Guide to Writing a Philosophy Paper
Polish translation of this Guide by Valeria Aleksandrova: Przewodnik do pisania Papier Filozofia
1. An Argument for a Conclusion
A philosophy paper is an argument for a conclusion. Before you write a philosophy paper, you should ask yourself the question: what am I arguing for in this philosophy paper? If this question cannot be answered in a declarative sentence of approximately twenty words or fewer, then you do not have a conclusion, and hence, you do not have an argument, and hence, you do not have a philosophy paper.
"This paper will look at the theories of virtue of Plato and Aristotle..."
"This paper will ask if Plato and Aristotle agree on virtue being..."
"This paper will compare Plato and Aristotle on virtue and..."
"This paper will argue that Plato and Aristotle have different theories of virtue."
The conclusion to your argument should be given to you by your paper topic. However, you may have to adapt the words of the paper topic in order to obtain a conclusion. (See a sample paper topic and a sample first paragraph below).
Your conclusion will normally be a general conclusion (e.g. "Determinism is false") or a conclusion about an author's position (e.g. "Socrates is a hedonist") or a conclusion about an author's argument (e.g. "Aristotle fails to establish that weakness of the will is possible").
In order for your argument to be a successful argument, it must (at least) be the case that the conclusion that you reach follows from your earlier conclusions, and that you have argued for your earlier conclusions. For example, if your conclusion is that "Socrates is a hedonist", then presumably you have already argued that, for example, "Socrates holds that everyone pursues only pleasure" and that, for example, "Hedonism is the theory that everyone pursues only pleasure." Thus, an argument may (and usually does) contain sub-arguments. Each sub-argument should contribute to the main argument.
It is not necessary that the conclusion to your argument be true.
Of course, it would be nice if it were true.
It is necessary that the conclusion to your argument be argued for to the best of your ability, having taken into account the argument(s) of the philosopher(s) you have written about.
If it is not, then it is irrelevant if the conclusion to your argument is true.
Everything that you write in your argument should be relevant to your argument. If you find that you have written something that is not relevant to your argument (e.g., "Socrates was married") then you should discard it.
2. A Correct Introduction
A paper should have an introduction of at least one paragraph. An introduction is not a chance to "set the scene", or to tell your reader why you chose to write this paper, or to summarize everything that you know about the philosopher, or the topic, in question.
Instead, an introduction should inform the reader of the conclusion that you are going to argue for, and, if necessary, the sub-arguments, with their respective conclusions, that you are going to provide to support that conclusion. Think of the introduction as an "abstract" of your paper, that is to say, a summary of your entire paper.
3. Language of a Philosophy Paper
Certain phrases and words should NEVER appear in a philosophy paper (unless you are quoting a philosopher). They include the following:
"in the real world"
"never work in practice"
"realistically speaking", etc.
"X thinks that"
"X feels that"
"X's opinion is that", etc.
"X argues logically", etc.
"X's logical argument", etc.
"this tends to"
"this nearly", etc.
"goes into a lot of detail", etc.
slang of any kind
"it's" (always write "it is", or, if it is possessive, "its"; there is simply no excuse for writing "it's" in a paper, since you are either making a mistake or abbreviating, and since you should never abbreviate in a paper, that is a mistake also)
The correct language of a philosophy paper is as follows:
"X argues that"
"X's argument is that", etc.
"X assumes", etc.
"true" or "false"
(about a statement, or an assertion, or a proposition, where this is either a premise or a conclusion in an argument)
"valid" or "invalid"
(about an argument only)
"sound" or "unsound"
(about a valid argument only)
4. Rules for using "True", "Valid", and "Sound"
The terminology that you will use when examining arguments in a philosophy paper is that of "True" and "False", "Valid" and "Invalid", and "Sound" and "Unsound". These terms have technical meanings. You must learn them. To know the meanings of these terms, see A Little Logic.
Their rules for use are as follows.
