So you have to write a philosophy essay, you feel fairly passionate about a particular view, and you really want a good grade. Alternatively, you may just not be sure of what you are supposed to argue. Besides, these guys have been doing it for years, and you’ve just started! What do you do? Do not fear, for here are some hints.
Know your audience
Who do you write for? This is a very good question to ask, for it can guide your writing substantially. A quick answer is (especially when starting out): for an educated layman. That is to say, write it for someone who is educated, but knows little about philosophy. The idea is to write a piece that is clear and concise, informs about a certain philosophical position(s), and does not assume prior knowledge. Think about what your marker/tutor wants to know: they need to know that you understand what you are writing, not whether they understand what you are writing!
Other helpful sources
Analyse the question
It is very very important to understand the question that is being asked of you. Don’t be afraid to write down the question on a spare sheet of paper so you can disassemble the question on the page in front of you. It is this initial stage that is of paramount importance. If you interpret the question incorrectly then you are in a world of trouble!
How you go about this depends crucially on what the actual question is, but a few pointers may help you on your way. One thing you need to keep in mind is the sort of essay you are going to write. I will predominantly talk about two, very similar, but different, approaches here. We might title one an argumentative essay, and the other a discussion. I will explain the different ways to approach this when the time comes. For now, let us continue with analysing the question. Here is a list of things to keep in mind, and a suggested (logical) order
- Write the question down on a spare sheet of paper on which you can scribble all over
- Look out for words such as ‘Discuss’, ‘Analyse’, ‘Compare’, and so on. These words tell you what you need to do (what do you need to discuss? What do you need to analyse? Etc.). You may want to circle these words to highlight them to yourself.
- Who, or what, does the question ask you to look at? Make sure you are answering the correct question. (If the question asks you to discuss Descartes’ views about thinking machines, ensure you don’t interpret ‘machines’ as ‘people’ and go on your merry way. What you say may be relevant, but it won’t fully answer the question!)
- Now for the fun bit. Here you get to apply your pen-scribbling skills and circle, underline, write notes on, etc. etc., your question. What to do here is very dependent on what works best for you and what your question is. You might want to jot some things down that immediately come to mind. Here are some examples:
- You remember where Descartes talks about thinking machines—write this down
- You recall that there is an important distinction between human machines and non-human machines—write this down
- You remember that Alan Turing poses an interesting contrast with Descartes’ views—write this down
- If the question asks you to list 3 objections Turing considers to the prospect of thinking machines, write as many objections as you can think of and any other relevant information
- And so on...
This is the first stage. You might now have a piece of paper that looks something like the following:
Planning stage 1
The next stage is to consider how you are going to construct your essay. We can be very general to begin with. This is just to supply the bare bones of the essay. You need the following three components:
- Essay question (you have chosen this)
- Word count (this will be supplied with your essay question)
- The fact that you plan on writing an argumentative essay
You can then break the essay up schematically. You can assume that each paragraph will be around 150-200 words. You will then need an introduction and conclusion. So it is in the remainder of the paragraphs that you need to answer your question. Suppose your word count is 1,500 words, then you will have around 1,200 (1,500 - (2 x 150)) words left, which is about 8 paragraphs (1,200/150 = 8). (Be warned, they run out fast.)
Planning stage 2
Now it is time to fill in the bare bones. It is time to think about what you are actually going to do in this essay. There are 4 main things you should do:
- Explain the philosophical positions/arguments you will be discussing.
- This is called exposition. You must be careful to spell out the arguments you are discussing with as much precision as possible. You need to do more than just state what any particular author says; you need to provide his reasons for saying what he does say. Your marker/tutor will be looking at this.
2. Compare, contrast, discuss etc. these positions/arguments
- What you will be doing here largely rests upon what the question is, e.g. Discuss Descartes’ view about thinking machines, Compare Descartes with Turing, etc. Try to explain the arguments you are discussing by using your own, imaginative, examples. This shows a greater and more in depth understanding of the material. Once again, ensure you give reasons , don’t just state what you think and leave it at that. You have to try to convince your audience.
If you came to this hub via my other hub on how to write a discussion piece, you might want to return there now - or just have a look for your own interest!
3. Pose your own argument
- This could take different forms, depending on the question. You may be comparing a couple of philosophical positions and argue that one is better than the other. Or you might try showing that there is more common ground than the authors originally thought. What you decide to do is totally up to you. I’ll say it again (and again and again), provide reasons for the position you take. Tell the reader why your position is superior to the alternatives
4. Consider a counter-argument
- You have argued for a particular position. But why is yours better than the alternatives? It is time to tell us. The best thing to do is come up with the best counter-argument to your position you possibly can and tell your reader why it fails. Remember (can you guess what?) give reasons .
Now you need to slot this into the remaining paragraphs. How to do this? There are no hard and fast rules, here. Divide it up as you see fit. For example, you might delegate 2 paragraphs to exposition, 2 paragraphs for discussing the arguments/positions, 2 paragraphs for your own argument, 1 paragraph to consider a counter-argument and the final paragraph for your rebuttal of the counter-argument. Remember, this is only a rough guide and you might find (a) that something else works better for you, or (b) that you find your general format changes as you think about/write your essay.
Planning stage 3: Brainstorming
It is good now to get some brainstorming paper and start your initial planning. You might want to write the topic of each paragraph on a piece of paper, with a lot of space under it (so you can write your notes). In this way you can write down any notes, ideas, quotes etc. you have while you are doing your readings.
Other Writing Help
Now it is time to write your essay. I suggest to take the time to look at some suggestions about paragraph formation, grammar, spelling, expression, etc. There are some good books on this you might want to look at. It will be well worth your while!
It is best to write your essay in the following order:
- Main body
This may appear counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t you write the first bit first—that is to say—the introduction first? The answer is ‘no’. In saying this, it is good to have a plan before you write, but not an introduction. You should think of the introduction as a kind of map to help your reader navigate your essay. So it is best to write this last. Here are some suggestions for writing the various parts:
- Ensure you give your exposition of the arguments before you criticize them
- Always provide reasons. It is no good just stating a position
- Ask yourself why the author says what he/she does, this will help you provide reasons
- Don’t use too many quotes. Try to put most things in your own words (you can use some quotes, just keep them to a minimum)
This should be a summary of what you have done in your essay. It should include a statement of what you think the essay has concluded as well as a brief summary of how you got there. For example, you might say a longer version of the following:
To sum up, I think that there are good reasons to think that [state conclusion here]. I have argued for this in the following way. First, I claimed that [state first claim here]. There were only two ways in which this challenge could be met. They were [state the ways the challenge could be met]. It turned out that neither option was satisfactory. [State why they weren’t satisfactory.] I therefore conclude that [state penultimate conclusion]
Now it is finally time to write your introduction. And, what do you know? It has pretty much written itself! Think of your introduction as a map of your essay, or perhaps as a guide. It should really do three things
- Introduce topic
- Get the reader’s interest
- Give a map of your essay
You know what your topic is; you know what your essay does (you wrote it!); so all you have to do is get your reader’s interest. But that is easy! All you need to do is say that you are going to argue for a certain position and the job is done, whalaa!
So here is an example:
In this essay I will argue that [state position, e.g. such and such was mislead when he said ... What he should have said was ...]. This can be seen if we resituate the argument in its original context, which was ... I will argue for this in the following way. First, I will argue that ... Second, I will show that it is evident that... Third, [etc.]. Finally, I will show that ...
Remember, this is not a pro forma (something to simply copy). It is an example of what you might write. The format isn’t even essential, but it is good when you are starting out. All you need remember is the three points: introduce topic, get reader’s attention and give a map of your essay, and you will be well on your way.
There are many other pointers that will help you in writing your essay. One of the most important ones is read it for any errors. And then read it again. And then once more, a day later, to ensure there weren't any errors you missed. Other things that can help you is to brush up on your skills: referencing, grammar, spelling, practice exercises, and more. I suggest you do a search on hubpages, look at some books on essay writing, have a general search on the internet, and have a look at my other hubs on philosophy.
Any comments are welcome.
And good luck!
Wakeangel on December 15, 2015:
Very helpful hub page. I am hoping to complete a philosophical essay on Descartes & dualism. Thank you!