This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable, mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.
Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.
"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support - or fail to support - those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.
Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts - and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries - even millennia - and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.
In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)
It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in - even a passion for - ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.
This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.
This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:
- A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
- J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
- Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
- R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
- S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)
Also, the websites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.
*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.
What do I do in a Philosophy essay?
Philosophy essay topics are not designed to provide an intellectual obstacle course that trips you up so as to delight a malicious marker. They are designed to invite you to "grapple with" with some particular philosophical problem or issue. That is to say, they are designed to offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a particular philosophical problem or issue, and to exhibit your own philosophical skills of analysis, argumentation, etc. These twin goals are usually best achieved by ensuring that your essay performs two basic functions (your understanding and your skills apply to both):
an exposition of the problem or issue in question (often as it is posed in some particular text); and
a critical discussion of the problem or text
These two functions can, but need not always, correspond to physically or structurally distinct sections of your essay. See Section 5.1.
The expository ("setting forth") aspect of your essay is where you should make clear what the issue is and why it is an issue. Where you are dealing with an issue as it is presented in some particular text, your aim should be to make clear what it is that the author in question meant in their text, what they see as the issue and why they see it as an issue. This does not involve merely quoting or paraphrasing a text. Of course, occasional quotation and paraphrase may be appropriate - sometimes necessary - but these ought not to constitute the sole or major content of your exposition. Where you do quote or paraphrase, make sure you attribute your sources in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.)
Exposition is, then, primarily a matter of developing in your own words what you think the issue is or what you think the text means. In all expository work you should always try to give a fair and accurate account of a text or problem, even when the exposition becomes more interpretive rather than simply descriptive. You ought to be patient and sympathetic in your exposition, even if you intend later to criticise heavily the philosopher in question. Indeed, the better the exposition in this regard, usually the more effective the critique.
An important part of exposition is your analysis of the text or issue. Here you should try to "break down" the text, issue or problem into its constitutive elements by distinguishing its different parts. (E.g. "There are two basic kinds of freedom in question when we speak of freedom of the will. First, … . Second, …", or "There are three elements in Plato's conception of the soul, namely... He establishes these three elements by means of the following two arguments... ") This also involves showing the relationships between those elements, relationships which make them "parts of the whole".
As well as laying out these elements within a text or issue, you can also (when appropriate or relevant) show how a text or issue "connects up with" other texts, issues, or philosophical and/or historical developments, which can help to shed further light on the matter by giving it a broader context. (eg "Freedom of the will is importantly connected to the justification of punishment", or "Plato's tripartite theory of the soul bears interesting resemblances to Freud's analysis of the psyche", or "Kant's transcendental idealism can be seen as reconciling the preceding rationalist and empiricist accounts of knowledge".)
An exposition of a text need not always simply follow the author's own view of what it means. You should, of course, demonstrate that you understand how the author themself understands their work, but an exposition can sometimes go beyond this, giving another reading of the text. (eg "Heidegger might deny it, but his Being and Time can be read as developing a pragmatist account of human understanding.") A given text or issue may well be susceptible to a number of plausible or reasonable interpretations. An exposition should aim to be sensitive to such variety. When appropriate, you should defend your interpretations against rivals and objections. Your interpretation ought, though, to be aimed at elucidating the meaning or meanings of the text or issue and not serve merely as a "coat-hanger" for presenting your own favoured views on the matter in question, which should be left to your ...
This is where your thought gets more of the centre stage. Here you should attempt to develop a response to the issues which your exposition has made clear, and/or, in the case of a discussion of some particular text, attempt to give a critical appraisal of the author's treatment of the issue. In developing a response to a philosophical problem, argumentation is, again, of central importance. Avoid making unsupported assertions; back up your claims with reasons, and connect up your ideas so that they progress logically toward your conclusions. Consider some of the various objections to and questions about your views that others might or have put forward, and try to respond to them in defence of your own line of thinking. Your goal here should be to discuss what you have expounded so as to come to some conclusion or judgement about it. ("Critical" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "to decide, to judge".) Critical discussion is thus not necessarily "destructive" or "negative"; it can be quite constructive and positive.
In the case of a critical appraisal of a particular author's text, you can negatively criticise the author's arguments by pointing out questionable assumptions, invalid reasoning, etc. If, on the other hand, you think that the text is good, then your critical discussion can be positive. This can be done by revealing its "hidden virtues" (that is, by showing that there is more to the author's arguments and views than what lies on the surface) and/or by defending an author against possible and/or actual criticisms. (eg "Norman Malcolm argues that Descartes is mistaken in assuming that dreams and waking episodes have the same content.* However, Malcolm fails to appreciate the subtlety of Descartes' argument in the First Meditation, which allows Descartes to claim . . .") Just to expound an author's arguments and then say "I disagree" or "That seems right" is not really enough - you need to "have something to say" about it. Of course, by all means go on, after finding fault with some philosopher, to answer in your own way the questions tackled or raised by the author. (eg "Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex suffers from serious weaknesses, as I have shown in Section 2 above. A better way to approach the issue, I shall now argue, is to . . .".)
Where you are not primarily concerned with evaluating or responding to a particular text, your critical discussion can be more focused on your own constructive response to the issue. (eg "Having used Dworkin's account to clarify the meanings of the concepts of 'the sanctity of life' and 'voluntariness', I shall now argue that voluntary euthanasia is morally permissible because its voluntariness respects what is of value in the notion of the sanctity of life" - where you now leave Dworkin behind as a source and move on to give your own account.)
* See Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 56.
Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays
5th edition by Steven Tudor, for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003.
This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays) was prepared in consultation with members of the Philosophy program, The University of Melbourne. For advice and assistance on this and earlier editions, thanks are due to Graham Priest, Barry Taylor, Christopher Cordner, Doug Adeney, Josie Winther, Linda Burns, Marion Tapper, Kimon Lycos, Brendan Long, Jeremy Moss, Tony Coady, Will Barrett, Brian Scarlett, and Megan Laverty. Some use was also made of materials prepared by the Philosophy Departments of La Trobe University, The University of Queensland, and The Australian National University.
Disclaimer: University, Faculty and program rules
Please note: this booklet does not provide authoritative statements of the official policies or rules of The University of Melbourne, The Faculty of Arts, or the Philosophy program with regard to student essays and examinations or any other matters. Students should, therefore, not rely on this booklet for such information, for which they should consult the various appropriate notice boards, handbooks, websites, and/or members of staff.