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Writing About Philosophy

Writing About: Philosophy

Dec 17, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
While there are plenty of basic writing rules that can be applied across disciplines, there are also plenty of writing guidelines that are specific to a particular field. Issues like tone, tense, organization, and citation style will need to be handled differently depending on your topic and your audience: the paper you write for a literature class is going to follow a different set of rules than a physics lab report.
If you're going to be writing a paper in philosophy, here are the things you need to know.

The basics

Voice: active
Style guide: MLA or Chicago
Person: 1st or 3rd
Central argument: thesis statement
Organization: logical arguments

Types of philosophy papers

The majority of philosophy assignments will require you to critically examine a philosophical argument. Younger students may be asked to simply explain a philosophical position or trace its historical development. Older students will be asked to defend or argue against this position or to analyze the implications of the argument for other issues in philosophy. Possible paper topics include:
  • Showing that an argument is invalid.
  • Proving an argument is valid.
  • Contrasting two opposing arguments.
  • Demonstrating how an position affects related arguments.

How to write about philosophy

Negative and positive arguments

At its most basic, a philosophical thesis will take one of two stands. Either you can argue for a position, which is a positive argument, or you can argue against a position, which is called a negative argument. If you can successfully disprove a philosophical position, you're said to be refuting it.

Organization

Philosophy papers should be organized in logical steps. Think of them as more similar to mathematical proofs than humanities essays: you want to state your main thesis, then build the argument for that thesis step by step and paragraph by paragraph.
Thesis: Your thesis states the main argument you're going to make in your paper. It should be clear and concise so that the reader knows exactly what to expect from your work. Philosophy papers usually don't require you to build to the thesis in the introduction the same way you would in a literature or an historical essay. Instead, it's perfectly acceptable to just come right out and state your thesis at the start of your work.
Provide context: Once you've presented your thesis, you need to tell the reader why your argument matters. Discuss its importance and how it relates to other philosophical issues.
Definition of terms: Next you need to define the terms you're going to use in your paper. This includes explaining your interpretation of particular philosophical positions that you'll be using in your paper so your reader will be able to understand and evaluate your argument.
Explain the argument you will be discussing: Depending on the assignment, you may need to take time in your paper to summarize the argument you will be addressing (that is, not your thesis, but the argument you will be analyzing in your work). For shorter assignments where you are simply asked to explain a philosophical position, this will be the main body of the paper.
Make your argument: For longer papers where you are evaluating an argument, this will be the meat of your paper. You want to make a clear case for your thesis by providing evidence and examples in a logical, well-thought out fashion.
Anticipate counter-arguments: An important part of making a philosophical argument is being able to anticipate counter-arguments and refute them in your paper. When looking for counter-arguments to include in your work, make sure to choose the strongest ones: refuting weak or obviously incorrect position will only weaken your argument, not make it stronger.
Conclusion: Wrap up your paper by summarizing the position you've proven and discussing further areas for discussion brought up by your work.

Be logical

For an argument to be logical is has to follow a specific set of rules, and when you break those rules you commit what's known as a logical fallacy: basically, you've used incorrect reasoning to reach your conclusion. Learning the rules of logic is one of the first steps in a philosophy education, so make sure you understand them and stay away from these common logical fallacies:
  • Fallacies of relevance: Fallacies that arise when you offer evidence for or against an argument that has no logical bearing on that argument. For example, an ad hominem attack seeks to refute an argument by discrediting the person presenting it.
  • Fallacies of ambiguity: An argument that supports your position only because of imprecise language is known as a fallacy of
  • Fallacies of presumption: Fallacies of presumption arise when an argument is based on an invalid premise. For example, circular logic is when you assume the validity of your argument in order to prove it.

What is philosophical evidence?

Philosophy arguments generally don't rely on empirical evidence the same way that work in the sciences does. While you may be able to make use of studies in psychology or biology to help make your point, these types of evidence shouldn't be used as the primary support for your argument. Instead, logic should be used to show that each premise leads to the next. If you're writing about abstract ideas, you can feel free to use examples to illustrate and support your argument as well.

Style

Person

Unlike in most other disciplines, philosophy allows you to use the first person in your work, although it should be done sparingly. For example, a thesis statement might start with "I will argue that..."

Tense

Use present tense unless you're discussing work that's already been completed.

What to avoid

Misinterpreting other people's work

As with other disciplines, philosophers work by building on the research and writing that's been done by others. When you're writing a philosophy paper, you will likely be analyzing and evaluating the arguments of other philosophers, and that process starts by taking the time to understand those arguments properly. All your hard work will be for nothing if you argue for or against a position that results from an incorrect reading of a text. Also make sure you give the author of an argument the benefit of the doubt and don't intentionally misinterpret his position in order to make your work easier.

Logical fallacies

This was discussed early, but it's worth repeating. Reliance on logical fallacies to prove your argument is the biggest mistake you can make in a philosophy paper, so make sure you avoid the logical pitfalls that come with building an argument.

Thinking too big

A good philosophy paper won't attempt to answer the grand questions of the universe: you're not going to solve the puzzle of the human condition in 2,000 words. Instead, a well-written paper will take a small part of a larger philosophical issue and tackle that small problem clearly and thoroughly. When writing in philosophy, you always want to think narrow and deep instead of broad and shallow.

Switching up your terms

Putting together a good philosophical argument requires the precise use of language: you need to define your terms clearly and stick to those definitions closely thru the entire paper. In order to keep your language clear, it's important that you use the same terms throughout your work, even if it sounds repetitive. Don't use synonyms or similar words to liven up your writing.

Using dictionary definitions

There are lots of words we use every day that have a different technical definition when used in the context of a philosophical argument, so you shouldn't ever cite dictionary definitions as proof for your argument.
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