1 How to do Philosophy in this Class by Jeff McLaughlin

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How to Do Philosophy

Jeff McLaughlin

Can you learn how to speak a foreign language, drive a car, make a meal or tie your shoes just by reading about it in a book? Obviously not.

You have to do it, and the more you practise, the better you will become.

So too with philosophy.

Before you start reading the various chapters in this book you should have some familiarity with “doing” philosophy, which includes information on reading the original texts as well.

How to Attend Class

If you are a new university or college student, it can sometimes be difficult to get the most out of attending class without being overwhelmed. In what follows, I’m going to assume you are in a physical classroom with other students. If you’re taking a philosophy course online, you can just skip over this part.

A traditional classroom environment will find you sitting down, and your instructor standing at the front of the class lecturing. At one extreme, your approach to what you hear might be trying to write down every single word that your instructor utters. This is a bad strategy, since it doesn’t allow you any time to digest any of the material, and copious notetaking doesn’t distinguish between what is important and what isn’t. At the other extreme, you might just sit back and try to absorb what you hear. Of course, this is also problematic, for the moment you leave the room you’re almost guaranteed to forget everything since you have to move on to whatever else you have planned for the day.

Complicating the matter of trying to get the most out of a lecture is the issue of classroom dynamics. You might be in a class where no one talks, or there might be one person who monopolizes the time by constantly asking questions or making comments. In both situations, you may be apt to tune out and try to just make it through a very long hour. It may be a huge class or just a handful of students. The room might be hot or cold, or there might be someone sniffling and sneezing beside you. You might be in a bad mood, tired, hungover, sick, or just plain bored. Your instructor might be dynamic or dull. She might just read from the textbook or write on the blackboard and mumble with her back to the room. Still, you might luck out by having a vibrant instructor who motivates you and who presents you with handouts and other supporting materials. Since each course you take will be different from another, and each class in each course can be different from another, you want to be consistent in your own approach by creating a personal rhythm that works best for your needs, week in and week out.

Here then are some simple suggestions:

Come with paper and pen (of course!), and don’t forget to bring the textbook. Use a highlighter pen to identify key passages in the book that the instructor refers to, or jot in your own notes any that are significant. If you are not planning on keeping the textbook, or want to keep it clean, consider using a pencil to put light marks in it, or use Post-it® notes to “index” the relevant passages.

If there is assigned reading, do it before class, not during! If you do not have an opportunity to read everything before class, try to at least glance at the material so that you are not completely lost as to the topic of the day.

Read the materials after class as well. You may find that the lecture helped you get a clearer picture of what was being said in the book. This is especially the case with older works that are not written in modern English. Furthermore, in some classes, it may actually be more useful to read the text after the lecture so that if you didn’t understand the lecture, it might make more sense to you from the book and vice versa.

Ask yourself questions while you are reading. Do you agree with the author? Do you understand what he or she is saying? Do you even understand all the terminology?

When taking class notes, be sure to capture the following details:

Record the date and main theme of the lecture.

For main points, feel free to use arrows or flow diagrams to link up the points to each other (or to previous lectures).

Make reference of any pages or passages the instructor refers to.

See how these notes fit in with the last lecture and how they might suggest where the lecture will be going next class.

Jot down any due dates, etc.

Make use of your classroom time. Ask questions but be aware that there are such things as “stupid questions.” These include asking about information on the course outline (look at it yourself) and questions that show you haven’t bothered to read the material. Instead, it is quite appropriate to raise your hand and say “I wasn’t sure what the author meant by such and such on page 16, but it seems to me that he is saying . . .” (and state the issue in your own words)
“. . . am I on the right track?” This shows a) you’ve been reading, b) you’ve been thinking about what you’ve been reading, and c) you are keen enough to want to know more. Do this sort of thinking and questioning before you start trying to impress everyone with your own views on the world. You need to deliberate upon or challenge the source material before you can try and show why your own argument is better. I guarantee you will impress the instructor too.

This next point may sound simplistic, but don’t be in a hurry to leave. Often, at the very end of class when people are picking up their books and putting on their coats, the instructor may shout out some important information such as the fact there is a quiz next week worth 95% of your mark.

