HOW TO WRITE PHILOSOPHY PAPERS

A Manual for Beginning Philosophy Students
(2nd edition 2012)

by

William O. Stephens

Department of Classical & Near Eastern Studies
Department of Philosophy

Creighton University



INTRODUCTION

Writing philosophy papers is difficult. Learning how to do it well requires many things. First you have to want to improve your writing skills. Second, you have to practice, and this requires relentless hard work. Third, you must develop the ability to benefit from your professor's criticisms. Learning how to understand, appreciate, and fairly evaluate views other than your own is a fourth requirement. Fifth, one needs to develop a self-critical attitude about one's own work; this is vital for successful rewriting. One reason why writing philosophy papers well is difficult is that it entails doing two things well. Part of good philosophy is good grammar, and the other part is good thinking. Good thinking consists of presenting, in a logical way, good reasons to support your thesis. You must construct sound (cogent) arguments. Thus, your reasoning must be free of formal and informal fallacies. Your logic must be rigorous, not sloppy. You must carry the burden of proof in arguing for your thesis, and you must apply the principle of charity in responding to objections to your thesis. Accordingly, your paper must be clear, coherent, precise, and rigorous in order to be good philosophy. A philosophy paper is obviously not an oral conversation. Instead of speaking your mind, your ideas must be expressed in the written form. Consequently, your paper must be well written in order to count as good grammar. You must articulate your thinking in plain, concise, syntactically well formed, properly punctuated, correctly spelled English sentences. So in addition to demonstrating your mastery of logic, you must also demonstrate your mastery of language. As your understanding of logic increases, you will be able to develop more sophisticated arguments. As your vocabulary increases, you will be able to express more subtle ideas.

Poetry, fiction, journalism, and chemistry lab reports are all different kinds of writing, each of which has its own style and internal standards of excellence. Philosophy has its own style and internal standards of excellence as well. This manual is intended to explain what goes into conceiving, organizing, and writing a philosophy paper; it is offered as guidance to help you in the process of learning how to write a thesis defense paper for your philosophy class. Bear in mind, then, that this is a practically oriented "how to" manual and not itself a philosophy paper.

I. WHAT IS THE POINT OF WRITING A PHILOSOPHY PAPER?

Contrary to what you might think, your professor does not assign a philosophy paper in order to torture you. The purpose of writing a philosophy paper is for the student to explore a philosophical topic at greater length, in greater depth, and in greater detail than is possible in a class discussion. If you are a student who does not speak up in class much, writing a paper is really the only opportunity you have to show your professor that you can carefully work through the ideas you have about a particular topic in the course. The point of the exercise is for you to learn how to think and write well about a philosophical topic. This can only be accomplished by actually doing it. Submitting the final copy of the paper should be a moment of pride for you because it marks the culminating achievement of the long and intense process of thinking about your topic, formulating your thesis, constructing arguments to support your thesis, wrestling with objections, composing the first draft, rewriting, editing your rewrite, and proofreading the final version. You might also experience a sense of relief that your paper is done and out of your hands. The physical product, a set of printed pages, shows your reflective, rigorously reasoned, and thoroughly considered judgment on an issue that either matters to you (because you have chosen it) or at least should matter to you (because it is on a significant topic in the course). The educational process often leaves nothing more tangible to testify to your skills. When I was an undergraduate, I learned much more from writing papers than from taking exams. Perhaps it was because I had to exercise my own autonomy and judgment in writing papers. The paper is your creation. It contains your brainchildren. The paper is for your professor and for a course, but the paper is yours. That is why you should not be indifferent about it. If you do it well, you have good reason to be proud.

A. The thesis defense paper or argumentative essay

The natural question to ask is what kind of a paper you are supposed to be writing here. That depends on what your professor wants, of course. The most common type of philosophy paper, and the only one we are concerned with here, is the thesis defense paper, also known as the argumentative essay. Thesis comes from an ancient Greek word that means stand or position. In a thesis defense paper you are expected to take a stand on a philosophical issue. You must clearly explain what your position is. That is, you must explicitly state your thesis in the form of an assertion. Euthanasia, freedom of the will, and skepticism are not theses, but merely topics. Examples of theses include:

Notice that all of these are assertions. They claim that something is the case. As statements, each one is either true or false. Now you might think that no one knows whether any of these claims is true or false because they are all just matters of opinion. This is precisely the difference between merely voicing an opinion and a thesis defense paper. In a thesis defense paper you must do more than simply state your view; you must justify your thesis, present arguments to support it, and defend it against objections. This is very different from trading opinions with someone with whom you disagree. In a thesis defense paper you do not get angry, narrow your mind, disregard opposing views, and insist you are right. Rather, you gather evidence to support your position, offer reasons for believing your thesis is true, and broaden your mind to consider seriously how an intelligent person might object to your thesis. The thesis is the final conclusion of your paper. Throughout the rest of your paper you will be marshalling evidence to support your thesis and directly addressing criticisms of your thesis.

B. The student as author

It probably seems too obvious to mention, but it is worthwhile to remember that you are the author. Several things follow as a consequence of this. First, the ideas you present and the arguments you advance must be your own. If you draw on other sources like the professor's lecture, the primary source reading that was assigned, or a secondary source you got from the library, then you must give credit where credit is due. It is perfectly fine to agree with what somebody else says about your topic, but you must explicitly state whose idea you are affirming. Failure to refer to the source of the idea you print in your paper is plagiarism.