(a) Rule for using "True" and "False"
As is stated above, the terms "True" and "False" can only be used about statements, assertions, or propositions -- which appear in arguments as either premises or conclusions. These are simple things. They are used to construct arguments.
It is always a mistake to say that an argument is "true". This is meaningless.
You must say that a statement (etc.) is "true", or if it is a statement that is is a premise in an argument, that a premise is "true", or if it is a statement that is the conclusion of an argument, that a conclusion is "true". "
The same applies, of course, in the case of is "false". This is used about statements (etc.), which appear in arguments as either premises or conclusions.
(b) Rule for using "Valid" and "Invalid"
As is stated above, the terms "Valid" and "Invalid" can only be used about arguments. An argument is a complex thing. It is constructed out of premises and a conclusion.
It is always a mistake to say that a statement is "valid". This is meaningless.
You must say that an argument is "valid" (and, perhaps, "sound" also).
(NB: Since a "point" in an argument is a premise (or a conclusion), it is always meaningless to say "that's a valid point". That is the same as saying "that's a valid premise" or "that's a valid conclusion", which is meaningless. To be charitable, you could say that people intend to say "that's a validly argued for point". But normally what they mean when they say "that's a valid point" is actually "that's true".).
The same applies, of course, in the case of "is invalid". This is only used about arguments.
(c) Rule for using "Sound" and "Unsound"
As is stated above, the terms "Sound" and "Unsound" can only be used about valid arguments.
If an argument is sound, then the conclusion must be true. So, if you tell your reader that an argument is "sound", you have told your reader that the conclusion is true.
If you tell your reader that an argument is "unsound", then you are telling your reader that the argument is valid but that at least one premise is false. However, this does not necessarily mean that the conclusion to the argument is is false.
5. The Philosopher = those Words on that Page
In an argument you must argue for or against what a philosopher says, or asserts, or argues -- that is, exactly what is on the page. This means that you must quote or closely paraphrase any philosopher whom you discuss. Arguments against what a philosopher does not say are irrelevant. (When you argue against a position that is not held by the philosopher, you are not arguing against the (real) philosopher, but against a "straw man").
Once you characterize a philosopher's argument or her conclusion in a certain way, you should use the same language when referring to that argument or that conclusion for the remainder of your paper. This is also true of your own argument in your paper.
If you state that
you are going to argue for a certain conclusion (e.g. "Socrates
holds that everyone pursues only pleasure") then you must use the
same language throughout your argument, and not alter it (e.g. "Socrates holds that everyone pursues only happiness").
You do NOT have to present the argument of a philosopher in simple logical form (i.e., numbered premises followed by a conclusion). In fact, it is safer not to attempt to do this, unless you have considerable experience in translation (in logic). However, you should be able to present her argument in such a way that it would be easy for someone else (me, for example) to translate her argument into simple argumentative form. This should also be true of your argument.
Every sentence in a paper should be clear, and precise, and as short as possible.
A sentence should not be vague (i.e., it is not clear to the reader what is being asserted) or ambiguous (i.e., it can be legitimately interpreted as making at least two non-equivalent assertions). Each sentence should make a point, and it should make just one point. Avoid over-complication. Keep each claim simple. Avoid multiple clauses.
Assume that your reader has not read the philosophers you discuss in your paper. Assume that your reader has never encountered the arguments you examine. Assume, however, that your reader is a logic professor and that she enjoys pointing out to people that their arguments are hopelessly muddled.
Assume, also, that your reader believes that you are wrong, and that your conclusion is false, as soon as she has read your introduction. This way you really will have to present the best argument(s) possible for your conclusion.
You should OWN and USE an English dictionary (Oxford, Collins, or Webster's) and a thesaurus (e.g., Roget's Thesaurus), and not merely rely upon online dictionaries. You may also invest in a dictionary of philosophy if you wish.
7. Reading your own paper
When you have finished a draft of your paper, it is a good idea to read your paper aloud. This is an important exercise for weeding out over-long sentences, awkward sentences, and mistakes in syntax and punctuation. (Of course, this is only possible if you have finished a draft of your paper in advance of the deadline).