When studying for an exam, rewrite your notes, trying to put them into your own words. If you take copious remarks, you may want to consider summarizing them again. Highlight, or put asterisks (*) at, key points. Don’t forget to put down objections and key terms, or to further defend the points that you have written down. Try to accomplish these tasks on the day of the lecture so that it remains fresh in your mind.

Don’t be afraid to compare your notes with someone else from the classroom.

And don’t be afraid to chat about any confusions, questions, or ideas you might have with your instructors during their office hours. That’s what they are there for!


As a student who is new to philosophy, the task of writing a philosophy paper is usually the first thing that you’ll focus on—and dread. However, what will become a more immediate concern to you is getting through your philosophy text without getting disheartened and overwhelmed. It is often difficult for newcomers to make sense out of some of the articles that you are asked to read. The difficulties that you may discover are often simply due to your being unfamiliar with the writing styles of professional philosophers. In this brief section, I’ll offer some ideas on how to work your way through the essays in this book. Two bits of advice though: First, don’t read while lying down on a couch or in bed, since you’ll probably want to drift off to sleep. Second, you will have to read each article more than once. Sorry, but as a film instructor of mine told me: “If a film isn’t worth watching twice, it isn’t worth watching once.”

Part of your difficulty getting “used to” reading philosophy is that the styles that you will encounter can be quite different than what you are familiar with. Styles can differ depending on the author’s intended audience (is it for laypersons or other philosophers?) and whether the article is a translated work (are you reading an English translation of a Greek text?). Even the century that the work is drawn from will affect your reading comfort level. As well, the particular school of thought that the author comes from can have significant impact on how the piece is presented (is the philosopher from the analytic or continental tradition?). Finally, the author’s own personality and style will often come through in his/her writing. So, even though all philosophy papers have the intent to convince the reader of some claim or other, how the author conveys his/her views can vary considerably.

A philosopher’s use of complicated phrases or sentences and the development of complex arguments, combined with your limited experience, requires that you develop an active reading skill. So, without further ado, here are a few tips on how to better understand and therefore appreciate philosophy papers.


First, skim over the article in order to get a general idea of what the author is trying to say. Pay attention to the title and subtitles, since they will often inform you of the area of inquiry. Pay attention to the opening paragraphs, since authors will sometimes offer summaries or overviews of their papers (e.g., “In this paper it will be argued that . . .”), or they will set the context of their paper (i.e., what area of concern their paper is in, what issue it will deal with, or even who it is in response to).

Working your way to the conclusion, you will want to make a note of it; this is what the author wants to convince you of. Underline it or highlight it (assuming it’s your own copy and not the library’s). Try and write the conclusion down on a piece of paper in your own words, since that will help you remember it. Now, go back to the beginning of the paper, and with the conclusion in mind, try and see how the author tries to take you there. In other words, think of the challenge as being akin to re-reading a murder mystery novel; it was fun to try and figure out who the murderer was, you saw clues here and there, and perhaps you were able to figure out some, but others eluded you. Now that you know who the culprit is, it can be fun to see how all the clues that you missed fit together. (This approach is one reason why I don’t like Agatha Christie novels; it seemed to me that she never provided enough clues, and the murderer only shows up in the last five pages—so most of the novel is irrelevant to its ending! Of course, I’m overstating my perception of her work, but you get the idea: It’s no fun reading something or watching a movie when the author brings in a character right at the end with no previous connection to the story. Keep this in mind when you are planning your own essay!)

As you are reading each paragraph, you will find that the first and last sentences will often provide you with key elements of the author’s thought process; here you may find a conclusion or premise of an argument or sub-argument. Now I should explain these terms so that you not only can analyze the essay you are reading, but can also create your own well-founded arguments later on.1