Secondly, unless the assignment is to do a research paper, your professor doesn't want you to report on what other people think about your topic anyway. The thesis of your thesis defense paper must be what you really think. After all, your professor probably knows what many other philosophers think about your topic. What your professor does not know is what you think about the philosophical topic under discussion, and what your reasons are for thinking that way. So be sure to write only what you really believe, and explain why. If you say what you believe but don't explain why, you are sincerely voicing your opinion, but not philosophizing. Your thesis defense paper is your exploration, analysis, and evaluation of a philosophically interesting subject. It is not a book report. It is not the transcript of a call-in show. So concentrate on presenting your own arguments and don't merely report someone else's arguments or voice your unexamined, unsupported opinions.

A third point which follows from the fact that you are the author of your paper is that your professor does not expect you to prove your thesis once and for all. Philosophy is not mathematics. In a mathematical deduction with codified axioms and rules of inference, proof is expected. When it comes to philosophical topics, however, proof is too high a level of certainty to expect. Your professor does not expect you to produce the caliber of argument of a seasoned philosophical genius. Rather, you should simply try to present the most credible, fair-minded, logically coherent, and orderly defense of your thesis you can. So don't write: "In this paper I will prove that so and so." Write something more like: "I will argue that the weight of reasons supports the position that such and such."

Remember that what you are trying to do is persuade the reader that there are good reasons for believing that your thesis is true. You do this by examining the concepts involved, weighing evidence for and against your thesis, and logically assessing reasons. Feelings have nothing to do with inquiring into a philosophical issue. For one thing, your professor has no way of grading your feelings. For example, don't fall into the very common habit of writing things like: "Socrates felt that philosophy was his mission in life" or "I feel that Socrates was unjustly convicted." People feel hot or cold, bored or excited, happy or sad. A thesis defense paper is about conceptual analysis, reasoned chains of thought, well supported judgments, arguments, and counterarguments. It is emphatically not about feelings. "I feel that..." is unacceptably subjective. In contrast, "I argue that..." implies that there are objective grounds for the author's position. So think clearly and reason logically in writing your paper. Don't feel your way through it. This is a thesis defense paper, not a diary or a love letter, so DON'T USE THE VERB "FEEL" when you should instead say "think," "believe," "judge," or "argue."

C. The professor as audience

The audience of your paper is your professor, and your professor may know more about the subject of your paper than you do. But this certainly doesn't make this exercise a waste of time. For one thing, if you do a good job, your professor may very well learn something from your paper. More importantly, in working out your thesis defense, you will learn from having constructed and examined arguments and counterarguments.

Put yourself in your professor's place for a moment. You will be reading dozens and dozens of papers, many of which will be on the same topics. What sorts of things are you going to look for when you read this huge pile of papers?

ORIGINALITY. A fresh insight, a new perspective on the topic, an original argument, a creative analysisūthese things will distinguish your paper as special and memorable.

CLARITY. Make your meaning as plain as you can. Don't obscure your ideas with awkward sentences or polysyllabic words dredged up from your thesaurus. Use words you understand, spell them correctly, and put them in straightforward, grammatical, properly punctuated, complete sentences.

COHERENCE. Make your ideas hang together so that each one leads smoothly and logically to the next. Don't wander off onto tangents. You don't have room for digressions in this paper. A well reasoned thesis defense is always well organized and to the point.

CONCISION. In a paper less than ten pages long, you simply don't have the room to be long-winded. Trim out excess verbiage. Make every word count.

RIGOR. Be logical. Construct direct, cogent arguments, not long, convoluted, seemingly sophisticated but ultimately weak arguments. Avoid all informal fallacies like the plague. Remember to carry the burden of proof in advancing your arguments and to apply the principle of charity when addressing opposing views.

These are the criteria your professor will use to grade your paper. A paper that is sloppy will not receive a high grade. A paper can be sloppy due to poor reasoning, poor organization, poor typing or spelling, poor word usage, poor syntax, or any combination of the above. On the other hand, if you put real time and effort into your paper, it will show, and the professor will grade it accordingly and be proud of your achievement.

The attitude you should take toward your audience is respect. Your professor assigns the paper to you as a requirement toward earning credit for the course, so obviously you must take sufficient time to do the assignment. On the other hand, you are putting demands on your professor's time too. You expect your professor to spend sufficient time reading and trying to understand what you have written, and to expend effort in commenting on it. If you submit a sloppy, carelessly and hastily written paper, you have wasted your professor's time. Not only does the sloppy work reflect badly on you, but by failing to give your best effort on your paper, you are short-changing your own education. Keep in mind that your professor is deeply committed to helping you get the best education possible. So devote the time and effort necessary so that you can honestly say to yourself when you submit the final version of your paper that you did the best job you could given the amount of time allotted.

Finally, remember that what really matters to your professor are the ideas and arguments in your paper, and not the grade it gets. The comments the professor writes on your paper draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. The constructive criticisms are intended to help you learn from the assignment. The professor's input can also help you improve your paper if you rewrite it. Thus even though the paper writing exercise is technically completed when your paper is returned to you, the professor's comments carry on the philosophical dialogue which you initiated by turning in your paper in the first place.

