Is there a meaning to life? Do we have a free will? Is there a God? These are some of the so-called “Big Questions” that often motivated philosophers of the past, are intriguing to academically trained philosophers of the present and will be stimulating intellectual discussions among a more general audience in the future. Such questions may become a topic for your philosophy essay assigned at the university. For many students, writing a philosophy essay is something of a new experience and you might be a little unsure of what you should expect, or of what is expected of you. In this philosophy essay writing guide, you will find some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at the university that will help you determine where you should direct your efforts to achieve the best result.
First of all, you should realize that philosophical essays are different from essays in most other subjects. Wondering why?
Instead, a philosophy essay is a reasoned defense of a thesis. When writing assignments in your philosophy classes, you have to be doing philosophy. You need to ask insightful questions about fundamental ideas and concepts and provide reasoned, well-argued responses to these questions. You need to establish logical relations between your thoughts. Your task is to convince your reader that your thesis is correct so you have to use the method of rational persuasion.
To write a strong philosophy essay, you should demonstrate your ability to think critically about certain issues and present your independent thought by offering new analogies, new examples, and counter-examples of familiar points or even a novel argument.
Your philosophy essay can’t consist of a simple report of your opinions on a particular topic or present a report of the opinions of other philosophers, it must present an argument. Your task is to defend the points you claim in your essay so you must offer convincing reasons to believe your claims.
That’s why you can’t merely state: “My view is that S.”
Instead, you must write something like: “My view is S. I believe it is true because…” or “I think the following ideas … provide a convincing argument for S.”
Typically, you should start with your thesis and then make one of the following steps:
No matter what purpose for the essay you set, you need to present convincing reasons to accept the claims you make and try to persuade other people to believe you.
Typically, a list of philosophy essay topics you can choose from is provided by your instructor. The topics are usually designed to invite you to deal with some specific philosophical issue or problem. They might be challenging but they give you a good chance to demonstrate how you understand a certain philosophical issue or problem and show your own skills in doing philosophy that is doing analysis, providing argumentation etc.
You may be asked to respond to a certain philosophical statement, provide the explanation of a concept or a theory, give the detailed interpretation of a certain text, critically evaluate a philosophical theory or present your own answers to fundamental philosophical questions. Such philosophical questions may concern ethics and morality, science and technology, the universe and reality, human nature and human consciousness etc. Here are some examples of such philosophical questions that you are free to use as topics for your philosophy essays.
Before you start writing, you should make sure you understand the assignment. If you were given a longer prompt, pay attention to such words as “compare”, “evaluate”, “explain” or “outline”. You should present your own answers, give reasons, answer objections, and critically evaluate alternative approaches.
You should start with organizing your thoughts on the given topic. A good outline will increase your chances to make your philosophy essay logical, clear, and coherent. Besides, you will be able to see if you miss some elements in your argument. Your outline may look like this one:
Your next step is to think about a clear structure of your essay that will help your audience follow your argument and reduce the chances that your readers may get confused. Typically, your essay should follow the outline we have presented above and consist of the introduction, body paragraphs where you present your arguments and counterarguments, and the conclusion that summarizes your key points.
Philosophical problems are complex and writing a philosophy essay requires careful and extended reflection. You can’t do it during the night before your essay is due so it’s important to start thinking about your topic as early as possible. Most likely, you will need to write more than one draft and make a lot of revisions to ensure that your essay is logical, clear, and concise. So it’s best to start working on your essay as soon as it is assigned to you.
When writing your essay, you should use simple, straightforward words and keep your paragraphs and sentences short. Try to avoid complicated language when you can find simple ways to communicate the same idea exactly.
Begin your introduction with formulating your thesis. You inform your reader what your essay sets to achieve – what your thesis is and how you are going to support your point of view.
e.g. In this essay, I will argue that Mr. Smith … I will use the following approach …
You should also explain some technical terms that you use in your argument to avoid ambiguity and help your readers grasp your ideas. Besides, you can provide motivation for your reader to read your essay to the end and explain why your argument is important and why your readers should care about it.
If necessary, you should clarify how you are going to present your argument and lay out the structural plan for your essay to make the structure of your essay obvious to your readers and help them follow it.
If your task is to critically evaluate someone’s argument, you will need first to explain this argument to your audience and only after that you should provide your critique. Keep in mind that you will need to present the argument in your own words and make your explanation concise and precise.
In the body of your essay, you need to give your own argument on a specific essay topic and use plenty of examples and definitions. Philosophic claims are very abstract and difficult to understand and examples may help to make those claims clearer to the audience. You should write as many paragraphs as you have the key points and devote one paragraph to one point of your argument. It’s the most critical part of your essay because it will actually show your understanding of the subject and your ability to make your points concisely, thoroughly, and coherently.
When discussing views of other people, you can use direct quotations or paraphrases and reference them properly according to the citation style specified by your instructor. But you should quotations and paraphrases to the minimum because it’s your essay and your instructor is interested to see your own words.
Your argument will be stronger if you anticipate possible objections to it and respond to them. Very often this is an essential part of your philosophy essay. It actually provides support to your main argument and makes your key points more compelling. There can be different objections to your thesis but you should always think about the strongest objections and reply to them. Don’t take the unconvincing objections you can easier respond to. If you can’t formulate a decisive reply to these objections, you should admit it as well. Sometimes, your assignment may be to think about and provide several objections to your thesis and defend it against them.
When presenting your argument and providing objections, you should to be very precise and state exactly what you mean. In this way, you will minimize the chances of being misunderstood. Commonly, you should expect to complete a short essay of about 3 double-spaced pages so you should avoid using too many arguments because too many arguments will confuse your readers. Keep your structure simple, focus on your topic, and stick to your thesis and arguments.
Keep in mind that your essays in philosophy don’t necessarily have to provide a straight affirmative or negative answer to your question or a definite solution to a problem. It’s OK to ask questions in your essay even if you can’t answer them.
You can use the following structure for your essay to make it flow smoothly.
Your conclusion should be brief. Tell your audience what you think your argument has established. You should restate your thesis statement and give a short summary of your argument. You should be creative and don’t copy your introduction. In this part of your essay, you want to emphasize the most important limitations and implications of your own argument. Don’t provide any new information.
When you finish your rough draft, put it aside for a couple of days and then revise it several times, considering the structure of your argument and your word choice as well. Typically, you will need to revise your draft several times and you should save all your drafts as you go along. That will allow you to go back if you decide to change your mind. Your final draft should provide the clearest version of your final argument.
When revising your draft, you can make the following steps:
You should proofread your philosophy essay very carefully to fix minor mistakes and typos. A good idea is to find someone to read your essay. Your family member or a friend may notice some mistakes that you may overlook on your own because of the typical writer’s blindness. Before you submit your essay, make sure you have done everything possible to make it the best it can be.