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How to Write a Philosophy Paper

Submitted by dfto on Mon, 03/12/2007 - 10:54pm

1) Things that should be matters of course but aren't always:

(i) You should start actually writing your paper at the earliest possible stage. (One way is to write a draft before you've done any reading at all.) Do not just say to yourself, day after day, "I really must start soon." Still less should you say, "I really know what I want to say, so it's just a matter of getting it down." Until you start making squiggly marks on paper or on a screen, you've got nothing to work with. Get something down, no matter how silly, rough, or trivial it may be or seem to you. Do not pile up notes and quotes interminably. Start writing!![1]

Editing an already existent paper is far easier than producing one de novo. Incidentally, get straight into the heart of the matter. Don't waste time writing a flowery introductory paragraph, page, or section. If you decide you want one you can always put it in later, but often you will find that the paper can make its own way in the world perfectly well without an ornate introduction.

But what if you have "writer's block"?

What if you have no inspiration? It was, I think, John Updike who, when asked whether he wrote to a schedule or only when inspiration seized him, replied, "Oh, I write only when inspiration seizes me. And it seizes me every morning from eight till one." Being human we are all of us, all too ready to seize an excuse not to work.


If you simply start writing, no matter how flat and uninspired the result seems to you, you will at least have something. What's more, in six months time, if you look back at what you have written you will not be able to distinguish the passages you wrote because you felt like writing, and the passages you wrote because you forced yourself to write.

When you write remember that well-known philosophers are well-known. Writing "René Descartes, a French philosopher, …" is like writing "Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian hockey player, …". I might begin a sentence about Gretzky that way when talking to my friends in New Zealand or Australia or England, but they are bereft of culture, and need such basic information. You should not assume that your instructors are similarly culturally disadvantaged. Avoid, too, sentences such as

Through the ages many philosophers have written about x.

The problem of x has long puzzled humanity.

Your task is to walk the not terribly fine line between not telling your philosophy instructors things you both know and you can take for granted, and telling them things you both know, but which they want you to exhibit your knowledge of.

(ii) Your paper should be legible. If you have access to a printer or a typewriter, use it. However, this is not essential. The Faculty of Humanities, quite rightly, has a policy of not requiring essays, term papers, etc. to be typed or printed. Our University has, it is true, sold its soul to the Pepsi Cola company, and our fee structure is such that we assume wealth on the part of our students, but poverty is still not an explicit crime. However, if you do write your paper by hand, write so that your instructor can read what you've written. This is not an extreme demand. Most philosophers can read their own handwriting and that of other philosophers, and that handwriting is almost certainly worse than yours.[2]

If you do use a printer remember that studies have shown that for the body of your text serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts (this is a sans serif font, useful for headings, but harder to read in lengthier passages than the serif font of the rest of the paragraph), and that papers which are not justified on the right are easier to read than those which are justified. (Anything you can do to make life easier for your reader is to your advantage.)

(iii) Your paper should not contain an undue number of misspellings. Even if misspellings show nothing about your general intelligence, philosophical ability, or worth as a sterling human being, they are bound, if numerous, to exert a negative influence on your reader.

(iv) Your paper should not be ungrammatical. You should be particularly careful about this since some grammatical lapses can seriously distort the meaning you are trying to convey. Even minor details of punctuation can be important.

In All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare has one of his characters say, "They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless." Notice the difference in sense that the omission of the second comma would make.[3] A more philosophical example might be provided by the difference in sense between

Whatever exists necessarily, exists.


Whatever exists, necessarily exists.

The first is a truism, the second clearly false.

Get your singulars and plurals right! Phenomena, for example, is a plural. The singular is phenomenon.

Don't use words if you don't know what they mean.

