A Brief Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers
The standards for writing a good philosophy paper are like those for any
scholarly writing. The writer should discuss the issues or ideas that form
the subject matter of the paper in an orderly manner, omit needless redundancy
and material irrelevant to the central issues of the paper, and provide
footnote citations and quotations wherever necessary to support the views
expressed in the paper. If you are writing on a topic of your own choice,
you will want to choose a topic that can be addressed adequately in the
number of pages allotted, and develop a strategy for discussing the topic
in a lucid manner. If the question you are writing on is assigned there
will be no need to search for an appropriate topic, but you will still
need to decide upon the best strategy for addressing the issues involved.
Consequently, before you begin to work on your paper there are a number
of questions that you will need to ask yourself in order to give your writing
project some direction.
What subject matter can I discuss in adequate detail within the time
constraints under which I am working?
What source materials (books, articles, chapters, etc.) are relevant
to the paper topic and helpful as sources of information?
If you are asked to write on a topic of your own choice, you will want
to tailor the scope of your topic to the length of paper you are writing.
For example, it would be inappropriate to attempt to write a fifteen page
research paper on Aristotle's philosophy as a whole. There is simply too
much material to discuss in the space of fifteen pages. You might, however,
choose to write on some more limited aspect of Aristotle's philosophy,
such as the concept of motion in his Physics.
But even if the question on which you are writing is assigned, you will
still need to consider what aspects of the question can be discussed fully
in the number of pages you plan to write.
In what order should I explain various concepts, principles, terms,
etc., in my paper to make my ideas clear to the reader? The overall
clarity of a paper depends to a great degree on its structure. It is best
to outline your paper before you begin to write to help guide the writing
process and to assure that all of the major concepts and principles that
you intend to discuss in your paper will be fully explained. You might
also want to explain any specialized terminology that you believe might
not be readily understood by your reader.
It will also be crucial that you write one or two introductory paragraphs
for your paper to give your reader some sense of the issues or questions
you will be considering in the paper and what, in general, you intend to
say about these issues or questions.
What sort of evidence can I supply for my ideas and interpretations?
This raises the question of the proper use of citations and quotations.
For a lengthy research paper you will want to do some library research
in order to find source materials for your paper and draw up a bibliography
of the books and articles that appear to be of particular relevance.
But even if you are simply writing a short paper limited to the assigned
texts of the course you will still want to identify those chapters and
passages that you believe will be most helpful in addressing the issues
on which you are writing.
Standards of Evidence
In any academic discipline there are certain standards of evidence that
must be followed whenever a particular thesis or view is proposed. In the
empirical sciences, for example, it is generally accepted that any scientific
theory should be supported by empirical observations made under specified
controlled conditions. If this standard is met then anyone who questions
the theory can replicate the conditions under which the observations that
allegedly support the theory were originally made in order to discover
whether the observed phenomena reported to have occurred actually do occur,
and consequently whether the proposed theory is supported by the empirical
It would be inappropriate to run scientific experiments when writing on
the ideas of a particular philosopher or philosophical topic. Nevertheless,
there are standards of evidence that also apply in philosophical writing.
Two common ways of providing evidence for a philosophical view or an interpretation
of a particular philosopher are citation and quotation.
Citation. It is accepted practice in all disciplines that
when a writer mentions or discusses at length the ideas of another writer,
a footnote citation of the original source of these ideas should be supplied.
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, states that
the final end of human action is happiness.1 [usually superscripted]
Footnote 1 would supply the bibliographical information necessary for the
reader to find the page in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle
makes this statement (see below). This allows a skeptical reader to look
up the original passage to see if Aristotle actually says what he is reported
to have said.
Quotation. When a passage from a text is particularly useful
in supporting your views or your interpretation of an author, it may be
helpful to quote the passage directly, with a footnote citation to show
where the passage can be found. Direct quotations, however, should be used
sparingly, and should only be used in connection with an interpretation
of the quoted material. Part of the purpose of writing a paper is to communicate
to the reader your understanding of the views of a particular philosopher.
