Dr. Christian Lotz, Philosophy Department,
Michigan State University
Date: June 2005
This document contains the following
You will find some of the points mentioned
Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper (From James Pryor at
Check especially the longer version of
guide to writing essays. In addition, you can also check these links.
They provide you with further information.
“Helpful Hints & Suggestions” for
producing an excellent oral
Aim for depth over breadth. Don't list all
the topics discussed in the reading for that day (there's no depth
here). Don't even summarize the author's position on all those topics
(there could be depth here but the time limit will force these readings
to be superficial). Decide what the important topics are, using your own
standards of importance. Then offer a reading of the author's position
on those topics. Master the detail and give us the perspective on the
author's position that results.
Tell us on which topics you've chosen to
focus. This will help orient us. Then when you start to give
fine-grained detail on the author's arguments and conclusions on those
topics, we'll know what to do with them.
Similarly, tell us what the author's
conclusions are on the questions in the day's reading. This will help
orient us. Then when you start to give detail on the author's supporting
arguments, we'll know where you're going with them.
Find the key terms and define them. Find the
key distinctions and explain them. Find the key arguments and present
them. Decide what's primary and what's secondary, and focus on what's
The point is to help us understand the
author, not to offer your own views in place of the author's. Criticism
should come out (if at all) in the discussion phase. The presentation is
all about what the author said.
You may consult your notes, of course, but
please do not read your presentations. That is not only dull for your
audience; it forecloses the opportunity to practice public speaking.
Prof. Peter Lipton, Department of History and Philosophy, Cambridge
Awkward writing makes the reader
uncomfortable. It is ungrammatical, unclear, choppy, or just too difficult
to follow. One cause of awkward writing is not using your own words. Instead, you rely on the
phrases and constructions of the author you are discussing. The resulting
mixture of your author's style and your own is almost always awkward. Even
if you are describing someone else's views, use your own words. The most
general and important cause of awkwardness, however, is simply the failure
to revise. Most writers produce awkward sentences the first time around;
good writers take the time to review their writing and know how to spot
awkwardness and how to eliminate it. You should assume that the first
draft of each sentence will have to be fixed up. Writing on a word
processor may make this revision easier and less time-consuming. The best
way to test for awkwardness is to read your draft out loud. Most people
have a better ear than eye, and if it sounds good it will usually read
Once you understand something, it is
difficult to remember what it was like not to understand it; but you have
to do this to get your point across. To write effectively you must put yourself in the reader's shoes. (Pretend
that your reader is a friend not in the class rather than the teacher.)
The reader cannot read your mind and she hasn't just spent five hours
thinking about your topic. So she needs plenty of help. Don't just make
your point, explain it. Give an example. Approach it from several angles.
Above all, keep your writing concrete, even in as abstract a subject as
philosophy, because abstract writing loses the reader. In addition to
keeping your reader on board, empathy helps you to figure out what it will
take to convince her that what you write is true. You already believe
yourself, but your reader needs an argument. Think of yourself as selling
your point of view, or as defending yourself in front of a jury.
An essay is not a list of sentences: it has
structure. The structure should be
obvious to the reader. Write informative introductions and conclusions.
The introduction should not only introduce the topic, it should introduce
your argument. That means that you should tell the reader what you are
going to prove and how you are going to prove it. Unless the introduction
gives the reader a clear map of the essay, she is likely to get lost. Be
direct and specific. Replace sentences like "Throughout the centuries, the
greatest minds have pondered the intractable problem of free will" with
"In this essay, I will show that free will is impossible". The conclusion
of the essay should tell the reader what has been accomplished and why the
struggle was worthwhile. It should remind the reader how the different
moves in the body of the essay fit together to form a coherent argument.
Think of your essay as composed of a series
of descriptive and argumentative moves. Each major move deserves a
paragraph. Generally speaking, a paragraph should start with a transition
sentence or a topic sentence. A transition sentence indicates how the
paragraph follows from the previous one; a topic sentence says what the
paragraph is about. Both types of sentence are really miniature maps. In the middle of a paragraph you may
want to give another map, explaining how the move you are making here is
connected to others you have made or will make. The order of your
paragraphs is crucial. The reader should have a clear sense of development
and progress as she reads. Later paragraphs should build on what has come
before, and the reader should have a feeling of steady forward motion. To
achieve this effect, you must make sure that your sentences hang together.
Think about glue. You can get glue from maps, from transition sentences
and words, and especially from the logic of your argument.