To take a currently common misuse, the word kudos means glory or renown. Although it ends in "s" it is not a plural any more than, say, molasses is. There is not a singular thing called a kudo any more than there is a singular thing called a molasse. It does not mean a number of things each of which is called a kudo, though various writers in and to newspapers seem to think that they know what a kudo is. Nor is the error limited to the popular press. A University of Calgary document dated October 25, 1999 contains two references to something called Co-chair Kudo's, which manages not only to get kudos wrong but to add an extraneous apostrophe. It gets worse: the rot has spread from academics to athletes. Here is the skier Ken Read, quoted in the Calgary Herald (Nov. 30, 2003, p. B2): "A relieved Read spoke afterwards about Guay's maturity, leadership, internal drive—even his fluent bilingualism.

'A quintessential Canadian,' said Read ..., "He deserves every single kudo. He's been the real engine of growth for that group. It's going to motivate all the rest of them.'"

(v) Do not use racist or sexist language. Even if such language does not offend you, it will almost certainly offend your reader(s). Sexist language has almost disappeared from academic writing, and there is no reason why it should appear in yours. In particular, remember that 'girl' is not a correct description of an adult woman, 'Man,' even if capitalized, does not immediately conjure up an image of all human beings, and 'he' is not a gender-neutral pronoun.

(vi) Write as clearly and as simply and as fairly as you can. Do not let Disraeli's satirizing censure of Gladstone, "A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself," be a fit comment on you as revealed in your paper. Remember the advice Samuel Johnson attributed to an "old tutor": "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." That is perhaps extreme, but your aim should be clarity, not beauty.[4] In a similar vein, H. W. Garrod once remarked of his friend Walter Raleigh that if he had a fault it was that he was perhaps too apt to believe that when he had invented an epigram he had concluded a syllogism.

(vii) Two standard mishaps: rhetorical questions and suppressed quantifiers.

(a) There is a tendency, when argument fails us, to fall back on rhetorical questions.[5] Avoid them! At best you will have omitted a necessary argument; more likely, you will have alerted your reader to the existence of an important alternative to which you have failed to give sufficient weight. A classic case occurs in Descartes' Meditation II when he says:

But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.

This is [he continues] a considerable list, if everything on it belongs to me. But does it?[6]

Now, at this stage we expect an argument to show that these items are indeed inseparable. But what we get is a string of rhetorical questions[7] followed by a string of assertions bolstered up by the claim that the connection "is so evident that I can see no way of making it any clearer."[8] If Homer can nod, Descartes can slumber, but you should remain wide awake while writing your philosophy papers.

(b) Quantifiers are terms that alert us to the number of things being considered, for example, 'all Greeks,' 'some philosophers,' 'many politicians,' 'a few scientists,' 'most administrators,' 'the one and only present prime minister of Canada,' and so on. In a note in my son's elementary school Agenda (1998-9), the Canadian Association of Principals tells us that "The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow." No doubt that is true, but if it is true, then it is also true that the students of today are tomorrow's depressed and downtrodden, they are the drifters, derelicts, and drug addicts of tomorrow. The point is that the appropriate quantifier here is some or, even more accurately, if less inspirationally, a very, very few. Omitting quantifiers is a standard device of politicians, propagandists, and advertisers—and, apparently, the Canadian Association of Principals. You should be more honest. If you find yourself tempted to write something like "Philosophers have often held that ...," ask yourself how many? and even which ones? You might even ask when did they hold this view, and for how long? If you put in no quantifiers the chances of your argument being either fallacious or fatuous or both increase greatly.

(viii) Give your references clearly.

That typically means, in the case of a book, giving the author or editor, the title, the place of publication and the publisher, and the date of publication, followed by a page reference,[9] and in the case of a periodical article, the author, the title of the article, the title of the journal, the volume number, the year, and the pages of the article, followed by the page reference.

The philosophy department does not have a required policy for references (nor do philosophy periodicals have a uniform policy), but clarity and consistency are, as always, desirable. Here is one standard way of giving a reference:


Author(s) or Editor(s), Title, (Place of publication: Publisher, Date of publication) Page reference


Annette Baier, Postures of the Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 153.

Periodical articles:

Author(s), "Title of the article," Journal title, Volume number, Year, Page numbers of the article, Page reference.


Annette Baier, "Secular Faith," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 10, 1980, 131-48, 135.

