I recently came across this handout I made for some previous class, and thought it might be of some use to our readers. Note that not all professors are the same, and not all assignments are the same; still, the advice that follows covers a great many paper assignments in a great many courses, I believe.
How to write a philosophical essay
Specifically: how to write an essay that explains and provides an analysis of a philosophical text and a critical (thoughtful) response to it.
- Focus on an interesting claim of argument within a larger body of work.
- E.g., the argument for God’s existence in Descartes’s Third Meditation; Hume’s argument against miracles in section 10 of the Enquiry; Kant’s argument that truths about space are a priori synthetic in the first part of the Prolegomena; Fichte’s view that human experience arises from an ego positing a non-ego through which it can understand itself.
- Sometimes you will focus on a specific argument for a specific claim; other times you will be explaining a general view or perspective, and trying to determine its value.
- You must devote time and effort to “inhabiting” the philosophers’ perspective. This means being able to feel and understand why an intelligent person would have this view. You should be able to explain the appeal of the view, in your own words to a sympathetic friend. Do your best to convince yourself the view is right.
- As you do this, you will find that there are things you don’t understand, or questions you can’t answer. This is good. Read the work again, or look up materials online, or talk to another student, or think it through on your own. After all this, you might find that you still aren’t sure. But you will have found a couple of possibilities – maybe X is the answer, or maybe Y is. This is really good, as it will give you some material to explore in your paper.
- Methods for understanding and writing differ among persons. Some people need to think things through before they begin writing. Others will start writing notes or a draft right away, and discover questions or problems as they write. Experiment and see what works best for you.
- At some point, after thinking or discussing or writing, you will find yourself in a position where you are ready to start begin. By now you should have a fairly clear idea of what you will be saying.
- Your paper (and your understanding) is made clearer if you identify some small number of points you wish to consider, such as:
- The four premises in Descartes’s argument, or
- The three basic insights that are involved Fichte’s view, or
- The two main ideas Hume employs in his argument.
You should be able to state each point concisely and clearly in a single sentence.
- Papers have introductions. In philosophical essays, the introductions provides a context for what you will be talking about. It should never be so broad as, “Since the dawn of time….” Your paper is not of cosmic significance. It is an exposition on a particular work or view. You might write something along the lines of:
“In the Third Meditation, Descartes offers an argument for God’s existence. The argument is interesting because it is meant to be based on a very minimal foundation, a foundation any thinking person must accept. The foundation includes an awareness that I exist, a recognition that I have ideas, and the principle that every idea must have a sufficient cause. In this essay I will explain how Descartes’s argument arises from these very basic claims. I will then turn to a critical assessment of this argument. In the end, I shall argue that Descartes’s argument does not succeed.”
An introduction like this is focused, relevant, and clear. It does not wander aimlessly over the subject area. It provides the reader with a general idea of what the subject matter of the essay will be along with a quick map of what will be discussed in further detail.
- The main body of your paper should clearly identify which main point you are discussing. You might have a subsection devoted to each claim; you might number them; but in any case be sure the reader knows where you are in your discussion. You are the guide through your essay. In this exposition of the philosophical view, you are putting into words the insight and understanding you developed above in step #2. Think of it as providing the best and most sympathetic account you can provide of this philosophical view. Examples are often useful in making claims clearer, but don’t let them distract you from the main points. By the end, anyone reading this central portion of your essay should have an accurate and fairly complete understanding of the philosophical view or argument.
- It takes lots of practice to write clearly. There is a real difference between sloppy and accurate writing, but I have not come across any useful guide that explains the difference. I can offer only some general tips. Don’t be afraid of deleting sentences or paragraphs when they seem sloppy to you. Be your own most severe critic: adopt the perspective of someone trying to find fault with everything you say, and try to repair each fault you can find. You must rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite, if your paper is to be clear.
