Guidelines for Writing Philosophy Papers

Soraj Hongladarom


*Always state what you intend to do with the paper. A paper in philosophy typically argues for some position. So it is best to state what you are going to do with the paper. If you are going to provide your own view on some topic, put it as clearly as you can at the introduction of the paper. Some writers prefer to postpone putting their main thesis until the very end of the paper. While this may be stylistically interesting, it does little to clarify what the paper is going to do. Unless the writer presents his case so clearly that the main thesis shines through without having to state it clearly in the introduction, it will not help your presentation to put off saying in plain terms what your paper is going to argue for.

*A real philosophy paper, it should be emphasized, is not the same as a typical research paper where the researcher reports his or her findings on an issue or topic. For example, in some other disciplines, such as education or sociology, it might be acceptable to present a ³research report² of one¹s own findings one has collected through such techniques as questionnaire or interview. It is the nature of philosophy to be ³free floating,² meaning that the range of possible topics for philosophical discussion is virtually limitless. One can talk about anything in philosophy, provided that one tries to provide a solution to the knotting problems that one finds gripping and worthy of careful thought and investigation. Unlike the sciences, there is no hard and fast ³methodology² that one can adhere to in philosophy. In fact the only guideline one can use is that one¹s paper or speech be coherent, and that one¹s reasoning conform to the standard of rationality. Well, the standard itself can be critically examined, as we have seen in Eastern philosophy, but at least what is minimally required of all serious attempts to philosophize is that you present your view in such a way that the style of writing does not interfere with an attempt to understand what you want to say.

*However, this does not mean that research work is not important, or that in philosophy you can say whatever what you want to say without having to be careful of the methodology as in other disciplines. The role of research is very important. It provides evidential background or foundation to the argument you are putting forth; sometimes you can help your argument quite a lot by quoting some authorities whose names or views are likely to command respect from the readers. This cannot be used exclusively, however, because it would mean that your paper is nothing other than a report of what that authority says on the issue and not a result of your own independent thinking.

*This returns us to the most basic purpose of writing a philosophy paper. Essentially writing a philosophy paper is not much different from engaging in a discussion with other students and professors about issues and topics in philosophy, East and West. What we are looking for is to understand what is going on. For example, we want to understand what is going on with the problem of objectivity. Is objective, timeless, universal knowledge attainable to finite human mind at all, or is it an ideal to strive for but never reach? This is a pressing problem, for it is the foundation for all other ideas about knowledge in other fields. Scientists claim that what they are after is the TRUTH, but if this problem has a negative answer, then scientific enterprise would be nothing more than witchcraft. There would be no actual distinction between the witch doctor who claims to know this or that, and the scientist who also claims he knows this or that. Both type of knowledge are not ³objective.² So what we are looking for is that we help one another to see if we can find the best or the most plausible solution to the problem. This is the most important purpose of writing philosophy papers. You try to think on your own what are the most plausible answers to the questions that are besetting philosophers, and these questions are not merely something philosophers ³invent² for their own pleasure. This is not the case at all. The problems are there, and since they are so important as we have seen they cannot be ignored without all the humanity living forever in naïve darkness. In sum, what you are asked to do in writing philosophy is that the writing you are doing is the result of your own honest thinking on the issue. Philosophy is a difficult subject, but it is very interesting in that it discusses matters that are central to everything we hold to be valuable. So don¹t ever think of writing philosophy papers as a boring chore. It is a gripping and fascinating activity. In the end it¹s not how you write that is so terribly important (though of course it will certainly make you a better and clearer thinker and communicator), it¹s what you think that counts.