A philosophy paper is an original, extended argument for some claim.
A philosophy paper is an extended argument. The entire purpose of the paper you will write is to make a philosophical claim and then support that claim with reasons, evidence, argumentation. 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. The point of writing a philosophy paper is not for you to read what other people have written about a subject and then report on what you have read. Merely summarizing what others have said is not enough. 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 will usually require that you come up with your own way of elaborating, criticizing or defending the ideas and arguments covered in class.
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. Usually, your paper will be focused on a text or texts that have been discussed in class. You are responsible for doing all of the reading assigned for the course for which you are writing the paper, and your paper must deal with that material in some way.
If your arguments depend on one or more factual claims that are not made in the texts about which you are writing (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?"
In grading your philosophical writing, your professor will take all of the following into consideration.
- Understanding of course material. How well do you understand the topic (issue, argument, etc.) on which you are writing? How well do you understand the philosophical texts about which you are writing or to which you are responding?
- Strength of your arguments. Is your reasoning logically strong or weak? In other words, do your arguments work? Are the premises on which you rely true, or at least plausible? Do you anticipate and respond to potential objections to your view?
- Originality. 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?
- Clarity and precision. Is it clear to the reader (i.e., to your professor) what you are trying to say? Is your wording precise, or does it leave unclear the point you are trying to make?
- Conciseness. Have you argued your claim concisely, in as few words as necessary? Do you avoid extraneous material?
- Grammar, punctuation and spelling. Your essay should 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.
Different philosophy professors may weight these criteria in different ways when assigning your grade. But every professor will take all six criteria into account when determining your grade on a given assignment.
Your paper should include an introductory section or paragraph that contains a thesis statement or statements, one or more sentences 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 is padding, filler, and completely unneeded. Your paper should begin by getting right to the point.
Your paper should be well-organized, so that a reader who knows little about your subject can follow you from beginning to end and never lose sight of what you are doing. The structure of your paper should be obvious from the beginning paragraph, but it should also be well signposted along the way. It is a good idea to 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. 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 should clearly present and assess the views of the philosopher(s) that you discuss. You should explain what a position says before you criticize it. A clear and concise explanation of the ideas 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. What's more, your explanation should be charitable. If an author's ideas can be understood in more than one way, you should assume that he or she intended the best possible version of those ideas. Do not attribute implausible or irrational claims or theories to others when what they wrote can also be interpreted in a more charitable way.
You should support what you say about a philosopher's views with quotations from the text itself. Quotations should never be used as a substitute for your own explanation, but they 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. Be sure that when you are quoting from the text you provide a full citation.
You should try to anticipate objections to your view and respond to them. For instance, if you object to some philosopher's view, don't assume that he or she would immediately admit defeat. Imagine what the philosopher's response might be, and then think about how you would handle that response. Think of this as a dialogue between you and the philosopher whose work you are criticizing.
Your paper should conclude with a section or paragraph that summarizes what you have done in the paper. 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..." Don't expect your reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what you have accomplished in the paper. Tell your reader precisely what you have shown, as well as what questions or issues still remain. There is nothing wrong with still having questions at the end of a philosophical investigation. Sometimes philosophical inquiry leads to more questions and issues rather than to some grand conclusion. If this is what is happening in your paper, it is best to be clear and honest about it.
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. In this situation your professor may give you a grade of "F" for the entire course.
When you quote from someone else's work, including from the philosophical texts about which you are writing, 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."