A Brief Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers

The standards for writing a good philosophy paper are like those for any scholarly writing. The writer should discuss the issues or ideas that form the subject matter of the paper in an orderly manner, omit needless redundancy and material irrelevant to the central issues of the paper, and provide footnote citations and quotations wherever necessary to support the views expressed in the paper. If you are writing on a topic of your own choice, you will want to choose a topic that can be addressed adequately in the number of pages allotted, and develop a strategy for discussing the topic in a lucid manner. If the question you are writing on is assigned there will be no need to search for an appropriate topic, but you will still need to decide upon the best strategy for addressing the issues involved. 
Consequently, before you begin to work on your paper there are a number of questions that you will need to ask yourself in order to give your writing project some direction.

  • What subject matter can I discuss in adequate detail within the time constraints under which I am working?
    1. If you are asked to write on a topic of your own choice, you will want to tailor the scope of your topic to the length of paper you are writing. For example, it would be inappropriate to attempt to write a fifteen page research paper on Aristotle's philosophy as a whole. There is simply too much material to discuss in the space of fifteen pages. You might, however, choose to write on some more limited aspect of Aristotle's philosophy, such as the concept of motion in his Physics.
    2. But even if the question on which you are writing is assigned, you will still need to consider what aspects of the question can be discussed fully in the number of pages you plan to write.
  • What source materials (books, articles, chapters, etc.) are relevant to the paper topic and helpful as sources of information?
    1. For a lengthy research paper you will want to do some library research in order to find source materials for your paper and draw up a bibliography of the books and articles that appear to be of particular relevance.
    2. But even if you are simply writing a short paper limited to the assigned texts of the course you will still want to identify those chapters and passages that you believe will be most helpful in addressing the issues on which you are writing.
  • In what order should I explain various concepts, principles, terms, etc., in my paper to make my ideas clear to the reader? The overall clarity of a paper depends to a great degree on its structure. It is best to outline your paper before you begin to write to help guide the writing process and to assure that all of the major concepts and principles that you intend to discuss in your paper will be fully explained. You might also want to explain any specialized terminology that you believe might not be readily understood by your reader. It will also be crucial that you write one or two introductory paragraphs for your paper to give your reader some sense of the issues or questions you will be considering in the paper and what, in general, you intend to say about these issues or questions.
  • What sort of evidence can I supply for my ideas and interpretations? This raises the question of the proper use of citations and quotations.

Standards of Evidence

In any academic discipline there are certain standards of evidence that must be followed whenever a particular thesis or view is proposed. In the empirical sciences, for example, it is generally accepted that any scientific theory should be supported by empirical observations made under specified controlled conditions. If this standard is met then anyone who questions the theory can replicate the conditions under which the observations that allegedly support the theory were originally made in order to discover whether the observed phenomena reported to have occurred actually do occur, and consequently whether the proposed theory is supported by the empirical evidence.

It would be inappropriate to run scientific experiments when writing on the ideas of a particular philosopher or philosophical topic. Nevertheless, there are standards of evidence that also apply in philosophical writing. Two common ways of providing evidence for a philosophical view or an interpretation of a particular philosopher are citation and quotation.

Citation. It is accepted practice in all disciplines that when a writer mentions or discusses at length the ideas of another writer, a footnote citation of the original source of these ideas should be supplied. For example,

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, states that the final end of human action is happiness.1 [usually superscripted]

Footnote 1 would supply the bibliographical information necessary for the reader to find the page in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle makes this statement (see below). This allows a skeptical reader to look up the original passage to see if Aristotle actually says what he is reported to have said.

Quotation. When a passage from a text is particularly useful in supporting your views or your interpretation of an author, it may be helpful to quote the passage directly, with a footnote citation to show where the passage can be found. Direct quotations, however, should be used sparingly, and should only be used in connection with an interpretation of the quoted material. Part of the purpose of writing a paper is to communicate to the reader your understanding of the views of a particular philosopher. Quoting at length from a text without providing an interpretation of what is being said in the quoted passage fails to fulfill this purpose. 

The standard practice for direct quotations is to surround quoted passages of three lines of text or less with double quotation marks ("), and indent passages of greater length five spaces from the left hand margin.

Footnotes. A footnote should contain complete bibliographical information of a source that is being used or quoted in your paper. This includes the author, title of the book (underlined), translator and/or editor (if any), place of publication, publisher and date of publication, and the number(s) of the page(s) in which the original material discussed or quoted in your paper appears. For example, footnote 1 in the example above would read,

1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. and ed. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), p. 15.

The number of the footnote is typically superscripted, as it is in the text of the paper itself, and the first line is indented five spaces. 