To give less than full information in a reference suggests that your readers will not be interested enough in the topic to want to follow up some of your leads themselves. But they may be. They might even be wondering if your quotation has been taken our of context, or if your paraphrase is really accurate, and want to check up on the matter for themselves. It is your duty as a writer to make that possible for them. (Especially when you realize that the 'them' may well include one or more of your future selves.)

(ix) Just as you should begin your paper, no matter how rough the first draft may be, so too you should also finish that draft, whether or not your conclusion will stand up to the scrutiny to which you will subsequently subject it. If you have some ending or other, there is that much less chance that your paper will join the multitude of partly finished papers that exist in the special Limbo God created for started but uncompleted academic papers.[10] Don't trail off half-way, thinking, "I know how to go on from here," or "It will be straightforward from here on in." It won't be, if you leave it there, but it might be, if you don't. So: Finish your draft! Don't stop following point (i) too early: for a draft of a finished paper is far, far easier to finish than a draft of an unfinished paper. Write a final paragraph as part of your first draft: don't just tail off into nothingness.

(x) Finally, don't forget the central rules of composition:

Don't use no double negatives.

Make each pronoun agree with their antecedent.[11]

When dangling, watch your participles.

Don't use commas, which aren't necessary.

Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

About those sentence fragments.

Try to not ever split infinitives.

It is important to use apostrophe's correctly.

Always read what you have written to see you any words out.

Correct spelling is esential.

Use quotation marks "correctly."

2) The paradox at the heart of teaching:

There is, it seems, a basic paradox at the heart of teaching, particularly the teaching of philosophy. To oversimplify slightly, we only teach two things: knacks and results. We want our students to be aware that the end products of intellectual investigation are important, and that we think they are. Moreover, in the areas we are particularly concerned with we will typically have firm and (we believe, or at least hope) well-thought-out views. But we also want our students to acquire the knack of getting justified beliefs for themselves, even if the cost is their occasionally going astray. So we not only do not mind students disagreeing with our cherished beliefs, we often positively welcome it, as long as the disagreement is well supported. As all good teachers know, this feature of the pedagogical process makes certain students very jumpy. Actually, as all good students know, it also makes certain teachers very jumpy.

So we try to present material neutrally, while at the same time letting our students know that we find the issues important and in general have firm and definite views on what is the case in these matters. Students sometimes, and understandably, wonder: if we find these issues important, and believe that we have found out the, or a, truth of the matter, why on earth are we urging them to make up their own minds. Don't we want them to agree with us? Well, we do, but we also, even more, want them to come to their own conclusions on the basis of rational considerations.

This leads to a suggestion regarding the writing of philosophy papers: do not be afraid to disagree with what you take to be the opinion of your instructor. But do be sure that your position (whether agreeing or disagreeing) is supported by the strongest arguments you can muster. Remember too that your instructor's façade of omniscience is, in almost every case, just that: she or he has not read everything connected with the subject in every recent journal or book (or even every non-recent journal or book), so a little judicious extra work on your part will pay off handsomely in novelty value. "As author has pointed out clearly in "title" [footnote: journal, vol. no, year, pages, page ref.]," you write, "Pascal's wager may be seen to lead to a result diametrically opposed to that intended by Pascal. Briefly, author's argument goes as follows. Etc." Your reader will be surprised, enlightened, and pleased, provided always, of course, that your presentation makes it clear that you understand the argument and are not simply parroting: that you are using it as part of your presentation.

3) The structure of the paper:

Here is one way of proceeding.[12] It is not the only way, but it is a straightforward way:

(i) Outline what you take to be the main issue(s) to be discussed.

(ii) Sketch briefly the more important of the various positions that have been, or could reasonably be, adopted towards these issues. (Often two such will be sufficient.) These need not be, and indeed should not be, solely from other people: you should use the arguments of others, when you use them, as part of your statement of the matter.

(iii) Then, taking the most important of the views you have isolated one by one:

(a) State the positive arguments in favour of the view.

(b) Show the difficulties that attend it

(α) by showing any weaknesses in the positive arguments just sketched,

and (β) by showing what independent (negative) arguments there are against the view.

