Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper
February 21, 2005
There is, alas, no good recipe or formula for writing
a philosophy paper. This makes it, for me, the hardest part of philosophy to teach.
But over the years I’ve developed the following list of guidelines, which may answer
some of your questions and save you from some common mistakes. From time to time
I run across similar documents that other philosophers have put together, and some
of them are well worth a look. The best I’ve seen is the one
by James Pryor (http://www.princeton.edu/~jimpryor/general/writing.html); I also recommend the one by Diana
Fleming (http://mypage.iusb.edu/~dcflemin/howtos/papers.html). Finally, believe it or not, there have been at least four books
written about writing philosophy papers.
I have copies of these books (one copy of each book), and I’m happy to lend them
out upon request. (Just come by my office and ask.)
In addition to giving you the following guidelines, I want to call your
attention to the
KU Writing Center (http://www.writing.ku.edu/main.html), where you can get help with your writing from trained peer
consultants. You can either make an appointment or just drop in, and there are
several locations to choose
from (http://www.writing.ku.edu/locations). (Call 864-2399 for more information.) When you go—and I encourage you to
do so—bring the paper assignment and your work in progress, and be prepared to
tell the consultant what you are most concerned about (e.g., organization,
The following guidelines are usually appropriate, but in some cases they may
conflict with the instructions for your particular assignment. (For example,
your assignment may have formatting instructions quite different from these.)
When that happens, then of course the instructions for your particular
assignment take precedence over these general words of advice.
- At the top right of the first page of your paper, put your
name, the name of the course (e.g., “Philosophy 672”), the number of the question
you are answering, if you have had a choice of questions to answer (e.g., “Question
no. 1”), and the date when you are turning in your paper. (I grade all papers
responding to a particular question as a group, to compare them more easily.)
- Choose a title that refers to the theme or content of your
paper fairly specifically—not something like “First Paper” or “Philosophy Paper.”
Center this title above the beginning of the text of your paper.
- Print your paper in black 12-point type, double-spaced, with margins
of 1.25 or 1.5 inches. Number your pages.
- Use a paper clip or staple to secure your pages; no need to use anything
more elaborate. I’ll return your paper to you with a typed sheet of comments
stapled to the front of your paper.
- Keep an extra copy (either on paper or on disk) of your
paper. (You are responsible for providing an extra copy if I should happen to
II. Style and Content
- Write your paper so that it could be understood by a reasonably
intelligent person who has not read the material about which you are writing.
Its content should be understandable to your friends, for example, or to a member
of your family who does not have a lot of experience studying philosophy.
- Try to be as clear as possible, both in your own mind and
in the words of your paper, about what the point of your paper is (what its thesis
is). You yourself may not be sure from the start what your paper’s thesis is;
it is natural for your paper to evolve as you write it. But be sure that the final
version of your paper is precise and that it cannot be misunderstood. This does
not mean that you have to be wordy; indeed, conciseness is usually possible and
almost always preferable. Nor does it mean that you cannot be imaginative or original;
just be sure to present your insights clearly.
- To make the structure and point of your paper clearer,
provide a good introduction. A good introduction to a philosophy paper is short
(a single paragraph is usually enough) and typically accomplishes two things.
First, it tells the reader what the thesis of the paper is; this should take only
a sentence or two. Second, it tells the reader, in brief, what’s going to be said
in the rest of the paper to prove the thesis. This should take only a few more
sentences, so that the reader doesn’t get bogged down in details that don’t need
to be discussed until later in the paper. It often happens that you are not sure
exactly what your paper’s thesis is going to be, or what your paper’s structure
is going to be, until after you’ve written the paper. For this reason, it often
makes sense to write the introduction last.
- Don’t be reluctant to write your introduction in this way.
You may think that if you do, then your introduction will be boring and the reader
won’t want to continue. But an introduction is primarily a guide, and only secondarily
a sales pitch. Also, you may think that if you write your introduction in this
way, then you will give away the ending. But a philosophy paper is not like a
novel whose ending has to be concealed; it’s the written presentation of an argument,
and it’s likely to be more convincing if the reader is told up front what to expect,
instead of having somehow to figure out the thesis and structure of the paper
along the way.
- Use each of the remaining paragraphs of your paper (except
the conclusion) to make one clear point; and it should be obvious, from the structure
of your paper, how that point supports the thesis of your paper. Details belong
in these paragraphs, not in the introduction or, of course, the conclusion.
- Use a conclusion only to provide a brief summary of what
you have accomplished in your paper—like the introduction, but in past tense,
you might say. It should just be a reminder of what you have proved and how you
have proved it, so that it’s almost completely predictable to a reader who has
understood the body of your paper well.
- If you are addressing a specifically assigned topic, be
sure that you address all parts of it. This often requires both explaining an
author’s argument clearly and critically examining or evaluating it. To do
of these things well, you need to be very familiar with the text that you are
discussing and will need to cite parts of it that support your claims. Critically
examining or evaluating an author’s argument, moreover, involves more than just
stating that you agree or disagree with it; this task also involves giving reasons
to support your judgment.
- Feel free to use first-person pronouns when useful, such
as to identify an opinion as your own in contrast to someone else’s opinion or
objective fact. Do not, however, allow your paper to become mainly a report of
experiences that you have had that have caused you to have the opinions that you
do have. Reasons, not anecdotes, provide philosophical support for opinions. Also,
do not allow your paper to become a personal psycho-history, in which you report
the various stages through which your thoughts have developed: “First I read Kant,
and I didn’t understand him. Then I read him again, and still didn’t quite get
it. But after I read him the third time it seemed to me that . . .” The reader
is interested in your most mature judgments, not the ones that might have occurred
to you earlier.
III. Academic Integrity
- When formulating your ideas, you are free to consult whatever
sources you want to consult. You must, however, indicate all of the sources (books,
journal articles, World Wide Web pages, television programs, other people such
as peer editors, or
whatever) that helped you to develop your ideas for the paper. You will not be
penalized for borrowing others’ good ideas instead of thinking of your own; the
ideas in your paper will be judged on their quality and how well you adapt them
to the purpose of your paper, not on whether they are original with you.
- When writing your paper, do the writing yourself. Any language
not your own—whether a sentence from a published source or just a clever phrase
or metaphor suggested by another person in conversation—must be attributed to
its source. Again, you will not be penalized for borrowing others’ good ways of
expressing certain ideas, unless you borrow so much that the paper ceases to be
legitimately yours. But as long as the paper is not flooded with quotations (i.e.,
as long as it’s plainly a piece of your writing), the writing will be judged
on its quality (especially its clarity), and not on whether it’s all original
- To cite a source of ideas or language you are borrowing,
use a clear system of citations, such as footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical
references like those recommended in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research
Papers or Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses,
and Dissertations. There is no particular format for citations to which it
is necessary to conform exactly, as long as your citations are clear and exhibit
a consistent form throughout your paper.