How to Write a Good Philosophy Paper, by Doug Mann


1. Read the question or statement or topic you're writing your paper on carefully. Reply to what it ACTUALLY asks or states, NOT what you imagine it to be asking or stating.

2. Know the basic philosopher(s)/text(s) referred to in the topic well. If necessary, consult a philosophical dictionary (e.g. the Oxford or Cambridge ones) or encyclopaedia (e.g. The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) to help you understand his or her basic ideas.

3. Understanding a Text: Read over difficult passages twice, preferably after a break. Highlight key phrases or sentences. Look over your notes, and don't be afraid to ask basic questions in class (there are probably others who don't understand either). And try to read the text critically.

Writing the Paper

4. Thesis: First and foremost, figure out what you want to prove (or at least claim) in your paper: this is called your thesis. State it in the first or second paragraph.

5. Arguments and Language: A good philosophy paper tries to prove its thesis by making good arguments. These include both logical arguments ("if x and y are true, then z must follow") and empirical ones (facts and examples that support your case). When using logical arguments, it's important to define your key terms: e.g. if you want to argue that "all political ideas are reflections of an underlying material substructure", define what you mean by "material substructure"; if you want to claim that "the fetus is a moral person and deserving of legal rights", define what you mean by "moral person" and "legal rights".

There's nothing wrong with expressing emotions in a philosophy paper, as long as these can be backed up by good argument, and are therefore not purely personal (e.g. "I feel abortion is wrong!" Why should I care what you feel, if I don't share this feeling? Tell me why I should share it!).

There's also nothing wrong (although some more conservative philosophers would disagree with this point) with using metaphorical language in your paper, including analogies: they help to keep the reader awake. Just make sure they have some point. The same goes for humour, which is a largely a lost art in academic papers.

6. Organization: Organize your paper sensibly - an outline is useful in this respect. Well organized papers reflect well organized thinking. It's usually a good idea to present your strongest arguments first, then deal with one or more counter-examples, then quickly restate your central thesis in the conclusion (though this is flexible). Don't repeat the same point 5 or 6 times: once or twice is sufficient. If you do, it looks like you're adding needless filling to a thin paper.

7. Vocabulary: Define all key terms that aren't common currency. DO NOT use words you're not sure the meaning of - if you do, the marker is likely to get a chuckle, but at your expense.

8. Fluff and Weasels: Don't pad your essay with fluff or weasel phrases, e.g. "The abortion question has been debated for centuries by many great philosophers. No real answer can be given to the moral dilemma involved", or "The nature of the human mind has puzzled thinkers for millenia, thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Ayn Rand, just to mention four out of thousands". As tempting as it may be to avoid making any substantive claims in your paper, don't be a weasel: get to the point early, and state that point clearly!

9. Facts: Get your facts straight. For example, if you want to claim that a loss of religious values has caused divorce rates in Canada to rise over the last 20 years, find some statistical evidence that shows that divorce rates have IN FACT risen in that period. Don't guess. The same advice applies to historical events: use a reference sourse to check dates and basic information, e.g. if you want to make some claim about the Enlightenment affecting the French Revolution, find out when it took place, why it took place, and something about the role of Enlightenment ideas in the political rhetoric of its leaders.

10. Basic Texts: Do not attempt to communicate telepathically with the major philosopher you're focussing on in your paper when analyzing their ideas: use the primary text or texts listed on the course outline, or a reasonable eqivalent thereof. Do NOT rely exclusively on lecture or web notes in this regard: it gives the appearance that you couldn't be bothered to read the course materials. Example: if you're writing a paper on Marx's theory of alienation, actually read the relevant Marx text (in this case the 1844 Manuscripts), and quote or paraphrase it in your essay. Essays which analyze a major philosopher purely through sketchy web notes or through a secondary source largely unrelated to the theorist in question are seen by markers as HIGHLY suspicious - did you actually come to class? or read the course texts? have you recycled an unrelated paper from another course by changing a few sentences to make it tangentially fit into this course?

11. Surfers Beware!: Of late more and more students rely mostly or purely on Internet sources for their papers. This is a HUGE mistake - be prepared to be punished with low marks if you do so. For one thing, web pages are usually not checked by editors or other professionals for the accuracy of the facts presented in them, nor for the quality of their interpretations of theoretical ideas, unlike most respectable journals, magazines, and books. Secondly, writing a web paper signals the TA or professor marking it that you're too lazy to read and use the materials formally chosen as readings for the course. This is especially a problem for a social or cultural theory paper: if you're writing a paper on Descartes' view of the self, or a Baudrillaresque reading of a popular film like The Matrix, make damn sure you actually read and quote Descartes or Baudrillard! If you don't, expect to wipe out on the beach, your surfing getting you a C grade or less.

Having said this, using an Internet lookup service like JSTOR, Ingenta or ProQuest to retrieve previously published journal and magazine articles is fine - these are not web pages, but just more convenient  ways of accessing legitimate print sources.