In addition to using the spell-check and grammar-check on your computer, you should always proofread a hard copy of your paper.
Check that your pages of your paper are numbered, that all of your quotations have correct citations with page numbers, and that the Bibliography is correct, and that the paper is stapled.
8. Three Drafts of a Philosophy Paper
It is said that Plato re-wrote every sentence of the Republic seventy times.
The paper you hand in should never be a first draft.
A philosophy paper should go through at least three drafts.
First draft: after days of research, write up the entire paper from beginning to end. PRINT THIS. Or at the very least, E-MAIL THIS TO YOURSELF.
Second draft: re-write the paper so that the sentences are clearer and the argument is better presented. PRINT THIS. Or, at least, E-MAIL THIS TO YOURSELF.
[ Note: if the clarity of your second draft demonstrates that your paper no longer has an argument, then you must start again with a first draft. Hence, you will have five drafts.]
Third draft: proof-read for typing mistakes, make sure you that have your pages numbered, check for correct page numbers in your citations, check that you have the correct references, check that your quotations are indented, etc. PRINT THIS. AND STAPLE THIS.
9. Policy on Citing Sources
If you use something that was said in class, by me or another student, you do not need to cite your class notes. There is no need to write something like "(Class Notes, Thursday 22nd November)".
It is an excellent idea to discuss your paper with others. Arguments invariably improve as a result of being tested on others. If you discuss your paper with anyone other than myself, however, provide the person's name in a section after the Bibliography.
If you use any article or book, or any material from a website, in writing your paper, then you must cite it in your paper and include it in your Bibliography. If you have a quotation from an author, then this must be placed in single or double quotation marks in your paper, and you must cite the author and page number (see below).
If you paraphrase (i.e. summarize closely) an author, then you must also cite the author and page number (see below). If you use the ideas or arguments of any author, then you must also cite the author and page number(s). The rule to follow here is: always cite the source. Remember, there is no penalty for citing something that you do not need to cite. The more you cite, the more you reveal that you have done your research. But there are very serious penalties for failing to cite something that you do need to cite, including expulsion from the university.
For more on the subject of plagiarism, see the library's webpage:
10. Citation Style: Chicago Manual of Style
In citing authors in your philosophy paper, you should follow the Chicago Manual of Style. If you are unfamiliar with this style, then can visit the following website.
11. Bibliography Style: Chicago Manual of Style
In composing your Bibliography, you should follow the Chicago Manual of Style. If you are unfamiliar with this style, then you can visit the following website.
Sample Paper Topic
with Sample First Paragraph
and Sample Start of the Body of the Paper (Second Paragraph)
Outline the argument of Thrasymachus in Bk. I of the Republic for the conclusion that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger." Outline the arguments provided by Socrates against this definition of justice. Does Socrates refute Thrasymachus? Provide an argument to support your answer.
This paper will argue that Socrates does not refute Thrasymachus's argument that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger." First it will outline the argument of Thrasymachus in Bk. I of the Republic for the conclusion that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger." It will then outline the argument provided by Socrates against this argument, according to which it is sometimes just to do what is disadvantageous to the stronger. Next it will outline Thrasymachuss modified argument for the conclusion that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Then it will outline Socrates's argument against Thrasymachus for the conclusion that justice is to the advantage of the weaker. Finally, it will conclude that Socrates's argument for the conclusion that justice is to the advantage of the weaker rests upon a premise that is false, and hence, that his argument is unsound. It will conclude that Socrates has not refuted Thrasymachus.
[ Extra: possible translation of paragraph one into an argument in simple logical form. There is no need to attempt this.]
1. Every city has a ruler ("the stronger").
2. The ruler makes laws that are to the advantage of the ruler.
3. The ruler declares that it is just to obey the laws, and unjust to disobey the laws.
4. Therefore, justice is obedience to the laws. (from 3)
5. Obedience to the laws is to the advantage of the ruler. (from 2-4)
---> Justice is the advantage of the ruler ('the stronger').