What is important is that the author does in fact offer you a reason, any reason, for the conclusion; otherwise, they are just stating an opinion. If I said: “Universal health care is a good thing,” all you can do is either just smile or say something like: “That’s nice.” For I have not given you anything more than a simple statement on what I believe. I’ve just given you an unsupported claim. Accordingly, while you may agree or disagree with my opinion, because I haven’t stated any justification for my view you don’t know what to make of it, and so you should never just accept it—even if you happen to agree. I must offer a defence of my position before you can determine if you should rationally accept or reject it. Even if you agree with the opinion, you may not agree with my reasoning, and that is just as important. Here’s an example. I say: “I think capital punishment is wrong.” You say: “I agree!” Then I say: “I think it’s wrong because those murdering bastards should be tortured slowly instead!” Now, because you didn’t wait to hear my reason, you have, or you have at least given me the appearance that you have, bought into my rather shocking perspective—but more than likely you would want to disagree with me. The moral of the story is that people can agree on the same points but for different reasons, and some of the reasons may be good and others may be bad. Another quick example: You and I both agree that the sum of 2 + 2 is not 5. You (rightly) believe that 2 + 2 does not equal 5 because it actually equals 4, while I (wrongly) believe that 2 + 2 does not equal 5 because it equals “Tuesday.” You must consider both the premises and the conclusion before making a final judgement about whether the argument is a good one or not.

In an argumentative essay such as those that you will be reading in this book, the paragraphs are an opportunity for the author to offer a somewhat self-contained argument. As noted earlier, each self-contained argument then may be intended to substantiate some larger position of the author. Premise and conclusion indicator words will often (but not always) help you distinguish the different parts of the arguments, as well as distinguish arguments from non-arguments. These useful words indicate or signal that there is a reason (or premise, evidence, justification, etc.) being offered in support of a viewpoint (or conclusion). Premise indicator words include: “Because,” “Since,” “Due to,” “It follows from,” etc. Conclusion indicators include: “Therefore,” “Accordingly,” “So,” “Hence,” “Thus,” etc. Such words then will help you follow, and if necessary, reconstruct, the argument of the author. If there are no indicator words and you suspect that you are dealing with some part of an argument, try inserting an indicator word of your choice to see if it makes sense.

When trying to capture the author’s argument, making notes in the margin is useful. For example, you might put a couple of words beside each paragraph that highlight the topic of the paragraph. Don’t simply underline every word, since not everything the author will say will be significant and/or relevant to the main thesis. For example, the author might provide you with background factual information, editorial or introductory comments, and personal asides. See if the author defines the terms that he or she is using. This is important, since you want to make sure before you challenge their view that you actually understand their view. So, look for stipulative definitions whereby the author defines what he or she means when he or she uses a certain term (e.g., “By ‘universal health care’ I mean that everyone receives health care regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of where they live, and regardless of the amount of responsibility or ‘blame-worthiness’ that they have for causing their own injury or illness.”). See if the author offers distinctions between his or her views and those of other authors (e.g., “It is a mistake to believe that a dualist shares the same views with all anti-materialists.”). As well, look for the use of other writers’ ideas, either as supporting evidence or as positions that the author wants to refute (e.g., “In 1993, Simonson argued (rightly/wrongly) that . . .”). At a later date, you may want to look up those references or your own essay.

Next, try to put the main arguments (the premises and the conclusions) of the paper in your own words. Make sure that what you believe the author is arguing for is in fact what the author intended. This is a crucial step, because sometimes people will misinterpret what the author has written and then criticize them for the apparent views that they hold. This is known as committing the Straw Person Fallacy. Simply put, it is easy to criticize someone for something when in fact it is you, not they, who stated it!

Now notice the steps you have taken so far. 1) You’ve skimmed over the article to get a general sense of what it is about. 2) You’ve put the conclusion (or what you think is the conclusion) into your own words. 3) You’ve gone back to carefully re-read the article to draw out the various arguments that the author raises or rejects in his/her paper. Remember, not everything that the author says is going to be a positive thesis. They will often argue against other people at the same time, attempting to show why their opponent’s view is unsatisfactory and, subsequently, why their own views are right. 4) You’ve taken these points (many of which you’ve jotted down in the margins) and listed them on a piece of paper.

Take a moment to look at what you’ve got. Do you follow the flow of the paper? Perhaps you can draw arrows and diagrams connecting the various points. Do you understand what the author has said and why he/she has said it? If not, can you guess what you need to do? Yes, you should probably read it again, and if that fails, ask well-formed questions of you instructor or peers. For example, don’t just say “I don’t get it.” Try phrasing your question so that it not only includes information about where you are confused, but also includes your own possible answer: “On page 34, the author states X, but I don’t see how this fits with the conclusion Z. Is the author saying that X leads to Y and that Y leads to Z?”