12. Language Skills: Spelling, grammar and syntax are VERY important, style FAIRLY important. Good spelling, grammar and sentence structure show clarity of expression and basic literacy (after all, you should be able to speak and write English by first-year university!), while style shows some individuality and some passion for your material. This is true for ALL social science, humanities and related courses, not just English courses proper. Good language skills developed during your university tenure will stay with you much longer and will probably be of greater utility than most of the specific information you've learned in your courses.

And besides, a difficult-to-read paper, one that's full of spelling and grammar mistakes, will give the marker a headache as a result of having to make the necessary corrections. It's like trying to understand someone who's mumbling: they might have something important to say, but you just can't make it out, and eventually you get tired of trying. You can be sure that if you make the marker's life difficult, you probably won't be happy with the grade he or she gives you. The Buddha may be right that all life is suffering: but there's no reason you have to add to that suffering by handing in a sloppily written paper.

13. Presentation: always type or word-process your papers, double-spacing (except for long quotes), with 1-inch margins and 11-12 point text. Stick more or less to the length the professor has asked for. Don't put fancy covers on your papers: just staple the upper left corner.

Use a standard referencing system such as MLA or APA to give the sources of the quotes, paraphrases, and other information taken from external sources. Markers prefer either footnotes, or internal references such as the following:

Some noted theorists claim that "the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain" (Smith 1996: 123). Others disagree. For example, one points out that the average rainfall in the Pyrennes Mountains is much greater than that found in the Spanish plains (Jones: 45). Yet postmodern theorists like Laflamme (1992: 23) argue that rain can't be measured at all, so the question of the distribution of rainfall in Spain has no true answer.
In the above example, Smith and Laflamme have several entries in your bibliography, while Jones only has one (thus the date can be omitted). Whether you use internal references such as those above or footnotes, make sure you list all the works you consulted while writing your paper alphabetically in your bibliography at the end of the paper, including web pages (list the author of the web page, if known, its title, along with its web address). Endnotes are more difficult for the marker to refer to, and should definitely be avoided.

Here's some examples using the bibliographical method usually used in arts papers:

Jones, Horatio. "My Travels through the Pyrennes." The Journal of Obscure Travels 14 (1984): 1-23.
Laflamme, Louis. "Postmodern Reflections on Rainfall." Harper's Magazine June 1992, 20-27.
Smith, Tiffany. Spanish Rain: Problems and Solutions. New York: Routledge, 1996.
14. Creativity: A good essay shows some attempt at uniqueness and creativity, some attempt to go beyond the lectures and readings in coming to grips with the topic. Ideally, philosophy is a living conversation, not just a resurrection of dead ideas. The marker doesn't want to read over and over again exactly the same examples and explanations given in the lectures and texts: he or she is no doubt already familiar with the basic ideas contained in these.

15. Excuses: Some professors will accept pressing excuses for late papers. Others just automatically deduct some part of the grade. DO NOT simply assume that a prof will accept late work at full grade value: the other students and professors have work to do and lives to live too! Here's some classic bad excuses for late work (this list is a work in progress):

16. Pushing the Self-Destruct Button: Papers that ignore the advice pointed out in points 5 to 15 are usually graded as no better than C+. Here's some GUARANTEED reasons for getting a mediocre grade on a paper: 17. Fairness: Surprisingly or not, although some T.A.s and profs mark harder than others, they usually agree on the same serial scale for a given group of papers i.e. Professor A would rank papers X, Y, and Z in the same order as Professor B, although one might give paper X an A and the other an A-. So although marking isn't entirely objective (indeed, little in life is), it isn't entirely subjective either. If you are disappointed by an essay grade, don't spend the rest of the term sulking, convinced that the TA or Professor hates you, or "is a real jerk". It's far more likely that relative to the other papers he or she graded, you got what you deserved. It may be hard to believe, but markers usually don't take out their frustrations on students.

18. Plagiarism: Last but not least, DON'T PLAGIARISE! If you quote an author, reference that quote. The same goes for paraphrases of texts - indicate where you're getting the paraphrase from. You don't need to reference a commonly known fact or widely agreed upon idea, e.g. "Paris is the capital of France", or "Karl Marx was the father of modern socialism", or "World War Two ended in an Allied victory in 1945". But you do have to reference more obscure facts and less well known ideas. Footnotes or internal notes (see point 12 above) are easiest to check for a marker.

And yes, cutting and pasting from web pages without referencing them counts as plagiarism. Be warned: most markers know full well how to use search engines like Alta Vista. It's pretty easy to catch a plagiarist who copies material from the Internet, so don't do the crime if you can't do the time (i.e. at minimum, getting a 0 on the essay or failing the course).

Having said this, avoid excessive quoting. For example, you can state most matters of opinion in your own words e.g. say "modern industrial labour is alienated", as opposed to "According to McLellan, 'modern industrial labour is alienated' (McLellan 1978: 234)." But if you're defining the concept of alienation by quoting McLellan, make sure you reference it.

Revised March 2005