II. ARTICULATING YOUR THESIS: THE INTRODUCTORY PARAGRAPH

Your paper should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the thesis defense paper is the introductory paragraph. A good introduction is necessary for getting your paper off on the right foot. In the introductory paragraph you should first introduce the topic you will discuss, and briefly explain why it is an important subject. You should not begin with trite, verbal padding like: "For centuries philosophers have pondered the controversial philosophical question of such and such." Do not waste space stating the obvious. The introductory paragraph of the thesis defense paper is not a historical overview. All you need to do in the introductory paragraph is: (1) briefly explain what the topic of your paper is, (2) briefly explain why that subject is worth discussing, and (3) explicitly state your thesis.

Now before you can state your thesis, you must find a topic you are interested in investigating, and then formulate a position you think you can defend. Topics should not be so broad that they can't be examined thoroughly. "Plato" is much too broad. "Plato's epistemology" is still too broad. "Plato's theory of recollection in the Meno and the Phaedo" might be a workable topic for a ten to fifteen page paper. "The Argument in Plato's Meno that everyone desires the apparent good" could be suitable for a five to seven page paper. Remember, this is your paper topic, not your thesis. The topic is a noun phrase, not an assertion. Your paper topic might make a good title for your paper, but since it is not an assertion it cannot be your thesis.

Next, choose a thesis that is worth the effort you will put into arguing for it. A thesis that no reasonable person would challenge will be uninteresting. You don't want to present iron-clad arguments for a trivial position no one cares about. On the other hand, you shouldn't choose an overly ambitious thesis that you won't be able to defend adequately in the space allotted. Your thesis should be controversial. There should be some decent arguments both for it and against it. Your thesis should also be about something you are interested in studying because you want to understand it better. Finally, your thesis must be specific and tightly enough focused that you can do a thorough job presenting arguments to support it, considering counterarguments against it, and responding to those counterarguments. An example of a decent thesis might be `The argument which Socrates advances in the Meno from 77c to 78b that everyone desires the apparent good is not valid.'

As you write the body of your paper you may discover that you are having trouble constructing good arguments to support your thesis. If so, then you either need to work harder on developing supporting arguments, or else modify your thesis so that it becomes easier to defend. Part of the learning process at work in writing your paper is coming to change your mind about your topic by broadening your knowledge. If it slowly dawns on you that the thesis you originally formulated is indefensible, then abandon it and pick a new thesis. Settling on a thesis is often more like discovering an attractive new building you haven't noticed before than attempting to buttress an old, familiar building that is falling apart.

To summarize, then, in your introductory paragraph you should:

If you want to, you can also state the two or three main reasons (which you will expound on at length in the body of your paper) which support your thesis. If you choose to do this, do it briefly. As a general rule, your introductory paragraph should be no longer than half a page.

III. PRESENTING YOUR MAIN ARGUMENT

A. Tone

What you are trying to do is offer credible reasons for believing your thesis is true. Since your professor is your audience, your audience will be persuaded by clear, plausible arguments, not shrill, emotionally charged rhetoric. This means, for example, that you avoid using exclamation points for punctuation. Shouting does not persuade a reasonable reader. Moreover, since your topic is a controversial one, be sure not to overstate your case. If you oversimplify the nature of the issue, then your reasoning will not persuade. Try to be fair to the complexity of the issue you are addressing. For example, don't write anything like "Only a moron could object to my argument that so and so" or "Any simpleton can see that I am right when I claim that such and such." Remember, your tone should be serious, fair-minded, and reasonable, not dogmatic, closed-minded, and exaggerated.

B. Semantic precision and sensitivity to usage

Semantics is the theory of the meaning of words. Anti-intellectuals sometimes charge that philosophy is nothing but semantics. This claim is false, and also serves as a good example of imprecision. Philosophy is a rich and complex discipline which can be divided into three main branches: logic, ontology (metaphysics and epistemology), and axiology. Ethics, aesthetics (the philosophy of art), and social and political philosophy are sub-branches of axiology. The philosophy of language (including semantics), symbolic logic, and informal logic (critical thinking) are sub-disciplines of logic. The philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of perception are sub-branches of ontology. There is also the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of literature, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of history. Each of these areas has its own history of development. Moreover, there are many different philosophical methods or approaches to how to do philosophy: analytic philosophy, ordinary language philosophy, phenomenology, feminism, deconstructionism. So it only takes a moment of thought to realize that the assertion "Philosophy is nothing but semantics" is clearly false because it wrongly reduces all of philosophy to a single subject within a single branch of the whole "tree" of philosophy.

In philosophical writing the way words are used is crucial to success. A large part of improving your writing skills is learning how to use words with greater precision and subtlety. The claim that "Philosophy is nothing but semantics" is imprecise because it is an oversimplification. Philosophy is much more than semantics. Another type of imprecise claim is the overgeneralization. Claims like "All people know so and so" and "Every society is such and such" are most probably false. It takes only one counterexample to refute a hastily made, broad generalization, so be very careful about making universal claims. A more accurate claim might be "Most people know so and so" or "Many societies are such and such." Remember that for an argument to be cogent all of its premises must be true, or at least acceptable. If your argument contains even one false or questionable generalization, then it will not be cogent.