Once you understand the article, only then can you go back and evaluate it. 1


So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you have a reasonable grasp on what the author is trying to ultimately convince you of. Now the question is, is the author successful in that goal? No one is saying you must accept or reject every single point made. Some arguments can still survive, even if you’ve cast doubt on some of the premises. Perhaps you’ll like the argument in general but find a few weak areas that could be revised. Perhaps you’ll think the argument is seriously flawed from the start. Whatever you believe, you’ll ultimately have to convince others of the same.

Here is one approach that you can use to evaluate the author’s position. Let’s call it the “S-test.” Are the premises Satisfactory and do they Sufficiently Support the conclusion? First, you will want to isolate the premises that the author offers to defend his or her conclusions, and you will want to consider whether or not they are rationally acceptable. This means, amongst other things, that you will want to determine if each reason or premise has been defended in a deductively sound or inductively strong sub-argument.

A deductively sound argument is an argument that is deductively valid, and in which the premises are true. A deductively valid argument is one in which, if the premises are true, it would be impossible for the conclusion to be false. Notice that I have emphasized “if.” I am not saying that the premises are in fact true. We are only imagining that they are, for sake of analysis. You can have a valid but unsound argument, but not a sound invalid argument. Deductive arguments are about guaranteeing the certainty of the conclusion. For example, if all humans are mortal and Jeff is a human, it MUST follow that Jeff is mortal. Replace the subject and the predicates in this argument with unknowns (e.g., X, Y, Z), and you can see that the conclusion still must follow: All X are Y and Z is an X, then Z is an X, too.

Here’s another example. If I hold my breath for a long time, then I will pass out or gasp for air. I do attempt to hold my breath for a long time… Can you guess what happens? I will pass out or gasp for air! You might say “Well, that’s common knowledge.” True, but look at the structure of the argument. If I am eighteen feet tall, then I can levitate dolphins. I tell you that I am eighteen feet tall. What do you know? You know that I can levitate dolphins. For deductive validity, it doesn’t matter what the subject and the predicate are, since it is the structure, not the content, that is important. Soundness, on the other hand, is concerned with the content. First, the argument has to be checked for validity, and then we ask “Are the premises in fact true?” For if they are, we have a deductively sound argument. If they are not, then we just have a valid one. Thus, the “holding my breath” version of the “If A then B, A, therefore B” argument is sound, but the second version is only valid.

Inductive arguments are arguments that are evaluated in terms of “strength.” We use these types of arguments to make empirical predictions or generalizations. They do not guarantee the conclusion; rather, they provide a degree of rational persuasion for the conclusion to be considered true. For example, if eight out of ten doctors tell you that you have the flu, then odds are that you probably have the flu. If, during the autumn months, you’ve noticed that the weather has been turning cooler, then tomorrow will be cooler still. These are inductively strong arguments, since the premises are good indicators for the conclusion to be true. Still, they might be wrong. You may in fact have some rare disease that mimics flu-like symptoms. The weather might turn unseasonably hot tomorrow. But if you were to deny the rational strength of these arguments, then you would not be able to function in life, let alone in a philosophy class.

The challenge, then, when you are assessing someone else’s argument, is to determine if they have provided you with premises and conclusions that allow you to say they have given you good or bad arguments. Thus, arguments can go wrong in either two ways. First, the premises may be unsatisfactory, or second, they may not support the conclusion appropriately.

The premises can be determined to be satisfactory on any number of grounds. I hesitate to say “the premises are true,” because although it is quite reasonable to claim “No one has seen a unicorn lately,” I know some smart aleck will ask “How do you know for sure? Have you asked everyone?” Well, no. I haven’t. So I can’t know for sure, since I haven’t checked. I can’t know for certain that it’s true—though perhaps I can know for certain that this smart aleck is annoying…

If the premises are true by definition, or true by the meaning of the words alone, then we are safe. For example, claiming “Mammals give birth to their young alive” is true by definition. I don’t need to go and verify this claim by checking every mammal out there. Part of how we define “mammals” is by the fact that they give birth to their young alive. A claim such as “The square room next door has four corners” is known to be true by the very meaning of the word “square.” I don’t need to go next door to count the number of corners in the square room to know that it has to be four. However, if the claim was “The room next door is square,” this would need to be verified.

