Advice for philosophy papers

What is a philosophy paper like?

What distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines? Probably not much. But, for what it’s worth, here are my views about good philosophical writing.

Philosophers analyze arguments. That’s the great secret to writing a philosophy paper: you should take it primarily as an exercise in evaluating arguments.

So, for example, you should pay special attention the relationship between a conclusion and its premises.

This doesn’t mean that philosophers are indifferent to such matters as the truth of the premises (or the conclusion, for that matter). A logically valid argument based on wildly false premises isn’t very interesting. But it does mean that philosophers will pay a great deal of attention to the internal workings of an argument.

Answer the question

The most important thing I can recommend is to answer the question that was asked.

Why? Well, doesn’t it just make sense to answer the question I asked? It would be strange to answer a different one. “I’ll have a ham on rye” is not an appropriate answer to “How was your weekend?”

Seriously, though, remember that a philosopher’s first love is argument. Answering exactly the question asked shows that you understand the importance of working through precisely what follows from a question worded like the one you were given.

“But isn’t writing supposed to be creative?” Of course. Be creative in answering the question, not in coming up with a new one on your own.

Warning: not all questions are created equal. Compare: “what does author A say about point P?” with “what, in your opinion, is the correct answer?” Which one offers you the greater opportunity to say something creative and impress the person reading the paper? Allocate your attention accordingly.

Have something to say

You need to have a point. Sometimes, a point is not easy to come by. We’re generally talking about issues on which there are at least two compelling positions and no known way of proving that one of them is correct. So you have to have confident opinions as well as arguments to back them up. To make things even more interesting, authors sometimes switch sides in the writing process. That’s why successful ones start early.

After writing a draft or outline, an important question to ask is whether it seems that you’re trying to force a conclusion. Usually, it’s the one you originally had in mind. Is there a somewhat different, perhaps more modest conclusion to be drawn that is better supported by the arguments? There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. Why wouldn’t process of writing out your argument change your thinking a bit?

Alternately, ask whether you have pushed hard enough. Does the main argument of the paper, well, say anything or does it peter out? This happens to me more often than I care to admit. I have a bunch of arguments but find that I haven’t thought enough about what they add up to. That’s not good enough.

Consider objections

Raise objections to your own position. Imagine ways for your opponent to evade your objections. Answer them. Why? Doing these things shows that you see the strength of the other side’s position, but can still defend your own.

Let me put that same point in a more theoretical way by asking a question: how do we move forward by using philosophical argument? Answer: by starting with an apparently compelling position or puzzling question and using arguments and objections to show us something about that position or question. For example, we might learn that the position would be more compelling if it were modified a bit. Or we might learn that the question isn’t as interesting as it seems. And so on.

Argument leads us somewhere by taking us through a process of objection, reply, and possible modification.

Of course, don’t take that too far: get most of your objections out of the way early in the writing process so that your paper only presents truly compelling or productive objections to the reader.

Set limits

Don’t worry if you can’t settle an issue completely. Your task is to analyze arguments . On matter X, does conclusion C follow from premises A and B? If the answer is “no” it still may be possible that conclusion C is the right conclusion: perhaps there is a different argument that establishes C. You will still have shown something very important if you’ve shown that a particular argument does not establish C, even if some other argument might.

We have a natural tendency to try to see all considerations as favoring one side in a dispute as opposed to the other. But sometimes one side is right about one thing and the other side is right about something else. There’s nothing wrong with reaching a subtle conclusion like that.

Pre-flight checklist

Here are some questions that you should be able to answer after your paper is just about done. Keep these in mind while revising.

  1. How is the grammar and style? Read it aloud and find out! (Quietly, of course, because it’s late and you don’t want to wake up your very tolerant roommate.) You’ll be surprised by how many typos you find. Your readers will be impressed by how few typos they find.
  2. Has it identified an interesting problem? An interesting problem is one in which there are at least two apparently compelling answers.
  3. Is it accurate? An accurate paper characterizes the major arguments and objections correctly and economically, focusing on the essential points. Giving the appropriate weight to a point is a way of being accurate.
  4. What happens between the beginning and the end? Does the paper make dialectical progress: does the back and forth of argument lead us somewhere? Where, stated briefly, does it lead?
  5. What is the conclusion? What three or four sentences would you like your readers to use if they were asked to summarize your paper? Why not use those very sentences?

The Writing Center

The Writing Center offers students free, one-on-one consultations at any stage of the writing process, from generating a thesis and structuring an argument to fine-tuning a draft. The Writing Fellows are Pomona students majoring in a variety of subjects and are trained to work on assignments from any discipline.

The Writing Center is located in Pearsons 010. They have drop-in hours or you can make an appointment online.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted August 25, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy