Good and bad in philosophy essays

Introduction

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.

Structure

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 criticisms."

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).

Philosophical style

  1. 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 courage.

  2. With short essays (as in Philosophy 1st and 2nd level classes), it is essential not to waste words. That is to say,

"Are we expected to be original?"

Short answer, "Yes". In what ways?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 argument.

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 fact consulted.

Practical suggestions for actually writing your essays

  1. Locate, and make use of the recommended reading as soon as it is available.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 your eye.
  5. 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.

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