The premises can be satisfactory by an appeal to common knowledge—not just common belief. There are lots of things that many people do believe or have believed that have turned out to be false: that the world was flat ot that they will win this week’s lottery. There are lots of things that people believe that are controversial and thus open to debate: that slavery is acceptable or that flat taxation is just. And, finally, there are things that people believe that cannot be verified: that there is an afterlife or that if a tree falls in the forest it does (or does not) make a sound. In fact, what counts as “knowledge” will not be discussed here—for that, you should turn to the appropriate readings in the text.

The premises can be considered satisfactory if they have been successfully defended elsewhere by the author in a sub-argument, or in another article, or by another person. They can be considered satisfactory if they are supported by a proper appeal to authority. This means that the person to whom you are referring is indeed an expert in the relevant area and that the experts in that area generally agree about the claim being made.

If, for some reason, you don’t know if the premise is satisfactory, and you don’t have evidence to suggest that it is unsatisfactory, then you may wish to provisionally accept it and move on to evaluate the author’s other reasons (this is one reason why we hear people say “For argument’s sake, let’s assume that you’re right.”). However, if you don’t understand the argument, don’t use provisional acceptance as a way to justify your own intellectual laziness. Sometimes, understanding a point requires re-reading a particular paper or doing a bit of background investigation. For example, if the arguer keeps talking about another person’s argument, do you need to go find out for yourself what the original person said? What is the context of the argument, and do you need to familiarize yourself with details on the surrounding issues? Just as it is inappropriate to walk in on another person’s conversation and start arguing with them (e.g., Bob: “. . . and so as I was saying . . .” You, entering the room: “Hi Bob! You’re wrong!”), it is academically inappropriate to start arguing against an author before you get the full story. If you have to, do some research!

Research doesn’t have to be confined to the task of tracking down other lengthy books. You can try a philosophy encyclopaedia for good overviews of topics and philosophers. You can try a philosophy dictionary for help on terminology. You can talk to your peers. You can ask for directed assistance from your instructor, and so forth. Research in this sense is simply taking responsibility in finding out what you need to know in order to make a well-reasoned decision about the piece that you are evaluating.

Once you’ve determined whether the premises are themselves satisfactory, the next stage of your evaluation will involve determining if the premises support the conclusion. In other words, are they positively relevant to the conclusion? To be “positively relevant,” the truth of the premise will count towards the truth of the conclusion. For example, the premise “It is sunny and warm today” is positively relevant to the conclusion “I should wear shorts and a T-shirt if I want to avoid being uncomfortable today.” Whereas the premise “All ravens are black” is not relevant to the same conclusion (namely, “I should wear shorts and a T-shirt if I want to avoid being uncomfortable today.”).

Only after determining if the reasons support to the conclusion may you then consider whether or not the author has provided sufficient support for you to rationally accept the conclusion. That the suspect hated the victim supports the claim that he killed the victim, but it clearly isn’t sufficient support. However, that the suspect voluntarily confessed to the crime, or that he left DNA and a home movie in which he is seen shooting the victim, would probably convince the jury.

When determining if there is an appropriate and strong relationship between premises and conclusions, there are a few things one should consider.

Imagine someone said “University courses are hard.” They would require extensive argumentation to try and convince you of this claim. In fact, they would fail to do this because:

The claim is ambiguous. Do they mean all university courses are hard, or that some university courses are hard?

Are they just claiming that all the courses that they have personally taken are hard?

Are they using their personal experience of university courses to try and support the claim that university courses in general (i.e., even the ones they haven’t taken) are difficult?

What do they mean by “hard?” Time consuming? Intellectually challenging? A combination of both?

