Intro to Philosophy

Introduction to Philosophy

How to Write a
Philosophy Paper
Reading Guides:
Plato's Republic
Descarte's Meditations
Perry: Dialogue on Personal Idendity and Immortality
Sartre: Nausea


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How to Write a Philosophy Paper
David Clowney
revised August 2003

I. Paper writing in general

Your point
Earning your conclusion
Checking on assumptions
Your audience
Your voice

II. Types of philosophy paper

The interpretive paper
The analytic paper
The comparative paper
The exploratory paper
Using dialogue form

III. Using Sources

The chances are that if you're reading this, you've never written or read a philosophy paper. Naturally you want to know what a good one looks like before you turn your first one in. This is my attempt to answer your questions and allay your fears. My first couple of remarks are some helpful hints about writing in general; the rest are specifically aimed at writing philosophy papers, though they might come in handy in other contexts as well.

I. Some helpful hints about paper writing in general

A. What's your point?

Pretend you're on a job interview with an ad agency, and you want the job. Unfortunately the only writing sample you have to show them is a short philosophy paper you just wrote. You have ten seconds to tell the interviewer what the point of your paper is. Then she's going to read the paper. If you get her interested, she'll read it. If she reads it and says "Yep, that's his point, and he made it well," you get the job. What would you tell her? That's the point of your paper (in Composition class you may have learned to call this a thesis.). If you don't know what you'd tell her, your paper probably doesn't have a point. Back to the drawing boards! 

You need to state your point. You can state your point at the end of your introduction, or at the conclusion of your paper, or both. Philosophers often do both. (Typical silly example: "I'm going to prove that there aren't really any snarks. Here are the reasons some people think there are snarks. Here are the reasons why the evidence for snarks isn't anywhere near as good as it looks. Here are the reasons why there couldn't be any snarks. So you see, there really aren't any snarks.")

Hint: You may have to write for a while before you figure out what your point is, and it may change while you write. That's fine. Just make sure that your first real draft of the paper has one main point, and that everything in the paper supports the point in some way.

B. Have you earned your conclusion?

I want your opinion, not someone else's. But I want your justified opinion. That is, I want to see it backed up with good reasons, ones that your readers might be inclined to accept, at least for the sake of the argument. I also want to see that you have thought about objections to your view, and that you have a good way of handling those objections. There are two basic good ways of handling objections: you can accommodate them, by showing why you can accept them without giving up your view; or you can dismiss them by showing good reasons why they should not be accepted. Each of these strategies has many variations, which you can find in logic books and which we will sometimes discuss in class. Ridiculing or ignoring objections, or attacking the objector, are not acceptable ways of handling objections.

C. What assumptions does the text make? What assumptions are you making?

Everybody is entitled to some assumptions; in fact, nobody can think or live without making assumptions all the time. And nobody can list all the assumptions they are making at any given time. Nevertheless, the most common weakness of philosophical arguments is probably the unjustified assumption. So try to notice what assumptions other thinkers are making (you will find that this gets easier if you happen to agree with their stated reasons but don't want to accept their conclusions). Then try to ask what assumptions you are making. This can be much harder, but it can also be very instructive.

D. To whom are you speaking?

Identify your audience, and write so they understand you. I encourage you to experiment with some different audiences when you write.

1. Writing to yourself. You may be your own audience. When you're writing to yourself, style and grammar don't matter. Anything goes. Just express what you're thinking and feeling in a way that is helpful to you. Of course, this is no way to write your final draft! But it might be a good way to start your paper. If you're writing to yourself about philosophy, you might find it helpful to focus on the kinds of things I mention later in this paper.

Writing down your ideas and feelings just for your own benefit can be a very useful learning tool. This kind of writing can help you express unclear feelings, clarify vague ideas, come up with new ideas, identify your reasons for a belief, get rid of inconsistencies, see where you need to give examples or find evidence, get something off your chest so you can have a look at it, move past it and work on what really needs work...the list goes on. I find it impossible to do good philosophical thinking without writing to myself. Give it a try! (Talking to yourself on tape, and talking with other people, can also help. The point is to get your thoughts out in the open and give them a close examination, and to have a record of the process that you can come back to later on, when you have to write for other people.)

2. Writing for other people. Here you do have to worry about style, grammar, and vocabulary. But do remember what these things are for. The point is communication. That means you still have to ask who your audience is, what they expect of you, what you are trying to tell them, and how to make sure they get the message. You could write a philosophy paper to your classmates, to other philosophers, to a general educated audience, to a citizen of ancient Athens, to a modern high school student in Ukraine...again, the list goes on. Just make sure you know to whom you're writing, and communicate to them. Hint: You will usually write a better paper if you pick some specific audience other than me. This is not an absolute rule. If you have something to say to me directly, please do say it, either in a note that's part of your paper, or in some other way. I have had excellent papers that were entirely letters written to me. But if you are writing to me without thinking about your audience, your real point may be, "I know something about philosophy; please give me an A." This is not a good thesis for a philosophy paper.

