How to Write a Philosophy Paper - Writing Basics and Relevant Topics Mar 21, 2019
Are you are a student of Philosophy? You're just taking a course in Philosophy as part of your main discipline, or are you considering if you should get enrolled in studying sociology? Or are you just trying to satisfy your curiosity by learning how to write a philosophy paper?
If the answer is "yes," then you are surely going to find this piece interesting and informative.
Whatever your reason may be for deciding to read this article, you are not going to be disappointed. You will learn about the discipline of philosophy and the nature of philosophy papers, as well as get actionable ideas on how to write one. You will also be able to benefit from a selection of topic ideas for philosophy papers that can help you quickly come up with your own if you are allowed to.
What is philosophy?
Philosophy is a discipline that concerns itself with the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, human existence, and the reality of all things that exist in our world. The word takes its root from two Greek words - "philos," which means "love," and "sophia," which means "wisdom." Hence, the word philosophy etymologically means "love of wisdom."
Although different sources of classification cite different numbers, traditionally, there are five main branches of Western philosophy.
Originating from the Greek words "episteme" (meaning knowledge) and "logos" (meaning study), this branch deals with the study of concept and nature of knowledge, its source, scope, and validity. It provides arguments and theories on how we acquire knowledge and differentiate between mere opinions and justified beliefs.
Being a systematic study of reasoning, logic concerns itself with establishing the validity of reasoning and arguments.
Taking its root from the Greek word "ethikos" (meaning related to one's character), ethics refers to the study of morality. It deals with human values and behavioral principles, as well as looks into what conducts should be morally acceptable (right) or otherwise (wrong). Unsurprisingly, this branch is also known as moral philosophy.
This branch of philosophy concerns itself with the study of the nature of reality. It focuses on fundamental questions about reality, including existence, time, properties of and relationships between things. It is one of the broadest and most fundamental branches of philosophy.
This branch deals with the study of nature, creation, and appreciation of beauty and art.
As per other classifications, axiology (which studies values and is a combination of ethics and aesthetics) and political philosophy are included in the above, hence the number may be more than five.
Philosophers seek to understand and answer pressing, fundamental questions about our world, such as the meaning of things and the purpose of our existence. We already know that philosophy means the love of wisdom, but what about the concept of wisdom itself? What does it mean to love? How do you, as a human being, understand things? Are people fully conscious and aware of what they do? Do our minds continue to exist after the death of our physical body? These big questions are what excites and astounds philosophers. They strive to inquire into something that cannot be answered by simple science.
In trying to unravel the enigma of our existence and answer fundamental philosophical questions, philosophers argue against or in support of a viewpoint by using coherent and logical arguments. Hence, even though they may not have a common understanding of what questions should be deemed philosophical and how they should be answered, philosophers do agree that it is not enough to merely have an opinion on philosophical issues. They aim to understand the truth of all things and nature by employing systematic methods that are defensible or logically sound and discarding untenable ones.
The Process of Writing a Philosophy Paper - Crucial Things to Know
The structure of a philosophy paper is understood to be inherently argumentative in nature. It is all about working with a thesis, which is basically a claim that may be either true or false. A strong philosophical argument should help reveal unapparent conclusions by starting and logically advancing from true premises. True premises are facts that can be agreed on without a doubt due to the universality and permanence inherent to them. As an example, when people move farther from objects, the objects appear smaller. Also, when a person is naked, it is understood to mean they wear no article of clothing on their body.
Whatever the argument may be, there is always a claim - the idea behind is to support or counter the claim. Countering a claim or theory means to refute it by using negative arguments. Similarly, supporting a claim means to effectively validate it by presenting positive arguments.
If you worry about how many assignments you are given and why you have a drawer full of your papers, you may take solace in knowing the reason for this. The purpose of having students write philosophy papers lies in developing their reasoning, research, and philosophical writing skills, as well as deepening their understanding of the topics of their papers.
When you are required to write a philosophy paper, you may be specifically instructed to do one of the following things.
- Present arguments in opposition to a claim.
- Support the thesis with your own arguments.
- Expound on or enunciate the thesis.
- Evaluate a number of arguments that support or oppose the thesis.
Regardless of which of the above you are required to do, one thing remains unchanged. You should have a well laid-out plan of action. Do not simply jump straight to giving an answer. Philosophical writings are typically heavy on logical reasoning, and that alone requires careful consideration of the claim and arguments you intend to present. It is important to take a holistic approach to creating your paper.
Getting started by planning and researching
Whenever you are tasked with writing a philosophy paper, you should understand what the paper requirements are: what formatting you should use, what the length of the paper should be, and when you should submit it. Starting to plan how you will proceed with the assignment as early as possible is always helpful and strongly encouraged. Other helpful things you should do are presented below.
- Be fully aware of the scope of the topic or question.
