How to Write a Philosophy Paper

A philosophical paper is more than a personal essay, although it does contain personal reflections and considered opinions.  It must be clearly articulated and organized, and most importantly, clearly reasoned.

1.  What is an argument?

In contrast to statements of opinion, an ARGUMENT is a series of considered statements which support a conclusion.  In other words, an argument contains premises, which are clearly stated reasons, which lead to a conclusion (usually indicated by a flag-term “thus,” “therefore,” “consequently,” “hence,” etc).

2.  How can I tell if a statement is an argument?

Statements of opinion just say what the person thinks.  For instance:

“Pollution is bad because it hurts the environment.”

So far, this is NOT an argument.  It just states what a person thinks; it is a summary statement of an opinion, even though it appears to give a reason because it contains a word “because.”  But in fact, all is said is that the person thinks pollution is bad, which is a conclusion the person wants to claim.  So, to make it an argument, you have to identify implicit claims that the person is using in order to reason.  Why is “hurting the environment” bad?  What is meant by “bad?”  So, to make the above sentence into an argument:

“Human beings value natural environment.  If we hurt our natural environment, we deprive ourselves of something we value.  Pollution for the most part destroys natural environment through the imbalanced use of our resources and introducing unnatural toxins into the environment.  By allowing pollution, we therefore encourage a practice which is essentially detrimental to our value system.  In short, it is bad practice, if we think of what we value.  Therefore, pollution is bad in the sense that we have negative experience of anything which hurts our value.”

Now you see all the implicit claims spelled out and reasons are stated to lead to a conclusion that “pollution is bad.”

To the question “What is Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul?”  Many students answered:

“Plato thinks that the soul is immortal because when the body dies, the soul leaves the body and go on living.”

Now, this is NOT an argument, nor even an explanation of Plato’s position.  In other words, this sentence gets no points.  It is not an argument because it does not list any of Plato’s reasons for his belief.  It is not even an explanation of Plato’s position because what follows the word “because” in the sentence is merely a different way of expressing the term “immortal.”  So in essence, what the sentence says is “Plato thinks that the soul is immortal because it is immortal.”  Now you see why this gets no points.

3.  How can I argue my position?

When you are asked to argue your position, it is not enough to state the disagreements.  For instance,

 “Aristotle believes that the soul is not immortal, but I disagree, because that’s not what I believe.”  Or, “Aquinas believes that the human being is an embodied spirit.  I agree with this idea, because it makes the most sense to me/it is in accordance with my own belief.”

This is also a no-pointer, but a very common mistake the students make when they are asked to argue.  In essence, all is said is “So-and-so believes X, and I believe Y.”  Clearly, there’s no arguement here; it is only a statement that different people believe different things, which is obvious and trivial.

What you need to do is first, to spell out the argument of your interlocutor (whomever you are trying to discuss--Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.), and second, give your own reasons why you don’t accept some or all of them (if you disagree) or give reasons why you accept them or it makes sense.  For instance,

“Aristotle believes that the soul is not immortal, because he argues first that by the term ‘soul,’ he means ‘the principle of life of a living body,’ and if so, by definition, a non-living body is ‘soulless,’ which is to say that when the body dies, so does the soul.  But I disagree, because in my view a ‘soul’ is more than just a ‘principle of life of a living body.’  The ‘soul,’ in my view, is a distinct human essence independent of the body, so while it is true that it is a principle of life, it is not true that when the body dies, the soul dies with it.  If it were true that the term ‘soul’ were no more than the ‘principle of life of a living body,’ then anything living, by definition, would have a soul, but it’s not true that amoebas, which are living organisms, have souls in the sense we humans understand it.  Thus, I disagree with Aristotle’s definition of ‘soul’ and his conclusion that it is not immortal.”

Here, reasons are given as to why you think Aristotle is wrong, rather than just saying that you disagree.  You need to tell me why you disagree.

Or, “Aquinas believes that the human being is an ‘embodied spirit.’  By this he means that the soul itself is an eternal essence independent of the body in the way Plato believes that essences or ‘forms’ are eternal, but while on this earth, the soul functions better if it is ‘embodied,’ or connected with the body, because the body provides the soul with sensations of the world around and also because that is how God made humans.  I agree with his idea, even without reference to God.  If the soul were merely immaterial and disconnected from the body, how could we ever experience it?  But we do experience our “essences,” which we call our soul, with our feeling or actual sensations of liveliness.  So it must be true that the body and soul are connected.   But at the same time, soul is clearly more than just our bodily sensation and feelings; it is our understanding, our conceptual grasp of a reality of an essence beyond the physical.  So by definition, it cannot be reduced to physical reality, and if so, such an essence is not affected by the changes in the physical world, including the death of a body.  So it makes sense that the soul is both eternal and embodied, even though it may appear as if it is a contradiction.”

 Again, the reasons given as to why you agree with a position, rather than just stating that you agree or it makes sense.  You need to tell me why it makes sense.

I don’t have to be convinced of your position, but I must be able to see that you thought about the issue and tried to give arguments.

Normally, a paper which states only the agreement or disagreement without arguments gets at best a “B.”  Depending on how clearly you state the views and arguments, and how well you articulate your reasoning, the grade goes up from there.  An “A” paper is usually well organized, views of others are correctly summarized, and one’s own arguments are clearly stated.  Again, it has nothing to do with whether I agree with the paper or not.  Personal opinions are independent of whether an argument is clear or confused, and points go to the clarity of thought, which translates into clear writing and presentation of arguments.

Back to my human person class page.