Quoting at length from a text without providing an interpretation of what
is being said in the quoted passage fails to fulfill this purpose.
The standard practice for direct quotations is to surround quoted passages
of three lines of text or less with double quotation marks ("), and indent
passages of greater length five spaces from the left hand margin.
Footnotes. A footnote should contain complete bibliographical
information of a source that is being used or quoted in your paper. This
includes the author, title of the book (underlined), translator and/or
editor (if any), place of publication, publisher and date of publication,
and the number(s) of the page(s) in which the original material discussed
or quoted in your paper appears. For example, footnote 1 in the example
above would read,
1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans.
and ed. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), p. 15.
The number of the footnote is typically superscripted, as it is in the
text of the paper itself, and the first line is indented five spaces.
If the next footnote refers to the same source, you can simply use "Ibid.,"
which means "in the same place," followed by the page number(s) of the
material discussed if these are different from the previous note. Thus
if in footnote 2 you wish to refer to page 35 of the same edition of the
Nicomachean Ethics, you would write
2 Ibid., p. 35.
If, however, you refer to some other source in footnote 2, and you wish
to refer to the Nicomachean Ethics again in footnote 3, or some
later footnote, you can simply write the author's name and "op. cit.,"
which means "in the work cited." For example,
3 Aristotle, op. cit., p. 35.
Footnotes can be placed either at the bottom of the page where the citation
or quotation appears, or at the end of the paper on a separate sheet (as
For more information on the proper form of footnotes you can look at the
College Edition of a standard dictionary, such as Webster's or Random House.
These usually have a guide to writing research papers in the back pages.
Another excellent source of tips and information for writing research papers
is Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and
Dissertations, Fifth Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Primary and Secondary Sources
The works of a particular philosopher that you are writing on are called
"primary sources." It is the interpretation of these writings that should
be your central focus in the paper. But it is sometimes helpful to read
the interpretations of other philosophers who have studied and written
on the same primary sources--what are called "secondary sources." There
are a couple of things to keep in mind in deciding what secondary sources
to use in your research, and how you should use them. First of all, you
should avoid using any secondary sources that you find difficult to understand.
Some secondary sources are written by philosophers with advanced understanding
of primary source materials for an audience with similar background knowledge.
It is likely that using such sources will only confuse and mislead you
in your attempt to gain insight into the ideas of a particular philosopher.
You should also be careful not to allow a secondary source to dominate
the structure and argument of your paper. It is your responsibility as
a writer to offer an interpretation and defend it. Take whatever is useful
from a secondary source that helps to strengthen your interpretation, but
remember that it is your interpretation that you are developing
in the paper, and so you should not simply repeat what has already been
said in the secondary source you are using.
Below are three secondary sources written for the general reader that you
might find helpful in your research.
In addition, you might wish to use The Philosopher's Index (Bowling
Green, IN: Philosophy Documentation Center), an index of all secondary
literature published in English since 1940.
Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Garden City,
NY: Image Books, 1963). The most extensive history of philosophy in English.
W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, 5 vols. (New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975). More concise than Copleston, with volumes
covering the classical and medieval periods, early modern philosophy, and
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
Generally contains sound scholarly articles on all areas of philosophy
and all major philosophers.
Things to Avoid
(1) Plagiarism. It is accepted practice in scholarly writing to
identify quoted passages from an original text with the use of quotation
marks or indentation with full footnote citations. This not only applies
for quoted material of a sentence or more, but also for key phrases taken
directly from the text. For example,
In The Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley calls
the perceiver of ideas the "mind, spirit, soul or
myself,"4 and argues that this perceiver cannot be identified
with the collection of ideas perceived.
Using a passage from any source without indicating in these ways that it
is taken from an original source is called "plagiarism" and is not condoned
in scholarly writing. Plagiarism is considered an act of intellectual dishonesty
since it is representing someone else's writing as one's own.
