Guidelines for Philosophical Writing

Writing a decent philosophy paper can be somewhat of a daunting venture, particularly for those of you who have never been exposed to philosophy in the past. However, it need not be overly difficult and, when done properly, it can be an extremely rewarding experience. There is no set procedure or recipe for good papers; however, there are a number of useful rules of thumb that can serve as guidelines when writing on a philosophical topic. Here are a few to keep in mind when constructing your paper.

  1. Start Early. Philosophy is not the sort of thing that can be done in a flash. Coming to grips with a problem, constructing sound arguments, clarifying your position -- all of these things take considerable time and care. When working hard on a paper, one sometimes develops a sort of intellectual "tunnel vision", where it becomes difficult to see other alternatives or certain shortcomings of the paper. Thus, it is often a good idea to write an early draft and then set it aside for a few days before returning with a fresh perspective. Waiting until the night before it is due to start a paper won't give you enough time to think carefully, and will almost certainly yield sub-standard work.
  2. Be Explicit and Specific. Reading a philosophy paper should not be like reading a mystery novel where you have to wait until the end to find out what's going on. Be up front in your first paragraph--tell the reader exactly what your position is and how you intend to argue for it. Don't be afraid to use the first-person pronoun, and don't be afraid to occasionally summarize your views and remind the reader of what's coming next. Also, focus your energy on the task at hand. If you are writing on, say, the arguments for soft determinism, it's not very useful to write at length about how all humans desire freedom; what you need is specific evidence and arguments about the soft-determinists' position. Also, try to avoid starting your paper with grandiose statements like "Since the dawn of humanity . . ."
  3. Employ a Thesis. Don't confuse a thesis with a statement of procedure--your opening paragraph ought to employ both. A thesis announces your position; it is something you can argue for: Soft determinism fails to provide us with a notion of freedom that can satisfy our moral intuitions. A statement of procedure lets the reader know how you intend to establish this position. It may follow the thesis, but it should not be confused with the thesis itself: I will discuss competing conceptions of freedom and explore their bearing upon questions of responsibility.
  4. Use Examples. In clarifying your position, it is often helpful to use examples or analogies that reveal the point you are trying to make. Try not to employ the first example that comes to mind--make an effort to think up new examples that may make the point even better. Remember, examples and analogies cannot stand on their own, they need to be explained and cannot serve as a substitute for careful argumentation.
  5. Use Only What is Necessary. Are there phrases, sentences, quotations, paragraphs, that might be omitted without seriously detracting from your argument? If so, omit them; they merely distract the reader's attention from what is really important. Check your quotations carefully: do they need to be so long? Could you summarize the information contained in some of them without losing any of their value as evidence? Quote only what you need to quote. But, of course, be sure to use quotation marks any time borrow a passage from someplace else. In this class, you may use the following citation procedure: ". . . upheaval of all my former opinions" (Descartes, in Reason and Responsibility, p. 151).
  6. Discuss Counter-arguments. Serious critical analysis of one's own arguments is perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a good philosophy paper; it is also one of the most essential. Two problems frequently arise in this connection. Rather than defending her thesis against serious counter-arguments, a writer may defend it against some peripheral or silly objection that few people would endorse. Alternatively, she may merely reverse the thesis and attack this reversal as if it were a counter-argument:

    Some people might think that soft determinism can account for our notion of responsibility. But as I have shown, it cannot.

    Will this refute anyone who wants to argue against what you have shown? Of course it won't. A real counter-argument is an attack on the argument(s) that support your thesis, not merely a reversal of the thesis. Try to put yourself in your opponent's shoes and imagine the most damaging thing he could say about your paper. Then defend yourself--show how the counter-argument misses its mark. Also, be careful not to beg any questions here. For example, in defending an argument for the existence of God, one cannot cite biblical passages as evidence or support because, of course, the accuracy of the scriptures is the very thing the atheist wants to call into doubt. The same can be said for any idiosyncratic language or jargon that your objector might not buy into. You must try to defend your position on neutral turf.
  7.  Be Original. When presenting your own views, don't simply restate the lectures and readings. Try to come up with your own examples, criticisms, and arguments. Of course, we don't expect you to invent with some lengthy and detailed new theory that is going to revolutionize philosophy (although, believe it or not, something like this has actually happened in undergraduate courses). But we want to see that you have thought about the issue and have something to say that is coming from you--that you have something to add to the discussion. This is why we ask that you not delve into secondary sources or the internet for ideas--you will gain a lot more from this class if you do it on your own. You may be rewarded more for a clever and novel idea or argument that is defended well, but ultimately doesn't work, than for a hackneyed, regurgitated argument that is in fact sound.
  8. Make Sure Your Conclusion is Consistent With Your Introduction. Most of us learn a great deal about a given subject while writing on it. Sometimes we change our opinions without realizing it. Read over your first and last paragraphs and see if they are arguing the same views on the same subject. If they aren't you will need to ask yourself what your real views are, and rewrite whatever portions of the paper disagree with these views.
  9. Strive for Clarity. Because a big part of the philosopher's job is bringing into focus matters that are fuzzy, a good philosopher must constantly ask herself if she is phrasing things as clearly as possible. When writing your paper, imagine that you are an instructor with the job of imparting the material to people who are bright but ignorant of the subject. It is your job to put things in a way that they can easily understand. Organization is important here. A useful (though not necessary) strategy to adopt on the longer papers is something like the following:
    • first 1/6 of paper devoted to introduction and statement of thesis.
    • next 1/3 devoted to filling in background, clarifying terminology, spelling out others' views, arguments, and debates.
    • next 1/3 devoted to developing your own position and arguments.
    • final 1/6 devoted to refuting counter-arguments and conclusion.
    • Of course, this is only a rough guide and some papers may require different proportions of work in different areas. View papers functionally, where individual paragraphs are distinct components with specific jobs to perform--always ask yourself what the single purpose of a given paragraph is (e.g., is it to spell-out someone's position? Is it to offer a criticism of that position? Is it to clarify a bit of terminology?) Do not try to do more than one thing in a single paragraph, and make sure the paragraph succeeds at its task.
  10. Don't Forget to Proofread. Check over the finished version for spelling, grammatical, or other mechanical errors. Be sure you have included a title, your name, section number and TA (if applicable), page numbers in the upper right hand corner, and make sure the pages are stapled (absolutely no paper-clips). It is also a good idea to have a friend proofread it for clarity and coherency. Also, it is no longer acceptable to use gender-exclusive language such as "man" to refer to humanity. In avoiding gender-exclusivity, do not slip into the all-too-common ungrammatical colloquialism of using a plural pronoun ("they", "their", "them") where a singular pronoun is needed. The best strategy is to consistently employ "he", "him" or "his" part of the time and "she", "her" or "hers" part of the time (as I have done in this handout). And remember to always make an extra copy of your paper before turning it in; if it should get lost, you will be responsible for providing a new copy.
Citation: Ramsey, W. (2006, September 19). Guidelines for Philosophical Writing. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site:
Copyright 2012, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License