Philosophy Paper FAQ
by Chris Heathwood
These guidelines are geared towards undergraduates in philosophy, but graduate students who are writing papers for me will still benefit from reading them.
- When is our paper due and how long should it be?
See your syllabus or paper assignment document for length requirements and due dates of papers. Do adhere to the word limits. If you feel you need more words, please contact me and explain why.
- What can I read or do for guidance on writing a philosophy paper?
Here are three useful sources that are available to you free:
excerpt from A.P. Martinich's Philosophical Writing
Michael Huemer's Guide to Writing
Jim Pryor's Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.
And if you really want to get serious as a writer, do yourself a favor and buy
Garner's Modern English Usage.
It's a bargain at that price.
But if anything more expensive than free is too expensive for you, here is a decent, free, online usage dictionary:
Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage.
Finally, definitely check out
'A Sample Philosophy Paper' by Angela Mendelovici,
an excellent "Prezi" presentation in which she lays out the elements of a good philosophy paper in the context of a sample paper. This paper would get an A from me.
For additional guidance, you can of course talk to me/us. Also consider making an appointment or dropping in at the Writing Center.
- What is the overall purpose of my paper?
The overall purpose of your paper is to defend, by means of rational argument, an interesting and clearly-stated philosophical thesis, relating to a topic from the course, that you think is true.
- How do I accomplish that?
To accomplish this, your paper should contain these four elements:
- Your paper must have a thesis. Your paper can't simply be a "book report" on the views of others (our exams are for for testing your mastery of the material, not the papers). Your thesis will be a philosophical claim that you think is true (or at least has a decent chance of being true), and the purpose of your paper is to persuade the reader that it is true. It should not be a trivial claim that everyone already accepts. It should be at least somewhat controversial or surprising or interesting or novel.
Philosophical theses are answers to philosophical questions. For example, the answer to, "Do we have free will?" is a philosophical thesis. But this is too big a question to tackle in a short paper. Another philosophical question is, "If we assume that God is atemporal, does this help solve the dilemma of freedom and foreknowledge?" Yet another one is, "Are there any morally relevant differences between Thomson's violinist case and a typical unwanted pregnancy that render Thomson's positive argument for the permissibility of abortion unsound?" An answer to either of these questions would be an interesting philosophical thesis, and one that would be easier to address in a short paper.
Make sure your thesis appears in the first paragraph of your paper. It is ok if you use a phrase like, "The purpose of this paper is to argue that ________ " where the blank is filled in with your thesis. It needs to be blatantly obvious what your thesis is. You should be able to state it in one sentence. "Nothing reveals fuzzy thinking as effectively as making yourself write out the thesis for the paper in a single sentence" (Elizabeth McMahan, A Crash Course in Composition (1977), p. 6).
To reiterate, whatever your thesis is, it can't be too grand. Your papers for me are not long, and there isn't space to do anything very big. Here is a helpful quotation from Pryor's writing guide:
"A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a small point; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it.
People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your [short] paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace."
Iris Murdoch put the point more dramatically: "In philosophy if you aren't moving at a snail's pace you aren't moving at all" (Murdoch, "Above the Gods," 1986.)
It is perfectly ok for your thesis to be a thesis all about some pre-existing work in philosophy. Your thesis need not "stand on its own"; it's ok if it makes sense only in the context of another philosopher's work. For instance, your thesis could be that a certain reply to a certain argument against a certain theory fails to show that argument to be unsound.
- Your paper should provide whatever background is necessary for understanding your topic, your thesis, and the argument to come. Pretend that you are writing for someone who is unfamiliar with your topic.
Your paper must give reasons to think your thesis is true. This is the argument of your paper. The main argument of a philosophy paper is its centerpiece. The argument will contain premises (these are the reasons for thinking that your thesis is true) and a conclusion (this is your thesis). You will need to show both that the premises of your argument in fact support the conclusion, and that the premises are plausible.
Let me forestall a possible confusion. Recall my point above that the thesis of your paper could be that a certain reply to a certain argument against a certain theory fails to show that argument to be unsound. If this were your thesis, then the argument of your paper would NOT be the argument that is being referred to in the previous sentence. That argument isn't your argument at all; it's the argument of some other philosopher, an argument that your paper is defending by showing a criticism of that argument to be unsuccessful. Your argument (or arguments) would be constituted by the reason (or reasons) you gave for thinking that that criticism of the other philosophers argument was wrong.
- If space permits, your paper should address objections to your argument or your thesis. Anticipate how an opponent of your thesis or argument might object to it. Present the objection as charitably and forcefully as you can. Then explain why you think it does not ultimately show that your thesis is false or that your argument is unsound. If your thesis and argument require a lot of space to lay out, and for this reason you have no space to address objections, that may be ok. (Though if you waste space on unnecessary "filler," and for this reason have no space to address objections, that's not ok.)
- What kind of style is appropriate?
