Last spring, I took PHI 203: Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology. I had never taken a philosophy class before in my life, and in the beginning it was difficult to wrap my head around the theories brought up in the readings and precept, let alone execute a coherent argument in a paper. Throughout the course, I learned a lot not just about the theories and arguments in philosophy, but about the distinct style of philosophical writing itself. In drafting the papers, I realized just how different writing a philosophy paper is compared to writing papers in other humanities and social science disciplines. This post contains some tips on how to approach a philosophy paper for those unfamiliar with the field:
Make your argument simple. Throughout the course, we were taught that we did not need to make a grand claim in order to create a solid paper. In a philosophy paper of any scope, it’s most important that you defend and execute your claims coherently . Especially since you will most likely not have a lot of room to develop your argument, it’s important not to be overambitious–this might lead you to make an elaborate claim with poorly supported examples and evidence. You can instead take a modest point and develop it gradually with sound explanations, which will lead to a much stronger paper. As was stated on the PHI 203 syllabus, the goal in a philosophy paper is not to “offer your own staggeringly original theory of everything” but to make “incremental progress on a philosophical problem.”
Examples are crucial to your argument. No matter how minor a statement you are making, clarifying that statement with an example can help solidify your argument and make your paper much stronger. Especially when you are discussing highly abstract ideas and theories, giving a few real-life examples can make your argument more concrete and accessible to the reader. The examples, however, should not be complex, and should serve to further clarify your argument. Using hypothetical examples can often work as a form of evidence to further back your argument, and can also help the reader better grasp the usually abstract terms and definitions in the claim you are discussing. For instance, in my first short paper about Pascal’s Wager, I used the example of winning money to explain how people do not give up a finite sum of happiness for a slim chance of infinite happiness.
Anticipate and respond to possible objections. Addressing possible objections to your argument is critical in philosophy and makes for a solid, well-founded paper. If you are aware of possible objections and loopholes in your argument, do not leave them unaddressed and hope that your reader won’t notice them. Do not feel pressured, however, to provide an answer to any and all potential counterarguments. If it proves to be difficult, you do not even have to provide an answer to your counterarguments–it is more important that you recognize and discuss the strongest oppositions in your paper.
Keep your language direct and concise. Precision and clarity are key when writing a philosophy paper. Having written mostly English and Politics papers, I was more used to embellishing my argument with flowery prose and allowing some room for digression. In my philosophy class, however, we were given a strict word limit for each writing assignment, and our first papers were limited to 500 words. I could not afford to waste words on ornate transitions and language, and realized the importance of executing my argument well through a clear, straightforward structure. In a philosophy paper, each sentence should have a substantial purpose, adding something new to the argument or clarifying a previous point. This clear structure is especially important as philosophy papers often deal with very abstract concepts. As such, it’s imperative that you guide the reader step by step through the logic of your argument.
Define all the terms you discuss in your paper. In a philosophy paper, you usually consider an existing thesis and either support it or raise an objection to it. In doing so, it’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with the specific terms of the thesis and define them in your paper. In addition to the terms that are specific to your argument, you should also be familiar with terms used frequently in philosophy, such as a priori and a posteriori. When I was writing my first paper, I was very confused on how to determine the validity of an argument, as an argument being valid in the conventional sense is not necessarily the same as how an argument is valid in philosophy. As such, familiarizing yourself with the specific terms of the thesis and defining them in your paper, as well as knowing the basic terminology used in philosophy are crucial steps. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, the required book for PHI 203, contains sections titled, “A Brief Guide to Logic and Argumentation” and “Some Guidelines for Writing Philosophy Papers,” which would be great in learning the special terminology and principles in logic.
Discuss your ideas with others. Especially with philosophy papers, it’s easy to get lost in the abstract technicalities of your argument, which is bound to make it even more confusing for your reader. It’s critical then, that you have the chance to talk through your ideas with others, whether that’s your preceptor, classmates, or even roommates. Even if you understand your own argument, your reader may have difficulty comprehending it through your writing. When drafting my papers, I often went to my preceptor during office hours to discuss my ideas, allowing me to more easily identify the loopholes that were particularly confusing. I was then able to more clearly formulate and articulate in writing my argument.
Philosophy papers require a very particular approach, and it can be daunting to write one if you are used to the conventional research or argumentative paper. However, you can learn so much from a philosophy class, including philosophical concepts, argumentative theories, and the principles of clear writing. Hopefully these tips will be helpful in writing your next philosophy paper!
–Soo Young Yun, Humanities Correspondent