After you point out these problems, you could then tell the person what he or she IS able to conclude based upon the evidence provided. Are you trying to draw a generalization? Does he or she want to claim “All university courses are . . .” or “Most are . . .” or “Some are . . .”? Depending upon the scope of the proposition, that is, the quantity that is being referred to (i.e., few, some, many, most, all) then the number of examples offered needs to be appropriate. Clearly, if one wants to claim that “Most birds are black,” then there will need to be more examples of black birds given, rather than fewer. But if the claim is “Some students are tall,” then just a handful of examples will suffice.

Backing away from a universal claim (e.g., “All dogs are friendly”) doesn’t necessarily mean that you are giving a weaker argument. Indeed, it may be stronger. For if you state that “All dogs are friendly,” then your opponent only needs to find one example of a dog that is not friendly to defeat your argument. However, if you said “Most dogs are friendly,” then that one unfriendly dog doesn’t hurt your position. You could respond: “I didn’t say ‘All dogs are friendly,’ nor did I say ‘THAT dog is friendly.’ I just said ‘most’!”

Another feature to watch for is the degree of certainty that is used in the proposition. Is the person claiming “I know for sure that there is a test next week,” or are they simply claiming “There might be a test next week”? The standard of the evidence for the former statement will be much more demanding than the latter. Again, you need to assess how much evidence there is to determine how strong a claim can be put forward. Obviously, you could (or may need to) weaken your claim, but then its persuasive effect will be lost. For example, which claim sounds more interesting: “The home team will win the championship,” or “There is a possibility that the home team might win the championship”? No one would probably (!) deny the second statement, because all the home team has to do is show up for the claim to be substantiated, so why waste your time (and theirs) arguing for such a point? So, while you may need to back down from being too confident in stating your conclusion, at the same time you don’t want to present a meek position when the evidence is clearly in your favour!

Finding satisfactory premises that supply sufficient support for a conclusion entails that you be actively engaged in critical thinking. And, as mentioned at the outset, you can’t just read about how to develop these skills, because in order to learn, you have to do.


It’s early in the semester, and yet your instructor (whose name you probably don’t even know how to spell correctly yet) may be already talking about the first essay that isn’t 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. It’s only human nature to try and avoid doing those things that we don’t like, whether it’s doing homework or going to the dentist. Even if you get a “B” on the paper, imagine what you could have gotten if you had spent more time on it!

What are the consequences of waiting until the very last minute? Well, on the positive side, you’ve managed to avoid doing something that you don’t really want to do. But on the negative side, you’ll lose a lot of sleep, skip a few early morning classes, be cranky and stressed, and ultimately submit a flawed piece of work that doesn’t accurately represent what you think or what you are capable of. Oh, and you’ll probably get a poor grade too.

What students often don’t realize is that you really don’t need to spend more time writing your paper, but you need to spend more time planning it.

Before we begin, let’s 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 “research paper.” A pure research paper involves (among other things) establishing, discovering or describing facts, such as medical facts, historical facts, or geopolitical facts. A position paper is just that: a paper in which 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 persuade the reader of your own views, your instructor will be checking to see whether you adequately grasp the material and its implications, whether you can critically analyze and evaluate the relevant issues, and whether you can reasonably defend your thesis.

A position paper should not be considered just an opportunity for stating your own opinions. Remember, opinions are philosophically uninteresting, since they simply are unsupported claims. They only tell the readers your personal attitude towards something, whereas what you want to do is rationally persuade someone that he or she should think the same way that you do. Although we are contrasting this process with a standard “research paper,” we are not saying that you don’t 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. You’ll need to do research to first understand the topic, the surrounding issues, and implications. Then you’ll need to do research to find out what other people think. Then you’ll 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 section, it is to stress the need to have enough time to devote to your project. Let’s repeat that again: GIVE YOUR ASSIGNMENT, YOUR TOPIC, AND YOUR READER THE TIME THEY DESERVE.

You need time to reflect and conduct research; time to 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, proofreading, and making sure that you have ink for your printer…

And, since time is important, let’s get on to the main points, shall we?

