Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper

last revised: March 26, 2009

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 Iíve 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 Iíve seen is the one by James Pryor (http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.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 Iím 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 goóand I encourage you to do soóbring the paper assignment and your work in progress, and be prepared to tell the consultant what you are most concerned about (e.g., organization, prose, etc.).

The following guidelines are usually appropriate, but in some cases they may conflict with the instructions for your particular assignment. When that happens, then of course the instructions for your particular assignment take precedence over these general words of advice.

I. Style and Content

  1. 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.
  2. 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 paperís 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.
  3. 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, whatís 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 doesnít get bogged down in details that donít need to be discussed until later in the paper. It often happens that you are not sure exactly what your paperís thesis is going to be, or what your paperís structure is going to be, until after youíve written the paper. For this reason, it often makes sense to write the introduction last.
  4. Donít 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 wonít 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; itís the written presentation of an argument, and itís 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Use a conclusion only to provide a brief summary of what you have accomplished in your paperólike 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 itís almost completely predictable to a reader who has understood the body of your paper well.
  7. If you are addressing a specifically assigned topic, be sure that you address all parts of it. This often requires both explaining an authorís argument clearly and critically examining or evaluating it. To do either 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 authorís argument, moreover, involves more than just stating that you agree or disagree with it; this task also involves giving reasons to support your judgment.
  8. Feel free to use first-person pronouns when useful, such as to identify an opinion as your own in contrast to someone elseís 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: ďFirst I read Kant, and I didnít understand him. Then I read him again, and still didnít quite get it. But after I read him the third time it seemed to me that . . .Ē The reader is interested in your most mature judgments, not the ones that might have occurred to you earlier.

II. Academic Integrity

  1. 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 othersí 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.
  2. When writing your paper, do the writing yourself. Any language not your ownówhether a sentence from a published source or just a clever phrase or metaphor suggested by another person in conversationómust be attributed to its source. Again, you will not be penalized for borrowing othersí 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 itís plainly a piece of your writing), the writing will be judged on its quality (especially its clarity), and not on whether itís all original with you.
  3. 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. Turabianís 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.