3. Writing for professional philosophers. You probably don't aspire to do this. (And why should you, unless you plan to be a professional philosopher?) All the same, the writing you do in this class should be headed in that direction. Every discipline has acceptable and unacceptable ways of writing, and these aren't always the same from discipline to discipline. In philosophy, some of the expectations are:

- Saying exactly and directly what you mean. (Contrast poetry)

- Backing up your claims with evidence.

- Showing how the evidence supports the claim (Why is this good evidence?).

- Showing awareness of objections to your claims, with evidence for and against the objections.

- Showing awareness of the implications of claims you make, mention, or examine.

- Showing awareness of the state of discussion of your claims by professionals in the field (for your purposes, this means material assigned in this class, or found by you if this is a research paper).

E. Who's talking?

Within the limits of the discipline, make sure it's you, in your own voice, or a character you have created for the purposes of writing the paper. Leave your thesaurus on the shelf; or if you can't resist the urge to use it, don't use any of the synonyms it gives you unless you already know what they mean and are comfortable using them. The same goes for your sources. Use them to help you think, not to write your paper for you.


A. Writing an interpretive paper:

This is a good kind of paper to write when you are having trouble understanding an essay. If it is perfectly obvious what the author is saying in some passage or other, or we have already discussed it in detail in class, write another kind of paper. An interpretive paper is like an analytic paper (see below), except that you spend more time trying to put the author's point into your own words, and you are less concerned to say whether or not you agree with the author.

1. Figuring out what you don't understand:

To write a good interpretive paper, you will probably have to tackle a passage that you don't understand, at least not right away. But how can you possibly write a paper about something you don't understand? You can't, of course, unless you manage to figure it out. And that's what the process of writing an interpretive paper is about. Here are some tips about how to figure out a passage you don't understand. They all have to do with context, because the meaning of words and statements is determined by their use in context. You will never be able to follow all of them perfectly; the point is to give it your best shot with the information you can obtain in the time you have available.

1a. Vocabulary: Look up any words whose meaning you don't know in a dictionary (of course). If this alone solves all your puzzles, write on another passage; the one you've picked is too easy. But remember that the dictionary definition is just a nudge in the right direction. The word you've looked up will often have a slightly different or special meaning in the passage you are looking at than it does in the dictionary. Stay open to this. (Remember: Do not cite a dictionary definition as the answer to a philosophical question! E.g., if you are writing on the nature of justice, you will not find the answer by looking the word up in the dictionary.)

1b. Local consistency or fit: Ask what the passage must mean, if it is going to fit in with its local context (e.g., the argument it is part of, the chapter it occurs in, the way other characters in a play or dialogue are responding to it). "Fitting in" means being logically consistent with the context, and also being the sort of thing you would expect in that context. Fitting in with the context is not an absolute requirement; people say strange and contradictory things all the time. But don't assume you've found something crazy or contradictory until you've tried your best to make sense of it.

1c. Global consistency or fit: Ask what the passage must mean in the context of the entire work in which it occurs, and in the context of what you know about the author's beliefs and assumptions. Why would this author be saying this thing?

1d. Historical and cultural consistency or fit: Ask what the passage must mean in the context of its historical and cultural setting.

1e. Check your own assumptions: Ask if you have any biases that would cause you to misunderstand what the author is saying.

2. Steps for writing an interpretive paper:

2a. Pick a key passage, and try to make clear what the author is saying. Make sure that the passage you pick contains something of importance to the flow of the author's argument, or for some other reason is of philosophical interest.

2b. You may proceed sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, rephrasing and commenting on each new unit of thought. Or you may wish to summarize what the author is saying, rearranging the order of the discourse in a way that makes it easy for you to explain it clearly. Paraphrasing is a very helpful exercise. However, your final goal is not to paraphrase, but to explain.

2c. Like any paper, an interpretive paper has to have a point, or thesis. In this kind of a paper, your thesis will be: “In passage ______________, the author's point is ______________.” As support for your thesis you will provide evidence from the text, and you will mention any other reasons why the author must have meant _______________, rather than some other thing that a casual reader might have thought was meant.

2d. As with an analytic paper, pay special attention to the reasons that the author brings forward to support each point, and to examples (the authors or your own) that illustrate his or her point or reasons.

