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How to Write a Philosophy Paper

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How to Write a Philosophy Paper
The Reader
In reality, likely only one person will read your paper: me.However, writing papers in class is supposed to be training you to write papersfor a general audience.Therefore you should write your paper as if people who don’t know you, have never been to this class, and do not know who I am are going to read it.
The Reader
Do not:Cite the professorCite thepowerpointsMention examples from class as if the reader knows about them
P.S.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use the information from class or that’s in the slides.Cite the book if the material is from the book. If it’s something I said then it’s yours if you want it.
The Reader
I think it would be best for you to assume that the reader is one of your peers– for example, a second-year philosophy major who has not taken a philosophy of language class.
Thesis
The point of a philosophy paper is to convince the reader that a thesis is true.The thesis is the main claim in the paper. It is why you wrote the paper: to get people to believe the thesis.
Structure of a Philosophy Paper
General guidelines (not always true):Introduction containing the thesis and a roadmapExposition of key concepts in thesis and argumentsArguments in support of the thesisCharitable consideration of objections to your arguments or your thesisConclusion, summarizing what you have accomplished
Thesis Statement
What Is a Thesis?
Philosophy papers are an example of persuasive writing.You are trying to convince your reader of something: a claim, a thesis.Your thesis is the main claim you are trying to convince your reader of.You should only haveonethesis.The rest of your paper is devoted to arguing for your thesis.
P.S.
This doesn’t mean that there’s only one claim that you’ll be making in your paper. You’ll make lots of claims, and maybe spend lots of the paper arguing for them.BUT, all your other claims and arguments should be made in service of arguing for your thesis. Argue for claims thatsupport your thesis.
N.B.
The fact that a philosophy paper consists of arguments for a thesis means that a summary of what someone else thinks isnota philosophy paper.That doesn’t mean you won’t summarize what other people think. It means thatthat can’t be all that you do.
Thesis
The thesis should appear toward the beginning of the paper.It should be stated in a clear, straightforward way. You are allowed to end the paper by endorsing a more complicated thesis than you started withThe reader should be able to spot the thesis easily. You can but do not have to precede it with “In this paper I will argue that…”
P.S.
The thesis should appear at the beginning of the paper, but it’s often good to put it at the endalso(not instead).Sometimes if you think the argument is getting complicated, you can remind your readers what the claims you’re arguing for have to do with your thesis.
Cut the Crap
Philosophers hate papers that begin “Since the dawn of time, mankind has wondered…”Get to the point, be clear, and skip the flowery language.Philosophy papers aim to persuade, and thus philosophers place emphasis on clarity over beauty.
Thesis Recommendations
A thesis should be a claim that not everyone already believes. There’s no point in convincing people of what they already believe.A thesis should make a small claim. You cannot solve the deep mysteries of philosophy in a 5-7 page double-spaced paper written in a few weeks. You can, however, write a clear, well-reasoned paper that adds to the debates and discussions we’ve encountered in class.
Thesis Types
Modify a view to overcome an objection.Demonstrate what the view is committed to.Defend a view against an objection.Argue that a certain view can (or cannot) overcome an objection.(There are more, this is just a sample.)
Theses Samples
The idea theory can avoid the problem posed by theoretical entities, if it replaces its notion of resemblance with a broader notion of structural similarity.Ifverificationismis true, then we can never represent the mental lives of other people.The circularity objection to the generalized definition theory is misguided. Just because you cannot learn a language from a circular dictionary does not mean that meanings aren’t always definitions.There is no way of modifying the causal-historical theory of meaning to solve the problem of meaning change.
Coming up with a Thesis
Remember that you have to convince your reader of your thesis, so it’s good to have a thesis that you believe and that you have good arguments for.Usually, paper topics come to me when I read something that strikes me as wrong or unconvincing. Then I try to identify why I think it’s wrong– I develop a thesis and the arguments for it simultaneously. I further refine the thesis/ arguments by reading more about the issue and talking with other philosophers.
Roadmap
Some people (not everybody) like to provide a “roadmap” at the end of the introduction that describes how the paper will proceed.
Roadmap
“In the first part of this paper I shallexamine the accountof structurally valid inference which Davidson’s writings suggestand try to indicate why I think that we have not there reached a finally satisfactory account of the matter.In the second part of the paper I shallsketch another approach to the idea with which I began.Finally from the vantage point provided by the sketch I shalllook briefly at some recent and not so recent proposalsconcerning semantic structure.”--Evans, “Semantic Structure and Logical Form”
Exposition
Exposition
After stating your thesis, you will probably need to explain the key concepts that you used in your thesis or will use in your arguments.Explain the things that (a) your reader doesn’t already know and (b) are needed to understand your thesis and your arguments.
Philosophical Terms
Philosophers go to great lengths to be clear. To this end they often use special vocabulary with clearly defined meanings.Sometimes this vocabulary involves more precise versions of ordinary words (like “idea” in the Idea Theory).Make sure you know when you’re dealing with philosophical vocabulary and that you know what the clearly defined meanings are.
Charitable Interpretations
Charity is when you freely help others.In philosophy, “charity” means that you interpret the views you are arguing against in a way that makes them most likely to be true.If your opponent makes a claim and it could be interpreted as either A or B– where A is easy to argue against– assume your opponent meant B. You won’t convince anyone by arguing against uncharitable interpretations of your opponents.