Even qualified claims that assert that "Most A's are B's" need to be supported by some kind of evidence. If you claim that "Most people believe that they have free will," then you need to cite some kind of representative poll which shows this. Be very careful in basing your arguments on empirical claims like this because there is always the danger that you might be committing the appeal to popular belief (ad populum) fallacy. Your paper is an argumentative essay aimed at persuading the reader to believe your thesis. Your arguments should not rest on your shaky, generalized speculations. Your goal is to convince the reader what the reader ought to believe (on the basis of the reasons you present), not to describe what people do believe (for whatever reason or lack thereof).

Remember that you carry the burden of proof in arguing for your thesis. It is your knowledge that is at issue and your reasoning skills that are being tested. Consequently, it is your responsibility to show your professor that you, the student, know the precise meaning of the terms being discussed. Any technical terms must be at least clarified if not fully defined.

C. Gender exclusive language

A common example of insensitivity to word usage is to use man in the so-called generic sense to refer to all human beings. Consider the following passage:

... A defining technology defines or redefines man's role in relation to nature. By promising (or threatening) to replace man, the computer is giving us a new definition of man, as an "information processor," and of nature, as "information to be processed."
   I call those who accept this view of man and nature Turing's men. I include in this group many who reject Turing's extreme prediction of an artificial intelligence by the year 2000. We are all liable to become Turing's men, if our work with the computer is intimate and prolonged and we come to think and speak in terms suggested by the machine. When the cognitive psychologist begins to study the mind's "algorithm for searching long-term memory," he has become Turing's man. So has the economist who draws up input-output diagrams of the nation's business, the sociologist who engages in "quantitative history," and the humanist who prepares a "key-word-in-context" concordance.
   Turing's man is the most complete integration of humanity and technology, of artificer and artifact, in the history of Western cultures. With him the tendency, implicit in all eras, to think "through" one's contemporary technology is carried to an extreme; for him the computer reflects, indeed imitates, the crucial human capacity of rational thinking. Here is the essence of Turing's belief in artificial intelligence. By making a machine think as a man, man recreates himself, defines himself as a machine. (J. David Bolter, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984. p.13)

This passage is chock full of gender exclusive language. The author uses man to refer to all humankind, and men to refer to people of both genders. The cognitive psychologist is a he. This author unwittingly uses language in such a way as to exclude the female reader from identifying with the subject matter being discussed. It is simply inaccurate and inappropriate to write the word man when you mean human being or person. Women are people too. Your choice of pronouns should reflect the fact that a man is an adult, male human being, and a woman is an adult, female human being. A woman is no more a man than a man is a woman. Appealing to the generic sense of man is simply an excuse for perpetuating unnecessary, sloppy usage. So use humankind or humanity instead of Man or mankind. Often you can avoid having to write the awkward "he or she" altogether. For example, the author could have written: "When the cognitive psychologist begins to study the mind's `algorithm for searching long-term memory,' the cognitive psychologist has become Turing's human." Similarly, the following sentence is also free of misleading gender exclusion: "By making a machine think as a person, one recreates oneself, defines oneself as a machine." Avoiding the habit of gender exclusive language use requires only a little thought and practice. The fact that many authors in the past have used gender exclusive language in no way justifies your following their bad habit in your own writing.

D. Outlining each step of your argument

In the introductory paragraph you have already introduced your topic, explained its importance, and stated your thesis. We could say you have set the table and are now ready to begin serving the meal. The logical thing to do next is to present the bare bones of your argument. This way your reader will have a road map, as it were, of the journey you will take through your paper. This will also help you structure your reasoning. So outline each step of your main argument, writing out each premise in order one by one, and ending with your final conclusion (the thesis).

Now the nature of your thesis and the material to be discussed will dictate how you should best organize the body of your paper. However, one simple approach is to:

   (1) show that your main argument is valid;
   (2) show that each premise is relevant to the truth of the conclusion;
   (3) show that each premise is true or acceptable.

This is a very straightforward way to demonstrate that the argument supporting your thesis is cogent. However, doing this well is not easy, and will require rethinking the logic of your argument and revising each step to strive for greater and greater rigor.

E. Successive elaboration of each step in consecutive paragraphs

Each remaining paragraph in the body of your paper should then elaborate on each of the "bare bones" of the main argument you have outlined. By devoting a whole paragraph to fleshing out each premise of your argument, you should be able to provide ample demonstration of the truth of each premise. You can do this by providing evidence for the premise and clarifying the technical or ambiguous terms within it. This process of elaboration should continue until you judge you have sufficiently discharged the burden of proof necessary for a reasonable person to accept each premise.

Perhaps the most common vice in writing philosophy papers is failing to offer adequate evidence in support of a bold, controversial claim. The more questionable the premise is, the greater the burden of proof you have to carry in trying to establish it, and the more work you'll have to do in order to succeed. In fact, if a particular premise is very controversial and complex, you may have to construct a subargument in order to make a solid case for accepting that premise. In effect you will be embedding a smaller subargument within the larger framework of your main argument. Here again, outlining your reasoning will guide you in organizing your chain of thought.

