How to do argumentative philosophy papers


Here are some guidelines for writing philosophy papers. This guide is for writing argumentative papers. More descriptive papers of an historical sort will require a modified version or perhaps a different guide.


      I.  Introduction

          Thomas  Edison's  much  quoted  remark  that  invention  is   l%

          inspiration   and   99%   perspiration  is  perhaps  a  case  of

          self-effacing understatement.   Nevertheless,  his  point,  when

          applied  to  the  matter  of writing philosophy essays, deserves

          attention.  No one can systematize or lay down rules  that  will

          result   in  inspiration  or  creativity.   This  little  guide,

          however, is written with the conviction that a  large  share  of

          the  burden  of the composition of an essay is almost mechanical

          and rules can be laid down such that, if they  are  followed,  a

          reasonably good result can be confidently predicted.

     II.  Groundwork

          a. First Thoughts

             Let  us  start  with  a  couple  of  typical philosophy essay

             topics: "Aristotle on Happiness" and "What is Justice in the Moral

             Thought of Mill?"

             l.  BEGIN  BY  GETTING  SOME  DEFINITIONS,  in   this   case,

                 definitions  of  "happiness"  and  "justice."

                 Start with a good dictionary.

             2.  WHAT  ARE  THE  ETYMOLOGICAL derivations of key

                 philosophical  terms?  What are the root metaphors on the

                 basis of which the technical terms are constructed?  What

                 do they have in common?  What kind of things can be  "put

                 together?" The point I am getting at is that you ought to

                 be  trying  to get at the conceptual presuppositions that

                 underlie any philosophical problem.  These usually  begin

                 in ordinary language.

             3.  Do  the  key  concepts  have  a  clear application to the

                 world?  That is, is there  any  difficulty  in  deciding,

                 given   the   concept   of   happiness,  about  instances  of

                 happiness?  Is it clear to you what  would  count  as  an

                 instance of happiness or of justice in the context of morality?

                 What  problems  are  raised  by  the application of these

                 concepts to the world?

             4.  Order  the  problems.  This  point  is  crucial.    After

                 having discovered a nest of problems through your initial

                 groundwork  you  should now ask yourself, "which problems

                 require a solution  before  the  other  problems  can  be

                 solved?   What  is  basic and what depends on the basic?"

                 For example, isn't it necessary to know  first  what  Aristotle

                 understands to be the structure of the human soul before

                we can consider what happiness in the soul is?  Don’t we

                have to understand which is the more comprehensive notion,

                morality or justice, before we can say how they are related?

                Remember: Some problems  are  more basic than others.

                Order your questions.  It will save a lot of time.

        b. Research

             In the case of our essays in this course,  you need only

              concentrate on the primary readings. You  will  be

             looking  for  basically  three  things:  (1) definitions, (2)

             distinctions, and (3) arguments.

             l.  Definitions.    How   does   your   author   define   key

                 philosophical  terms?  If he offers no definitions in the

                 text you are using, does he presume certain definitions?

                 Write down the definitions which are explicit.  Write out

                 definitions you think are implicit.  Does the  failure  to

                 define terms leave his arguments ambiguous?

             2.  Distinctions.  How  does  the  author  "cut up" the world

                 with his concepts?  What  are  the  different  senses  in

                 which  he  uses  words.   Many philosophical problems are

                 greatly aided in their solution by distinguishing  senses

                 of words.  To do this it will be useful to fill your head

                 with  lots  of  examples and ask how the relevant word or

                 concept would cover these.  Make a list of different uses

                 of a concept.  How are these uses  alike?   How  do  they


             3.  Arguments.     Your    most    important    job   is   to

                 extract an argument from the text.   All  arguments  have

                 premises  and a conclusion. .  The conclusion should be a

                 statement of the author's position.  The premises contain

                 the  statements  of  the  evidence   leading   to   these

                 conclusions.   Extract  these arguments.  The backbone of

                 your essay will be the examination  of  these  arguments.

                 You  will  be using two standards for examination: (a) Is

                 the argument valid, that is does  the  conclusion  follow

                 logically  from  the  premises  (that  is,  assuming  the

                 premises are true, does the conclusion then follow.)  (b)

                 Are  the  premises true?  Are they intended by the author

                 to be self-evidently true or does he adduce evidence  for

                 them?   Working from the basic argument you will begin to

                 hunt for hidden premises, alternative premises that would

                 make an invalid argument valid, etc.  All the  time  your

                 eye  will  be  on the conclusion and the question: "Is it

                 true?" Can he prove  it?   Can  I  prove  it?   Remember:

                 Philosophy is mainly concerned with arguments.

  III.  Preparation of Essay

          a. The    outline.     Among    the   most   common   flaws   in

             undergraduate essays are  lack  of  clarity  in  thought  and

             expression and lack of coherent organization.  Student essays

             tend  to  ramble  and  this  indicates  a mind at sea.  It is

             possible, however, to minimize these problems by employing  a

             purely mechanical device.  Make an outline. Now I do not mean

             an  outline  of  the  form: I.  Introduction.  II.  Argument,

             III.  Conclusion.  This is too superficial  and  consequently

             worthless.   An  outline  should  be detailed and represent a

             logical progression of thought. There should be a heading  or

             sub-heading for every paragraph in the essay.  Nothing should

             be  put  into  the  essay that has not been justified in your

             mind  beforehand  and  already  represented  in  the outline.

             Every paragraph in the essay should have a distinct place  in

             the  exposition  and/or  criticism of the arguments.  The

             exposition  should  unfold  premise by premise, the criticism

             point by point.

          b. The outline (Second Stage).   The  creation  of  the  outline

             should  be guided by thought of what the topic requires, that

             is, given the topic, what are the orderly steps to  be  taken

             in dealing with it?  In the second stage you will begin going

             through the outline point by point and thinking about what to

             say for each point.  You will now discover  a  happy  result.

             Your  essay will be about 75% finished! The actual writing of

             the  essay will be almost anti-climactic.

             The  main  work  of  your  essay--which  is  an  exercise  in

             philosophical  thinking and not the search for a stylish turn

             of a phrase--is in your head and not on paper.  The paper  is

             just  a  record  of  your real work. The creation of a tight,

             critically justified outline will help eliminate  the  cotton

             candy  that many students use to pad their essays.  It is not

             necessary to begin with a paragraph on the greatness of  your

             subject or the world-moving importance of your problem. There

             is  no  need  to  end with a stirring tribute to the glory of

             philosophy and the meaning of  life. These  are  superfluous.

             You  are  writing  an  essay  for someone who has heard these

             platitudes  a  thousand  times  before.   Their  addition  is

             extremely  irritating  to  most professors.  Their absence is

             bound to make a good impression.  Start with your substantive

             points.  End your essay when these are  completed. 

             Remember,   don't   try   to   do  everything  at  once.   Be

             systematic.  Take your points one at  a  time.   And  by  all

             means, do not worry about being too narrow.  Your major worry

             will almost always be about being too superficial.

IV.  Writing the Essay.

          a. If  you  have  spent  adequate  time  on  the

             outline, you should now be in a position to produce your essay.

             Having thought out all the major points beforehand,  you 

             can now give your complete attention to the

             special problems of communicating these points.  One  overall

             principle  should guide you: clarity.  Your writing should be

             a window to your thinking.  You will most likely be  able  to

             achieve  this  if you stick to straightforward English prose.

             Every sentence should express one clear thought.  Grammar and

             syntax count.  Remember, there is nothing  childish  about  a

             short, clear, declarative sentence.  It is a good sentence if

             it clearly and accurately reflects your thought when read.

         b. Hints on Composition

               i. Define   the  key  philosophical  terms  you  introduce.

