Writing a philosophy essay

Philosophical writing is difficult. The aim of writing philosophy is to effectively communicate an abstract and often complex message. Among other things, it requires pedagogical sensitivity and clarity of thought. This texts explains how students should think when writing philosophy essays at university level. I suggest that the text ”Introduction to philosophy,” which is available on the page ”For students” on this website, is read first.

The text has three main sections. In the first, I explain three expectations that philosophy teachers have on their students’ essays. Then, I introduce some of the basics of argumentative analysis, which is a major part of the methods of philosophy. In the last main section, I spell out some suggestions on how to go about when doing the actual writing. A brief final section concludes.

The teacher’s expectations

Philosophy teachers expect 1) that their students have basic knowledge of the topic they are writing about, including the background and context, 2) that they are able to independently choose a problem to treat in their essay which is in fact possible to treat within the given limits in terms of deadline and page numbers, and 3) that their arguments are clear, valid, and sound.

Regarding 1, having basic knowledge of a topic in philosophy means a set of things. First, one must know what it is that philosophers find interesting about the topic. What is the main philosophical problem? Why is it a philosophical problem and not an empirical, mathematical, theological, or some other kind of problem? Furthermore, one gains from being able to explain the history of the problem. Why did a philosophical discussion about it first appear? Who are the major thinkers that have contributed to this discussion? What are their contributions? And, finally, one should understand why it is relevant to treat the problem today. Does it arise in new settings? Can progress within the discussion further some other cause, such as new developments in physics or sociology? Is it a matter of philosophical curiosity?

Regarding 2, the capability of independently choosing a problem that is in fact possible to treat within the given limits is central. Choosing a problem that is too big might signal ambition, but also a lack of understanding of the topic. Choosing a problem that is too small could signal disinterest. Philosophical expertise does not only mean that one is competent to treat philosophical problems, but also that one has a sense of what is treatable.

Finally, regarding 3, teachers expect clarity, validity, and soundness in the argumentation. The notion of clarity is straightforward; it means that one’s arguments are not obscure. There should be no confusions regarding the aim of the essay or how it is reached. An essay is often more clear if the student writes, ”I will argue that x, y, and z,” and argues that x, y, and z using terms and concepts that she understands perfectly. Also, the concepts used should not be vague or ambiguous. A concept is vague if it is not sufficiently delimited, and ambiguous if it carries more meanings than one; both entail uncertainty.

The notions of validity and soundness are more technical than the notion of clarity. I will treat them in a separate section.

Argumentative analysis

Many first-year philosophy students begin their studies with an introductory course in argumentative analysis. In that course, they practice their skills in identifying the various components in an argumentation, such as theses, antitheses, supporting theses, and so on. They practice their skills in argumentative analysis because arguing is what philosophers do. It is their method.

Very often, students who write philosophy essays have not had this opportunity first. They take individual courses in, for instance, the philosophy of science or research ethics, as part of their university programs and are thus expected to do philosophy without first having been taught the methods of doing philosophy. Many find this difficult. Therefore, this section offers a crash course in the basics of argumentative analysis.

Theses and antitheses

The aim of a philosophy essay should be to discuss one (and preferably only one) main thesis. A thesis is a claim, such as ”it is wrong to murder innocents for fun” and ”there is no free will.”

It should be possible to treat the thesis intelligently, by which I mean that it should be possible to consider rational and meaningful reasons for and against it. Examples of theses which are not intelligent in this sense include ”unicorns smell like rainbows” and ”on this day exactly 10 000 years ago, a woman named Ayla had eggs for breakfast.” There are no rational and meaningful reasons either for or against them.

For every intelligent thesis there is at least one antithesis, i.e., a claim that counters it, such as ”it is not wrong to murder innocents for fun” and ”there is a free will.” A well-considered argumentation takes antitheses into account; either they are discussed, or it is explained why not.

Theses generally have supporting theses. One supporting thesis for the claim that it is wrong to murder innocents for fun is that people have a right not to be murdered. A philosophy essay should aim to present a main thesis, defend it by explicating supporting theses, and identify and discuss relevant antitheses. There is often not One Absolute Thesis that supports the main thesis, but rather A Set of Reasonable Theses that are coherent and in combination provide convincing support for it.1 Therefore, it is often wise to seek and defend an overall attitude in favor of the main thesis instead of making claims about absolute certainty.

Definitions

A teacher once told me, ”you can refer to a one-way ticket to Paris as ‘a red dress with white dots’ if you want, but you may encounter difficulties at the booking office.” The lesson is that words are not important other than as means for communication, and that it is therefore important that people have the same understanding of the words they use in conversation. In philosophical writing, words should be clearly defined and the definitions adhered to, so that their meanings remain unchanged throughout the essay.

Usually, definitions are either lexical or stipulative. Lexical definitions are those that appear in a dictionary, or simply ordinary words as they are commonly used. Stipulative definitions, instead, are given a meaning for a specific purpose or context.

Consider this example of a stipulative definition: ”In this essay, shoe is defined as glove for the foot.” The word or concept which is defined, in this case ”shoe,” is called definiendum. The words or concepts which define it, in this case ”a glove for the foot,” are called definiens.

