Hints on Writing Philosophy papers.



1)                It’s the arguments that count. Concentrate on reasoning. To do this, you have to be able to spot the differences between premises and conclusions, and to recognize why writers think that their premises support their conclusions.

2)                Present both sides. It is not necessary for you to come down on one side of an issue, but you can if you want. The important thing is that you do not belittle or underestimate the argument on the other side. One good technique to do this is to write one paragraph as if you’re an advocate for one side, and then criticize it as if you were an advocate for the other side.

3)                Use your own words. It is not especially valuable for you just to reproduce the statements made in class or in the textbook. If you find yourself doing that, try to figure out a way to make the same point using different words. If you can’t do it, you probably don’t understand the point very well.

4)                Quote when necessary. It’s also dangerous to use words from texts or lecture because you are risking plagiarism. Plagiarism is passing off someone elses words as your own. It is dishonest. If you want to use someone else’s words, put the words in quotation marks and tell me where you got them.

5)                Dont worry about introductory and concluding paragraphs. I’ve seen hundreds of papers that begin "For hundreds of years philosophers have argued about" and ended with "And so there are many points of view and we each must make up our own mind about what to believe." These things are both true, but theyre not relevant to any of the interesting questions.


Danger Signs: Things to Avoid


These are mostly features that I’ve found in student papers that usually lead to trouble. They are not cut-and-dried mistakes, but they seem to be associated with confused reasoning and/or passages that are difficult for your poor professor to understand. Avoid them if possible.


Danger Sign 1): Rhetorical Questions


It is unwise to try to make important points by using rhetorical questions. Here is an example of a bad way to summarize Descartes’s skepticism: "Descartes said do we really know anything?"


One reason that rhetorical questions are dangerous is that you (as the writer) know what the answer is to the question. But the reader (me) may not be so sure. So tell me what you think – don’t ask me a question which (you think) has an obvious answer. The answer may not be obvious to me.


Danger Sign 1b): Rhetorical Questions as replacements for statements.


As you can see in #1 above, arguments are the important things. Arguments are made up of statements not questions. The conclusion of an argument is a statement. The conclusion (for example) of Descartes’s argument for skepticism is not “Do we really know anything?”


Danger Sign 2): "is when" used in a definition.


I don’t know how this started, but it is a growing trend in papers. Here is an example: "Skepticism is when you don’t really know anything." This is a bad definition of skepticism. Skepticism is a philosophical doctrine or theory. It is not an event. Events or times are properly described by "is when," for example "Noon is when we eat lunch." Philosophical doctrines should be described by statements. They should not be reported as questions (see Danger Sign 1) or events (like "is when.")


Danger Sign 3): [Philosopher] also said


There’s nothing grammatically wrong with "also said …" (like there is for a theory described as "is when …" or as a question). However, when I see the above phrase in an exam or paper, I am warned that the student is not really following Hint #1) above. It is important to show the relations among a philosopher’s ideas – what the premises are, what the conclusions are, and how the various claims that a philosopher makes fit in with each other.


Statements that begin like "Descartes also said …" usually indicate that the author does not know how to relate Descartess various views to each other. She or he is simply listing all of Descartes’s beliefs, one after the other. That is not a good Philosophy paper. Sentence beginnings that are likely to be in a good Philosophy paper are the following:


"For this reason Descartes believed …"


"Descartes’s reasons for this claim were …"


"This position of Descartes seems inconsistent with …"


None of these Danger Signs is bad in itself. It is merely an indication that the author (you) is getting into trouble. If you find them in your paper, make sure that you are not confused in the ways I have described above.


Danger Sign 4): Naïve Plagiarism.


Naïve plagiarism is my term for copying passages of the text of reading assigments that were given for the class. Some students seem to believe that if they copy material out of assigned texts, that does not count as plagiarism. For example, if an exam assigns you to describe the views of Author X, some students believe that they can copy what Author X says from the textbook and hand it in. That is not an adequate response. You get no credit for copying the words of another author, even if you think that "he says it so much better than I can, I thought I’d use his words."


The problem is this: I need to see how well you understand the material. If you use the original author’s words, I can’t tell if you understand it or not. You need to express Author X’s opinions in your words in order for me to know that you understand his points. If you use his exact words, you don’t get credit. In fact you are plagiarizing, even though I am somewhat lenient with the problem. I do not conclude that the student has plagiarized Author X (although most professors would). Instead, I give no credit to the passage that was copied (even if it was copied with small changes, just to avoid copying exactly). So a paper that might have gotten an A, gets a C or D instead. If you plagiarize, on the other hand, you get an F not only on the exam, but also in the course.