There is room for originality even when you
are out to give an accurate description of someone else's position. You
can be original by using your own words, your own explanations, and your
own examples. Of course in a critical essay there is much more scope for
original work: most of the arguments should be your own. This worries some
beginning philosophy students, who think they don't know how to come up
with their own arguments. Do not deceive yourself: Plato did not use up
all the good and easy moves, nor do you have to be a Plato to come up with
It is difficult to teach creativity, but
here are three techniques that may help. First, make distinctions. For example, instead of talking
about knowledge in general, distinguish knowledge based on what others
tell you from knowledge based on your own observation. Often, once you
make a good distinction, you will see a fruitful and original line of
argument. Second, consider comebacks. If you make an objection to one of
Plato's arguments, do not suppose that he would immediately admit defeat.
Instead, make a reply on his behalf: the resulting 'dialectic' will help
you with your own arguments. Lastly, play the why game. As you learned as
a child, whatever someone says, you can always ask why. Play that game
with your own claims. By forcing yourself to answer a few of those "why's"
you will push your own creativity. The technique of the why game suggests
a more general point. Often the problem is not lack of originality; it is
rather that the originality is not exploited. When you have a good point,
don't throw it away in one sentence. Make the most of it: explain it,
extend it, give an example, and show connections. Push your own good ideas
as deep as they will go.
“Helpful Hints & Suggestions”
for producing an excellent piece of writing (with some examples):
avoid using the second person pronoun “you”
when describing a philosophical position; instead use, e.g., “one” or
“people” or “human beings”
i one can become happy, according to Aristotle, only if one exercises
ii people (or human beings) can become happy, according to Aristotle, if
they exercise virtue (good)
iii you can become happy, according to Aristotle, only if you exercise
virtue (no good)
avoid using personal descriptions in
scholarly papers (exception: introduction, see below)
i. “I feel that” (no good)
ii. “I wonder if” (no good)
iii. “I believe that” (no good)
when presenting claims of someone other than
yourself, it is helpful to indicate this once in a while (though you do
not have to do this for every claim)
i According to Aristotle, happiness is the ultimate and final good for man
ii Virtue, in Aristotle’s view, requires one to hit the middle mark – or
mean – between excess
and deficiency, both of which are vices, in all of one’s actions
iii Aristotle claims that man is a social animal
make sure that your nouns agree in number
i when one achieves happiness, one is most fully human (good)
ii when one achieves happiness, they are most fully human (no good)
(this advice also holds regarding agreement in number between nouns and
begin each paragraph with an appropriate
opening sentence, which serves to introduce what you aim to write about in
that paragraph; in some cases this will require some sort of transition
phrase or sentence that announces that you intend to shift themes
i. In contrast to Aristotle’s position, which argues that virtue is
relative to each man, Kant claims that morality is and must be entirely
(Importantly, this sentence successfully announces that you will begin to
discuss Kant’s claims, and thus it provides a transition to your next
begin your paper with an introduction that
lays out what you hope to accomplish in your paper. A good introduction
contains the topic, a problem/question, a thesis/solution, issues and the
order of your paper.
[W-Part, Topic] In the chapter “The Meaning of Words” of his book What
does it all mean? (1987) Thomas nagel raises the question of how meaning
and words are interrelated. [Thesis] In this paper I will explore how
nagel’s questions can be discussed within the framework of René Magritte’s
picture This is not a pipe that he painted in 1938. [Outline] In a first
step, I shall give an overview about nagel’s chapter, in a second step I
shall explore Magritte’s picture, before I conclude with the thesis that
Magritte and nagel both hold that words (and pictures) are not mere
representations of objects. In other words, Magritte shows what nagel
[TOPIC] Human education is one of the central thematics that Plato
discusses in book seven of his work Republic. It is commonly called
Cave Allegory. [THESIS] In my paper I will claim that Plato has a
specific conception of the relation between life and truth, namely Plato
thinks that through education our lives become guided by truth, whereas if
we are uneducated we remain “prisoners.” Through ongoing education - which
ends with death - mankind frees itself. I will support this thesis by a
detailed interpretation of four central elements that are part of the
Allegory. [OUTLInE, ISSUES] In a first part of this paper I will give an
interpretation of the initial situation by which our lives are
characterized (cave), in a second part I will explain the crucial moment
of “release,” in a third part I will give an overview of the development
of a soul that is “moved” by education, and I will finish my paper by
giving an exploration of the central motivation of the development, which
make sure to cite all claims & thoughts that
are not your own, whether you quote them directly or you simply paraphrase
them (thus, all examples in bulleted points # 1, 2, & the last part of 4
above would require a citation, at least the first time that you present
i. Kant claims that he did not discover the moral law, but that it is
already inscribed within all human beings, even though they may not be
able to articulate it.
- Cite this either as: (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, vi) or,
since we are only dealing with one Kant text, (Kant, vi). (note that if we
were dealing with more than one text from the same author, you would need
to cite the text in the first way)
- Though this sentence is not a quote, because it clearly states
information that did not come from me, I must cite it.