It is always a good idea to find out what is required of you. Many students fall into the trap of deviating from the main question or given instruction, ending up focusing on inconsequential issues. This is easily one of the most surefire ways to a poor result. We advise you to avoid it at all costs.
Some topics can be difficult to approach without tapping into other related subjects and arguments, yes, but wandering away from the subject may have a negative impact on the final result. Always think carefully about what is being asked of you. If you feel you do not have enough information to address the topic, take some time to learn more about it. If the question has various aspects to it, you should understand what they are and devise a precise plan to address each of them.
- Research the topic.
If you lack info for your writing, familiarize yourself with the topic by reading different relevant materials, such as books, articles, etc. Take note of the most relevant and compelling information that can help you develop your arguments. Critically evaluate the information - it could be an argument, a set of data, or useful ideas. Ask yourself how precisely that might help you address the topic of your paper. Also, pay attention to the sources - that way, you can easily reference them.
- Formulate your thesis.
As per the requirements for your philosophy paper, you should come up with your thesis and express it as clearly as possible. Your thesis is the main position you take on the question raised in your paper. You should easily do so by taking into account the in-depth research you have done. You may even be surprised with your findings to the extent that you take a different side on the issue. That is the beauty of researching! To bring clarity to your position, use simple and unambiguous language when stating your thesis. You should also anticipate possible objections to your thesis and be ready to defend it.
- Make use of the outline.
Once you're done with your research, you should come up with the outline. It is basically a complete draft of your paper. It has a list of sections, the order of appearance, and "raw" content (writing points). This is a "blueprint" of what you will be writing.
Using the outline brings clarity and focus to your work. A side benefit of it is that you spend less time while writing than you otherwise would because you already know what you intend to write about and where it should appear. Ideally, your outline should provide your readers with just enough information to help them understand the flow of your work. When drawing it up, feel free to come up with several of them and select one that best fits the intended structure.
You should ensure that the outline covers your whole paper, including such basic sections as the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. To help you quickly grasp the concept of an outline, we have provided a sample one below.
Sample Paper Topic. Hume's "A Treatise of Human Nature" says that "The difference between ideas and impressions consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness." Expound on it.
Sample outline for the topic:
- Briefly explain the meaning of the categorical imperative in order to clarify the core idea and what you mean when talking about it.
- Give the thesis statement, mentioning the clear objective of the paper and how you intend to accomplish it.
- Body of the paper.
- Paragraph 1. Indicate one aspect of the categorical imperative and identify why many may consider it true.
- Paragraph 2. Identify the weakness of the mentioned aspect. Explain yourself fully by using examples.
- Paragraph 3. Indicate another aspect of the concept. Point out its weaknesses and explain why it is weak by using several examples. State why the mentioned aspect may be deemed strong but double back to a relevant example you already gave.
- You need to reiterate the purpose of the paper. In order to show how you accomplished it, state one of the aspects you evaluated.
The above sample outline gives a strong indication of what you're going to have to write in the actual paper. With such an outline, the writing task is made much easier, and all that is left for you to do is develop the points!
Writing the Paper - Putting the Plan into Action
As is the case with any other academic paper, writing a philosophy paper means you have to make the structure. By convention, there are the following parts of your paper: the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. In this section, we'll be taking a close look at each of the sections and providing you with useful tips.
You should introduce the topic and provide your thesis. It's OK to state how you intend to present and defend your thesis. You should try to let your reader know what they can expect to get by continuing to read your paper. It also gives you the opportunity to grab your audience's attention and get them interested in reading your paper.
This is the main part of your paper. Your arguments and counter-arguments are all to be carefully, logically, and neatly presented here. They should be organized in paragraphs which logically flow into each other. Be sure to define and explain technical terms that can easily be confused by the reader in the first paragraph.
You can also explain the argument you will be presenting and defending.
- When presenting your argument, use simple and clear language to avoid any misunderstanding.
When advancing, always start from clear and obvious premises, progressing logically to conclusions that are not that obvious. This is a surefire way to create a strong argument and philosophy paper by extension.
- Try and avoid the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or "begging the question."
This means offering an argument based on a premise that is in itself debatable or simply assumed to be true. Reach a conclusion that points back to the same premise as being true. Consider the following, for instance.
It is morally wrong to kill a person. A fetus is a person merely growing in the womb of its mother. It is unacceptable and wrong to terminate its development. This is tantamount to murder.
The problem with the argument is that the premise that it is morally wrong to take a person's life is not always true and debatable. What about situations when a person is in so much physical pain that they wish to end their life? This is a practice known as euthanasia. Clearly, the issue is a highly debated one and cannot be a good premise.
- Be sure to cite relevant sources or give personal examples that can amplify your argument whenever necessary.
Anticipate and address any objections that can be used to counter your argument. With this, you demonstrate a deep understanding of your thesis and acknowledge any weakness that may come with it.
- Avoid using direct quotes in explaining, defending, or refuting a claim.
Use them only if you intend to clarify any ambiguous expression or word in the quote by using your own words.
- Use first-person pronouns and pointer (signpost) words to keep the reader aware of how your argument is being developed and the direction you are taking it. Some examples are: "I will argue here," "I intend to demonstrate," "My assessment of," "My primary objection to," "Descartes projects the argument that," "Descartes defends..."
- Be careful using specialized words or phrases that have a specific philosophical meaning different from conventional understanding. These include "begs the question" (which does not mean to raise the question), "valid," "invalid," "sound" (in describing arguments), "deduction," "vague." If you must use them, do not forget to figure out the meanings of them on your own.
- Pay attention to words like "infer" (it is not the same as "imply") and "disinterested" (it does not have the same meaning as "uninterested").
- If you choose words to convey important connections or support and refute claims, be sure to look them up in the dictionary, paying special attention to their philosophical meaning.
Being the last part of your paper, the conclusion provides you with an opportunity to finalize and end your work.
Restate how you accomplished your aim and, if necessary, recognize the limits of your paper. You should also remind the reader about the relevance or significance of the topic you addressed.
Reviewing Your Paper
When you're at the editing stage of creating and going over the structure of your paper for a philosophy class, it is important to remember the whole goal of your essay. You have two aims here.
- To spot and fix mistakes in grammar and mechanics.
- To improve the way you presented an argument.
You should read your paper twice, paying special attention to the aforementioned nuances. It will help to spot grammar mistakes that may come in the form of poorly arranged words in a sentence or bad word choice. Errors in mechanics include absence (or incorrect use) of punctuation marks, wrong spellings, and lack of capitalizations. Thankfully, today there are different digital tools you can use to help you quickly spot and rectify errors. We still urge you to make sure that you are the one doing the final proofreading.
Keep in mind that by taking a closer look at your paper, you may figure out what paragraphs or ideas can be rewritten to clarify your point or strengthen your thesis.
Below, you'll find a list of topics for a research paper that should help you come up with your own a topic for the paper (if you're given the freedom to do so).
- Mercy killing (euthanasia). Defend or oppose the practice.
- Wars and destruction. Are they a necessary part of human existence? Are there other options?
- The morality of abortion. Defend or oppose the views on the topic.
- The theory of recollection. Faint images of knowledge of our past lives exist?
- Too young to be a parent? Defending or opposing teenage parenthood.
- Arguing about the knowledge of things humans can't see.
- Body and Soul. Do people have a spiritual aspect to their existence?
- Evaluate the Epicurean view of the human mind.
- The pursuit of material happiness. Epicurus viewed material luxury as being incompatible with the happiness of the mind. Defend or oppose that claim.
- The existence of a Supernatural God. Do wars and suffering support the existence of a caring supernatural Creator?
- Defining the boundaries of morality. What characterizes obscenity and is there a clear acceptable definition for it?
- Law and drugs. Evaluate any two popular claims for the legalization of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.
- Racism and its meaning. What is the characterization of racism? Is there an accepted definition for it? Evaluate some popular definition of the term.
- Religious faith and scientific evidence. Evaluate the concepts and defend or oppose either of them.
- Aesthetics in the eye of the Greek civilization. Present and evaluate any two pieces of evidence.
- Marrying thy brother's wife. Evaluate the moral grounds for the customary practice of inheriting your deceased brother's widow.
- Misogyny in modern life. Evaluate any two popular views on acts that are deemed to be misogynistic.
- Old versus New. Evaluate the ancient didactic methods and any popular modern method. Are there any strengths to the modern methods over the ancient ones?
- Karl Marx versus human society. Marxism contends that the capitalist system exploits the working class. Evaluate the claim.
- Immanuel Kant and ethics. In Kantian ethics, Categorical imperative holds that you should treat other people the way you would want them to treat you. Evaluate this formulation.
There you have them! Twenty topic ideas to unleash your creativity and help you choose your preferred theme.
Useful Tips to Remember
Before we draw the curtain on this article, let's do a quick a recap of the key tips you should keep in mind when working on a philosophy paper.
- Come up with a plan as early as possible.
- Read more materials concerning your topic to ensure you understand it before forming your thesis.
- Take note of relevant information that can be used to tell you how to develop your argument or counter key objections.
- Don't forget to include the notes about the sources you use for reference purposes in your writing process.
- In the introduction section of your paper, formulate your thesis clearly and precisely.
- Use clear language in presenting your argument. It depends on the topic, but don't forget about your vocabulary for this specific area.
- Use examples to support your argument as much as you can.
- Use first-person pronouns and possessive nouns where necessary.
- Anticipate and respond to any possible key objection to your argument.
- Avoid the use of direct quotes. Use them as a rare way to inquire about expert opinion.
- Be careful with words that have a specific meaning in philosophy.
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