How to Write a Philosophy Paper

Jeff McLaughlin Ph.D.

Thompson Rivers University

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

MLA Footnotes and Bibliography

The process of writing a good philosophy paper can begin when you are evaluating the works of others; that is, you can learn by example. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, not all ‘classics’ are good candidates for you to follow. What follows here are just a few suggestions on how to write your own paper. Of course, any requirements or recommendations of your Professor will take precedence over these instructions.


Your Title

Although the first thing a reader will see is the title of your essay, the choice of title is perhaps best left for last. This is the case because a title should give an good indication as to the nature of the work – and you’ll have a better idea of what this is when the paper has been completed.


Why should the reader read your paper and not someone else’s? Make the title informative but not too specific – it’s a title, not a wordy thesis statement. Feel free to personalize the title but don’t make it wildly outrageous!


Let’s image that you are writing a paper in Epistemology. One possible title would be: Truth   Problematic? Definitely. ‘Truth’ is far too generic, and a bit pompous to boot. How about: The Correspondence Theory of Truth. – Better; but it is still too broad and it doesn’t provide the reader with a sense of the paper’s purpose. The Correspondence Theory of Truth: A Defense – This is even better as it gives the reader an indication as to what you’re examining and hints at what your point of view will be. Of course, it’s not very sexy but we leave that possibility up to you.


Your opening

Your opening paragraph(s) should set the stage for the rest of the paper. You are providing your reader with a contextual roadmap of what they can expect. It provides the reader with some indication as to why the topic is important, what the general problem is (or has been) and what your general thesis will be. If you have the space, you may wish to provide a brief glimpse of the main points you will be making- but be careful, you don’t want to spend 1/3 of a short essay just explaining what the essay will be about. Just like your title, you may want to write the first paragraph last. This is due to the fact that you may not be quite sure what direction the paper will ultimately take and what the various arguments will be. Thus, instead of trying to force your paper to comply with the limits that you set out in a poor opening paragraph, just sketch the start of your paper to begin with and then jump right into the main text. Of course, the creation of an outline prior to this (see ‘How to Plan your Paper)will benefit. Once you’ve written the first draft, then you can go back and tweak the opening paragraph.  


Your text

While the opening sentence of each paragraph should be a new idea or an expansion of a previous one, it must flow naturally from the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Take care that you don’t jump around from point to point without warning the reader – otherwise the reader will be lost as to where you are going and what you are trying to accomplish. Of course, there are many different approaches to write your essay, and sometimes it just becomes a matter of what works best for you, the topic and what your instructor wants. For example, you may want to present the issue, your views, then the possible objections and your responses; or you may wish to develop these things all in tandem. That is, present an argument and a possible objection then resolve the criticism and move on.  


The central sentences of a paragraph will provide details and expand the claim being made while the final sentence will leave the reader with a strong sense of what this key point is as well as setting up the next paragraph. Paragraphs should not be overly long however.


As a general rule, stronger arguments should be reserved for later on in your paper. Start with the more fragile or the less significant ones first, and then build up your case. You don’t want to end on a weak note since the last things you say will be the first things that the reader will remember. Don’t be afraid to offer an apparent weak point – so long as you are able to recognize that it is a difficulty and are able to successfully respond to it. For example, let’s say your claim is that ‘any form of euthanasia is immoral and it should never be an institutionalized practice because physicians are in the business of curing people, not killing them’. One objection (and there would be many) might be the fact that this blanket prohibition means that there will be people who will be suffering needlessly: “Is it fair to force an elderly woman who is terminally ill to be in a constant state of pain until her death?” To this you might reply that not permitting euthanasia doesn’t mean that we should stop caring for patients. Perhaps a new drug regiment can be put into practice to ease her pain; perhaps legalization of medicinal marijuana is needed, and so forth.



Your conclusion

Your conclusion should pull the pieces of your paper together for one final ‘send-off’.  This is the last chance you have to grab the reader. The conclusion is used to restate your thesis and main arguments with reference to the specific concerns of your paper as well as to the general topic. It should complete what you started in such a fashion that the reader can walk away gaining some insight into what you were trying to do all along.


Your paper’s characteristics

Let’s assume you are writing a relatively long argumentative paper. When constructing your paper be sure that:




How to Cite Your Sources

MLA Footnotes and Bibliography


Footnotes or endnotes can be used for two different purposes. The first is to give information regarding the resource you are citing, the second is to use them for commentary that does not fit in the main body of your paper but is still relevant and worth stating. For example, in a footnote you might provide the entire passage that you quoted from or you might make offer a general remark about the author or the source.


Many instructors permit inclusion of reference citations within the body of the essay. For example,


Dualists, and even Idealists, would dispute the claim of the Reductionists since these two schools of thought maintain that the “mind is not a material thing” (Wilson, 63).


However, I find that in-text citations can interrupt the flow of the essay. If I am thinking about the author’s argument, inserting references can break the visual flow of the argument and, accordingly, my concentration. Also, if the author whom you are citing has more than one article published in the same year, this will cause confusion unless you now include part of the title in your citation (e.g., Wilson, I Know I Left it Somewhere 63). This, in my view, only makes the distraction more pronounced. Given that I often make use of footnotes for both commentary and referencing, I prefer to just use footnotes for everything – but this is merely a personal preference. Please check with your instructor to see what format he or she expects.


