61 Writing Philosophy

Write to learn. Expressing your thoughts is an excellent way of discovering what they really are. Even when you’re the only one who ever sees the results of your explorations, trying to put them down in written form often helps, and when you wish to communicate to others, the ability to write clear, meaningful prose is vital. Here are some suggestions for proceeding:

  • Understand the assignment
    Whether you’re completing a specific assignment or developing your own project, it is important to have the aims firmly in mind. Focus on a single question you wish to address, be clear about your own answer to it, and explicitly state a thesis that answers the question. You will often want to divide the central issue into several smaller questions, each with its own answer, and this will naturally lead to a coherent structure for the entire essay.
  • Interpret fairly
    Most of your writing projects will begin with a careful effort to interpret a philosophical text, and this step should never be taken lightly. Your first responsibility is to develop an accurate reading of the original text; then your criticism can begin. Focus primarily on the adequacy of the arguments which support the stated conclusions. If you disagree, you can look for the weaknesses of that support; if you agree, you can defend it against possible attacks.
  • Support your thesis
    Don’t just state your own position; make it the conclusion of a line of reasoning. Claim only what you can prove (or are, at least, prepared to defend), and support it with evidence and argument. Philosophy is not just a list of true opinions, but the reasoned effort to provide justification.
  • Consider alternatives
    Be sure to explore arguments on all sides of the issue you address. Of course you will want to emphasize the reasoning that supports your thesis, but it is also important to consider likely objections and to respond with counter-arguments. Be especially carefully in your use of examples: the best positive example can only clarify meaning and lend some evidentiary confirmation, but a single counter-example disproves a general claim completely.
  • Omit the unnecessary
    Include in your written work only what is germane to your topic: after the first draft, mercilessly eliminate from your text anything that does not directly and uniquely support the thesis. Padding with irrelevant or redundant material is never worthwhile. Be particularly careful in your use of material prepared by others: do not plagiarize, paraphrase without attribution, quote directly often or at length, or rely extensively on a single secondary source.
  • Write clearly
    It is your responsibility as writer to express yourself in a way that can be understood. Use specific, concrete language in active voice whenever you can. Define your terms explicitly and use them consistently throughout your paper.

Finally, you may find it helpful to keep an appropriate audience in mind as you write. Don’t write just for the instructor and your classmates—that is, don’t assume that your audience has professional knowledge of the philosophical texts or total awareness of every conversation that has taken place, inside and outside the classroom. Unless otherwise directed by the details of a particular assignment, think of yourself as presenting the material to a friend, your parents, or a class: intelligent, interested people who are well-informed generally but who lack your knowledge of the philosophical issues. Write to teach.


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