B. Writing an analytic paper:

1. Pick a phrase, sentence, or paragraph from one of the essays, one that expresses one of the author's main points or key assumptions, or that indicates a reason why the author thinks one of the key points must be right.

2. Restate the point in your own words. If you are not sure what the author is saying, and you can't find out just by using a dictionary, then give two or three possible interpretations of what the author says. Tell which interpretation you think is most likely correct, and why. (So far you are following the same steps you would follow for an interpretive paper.)

3. Say why the author thinks this point must be correct. Be careful to identify the author's actual reasons; sometimes they are not totally obvious, and you must read between the lines.

4. Evaluate these reasons. Are they sufficient to prove the point? Can you think of other reasons, not mentioned by the author, that tend to support the point? Can you think of reasons not developed by the author that would count against it? When you have weighed the reasons you can think of for and against the point, say whether you think the author has proved his or her point.

C. Writing a comparative paper:

1. Pick two or more essays on the same topic, ones which either contradict or complement one another. Argue the two sides against one another. If you think it is possible to reconcile the sides, show how this can be done. If they can't be reconciled, say which side (if any) you think is correct, and why. If the essays are complementary, show how each is strengthened by the points made by the other.

2. An alternative: Compare the views or approaches of one of our authors with typical views or practices from another culture. (Example: Compare Plato's description of democracy in the Republic with modern democracy in the USA.)

D. Writing an exploratory paper:

1. Pick a topic suggested to you by your reading of one of the essays, or by one of the questions at the end of the essays.

2. Pose yourself a question, and try to answer it in the paper you write. E.g., "Is it possible to know for sure whether there is a God?" Or, "Is there anything else in the universe except matter and energy?" (These are just samples. You don't have to pick anything as "big" as these particular questions.)

3. Make use of essays in the text as they seem relevant. But an exploratory paper is a more original sort of paper; you are free to write it on your own without referring to other sources. If you're comfortable flying solo, and that's what you want to do, go ahead. Again, be careful to identify lines of reasoning which you find persuasive.

E. Using dialogue form:

This is a way of writing a paper; you could use it for any of the kinds of paper I have mentioned. It would be least useful for the interpretive kind of paper; for the others it is excellent. Look at selections from Plato's dialogues to get an example. Pick at least two characters, and have them go back and forth arguing different sides of an issue. You will find that this way of writing makes it much easier to explore both sides of an issue, since each time you put yourself in the role of one of the characters you will try to take that point of view and argue that case as best you can.


Whether you use any sources for your paper besides your own thoughts is a matter for you to decide. Sometimes it's a good idea, sometimes it's unnecessary, sometimes it's even distracting. In a two or three page paper, I almost always prefer that you not use other sources besides those assigned; they only keep you from doing your own thinking. (There are exceptions; if you're in doubt, ask me.)

Whenever you use other sources, you must follow these rules:

1. If the words are not your own, put them in quotes (for a short quotation) or indent and single space them (for a longer quotation), and say where you got them. There are several acceptable ways to do this. Find out if your professor or readers have a preference for one of these ways; otherwise, locate one you like and use it consistently. For example, "Plato's interest in politics remained keen.... He not only wrote the Republic, but also a later dialogue, the Statesman....”

2. If the ideas are not your own, say where you got them, using the system of citation that you have chosen. For example, you might say, "Plato's views on women are a mixed bag. As Elizabeth Spelman observes, on the one hand he thinks women could and should be guardians and philosopher-rulers; on the other hand, he frequently refers to women and to feminine traits in pejorative terms. (Spelman, 1988, pp. 19 - 37)." A short citation of this form should be matched by a full citation in the References page at the end (see below).

3. No one expects your paper to be entirely original; some reference to the words and ideas of others is almost always important. But your reader will be looking for the contribution that you have made in analyzing or explaining or comparing, or in putting forward some new idea. Make sure you say what you think, and make sure you give your reasons for thinking so. "I think this is very confusing" is an acceptable opinion; but it only counts as a contribution if you have pointed to some sources of confusion (for example, by showing why none of the initially plausible interpretations of a passage can be right).

4. There are many accepted ways to cite your sources. I prefer that you use a short parenthetical citation in the body of the text, giving the author, the date of the work, and the page or pages cited. For an example of what to put in the body of the paper, see the citation of Elizabeth Spelman, in paragraph 2 above. Then, at the end of your paper, include a page called "References". There you will list the author, the date, the title, the place of publication and the publisher (if a book), or the journal, volume and number, and pages if a journal article. An example, again for the Spelman citation, follows this paragraph. See the Chicago Manual of Style or one of the other standard guides for more about how to do this. I will not be too picky, as long as you have done everything mentioned in this guide.



Spelman, Elizabeth, 1988. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

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