Some Pointers for Writing a Philosophy Essay

Writing an essay for your philosophy course can be very different to writing an essay for your other subjects. A philosophy essay will almost always be a defense of a particular claim using reason/rationality; it is not just an exposition of a particular topic. I’ve included some pointers here to help you prepare for, and write, a good philosophy essay.

Primarily a philosophy essay defends a claim, either yours or someone else’s. This does not assume that you will use someone else’s defense or attack of a given claim for your argument but that you will provide reasons for why the given claim is either good or bad, to put it simply. It is insufficient to simply state that ‘I do not believe X’, or ‘so-and-so philosopher does not believe X’; you need to provide reasons for holding this view. You may say something like ‘I do not believe X because if Y holds, and Y does hold, then X is wrong’, or ‘so-and-so philosopher does not believe X and the following will validate her claim’.

So how do we get to the stage of knowing what your arguments are going to be. You read and you read as widely as possible. Follow up any footnotes that are included in the relevant areas of your text book or book of readings, check bibliographies for relevant material, ask your TA’s if they know of any relevant material, and discuss your readings with fellow students and friends. This may seem like such a simple task but it is surprising how little reading, outside of the set material, students actually do. If you read material that supports and also material that refutes the subject of your essay then you will be in a better position to formulate your own arguments.

The next step, in my opinion, is the most important in writing a philosophy essay. As a philosophy essay is based on argument it is important to make sure that your arguments are logical, concise, valid, and actually relevant to your set task. To get to this stage you need a good essay plan. While there are many ways of writing essay plans I always begin by answering a few questions. What is my main contention? What are the main supporting arguments I will be including and what will their format be? What are the most valid counter-considerations? Where should I present these counter-considerations and how will I refute them? Are any of my arguments dependent on earlier arguments? What are the main references I will be using to support my claims? etc. The reason that it is important to have these questions answered is you will be able to outline a very coherent picture of your claims before you begin to write, the order of your arguments will become apparent and any holes and weaknesses will show through. If you spend the time and complete a good, coherent essay plan then when it comes to writing the essay proper you will find it much easier.

After the essay plan the draft is the next stage. In the draft you will connect all the points that you’ve made in your essay plan. Language is very important here. Do not suppose that because the philosophers in your text books use complicated language that it is necessary for you to do so in your essays, particularly at the undergraduate level. Be concise and logical in presenting your position and use directive words to give your reader a sense of where the essay is going. Jargon is fine but keep it relative; don’t use words like Existentialism unless the essay relates to Existentialism or the particular claim has some relevance to Existentialism. Keep all your language consistent and do not introduce ideas that you do not have the time to develop, you may use footnotes to direct the reader to further relevant information. In longer arguments it may also be a good idea to tell your reader what you have presented previously to clarify where your argument is heading.

An important characteristic of philosophy essays that may differ from essays set in other subjects is grammar. While it is never OK to use bad grammar there are some differences in the grammar of philosophy essays. To begin with it is OK to use ‘I’. You can say ‘I think that X…’ so long as you provide reasons for this position. While you may write in the third person it is not a necessary requirement of philosophy essays. Also, it may seem like your philosophy essay contains too many verbs such as ‘is’ or ‘exist’ but philosophy is particularly interested in relationships and verbs are necessary to express relationships. You may use a thesaurus, for example, to find substitute verbs but usually this won’t be necessary and in some cases may even be detrimental. Remember, remain consistent.

Make sure you share your essay drafts with your TA and students in your class. Be prepared to make changes and even re-write large sections of your essay. It is much better to find out early that your claims aren’t relevant or that so-and-so philosopher has presented a counter-consideration to your position. This also helps if you’re a little stuck with certain sections of your argument as others may be able to help clarify your position. Maybe you could even post a section of your essay on your blog, if you have one, and hope for comments that way too.

Before I move on to my final copy I make sure that all the referencing is correct and that all the ideas in the essay that aren’t mine are clearly indicated as such. Also, make sure that all referencing is presented according to the department’s style guidelines. If I am left with too many or lengthy direct quotations at this point I always try to re-write them as a paraphrase unless the direct quote is absolutely necessary. Not only does paraphrasing read better but it shows that you can articulate the position of another and understand the idea being presented.

Other than the referencing make sure that your presentation is in accordance with departmental policy guidelines. Check your font and line spacing, do you need to include page numbers and your name/student number? Should the essay be bound or stapled? What format should the essay be emailed in? etc. These are the most basic features of an essay to get right so there is no excuse for leaving them out.

Lastly I read my essay aloud to see, well hear, how it flows. Sometimes an essay can look very coherent on paper but when read aloud mistakes become apparent. Bad grammar is usually the culprit here.

If these steps are followed then you should be left with a coherent piece of argument, in other words a good philosophy essay. Remember that an essay is a learning task so be prepared to spend some time gathering information and talking to your TA and other staff members about the content. Lastly don’t be too upset if you don’t get the best grade in your class, your TA will provide comments on your essay that will outline where you need to devote attention for future work. If you follow your TA’s criticisms your ability to write philosophy essays will only improve.

Posted by Simon Ives.

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