A different but equally common vice in writing philosophy papers is to have overly long paragraphs. You should organize your paper so that each paragraph is a unit containing one basic point or element of your overall argument. The length of paragraphs should thus be proportionate to the length of the whole paper. A short paper (one to three pages) should be organized into succinct paragraphs (roughly two to five sentences long) in which you argue briskly from point to point. In a paper of moderate length (four to seven pages), you should try to keep paragraphs shorter than a page in length. In a long paper (eight or more pages), it would be acceptable to have some paragraphs which were correspondingly longer. As a general rule, however, conciseness applies both to the length of sentences and to the length of paragraphs. If you find that you cannot offer sufficient support for one of your premises in less than a page, then you should break that premise down into two or more intermediate steps and devote separate paragraphs to each one. This process often needs to be repeated again and again, and that is why it is called "successive elaboration."

F. Illustrating each point with examples

As has been explained above, if you assert a universalization of the form "All A's are B" or "No C's are D," then you have committed yourself to a heavy burden of proof. Say you are claiming that "All human beings are self-aware." This would mean that you must do more than describe four or five human beings who are self-aware. You would have to explain how there is something innate in all human beings which makes them all self-aware. Say you want to claim that "No nonhuman animals are self-aware." In this case you would have to do more than explain how a squirrel, or a goldfish, or a chicken lacks self-awareness. You would have to produce evidence that all nonhuman mammals, all birds, all reptiles, and all fish lack the capacity for self-awareness because of their various physiological natures.

The burden of proof for establishing the plausibility of a generalization such as "Most E's are F" is proportionately lighter. So if you want to support the claim that "Most laws are useful and morally justified," then by citing several examples of such laws and explaining why they are useful and morally justified, you will probably have sufficiently established that at least some laws are useful and morally justified. You would then have to find additional evidence in order to establish that most laws are useful and morally justified. If you can't come up with such additional evidence, then you must change your assertion to "Some laws are useful and morally justified." Never overstate your claim or exaggerate in a thesis defense paper. The old adage "Don't bite off more than you can chew" can be applied to a thesis defense paper in the form of the maxim "Don't shoulder a burden of proof heavier than you can carry."

The point is that you must back up all of your controversial claims with some kind of evidence. Using clear examples to illustrate each point of your argument provides one kind of acceptable evidence. Also remember to exercise your judgment: some examples are better than others.

IV. CONSIDERING OBJECTIONS TO YOUR ARGUMENT

If you end your paper after presenting only your arguments for your thesis, your paper will be too one-sided. After all, since the thesis you are supporting is a controversial one, there must be some reasons for thinking that your thesis might be false. If there were no evidence against your position, then you wouldn't need to present much evidence for it because it would be fairly obvious. But no philosophically interesting problem has an obvious solution, so presenting the arguments for your thesis is only the first phase of a good thesis defense paper.

Considering objections to your thesis in a serious way is a mark of intellectual maturity. One of the most important goals in philosophy is to learn how to overcome your dogmatically held preconceptions and develop a self-critical stance about your ideas and judgments. If you can make progress in this difficult and challenging self-scrutiny, your professor will be impressed.

"But where do these objections to my argument come from?" you may ask. "After all, I am supposed to argue for what I believe is true, not against it." If you can't think of plausible objections to the thesis defense you have constructed, and you cannot recognize any weaknesses in your own reasoning, then you should go to the library and do some research. You will find that there are plenty of authors who have constructed arguments against your thesis. When you find some of those arguments you must be careful to present them fairly and accurately. You gain nothing by misrepresenting the argument against your thesis. Your professor will certainly take you to task for this, because in philosophy it is a form of cheating to butcher your opponent's argument. It is to fail to apply the principle of charity. Here are some practical suggestions to bear in mind:

A. Searching for counterexamples

Remember, to refute the claim that "All A's are B," all one needs to do is find one counterexample. In the examples discussed above that would be one human being who is not self-aware, or one nonhuman animal (say a chimpanzee) who is self-aware. The burden of proof for substantiating the truth of a universalization is extremely high, so be very careful about making such sweeping claims. In considering objections to your argument, you should think very hard about whether there are any counterexamples to your universalizations. If so, then you must change the claim from "All A's are B" to "Many A's are B." If you want to make a stronger claim than "Many A's are B," then you'll need to provide some statistical evidence that "Most A's are B" is true.

B. Including evidence against your assertions

Say you are arguing that Socrates consistently holds the same beliefs in the Apology and the Crito. Once you have collected the passages in both dialogues that express similar views you should quote and then closely examine passages in the two dialogues that appear to conflict with or perhaps even contradict each other. You will gain nothing by simply ignoring such passages as if they don't exist. Instead, bring them to light and then try to show how, on careful analysis, they do not really conflict. On the other hand, if, even after thorough scrutiny, they do seem to be inconsistent, then you'll have to try to explain the cause of that inconsistency. This might ultimately lead you to revise your thesis so as to take these conflicting passages into account. Your paper will be made stronger by considering seriously evidence against your assertions because it will be more circumspect.

Perhaps the worst thing you can do is to attack an author's arguments by failing to present them accurately at all. This would be a blatant case of failing to apply the principle of charity. It is perfectly alright to argue against an author, but you must not do so by simply disregarding the author's arguments. So make every effort to include, not exclude, evidence which seems to conflict with your assertions.

