Advice for writing philosophy papers

These brief tips point out ways to avoid some common problems I’ve come across while grading philosophy papers. For more advice, read Jim Pryor’s excellent (and much more detailed) guides on reading and writing philosophy.

  1. Read the prompt carefully.

    Make sure you’re not skirting around the important philosophical issues. If you’re confused about what the prompt is asking for, ask.

  2. Use simple language.

    Don’t be flowery. Use short, simple sentences. Try to minimize technical jargon. Explain where you’re going and how the pieces fit together.

  3. Cut to the chase.

    Most philosophy papers you’ll write are very short. Don’t waste a single word. Avoid irrelevant background. (“The idea of natural selection was introduced by Charles Darwin in 1859.”) Avoid generalities. (“Evolution has always been one of the most hotly contested issues of our time.”)

  4. Be precise.

    Avoid vague claims. (“An optimal trait is similar to a constraint.” What is the specific relationship?) Be careful with distinctions. (Gene fitness vs. gene frequency.) When you use technical vocabulary, make sure you’re using it correctly.

  5. Be charitable.

    When you’re interpreting an author’s work, look for the most plausible thing she might mean. If you think she has left out important pieces, try to fill them in. If her claim is vague, try to find a reasonable way of making it precise. If it looks like she’s made an obvious mistake, suggest a way of fixing it. Assume the best of the author. We want to explore the best theories we can find, not just knock pins down.

  6. Work out the logic.

    Good philosophical exposition is a difficult skill, and it can take as much careful reasoning as producing your own arguments does. Don’t just report what an author says. It’s important to explain how his argument works. What are the premises, and what is the conclusion? How do the premises give support to the conclusion? What general lessons do his examples illustrate? If author A is replying to author B, explain specifically how A’s claims confront B’s claims. Why are they incompatible? What crucial assumptions do A and B disagree on? Often an author won’t come out and tell you how all the pieces fit together; in that case, you need to do this work for him.

  7. Use examples effectively.

    Examples are helpful (a) as an illustration for a complicated idea, or (b) as a counterexample to disprove a general claim. In either case, you need to do some work to make the example effective. If you make a point using an example, make sure to say clearly what general lesson we should draw. If it’s a counterexample, try to show why the counterexample works—what specifically goes wrong with the general claim, and what the correct thing is we should say instead. In general, don’t use more than one example to make the same point.

  8. Cite the text.

    Whenever you claim that Plato says P, you need to provide evidence for that by pointing to where he says it. This is important! If I don’t remember a particular claim you attribute to him (and my memory is pretty bad), and you don’t give me a citation, I have no way of knowing whether you’re making stuff up. I might assume the worst.

  9. Explain your terms.

    You don’t need to explain general philosophical terms like “valid”, “sound”, or “consistent”, but you do need to explain terms having to do with our particular subject matter, like “egoism”, “hedonism”, or “externalism”. These words can have lots of meanings, so it’s particularly important that you’re clear about what you mean. In particular, don’t take terms from the handouts and lectures for granted. If your paper depends on it, explain it in your paper.

  10. Set up your target before you shoot.

    If you argue that two claims are consistent, first explain exactly what the claims are and why somebody might think they’re inconsistent. If you show that an argument is unsound, first explain very clearly what the argument says and how it’s supposed to work.

  11. Don’t just object to the conclusion.

    If you argue that an argument is unsound, it’s not enough to raise a counterexample to the conclusion, or say that it’s intuitively wrong. Those are fine places to start, but you need to turn them into an objection to some premise. What specifically goes wrong in the argument? We don’t want to just give an argument a thumbs-up or thumbs-down: we want to learn something from the argument. If a premise that originally sounded good turns out to be wrong in some subtle way, that’s interesting: we’ve learned something important. (And if an argument for a counterintuitive conclusion turns out to be sound, that’s really interesting!) But we don’t learn anything new from “That’s intuitively false.”