If the next footnote refers to the same source, you can simply use "Ibid.," which means "in the same place," followed by the page number(s) of the material discussed if these are different from the previous note. Thus if in footnote 2 you wish to refer to page 35 of the same edition of the Nicomachean Ethics, you would write

2 Ibid., p. 35.

If, however, you refer to some other source in footnote 2, and you wish to refer to the Nicomachean Ethics again in footnote 3, or some later footnote, you can simply write the author's name and "op. cit.," which means "in the work cited." For example, 
3 Aristotle, op. cit., p. 35.

Footnotes can be placed either at the bottom of the page where the citation or quotation appears, or at the end of the paper on a separate sheet (as "endnotes"). 
For more information on the proper form of footnotes you can look at the College Edition of a standard dictionary, such as Webster's or Random House. These usually have a guide to writing research papers in the back pages. Another excellent source of tips and information for writing research papers is Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Fifth Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Primary and Secondary Sources

The works of a particular philosopher that you are writing on are called "primary sources." It is the interpretation of these writings that should be your central focus in the paper. But it is sometimes helpful to read the interpretations of other philosophers who have studied and written on the same primary sources--what are called "secondary sources." There are a couple of things to keep in mind in deciding what secondary sources to use in your research, and how you should use them. First of all, you should avoid using any secondary sources that you find difficult to understand. Some secondary sources are written by philosophers with advanced understanding of primary source materials for an audience with similar background knowledge. It is likely that using such sources will only confuse and mislead you in your attempt to gain insight into the ideas of a particular philosopher.

You should also be careful not to allow a secondary source to dominate the structure and argument of your paper. It is your responsibility as a writer to offer an interpretation and defend it. Take whatever is useful from a secondary source that helps to strengthen your interpretation, but remember that it isyour interpretation that you are developing in the paper, and so you should not simply repeat what has already been said in the secondary source you are using.

Below are three secondary sources written for the general reader that you might find helpful in your research.

  • Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1963). The most extensive history of philosophy in English.
  • W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, 5 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975). More concise than Copleston, with volumes covering the classical and medieval periods, early modern philosophy, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1967). Generally contains sound scholarly articles on all areas of philosophy and all major philosophers.

In addition, you might wish to use The Philosopher's Index (Bowling Green, IN: Philosophy Documentation Center), an index of all secondary literature published in English since 1940.

Things to Avoid

(1) Plagiarism. It is accepted practice in scholarly writing to identify quoted passages from an original text with the use of quotation marks or indentation with full footnote citations. This not only applies for quoted material of a sentence or more, but also for key phrases taken directly from the text. For example,

In The Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley calls the perceiver of ideas the "mind, spirit, soul or myself,"4 and argues that this perceiver cannot be identified with the collection of ideas perceived.

Using a passage from any source without indicating in these ways that it is taken from an original source is called "plagiarism" and is not condoned in scholarly writing. Plagiarism is considered an act of intellectual dishonesty since it is representing someone else's writing as one's own.

Often inexperienced writers do not plagiarize with the intent to deceive, but simply because they become so engrossed in the wording of the original text on which they are writing that they incorporate phrases from the original into their discussion without full cognizance of what they are doing. To avoid this it is helpful to distance oneself somewhat from the text one is attempting to explain in a paper. Close the book while you write and try to explain in your own words the meaning of the text. Later you can return to the text to find citations and quotations that help to support your interpretation of it.

 (2) Paraphrasing. Another closely related problem that can arise at times in the work of inexperienced writers is that rather than simply copying the text verbatim, as occurs in cases of plagiarism, they write in close paraphrases of the text, changing some words or punctuation, omitting other words or phrases, but retaining much of the sentence structure and verbal content of the original. Thus, where Berkeley writes, "It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind," a student may write, "Berkeley says that it is clear to everyone who thinks about the objects of human knowledge, that these are either ideas in the sense organs, or those perceived by paying attention to the operations of the mind." 

There are a couple of problems with paraphrasing. First, paraphrasing is a mechanical process of exchanging words and phrases for synonyms that discourages careful consideration of the meaning of the text itself. Consequently, the writer may, in making small changes in the written text, actually change the meaning of original passage without realizing it. When in the illustration above, for example, Berkeley's "ideas imprinted on the senses" is rendered in paraphrase "ideas in the sense organs," the writer erroneously suggests that the ideas that Berkeley refers to are states of the body. A second problem with paraphrasing is that since it is a mechanical process it demonstrates little of the writer's understanding of the material on which he or she is writing.

The solution to close paraphrasing is the same as the solution to unintentional plagiarizing: you should attempt to gain some distance from the text. If you close the book while writing you will never run the risk of writing in paraphrases.

