Suggestions for Writing Philosophy Papers (Part 1)

Successful philosophy papers require many of the same things as other academic papers. For example, you’ll want to provide the best possible defense for a clear, concise, and debatable thesis. You’ll also want to fully answer the question(s) provided by the assignment.

However, like any discipline, philosophy has certain unspoken conventions that characterize successful philosophy writing. I have tried to gesture towards those conventions in the suggestions below.

I am deeply indebted to those professors at Pomona and Claremont McKenna that have taught me how to write philosophy papers. I am also particularly indebted to two online resources that provide their own guidelines for philosophy papers. They are both worth reading in their entireties.

The first is a handout from Pomona’s own Professor Michael Green.

The second is Jim Pryor’s Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper. Pryor is a professor at NYU, and his handout was referenced by a number of different philosophy pages that I visited while researching this handout.

So, without further ado, here are my suggestions:

A philosophy paper first and foremost involves analyzing and evaluating arguments. ‘Arguments’ includes but is not limited to: your own arguments, arguments made by others, and any possible counterarguments that you can imagine.

  • Pay particular attention to the relationship between premises and conclusions (Green). How do the conclusions of the arguments follow from their premises?
  • Surprisingly, raising objections (counterarguments) to your claims is often the best way to defend them. It shows that you are accounting for the strength of opposing arguments and that your claims stand up to strict scrutiny.
  • “Argument leads us somewhere by taking us through a process of objection, reply, and possible modification” (Green).

Explain the arguments and objections in your paper fully and economically. More so than in perhaps any other discipline, clarity is the greatest virtue of a philosophy paper.

  • Break arguments into steps in order to explain them more clearly.
  • Never underestimate the power of examples to clarify arguments. Feel free to make up your own!
  • Give definitions for unclear terms and terms with multiple possible meanings. Do not vary your vocabulary unnecessarily (Pryor).
  • Likewise, try to use commonly understood words that don’t require lengthy definitions. Don’t use elevated language unnecessarily (Pryor).
  • Keep paragraphs and sentences short (Pryor).

Assume an audience that does not accept your position. Your paper is an attempt to compel them to accept said position (Pryor).

  • Your argument will probably begin with certain assumptions. Make these clear, and make sure that they are assumptions that a reasonable person could not reject.

Don’t set your sights too high or too low with your thesis.

  • Simply try to demonstrate something novel about the argument(s) that you are analyzing. Make sure that this “something” is demonstrated in the clearest and most accessible way possible.
  • “Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace” (Pryor).