(c) Put forward any defence to these criticisms that the holder of the view might reasonably offer.

(iv) Sum up by drawing one of the following results to your readers' attention:

(a) One view now appears, given your paper, as conclusively the best view.

(b) Though one view is clearly better than its contenders it is not without difficulties.

(c) The views are too nearly balanced to allow us to claim any one view as clearly superior to its contenders.

Notice two things especially. One is that each one of these three results is intellectually acceptable. What is important is that you get the actual relationship between the various positions correct. It is not necessary to opt for one particular point of view and defend it come what may. Your aim is clarity and rigour, not debating tricks and rhetoric. Secondly, note that your conclusion may not, in such a case, agree with your own beliefs on the matter. You may believe that a certain result is correct (that abortion is morally acceptable, or morally unacceptable; that God exists, or that God does not exist; that simplicity is an important feature of acceptable scientific theories, or that simplicity is irrelevant to acceptability of scientific theories, etc.) but find that your argument fails to yield the result you favour or even (gasp!) tells in favour of an alternative and incompatible position. This does not mean that you have to give up your favoured position (though it does mean that you should think long and hard about it.) Greater philosophers than you have found themselves in this situation, and have had the honesty to admit it. If you never find a rebuttal you should certainly consider abandoning your initial position, but it is certainly allowable to be baffled pro tem.

(v) Because of lack of time, space, or knowledge, one or more of these steps may often have to be omitted or truncated, but they can at least be sketched or outlined. This will help you as well as your readers.

(vi) Don't be afraid to set out your main points in point form. Say: the points I shall argue for / discuss / consider are:

  1. . . . ,
  2. . . .,
  3. . . ., etc.

Do this even if it strikes you as being a way of introducing spurious clarity into your paper, for you may well discover, having done it, that it introduces real clarity.

4) A word of psychological, or Popperian, advice:

Karl Popper has suggested that it is more important to try to falsify our own views than to attempt to confirm them. Initially he drew our attention to the importance of attempting to falsify our position on logical and methodological grounds, but he soon began to emphasize its importance on psychological grounds. Popper wrote:

Philosophers are as free as others to use any method in searching for truth. There is no method peculiar to philosophy. . . .

And yet, I am quite ready to admit that there is a method which might be described as 'the one method of philosophy.' But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone; it is, rather, the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy. The method I have in mind is that of stating one's problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically.

I have italicized the words 'rational discussion' and 'critically' in order to stress that I equate the rational attitude and the critical attitude. The point is that whenever we try to propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practise this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form—a form in which it can be critically discussed.[13]

Popper's point is surely correct. We are, all of us, all too human, and that means, among other things, that we are likely to be far more easily convinced of something we ourselves already hold than we are of a contrary opinion. Realizing this, however, we should also realize that we should use most of our time and effort in the attempt to investigate the difficulties which may beset our own position. We should expend our energy in the attempt to find good arguments for opposing positions, and to find strong criticisms of the arguments by which we support our own. Always remind yourself that a discussion, by definition, involves the consideration of arguments pro and con.

Probably, as Popper suggests, this is the preferred method of rational discourse. Certainly it is effectively the method used by a number of good philosophers. Those of you who have studied some philosophy will undoubtedly think of a number of paradigm cases: St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, assiduously searching the literature for good arguments against his position, and often providing the best ones himself; William of Ockham, constrained by his love of truth, which pulled him one way, and his admiration for the church fathers (which led him in another) admitting that he found himself in an unsolvable dilemma with respect to future contingents; Freddie Ayer or Hilary Putnam in our own day (or at least my own day), ever willing to admit that—at any given moment—their position was at risk from the strength of this or that opposing argument, opposing arguments which were, often, provided by themselves. This suggests

5) A final point:

During the course of writing your paper, or while considering what you might write, do not hesitate to discuss the problem with others: philosophy is paradigmatically a dialectical activity, and discussing your views with others will on some occasions lead to their being modified, and on almost every occasion will help to clarify them for you. However, when all is said and done, we don't really know what we think, at least on philosophical matters, until we write it all down as clearly, as coherently, and as cogently as we can. So the last word of advice is also the first: start writing!


