Writing a Philosophy Paper

The first goal of an analytic philosophy paper is to present a clear valid argument; the second goal is to present a sound argument; the third goal is to advance knowledge (that is, present a sound argument for a novel conclusion of some importance). In an undergraduate class you are only expected to meet the first goal. In a graduate class, you are expected to strive for the second goal. The ambition of professional philosophers is to meet the third goal.

Meeting the first goal requires that you (A) clearly structure an argument, and (B) use language that is neither ambiguous nor vague in your argument.

(A) To ensure you develop a clear argument, all papers must have the following form:
I. State your hypothesis. Your introductory paragraph must have in it a clear sentence that states the hypothesis you will defend. (If you are in doubt about how to phrase this, then just write: "In this paper I will defend the hypothesis that....") If you cannot state a single hypothesis, then unless you are writing a book you must start over.

II. State your outline. State in your second paragraph how you defend your hypothesis. (If in doubt, just write, "I will defend this hypothesis by arguing for the following 5 claims....") If you can do so briefly, indicate why these claims will support your conclusion. After having read paragraphs one and two, the reader will know what you are claiming, and how you will defend this claim, and why you will defend it in the way you do. The outline should point out where your main argument occurs.

III. Follow your outline. Next, just as you promised in your second paragraph, defend each piece of evidence in turn. Explain clearly for each point why that point supports your claim. If there are other claims you believe you need to defend to support your point (for example, maybe you want to ward off an obvious objection to one of your steps in your argument), explain why you are taking this detour, and make it clear when you leave and when you return to the outline. Most importantly, you should make a clear and valid argument for your conclusion.

IV. Consider objections. You may want to either address objections others have made (in print) to your hypothesis, or you may want to predict objections. Say explicitly that you are now addressing objections, say explicitly which ones you will address (you should thus have a paragraph that is not unlike the second paragraph of your paper, but now explaining how you will proceed in this fourth section), and then address those objections in the way you promised you would. But here's the important point: if you have correctly structured your argument, then you have created a valid argument, and thus any objection to your conclusion must be an objection to one or more of your premises.

V. Restate and evaluate your hypothesis. In conclusion, remind us of your hypothesis, and how your argument(s) support it. Explain why your hypothesis is important. What are its implications? Why should the reader care?
Note that most great analytic philosophy papers follow only very slight variations of this form (e.g., mixing III and IV together, or being very brief about II, or including some historical background to a problem before stating the hypothesis).

(B) To ensure your language is not ambiguous or vague, every sentence and every word of your paper must pass the explanation test. For each sentence in your paper, ask yourself "what does this sentence mean?" Imagine someone demanding you explain why you wrote this sentence. Also, imagine someone demanding you explain for each word you used, why you used this word, and not some other. If you cannot answer such questions, delete or revise the sentence or word under consideration.

But, to be honest, this is secondary. What is hardest is to make a clear valid argument. I'm not sure why this is so, but it is so. People--including many professional philosophers--find it very hard to make a clear valid argument. So you will be a champion if you can do this. Strive to be a champion.

Some additional advice
Here are some random observations that address some common mistakes I see.

-- Craig DeLancey

DeLancey's philosophy teaching pages
DeLancey's philosophy research pages