An Outline of A Philosophy Paper


    Although philosophy papers can appear very complex, they all follow a basic structure which can be modified to suit your needs. Although it is written, a philosophy paper can be seen as a combination of a lecture and a conversation; your goals should be to combine the two. First, like a lecture, you must always make sure that your reader understands what you are saying. The burden of understanding is on the author not the reader. In other words, it is not simply up to the reader to struggle to understand the text -- although he or she must do that. It is essential that you, as the author, be as clear as possible and that you make every effort to be understood. Second, also like a lecture, you must use examples and be clear about identifying main points in connection with them. Always use examples that are easier to understand than the point you are trying to illustrate and never assume that the connection is obvious. Always explain why you used the example and how it is connected.

    Like a conversation, a philosophy paper requires making room for other opinions and for responding to that opinion. A paper requires that you include criticism of your own view and that you respond to that criticism. Always criticize yourself and your opponent fairly, don't misrepresent either opinion for the sake of a few paragraphs. In other words, don't provide criticisms that you yourself think are silly or not worth discussing.


Some Basic Paper-Writing Tips:

- When writing, don't think of the professor as the audience. Use your peers as your standard of understanding. Ask yourself if your roommate, or partner, or brother or sister -- all of whom are not members of the class -- could understand the paper. Have you provided enough information that they, without reading the required text, can follow the argument, can understand your explanations, and can evaluate your position?

- Always define your terms. Any word that has special meaning for a text (i.e. "Good" for Aristotle, "deliberation" for Hobbes) must be explained, and a reference must be given as to where in the text you found the definition. Sometimes it is easiest and most clear to quote the exact definition from the text. Important: read "How to Include Quotes In Your Paper" for more information on quoting primary texts.  

- Pay special attention to paragraphs. A paragraph should not be very long. There should be at least two or three paragraphs on every page. A paragraph begins with every new subject, but these are "particular" subjects, not "general" subjects. What I mean by this is that "Hobbes" is not a subject, nor is "The State of Nature". They are both too large and include too many sub-topics. Instead, each characteristic of the state of nature is a separate subject, each specific term is a separate subject, and every conclusion or premise is a separate subject.

- Pay special attention to how paragraphs relate to each other. Although paragraphs are in some ways self-contained, they must also relate to one another. Perhaps the best way of ensuring that one topic "follows from" another topic is by comparing the last line of the previous paragraph with the first line of the paragraph that immediately succeeds it. Does the last sentence of paragraph number one refer to or suggest paragraph two? Do they have a term, idea or concept in common? If not, if there is no connection, try to make one. If you can't, if the two paragraphs are different topics and there is no way to clarify their relationship (and there usually is), make sure to include a transition sentence in the beginning of the new paragraph. Indicate, in this first sentence,that there is a new topic. You may use phrases such as "This brings us to...", or "At this point Aristotle changes his focus...". There is a wide variety of ways to introduce a new topic and you should rarely repeat the same transition sentence in one paper.

- Always edit on paper and read your versions aloud. Philosophy can be difficult to write, and students often write errors that they would never speak. Sometimes, we even forget the purpose of the sentence before we finish writing them and when the reader tries to follow our train of thought, they get confused by our lack of focus. It is therefore essential that we edit carefully. First, always use the spell check and the grammar check on your word processor. They are very helpful. If you are not using a computer, you must learn to do so. All colleges and universities have free computer labs, and these labs always have lab assistants who will teach you how to use the computers. Second, never hand in any writing that you haven't edited on paper. We can see punctuation errors much better on paper. Periods, commas, and spelling mistakes get lost on the monitor. Third, always read your work out loud, and pay attention when you do. This will help you see when a sentence gets confused or when your tenses change in mid-sentence. Don't feel silly or odd reciting your work to an empty room. Reading aloud is probably the most helpful editing technique. I read absolutely everything I write out loud, and I have been writing this kind of stuff for years.

- Develop a community of editors and advisors. Find friends and family who can read your paper. They will see mistakes that you haven't seen, and they will tell you when your ideas aren't clear. Also, it is a good idea to bounce your ideas off of them before you write. You should also find friends in the class to talk with and to share your ideas with. This will help everyone in the long run.


The Outline of A Paper (for a paper comparing two philosophers):

    The key to writing a good paper is to not get overwhelmed by the information. The outline below will help you stay on-track. You need not follow it exactly. Those of you who are more experienced at writing philosophy papers may find that they want to combine various sections, but for those of you who are less comfortable writing, this outline should help.

- Keep in mind that some of these sections may be only one or two paragraphs in length and others may be pages long.

- Also keep in mind that you should not "divide" these sections with headers or titles. The division will be made clear as the author reads your transition sentences.

I. Introduction.

    A. State and explain the purpose of the paper.
        1. Define all of the technical terms in the paper topic/question.   
    B. State and explain the philosophical problem.
    C. State what your conclusion will be.