- If you deal with a certain section of a text within one paragraph, you
may wait to cite it until the end of that paragraph, at which point you
may cite even a small range of pages from which the information came)
Example: blah, blah, blah…..paragraph ends, (nichomachean Ethics, 29-32),
or, (Aristotle, 29-32).
(However, if you do actually quote – which you should do only with
relevance – you must cite the text directly following the end of
the quote, and you must place the quoted text within quotation marks,
whereas with paraphrased information, you need not place text in quotation
Unexplained, Unsubstantiated, and
Irrelevant Statements. It is not enough simply to make a statement in
a scholarly paper, you must explain the statement and make it clear to the
reader how the statement is relevant to the topic of the paper. If you are
writing on the ideas of a particular philosopher, you must not only be
concerned with what the philosopher says, but why he or she says it, and
why you are reporting it in your paper. It would be of little help to a
reader of a paper on Descartes' concept of nature, for example, to be told
that Descartes believed that God exists if nothing is said about the
strategy he uses to prove God's existence and Descartes' theism is never
connected to his concept of the natural world. Likewise, if you offer your
own opinion on a particular issue in a paper, it is not sufficient simply
to state your opinion--you must also give your reasons for having the
opinion you have.
When writing a paper, then, you should adopt the following rules of thumb:
(1) never raise a topic unless you are
prepared to provide as full an explanation as is necessary to show its
relevance to the subject matter of the paper, and
(2) only offer your own opinion when you are
prepared to provide an argument or give some reasons in support of it.
Raising Unanswered Questions. It is the
writer's task in a research paper to offer some conclusions concerning the
subject matter of the paper, whether it be a philosophical issue or the
views of a particular philosopher. The writer fails in this responsibility
when he or she raises questions in a paper while offering no suggestions
as to how these questions might be answered. You should not, then, ask a
question of your reader unless you are prepared to answer it.
You should also avoid asking rhetorical questions, that is, making
statements or claims expressed in interrogative form. Often inexperienced
writers will ask a rhetorical question when they feel unsure of a claim
that they wish to make in a paper. Thus instead of writing, "His theory of
forms determined, in significant ways, the solutions Plato offered to the
moral issues and dilemmas of his day," a tentative writer might make the
same point in interrogative form by writing, "Wasn't it the theory of
forms that determined, in significant ways, the solutions that Plato
offered to the moral issues and dilemmas of his day?" Attempts to avoid
the criticism of readers in this manner usually fail: it is clear in these
instances, despite the evasive wording, that a claim is being made, and
the interrogative form only serves to give the reader the impression that
the writer has not thoroughly researched the paper topic.
Frequent Quotations. Quotations should be used only as a means of
supporting views, ideas, interpretations, etc., that you have already
explained in your paper in your own words. They should never be used as a
substitute for your explanation. Consequently, you should never write your
paper by simply compiling a series of quotations. The bulk of the text of
your paper should be your own writing, not quotations from primary and
Unfair Criticism. The rule that a writer should follow in
criticizing the views of a philosopher is often called the "Principle of
Charity." According to this principle, before offering a criticism of a
philosopher's views it is considered good practice for the writer to
provide a sympathetic account of those views. Without such an account the
reader cannot judge whether the criticism of a philosopher offered by a
writer is cogent, or whether it is based simply on the writer's
misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the philosopher's views. At times
writers will deliberately misrepresent the views of a philosopher so as to
make those views easier to attack. This is considered a fallacy of
reasoning called a "Straw Man Argument," and should always be avoided.
Make the structure of your paper obvious (important!)
You should make the structure of your paper obvious to the reader. Your
reader shouldn't have to exert any effort to figure it out. Beat him over
the head with it.
How can you do this?
First of all, use connective words, like:
because, since, given this argument
thus, therefore, hence, it follows that,
nevertheless, however, but
in the first case, on the other hand
These will help your reader keep track of
where your discussion is going. Be sure you use these words correctly! If
you say "P. Thus Q." then you are claiming that P is a good reason to
accept Q. You had better be right. If you aren't, we'll complain. Don't
throw in a "thus" or a "therefore" to make your train of thought sound
more logical than it really is.
Another way you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by
telling the reader what you've done so far and what you're going to do
next. You can say things like:
I will begin by...
Before I say what is wrong with this argument,
I want to...
These passages suggest that...
I will now defend this claim...
Further support for this claim comes from...
These signposts really make a big difference.
Consider the following two paper fragments:
...We've just seen how X says that P. I will
now present two arguments that not-P. My first argument is...
My second argument that not-P is...
X might respond to my arguments in several
ways. For instance, he could say that...
However this response fails, because...
Another way that X might respond to my
arguments is by claiming that...
This response also fails, because...