C. Are matters more complicated than you describe them?

A common mistake in philosophical writing is to oversimplify the issue being addressed. Since interesting questions in philosophy have a long history and are rich with complexity, the answer is very rarely likely to be a simple one. Remember the informal fallacy of the false dilemma. Learning how to appreciate the complexity of arguments on both sides of an issue is an important part of gaining an education in philosophy. This is not to say that those arguments will be equally good. In fact, after careful scrutiny one of the arguments will often emerge as stronger than the others. But unless you explore these competing arguments, you will not be able to discover which set of reasons prevails. So just as you should do all you can to avoid overgeneralizing and overstating your case, you should also be careful not to oversimplify the considerations relevant to your thesis.

V. RESPONDING TO THE COUNTERARGUMENTS

Let's review what you've accomplished so far. In the first paragraph you have introduced your topic and explained why it is interesting and worth investigating. You have then clearly stated the thesis for which you will argue in the paper. In the subsequent paragraphs you have developed your own arguments for that thesis. You have collected the evidence which supports your claims, you have illustrated them with clear examples. That is, you have presented good reasons for accepting them. You have not overstated your case, you have avoided unsupportable overgeneralizations, and you have explored all considerations relevant to the truth of your thesis by accurately portraying the complexities involved in your topic. In addition to all that, you have searched for and perhaps found counterexamples to your generalizations. You have even fairly presented your opponents' counterarguments against your thesis. At this point you may think you have surely done enough in one paper.

In fact, however, your task is not complete. If you were to stop after presenting one or two counterarguments, your reader would be left with the impression that while you, the author, have some reasons for holding your position, others have different reasons for holding theirs -- and that's all there is to it. But that's not all there is to it. What you have shown is that your topic is a complex and controversial, and there are indeed some arguments on both sides which, at least on first glance, appear plausible. Now your job is to compare the arguments you have advanced with the counterarguments your opponent has advanced. Do the counterarguments reveal real deficiencies in your reasoning? If so, then is there a way to revise your arguments so as to incorporate your opponents' criticisms and thereby make your position stronger than it was before? Are the counterarguments really good ones, or are there mistakes concealed in them? You can't discover this until after you analyze those counterarguments in depth, with care and with precision. A carefully examined argument often looks very different from one which appeared plausible at first glance.

So don't just present your opponent's counterargument and stop there. Go on and work through that counterargument to evaluate the plausibility of its premises and the validity of its reasoning. Are there any counterexamples to your opponent's universalizations? Are there considerations which the counterargument overlooks? Remember, be fair in assessing your opponent's position. Don't take any cheap shots at it by distorting the evidence which is advanced. It is possible to engage with your opponent's counterarguments without violating the principle of charity, and the very best thesis defense papers succeed in doing exactly that. It is okay to be tough-minded and rigorous in tackling opposing views, but you must also be open-minded and fair; it could turn out that your opponent has leveled a fair criticism of your argument which requires you to revise it accordingly. If this is the case, then you owe your opponent gratitude for helping you to see the weaknesses of your argument you were previously unaware of, and thus allowing you to improve your reasoning.

One useful metaphor is that writing a good philosophy paper is like playing a good game of chess: you make a thoughtful move, and then your opponent makes a thoughtful response. Then you reply to that countermove with yet another considered, deliberate move. Your thesis defense paper should be a similar kind of intelligent dialogue between yourself and your fair, honest, and accurate understanding of your opponent. You must include your best thoughts and be self-critical enough to realize when your opponent has made a move which calls for you to change your strategy. Clinging to a failing strategy in chess results in a lost game. Narrow-mindedly insisting on the truth of your unsupported, unexamined assertions in a philosophy paper by disregarding the counterarguments, criticisms, and objections to your thesis made by your opponents is a doomed strategy for a thesis paper. The result will be a failing grade.

VI. COMPLETING YOUR ARGUMENT: THE CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH

Having carefully and methodically led your reader through each progressive step of your argument in the body of your paper, you must complete your chain of reasoning with the final link: your conclusion. Now the ultimate conclusion of your argument is the thesis you said you would argue for at the beginning of your paper in the introductory paragraph. So the simplest way to write the concluding paragraph is to summarize your argument. Since you have included a discussion of the criticisms of your argument, you can briefly review the most weighty objections and then make an overall evaluation of the success of your argument.

Merely summarizing what you have already argued, however, is not a very interesting way to end your paper. A more interesting concluding paragraph might explain what further implications have arisen from your argument. In this way you can point to a new but related issue which the investigation of your topic has generated. Or perhaps your inquiry has uncovered an interesting question worth thinking about, but which you didn't have room to discuss at length in your paper. You might reflect briefly about such a question in the concluding paragraph.

Another way to end your paper is to explain why your discoveries are important. You should already have said something about why your topic is worth discussing in the introductory paragraph, but the importance of your results cannot be fully appreciated until after you have worked through each argument and counterargument step by step.

Remember, this is an argumentative essay on a controversial, philosophical topic; it is not a geometrical demonstration. Consequently, do NOT write: "Thus I have conclusively proven that such and such." Instead, weigh the results of your inquiry, judiciously taking into account the arguments, counterarguments, and replies to those counterarguments, and write something more like: "I have argued that the weight of evidence seems to support my thesis that so and so." As always, don't claim to have shown more than you really have.

VII. FORMAT

A. Paper Quality

Use medium or heavy weight paper, NOT erasable onion skin. Erasable paper encourages you to correct typographical errors with a pen at the last minute; this almost always means you will miss several mistakes. Erasable paper is also difficult for the professor to write comments on.

