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.”
“I like the professor because she seems nice.”
“Friendship is very important to a human being.  Without it, society would break down.”

So far, these are NOT arguments.  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, etc., 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.”

3.  How can I argue my position?

First, all you may have is a vague idea, or even a clear idea, but most likely it’s not yet in a form of an argument.  First, identify the most important idea you want to say.  This will be your “conclusion.”  After writing down the basic idea, then you should:
1. List every reason you can think of in support of your basic claim.
2. Identify anything that is not really relevant to your basic claim and discard them.
3. Look at the list and organize in the order of importance.  Select the top three.
4. Spend a few sentences to a short paragraph on each of the reasons that support the conclusion.  For every reason, you must engage the text or claims made by the author and not miss the point. (This is the most difficult part of your paper.)
5. Tie everything together.  You will then have the format:  Brief intro where you introduce what you want to say.  Reasons 1, 2, and 3… and Conclusion.


Let’s say you have the vague idea: “Sartre says human beings are absolutely free.  I kind of like the idea but I don’t really agree with it, I think.”   From this vague idea, your conclusion might be: “I disagree with Sartre’s notion of freedom.”

So the next step is to sharpen what you really think.  Write down why you think you don’t agree.
Reason 1:  I’ve had experiences where I was not free; when I wanted to find a job, my parents said no and forced me to be a full-time student.  So it seems not true that we are absolutely free.  I can give numerous examples like this.
Reason 2:  I didn’t quite understand Sartre’s ideas, but they didn’t seem right.
Reason 3:  Human beings make choices, but they depend on what we have done in the past or what our environmental influences are.  No one comes up with a decision that was not based on some prior condition.  So we are not free from our past or our surroundings.
Reason 4:  We don’t make up our “essences” like Sartre says, because our nature is given by God or Nature or something larger than just “me.”
Reason 5:  My genetic factors determine what kind of a person I am to a large extent.  I cannot freely choose my genetic make-up, since it’s already decided.

So far, the difficulty will be to pinpoint the exact claims to disagree from the readings.  Some of the reasons (the likes of Reason 2) are not really reasons.  Eliminate them.  Of the list above, possible candidates for elaboration for the paper are Reasons 1, 3, 5.  Note that 1 is a subset of 3, so use 3 but perhaps illustrate with ideas from 1.  (4 is ok but Sartre already responds to it, so you must be prepared to elaborate further on his comments.)  Sartre has something to say about each of the Reasons 1, 3, and 5, so you go back to the reading and specifically address the claims (quote if necessary), going further into detail about what claim you disagree with, for what specific reason.  Needless to say, it is important that you understand what the author claims, in order to disagree effectively.

Generally, papers with specific claims are better than the ones with broad, general statements.
When you are asked to argue your position, it is not enough to state the disagreements.  For instance,

“Plato believes that the soul and body are separate, but I disagree, because that’s not what I believe.” (Then go on to elaborate each point, but without explaining HOW one disagrees.)  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.”  (Then go on to repeat in more detail the agreed points.)

These are no-pointers, 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), 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,

“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.

4.  Other Common Problems:

Back to my human person class page.