How to Plan a Philosophy Paper.

Jeff McLaughlin Ph.D.

Thompson Rivers University

Part Two of a Three Part Series
Part One: Reading | Part Two: Planning | Part Three: Writing | Home


So, your philosophy class is only days old and your professor, whoís name you donít even know, is already talking about the first essay that isnít due for weeks if not months down the road. You might be tempted to wait until the very last minute to actually start writing it but by then five other assignments from your other classes are also due. Not a smart move, but understandable. Itís only human nature to try and avoid doing those things that we donít like, whether its homework or going to the dentist. Even if you get a ĎBí on the paper, image what you could have gotten if you had spent more time on it.

What is the consequence of waiting until the very last minute? Well, on the positve side, youíve managed to avoid doing something that you donít really want to do. But on the negative side, youíll lose a lot of sleep, skip a few early morning classes, be cranky and stressed and submit a flawed piece of work that doesnít accurately represent what you think or what you are capable of. Oh, and youíll probably get a poor grade too.

Writing guides are intended to assist you in expressing your views and arguments clearly and with philosophical force. Poor grammar and uncritical thinking combined with weak presentation and research skills will interfere with your attempts to convince the reader of your claims. Your reader wants to be enlightened by your writing, not confused; and most certainly, they donít want to have to treat your essay like some jumbled word puzzle with no clear direction or purpose. Readers should not have to work hard at deciphering your intent.

In fact, you really donít need to spend more time writing your paper, you need to spend more time planning it. In this second part of our "How To" series, youíll learn how to systematically plan your philosophy paper.

Before we begin, letís be sure that we are on the same track. More often than not, a philosophy paper is a position paper or argumentative paper. It is not a Ďresearch paperí. A pure research paper involves amongst other things, establishing or discovering facts, for example, medical facts, historical facts, governmental facts etc. A position paper is just that, a paper where you take or explain a position or point of view. You are trying to convince your reader of the thesis that you put forward.

In order to successfully convince the reader of your own views, your professor will be checking to see whether you adequately grasp the material and its implications, can critically analyze and evaluate the relevant issues and can reasonably defend your thesis.

A position paper should not be considered just an opportunity for stating your own opinions (opinions are philosophically uninteresting since they simply are unsupported claims.) Although we are contrasting this process with a standard Ďresearch paperí, we are not saying that you donít do any research for your project. Research is a key element to find out more about your topic as well as the different views and arguments that people have offered regarding it. Youíll need to do research to first understand the topic, the surrounding issues and implications; then youíll need to do research to find out what other people think and then youíll need to do research to support your own views. Doing all of this requires time. Something you will sorely lack if you put the paper off until the last minute.

If there is any theme of this paper it is to stress the need have enough time to devote to your project. Letís repeat that again: GIVE YOUR ASSIGNMENT, YOUR TOPIC AND YOUR READER THE TIME THEY DESERVE.

You need time to reflect, conduct research, reflect some more and put your ideas down on paper. You need time to walk away from those ideas and time to revisit them. You need time to dig around in libraries and the Internet and then armed with this additional input, alter, strengthen and revise your work. You will then need more time to do the mechanical bits like editing and proofreading and making sure that you have ink for your printerÖ

And since time is important, letís get on to the main points shall we?

1. Understand nature of the assignment.

Your topic may be assigned to you or you may be directed to choose a topic within certain parameters. Regardless of which approach is taken by your professor, you must understand the topic and the assignment requirements for although you might write a competent paper it might completely miss the point! Be sure about the instructions. Are you asked to analyze a particular work or concept? Are you asked to summarize without evaluation? Are you asked to compare and contrast the positions of different philosophers or philosophies? How many words are required? Is it a short paper or a longer one? Whatever the length, be mindful to stay close to the established limits. Writing a too-short paper will entail that you donít spend adequate time to sufficiently develop and explore complex ideas. A too-long paper may suffer from repetition or may be Ďlong windedí and simply defeat the purpose of the assignment (e.g., to be able to present material in a concise manner).

If you are unclear about the assigned essay topic or if you are unfamiliar with the topic background, or if you are unsure about the philosophical terminology, look to the reference section of your library for a philosophy dictionary or encyclopedia. This reading will also help you frame the topic within a larger context and has the potential to provide you with information to assist you when you actually start the formal writing process. Do not simply turn to a standard dictionary (like Websterís) since the definitions that you will be supplied with will either be hopelessly incorrect or incomplete. If you prefer to look on the web, try sites such as Garth Kemerlingís Dictionary of Philosophy or the How to Read a Philosophy Paper to assist you in this aspect of your preparation.

If you are required to come up with your own essay topic you should pick one after considering the following four guidelines.

Pick something that is relevant.