B. Print Quality

The print should be sufficiently dark and distinct. Don't frustrate your professor with faint print. You want to make the paper easy to read, not difficult to read. Therefore, don't hesitate to put a new ribbon into your printer if the print is not dark and clear.

C. Font and line spacing

Use a 12 pitch (12 characters per inch = elite) font. Using larger pitch (10 or fewer characters per inch) is another formatting trick which will not fool your professor.

The entire text of your paper should be double-spaced except for block quotations (see section E below). Don't triple or quadruple space between paragraphs since this again is a waste of space and paper.

D. Margins

Your top, bottom, left, and right hand margins should all be one inch wide. Margins wider than that are a waste of space and a waste of paper. Margins narrower than that make it difficult for your professor to write comments beside the text. Widening the margins to stretch a three page paper into a five page paper is one of the oldest tricks in the book -- your professor will not be fooled by it. If your paper is too short, then devote your energy to thinking about your topic more instead of trying to disguise your paper so that it looks longer than it really is.

E. Quotations

Quotations which are longer than three lines should be set off in single-spaced block paragraphs. The following is an example of such a quotation.

Compare writing an essay with riding in an automobile. If a passenger does not know the destination, it will be difficult for him to remember the roads he has taken. If, on the other hand, the destination is known, then every left and right turn, every sign and traffic signal, is organized in relation to that destination.1 ()

Notice that there are no quotation marks around this direct quotation. That is because the single-spacing of the block paragraph format indicates that it is a direct quotation, so no additional punctuation is needed. 

Quotations which are three lines or shorter should be set within double quotation marks like this: "Do not confuse rhetorical pyrotechnics for philosophical light."2  Notice that the period is inserted after the citation, and not inside the last quotation mark. Be alert: don't make this common mistake. If you directly quote a passage which contains a word or phrase which itself appears within quotation marks in the text, then you should put single quotation marks around that embedded phrase, and double quotation marks around the whole quoted passage. (See section III.C above for an example of this.)

Your Endnotes page will then have:

1 A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989. p. 32.

2 Martinich, p. 33.

And so on, listing your subsequent notes.  As shown, avoid needless redundancy by abbreviating each source you cite more than once after the first citation containing complete bibliographic information.

F. References and Notes

Two different examples of references are acceptable. The first style of reference is the footnote. A superscript number is inserted immediately after the quotation, and the complete citation information is then placed at the bottom of the same page on which the quotation is printed.

The second acceptable type of reference is the endnote. Instead of placing the complete citation on the bottom of the same page as the quotation to which it refers, you should collect all the notes together and put them on a separate page after the page your concluding paragraph is on. If this style is chosen, a header reading "ENDNOTES" should be put on the top of the page above the consecutively ordered notes.

G. The cover page

On the cover page print the TITLE of your paper, your NAME, the professor's name (spell it correctly: just as "philosophy" has no "v" in it, neither does "STEPHENS"), the course number and name, and the DATE on which you are actually turning in your paper. If you are submitting your paper late (i.e. after the due date), then putting the date when it was due on the cover page is dishonest. Trying to deceive your professor won't work anyway.

A paper without a title is like a child without a name. The title should give the reader a good idea about the content of your paper. It should be specific, not something like "Plato" or "Free Will." Use your imagination and make it clever. Finding an appropriate title for your paper can be a quite creative process, so enjoy it and come up with a good one.

Include the word count of the BODY of your paper.  This word count excludes the words on your cover page, on your Endnotes page, and on your Works Cited (or Bibliography) page.

H. Bibliographies

The bibliography is not a place to list several entries which you found in the library but never actually read in preparing your paper. If you concentrated on the primary text in analyzing your topic and developed your own arguments, then you may not have a bibliography at all. In a philosophy paper this is perfectly okay. You should be concentrating on examining the arguments on your own. Your professor wants to see the results of your inquiry, not your report of what other philosophers have said about your topic. It is permissible to draw on what others have said, but then you should try to incorporate their ideas smoothly into the structure of your thesis defense. The bibliography allows you to give credit to the sources you have actually read and benefitted from in stimulating your own thinking about your thesis. Include all those books, and only those books, in the bibliography that you actually read parts of and used to inform yourself in writing your paper. Use other sources intelligently, not mechanically.

I. Page Numbering

Do not number the cover page. The page your introductory paragraph is on should be labelled "1". Every page after that should be numbered consecutively ("2" and so forth), including your endnotes page (if you have one) and your bibliography (if you have one).  NUMBER YOUR PAGES!

J. Stapling

Staple your pages together in the upper left hand corner.  Do NOT use a paper clip.  Paper clips can come off too easily and get hooked onto other students' papers.  Do NOT use plastic binders or paper folders; they are a waste of money.

VIII. POLISHING TOUCHES

A. Rereading, rethinking, rewriting

Now that you have assembled your darkly printed, numbered pages in the correct format and have stapled them all together, you should be eager to submit your "completed" paper to your professor. You have put a lot of work into it and you look forward to receiving your professor's reaction to it. However, at this point it is a good idea to take your paper, put it in a drawer, and leave it there overnight. Now if you have put off writing your paper until the night before it is due, then you have already made your task much more difficult than it needs to be. Papers generated in the dark of night by stressed out writers with sleep deprived bodies will appear to be exactly that when your professor reads them in the harsh light of day. Procrastination invites disaster. You don't want your paper to be a disaster. Therefore, you don't want to procrastinate in writing your paper.