Often inexperienced writers do not plagiarize with the intent to deceive,
but simply because they become so engrossed in the wording of the original
text on which they are writing that they incorporate phrases from the original
into their discussion without full cognizance of what they are doing. To
avoid this it is helpful to distance oneself somewhat from the text one
is attempting to explain in a paper. Close the book while you write and
try to explain in your own words the meaning of the text. Later you can
return to the text to find citations and quotations that help to support
your interpretation of it.
There are a couple of problems with paraphrasing. First, paraphrasing is
a mechanical process of exchanging words and phrases for synonyms that
discourages careful consideration of the meaning of the text itself. Consequently,
the writer may, in making small changes in the written text, actually change
the meaning of original passage without realizing it. When in the illustration
above, for example, Berkeley's "ideas imprinted on the senses" is rendered
in paraphrase "ideas in the sense organs," the writer erroneously suggests
that the ideas that Berkeley refers to are states of the body. A second
problem with paraphrasing is that since it is a mechanical process it demonstrates
little of the writer's understanding of the material on which he or she
(2) Paraphrasing. Another closely related problem that can
arise at times in the work of inexperienced writers is that rather than
simply copying the text verbatim, as occurs in cases of plagiarism, they
write in close paraphrases of the text, changing some words or punctuation,
omitting other words or phrases, but retaining much of the sentence structure
and verbal content of the original. Thus, where Berkeley writes, "It is
evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge,
that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such
as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind,"
a student may write, "Berkeley says that it is clear to everyone who thinks
about the objects of human knowledge, that these are either ideas in the
sense organs, or those perceived by paying attention to the operations
of the mind."
The solution to close paraphrasing is the same as the solution to unintentional
plagiarizing: you should attempt to gain some distance from the text. If
you close the book while writing you will never run the risk of writing
When writing a paper, then, you should adopt the following rules of thumb:
(1) never raise a topic unless you are prepared to provide as full an explanation
as is necessary to show its relevance to the subject matter of the paper,
and (2) only offer your own opinion when you are prepared to provide an
argument or give some reasons in support of it.
(3) Unexplained, Unsubstantiated, and Irrelevant Statements.
It is not enough simply to make a statement in a scholarly paper, you must
explain the statement and make it clear to the reader how the statement
is relevant to the topic of the paper. If you are writing on the ideas
of a particular philosopher, you must not only be concerned with what the
philosopher says, but why he or she says it, and why you
are reporting it in your paper. It would be of little help to a reader
of a paper on Descartes' concept of nature, for example, to be told that
Descartes believed that God exists if nothing is said about the strategy
he uses to prove God's existence and Descartes' theism is never connected
to his concept of the natural world. Likewise, if you offer your own opinion
on a particular issue in a paper, it is not sufficient simply to state
your opinion--you must also give your reasons for having the opinion
You should also avoid asking rhetorical questions, that is, making statements
or claims expressed in interrogative form. Often inexperienced writers
will ask a rhetorical question when they feel unsure of a claim that they
wish to make in a paper. Thus instead of writing, "His theory of forms
determined, in significant ways, the solutions Plato offered to the moral
issues and dilemmas of his day," a tentative writer might make the same
point in interrogative form by writing, "Wasn't it the theory of forms
that determined, in significant ways, the solutions that Plato offered
to the moral issues and dilemmas of his day?" Attempts to avoid the criticism
of readers in this manner usually fail: it is clear in these instances,
despite the evasive wording, that a claim is being made, and the interrogative
form only serves to give the reader the impression that the writer has
not thoroughly researched the paper topic.
(4) Raising Unanswered Questions. It is the writer's task
in a research paper to offer some conclusions concerning the subject matter
of the paper, whether it be a philosophical issue or the views of a particular
philosopher. The writer fails in this responsibility when he or she raises
questions in a paper while offering no suggestions as to how these questions
might be answered. You should not, then, ask a question of your reader
unless you are prepared to answer it.
