The point of the exercise is for you to (a) display your understanding of the issue/argument; and (b)
show that you are able to explain it in a rigorous and structured manner. In order to do that well, you
(i) explain the issue: put the argument in its broader context and explain what the argument is about
exactly, and how that issue arises, why it’s important.
(ii) explain the relevant theories: you then need to show you understand the relevant theoretical
options at stake in the argument, by explaining the relevant theories, their main claims, the logical
consequences of these claims, and how exactly these theories oppose one another.
(iii) explain the argument: the central point of your paper consists in the detailed explanation of an
argument. You need to reconstruct the logical structure of the argument (in premises-conclusion
form), explain the relevant technical terms, explain why the premises might seem plausible and
what reasons might support them, and then explain how exactly the inference/argument is
supposed to work.
(iv) evaluate the argument: finally, you need to show the ability to critically engage with the
argument, by thinking of at least one possible response or objection one might raise either against
some of the premises or about the logical validity of the argument, and you need to explain such an
objection or response in some level of detail.
As a result, your paper needs to have at least the following sections:
The more important section, in a way, and so the one that is wise to write last. In it, you must try
very quickly to give a sense to your reader of what your paper is about, by explaining the topic and
explaining what you will do in your paper. This is where you either get in the reader or fail to sell
your paper as something worth reading—so be careful! More importantly, you need to give a succinct
but informative presentation of the general philosophical question/issue your argument is about, and
so must address the following questions:
• what is the overall/general problem/issue, exactly? How does is arise?
• why is it a problem? What kind of problem is it?
• who is it a problem for exactly? Why theory or assumptions is threatened or undermined by
such a problem?
The introduction also serves two other purposes: in describing the issue, make sure to define the
relevant technical terms, and include a short paragraph describing your goals in the paper
(what you’ll do in each section of the paper and in what order, and why).
ii. Describe the Theoretical Options
Section two essentially consists in a clear and detailed presentation of the relevant theories—relevant
to the argument you discuss in the next section, that is: including the theory supported by the
argument and the opposing theory or theories targeted by that argument. Here, you must:
• state as precisely as possible the various claims each theory makes;
• explain the relevant technical terms used by such theories;
• try to explain the intuitive motivations for such theories;
• tease out the relevant implications of such theories—what do they entail that makes a
difference to the dispute?
• more importantly, explain how exactly the theories oppose one another: which claim
of which theory contradicts which claim of the other theory.
PHIL 1305 INTRO TO PHILOSOPHY How to write a philosophy paper?
2 How to write a philosophy paper
iii. Explain the Argument
You should then (a) present, (b) reconstruct, and (c) explain the argument in detail. Sometimes it
helps to have a quotation of an author who uses that argument, only to make it clear that you are not
making things up (someone really used that argument!). Then, reconstruct the logical structure of the
argument by writing down the relevant premises and the conclusion in the right order. Finally, explain
the argument—your explanation, and this is crucial, should contain the following:
• explain what the premises (and the conclusion) mean, including the relevant technical
terms (if you haven’t already).
• explain what motivates the premises: describe any intuitive considerations or
evidence that supports the various premises.
• explain how the reasoning behind the argument is supposed to work, step-by-step:
think of an argument as a recipe, and make sure you list all the steps and all the ingredients in
the right order.
Importantly, you should be able to do all this even if you don’t accept some of the premises and don’t
think the argument does work: what you need to do is put yourself in the shoes of someone who finds
the argument compelling.
iv. Criticism (if applicable)
Finally, you need to develop at least one critical worry with the argument, and explain it in detail. In
particular, you must:
• identify the problematic premise or inferential step in the argument.
• describe and motivate the assumptions upon which your criticism is based.
• explain in detail how such assumptions undermine a premise or inferential step
in the argument.
Briefly summarize what you’ve done—the main points you’ve established in your paper.
Your final paper will be graded in light of the following criteria:
1) quality/precision/detail of the explanations
Almost everything you say in the paper needs to be explained and motivated or justified with as much
clarity and rigor as possible, including (i) the nature of the issue, (ii) the relevant theories, (iii) the
premises of the argument and the reasoning involved, (iv) your criticism of the argument.
It will help to apply the following rules:
GP: the grandma principle: imagine you are writing this paper as an explanation that will
be read, not by me, but by someone who doesn’t know anything about the topic (e.g., your
grandma), and you must help her to understand what this is about. This should help you
ensure that nothing is left unexplained in your paper.
EX: the example principle: it always help to explain things with the help of an example. Be
sure to select one relatively simple relevant example which you can use throughout your
paper (in describing the issue, in explaining the relevant theories, as well as the argument, and
in deploying your criticism of such an argument).
3 How to write a philosophy paper
D: define, define, define: make sure to define the relevant technical terms—use your
example to explain them if you can.
To be clear: originality, or personal opinions, really don’t matter all that much here! The point is for
you to show that you understand, and so can explain, other peoples’ theories and arguments, and can
make them accessible to someone else.
2) justifying/motivating the claims you make
Never ever say that things seem plausible (explain why they are plausible), or that everyone has their
own view (you’re supposed to discuss the reasons/arguments for such views and to evaluate them).
So, abide as much as possible to:
RP: the reason principle: make sure you always have a reason (a good one if possible) for
any claim or any evaluation you make, and make sure you can articular and explain that reason
in enough detail.
3) ascribing the relevant claims/arguments to the relevant authors
First, it’s very important that you cite your sources and explain where you obtained the
information you are using, and which philosophers defend which theory, or propose which argument.
(see section on Plagiarism for more details)
Second, you need to make it as clear and transparent as possible when you are
expressing your own view, and when you are explaining or reporting someone
else’s view. It’s ok to use expressions such as “according to x, p is true”, “y rejects p”, etc. (for
some useful suggestions in that regard:
Answer & Explanation
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