    The introduction is very important for setting the stage. Don't start out with biographical information about the philosopher, or with a definition from a dictionary (this is rarely helpful anywhere in the paper since the definition the philosopher gives is almost certainly different from the definition provided by the dictionary). To begin with either of these methods is just a form of stalling. Start out by discussing and explaining the main purpose of the paper. Explain all of the technical terms in the main question, and explain how this question relates to a larger philosophical problem (i.e. How are we to live? How do we know things? How are we to treat others? etc.)

    You should try to state your conclusion in the introduction. A philosophy paper is not a mystery novel. The end should not be a surprise. The reader is interested in your arguments as much, if not more, than your conclusion and they can only follow the argument after they are aware of what your conclusion is going to be. If you do not know your conclusion when you start writing, you can always go back and add it when you have figure it out. 

II. Explanation of Position One. (The First Philosopher)
    A. Summarize the position in the philosopher's words.
        1. Define all terms.
        2. Explain these terms and the basic position in your own words.
        3. Include quotes. (One again, refer to How to Include Quotes in Your Paper.)
    B. Offer an overview of the position in your words.

    This section is very difficult because it requires that you summarize a large text in a very short amount of time. It is hard to balance the details with the main idea. Therefore, it is helpful to provide the details in the main summary then end this section with a general narrative of the position in your own words. Try to tie- up all the loose pieces of the summary in this final paragraph.

III. Explanation of Position Two. (The Second Philosopher)
    A. Summarize the position in the philosopher's words.
        1. Define all terms.
        2. Explain these terms and the basic position in your own words.
        3. Include quotes. (One again, refer to How to Include Quotes in Your Paper.)
    B. Offer an overview of the position in your words.

This section is identical to the previous section but refers to a different philosopher. Remember to focus on the same themes as in section II. That way, the reader will be able to see the similarities and the differences of the two positions.

IV. Compare and Contrast the two positions.
   A. Identify common themes.
        1. Point out stylistic or historical differences.
        2. Point out where two different words actually mean the same thing and where
            two of the same words have different meanings.
    B. Compare conclusions.
        1. Point out how conclusions differ and how they are the same.

    There are two important difficulties in this section. The first is that philosophers writing in different time periods, or who have radically different theories may use different words to say the same thing or the same words to mean different things. For example, "Good" means radically different things for both Aristotle and Hobbes, yet both use that terms repeatedly. Additionally, Hobbes uses the term "natural condition" whereas Locke uses the term "State of Nature" but they both mean the same thing (with different characteristics). You should make sure to point this out to your readers.
    The second difficulty is knowing how much to explain. When you compare and contrast, don't assume that the reader can see the differences you can see. Be very explicit about how the two theories differ even if it seems obvious to you.
   IMPORTANT: some people like to combine section III and IV by comparing and contrasting while they present the second position. This is perfectly fine but requires a little more skill. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the paper, keep them separate.

V. Pick your position and defend it.
    A. State which position you agree with.
        1. Remind the reader of the main idea behind the position.
    B. Defend this position.
        1. Explain why you have chosen this position.

In most papers that require you to compare and contrast two philosophers, you are required to choose that side which you believe is correct. It is not enough to explain that you agree with it, you must also explain why you agree with it. Provide examples. Show what details attracted you to the position. Provide evidence as to how history, current events, or your own experiences conform to this position.

VI. Criticize the position you have chosen (from the perspective of the other position).
    A. Remind the reader of the other position.
    B. Assume the persona of your opponent and criticize your own defense.

    Philosophy teaches students to "think critically". There is great debate as to the meaning of this phrase, but it is likely that one of the essential components of critical thinking is being aware of the weaknesses of our own positions and being able to figure out where others will disagree with you. Section VI requires that you do this. It requires that you  defend the position you disagreed with and show how your opponent would criticize your beliefs. Point out the weaknesses of your defense. Explain how a different point of view may shed new light on your position that might make it less convincing.

VII. Re-defend your original position in light of the new criticism.

    As the writer of the paper, you get "last licks". This means that you can now criticize the critique that you wrote of your own position. Explain why you still agree with your original position and explain why the criticism of your original position need not be convincing. This is the last component of "the conversation" between the two philosophers and you want it to be as successful as possible. Make sure that this second defense is addressing the criticism and not simply reasserting your original position.

VIII. Conclusion.
    A. Briefly restate the purpose of the paper.
    B. Briefly restate the main philosophical paper.
    C. Briefly restate your position.
    D. Wrap up any loose end and end with a future goal.

    The conclusion cannot contain any new information. It can only restate or reorganize that which has already been said. It is still useful because it reminds the reader or that which they read and of that which you concluded. Don't underestimate the importance of the conclusion, but, at the same time, keep it short. A couple of paragraphs should do fine.
    Your last paragraph should identify a future problem. Are there any unresolved issues that you have not solved? Are there any dangling questions that are essential to deal with in the future? You need not answer all these questions, but you must acknowledge them. It is very common to end papers with an open question that shows the reader that you are still thinking about certain issues, and that they should continue to think about them as well.

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