Skip to main content

Philosophy Writing Guide

I. Thesis Argument
II.  Argument, Reasoning and Logic
III.  Counterargument
IV.  Defining Terms
V. The Basic Structure
VI. Arguing Specific Philosophies
VII.  Appendix

I. Thesis Argument

The key to a good philosophy paper is good argument. Of course, a good argument is important in all disciplines, but it is especially important in a philosophy paper.  General arguments for philosophy papers include:

  • Criticizing a philosopher's argument.
  • Defending an argument against someone else's criticism.
  • Giving new reasons to support a philosopher's argument.
  • Discussing criticisms of a philosopher's argument in terms of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Discussing the consequences of an argument, if it were true.
  • Revising an argument after stating an objection.

Before you begin writing the paper, think thoroughly through your ideas when you are forming your argument. Keep in mind, however, that the aim of philosophy is often to make problems, rather than solve them.  Philosophy papers must have a clear thesis with a narrow, manageable focus. For
example, instead of writing about "free will," choose an aspect of free will that interests you.

Your thesis should be arguable. If you assert a thesis against which no one could reasonably argue, then you need a new thesis!

Finally, do not base your thesis on a tautology or on empirical facts.


II. Argument, Reasoning and Logic

to convince rational readers of your position, you must have valid and sound arguments and employ deductive reasoning to support your thesis:

  • In general arguments consist of premises and a conclusion. A premise is evidence from which a conclusion is drawn, and that conclusion may in turn be a premise for another conclusion! Writers should be careful not to state conclusions without justifying them with premises.
  • An argument is valid if its conclusion follows from its premises and invalid if its conclusion does not follow.
  • An argument is sound if it is valid and all its premises are in fact true; arguments which are either invalid or have a t least one false premise are unsound.
  • An argument uses deductive reasoning when a specific case follows from a general rule. An argument use inductive reasoning when a generalization is made from a specific case. Writers should use deductive, and not inductive, reasoning to prove their points.

Arguments must be based on rationality and not emotion. Do not use claims you cannot support. Do not use inflammatory language.

Make sure that your initial claims are not controversial, but something that every rational person would agree on.

Logic is essential to philosophy. If you are unsure about your use of logic, consult An Introduction to Logic by Cochi et al.


III. Counterargument

You should treat your reader as someone with an opposing viewpoint. In this regard, you should predict and respond to potential criticisms by presenting and subsequently refuting counterarguments to your thesis. The counterarguments should be stated credibly, and the refutation should be firm but not unreasonable or extreme.


IV. Defining Terms

Clear definitions are important in philosophy papers because it is impossible to assess an argument if the terms of the argument are vague or ambiguous. Often, the writer may wish to use an entire paragraph to define an important term she/he is about to use.


V. The Basic Structure

The introduction. Think of your introduction as a concise guide to your paper; briefly map out the structure of your paper and explain how your arguments combine to support your thesis.

  • Your first sentence should be focused and down to earth (avoid lines that are fluffy and/or grandiose). Douglas Portmore of the College of Charleston gives this example: "We will be concerned with both the moral status of abortion, which for our purposes we may define as the act which a woman performs in voluntary terminating, or allowing another person to terminate, her pregnancy, and the legal status which is appropriate for this act." Do not use an opening sentence such as, "Abortion is the single more important topic on the minds of Americans today."
  • State your thesis.
  • Define any terms you will use in the body of your paper.

Body paragraphs. Your body paragraphs should have clear main ideas/topic sentences and details to support those ideas. Remain true to the logic and structure of argument you set forth in your introduction.

  • Make sure the reader knows what you have proven so far and what you'll prove next. Use connective words and phrases: because, given this argument, nevertheless, and on the other hand.
  • Examples and analogies are often useful for illuminating an argument that is otherwise very abstract and complicated, but they are never critical to the argument. That is, your clear definitions and comprehensive explication of an argument should be a freestanding defense of your thesis. Examples and analogies, however, might help the reader gain a clearer picture of your argument.
  • When using analogies, keep in mind the relevance and the number of analogous and dissimilar characteristics.
  • Use quotes sparingly and only if you plan to discuss the way they support your argument. Keep citations brief! Check with your professor to find out what form of citation she prefers.
  • Philosophy papers should mostly make use of primary sources (e.g. philosophical texts); make sure secondary sources do not dominate your paper.
  • Aim for clarity in order to ensure that your audience understands what you're saying. Be precise in both argument and word choice; use simple language and syntax. Do not strive for unnecessary complexity and avoid excessive academic jargon. Refrain from using imprecise synonyms or metaphors.

Conclusion. If you have unanswerable questions when you've finished the body of your paper, include them in your conclusion. Try to respond to them, and explain what makes them difficult to solve. Remember that ending philosophy papers with questions is not wrong.

Don't claim more than you have shown; avoid making grandiose statements about "all" things based merely on a few examples.


VI. Arguing Specific Philosophies

Most philosophy papers do not argue both directly and independently for one philosophical position or another. Rather, they engage the work of various philosophers in arguments over those positions. Here are some sample essay questions:

  • Does Plato have a good argument for the immorality of the soul?
  • Wolff and Hobbes have competing views on the legitimacy of government. Which one is better?

Two tasks should be immediately obvious. First, the writer should restate the argument of the philosopher(s) being discussed. Second, she should evaluate that argument in terms of its premises, conclusions, validity, soundness, and reasoning. In addition, the writer may wish to speculate as to how a philosopher would or should argue with respect to a certain point, given his previously stated premises and/or conclusion.

What the writer should not do is prefer one philosopher or argument over another without providing solid logical evidence to support that preference. This evidence will rarely be in the form of statistics, public opinion, historical fact, anecdotes or testimonials. If evidence is a quote from a philosopher, the quote should be explained in terms of the argumentation it employs.


VII. Appendix

For further information on writing philosophy papers, consult the following sources:

  • Consult any of the books in McCabe whose call numbers are between B2 and BF. These are philosophy reference guides, which contain important information about writing philosophy. Avoid the introductory philosophy books, which are in the B2l section; these primarily contain philosophical texts and have little information about writing in the discipline.
  • Two of the best resources in the philosophy reference section are The Philosopher's Guide by Richard DeGeorge, which contains a list of Philosophical writing guides, and Philosophical Writing by A. P. Martinich, a book devoted to writing philosophy papers. Check out Appendix A, which is dedicated to last minute paper writing (it's also a quick summary of the entire book).
  • Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling contains a dictionary of philosophical terms, a student study guide, and many other helpful resources.
  • James Pryor, a previous Associate Philosophy Professor at Princeton, assembled this site. It is an informative resource and contains useful information about potential topics for philosophy papers, how to use quotes, how to organize a philosophy paper, and lots of other important topics.
  • This site contains important tips on arguing for your position, arguing against a claim, criticizing an argument, and when it is necessary to define your terms.  Written by Douglas Portmore of The College of Charleston.
  • Ask your philosophy professor what texts or web sites s/he recommends.