How to Write a Philosophy Paper

By: Dakota Jones


  1. 1. Choosing a Topic
  2. 2. Style
  3. 3. Structure
    1. 3.1 Introduction Paragraph(s)
    2. 3.2 Body/Argument
    3. 3.3 Conclusion
  4. 4. Informational Resources

Meditation is a gift confined to unknown philosophers and cows. Others don’t begin to think till they begin to talk or write.

Finley Peter Dunne

Dunne is sadly mistaken about (at least some) philosophers and the gift of meditation. I find it almost impossible to work through a philosophical problem without writing or talking. When simply carrying on an internal monolog I rarely am driven to a new idea and what’s worse, I can’t see the holes in my arguments. Writing a philosophy paper is not only the result of all your thoughts and way to communicate them but also as a tool that can be used to produce new ideas and arguments. Don’t be afraid to just start writing and see what you can make out of later. This resource will help guide you along the path to writing a paper but it is not the only way to write a philosophy paper, merely one tried and true set of heuristics for producing good philosophical writing.

1. Choosing a Topic

If the topic of your paper is left open to you, it can be difficult to figure out what to write on. One systematic approach to producing a paper topic is reconstructing the argument(s) being covered in class in standard premise form. From there focusing in on one of those arguments or even just one of the premises, analyzing arguments for/against that argument or premise.

For an argument to fail either one of the premises must be false or the conclusion must not follow from the premises. If you want to argue against something you must argue one of those two things. By breaking down arguments in this way it is much easier to see what you agree and disagree with, what has good evidence and what is more tendentious. So once you have your argument or premise that you disagree with, your paper can be a systematic presentation of the reasons against that thesis. Or, alternatively, if through reading you believe something is right but people are arguing against it by denying some premise or that its conclusion follows from its premises, then you can present reasons why the argument is successful.

One important thing to keep in mind when choosing a topic is not to try and do too much. By overextending yourself you ensure that your arguments will be unsuccessful. There are several ways one can overextend themselves. The most common way one might overextend is by not focusing on one argument or one premise. It is perfectly fine to produce a paper that simply analyzes one thing if it does so thoroughly and successfully. The best philosophy papers often make a very small point but get it across strongly.

2. Style

Philosophy papers are most often persuasive or argumentative papers, even when they are interpreting a work, rather than arguing for a particular philosophical position, you will be trying to persuade your reader of the interpretation you are presenting. There are certain things to focus on when writing a philosophy paper. Philosophical writing, above all else, demands clarity. It is preferable to have clear, simple prose over anything fancy, which might obscure your arguments. Use direct language and never assume your reader has the same background knowledge as you. A good rule of thumb is to imagine the audience for your paper is an intelligent peer who isn’t in your class or major.

Even if an argument was proposed a long time ago it is good practice to talk about it in the present tense, arguments don’t get old or die. For instance, instead of saying ““Plato argued that all universals exist independently of any particular” you should say “Plato argues that all universals exist independently of any particular.” You also are allowed and encouraged to use the first person tense in philosophical writing. Using the first person pronoun can make it clear what exactly your paper is trying to accomplish and which parts are your arguments rather than other peoples. Good phrases to use: “I will argue X.” “I will defend Y.” “ In this first section of this paper I will discuss Z.”

3. Structure

There are many ways to structure a philosophy paper but in almost all cases the paper should be structured around your argument. What follows in this section is an example of one argument centered structure you can use as a guide in writing  your essay.

3.1 Introduction Paragraph(s)

It is easy to start a philosophy paper by introducing the long historical context that your idea or topic has. More often than not this is unnecessary. A good rule of thumb is to start by introducing the authors and their arguments, rather than trying to introduce the debate as a whole. If you need to discuss some historical points or context, do so as needed in the body of your essay. One should have a thesis statement and explanation of the structure of the paper within either the first paragraph or, if it is a longer paper, within the first page or two. By telegraphing your arguments and the structure they are going to follow helps the reader understand your essay the first time through. Your goal should be to accomplish these three things by the end of your introduction: 1) Introduce the audience to the general subject. 2) State a specific problem/question that the paper aims to address.  3) State a clear, explicit statement of the solution/answer to the problem/question (i.e. thesis statement).