                  Obviously you cannot define  everything.   Nevertheless,

                  when  you  use a philosophical term in your argument you

                  should make the reader aware of the meaning.

              ii. Purge your writing  of  all  jargon.   Jargon  comes  in

                  two  varieties:  the  blatant  and the subtle.  They are

                  equally obnoxious.  Some examples of the  first  variety

                  are:  "interpersonal," "meaningful" and "relevant." Some

                  examples of the second are: "important," "in terms  of,"

                  and  "valid."  The  use  of jargon words and phrases can

                  only be avoided by careful scrutiny of every sentence of

                  your essay.

             iii. Use examples  and  counter-examples when possible. Nothing

                  conveys  the thrust of an argument as well as a cleverly

                  chosen   example.    Examples   illuminate   principles.

                  Nothing conveys your argument against a position as well

                  as a devastating counter-example.  Nothing  supports  an

                  argument an impressively as the anticipation of possible

                  counter-examples  to  the  argument  and  the answers to


              iv. Remember  that  your  reader  is  not  inside your head.

                  Don't expect your reader to make  the  associations  and

                  leaps  that are not explicitly laid out in the paper but

                  which went on in your thinking.   In  philosophy  it  is

                  almost impossible for your reasoning to be too explicit.

           Remember:  Straightforward  sentences.

             Arguments.  No padding.

*Adapted from “Some Hints For Composing Philosophy Essays” by L. P. Gerson


Here is a copy of my email sent 7 Dec 2011 regarding course papers:

Dear KUL students, 

Following the customary way I teach graduate and undergraduate courses, I will be quite willing to offer you comments on your outlines of your course paper. I believe I wrote earlier to indicate that we would be willing to do this up to 1 January 2012

To be clear, let me reiterate that I am offering to comment on outlines and not full paper drafts. This is because I believe the outline is what is key to the philosophical discussion written in the full paper. (Also, I prefer not to have the role of proofreader.) The outline should be one page only and should be arranged in hierarchical fashion. I suggest something such as the following but I leave it to you precisely how to proceed with the paper. 

NOTE: Many of you know the value of what follows here. However, I have NEVER had a graduate student in my classes who has NOT found what I  suggest below here and on the website to be valuable to her or her thought and work. Hence, I recommend you give it considerable thought both for this assignment and for any other argumentative paper you might have to prepare. I speak on the basis of 29 years experience teaching graduate courses and grading graduate course papers. Quite a number of my students have published papers which were first written as course papers for me, I mention incidentally. From what we have seen in your submitted short essays assignment, we know you are a very strong group of students with much talent for philosophical study. What I suggest here I believe will prove valuable for your continued philosophical development in many ways. 

Below is what I have in mind for an outline. HOWEVER, your outline should be carefully constructed on the basis of your research. If you have not done  the research, you cannot do the outline properly. This is the sort of outline that should be the result of research and reflection in accord with the guide at

1. Introduction (written last, 3 paragraphs)

1.1. General importance philosophical issue to be explored (as with a journal article, this should entice the reader to want to read your paper)

1.2. The specific issue the paper will address (as with a journal article, this should communicate clearly what you are doing and why you are doing it)

1.3. How you will proceed in this paper toward the achievement of the end or goal of the paper

This should signal clearly to your reader how you will proceed: "In the body of this paper I first A. . . . With that clarification, I then secondly B . . . This then

enables me to proceed to evaluate C . . . .  I then D . . . .

You cloud also do 1.3 by a series of systematic questions that must be considered and answered in this paper.

2. Body (however many paragraphs your topic requires)

2. 1. A (see 1.3)

2.2. B (see 1.3)

2.3. C (see 1.3)

2.4. D (see 1.3)

3.Conclusion(s). This should be repetitive for clarity sake.

3.1. corresponds to 1.3: This should clearly point out how you have handled and answered or responded to the issues indicated in 1.3

3.2. corresponds to 1.2: This should reiterate how you solved the issue or interpreted successfully the issue mentioned in 1.2

3.3. corresponds to 1.1: This should indicate the value or importance of what you did in the paper in a more general way

For a guide to writing philosophy essays, I strongly suggest you study "How to do philosophy essays"  which I have put on the course website at:

NOTE: Do not send me your outline and request my comments unless you have first studied this guide.

Cheers, Richard Taylor