Writing a Philosophy Paper I: Philosophical Issues and Theses

[Revised 9/2008]

This is a general introduction to writing philosophy papers. It will all be applicable to some classes, especially those in which long papers are assigned, but only parts are applicable to other classes.

Philosophy papers are generally what are called “thesis defense” papers. In this kind of paper, you usually do four things: identify a philosophical issue you are interested in, state a thesis with respect to that issue, consider the views of others on the matter, and defend your thesis as convincingly as you can as against the other views.

Philosophical Issues

  1. Your issue will obviously depend on your course. It is useful to distinguish two kinds of issues you might deal with. First, there are issues of textual interpretation. Some authors are so difficult, that it is hard to know just what they have in mind. Philosophers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how best to interpret them. For example, there is a lot of disagreement as to just how Kant intends the Categorical Imperative to work. Second, there are substantive philosophical issues. For example, there is the issue of whether or not voluntary euthanasia ought to be legal and the issue of what, if anything, justifies political authority.

  1. Always work with a controversial issue, that is, an issue about which reasonable people can differ. If there is no room for reasonable people to disagree, there is nothing to write about. If you cannot see how someone could disagree with you, you have nothing to write about.

  1. Choose a well focused issue that can be effectively dealt with in a paper of the assigned length. The shorter the paper, the more focused the topic. It is better to deal with a small issue in depth than to do a shallow job on a large issue. For example, the topic of abortion is quite broad. The question of when the fetus becomes a person is more focused, but it is still to broad for, say, five pages. A more focused question is whether the fetus becomes a person at conception. I have never seen a student paper that is too narrowly focused. I have seen a great many that are too broad.

Your Thesis

  1. Do not simply write about your topic. Whatever your topic, you should take a position. Even if you are not sure what position you ultimately want to take, assume one for your paper. Your position is your thesis. Examples of theses on the topic of abortion include: abortion is always morally acceptable; abortion is only right to save the life of the mother; the fetus is a person at conception; the fetus is a person at viability.

  1. A paper might have several theses. Often there is a dominant thesis and some subordinate ones, but there might be several equally important ones. For example, in a philosophy of art class you might write a paper with the following theses. First, Tolstoy’s arguments for his theory of art are inadequate. Second, not only does Tolstoy not defend his view well, but his view can be proven false. (Do you see the difference between “Tolstoy has not defended his view adequately” and “Tolstoy’s view is false”? They are very different. If you cannot see the difference, go directly to jail and do not collect $100 dollars till you can see the difference.) Third, this (state your own view) is the correct theory of art. All these theses can be part of the same paper, though you must be careful: there might not be enough room in a short paper to deal with all of them adequately.

  1. Theses can be of many different kinds. I will mention a few possibilities. First, your thesis can be that a particular view is true, for example, that Clive Bell’s theory that art is significant form is correct. This is a positive thesis. Second, your thesis can be that a particular view is false. For example, you might argue that Leo Tolstoy’s view, that art is to be evaluated on moral grounds, is false. This is a negative thesis. Note, when you defend such a negative thesis, you might or might not combine it with a positive thesis. Arguing that Tolstoy is mistaken might be enough for one paper. You might not have space to try to develop and defend your own view on the matter. Third, your thesis might be the more focused negative thesis that a particular argument for a view is unsound. For example, whether or not you believe in God, you might argue that a particular argument for the existence of God, say that cosmological argument, is unsound. Fourth, sometimes, if an author is obscure, your thesis can be interpretive. But be careful. The line between a mere book report, which is not usually acceptable, and a legitimate interpretive essay is a fine one. For example, if you write a paper with the thesis that Hobbes believed humans are ultimately selfish, it is probably not worth much since there is not much room to doubt it. On the other hand, were you to find some evidence that Hobbes, contrary to appearances, really thought humans are not completely selfish, that could become a good interpretive essay.

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