On the other hand, if you have budgeted your time well, you will be able to have at least one night's sleep before you have to submit the paper. Then, when the dawn rouses you from your satisfied slumber and greets you with a new day, you can afford to relax. You will have had a restful night's sleep, and you can take a refreshing shower and eat a nutritious breakfast. If you are proud of what you have written, the next thing you will want to do is deliver it to your professor. STOP. Take your paper out of the drawer and read it through out loud word for word. You will most probably discover some typographical errors. Those are easy to fix.

The challenge is to be critical about the content of your own writing. Pretend you discovered this paper in your roommate's desk. Think of it as someone else's work. Can you see any flaws in the reasoning? Are there objections the reader could raise? Your roommate would welcome your constructive criticisms since the paper could be revised so as to include them and respond to them. That is all the more reason why you should exert yourself to find shortcomings in your own paper. Try to be detached about the success of your thesis defense and search hard for ways to strengthen your reasoning. Return to the criteria which your professor will use to grade your paper: originality, clarity, coherence, concision, rigor. There will undoubtedly be parts of your paper which could be improved in one or more of these respects. Again, if you have planned well, you will have the time to rethink your arguments and rewrite your paper in order to incorporate these improvements.

In particular, you should reread those counterarguments you tacked on late last night. Could you do a better job of presenting those counterarguments? Are the criticisms of your opponent really as weak as you thought before? The advantage of rereading your first draft aloud is that you will hear how your arguments sound, and this can help to reveal their deficiencies. So reread it, rethink it, and then sit back down at the computer and rewrite it.

B. Proofreading and correcting

The single biggest problem with student papers is that they are not adequately proofread. If your final copy is sloppy, it will detract from the content of your paper. Very sloppy typing, spelling, punctuation, and referencing will LOWER YOUR GRADE. These sentences were not adequately proofread by the students who wrote them:

When reading your thesis defense paper, your professor makes no distinction between a typographical error and a misspelled word. Both are errors due (not "do") to sloppiness. Errors distract the reader from the presentation of your ideas. Poor punctuation also detracts from the clarity of your expression. So do run-on sentences. So do rambling paragraphs. All of these errors should be corrected when you proofread your paper. Your goal is to submit a paper that is letter perfect. Each misspelled (or misused) word adds to the impression that you were too lazy and careless to bother proofreading your paper. Each garbled sentence adds to the impression that you neglected to read your paper out loud, as you were instructed to. In contrast, a clean, error-free paper will allow your professor to concentrate directly on your arguments. A few mistakes will distract your professor by obscuring your arguments. Multiple mistakes will frustrate the whole effort. As mentioned above (in section I.C), you should have an attitude of respect toward your audience. If you have not carefully proofread and corrected your paper, it will be a slap in your professor's face.

The following are some commonly misspelled words. Misspelling these (or any other) words betrays poor proofreading:

     aesthetic or esthetic
     affect (as in: How did that movie affect you?)
     argument (not arguement)
     atheist
     casual (as in: Wear casual clothes.)
     conceive, deceive, perceive, receive (not concieve, etc.)
     dependent (not dependant)
     effect (as in: What was the cause of that effect? or I effect real
          change.)
     existence (not existance)
     possess (not posses)
     premise
     separate (not seperate)
     than (as in: This is better than that.)
     then (as in: If this is true, then that is true.)

The following are some commonly confused homonyms. The spell-checker of a word processor will not catch these because they are used in the wrong context, not misspelled:

     bare, bear
     do, due
     imminent, immanent, eminent
     principle, principal
     there, their (as in: Their books are over there.)

The following are the singular and plural forms of words often used in philosophy:

 Singular  Plural
   basis    bases
   criterion    criteria
   datum    data
   hypothesis    hypotheses
   phenomenon    phenomena
   schema    schemata
   stratum    strata
   thesis    theses

Proofreading Bloopers from Actual Student Papers

IX. FINAL THOUGHTS

As I explained at the very beginning of this manual, writing philosophy papers is difficult. It was no less so for me, your professor. Since I wrote well in all of my other classes, I was surprised and frustrated when my earliest philosophy papers were sharply criticized instead of being roundly praised. I had to struggle mightily over the course of several semesters in order to overcome the weaknesses I had in writing philosophy papers. I believe that my philosophical writing improved because I took to heart my professor's critical comments on my papers and because I resolved to make every effort not to commit the same mistakes. I came to realize that there is no single "best" style of philosophical writing which all students should try to imitate. Rather, my professor's tough-minded input helped me to improve my own style of philosophical writing. I have worked to make it as effective as I can ever since. Similarly, I urge you to work hard at improving your own style of philosophical writing. Improvement is certainly achievable so long as you want to put the effort into it; but no one ever reaches the "final" stage of producing a "perfect" piece of writing. No such object exists in the world. Rather, perfection exists as an ideal which represents the appropriate goal to aim for in practice. That is why your goal should be to strive to perfect your writing, knowing full well that improvement is an ongoing process that never ends. Over the course of history, those pieces of writing that have approached the ideal have become known as masterpieces.


last revised 21 May 2012
Copyright Š 2012 William O. Stephens