- Aim for clarity, precision, succinctness, and directness; avoid flowery language and long, winding sentences. When in doubt, go with a shorter sentence rather than a longer one, and go with a familiar word rather than an obscure one.
- You don't need to be "deep" – instead, just make it completely clear exactly what you are trying to say.
- Don't include any paragraphs that don't serve the thesis of the paper in some way (whether by providing background, by containing an argument or part of an argument for the thesis, by containing a presentation of a possible objection to your thesis or to an argument that you have made for your thesis, or by containing a response to such an objection).
- Make no spelling, grammatical, or usage mistakes – use a spell checker, get a good usage manual, consult lists of common mistakes, for example, items B-F here or this page of Common Errors in English Usage as a resource. Also check out this cool trick for better proofreading.
- It's ok to use the words 'I' and 'my' in a philosophy paper (e.g., "I will argue that ... ," "An opponent might raise the following objection to my thesis ... ").
- The "singular 'they'" is also ok. For example: "I will argue that the utilitarian can have their cake and eat it too."
- Above all, aim for clarity. Make it so that I know exactly what you are trying to say at every step. I'm tempted to say, "say it so that a six-year-old could understand it."
- Who is my audience?
Write as if you are writing for an intelligent but ignorant reader, one who is not a philosopher. Your paper should be written in such a way that a friend or roommate of yours (who did not take our class and who is not a philosopher) could read your paper and go away understanding the issue and your view about it.
- What kind of format do you want it in?
- typed and double-spaced, with normal fonts and margins (normal is 12pt font and 1-inch margins)
- either printed out or emailed (double-sided printing is best), depending on the specific requirements for that class; don't submit your paper by email unless the instructions for your class allow or require that, or you receive special permission to do so. (The exception to this rule is late papers. Because you lose 1/3 of a letter grade for each day (not each school day, each day) that your paper is late (see below), you can and should submit late papers by email. That way you don't have to wait until the next class meeting to turn in your late paper.)
- unless the specific requirements for the paper assignment say otherwise, do not put your name on your paper; use your Student ID instead. This is to make grading as anonymous as possible.
- page numbers on each page.
- word count stated at the top
- STAPLED TOGETHER! (if printed out)
If you fail to follow any of these simple formatting rules, you'll lose points.
- How do you want citations done?
Whenever you quote another writer or even just claim that another writer said or did something, you need to say where they said it or did it -- that is, you need to cite the source. And if you are using any of their phrases, sentences, or paragraphs verbatim, you need to put these words in quotation marks. If you don't, you are plagiarizing (see the last item below of this FAQ). For a simple and brief introduction to the concept of plagiarism, this page is helpful.
I prefer "in-text citations" over citations in footnotes, followed by a list of references at the end of your paper. (Please never use endnotes for anything, ever.) You can look at this short document on "APA Style" in-text citation for some guidance. This other document also includes guidance on formatting for the list of references. I'm not too picky about the formatting for the bibliography; just pick one of the established formatting styles and stick with it. The Sample Philosophy Paper that I linked to above does it fine.
I said I'm not too picky about citations, but please at least avoid the following ubiquitous mistake. On regular in-text parenthetical citations, put the citation before the period that ends the sentence, not after it. The citation is supposed to be a part of the sentence. To illustrate:
NO GOOD: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." (Yeats 1919)
GOOD: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" (Yeats 1919).
Don't worry too much about doing citations for things we discussed in class. But if you do take something word-for-word off of a slide or off the chalkboard, you can have your in-text citation look something like this:
(Slide from Lecture, 10/31/13).
There doesn't need to be a corresponding entry in your bibliography for this.
- Then what do I use footnotes for?
Use a footnote when you want to make some point that you feel isn't important enough for the main text or that you feel would interrupt the flow of your discussion. This might be a point of clarification, or a quick response to a possible objection, or the clearing up of a possible misunderstanding, or an explanation of what you mean by some term, or the mentioning that someone else made a similar point to the one you are making in the main text (together with a citation), or something like that. But don't feel that your paper needs footnotes.
Please never use endnotes. Why did God invent endnotes?
- Does my paper need a conclusion?
For short papers (say, ~1,500 words or less), probably not. Concluding paragraphs can be helpful if your paper is longer and more complicated and the reader could use a recap. But if the paper is shorter and simpler, it will just be repeating things the reader just read.
- How will you grade my paper?
Here are the factors that will determine your grade. "Yes" answers improve your grade; "No" answers lower your grade.
- Thesis. Is your thesis
- easy to identify?
- easy to understand?
- did you provide the background necessary for understanding your thesis and argument?
- is this background information itself easy to understand?
- is it accurate?
- have you avoided including unnecessary "filler"?
- Argument. Is your argument (or arguments)
- easy to identify?
- easy to understand?
- does it actually support your thesis?
- are its premises plausible, or at least not absurd?
- have you adequately defended them?
- Objections. [considering objections may not be required if presenting your thesis and argument required all the space you had]
- did you consider interesting objections to your thesis or argument(s)?