  1. Of course it can be hard. Here is Simone de Beauvoir on the matter: "How hot it was in Italy! My arms stuck to the table, and the words got gummed up inside the cells of my brain. I couldn't get them down into my pen. (Force of Circumstance, [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968], 444)," and Thomas Hardy has his rural characters discussing the new minister make a similar point:

    "... He's a poor gawk-hammer. Look at his sermon yesterday."

    "His sermon was well enough, a very good guessable sermon, only he couldn't put it into words and speak it. That's all was the matter wi' the sermon. He hadn't been able to get it past his pen."

    "Well—ay, the sermon might have been good; for, 'tis true, the sermon of Old Eccl'iastes himself lay in Eccl'iastes's ink bottle afore he got it out."

    Mr Penny, being in the act of drawing the last stitch tight, could afford to look up and throw in a word at this point.

    "He's no spouter—that must be said, 'a b'lieve."

    "'Tis a terrible muddle with the man, as far as spout do go," said Spinks.

    Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree, Part 2, Chapter 2. [back]

  2. The model for philosophers is the handwriting of St. Thomas Aquinas which was so difficult to read it came to be known as the littera inintelligibilis: the unreadable script. (Ralph McInerny, St. Thomas Aquinas [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982, reprinting Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977], 23.) [back]
  3. Act ii. scene 3. The comma was in fact omitted in the First Folio. [back]
  4. Disraeli was speaking at a banquet on July 28, 1878. (B. Disraeli, Collected Works, 20 vols. (New York: M. Walter Dunne, 1904), vol. 20, Endymion, Etc., 'Wit and Wisdom of the Earl of Beaconsfield,' p. 83.) Johnson was contrasting two historians: 'No man will read Robertson's cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith's plain narrative will please again and again.' (Boswell's Life, Apr. 30, 1773.) Notice a corollary of this point: you should use a Thesaurus, if at all, with extreme care. [back]
  5. The next step down is simple abuse, but you are not allowed to make use of this device until you are professional philosophers. [back]
  6. Ch. Adam and P. Tannery, Oeuvres de Descartes 11 vols. (Paris: J. Vrin, 1964-76, hereafter AT), 7:28, translated by John Cottingham in J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, A. Kenny, translators and editors., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-1991, hereafter CSMK), 2:19. [back]
  7. "Is it not one and the same 'I' who is now doubting almost everything, who nonetheless understands some things, who affirms that this one thing is true, denies everything else, desires to know more, is unwilling to be deceived, imagines many things even involuntarily, and is aware of many things which apparently come from the senses? Are not all these things just as true as the fact that I exist, even if I am asleep all the time, and even if he who created me is doing all he can to deceive me? Which of all these activities is distinct from my thinking? Which of them can be said to be separate from myself?" etc. AT 7:28-29, CSMK 2:19. [back]
  8. AT 7:29, CSMK 2:19. [back]
  9. The exception to this comes when you are quoting from a standard source available in a number of editions. Consult your readers' convenience and quote or refer to Locke's Essay by Book, Chapter, and Section, not some particular edition's page number, for example; similarly, a section number will be the most useful way to refer your reader to Berkeley's Principles. However, if there is a standard edition in use—Adam and Tannery's Descartes, for example, or the Gerhardt Leibniz—senior students at least should get into the habit of giving that reference as well as a reference which will let readers find their way to the source in other editions, if necessary. [back]
  10. Like the angels, they "exist in exceeding great number, far beyond all material multitude." (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 50.3 c.) It follows from ST 1a 7.4 that they are at most a denumerable infinity, however, and are in fact probably finite, though large, in number. The unstarted papers by contrast have a higher cardinality, and may be non-denumerable. [back]
  11. Notice that avoiding sexist language may lead you to break this particular commandment. Morality is more important than grammar, even when the grammatical rules are amusing. [back]
  12. For a more full scale discussion of these issues see Jay F. Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy (Englewood-Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978). [back]
  13. K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson, 1959), 15-16. [back]
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