Terms in the definiens should also be defined. For instance, if one does not know what ”glove” or ”foot” means the definition of ”shoe” above is uninformative. If the same terms appear in both the definiendum and the definiens, such as in the definition ”a coffee machine is a machine that makes coffee,” the definition may be circular and for that reason uninformative.

It is often a good idea to stick to definitions that are common in the literature on the topic which the essay treats so as to not confuse the reader. There are various philosophy dictionaries available both in print and online that may be useful.

Validity and soundness

Validity is a technical term in philosophy, which means that there is a common formal understanding of it. An argument is understood to be valid if and only if it takes a form that makes it impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. Consider this example of a valid argument:

A All men are mortal
B Socrates is a man
C Socrates is mortal

The form of the argument is such that if the two premises A and B are true the conclusion C is true as well. Note that an argument must not be true to be valid. Consider this example of a valid but false argument:

A All birds can fly
B Penguins are birds
C Penguins can fly

The argument is valid, but one of its premises is false. Therefore, the conclusion is also false. In philosophy, the common formal understanding of valid but false arguments is that they are unsound.

Thus, validity and soundness are technical terms which may greatly improve a detailed analysis of an argumentation. Students who aim to rebut an argument should make it clear whether it is the validity, soundness, or something else that is wrong with the argument in question. Naturally, they should also try to view their own arguments in these terms.

Writing the essay

A good philosophy essay is well-structured. It has an introduction which explains the background and context of the problem, a main section which treats the main thesis at greater length, and a concluding section which sums up the discussion. Here is an example of a well-structured essay with a clear argument.

Clarity in writing presupposes clarity in thought. One is often helped in clarifying one’s thoughts by structuring them in bullet points. Consider this example, which reflects the first stages of organizing an argument:

  • Thesis: Respect for autonomy should be central in politics.
    • Definition: Being autonomous is to be self-governed (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).2
    • Respecting a person’s autonomy means that others do not interfere with how she leads her own life.
    • It may also mean that people should be provided with some things that are necessary for them to be autonomous, such as a proper education.
  • Supporting theses
    • Autonomy is basic to what it is to be a human being.
    • Individuals in groups are always subject to the influences they exert on each other. It is in each individual’s interest to be independent from these influences, at least to some extent.
    • The concept of autonomy may be able to explain some moral concerns that other concepts in political philosophy, such as liberty and justice, fail to explain.
  • Antitheses
    • Libertarianism: ”Autonomy may be valuable, but it is irrelevant to politics; only rights matter politically.”
    • Intersectional socialism: ”Autonomy is politically relevant, but only in a non-individualist sense that is different from the current conceptualization.”

When the various claims in the list have been sorted out and explained, the author is ready to consider how the complete message is best communicated to the reader.

Contrary to the case in many other disciplines, it is common in philosophy to write in first-person singular. It is not only okay to write, ”I will argue that” or ”I think that,” but in fact often preferable. Many students with a background in, for instance, mathematics, are used to writing, ”we shall see that” or ”we will demonstrate how.” With few exceptions, this is unfamiliar to most philosophers. They do not feel included in the ”we” that the author refers to unless the topic is strictly formal, such as in logic or decision theory; they expect the author to present her views, not ours. Therefore, to effectively communicate their message, I advice students to write in first-person singular.

Furthermore, it is common for philosophy students to formulate their arguments as rhetorical questions. This is sometimes a style of writing, but sometimes it is a strategy for disguising the vagueness of a thought. Spelling out the same argument as propositions often reveals that it is less clear than what first appears, and just as often more difficult to support than what the author wishes to signal by phrasing it as a rhetorical question. Therefore, rhetorical questions should generally be avoided.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, a good essay is aesthetically appealing. Of course, the look of an essay does not affect its content, but it matters to how the content is perceived by the reader; neat texts are judged more favorably than not-so-neat texts. Perhaps this should not be the case, yet it is. Therefore, students should seriously consider reading the guide to typesetting, ”Formatting a text document,” which is available on the page ”For students” on this website, and make sure that their essays are enjoyable also from an aesthetic point of view.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, the aim of writing philosophy is to effectively communicate an abstract and often complex message. Among other things, this requires pedagogical sensitivity and clarity of thought.

Teachers expect that their students have basic knowledge of the topic they are writing about, including the background and context, that they are able to independently choose a problem to treat in their essay which is in fact possible to treat within the given limits in terms of deadline and page numbers, and that their arguments are clear, valid, and sound.

In philosophy, clarity, validity, and soundness are methodological concerns. This means that teachers are not as concerned with what their students argue, but how the argue; their arguments reflect their philosophical competence and talent.

Finally, philosophical writing requires training. If one is about to write one’s first philosophy essay, it is probably a good idea to team up with other classmates to read and comment critically on each others’ essays before submitting them to the teacher.

P.S. Do not forget to put your name and e-mail address on the essay.

Notes

1 For a more complete understanding, read the text ”Introduction to moral justification,” which is available on the page ”For students” on this website.

2 For a more detailed account of personal autonomy, read the text ”Introduction to autonomy theory,” which is available on the page ”For students” on this website.


Cite as: Ahlin, J. (2018). Writing a philosophy essay. Retrieved (date) from: https://jesperahlin.com/for-students/writing-a-philosophy-essay/