University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1997
Philosophy 0330: Political Philosophy
Ben Eggleston, Instructor
Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Essay
- Use a title page showing the title of your paper, your name, the date
when you are turning in your paper, the name of the course for which you
are writing the paper, and your instructor’s name. This should be the only
page on which your name appears, so that your reader can grade your paper
without knowing whose it is.
- Choose a title that refers to the theme or content of your paper fairly
specifically—not something like “First Paper” or “Philosophy Paper.”
- Print your paper in type of approximately this size (this is 12-point
type), double-spaced, with margins of about 1 inch each. (Do not hand-write
your paper.) Number your pages.
- Staple the pages of your paper together; do not use a paper clip, a
folder, or a binder.
- Keep an extra copy (either on paper or on disk) of your paper. (You
are responsible for providing an extra copy at your instructor’s request.)
- If your instructor read and commented on a rough draft of your paper,
turn in the rough draft, with your instructor’s comments on it, along with
the final version of your paper.
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 philosophical training.
- 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 possible
and 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
- 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.
- 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 any 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 considered 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 Descartes, 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 happened to 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, Usenet news groups, television
programs, other people, 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 with you.
- 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.