- have you presented them fairly and forcefully?
- have you responded to them adequately?
- Other Factors.
- Style. Have you avoided errors of spelling, grammar, and usage? Is your writing crisp and easy to understand?
- Formatting. Have you followed #7 above?
- Facts. Have you avoided making any factual errors? If you say that some theory is the view that such-and-such, is this what that theory really is? If you said that some philosopher said such-and-such, did she really say that?
After you have written your paper, you should check it against all of these questions. If the answer to any of them is "No," then (with the possible exception of item d) fix your paper until the answers are all "Yes."
When you get down to it, what I say you are being graded on above can be summed up well by the following remarks from the Pryor writing guide (boldface added):
"You'll be graded on three basic criteria: How well do you understand the issues you're writing about? How good are the arguments you offer? Is your writing clear and well-organized?"
As I/we grade your papers, I'll sometimes encircle letters to indicate that I've found some key element of your paper.
(T) for thesis
(B) for background
(A) for argument
(O) for objections.
- So how do I get an A?
One thing to do is to make sure that all of your answers to the questions just listed above are "Yes." But even this does not guarantee an A (especially in upper-division courses). An A paper also has to display some independent, creative, or original philosophical thinking. If nothing in your paper goes beyond anything that we talked about in class or that was talked about in the readings, it will probably get a grade somewhere in the neighborhood of a B–.
In some of my classes, I give students two main options for papers: they can write a "Paper from Scratch," or they can use a "Prefab Topic and Outline" that I have supplied. Choosing a Prefab Topic and Outline makes it more difficult (though certainly not impossible) to show off independent, creative, and original philosophical thinking; for this reason, it can be harder to get an A if you choose a Prefab Topic and Outline.
- What if I can't come up with a good thesis?
Choose one the the Prefab Topics and Outlines on the Paper document. But if you are an advanced philosophy major, I hope you'll try to write a Paper from Scratch.
- What if I'm not sure if my topic, thesis, or argument will make for a good paper?
I am more than happy to provide assistance as you work on your paper. Feel free to come to office hours or send an email with questions, or to run a rough outline by me. I'm not always able to comment on a full draft, but I can at least talk about the issues with you or answer specific questions.
- What if my paper is late?
Late papers will lose points unless you have a legitimate, documented excuse. Your letter grade will be lowered one notch for each day -- that is, each 24 hours -- that your paper is late. A "notch" is 1/3 of a letter grade, e.g., the difference between a C and a C-, or an A- and a B+.
To illustrate, suppose the paper is due on a Friday at noon, but you don't turn it in until the following Monday at 9:00 p.m. and you don't have a legitimate, documented excuse for its being late. Suppose the paper you turn in would have received a B if it were on time. Because the paper was four days late -- i.e., it went into the fourth 24-hour period since the due date and time -- it would now receive a C–.
Even if you were required to submit your paper in class in hardcopy, you can and should submit late papers by email, so as to get them in sooner, thereby losing fewer points. Attach your paper to the email; don't paste it into the body. Attach it in .docx or .pdf format. Ask us to respond to your email to confirm for you that we received it and that the attachment came through. If we never receive the email, your paper won't count as having been turned in at the time you sent it. If you forget to attach the paper, your paper won't count as having been turned in at the time you sent the email.
If your paper is going to be late, you should let me (and the TA, if there is one) know about this on or before the day the paper is due (either by telling me/us in class or by sending me/us an email). This is so I that know that you are aware that we had a paper due and are aware that your paper is going to be late.
- What are your top five "pet peeves" in student papers?
That was nice of you to ask. Here are five, in no particular order:
- papers that aren't stapled together.
- papers that don't have page numbers.
- papers that don't have word counts.
- calling everything an 'argument'. In philosophy, we traffic in theses (or claims) and arguments. Don't confuse these. A thesis or claim is the sort of thing that can be expressed with a single declarative sentence. For example, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK is a thesis. That Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK is not, however, an argument. An argument is a series of claims, one of which (the conclusion) is supposed to follow from or otherwise be supported by the others (the premises). Arguments essentially involve an inference. Arguments often take a paragraph or longer to state. Here are a couple examples of arguments in "line-by-line" format. Don't mix up 'thesis' and 'argument'.
- comma splices (just because these are so common -- why is that?).
- saying "the reason ... is because ... ."
- misusing 'as such'.
- anything else pretentious.
(sorry, I guess that was more than five)
- Can I cheat?
You are encouraged to discuss your paper with others in the class. However, the paper you turn in must be your own work. Students turning in duplicate or near-duplicate papers will receive an F for the entire course and may be subject to expulsion from the university. So will students who use a paper -- even if only a tiny part of it -- that they got off the internet (these are easy to spot). I take cheating very seriously.
Do not quote much or at all in your papers. I want to hear the ideas in your own words. But if you must use the words of others, put them in quotation marks and cite the source. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing. Plagiarism will earn you an F for the whole course and possible expulsion from the university.