Philosophy is a very interesting subject that allows us to better understand the world and ourselves. It allows us to put our daily activities, goals, and struggles in perspective and see the bigger picture. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why people are compelled to study philosophy. However, when students in their first years of philosophy studies are asked to write philosophy essays, they encounter unique challenges. The thing is, most academic essays, philosophy included, follow a specific standard of academic writing, so it is not enough just to briefly write what you think about a particular philosophical matter. You need to present your argument in an informed way, that is, referencing your sources of information, showing evidence that you have read counter-arguments, and then proving that you have considered both sides and come to a certain opinion. Below are some of the tips that can help you write philosophy essays.
Read your philosophy assignment carefully
This may seem like a moronic recommendation, but you have no idea how many people get failing grades on their essays because they misunderstood the task. Hence, read your assignment several times to see what exactly is required from you. Are you supposed to write a particular type of essay (for example, critical, analytical, compare and contrast, argumentative, persuasive, or personal reflection?). Is the topic assigned to you, or are you free to choose your topic? If the topic is assigned, what components of the essay are you expected to include? Does the teacher specify the structure of the paper? The basic structure of the essay is the Introduction, the Body of the essay (alternatively called Discussion), and the Conclusion. However, some teachers may want to see the body of the essay structured in a specific way, for example, including a distinct section for your argument, a section with evidence against your argument, and then a section where you try to refute or challenge your evidence against your argument. In a word, read your task and make sure you understand everything that is required from you.
Prepare for your philosophy essay by background reading
Most probably, the topic of your essay will touch upon the materials or topics discussed in class. Make sure that you review your lecture notes and read the relevant section of your textbook to have your basics covered. After you have some idea about the fundamentals regarding your topic, it’s time to search the internet. Since you are to write an academic essay, you need to make sure that your internet search is not limited merely to some blog posts or articles with identified authors (like Wikipedia). While these sources are good for expanding your understanding of your topic, you will also have to read some “academic” sources, that is, articles written by academicians, people who do formal academic research. Most often, these articles are published in peer-reviewed journals, that is, professional publications. The quickest hack to find such publications is to hit Google Scholar Search. The results of these searches will give you exclusively “scholar” or academic articles that you can use to prepare your essay.
Write down your ideas in a separate file
I call this stage “brainstorming” - here, don’t bother to organize your thoughts in a particular way and just write down everything you consider interesting from your literature search while you read a certain article (and also write down the sources of these ideas - this will ease your task of referencing later). When you finish your internet search and reading, review this file, reflect on what ideas you will use for your paper, and see if you have your own perspectives, attitudes, and opinions regarding the things you have read. For example, do you agree or disagree with the arguments? Can you come up with some examples that confirm or refute the arguments? Can you bring up examples from your personal life? Write down those perspectives, too - they are the juice of your “analysis” or “personal perspective”, and their nature will depend on the type of the paper. For example, for a critical paper, you will have to dispute or analyze the arguments, using logic, maybe comparing one argument to another. For a personal reflection paper, you can use examples from your own life to tie to the philosophical ideas.
Make a draft of the philosophy paper
The draft will already reflect the structure of your paper, especially the Discussion section, which will include arguments for your claim, then arguments against your claim, and then a refutation or challenging of the arguments against your claim. For example, if your paper is on the topic of euthanasia, your discussion first can present all the philosophical arguments for euthanasia (free will and self-determination, well-being and the right to avoid suffering, etc.) with reference to the authors of these arguments, for example, referencing ethical philosophers Brock (1992) and Golighter et al. (2017) who support such arguments. The next section will cover the opinions of those people who oppose euthanasia, such as the slippery slope argument (Arras, 1998), euthanasia being “killing” (Callahan, 1992), etc. Then, you may want to see how these counter-arguments are addressed in the literature and if there are any refutations or objections of counter-arguments. If you have a personal reflection essay, you can then include your own experiences and opinions on the subject. If your essay is critical or analytic, just write about which side of the argument seems more compelling and persuasive to you.
Finalize your philosophy essay
When you produced a good middle part, it's time to write conclusion and introduction for your paper. In conclusion, you will briefly sum up all the arguments and confirm the “thesis”. The “thesis” is your main idea for the paper, your main message for the reader (read more info on thesis here). Although the thesis is normally included in the introduction, I write both the introduction and thesis parts at the end of my writing process because the writing itself and consideration of all the arguments crystallize the main idea for me, and I am able to express it more clearly. After you understand what your thesis is, write up an introduction that may include the context of your paper - like why your topic is important and what it is you are going to discuss (you can include a bit of historical perspective or some stats), and then put in your thesis. Now, put all the in-text citations in the places where you paraphrase somebody else's ideas. Prepare Reference page that contains the list of all your used references in relevant citation style (APA, MLA, Harvard, etc.)
