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Resources – How to Write a Philosophy Paper

Introduction to the Topic

The most common introductory level philosophy papers involve making an original argument (“Do you believe that free will exists?”) or thinking critically about another philosopher’s argument (“Do you agree with Hobbes’ argument about free will?”). This short checklist will help you construct a paper for these two types of assignments.

The Basics of a Philosophy Paper

1. Introduction and Thesis

There is not a need for a grand or lofty introduction in a philosophy paper. Introductory paragraphs should be short and concise. In the thesis, state what you will be arguing and how you will make your argument.

2. Define Terms

It is important to define words that you use in your argument that may be unclear to your reader. While it may seem like words like “morality” and “free will” have an obvious definition, you need to make clear to your audience what those words mean in the context of your paper. A generally useful rule is to pretend that your reader does not know anything about your course or the subject of philosophy and define any words or concepts that such a reader may find ambiguous.

3. Reasons

In a philosophy paper, you need to give reasons to support the argument you made in your thesis. This should constitute the largest portion of your paper. It is also important here to name preexisting conditions (premises) that must exist in order for the argument to be true. You can use real-world examples and the ideas of other philosophers to generate reasons why your argument is true. Remember to use simple and clear language and treat your readers as if they are not experts in philosophy.

4. Objections and Responses to Objections

Unlike other types of persuasive essays, in a many philosophy papers you should anticipate criticisms of your argument and respond to those criticisms. If you can refute objections to your argument, your paper will be stronger. While you do not have to address every potential counterargument, you should try to cover the most salient problems.

5. Conclusion

Like the introduction, you should be simple and concise. In the final paragraph you should review and summarize what your paper has established. The conclusion should tell readers why your argument is relevant. It answers the question, “Why do I care?”

General Tips

  • Do not overstate or over generalize your ideas.
  • Do not try to argue for both sides of an issue. Be clear about where you stand or your reader will be confused.
  • Be specific. Do not try to tackle a huge issue, but rather, aim to discuss something small that can be done justice in just a few pages.
  • Be wary of using religious or legal grounds for your argument.

A Quick Practice Exercise...

Practice: What is wrong with this paragraph?

This paragraph contains 5 major errors that you should try to avoid in a philosophy paper. Can you find them all?

“In his argument from design, Paley uses the example of a watch that he finds upon a road that has dozens of pieces that work together to make the clock function.  He asserts that this watch is too perfect of a creation not to have a creator and that it would be obvious to conclude that the timepiece must have a maker. Similarly, the Bible proves that God must exist because he made the world beautiful in seven days.  Paley notes, “There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance, without a contriver; order, without choice; arrangement without anything capable of arranging” (Paley 49). This reasoning is strong because it is apparent that beings found in nature have a complex design.  For example, the iris, retina, lens and ocular muscles of the eye all work together to produce sight in the human eye and without any one of these mechanisms, one would be blind.  For all of these tiny pieces that are required for a functioning eye to have randomly come together seems impossible. Therefore, it is logical that there had to be a designer who created a world in which DNA replicates and dozens of small parts create a functioning human or animal.  By simply viewing the natural world, it is highly plausible to see that Paley’s theory is correct.”

Answer Key

1. “Similarly, the Bible proves that God must exist because he had the power to make the flood happen in Noah’s Ark.” Arguments based off religious texts, such as the Bible, are generally frowned upon and only weaken an essay.

2. The writer does not define what he means by “God.” Is God a benevolent overseer of the earth? Or is God a vengeful figure? Although it may seem as though everyone knows who God is, in reality, people have different perspective and the writer needs to define God’s character for the reader.

3. “For all of these tiny pieces that are required for a functioning eye to have randomly come together seems impossible.” The phrase “seems impossible” is weak and unclear. In a philosophy paper, you should take a strong stance and avoid words that weaken your argument like “probably” or “seem.” Additionally, the phrase “highly plausible” appears at the end of the paragraph, which is also a phrase that weakens the argument.

4. The writer gives not premises for Paley’s argument to be true. A stronger paper would name the preexisting conditions that must exist in order for the argument to stand.

5. The “real world” example of the human eye is not the best. The writer neglects strong counterarguments such as evolution and the existence of blindness in humans. A good philosophy paper would be more careful when considering real world examples.

Developed by Ann Bruton

Adapted from:

Harvard University’s Short Guide to Philosophical Writing

Kenneth Seeskin’s “How to Write a Philosophy Paper,” Northwestern University

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