing three distinct reasons for thinking that that premise is not true.

 

Notice that this paragraph does not start out with some generic statement about the general issue (“For years, society has debated the origins of morality.” or “Today people disagree about whether egoism is true or false”). You should leave out such vague material—it’s padding, filler, and completely unneeded. Your paper should begin by getting right to the point.

 

·           conclude with one or more paragraphs summarizing what you did in the essay. E.g., “In this essay, I have provided reasons for thinking that an important assumption made by Rachels in his argument against ethical egoism is false...”

 

·           use plain language and relatively short sentences. Philosophy is a difficult subject, but the best philosophy is written in the language that is only as complicated as it has to be in order to convey the writer’s ideas. If you have a choice between a complicated way of expressing an idea and a simpler way, always choose the simpler way. This includes choosing more familiar terms over more obscure terms when the familiar ones will work at least as well. It also includes avoiding convoluted sentences, or even sentences that are longer than necessary. (It is a good idea to have friends read your paper at some point before you turn it in--they can tell you whether or not they’ve understood what you’re trying to say and identify points that you need to clarify.)

 

·           avoid long quotations from the text. You should quote directly from your textbook (or any other source) only when necessary, and you should avoid lengthy quotations unless they are absolutely necessary. When possible, you should paraphrase the material with which you are dealing; this means that you should explain the material to your reader in your own words. E.g., instead of simply quoting a passage in which James Rachels argues against ethical egoism, you should explain the contents of that paragraph in your own words.

 

·         be free from errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. DO NOT RELY ON WORD’S SPELL-CHECKING AND GRAMMAR-CHECKING FUNCTIONS! You will need to read carefully through your paper looking for spelling (etc.) mistakes and editing the paper accordingly. The best way proof-read is from a printed copy of the paper, reading aloud as you go. This will help you see errors that you would otherwise miss.

 

 

A Note About Reading Others’ Work Charitably

 

If you are writing a paper that criticizes another philosopher’s work, be sure that you are reading his or her work charitably. Do not attribute a weak argument or view to that philosopher just for the sake of criticizing it. This is the straw man fallacy – misrepresenting an opponent’s views in a way that presents them as silly, obviously wrong-headed, contradictory, etc., simply to make those views easier to attack.

 

Here is some sound advice from Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (W. W. Norton and Co., 2013):

 

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

 

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

 

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

 

1.      Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2.      List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3.      Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4.      Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

 

 

A Note about Religious Assumptions

·           Remember that the point of your essay is to convince your reader of some conclusion, i.e., to present an argument. To do this well, you should strive to rely on premises that your audience will accept. If you only rely on controversial premises, you may as well not present an argument at all, since your readers will probably reject your premises and thus have no reason to believe your conclusion.

·            Religious claims are necessarily controversial--not everyone believes any specific religious claim, not even the vague claim that God exists. So in general: your arguments should not rely on claims about God or on any other religious claims, and should not rely on passages from any religious texts.

 

 

 

 

V. Resources: Print and Online

 

Unless otherwise specified in the instruction document for your specific assignment, you are not required to use resources other than readings assigned in class.

 

However, you are permitted to use sources other than your textbook(s) if you wish. If you do use other resources, I prefer that you use scholarly books or journal articles. You can find many books and journal articles related to philosophical subjects in Ingram Library.

 

A valuable bibliography tool for locating books and articles on a given topic is Philosopher’s Index (PI).

 

·         You can access and search PI online at Ingram Library’s webpage:

·         Go to: http://www.galileo.usg.edu/scholar/westga/databases/p/

·         Scroll down and click on “Philosopher’s Index”

·         If you are using a computer not directly connected to the campus’ network, you will need the current off-campus log-in password, which you can get by logging into your Ingram Library account: http://www.westga.edu/~library/password/

 

 

Unless you get my explicit permission to do so, you may not use my lecture notes in writing your paper. If you are writing about material that is touched on in my online notes but that originated in one of your assigned readings, the readings must be your primary source of information. You will lose points for “Understanding of Course Material” if you rely on my lecture notes rather than on the assigned readings.

