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How to Write a Philosophy Essay
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Sat, 23-Sep-2006
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How to Write a Philosophy Essay. Article by Prof. Dan Hutto

Essay Writing and FormattingThe Nature of a Philosophical Essay

What exactly is an essay? The idea of the essay has its origins in texts such as the Essais of the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Its literal meaning indicates that it is a 'trial'. For example, Montaigne tried out various new ideas in his essays (for instance, he advanced the idea that the natives of the New World, far from being 'savages', were really highly civilised, especially when one compared their life with the barbarism of Europeans). The simplest form of a philosophical essay is a short piece of work, which states a clear thesis and attempts to map out a single coherent argument for its defense. In this sense an argument is not an angry exchange. Rather it is a form of reasoned analysis. In the immortal words of Michael Palin, this is not merely gainsaying what another has said. Rather, an argument is a connected series of propositions intended to establish a conclusion (see Monty Python's Flying Circus's The Argument Sketch).

Too often, submitted essays consist of a set of loosely related observations or insights. Very often these are perfectly valid in themselves but they need to be linked together to form a coherent whole. It is vital to avoid producing a 'laundry list' of individual points that lacks an overarching thesis. To write a good essay, you need to have a clear sense, from the beginning, of what end you are trying to achieve. Your argument should develop from paragraph to paragraph, usually beginning with an introduction that tells the reader where you plan to go and how you intend to get there. It is generally best to write this last, since you won't know exactly where your essay is going until it is finished. It is important to remember you are not writing a mystery novel - let the reader know how it is going to turn out before they get to the end. This will allow them to assess the strength of your case as they go along. You should conclude your essay with a final paragraph that draws the threads together. Strong essays have coherent beginnings, middles and ends.

There are many different styles and forms of essay, which can be equally good. Yet, even though there is no single formula for writing a good philosophical essay, there are some general things of which you should be aware. The advice below is designed to help you understand the process of writing a good essay and the warnings indicate things to avoid.

The Process of Essay Writing:
Stage One: Preparation

Selecting a Question
Take the time to read and understand what the essay question asks. It is a good idea to choose a question that interests or excites you as this will help motivate your work.

Selecting Appropriate Learning Resources
There will be guidance in and throughout your Course Guides indicating essential and recommended reading relating to topics covered. You will also find further advice in the comments column of the Sectioned Reading Lists in the rear of your Course Guides. You may also wish to use other forms of literature search, which are described under Learning Resources, such the Philosopher's Index CD-ROM, in order to find material. These can also help you determine which reading materials are relevant. Be certain that you get enough reading to acquaint yourself with more than one view of the issue.

Getting hold of the Materials
Once you have decided what you want to read you will need to get hold of it. It is best to do this early on as demand increases as deadlines draw near. You can use the various searches on Voyager to find and reserve the necessary items. For example, if you can't find what you are looking for in the Electronic Reading Lists you can always look for it by using a Keyword Search. If it is not in the LRC you can arrange an inter-library loan.

Reading Critically
Once you have your materials you must read them critically. Think of yourself as a detective. Take note of the important points and record your first reactions to them. Philosophers ought to provide reasons for the views they hold. Be sure to ask not only what X is saying, but also why X is saying it! But remember, consider the other side of the argument too. While X may have good reasons for thinking what they do, Y may have good reasons for thinking otherwise.
Here you are taking on the role of the judge. But your verdict is not final. Be prepared to change your mind as you read more and conduct further research. This is a normal and healthy part of intellectual development. Your first reactions need not, and often should not, determine your final view. Be sure that once you articulate what you think that you go further and investigate and then articulate why you think it.

Drawing a Conclusion
After you have read the material and have begun to develop an informed opinion you should attempt to articulate it in the form of a single sentence or simple thesis. This will be your informed verdict in response to the set question. Concentrating on your thesis will help guide you in deciding how to write your essay and what you will need to do in order to justify your conclusion.

Stage Two: Planning

Planning Your Essay
You should plan your essay in advance in a point by point fashion. Ask yourself: How will the argument develop? How will it move coherently from one point to the next to support the conclusion? It may help to imagine yourself taking on the role of a case lawyer. Do not fret if you cannot see every detail of the essay before you write it. A rough plan is a working guide, not a straightjacket. They are rarely final and you will need to tinker with it to get the essay to work. Indeed, sometimes an essay structure simply emerges in the process of getting your informed reactions down on paper. It may be useful to imagine that you are actually responding to another person who has advanced a view with which you disagree. Your job is to try to convince them to re-think their position. If you proceed this way you can identify the structure retrospectively. However you approach it, do not neglect the structure. You should be able to fully articulate it to yourself and to your reader.

