Philosophy essays are a bit different from other types of essays, but there aren’t necessarily any strict rules about how to write them best, and there are a variety of different types of philosophy essays. I will discuss three main types of philosophy papers: (a) argumentative, (b) speculative, and (c) interpretative. I will also discuss some important elements of philosophy essays, such as the idea of philosophical content and what the introduction should be like. I hope that thinking about various types of philosophy essays and various elements of philosophy essays will help people improve their philosophical writing.
Types of philosophy papers
There are at least three main types of philosophy papers:
The typical type of philosophy paper is based on a new argument of some sort, which could be described as the central argument of the paper.
Quite often the central argument is related to some preexisting argument or debate, such as Socrates’s argument in Plato’s Protagoras (where Socrates argues that people only do the wrong thing out of ignorance). You will likely ask yourself certain questions, such as: (a) Do you agree with the conclusion? Or (b) are there any flaws in the argument? There are two main types of essays that relate to these questions. The defensive essay and the critical essay.
The defensive essay – A defensive essay is an essay written to defend an argument (or conclusion) from objections. If you agree with the conclusion of a preexisting argument, then one option is to consider objections against the argument and defend the argument (or conclusion) from those objections. The objections are also technically arguments and the response to each objection ought to also be an argument (an objection to an objection). The central arguments in this case are that certain objections are flawed.
The critical essay – A critical essay is written to give us a reason to reject an argument. Do you think the argument is flawed? If so, your central argument could be an objection—either against the conclusion or against the reasoning of the preexisting argument (often by arguing that a premise is implausible or false).
Note that an objection against the reasoning of an argument doesn’t simultaneously prove the conclusion to be false or unjustified. Even if you agree with the conclusion, you could find the preexisting argument’s reasoning to be flawed.
Also note that there is something unsatisfying with arguing against a conclusion without also giving an objection against the reasoning because then we will have an argument for and another against the conclusion. We will then want to know if we have a good reason to reject either of the arguments.
A speculative essay in this context refers to an essay that introduces a new hypothesis or possible solution to a problem. For example, if you think classical utilitarianism is right about many things, but could be improved, you could end up explaining what you’d change about it (and perhaps even offer arguments for the changes). One common suggestion is that pleasure is not the only thing that is intrinsically good (as classical utilitarianism states). Perhaps consciousness, knowledge, or virtue is also intrinsically good.
One reason to offer a hypothesis or solution in an essay is to offer an alternative to another hypothesis or solution. If you argue against a view, then offering an alternative is often a good idea. Otherwise we might wonder if there is no plausible hypothesis or solution worth mentioning.
Also note that it is often a good idea to consider objections to your hypothesis or solution, and to respond to those objections (by showing why they would not be a good reason to reject your hypothesis or solution).
Interpretative essays are written to clarify and explain a passage from another philosophical text. This tends to work best when there are multiple possible interpretations that can be discussed and evaluated. Interpretations tend to be preferable when they are consistent with multiple other passages by the same author and when the interpretation is charitable (under the assumption that the author said something reasonable).
There are at least three ways to write an interpretative essay:
One, consider a single interpretation of an essay and provide some reason to find that interpretation to be plausible. You could also discuss the implications of that interpretation.
Two, you could consider multiple interpretations of a passage, and discuss the implications of the different interpretations—or to even consider reasons to consider some interpretations to be adequate or inadequate.
Three, you could argue that one interpretation is better than the alternatives. Arguments can be considered in favor of one interpretation, and reasons can be given for thinking the alternatives are inadequate. You could also discuss the implications of each of the options.
Some elements of philosophy essays
In addition to choosing a type of philosophy paper, there are other elements that can help make a good philosophy paper. In particular, it should be a paper that deals with a philosophical issue, and it should have a clear purpose, which is explicitly stated in the introduction. These elements and various other elements are briefly explained below.
- Philosophical content – It can be a good idea to consider if what you are saying is an empirical issue (one that scientists already study or could easily study) or is a philosophical issue. In general, philosophical issues are thought to be issues concerning aesthetics (the nature of beauty), ethics (the nature of what ought to be the case), metaphysics (the nature of what is the case), epistemology (the nature of knowledge), and logic (the nature of good reasoning).
- Introduction – The first paragraph or two generally ought to explain the purpose of your essay, and provide an outline for how the essay is structured. The introduction generally ought not say anything about how controversial the issue has been or how philosophers have debated the issue for thousands of years.
- Purpose – Again, the purpose ought to be stated in the introduction. The purpose of the essay is generally the central argument(s), and something should be said about the reasoning involved. At minimum, it could be stated as something like “I will argue X is true because Y.” If the purpose is to develop a hypothesis, then you can explain the hypothesis to some extent. If the purpose is to interpret a passage, then you might want to say what interpretation you think is best and why. If the purpose is to defend an argument or conclusion from an objection, then you can say something about why you don’t think the objection is a very good one.
- Summary & structure – Something generally ought to be said about how you will structure the essay in the introduction. For example it can be something like the following: “I will first present my argument, then consider an objection that states A because B, then explain why I don’t find the objection to be convincing because C.”
- Arguments – Arguments are reasons to believe things. Even if the purpose of the paper isn’t to give arguments, they are likely needed at some point. Whenever you give an argument, it’s generally a good idea to try to make it explicit. What exactly are the premises and what’s the conclusion? If you present someone else’s argument, they might not have really been explicit. Even so, we need to know how the argument works, and it is still a good idea to try to make it explicit. Look out for unstated assumptions (premises or conclusions that are not explicitly stated, but are needed for the argument to work), and make unstated assumptions explicit.
- Objections & responses – If you have a view or argument of your own, then it can be a good idea to consider the best reasons someone could have to disagree with you, and to say a bit about why the objections aren’t very good arguments after all.
- Definitions – If you use words that could be somewhat unusual, vague, or ambiguous, it can be a good idea to define them in the most clear way as you can.
- Examples and thought experiments – Examples, illustrations, applications, and thought experiments can often help clarify a view or show why it is at least plausible in various contexts.
- Wording – How you phrase things is important. It is generally a good idea to try to say things in a clear and concise way. Wording can also be too strong. It is a lot easier to prove that there’s a reason to think something than to prove that something is true in a conclusive way, and to imply that one way of thinking is the only rational option is especially difficult to prove.
- Questions – Sometimes a question is asked in such a way that it’s intended to be an argument. Even so, questions are not arguments. If you ask a question, try to answer it or at least explore the possible answers. If someone else asks a question with an argument in mind, explicitly state what you think the argument is.
- Assertions – Assertions might be needed in order to have premises for an argument, but try to keep assertions to a minimum. In general, anything asserted that’s not part of an argument probably shouldn’t be said. Philosophy essays aren’t just about saying what you believe. It’s about giving reasons for beliefs or exploring our options.
- Dismissing ideas – If someone else makes an argument that requires an assumption you disagree with, then you might not have a good reason to be persuaded by the argument. Even so, that doesn’t make a good essay. We will want to know how plausible the assumption is. Are there any reasons to reject the assumption?
- Conclusion – If you have a conclusion (as the final section of the essay), it is generally best to just summarize the essay without saying anything new.
- Revision – Essays are almost always greatly improved if they are edited, revised, or rewritten multiple times. This is often best after waiting a few days or getting feedback from someone else.
- Jim Pryor’s Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper
- Thomas Leddy’s Guidelines for Writing Philosophy Papers (look for a link to the document)
- Peter Horban’s Writing a Philosophy Paper
- Michael Tooley’s Writing Philosophy Essays
- How to Become a Philosopher (ebook)