ADVICE ON WRITING PHILOSOPHY PAPERS


    You're asked to write a philosophical paper.  There are four points we want to emphasize from the very beginning:

    (1)  This is not a research paper.  Although you may need to summarize someone's position on your chosen issue, what really interests us is what you genuinely think about that issue, and (especially) why.
    So far as you do summarize a claim or an argument put forward by one of our authors, you should of course do so as accurately and faithfully as you can.  When you quote, i.e., reproduce an authorís own words, you must of course use quotation marks and give the page reference.
    We do not encourage you to turn to secondary sources; at this stage they would confuse you more than help you.  But if you do do some outside reading and make use of some other authorís ideas, be sure to credit that author in a footnote, again giving page references; failure to do so counts as plagiarism, a particularly awful violation of the Honor Code.

    (2)  This is to be an argumentative paper.  You're to support whatever position you think is the correct one, by giving reasons why you think so.  Your reasons should be spelled out as explicitly as possible, step by step or item by item.  Of course you will have to help yourself to some assumptions that you simply take for granted; make sure we know exactly what they are.
    We do not expect a thirty-seven-step geometrical proof (though that would be nice if you should happen to stumble across one).  We expect only that you say something reasonable.  Oratory and rhetorical flourishes will not particularly help; it is the content of your argument and the substance of your reasoning that weíll be assessing.
    Here is a technique that some students have found useful:  Having written a draft of your paper, put it aside for a bit.  Then pick it up again, pretending that you are your own worst enemy and have been paid by the CIA to humiliate and destroy this paper.  Criticisms and objections will probably occur to you.  Write them down.  Then drop the pretense, revert to your normal identity, and try to answer the criticisms.  You may even want to put some of this adversarial thought-process into the final version of the paper itself; as weíve seen, philosophers often try to head off potential objections.

    (3)  THERE IS NO PREFERRED ANSWER to any of the questions.  What will matter to us in reading your paper is not whether we agree with your conclusion, but how clearly and persuasively you have stated and defended it.

    (4)  Donít be dismayed if you find the assignment hard.  It is hard (almost no philosophical questions are easy).  And that fact will be taken into account when your paper is graded.  Also, donít worry if you have trouble making up your mind or doubt whether you've really settled the issue you choose to write on; the important thing is just to make a plausible start at making up your mind on the topic.  You may not even have any very confident personal opinion on the topic that interests you most.  Thatís wise of you, since the topics we're dealing with are very tricky.  If youíre not confident, just say what you are inclined to think, and why.

    In reading your paper we will be looking for CLARITY and for CONVINCINGNESS.  Let me say a few more words about each.

    Clarity:  Be sure your paper is coherent and readable.  Even if you have some brilliant, conclusive argument for the final truth of the matter, it wonít help you unless you express it clearly.  Weíll know what you think only through the words you write down on the pages you turn in; so, say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say.
    It would be a good idea, after writing a first draft or a second draft, to have a friend who is not in the class read it before you turn it in.  If your friend canít understand it without your having to stand by and explain it to her/him (not counting the textual background to the issue), then it isnít written clearly enough.

    Convincingness:  Two stages are involved in constructing a defense of a position you think is right.  First, you must decide or figure out what your reasons are.  Second, you must determine whether they are good reasons and, if they're not, how they might be made better or whether you ought to change your position.  Each of these stages will take some thought; youíll probably find yourself just doodling with a pad and pencil for a while as you run through the possibilities.  When you've at least tentatively made up your mind as to what you want to say, youíll be ready to write your first draft.
    Every argument has premises which are not themselves defended.  So some of the assertions you will make will not be argued, but assumed to be obvious.  Be careful, though.  What seems obvious to you may well not be at all obvious to someone else.  Every time you rely on an unsupported assumption, stop and think whether itís really as obvious as it looks, and whether there mightnít be people who have reasons for doubting it or denying it.  Try to make your paper convincing to the ordinary intelligent person.  Keep examples, if you use them, as straightforward as possible.
    Itís a good idea to start your paper by saying as precisely as you can what youíre going to argue, and finish it by summarizing what youíve shown and the basic structure of your defense.

    NOTE:  If you have questions or problems about writing the paper, come and see your section instructor.  If youíd like to bring us your notes or a first draft, weíll be glad to give you some general advice about it.