Getting Feedback
Once you have a rough initial essay structure and a plan for further reading, make sure to attend an Essay Tutorial and get advice from your lecturer. Opportunities for this kind of feedback are provided in all courses.

Stage Three: Drafting

Composing the First Draft
The paragraph is the chief building block of extended writing. Journalism favours short paragraphs that convey information in a descending order. This allows the reader to glean as much as they want to know before moving on. But such writing general regards itself as simply reporting undisputed facts. This kind of expository writing is not the right model for a philosophical essay.
In academic writing, it is often helpful to identify a topic sentence or central idea that unifies the paragraph. This sentence need not come first. What is important is that all the sentences in a given paragraph combine to support the particular idea, proposition or premise that its topic sentence expresses. This can be done in a number of ways, including:

citation of relevant examples;
use of comparison and contrast;
logical analysis;
extended illustration.

The relations between the sentences in a given paragraph are made clear by the use of what are known as 'connectives', such as 'in addition', 'on the other hand', or 'nevertheless'. However, overt rhetorical connectives should not be over-used. A simple statement can make its own contribution to the paragraph.

Sticking to the Point
Once you have identified your thesis be careful not to stray on to other themes. Ask yourself: Did I make the point I set out to make in this section or did I stray? If you strayed your essay may lose its force or it may become confusing to the reader. It is your job to make sure your reader knows where you are going. It is not the reader's job to figure this out.

Stage Four: Re-Drafting

Re-Reading, Revising and Re-writing
It is important that you give yourself time to review and re-write the essay. Once you have a full draft critically review it and, if possible, have a friend review it too. Ask them to tell you, in their own words, what they think you are trying to say. Can they clearly outline what you have in mind? If not, you probably need to re-draft the piece.
Consider whether your draft makes sense as a whole and if the overall message is clear. Try to reconstruct the argument that actually appears in your draft. You can do this by summarising the main point of each paragraph. In effect, this will reveal the actual structure of your work. With this in hand consider if this structure works. Does it make your case and support your conclusion? If not you may need to change some bits around or leave some out, so that the argument runs smoothly. Professional academics have to engage in this process continually to achieve a smooth end product - but they, like you, must be mindful of deadlines. Take time to play around with the draft, checking that each paragraph is coherent and that they all connect to one another effectively. A good way of checking the fluency and cogency of your writing is to read it aloud to yourself. This will help you pick up on any awkward expressions, flatness of style, or unnecessary repetitions.

Check that your wording is appropriate and that each sentence is clear. Avoid using technical terms if you don't fully understand them.

Producing the Final Draft
Once you have arrived at a final version of the essay, spell-check it and proofread it carefully, then submit, according to the appropriate Scheme regulations.

Stage Five: Getting Feedback

Learning from Feedback
When your essay has been marked and returned, be sure to attend to the comments. Look at them carefully and think about how to improve your next piece of work. They will advise you about what to look out for when writing your next essay.

Common Errors in Essay Writing:

Always back up your claims. Even if what you say happens to be true it is important that you show why it is true. It is crucial that you do not simply tell the reader what to think or what you think, but demonstrate why they should agree with you. Your task is not to report but to argue. Develop your ideas and defend them. Your reaction to particular claims or views maybe of psychological interest, but what is important in philosophical writing is your reasons, not your reactions.

Do not argue from authority or name-drop. It is not good enough to note that X agrees with you if what X says can be disputed. Avoid attempting to bring in too many voices and producing laundry lists of names and points. Develop one or two points clearly and carefully. Only bring in the views of other thinkers when you wish to clarify a position or in order to compare or contrast your views with theirs. It is important that you do the work, not them.

Do not exaggerate. Watch the scope of your quantifiers! Do not say 'all' or 'none' when you really mean 'some'. Remember you should be able to defend what you claim and that you do not need 'sell' your view, only defend it carefully.

Never fabricate. If you do not know something leave it out.

Do not give a merely expository account. Good essays do not simply remind the reader of what X or Y thinks. Nor do they report what Z thinks of X and Y. It is crucial that you develop and articulate your own view and that you defend it by selecting what is relevant for your case from various sources. Always leave enough space for your own critical argument and defense.

Do not stray from the point. If you feel you must add a comment that is strictly off the point put it in a footnote, but it is best to avoid footnotes whenever possible.


Copyright for this article belongs to Dr. Brendan Larvor

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Dr. Brendan Larvor. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.herts.ac.uk/humanities/philosophy/Essay_Writing.html



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