Writing Formal Philosophy Essays

PHL 101, Fall 2020


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General Information on Writing Formal Philosophy Essays


Generally speaking, a good philosophy essay should include:


1. A clear statement of what you are arguing. For example, if you were composing an argument for the conclusion that Pope Francis would have an easier time than most people following the Eightfold Path then say so.

It is generally wise to put this in your first paragraph. Avoid autobiographical comments such as how long you have thought about this. Also avoid general comments such as Philosophers have talked about this question for a long time. These comments dont add anything of interest to your discussion. Jump in by telling your reader what your conclusion is. Philosophers dont generally aim for subtle kinds of beginnings. We want others to be clear about what were arguing. In addition, starting this way makes for a more interesting beginning to the essay than the kinds of statements mentioned above.


2. Reasons in support of your view (think here of what considerations you can put forward to convince someone that your view is the most reasonable one to adopt)

Imagine what you have written will be read by someone who doesnt agree with your view. What could you say to convince such a person that this view is the best? Sometimes ideas that seem obvious to us are not obvious to others. Reflecting in this way (or even trying your idea out on others) can be a way to find what needs more explanation.

Dont spend time (or space) laying out aspects of your view that are not necessary for the argument being made. For example, if you were writing an essay arguing that Tolstoys focus on death was a mistake, then the fact that he was the author of War and Peace is likely to be irrelevant and should not appear in your discussion. Only bring it in if it supports your conclusion in some way (and be sure to make clear how it provides this support).


3. Consideration of the most serious objections someone might raise to your view

When giving objections, philosophers make it very clear that the consideration being discussed is an objection. If one fails to do this, readers get confused (suddenly criticizing the view that one has hitherto been defending is definitely baffling). So, we introduce objections by writing things such as: It might be objected that or A possible criticism of this view is or The most serious objection to the view defended here is or something else of similar nature.

Try to come up with a relatively central objection. Suppose you were discussing Gunaratanas account of why we suffer and raised the objection that he somewhat overestimates how much of our experience falls into the ignoring category. That would not be a good objection because the specific amount of our experience that we ignore is not central to his view; even if he has overestimated the amount somewhat, that will not contradict or undermine his overall argument.



4. Your response to that objection

How can you argue that readers should still adopt your view, despite this criticism? Is the criticism confused? based on a mistake? correct, but not serious? a less serious problem than the problems that alternative views face? (These are just some of the avenues one might explore.)

If you cannot come up with a good response to the objection then consider whether your conclusion needs to be adjusted. The view you argue for need not be simple. It might be that in certain cases, x is best, but in other cases y is preferable. Just be sure to give reasons why the two kinds of cases are importantly different.


5. A conclusion

At the end of the essay, there should be a paragraph which briefly ties your argument together, reminding the reader of what he should be concluding and why.


Some other important instructions:


6. Ideas as well as quotations need to be properly attributed. If you use other peoples ideas, they will need to be cited unless they are considered common knowledge. I realize that its not easy to figure out whats common knowledge in a new field. Please talk to me if you have questions about this. Of course, if you use others words in your essay, they always need to be cited and put in quotation marks. Philosophers use MLA style for citations. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook is a great help in this. The Writing Center in the lower level of Farley Library can also help. A website that is particularly good is maintained by Purdue University; the address is . I will also be glad to help.

For our essays, you can put your works cited at the bottom of the last page it need not be a separate page.


7. Be sure the final version of your essay has a title one that reflects the material in an interesting way (i.e., not just The Eightfold Path or Philosophy Essay). No title page is necessary. Just put the title at the top of the first page.


8. The length given for the essay does not include works cited, etc., but only the text of your discussion.


9. The essay needs to be double-spaced.


10. Look for writing problems spelling, grammar, awkward sentences, sentence fragments, needed paragraph breaks, etc. Reading the essay aloud is one of the best ways to catch errors reading silently, the mind tends to fill in what we should be there, missing the fact that something is wrong. Do this at least before handing in the final version.




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