Good and bad in philosophy
Much of the philosophy you are being introduced to is argumentcases for and against philosophical
positions, theories, points of view. You are required, in writing philosophy,
to take part in that argumentnot merely to
recount the arguments you find in texts and hear in
lectures. Of course, you will use some of the
arguments you find there (with acknowledgement), but you must critically
examine themrejecting them or making them your own, and giving your
reasons. Your essay, then, has to be not a piece of history of ideas, but a
piece of reasoned, argued discourse.
The really vital thing here is that your essay must have some structure, not be a series of unrelated thoughts. For
example: "I shall first state the problem of the essay, and outline the main
alternative theories that attempt to deal with it. I shall go into some detail
with theory Awhich is initially plausible: then consider certain
counter-arguments, X, Y and Z. In the light of these, a
modified version of A is proposed. This is tested against likely
You can helpfully start your essay
with a very brief advance-summary on those lines (or at
least include brief sub-headings to indicate where your
argument is going).
- Among the marks of a good style are these: clarity,
directness of approach to problems, a strong sense of
relevance, reliance on the simplest language that will make
your point. If you need technical terms, be sure to
introduce them to your reader, and then be faithful to
your own definitions!
Though good philosophy can be
difficult, difficult or obscure philosophy is by no means
always good. An honest, serious philosopher (i.e. one who
really wants to get to the truth and is not just pretending
to) tries to make the structure of his/her arguments as
lucid as possiblein order to help, not hinder, their
critical appraisal. That sometimes can take a little
- With short essays (as in Philosophy 1st and 2nd level
classes), it is essential not to waste words. That is to say,
- no leisurely spiralling down towards the subject ("Ever
since Man began to think
- no deviating from the strictly relevant,
- no padding, waffle, needlessly spun out illustrations,
"Are we expected to be original?"
Short answer, "Yes". In what ways?
- Everybody ought to be original in working out their own
presentation of the material relevant to the essay, even if
most of that is reworked from sources. The ordering, the
"story" of the essay has to be yours: the verdicts you come
to must show signs of your own pondering, even if
philosophers have been there before you.
- Everybody ought to be original also in using different
examples and illustrations from those in the books and
lectures. This is not a trivial point: if you find yourself
unable to think up an alternative example, that may well
mean that you have not grasped the point of the example you
are trying to replacei.e. you may have identified a
problem to bring to your tutor.
- If you think you can be original in more thoroughgoing waysproposing
new arguments, new theories, identifying flaws in the arguments of the
lecturesfine: so long as (specially in an
introductory course) you also show that you have
seriously thought-through the positions and criticisms that the recommended
reading has brought to your attention. Without that, you run great
risks of repeating the blunders of your philosophical predecessors. Life is
too short for that: and a half-course much too short
Needless (I hope) to say, there are no special marks awarded
for agreeing in your essay with the position supported by
the lecturer on the topic; but neither are there special
marks for daringly disagreeing with him. What counts is the
quality of your argument.
Use of source-materials
You are free to quote or paraphrase points you want to
discuss from recommended reading, but acknowledge your
sources scrupulously. If you list works referred to, or
consulted, at the end of your essay, together with their
dates of publication, you can add a very brief bracketed
reference to your source immediately after you have quoted
from it: e.g., (McNaughton, 1988, p.100). Take care, in a
short essay, not to allow quotation and paraphrase to
constitute an excessively large part of your permitted
wordage! However you manage your endnotes or footnotes,
please always include a list of the works you have in fact
Practical suggestions for actually
writing your essays
- Locate, and make use of the recommended reading as soon
as it is available.
- When you have a recommended text in your hands, first
quickly look through the relevant chapter(s) to get the
sense of it, then (because memory may let you down), take
notes of the structure of the main arguments, and write out
accurately any sentences that seem to you likely to make
valuable quotes. To save time, also note carefully the
details of author, title, pages, in case you donít manage to
get back to that book again.
- Keep separate sheets/notebook for your own thoughts,
responses to reading, new examples, provisional decisions
about the position you are going to defend in your essay.
And, obviously, nearer the writing-time you will experiment
with alternative outlines, stories, structures.
- Once you have settled on your final structure, number
the sections and subsections, run through your notes and
mark up the relevant bits with appropriate section-numbers.
(A colour-code can help.) That will ensure that, as you
write the essay, the relevant material comes quickly under
- Aim to finish your essay in draft some days before the submission
deadline: then you can set it aside for two or three days, read it again with
a fresh eye, make final corrections, and type up a final version.
("Type?"Yes, if at all possible.)
What does a really bad
philosophy essay look like?
From the above, you can work that out for yourself.
- To start you off, it will be shapeless, confused, will
try to convince its reader that its obscurity is an index of
its profundity (but in vain). Its "therefore"s donít really
indicate argumentation. Its acknowledgements of sources are
wildly unspecific and sparse so that (with luck), the extent
of indebtedness will be harder to discern
- It hopes that it has done full justice to the
requirement of original examples by changing proper
- It will (by the way) almost certainly spell "argument"
with an extra "e" in the middle: will confuse "refute" with
"rebut", "imply" with "infer", and will be creative in its
misspelling(s) of "Nietzsche".
- Finally: it will be in a barely legible handwriting,
will have no name at the top and no margins for readerís
comments at the sides. It will bear the marks, if not of
midnight oil, then of midnight coffee. It will be
Text by Prof. R. W. Hepburn
HTML editing by Darren Brierton