Writing a Philosophy Paper III: Odds and Ends
It is time to write a bit about the mechanics of writing a philosophy paper. I am not going to produce a general treatise on paper writing. But it is worth talking about one of the most important parts of a paper, the introductory paragraph or paragraphs. No matter how long or short your paper is, it needs an introduction. The length of your introduction should be in proportion to the length of the paper. A one or two page paper should have an introduction of a few lines. A ten page paper might have a page long introduction. A book can have an introductory chapter. Besides bewaring heffalumps, philosophy students should beware short papers with long introductions. Foreplay is fine, but it should not be mistaken for the meat of the matter.
There are several things that must go into your introduction, several other things that might be in it, and many that you should leave out.
First, you must clearly identify the issue you are concerned with. If your topic is part of a larger topic, you might identify the larger topic as well. For example, you might point out that you are dealing with one part of the topic of euthanasia: the withdrawing of treatment from the permanently comatose.
Second, you must state your thesis or theses clearly and concisely. I want to know what your position is within the first few lines of your paper. It is not enough to just tell me your general topic. If I do not know your thesis quickly, you will leave me very unhappy and inclined toward nastiness when it comes time to put a grade on your paper.
Third, in a longer paper, you will often want to give a summary statement of how you are going to approach your topic. For example, you might mention authors you tend to agree or disagree with, or whether there is some general philosophical tradition you will depend on, say, a Kantian or utilitarian tradition. You should put in these things since they help orient the reader. But keep in mind that if your paper is short, you do not have space to summarize much of what you are going to do. Just do it.
Fourth, sometimes you will want to supply a “hook,” something that will catch the readers attention and show the reader that your essay will be interesting to read. This can often be a poignant example. Writing teachers often emphasize the role of the hook. However, this can take some space, and in a short paper, I prefer that you not use space on a hook. It does you no good to show how interesting your paper is going to be if you do not have enough space to write the interesting paper!
Fifth, there are also some things I do not want to see in your introductions, or anywhere else, in your papers. They are wasted space. Do not tell me how much you are interested in the topic, how happy you are that I gave you the wonderful opportunity to write about it, and so on. Please avoid telling me that people have been thinking about this issue for hundreds or thousands of years and that it is oh so important to you, your friends and family, and the whole world. Assume I know all that. Also, if you are writing on, say, Descartes’s discussion of the mind-body problem, do not waste time giving me Descartes’s biography. I do not want to know where he was born, who is mommy was, or how old he was when he was weaned. Get right to the issue. This sounds like a joke, but it is not. Philosophical issues are sometimes so difficult, that people back off and do something easy like jabber on about Descartes’ early life.
Use of Other Authors
When you write papers, you will often make use of the work of someone else. In fact, you will usually do reading on your topic. You will want to read other people to find out what people are talking about, to find out some of the views being defended, and to find people to argue against.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to look for opponents, people to argue against. Many students make the mistake of looking for authors they agree with to “back up” their own positions, as if finding someone idiot who agrees with you really backs you up. You would do better looking for people you disagree with. This does not rule out using authors you agree with, but that can be tricky. If you agree with them, you might find you do not have anything of your own to say. (See the next section on creativity.)
Whenever you use someone else’s work in any way, you must give adequate citations. This is true not only if you use someone’s words, but also if you use their ideas or information. To fail to give proper references is academic dishonesty and can have severe consequences. You may use any standard method for citations, but it must be adequate to allow me to locate the work and page. I recommend that you get a handbook describing citation techniques. In the humanities, it is common to use the Modern Library Association style, the Turabian Style or the Chicago Style. You can get handbooks in any university bookstore, as well as in other bookstores like Boarders. An internet search will get you more information.