Using footnotes in Modern Language Association style is very easy. There are only four components: Author, Title, Publication Information, Page. Here are samples of the commonly used types of sources. Follow each example exactly (i.e., use underlines, italics, commas etc., in the same way).






Jack Wilson. My Mind: I Know I Left it Somewhere around Here. (New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2001), p. 210.



Jane Brill. “Drinking Water Concerns”, in Environmental Problems 3rd edition. eds., Martin Smith and Debra Hans, (Vancouver: Raincoast Sons, 1988), p. 34.



Jason Jones. “Righting Wrongs: Utilitarianism and Capital Punishment” in Philosophy and Public Issues. Vol. 12, No. 2. (Jan.-Mar. 2003), p. 111.



Wilson. My Mind: I Know I Left it Somewhere around Here p. 212.



Jeff McLaughlin. ‘Philosophy 666 lecture’. January 7, 2004.



Information is the same as above with additional remarks. No page reference is required. Note: the first date below refers to when the article was posted or last updated (if known) and the second is when you visited the website. See the MLA Style site for other details and other kinds of online sources.


Jeff McLaughlin. “How to Do Philosophy”. home page, May 1999, Visited: 12 June 2002. <>.



Put the author’s last name first and keep the information the same as above (but drop the parentheses and page references).


Church, Jessica. Neurology and Personal Awareness. Chicago: New Press, 1993.




Some final remarks:


  1. Reference numbers are sequentially ordered: 1,2,3,4,5,6 etc. Numbers are also superscript (small numbers placed above the text line)[1] All MS Word programs do this automatically.


  1. Long quotes must be separated from the body of your text, indented and single spaced. Quote marks are not used in this case and the passage is followed with a citation number. For example:




In the summer of the last year of the great War, men and women back home started to


return to their normal lives. Yet the world was not the same place as it had been.


According to the New York Times journalist Jackson Smith:


Although many women began to return to their previous lives as homemakers, the few men who were starting to return from the front lines in Europe and the Pacific where discovering that the jobs that they had left years ago had in fact left them. Women had replaced men on the assembly lines and in the factories when there was a shortage of able bodies during the war. These same women were found to be extremely capable workers and the economic situation in North America had changed forever. [2]



  1. If you wish to delete some of the quoted text because it is irrelevant use three dots … to signify that text is deleted. For example,


The original source:

She listed many household appliances including hot water tanks, dishwashers, clothes dryers, television sets that were considered expensive.


Your quotation:

“She listed many household appliances …that were considered expensive.”


  1. If you need to add/change a word (to clarify the meaning of the sentence) or capitalize or remove capitalization from the quote, use square brackets []. For example,


“[The child] listed many household appliances …that were considered expensive.


  1. In the following case, the original sentence started with ‘She’ but it is now part of a new sentence:


Even though Sarah was still quite young, “[s]he [was able to list] many household appliances …that were considered expensive.


  1. Please remember that e.g., (an abbreviation of the latinexempli gratia)  is used when you wish to give examples and i.e., (an abbreviation of the latinid est)is used when you wish to rephrase or clarify the meaning of a term in other words. For example,


“There are many expensive (i.e., cost over $400.00) household appliances, (e.g., television sets and dishwashers)”.


  1. Never use ‘I feel’ when you really mean to write: ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’. ‘I feel happy’ is fine, but ‘I feel that truth is a correspondence of how the world really is, with what the person is claiming’ suggests that you have an intuition or a ‘gut-reaction’ about what truth is. You are not going to persuade anyone to accept your views based upon what YOU feel. Besides, feelings are just sensations…


  1. In fact, try to avoid using ‘I think’ entirely since first person usage is often redundant. If you write: ‘I think abortion is wrong’, this provides no more information to the reader than stating ‘Abortion is wrong’. The reader already knows that you think abortion is wrong, because you’re the author of the essay! There’s no need to remind them of this fact. Moreover, dropping ‘I think’ provides a subtle benefit to your claim. You are trying to persuade someone that abortion is wrong, not just that you believe that it is wrong. To do to the latter is to open yourself up to the obvious rebuttal that ‘what you write may lead you to believe abortion is wrong, but it sure doesn’t convince me.’


  1. Be sure to keep the paper as close to the prescribed length as possible. Part of the exercise is to see if you can speak intelligently about the topic within the limit set out. If the paper is too short, you will be almost guaranteed that the topic will not be dealt with appropriately. If the paper is too long, then it is not as concise as it should be. Both of these extremes are subject to penalties.


  1. Use common sense when putting your presentation together. Buy a stapler tomorrow if you don’t own one. Don’t use that lined or that personalized paper covered in roses that you found in a drawer because ‘that’s all you had left’. Don’t use odd coloured ink or strange margins or font settings. Not being professional about how your work looks indicates how much you care or don’t care about what you are doing.


[1] Text citation.

[2] Text citation.

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

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