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How To Write a Philosophy Paper

The Most Important Thing of All:

Your philosophy professor wants to see you...

  • argue for something in your paper
  • be clear on what it is that you are arguing, so that one can assess the strength of your argument(s)
  1. How to Get Started:
    • Consider exploring something that struck you as interesting, controversial, noteworthy, or otherwise worth exploring further in your reading, the lectures, class discussion, etc.
    • EXAMPLE: Suppose you were really struck by St. Augustine's puzzlement about his own sinfulness in the famous "pear tree" episode in book two of the Confessions. Your prof maybe mentioned that there were different ways of interpreting what Augustine is up to in that passage. Or perhaps some students raised questions that caused your prof to acknowledge that Augustine's "solution" to the problems he raises, such as it is, may be less than entirely satisfactory on philosophical grounds. So you decide on that as your general topic area: Augustine on moral evil, specifically as it relates to the pear tree incident. Great!
  2. Research/Investigation/Zeroing in on a Thesis: 
    • Do a bunch of reading and note-taking.
    • Re-read the relevant primary source materials; continuing with the Augustine example above, that would included bits of the Confessions, and his other writings such as On the Free Choice of the Will or City of God books 12 and 14,
    • Searching in the secondary literature will help you identify the relevant primary works and what sections to focus on. 
    • Some go-to resources for philosophy papers, starting out, are:
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • PhilPapers
  • Philosopher's Index
  • The Cambridge Companions series, the Oxford Handbook series, and other series like them by other publishers like Routledge and Blackwell.

3. Before you ask your professor for ideas for a topic and resources...

  • Do some research on your own first before going to talk to your prof; they'll be much more impressed with you if you've already taken some initiative.
  • Consult the bibliographies you find in articles/books you look at, and see if there are works that keep getting referred to over and over again. Those are clearly going to be the some of the standard, most important works in whatever area you're looking into. 

4. What to Keep in Mind as You're Researching:

  • As you're taking notes on the literature you're reading, here are things to consider: 
  • Are there important disagreements about how to interpret Augustine on your topics?
  • Are there arguments about how satisfactory, philosophically speaking, Augustine's ideas are?
  • Are there discussions about how Augustine's ideas might or might not intersect with areas of contemporary philosophical concern? 

5. Keep in mind your ultimate goal: you're trying to find something to argue for. It could be:

  • An interpretative argument: "I'm arguing that so-and-so is right/wrong in her interpretation of Augustine on the pears."
  • A critical argument: "Assuming that Augustine's view is such-and-such, I'm arguing that this view is wrong/right." 
  • Or some hybrid, where you're trying to show how Augustine's ideas intersect with areas of contemporary philosophical concern, such as debates about freedom and determinism, or debates about inherited, societal guilt and sinfulness.

There are probably lots of different ways of developing a philosophy thesis, but probably most of them are going to be some variety of the ones just mentioned.
Here's An Example. Suppose you discover this article:
Scott MacDonald, "Peter Larceny, the Beginning of All Sin: Augustine's Theft of the Pears," Faith and Philosophy 20.4 (2003): 393–414.
And you find that MacDonald relies a lot in the "Petit Larceny" article on another article of his called "Primal Sin." You read that one too. And you think: 
"Ok self, MacDonald has a pretty plausible interpretation of what's going on in Augustine, especially with regard to Confessions book two and the closely related stuff in City of God book 12. But I don't find MacDonald's version of Augustine very satisfying philosophically, because it leaves a giant unexplained mystery at the heart of human sinfulness, namely why anyone would go for the sort of 'prideful self-assertion' that MacDonald takes to be the primary motive Augustine identifies." 
So you decide: 
"This is what I'm going to argue: MacDonald is right about how to interpret Augustine, but Augustine's ideas about his own sinfulness are unsatisfactory/fundamentally flawed."
Congratulations! You now have your thesis. 
6. How to Put Your Paper Together

You now go to put your paper together, and at this stage, organization is key. You're probably going to want to divide your paper into multiple sections. In this case, you decide on three sections:

  • Section 1: MacDonald's Interpretation of Augustine on Moral Evil
  • Section 2: Why MacDonald's Augustine Comes Up Short
  • Section 3: A Possible Reply on Augustine's Behalf, and Why Augustine Still Comes Up Short

In the third section, obviously, you'll be considering an objection against your main argument/thesis and responding to it. Make sure you tell your prof in the opening paragraph (or two) of your paper what your thesis is, and what the layout of your paper is (i.e., what the sections are, and briefly what you're doing in each of them). Hopefully you've taken notes well, and you'll have no trouble inserting lots of relevant references both to MacDonald's papers and other supporting secondary literature that you've found, along with lots of references to Augustine's own texts. Make sure you're citing all of this adequately!