Good and bad in philosophy essays
Much of the philosophy you are being introduced to is
argument—cases for and against philosophical
positions, theories, points of view. You are required, in writing
philosophy, to take part in that argument—not
merely to recount the arguments you find in texts and
hear in lectures. Of course, you will use some of the
arguments you find there (with acknowledgement), but you must
critically examine them—rejecting them or making them your own, and
giving your reasons. Your essay, then, has to be not a piece of
history of ideas, but a piece of reasoned, argued discourse.
The really vital thing here is that your essay must have
some structure, not be a series of unrelated
thoughts. For example: "I shall first state the problem of the essay,
and outline the main alternative theories that attempt to deal with
it. I shall go into some detail with theory A—which is
initially plausible: then consider certain counter-arguments,
X, Y and Z. In the light of these, a modified
version of A is proposed. This is tested against likely
You can helpfully start your essay with a very brief
advance-summary on those lines (or at least include brief sub-headings
to indicate where your argument is going).
- Among the marks of a good style are these: clarity,
directness of approach to problems, a strong sense of relevance,
reliance on the simplest language that will make your point. If you
need technical terms, be sure to introduce them to your
reader, and then be faithful to your own definitions!
Though good philosophy can be
difficult, difficult or obscure philosophy is by no means
always good. An honest, serious philosopher (i.e. one who
really wants to get to the truth and is not just pretending
to) tries to make the structure of his/her arguments as
lucid as possible—in order to help, not hinder, their
critical appraisal. That sometimes can take a little
- With short essays (as in Philosophy 1st and 2nd level
classes), it is essential not to waste words. That is to say,
- no leisurely spiralling down towards the subject ("Ever
since Man began to think …"),
- no deviating from the strictly relevant,
- no padding, waffle, needlessly spun out illustrations,
"Are we expected to be original?"
Short answer, "Yes". In what ways?
- Everybody ought to be original in working out their own
presentation of the material relevant to the essay, even if most of
that is reworked from sources. The ordering, the "story" of the essay
has to be yours: the verdicts you come to must show signs of your own
pondering, even if philosophers have been there before you.
- Everybody ought to be original also in using different examples
and illustrations from those in the books and lectures. This is not a
trivial point: if you find yourself unable to think up an alternative
example, that may well mean that you have not grasped the point of the
example you are trying to replace—i.e. you may have identified a
problem to bring to your tutor.
- If you think you can be original in more thoroughgoing
ways—proposing new arguments, new theories, identifying flaws in the
arguments of the lectures—fine: so long as
(specially in an introductory course) you also show
that you have seriously thought-through the positions and criticisms
that the recommended reading has brought to your
attention. Without that, you run great risks of repeating the
blunders of your philosophical predecessors. Life is too short for
that: and a half-course much too short …
Needless (I hope) to say, there are no special marks awarded for
agreeing in your essay with the position supported by the lecturer on
the topic; but neither are there special marks for daringly
disagreeing with him. What counts is the quality of your
Use of source-materials
You are free to quote or paraphrase points you want to discuss from
recommended reading, but acknowledge your sources scrupulously. If you
list works referred to, or consulted, at the end of your essay,
together with their dates of publication, you can add a very brief
bracketed reference to your source immediately after you have quoted
from it: e.g., (McNaughton, 1988, p.100). Take care, in a short essay,
not to allow quotation and paraphrase to constitute an excessively
large part of your permitted wordage! However you manage your endnotes
or footnotes, please always include a list of the works you have in
Practical suggestions for actually writing your essays
- Locate, and make use of the recommended reading as soon
as it is available.
- When you have a recommended text in your hands, first
quickly look through the relevant chapter(s) to get the
sense of it, then (because memory may let you down), take
notes of the structure of the main arguments, and write out
accurately any sentences that seem to you likely to make
valuable quotes. To save time, also note carefully the
details of author, title, pages, in case you don't manage to
get back to that book again.
- Keep separate sheets/notebook for your own thoughts,
responses to reading, new examples, provisional decisions
about the position you are going to defend in your essay.
And, obviously, nearer the writing-time you will experiment
with alternative outlines, stories, structures.
- Once you have settled on your final structure, number
the sections and subsections, run through your notes and
mark up the relevant bits with appropriate section-numbers.
(A colour-code can help.) That will ensure that, as you
write the essay, the relevant material comes quickly under
- Aim to finish your essay in draft some days before the submission
deadline: then you can set it aside for two or three days, read
it again with a fresh eye, make final corrections, and type up a final
version. ("Type?"—Yes, if at all possible.)
What does a really bad philosophy essay look like?
From the above, you can work that out for yourself.
- To start you off, it will be shapeless, confused, will
try to convince its reader that its obscurity is an index of
its profundity (but in vain). Its "therefore"s don't really
indicate argumentation. Its acknowledgements of sources are
wildly unspecific and sparse so that (with luck), the extent
of indebtedness will be harder to discern …
- It hopes that it has done full justice to the
requirement of original examples by changing proper
- It will (by the way) almost certainly spell "argument"
with an extra "e" in the middle: will confuse "refute" with
"rebut", "imply" with "infer", and will be creative in its
misspelling(s) of "Nietzsche".
- Finally: it will be in a barely legible handwriting,
will have no name at the top and no margins for reader's
comments at the sides. It will bear the marks, if not of
midnight oil, then of midnight coffee. It will be
Text by Prof. R. W. Hepburn
HTML editing by Darren Brierton