It sounds obvious but sometimes students will get off track quickly and choose a topic that isnít quite what the professor wanted. This might be due to your not understanding the nature of the assignment or due to your choosing a topic that is too general or vague. Itís wise just to clear your topic with your professor to see if you are on the right track. He or she will then be able to give you some further direction on what to do.

Pick something that you are interested in.

They say time flies when you are having fun... While some topics may seem easier than others, donít let your initial impressions be the overriding factor. If you are not interested in the topic then the actually writing process will become more difficult since you donít have anything vested in the project.

Choose a topic that is Ďdo-ableí.

Essay topics like "The philosophy of Aristotle", "What is Truth?", or "Science versus Religion", are far too broad. When thinking about your topic it is better that the "pool be small and deep, rather than wide and shallow". Thatís a murky metaphor but basically it means donít bite off more than you can chew. You donít want to touch on fifty different and disjointed points and say nothing substantial about any of them (or you run the risk of writing a Ďtoo-long paperí). Instead, you want to pick a manageable topic that allows you some room for an in depth exploration of the particular issue. Are you keen on the topic of euthanasia? What aspect? Voluntary vs. Non-voluntary? Active vs. Passive? The role of non-family members as decision makers? Consideration of potential negative utilitarian consequences of a newborn euthanasia policy? Narrow your focus and develop your exploration of it.

.Pick something that you can find materials on.

While you may find a topic that interests you, you should check to see what sorts of resources available. You might struggle with arguments and ideas if you canít find more than 2 or 3 pieces that only mention your topic in passing.

2. Make preliminary notes about the topic from your own perspective.

Once you have tentatively chosen a topic and have an understanding of it, try putting some of your own thoughts down on paper. Put your comments down as potential areas that you may want to explore later on. Just because you have chosen a topic doesnít necessarily mean that you clearly know what you think about it let alone know what you want to say about it. Try and answer the following questions What do you think about the topic? What do you want to say? What troubles you about this topic? What do you like about it? What do you find interesting or confusing? Do you see it leading to particular consequences? Can you think of any examples that highlight any of your concerns or which highlight the claims being put forward by proponents of the particular position? Now is the time to start the creative juices flowing. Do you find that you seem to be in favor of one stance over another? Are you leaning in one direction but arenít quite sure? Just put your thoughts down on paper. This doesnít have to be any sort of formal presentation right now and by no means do these precursory comments have to be well-developed or even consistent with each other. The challenge is to just get started. The mechanical process of writing, of putting pen to paper Ėeven if you are not sure what you want to say- will help you.

3. Conduct your first search for potential sources.

After youíve got your topic and put down a few thoughts about it you need to find out what is out there. While you might think that the Internet is the best place to go to see what sorts of resources are available it isnít the best place to start with. Look first to your own class text. It may contain a bibliography or a list of Ďrecommended readingsí. Does the author or editor have an introduction to the text or for each chapter? In it he or she might explicitly refer to other books or at least raise some discussion questions that may provide some key terms that you can use for your searching. The book or article might mention other sources like journals or some other texts that you can go search for in your universityís library. Look at the footnotes provided in the different resources. These too will point you to other sources. Remember, each source, whether itís an encyclopedia, a journal, a book, an anthology, an index, a glossary of terms or a footnote has the potential to lead you to other sources. Interestingly, this process of using one reference to link to another is just the same way we use hyperlinks on the World Wide Web. So sit yourself down in the middle of the library stacks and start flipping through various journals and texts that you find on the shelves. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you can discover by just spending an hour digging around.

If you arenít having luck finding anything on your topic, you may want to ask for further guidance from the librarian or from your professor. It may be the case that youíll have to just change your topic to find more fruitful material.

We should point out that if you havenít taken an official tour of your library yet, do so. Find out where things are. Find out how to look things up. Find out where the reference books are, the periodicals, the photocopy machines... Ask questions. Ask for assistance. Scout out the place before wasting any more time otherwise youíll be doing this every time you have to return to the library to research a paper. Related to this, if you are not comfortable going on-line, work your way through the tutorial on searching the web. It is important to be able to search effectively and critically so you can distinguish between a dubious site from one that is a potential goldmine.

4. Get your preliminary sources together.

Itís now time to get your readings together. You may find that some of the sources arenít appropriate or quite what you need, but for now, get a small collection together and start searching them for applicability. Often it doesnít take very long to figure out that a particular article is relevant or irrelevant to what you want. Read the table of contents, look at the authorís introduction, look at the index to see what key terms are mentioned frequently. Use those key terms to find other sources. If you look up a book on a shelf, look at all the others on the same shelf. If you found a useful article in a journal, look at previous issues and later ones (perhaps someone has written a rebuttal to the piece you like!) If thereís a blurb on the book jacket, read it. For the name of the reviewer on the book jacket might be someone you want to research. After plopping your self down in a library aisle and finding potential sources, grab a photocopy machine and start making copies (be sure to check the copyright regulations!) for your personal use.