 

You may use online (web-based) resources, but only those in the following list:

 

(a)     journals, magazines, encyclopedias, etc. in Galileo:

 

(b)    eLibrary books found in the UWG Library online catalog

 

(c)     online government documents (publications of the U.S. government or American state governments)

 

(d)     The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

 

(e)     The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

 

Do NOT use any other online resources in your paper unless you get specific permission from me first.  If you break this rule you will lose one letter grade for every online source you cite.

 

 

 

VI. Bibliographic Formatting

 

At the end of a paper, you must include a full bibliography of all materials that you used in the course of writing your paper. You must include a bibliography, even if the only source you are citing is from a textbook we have used in class. Failure to include a bibliography, or to include all of your sources in your bibliography, will result in a significant deduction of points from your grade.

 

Use the following formats:

 

Books

 

Author’s name and initials, title of book (in italics), name of publisher, place of publication, date of publication. Example:

 

Haack, S. Evidence and Inquiry. Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1993.

 

Rachels, J. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., McGraw-Hill, Boston, 2003.

 

Articles in journals

 

Author’s name and initials, title of article in quotation marks, name of journal (in italics), volume number, date, page numbers. Example:

 

Lane, R., “Peirce’s Triadic Logic Revisited,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 35, 1999, 284-311.

 

Articles in collections & anthologies

 

Author’s name and initials, title of paper in quotation marks, editor’s name and initials, name of book (in italics), name of publisher, place of publication, date of publication, page numbers. Example:

 

Haack, S., “The First Rule of Reason,” in J. Brunning and P. Forster, eds., The Rule of Reason. The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1997, 241-261.

 

Marquis, D., “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy 86, 1989, 183-202; reprinted in J. Rachels and S. Rachels, eds., The Right Thing to Do, 4th ed., McGraw-Hill, Boston, 2007, pp.89-96.

 

**Notice that an entry for a reprinted article (like the Marquis example) contains the publication information for the reprint and the original publication.

 

Online materials

 

If the material you are citing originated in print (e.g., a journal article, or an eLibrary book), then there is no need to cite information for the online version; simply give the information as indicated by the relevant example above.

 

If the material you are citing only appears online, then use the following format:

 

King, P., “Peter Abelard,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/abelard/>. Accessed September 7, 2007.

 

 

VII. Plagiarism and Citation

 

If you use another person’s ideas without giving him or her credit, you have committed plagiarism and thereby violated the Honor Code of the University of West Georgia. You will receive an automatic “F” for the entire course.

  

When you quote from someone else’s work, including from your textbook(s) or from my lecture notes, you must indicate that you are quoting, and you must cite the source, including the page number. Quoting without indicating that you are doing so constitutes presenting someone else’s words as your own. This is plagiarism and is grounds for course grade of  “F.”

 

But quoting from another work is not the only reason to cite that work. You must also cite another work whenever you use or refer to ideas from that work.

 

Citations should be made using footnotes as shown here:

 

DeGrazia considers the possibility that anti-essentialism is true, i.e., that “human persons are of many kinds without any one kind representing our essence.”1

_______________

 

1 DeGrazia 2005, p.27.

 

Footnotes can be inserted easily using Word – Under the “References” tab, just click the “Insert Footnote” button.

 

Any work you refer to in a citation must be included in your bibliography.

 

The following is excellent advice for avoiding plagiarism and citing materials used; I expect all students to follow it:

 

Students are expected to turn in only their own work. All quotes and uses of the ideas of others must be cited. If you have someone help you on your paper and they give you some ideas, you must cite them. (You do not have to cite them if they only give you grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity or organizational help.) Remember, when it doubt, cite it. (Rainbolt, G. “Rainbolt’s Guide to Philosophy and Philosophy Papers,” URL= < http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jwcwolf/Papers/Rainbolt%27s%20Guide.htm>. Accessed July 19, 2013.)