(5) Long Quotations. By all means avoid them. It is seldom
necessary to quote any more than a few sentences from a primary or secondary
source in order to support a view or interpretation in a paper.
(6) Frequent Quotations. Quotations should be used only as a
means of supporting views, ideas, interpretations, etc., that you have
already explained in your paper in your own words. They should never be
used as a substitute for your explanation. Consequently, you should never
write your paper by simply compiling a series of quotations. The bulk of
the text of your paper should be your own writing, not quotations from
primary and secondary sources.
(7) Unfair Criticism. The rule that a writer should follow in
criticizing the views of a philosopher is often called the "Principle of
Charity." According to this principle, before offering a criticism of a
philosopher's views it is considered good practice for the writer to provide
a sympathetic account of those views. Without such an account the reader
cannot judge whether the criticism of a philosopher offered by a writer
is cogent, or whether it is based simply on the writer's misunderstanding
or misinterpretation of the philosopher's views. At times writers will
deliberately misrepresent the views of a philosopher so as to make those
views easier to attack. This is considered a fallacy of reasoning called
a "Straw Man Argument," and should always be avoided.
(8) Going it on your own. Perhaps the surest way to guarantee
failure in a writing project is to set out to address a topic without any
grounding in the existing writing and research in the relevant area.
No researcher in any area of study--science, mathematics, as well as philosophy--has
been able to produce worthwhile ideas from scratch. Research is always
a matter of becoming familiar the most recent work in a given field, and
using this as the starting point for one's own work. Doing this avoids
two common pitfalls of writers who attempt to go it on their own.
First, without understanding what viewpoints and directions of thought
have already been pursued, one might pursue a course of thinking that has
already been proven to be a dead end, and thus simply waste time.
Second, one might pursue a course of thinking that has already been proposed,
thus in effect "reinventing the wheel." But more typically writers
who aspire to be too independent and original fail to find any cogent line
of thinking, and end with garbled confusion, since their ideas on a given
topic have not been subjected to the conceptual frameworks, organizing
structures, and clarifications that previous work in the area has already
accomplished. In any writing project, therefore, it is important
for the writer to gain some familiarity with the established research in
It would be difficult to list all of the criteria that are relevant to
evaluating the quality of a philosophy paper, but some of the more important
ones are listed below.
For a sample undergraduate research paper in philosophy, click here.
Accuracy. The accuracy of factual statements or interpretations
of a particular philosopher's writings is always relevant in evaluating
Proper Use of Citations. The use of citations and quotations in
support of the interpretations offered in the paper of a philosopher's
views will be considered in grading. In particular, citations and quotations
should be (a) accurate, (b) in the proper form, and (c) relevant to the
topics or issues discussed in the paper.
Evidence of Effort. The amount of effort put into preparing the
paper, insofar as this can be ascertained from the written work itself,
will be considered in grading. Some signs that insufficient effort has
been made are (a) work that falls short of the requested length, (b) writing
that includes frequent misspellings and/or grammatical errors, (c) sloppy
or illegible writing.
Cogency of Thought. Central to the pursuit of philosophical wisdom
is the task of discovering reasonable beliefs that are based on sound justifying
arguments and evidence. Thus one criterion for judging the quality of philosophical
writing is how well an author supports his/her views with clearly stated
and convincing reasoning.
Insight. A superior paper will display some insight into a philosophical
issue or the views of a philosopher that goes beyond what is said in class
lectures and discussions.
Originality. A superior paper may also include some original ideas
or new approaches to philosophical issues. Of course an idea or approach
is not good simply because it is original. There must still be some reasons
offered as to why the idea or approach is plausible, useful, reasonable,
important, etc.--in short, why it should be entertained or accepted.
(Also keep in mind what is said in section 8 above--don't commit the error
of being too original.)