Your papers must be more than mere book reports. It is not enough to explain what someone else said, though that might be part of your paper. You must make a contribution of your own. You must advance the discussion beyond what your authors said or what we did in class. To merely report on what someone else said might have been okay in high school, though I do not think it should have been accepted there. It is definitely not acceptable in college. The main exception is when the main issue is what a very difficult author actually meant. Such an interpretive essay can be perfectly legitimate if there is a serious controversy over what an author meant. Philosophers struggle to be clear, but even the best philosophers, for a variety of reasons, are not. Whole academic industries have grown up with the sole function of figuring out what these philosophers really meant.
Contributions are of many kinds corresponding to the different kinds of theses. Your contribution might be negative or positive. You might criticize someone else’s ideas or defend your own. But your ideas must be there.
By “creative” I do not mean something completely new under the sun. It is unlikely that you will come up with something completely new without doing a lot more reading than you will have time for in a class, or even in your spare time if you like to read philosophy as a hobby. Nor does “creative” mean “wacky” or something out of the twilight zone.
On many philosophical topics, there are ideas that almost anyone can come up with in very little time and with very little thought. You do not get much credit for these “five minute” ideas, even if they actually took you an hour to think of because you are slow or stoned. What is the point of stating the obvious? One plus one does equal two, but saying so does not get you much credit in a math class past the first grade. Other ideas require deeper thought and more time to work out. Yet others are quite rare – almost no one thinks of them — and they might take years to come up with. I look for ideas which require relatively deep thought and which go beyond those an intelligent hamster could come up with while running in his wheel.
Writing and Writing Styles
Writing counts in a philosophy paper. Pay attention to all aspects of writing, including sentence construction, paragraph construction and overall organization. If you cannot write at a reasonable college level, you should take writing classes. I am not saying you must be a brilliant writer to write a philosophy paper. But the goal is to obtain a reasonable standard of competence.
Several words of warning.
First, not all the philosophers you read in class are good writing models. In fact, some philosophers are wretched writers. Read philosophers with an eye toward evaluating their writing skills and styles as well their ideas. If you find a model you think is good, you might try to imitate it.
Second, you should generally avoid imitating historical figures. I love to read David Hume’s works, but I do not particularly want to read a modern imitation of his 18th century style.
Third, you should be aware that many modern philosophers adopt what might be called “technical” styles of writing. This can involve the use of unusual technical terms and sometimes involves rather odd sentence constructions. Such writing often lacks grace, but at its best it is clear, at least to other philosophers who are used to it, and concise. At its worse, it is ugly, convoluted, and can serve to confuse meaning while sounding profound. If you find good examples of technical writing, you might imitate them, though you should only employ such a style in philosophical and other kinds of academic work. Technical philosophical styles are usually not appropriate for journalism and will rarely get you to third base in love letters.
Fourth, everything I say about
good writing goes out the window if you get some professor who
thinks Heidegger or Derrida are good writers. As a practical
matter, for the sake of good grades, you might want to imitate
whatever sort of gibberish a particular professor likes.
Personally, I would drop the class, but you might feel otherwise.
A few more comments about style are in order. Some people say that the function of art is “self-expression.” Being a failed art student, I would have to say I do not know about that. But I do know that is not the function of a philosophy paper. Its function is to clearly develop and communicate ideas. As your reader, I have no interest in the peculiarities of your style, and have little interested in your personality and your expression of it, except in so far as they impact on the clear communication of your ideas.
Philosophers have used many styles
for many purposes. Given that clarity is a key goal, I recommend
that you do not try to write philosophical poetry or dialogues, even
though famous philosophers have done these things. Try to write in
clear short sentences and to avoid jargon where possible, even
though many philosophers have loved jargon. If you are writing
about a philosopher who likes jargon, explain it carefully and, if
possible, work around it, substituting more ordinary terms for the
jargon. If some ideas cannot be developed without some technical
jargon, give it a go, but do it with care. There is something
especially nasty about the use of ugly, confusing and useless
technical jargon, even though well-designed and employed technical
jargon can be helpful. Also, be aware that certain terms are
inherently unclear, words like “objective” and “subjective.”
If you use them, try to make your meaning clear.