Writing Philosophy Essays: Introduction
This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable , mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.
Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.
"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support — or fail to support — those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.
Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts — and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries — even millennia — and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.
In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)
It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in — even a passion for — ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.
This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.
This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:
- A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
- J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
- Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
- R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
- S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)
Also, the web-sites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.
*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.