An example of being your own critic:
(original) Kant talks about triangles, and how we know they have three sides. He says this isn’t just true by definition, and we don’t know it by looking at triangles. His perspective on it is that we make triangles have three sides because it is part of the way we look at things.
(here comes the critic) Kant talks about [REALLY? HE TALKS ABOUT THEM, OR DOES HE WRITE?] triangles, and how we know they have three sides [ARE YOU SURE THIS IS THE RIGHT EXAMPLE?]. He says this isn’t just true by definition [ISN’T IT?!], and we don’t know it by looking at triangles [WHY NOT?]. His perspective on it [ON IT? ON WHAT? OR ‘OF’ WHAT?] is that we make triangles have three sides because it is part of the way we look at things [WE MAKE THEM HAVE THREE SIDES? AS OPPOSED TO WHAT? AND WE DO THIS JUST WHENEVER WE LOOK AT ANYTHING? THIS SEEMS LOONEY!].
(a better attempt):
Kant is concerned with our knowledge of geometrical objects like triangles. We know many truths about these objects. For example, we know triangles have three sides, and we know their angles are equal to 180 degrees. Some of the truths we know about triangles are simply true by definition (such as that they have three sides). But other truths (like the sum of their angles equaling 180 degrees) are discoveries that are not simply true by definition. Nor are they known through experience, since we do not gain this knowledge by sampling many different triangles. Our knowledge, Kant claims, is based on an a priori understanding of the nature of space.
[In writing this attempt, my own inner critic forced me make at least a dozen changes or deletions, and also made me insert the parenthetical remarks.]
[And in writing that last bracketed claim, the critic forced me to make three further changes in it.]
[And I just changed that last remark three more times.]
[And that one once.]
This example is meant only as an illustration of the kind of severe attitude you should take to your own writing. Fix it until you can’t find any further way of improving it. Having others read it critically is also a good idea, though they will never be as severe as you will be about your own work.
- Let’s suppose you have succeeded in writing an admirably clear and accurate account of the philosophical view. Now it is time for analysis and critical response.
- The most important point is this: in essays like the ones I am describing, nobody cares what your view of the matter is. If you are writing about Descartes’s argument for God’s existence, no one cares if you are a theist. If you are writing about Fichte, no one cares if you believe an ego posits a non-ego. Sorry; I know that sounds cold, but that’s the truth. The paper is not about you.
- What your reader does care about is your critical assessment of the view you have just explained. Does the argument work? Does the view make sense? Is it clear? Are there problems with it? You are like an expert engineer, offering your opinion of the structural integrity of a building. We don’t care where you live. We care about your assessment of the building you have just described.
- If you came across questions you couldn’t answer in #2 above, this is the place to raise them and consider possible answers to them. You might discuss possible problems with each of the answers, or why it is you still don’t know the answer to the question.
- You might have discovered real problems with the view. Explain them, and explore how the philosopher might try to solve them. Then explain whether you think those would be workable solutions. This going back-and-forth between you and the philosopher is called dialectic, and it is a rare and precious virtue in this kind of paper. Strive to have meaningful dialectic in your assessment.
- You might be utterly convinced of the view you have explained. Still, you can imagine some objections or questions someone might raise. You can raise these questions and objections, and show how they should be answered. This also results in dialectic.
- Your paper should have a conclusion. It could be an uninteresting one that merely states that this philosophical view stimulates interesting ideas and further questions, and it merits attention from future generations. Or you could make the conclusion more interesting by actually offering some of the further questions or problems that have occurred to you as you have worked on this paper. What further matters would you like to understand? Does this philosophical view relate in some interesting way to something else you know of or care about? A really good conclusion is one that leaves the reader with the recognition that this subject has an important role to play on larger discussions.
- Congratulations! You’re done – with your first draft. Take a break and give it a day or two of rest. Then return to it and put on the severe critic persona. Look for ways to make it clearer, better organized, or simpler. Look for points that need further explanation, or distinctions that should be made. You will be surprised by how much better you can make your paper by giving it a rest and returning to it.