Some Advice on Writing a Philosophy Essay

Some Advice on Writing a Philosophy Essay


Writing a philosophy essay is different from writing the essays you did for A-level. What philosophy tutors are looking for may not be the same as what tutors in English or Economics want, so you could find that the style that gets friendly remarks in the margins of essays for one subject produces abuse in another. There is no magic formula for producing interesting philosophy, but there are some simple rules that may help.

Philosophy is about argument. It is about finding convincing reasons for believing things and reasons for doubting them, and about refuting arguments or undoing refutations of them. So one thing that every piece of philosophy has to have is a claim and a defence of it. Now it is a sad fact that good arguments for interesting claims are hard to make, so this demand may seem rather intimidating. But there are techniques for making the task manageable, and a large part of the invisible agenda of a philosophy course is the acquisition of these techniques.

Most styles of philosophical argument begin with a claim and argue for or against it. For example, a dialogue form continuously modifies one or more initial claims in response to criticisms. Another method works by finding plausible reasons for a position you are opposing, and then undermines them. A technique that is invaluable whatever your strategy is that of finding definite sharp counterexamples to general claims.
All this presupposes you have some interesting positions to start with. Where do these come from? The standard source of starting positions is the works of established philosophers. An undergraduate philosophy essay more often than not is ‘about’ some specific philosophical works. So a reasonable way to write the essay is to start with an exposition: extracting from what you have read some positions and arguments which you can later defend or attack yourself. Three bits of advice about this:

i. You can't engage...

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