So we have seen that none of X's replies to my
argument that not-P succeed. Hence, we should reject X's claim that P.
I will argue for the view that Q.
There are three reasons to believe Q.
The strongest objection to Q says...
However, this objection does not succeed, for
the following reason...
Isn't it easy to see what the structure of
these papers is? You want it to be just as easy in your own papers.
A final thing: make it explicit when you're reporting your own view and
when you're reporting the views of some philosopher you're discussing. The
reader should never be in doubt about whose claims you're presenting in a
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.
Be concise, but explain yourself fully To write a good philosophy
paper, you need to be concise but at the same time explain yourself fully.
These demands might seem to pull in opposite directions. (It's as if the
first said "Don't talk too much," and the second said "Talk a lot.") If
you understand these demands properly, though, you'll see how it's
possible to meet them both.
We tell you to be concise because we don't
want you to ramble on about everything you know about a given topic,
trying to show how learned and intelligent you are. Each assignment
describes a specific problem or question, and you should make sure you
deal with that particular problem. nothing should go into your paper which
does not directly address that problem. Prune out everything else. It is
always better to concentrate on one or two points and develop them in
depth than to try to cram in too much. One or two well-mapped paths are
better than an impenetrable jungle.
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 it 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
One thing I mean by "explain yourself fully"
is that, when you have a good point, you shouldn't just toss it off in one
sentence. Explain it; give an example; make it clear how the point helps
But "explain yourself fully" also means to be
as clear and explicit as you possibly can when you're writing. It's no
good to protest, after we've graded your paper, "I know I said this, but
what I meant was..." Say exactly what you mean, in the first place. Part
of what you're being graded on is how well you can do that.
Pretend that your reader has not read the
material you're discussing, and has not given the topic much thought in
advance. This will of course not be true. But if you write as if it were
true, it will force you to explain any technical terms, to illustrate
strange or obscure distinctions, and to be as explicit as possible when
you summarize what some other philosopher said.
note on Quotations and Plagiarism
You should cite your sources whether you quote or merely paraphrase them.
A citation can be a footnote, an endnote, or a parenthetical note within
your main text. It should identify the author and work from which the
cited idea or language is taken, and usually the publisher, date, and
pages as well. Citation formats vary from discipline to discipline. In
literary studies, for example, the generally accepted citation style is
MLA (Modern Languages Association) style, which calls for parenthetical
page references and then a Works Cited rather than a Bibliography. Here
are some examples of how to include texts in an MLA-style Works Cited:
Author's last name, first name. Title. Place of publication: publisher,
Article in a journal:
Author's last name, first name. "Title." Periodical Title Volume # (year):
An example from an article in a collection of essays:
Fisher, Sheila. "Leaving Morgan Aside: Women, History, and Revisionism in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Medieval English Poetry. Ed. Stephanie
Trigg. London: Longman, 1993. 138-55.
An example of a book:
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A
Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
An example of an article in a journal:
Lyne, William. "The Signifying Modernist: Ralph Ellison and the Limits of
the Double Consciousness." PMLA 107(1992): 319-30.
Quotations must be marked by quotation marks or by indenting, and they
must include a citation to avoid plagiarism. You can quote whole
sentences, useful phrases, or striking terms, depending on your purposes
and style. But whenever the language is not your own, you must mark it as
Paraphrases must still cite the original to avoid plagiarism. The original
author gave you both an idea and an expression of an idea. Even if you
borrow only the idea without the expression, the author still deserves
Research in which you consult and learn from sources of all kinds is
compatible with a strict watchfulness for plagiarism. If you borrow
something from another, you should cite that person, and follow the rules
about quotation and paraphrase. After a point, you will have thoughts of
your own that are difficult to trace back to any particular source or
inspiration. They are your own, and need not be cited. It has been said
that good scholars are like bees: they collect pollen from all over, but
they turn it into their own honey.
Similarly, you should not be afraid to seek or accept legitimate help from
tutors and friends. If a friend reads your paper and gives you helpful
criticism, or if a tutor helps you with your writing, you can benefit from
that help without stepping over the line of plagiarism. The best way is to
hear the criticism, the suggestions, or the principles of your "critics,"
to understand them, and to revise your paper in light of your
understanding. Whether a paragraph rewritten with the help of a friend or
tutor is really your own can be a very difficult question requiring fine
judgment. It is your responsibility to use your judgment to prevent
overeager helpers from depriving you of authorship.
To plagiarize is to borrow the ideas or language of others without
giving appropriate credit, and to present them as your own. As an academic
crime it ranks with the falsification of scientific data. It is dishonest,
misleading to the reader, unfair to the original author, and it subverts
the goals of education and scholarship. Because it is a serious violation
of academic integrity, plagiarism is punished at virtually all educational