 Here is an example of a good succinct two paragraph introduction:

“Galen Strawson argues that mental action is mostly limited to cases of shepherding the mind; merely preparatory movements in hopes of trying to make other things happen: you can pull your focus back on task after getting distracted; you can clear your mental slate; you cannot, however, actively think, judge, believe, or choose. His arguments come to the conclusion that most of what happens in our head is purely mental ballistics; one can point the mind in a direction and pull the trigger, but after that, one isn’t in control at all. This paper will only discuss one of the mental events Strawson believes is passive: thought.

When I intend to think some thoughts and then subsequently have an instance of that thought content roll across my mental ticker tape, the thinking of that thought has risen to the level of action. Strawson gives what could reasonably be construed as an argument relying on a possible regress against the possibility of actively having some thought. Though I will discuss other ways to interpret his argument throughout the paper. My goal is to show that we can stop the regress from getting off the ground and rescue the intuition that one can actively think about some content. Though a lot of theories of mental action, concepts, and intention will have to deny that entertaining any particular thought content is an action, I will argue that not all do”

3.2 Body/Argument

The body of your  paper should be largely spent on making an argument, only covering the background that is necessary for your argument.One  it can be helpful to outline your argument in premise form and then go through each premise and explain why that premise is true. You can do this outlining in a separate document and use it to guide your paper or, better yet,  include this formal argument in your paper itself. Here For example, here is a formalized argument:

  • Premise 1: If there is a soul then each person is identical with their soul.
  • Premise 2: Each person is also identical with a body
  • Premise 3: But, each soul is not identical with a body.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, each person must not be identical with their soul
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, there is not a soul.

Providing the reader with this breakdown of your argument can strengthen your position and make it easy to understand what information is relevant to your argument. Finally, you should consider objections to your argument. This can either be done as you go about defending each of your premises, taking any objections while defending it, or you can discuss all together at the end. Either way, answering the questions/objections that might be aimed at you by a reader is very important to the overall strength of your argument and essay. One good way to do this is by examining your own argument and asking “what could possibly make this false?” There will surely be a few things, some more reasonable than others. Discuss the most reasonable ones and explain why they do not hold true.

Besides presenting your arguments, it is also important to discuss the implications of your argument. That is, if what you argue is correct, what has changed? If you were arguing against certain philosophical positions you might discuss how exactly it would have to change their position to account for your arguments. If you were critiquing a view commonly held in the literature, then you might discuss what competing view that one could be replaced with. This step helps your reader not only to understand why your argument is important but also facilitates understanding of the reach your argument has.

3.3 Conclusion

                  On shorter papers there is no need to reiterate all of the points. They occurred recently enough in the reader’s mind that going over everything can feel tedious or stilted. Often it is much better to really present the conclusions that can be drawn from your paper. Conclusions about the position you were arguing for or against, or conclusions about what the philosophical literature should be like now with your considerations in mind. For a longer paper, you can do the same things as the short paper but start by reiterating the main moves of your argument. And you should finish off your paper with a strong statement about what the reader should take away from the paper. This not only helps the reader understand what you are trying to communicate but also leaves them with a solid final impression of your paper and argument as a whole.

4. Informational Resources

  • Philpapers.org – This is a massive database of almost every philosophy paper and book. You can use it to explore areas and topics and find papers that might be relevant to your research. Then, once you have found some things you can acquire them through UVA’s library website above.
  • https://plato.stanford.edu/ – The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a massive and detailed database of articles written by philosophers. No matter the philosophical subject, there is likely an SEP article on it. It’s not just written by philosophers but used by them as well. They can be quoted and cited just as you would an article or book. Starting a research project here, and then using the bibliographies at the end of each article to dive deeper is often the best way to start writing a philosophy paper.
  • https://iep.utm.edu/ – The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very similar to the Stanford Encyclopedia.
  • Many articles and books are available for free either through the library (https://search.lib.virginia.edu/), from the author, or through the publisher. If it is not available through the library, try searching for “Title, Author, PDF” or “Title, Author, Filetype:PDF.” Failing that, many authors are happy to email copies of their articles, though I would not rely on this.

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