 (3) Unexplained, Unsubstantiated, and Irrelevant Statements. It is not enough simply to make a statement in a scholarly paper, you must explain the statement and make it clear to the reader how the statement is relevant to the topic of the paper. If you are writing on the ideas of a particular philosopher, you must not only be concerned with what the philosopher says, but why he or she says it, and why you are reporting it in your paper. It would be of little help to a reader of a paper on Descartes' concept of nature, for example, to be told that Descartes believed that God exists if nothing is said about the strategy he uses to prove God's existence and Descartes' theism is never connected to his concept of the natural world. Likewise, if you offer your own opinion on a particular issue in a paper, it is not sufficient simply to state your opinion--you must also give your reasons for having the opinion you have. 

When writing a paper, then, you should adopt the following rules of thumb: (1) never raise a topic unless you are prepared to provide as full an explanation as is necessary to show its relevance to the subject matter of the paper, and (2) only offer your own opinion when you are prepared to provide an argument or give some reasons in support of it.

 (4) Raising Unanswered Questions. It is the writer's task in a research paper to offer some conclusions concerning the subject matter of the paper, whether it be a philosophical issue or the views of a particular philosopher. The writer fails in this responsibility when he or she raises questions in a paper while offering no suggestions as to how these questions might be answered. You should not, then, ask a question of your reader unless you are prepared to answer it. 

You should also avoid asking rhetorical questions, that is, making statements or claims expressed in interrogative form. Often inexperienced writers will ask a rhetorical question when they feel unsure of a claim that they wish to make in a paper. Thus instead of writing, "His theory of forms determined, in significant ways, the solutions Plato offered to the moral issues and dilemmas of his day," a tentative writer might make the same point in interrogative form by writing, "Wasn't it the theory of forms that determined, in significant ways, the solutions that Plato offered to the moral issues and dilemmas of his day?" Attempts to avoid the criticism of readers in this manner usually fail: it is clear in these instances, despite the evasive wording, that a claim is being made, and the interrogative form only serves to give the reader the impression that the writer has not thoroughly researched the paper topic.

 (5) Long Quotations. By all means avoid them. It is seldom necessary to quote any more than a few sentences from a primary or secondary source in order to support a view or interpretation in a paper.

 (6) Frequent Quotations. Quotations should be used only as a means of supporting views, ideas, interpretations, etc., that you have already explained in your paper in your own words. They should never be used as a substitute for your explanation. Consequently, you should never write your paper by simply compiling a series of quotations. The bulk of the text of your paper should be your own writing, not quotations from primary and secondary sources.

 (7) Unfair Criticism. The rule that a writer should follow in criticizing the views of a philosopher is often called the "Principle of Charity." According to this principle, before offering a criticism of a philosopher's views it is considered good practice for the writer to provide a sympathetic account of those views. Without such an account the reader cannot judge whether the criticism of a philosopher offered by a writer is cogent, or whether it is based simply on the writer's misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the philosopher's views. At times writers will deliberately misrepresent the views of a philosopher so as to make those views easier to attack. This is considered a fallacy of reasoning called a "Straw Man Argument," and should always be avoided. 

Grading Criteria

It would be difficult to list all of the criteria that are relevant to evaluating the quality of a philosophy paper, but some of the more important ones are listed below. 

  1. Accuracy. The accuracy of factual statements or interpretations of a particular philosopher's writings is always relevant in evaluating written work.
  2. Proper Use of Citations. The use of citations and quotations in support of the interpretations offered in the paper of a philosopher's views will be considered in grading. In particular, citations and quotations should be (a) accurate, (b) in the proper form, and (c) relevant to the topics or issues discussed in the paper.
  3. Evidence of Effort. The amount of effort put into preparing the paper, insofar as this can be ascertained from the written work itself, will be considered in grading. Some signs that insufficient effort has been made are (a) work that falls short of the requested length, (b) writing that includes frequent misspellings and/or grammatical errors, (c) sloppy or illegible writing.
  4. Cogency of Thought. Central to the pursuit of philosophical wisdom is the task of discovering reasonable beliefs that are based on sound justifying arguments and evidence. Thus one criterion for judging the quality of philosophical writing is how well an author supports his/her views with clearly stated and convincing reasoning.
  5. Insight. A superior paper will display some insight into a philosophical issue or the views of a philosopher that goes beyond what is said in class lectures and discussions.
  6. Originality. A superior paper may also include some original ideas or new approaches to philosophical issues. Of course an idea or approach is not good simply because it is original. There must still be some reasons offered as to why the idea or approach is plausible, useful, reasonable, important, etc.--in short, why it should be entertained or accepted.