1. Understand the 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 instructor, 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 you understand 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. A paper that is too short will indicate that you don’t spend adequate time to sufficiently develop and explore complex ideas. A paper that is too long may suffer from repetition or may be “long winded” and 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, 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 encyclopaedia. 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, since those definitions will be inappropriate for your needs. These “reportive” definitions are by their very nature brief (just try defining words like “justice” or “love” in four words or less!) and may suffer from a number of deficiencies such as being be too broad (i.e., they include things in the definition that ought not to be included, such as broadly defining the word “chair” as “a piece of furniture”—this doesn’t distinguish between a chair and a table) or too narrow (i.e., they exclude things that ought to be included, such as narrowly defining the word “chair” as “a piece of furniture made out of yellow plastic”—this doesn’t recognize that some chairs made out of brown wood).

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 isn’t quite what the instructor 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. It’s wise to clear your topic with your instructor 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, don’t let your initial impressions be the overriding factor. If you are not interested in the topic, then the actual writing process will become more difficult since you don’t have anything vested in the project.

Choose a topic that is “doable.”

Essay topics like “The Philosophy of Aristotle,” “What is Truth?” or “Science versus Religion” are far too broad in scope. When thinking about your topic, it is better that “the pond is small and deep, rather than wide and shallow.” That’s a murky metaphor, but basically it means don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t want to touch on fifty different and disjointed points and say nothing substantial about any of them. 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 family members as decision makers vs. the physician? Narrow your focus and develop your thoughts.

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 are available. You might struggle with arguments and ideas if you can’t find more than two or three pieces that only mention your topic in passing. Don’t forget that content that you find on the World Wide Web can be posted by anyone (or any lobby group) and so may be biased, false, and misleading. Hence, the WWW may be worse than no resource at all. Consult with your university librarian or instructor for suitable databases and website resources.

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 doesn’t necessarily mean that you already know what you think about it, let alone know what you want to say about it. To do this, 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 or general consequences? Can you think of any examples that highlight any of your concerns, or which will highlight the claims being put forward by proponents of the particular position? Do you find that you seem to be in favour of one stance over another? Are you leaning in one direction but aren’t quite sure? Just put your thoughts down on paper. This doesn’t 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. You don’t need to include every single point you’ve thought of, since some will just foster digressions. The challenge is to just get started. The mechanical process of putting pen to paper—even if you are not sure what you want to say—will help you get you going.

3. Conduct your first search for potential sources.

After you’ve selected your topic and put down a few thoughts about it, you need to find out what material 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 isn’t the best place to start with. Look first to your own class text. It may contain a bibliography or a list of “recommended or further readings.” Does the author or editor have an introduction to the text or for each chapter? In the introduction, he or she might explicitly refer to other books or at least raise some discussion questions that can provide 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 university’s library. Look at the footnotes or endnotes that are provided in the different resources.2 These too will point you to other sources. Remember, each source, whether it’s an encyclopaedia, a journal, a book, an anthology, an index, a glossary of terms or a bibliography, has the potential to lead you to other sources. This process of using one reference to link to another is just the same as using 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!3

I should point out that if you haven’t taken a tour of your library yet, do so. Find out where things are. Find out how to look things up. Find out the locations of the reference books, the periodicals, and the photocopy machines. Ask questions. Ask for assistance. Scout out the place before wasting any more time, because otherwise you’ll be doing this every time you have to return to the library to research a paper.

4. Get your preliminary sources together.

It’s now time to get your readings together. You may find out later that some of the sources aren’t appropriate or quite what you need, but for now, get a small collection together and start digging through them for applicability. Often, it doesn’t 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 author’s introduction, and look at the index to see what key terms are mentioned frequently. Use those key terms to find other sources, and then use those sources to find others, and so on. If you look up a book on a library 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!)

While you can rely on the fact that the library books or journals that you are using are “quality” works, given that they were selected by someone to include in the university collection, remember to critically evaluate any work that you are considering using as support for your own views. This is even more pressing when you turn to the World Wide Web, where anyone can publish anything online. Fortunately, many people have taken the time to put together websites that list various resources for you to use. Your instructor may be able to direct you to some of these.