While you can tentatively rely on the fact that the library books or journals that you are using are Ďqualityí works given that they were selected by someone to include in the university collection, remember to critically evaluate any work that you are considering to use as support for your own views. This is even more pressing when you turn to the World Wide Web where anyone can publish anything on-line. Fortunately, many people have taken the time to put together websites that list various resources for you to use. You will find a few listed on my homepage. As well, search engines like HIPPIAS go a great distance to help people find philosophical materials.

5. Understand, then critically reflect upon the articles youíve found.

Read the articles that youíve selected. You need to be a bear (as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears) about your research now. You donít want too many references to overwhelm the project because you canít tackle everything (remember the shallow pool metaphor from earlier) and you donít want too little (remember you need to demonstrate an understanding of the issues and not just use the paper as a soapbox for your own ideas, no matter how marvelous they may be). You must understand the material before you can evaluate it. Make notes on your photocopies, use a highlighter, or a pen to capture ideas or quotes that you want to use (but donít plagiarize!). If you are not sure how to read the articles effectively, be sure to check out on part 1 of this series for further help. Take time to digest and reflect upon the information.

6. Create an outline.

Go back now to the ideas that you jotted down a while ago. Are there any common threads? Can you pull some of them together to form a sense of where you might want to go? Do the articles that you found offer new insights and leads? Do they answer any questions or do they lead you to ask more? How do the articles that youíve been reading help you? Think of this process as teamwork. Many others have been down the road you are traveling and can offer suggestions on where to turn and what to watch out for. Try to build on what they have done. Now is the time to create an outline of your arguments or at a minimum, sketch out your ideas and construct an informal flow chart connecting this point to that and so on.

7. Write your first draft.

Start writing your essay. See Part 3 of our series by Prof. Berkeley for assistance. Once you have composed the first draft (yes, you will require more than one draft of your paper!) WALK AWAY FROM YOUR ESSAY.

8.Walk away!

You need time to be able to shut off your goal-driven mind and re-examine your paper. This is because when youíve been writing for extended periods of time you can lose your objectivity. For example, have you ever read one of your own essays over and over again and had a friend just glance at it once and spot typos that you never saw? This is because you are so used to what you have written and are so intimate with the ideas that you can skim over all the miscues. This is also why when reading the paper it may be clear as day to you but to someone else it makes no sense. The reason for this is that you know what you wanted to say, and you know what you mean and where you are going, but these things may not be adequately reflected by what actually appears on your paper. You want to avoid having to admit that "what I really meant to say here was..." Avoid it by coming back to your paper not as the writer of the piece but as someone who is disinterested.

9. Revisit and revise viciously!

By taking the time to clear your head (at least one good nightís sleep!) you can return to your paper from a more objective point of view. You can see what you may have missed or what needs to be rewritten or deleted or further defended. Often reading the paper out loud to yourself or to a friend can bring out any leaps of logic, incongruities, digressions and basic presentation problems. Here are some of the things you should be checking for:

Do you offer a clear thesis and tell the reader where you are going to take them? Do you take them where you said you were in the most effective manner? Do you state your arguments? Do you offer a credible defense of it Ė- not only by supplying your own reasons but the reasons of others? Do any of your claims that you use as justification require further justification themselves? Do you offer and consider other points of view? What have other people said both in favor and against the sorts of views that you are putting forward? Why should the reader accept your argument as opposed to the others that are out there (and which you may even discuss)? Do you consider their implications on your own position? Can you reasonably cast doubt on views that are inconsistent with your own? Can you see the implications of your view? Do you accept these implications? Do you see any weaknesses with your theory? Have you explicitly acknowledged any potential criticisms and attempted to meet them head on? Are these criticisms serious enough to require a wholesale review of your argument or can you accept the weakness by altering your position within reasonable limits? Are there areas that are ambiguous or vague? Are there any inconsistencies? Have you committed any fallacies?

10. Check your paper manually before handing it in.

Finally, youíre almost done. After editing the content of your paper, check the mechanics. Run a spellcheck program. If you havenít done so already, print off a copy of your paper. Manually proofread your paper. Often students will just do the former but the spellchecker wonít see errors such as "These cent tents says dough not make scents." By looking at your essay on paper rather than on your computer screen you may catch obvious errors, leaps in logic, unconnected paragraphs and poor transitions that you might miss if you only view it on the screen. Now repeat the last two steps until you are happy and/or until it is time to hand your paper in!

Now do you see why we assign essays weeks in advance?

End of Part Two of a Three Part Series
Part One: Reading | Part Two: Planning | Part Three: Writing | Home