Besides these basic instructions, you can use the following advice to ensure the quality of your philosophy essay.
Tips for high quality philosophy essay
Clearly define your philosophy terms
Philosophy often involves complex concepts and abstract ideas. Make sure to clearly define any terms or concepts you use in your essay, especially if they are not widely known or have multiple meanings. Going back to the same euthanasia, you need to write about what euthanasia is, what types of euthanasia there are, and what similar terms are (like clinician-assisted suicide, etc. ). The definition can be put in the introduction of your paper or in the first part of the Discussion (body) section.
Present your arguments logically
Philosophy essays require you to present your arguments in a clear and logical manner. Make sure to structure your essay in a way that makes sense, with each paragraph building upon the previous one. As I mentioned earlier, you might even want to make sub-headings corresponding to arguments for and against your thesis.
Use examples to illustrate your points
Using examples can help to clarify complex ideas and make your arguments more persuasive. Make sure to choose relevant and appropriate examples. For example, there are examples about euthanasia cases in the academic literature that illustrate the complexity of the philosophical and ethical question, specific legal cases and large media cases related to euthanasia.
Engage with the material
In philosophy essays, it’s important to engage with the material and show your understanding of the concepts and ideas presented in the readings. Make sure to demonstrate critical thinking and analysis of the texts. This recommendation means you don’t merely paraphrase what you have read in some source. Try to think about the idea. Maybe it is similar to the idea of somebody else. Maybe this idea was good at the time it was produced (for example, in Ancient Greece), but modern circumstances of life render it inapplicable. Maybe this idea (the Catholic Ethics argument towards euthanasia) was valid when the society was homogeneously catholic, but it cannot be applied to diverse populations. In a word, try to be creative, inventive, and critical about what you read.
Acknowledge alternative views in your philosophy paper
Philosophy often involves multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Acknowledge alternative views to your own and present counter-arguments, but make sure to explain why your view is still valid. As it was mentioned before, the discussion of counter-arguments is an important part of a quality philosophy essay. It shows that you are able to consider a differing point of view, you are aware of the limitations of your own point of view, and you have read extensively on the subject. If you include the section where you challenge those counter-arguments, it will strengthen your thesis. For example, the basic Catholic Ethics argument against euthanasia is that life is given by God, and only God can take it away. You can try to challenge this idea in various ways, including mentioning the limited applicability of religious worldviews in modern societies. While many people still adhere to the catholic religion, a large percentage of society has other religious affiliations or may be secular. Hence many philosophers and ethicists note that public policy and professional ethics cannot be guided by religious views that are shared only by a part of society (Brock, 1992). In this way, you can take counter-arguments and challenge them one by one. You may also include a discussion of more nuanced philosophers, like Arras (1998) in the case of euthanasia, who are sympathetic to its supporters but see possible challenges and complications.
Use credible philosophy sources
In philosophy essays, it’s important to use credible sources, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, academic books, and reputable websites. Make sure to cite your sources properly using the appropriate citation style. For example, my references on euthanasia (check the References section below) include sources from peer-reviewed journals and notable ethical philosophers in the field of euthanasia. Also, don't forget to put in-text citation every time you mentioned idea that you read from this sourse.
Edit and proofread your philosophy essay
Philosophy essays require a high level of clarity and precision in writing. Edit and proofread your essay carefully to ensure that your ideas are expressed clearly and effectively. In case of doubt if the text makes sense, try to make it more simple. Sometimes it helps to break the long sentence into several smaller ones for greater clarity. Don’t be afraid to write in “simple” language. Clear and straightforward beats complicated anytime. Yes, you will need to use a few terms, like euthanasia or self-determination, but if you discuss these terms in a “human” language, it will only benefit your essay, showing that you really understand what you are talking about.
These are the main tips for writing philosophy essays for beginner academic writers. Remember, writing a philosophy essay requires careful analysis, clear thinking, and precise writing. Take your time to plan your essay, and make sure to engage with the material in a thoughtful and critical way. We hope that our tips will help you produce a great essay.
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Arras, J. D. (1998). Physician-assisted suicide: a tragic view. In Battin, M., Rhodes, R. & Silvers, A. (Eds.) Physician Assisted Suicide. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 279-300.
Brock, D. W. (1992). Voluntary active euthanasia. The Hastings Center Report, 22(2), 10-22.
Callahan, D. (1992). When self-determination runs amok. The Hastings Center Report, 22(2), 52-55. http://users.manchester.edu/Facstaff/SSNaragon/Online/texts/235/Callahan,%20Self-Determination.pdf
Goligher, E. C., Ely, E. W., Sulmasy, D. P., Bakker, J., Raphael, J., Volandes, A. E., ... & Downar, J. (2017). Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the intensive care unit: a dialogue on core ethical issues. Critical care medicine, 45(2), 149. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5245170/