Quotes
In philosophy, we try to quote sparingly. You are supposed to explain the views you are arguing for or against, you do not use a large quoted piece of text to do so.Use quotes to illustrate what others believe, and to provide evidence of their views, but don’t use them as a substitute for your own voice. Always contextualize and don’t let a quote stand on its own.
Keeping Your Voice While Quoting
“Martí(2004), for example, points out certain adjectives thatKripketook to be rigid, such as ‘hot’ and ‘yellow,’ are not rigid appliers: “a yellow dress could be dyed and a yellow house could be repainted” (p. 132).The form of the argument is thatdresses and houses are objects to which ‘yellow’ sometimes applies; yet they persist through changes in color; and thus theywouldpersist through such changes in color, that is, theycouldexist in worlds where they were not yellow.”--me, my dissertation
Keeping Your Voice While Quoting
“Martísuggests taking this tack:‘giventhe wide variety of terms [that Kripke gives as examples of rigid expressions], it would not be surprising if some of them were not to be in the finalcut’(p. 132).The idea then is thatsomeone who endorses Rigid Application can simply bite the bullets of ‘hot’ and ‘yellow’, while hoping that there aren’t many more bullets. But I will argue that no general term is a rigid applier (save again for special cases involving logical or mathematical terms).”--me, dissertation again
Arguments
Arguments
Thebulk of your paper should consist of a reasoned defense of your thesis a.k.a. your arguments.
Anatomy of an Argument
When you want to persuade someone of a claim they do not yet believe (which is the point of a philosophy paper), youprovide reasons to believe the claim.Sometimes in philosophy we call the claim we are trying to argue for our “conclusion” and the reasons we give for it our “premises”.
Good Reasons
The claim you are arguing for should be contentious– if everyone already believes it, there’s no sense in providing reasons for it.Theoppositeis true with premises. The gold standard for premises is that all or most of your readers would agree that the premise is true.
Support
Your premises also have to support your conclusion. This does not mean that your conclusion has to be a valid consequence of your premises. It just means that accepting the truth of the premises is a reason to believe the conclusion. This can be because:The conclusion is a valid consequence of the premises.The conclusion is the best explanation for the truth of the premises.If the premises are true, then the conclusion is probably true.
Trade-Off
There’s a trade-off between giving reasons that support a contentious conclusion, and giving uncontentious reasons. After all, thestrongestargument for proposition P is:Premise: P. Conclusion: Therefore, PCircular reasoning isn’t bad because the premises don’t provide support to the conclusion. It’s bad because on the assumption that your reader doesn’t believe the conclusion, she doesn’t believe the premises either!
Charitable Interpretations
Charity is when you freely help others.In philosophy, “charity” means that you interpret the views you are arguing against in a way that makes them most likely to be true.If your opponent makes a claim and it could be interpreted as either A or B– where A is easy to argue against– assume your opponent meant B. You won’t convince anyone by arguing against uncharitable interpretations of your opponents.
Philosophical Terms
Philosophers go to great lengths to be clear. To this end they often use special vocabulary with clearly defined meanings.Sometimes this vocabulary involves more precise versions of ordinary words (like “idea” in the Idea Theory).Make sure you know when you’re dealing with philosophical vocabulary and that you know what the clearly defined meanings are.
Clear Writing: Examples & Signposting
The Importance of Examples
“Naturallanguage syntax isrecursive.This means that phrases of one syntactic type can be embedded in larger phrases of that same type.For example, ‘dog’ is an English noun phrase, and it is a proper part of ‘old dog,’ which is also an English noun phrase. In turn ‘old dog’ is a proper part of the noun phrase ‘smelly old dog,’ which itself is a proper part of the noun phrase ‘big brown smelly old dog.’ This process can be repeated: any time we have a noun phrase, we can add an adjective to the front of it and get a new noun phrase.”--me, “Compositionality”
The Importance of Examples
“Naturallanguage syntax isrecursive.This means that phrases of one syntactic type can be embedded in larger phrases of that same type.For example, ‘dog’ is an English noun phrase, and it is a proper part of ‘old dog,’ which is also an English noun phrase. In turn ‘old dog’ is a proper part of the noun phrase ‘smelly old dog,’ which itself is a proper part of the noun phrase ‘big brown smelly old dog.’ This process can be repeated: any time we have a noun phrase, we can add an adjective to the front of it and get a new noun phrase.”--me, “Compositionality”
Signposting
Just as we can give a “roadmap” at the beginning of the paper, philosophers are fond of “signposts” that tell us where we are.
Signposting
“A second reason why…”“As we saw in the first section…”“Now I will consider an argument that…”Be clear about what you’re doing!
Signposting
You can also signpost by indicating the relationship between your sentences:Addition: “also,” “furthermore,” “in addition”Opposition: “however,” “instead,” “nonetheless”Inference: “thus,” “so,” “therefore,” “as a result”
Signposting
“Theempirical conception of compositionality need not be thought of as a competitor to the alternative conceptions considered above.Instead, it provides a methodological backdrop against which we can evaluate various proposals regarding the sense of “dependence” at the heart of compositionality.As we saw, the functional conception of dependence is ill-favored precisely because it fails to explain our abilities to learn and understand the natural languages we speak.”--me, “Compositionality”

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How to Write a Philosophy Paper