5. Understand, and then critically reflect upon, the articles you’ve found.

Read the articles that you’ve selected. You need to be a bear (as in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”) about your research now. You don’t want too many references that overwhelm the project because you can’t tackle everything (remember the shallow pool metaphor from earlier?), and you don’t want too few, because you don’t want to just use the paper as a soapbox for your own ideas—no matter how marvellous they may be. You must understand the material before you can evaluate it. Make notes on your photocopies to capture ideas or quotes that you want to use, and don’t plagiarize!4 Take time to digest and reflect upon the information.

6. Create an outline.

Go back 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 roadmap 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? Think of this process as teamwork. Many others have been down the road you are traveling before you 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 idea to that.


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 instructor 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 a 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. Consider instead: “The Correspondence Theory of Truth: A Defence.” This is even better, since 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 personalization 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, because 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 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. There are many different approaches to writing 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, and 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, and then resolve the criticism and move on.

The central sentences of each paragraph should 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 set 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 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 regimen 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 paperWhen constructing your paper, be sure that:

The course concepts and presentation of others’ views are clear and accurate.

You attempt to be original.

Any use of others’ words or ideas directly or indirectly are clearly cited (see “How to Cite Your Sources” below).

The paper has correct spelling, punctuation, and diction and is expressed in appropriate formal language, including gender-neutral terminology.

The paper is well-organized and you do not digress. This organization should also be made clear to the reader.

The paper clearly presents the issue it will discuss, and selects appropriate aspects of that issue for discussion.

The paper is not too broad in attempting to answer “every problem,” but deals with select elements in depth.

The arguments are presented clearly, logically, and understandably.

The author takes a definite position on the issue.

The paper gives appropriate and cogent reasons for the position taken.

The paper considers the viewpoints of others.

The paper gives appropriate reasons for rejecting these views.

The paper considers reasonable objections to its own positive argument, including any that were presented in class or found in assigned readings.

The arguments for rejecting these objections are clear and cogent.

Once you have composed the first draft (yes, you will require more than one draft of your paper!), WALK AWAY FROM YOUR ESSAY.

You need time to be able to shut off your goal-driven mind and re-examine your paper. This is because when you’ve 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 in 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 objective and disinterested. So, walk away and do something else.

8. Revisit and revise viciously!

By taking the time to clear your head (at least one good night’s 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, deleted, or further defended. Often, reading the paper out loud can reveal any leaps of logic, incongruities, digressions, and basic presentation problems. When revisiting your paper, 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 would in the most effective manner? Do you state your arguments? Do you offer a credible defence of them—not only by supplying your own reasons, but also 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 favour 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 mistakes of reasoning?

9. Check your paper manually before handing it in.

You’re almost done. After editing the content of your paper, and making sure that you have referenced correctly, check the mechanics. Run a spell-check program. If you haven’t done so already, print off a copy of your paper and manually proofread it. Often, students will just do the former, but the spellchecker won’t bring your attention to such errors as “These cent tents says dough not make scents.”5 By looking at your essay on paper rather than on your computer screen, you may catch obvious errors, unconnected paragraphs, and poor transitions that you might miss if you are only viewing it on the screen.

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

10. How to Cite Your Sources

Referencing is an essential skill that must be learned. I have never understood why some students felt the need or desire to plagiarize (i.e., intentionally or unintentionally use the ideas of someone else without giving them credit) when in fact I find citations a sign of good work. Providing a reference tells me that you’ve identified information as so important that you wish to use it. You are directing the reader to an external source that is important enough to say “Hey, I thought this was a good point.” This tells me that you are thinking about the topic in a significant way—a way that is much more impressive than just writing down what “you” think. Accordingly, footnotes (which appear at the bottom of the relevant page) or endnotes (which appear at the end of the essay) are not just about giving proper credit. They also reveal your own level of intellectual sophistication.

Footnotes and endnotes can be used for two different purposes. The first is to give the specific information regarding the resource you are citing, and the second for commentary that does not fit in the main body of the 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 offer a general editorial remark about the author or the source.

Professional philosophers tend to use either the Chicago Style or the Modern Language Association (MLA) format for their referencing. Many instructors permit inclusion of reference citations within the body of the essay. For example:

When speaking within the confines of philosophy of mind, Dualists are not, I repeat, not those who wake up at sunrise and try and shoot their opponent after ten paces—although some might wish this were true. (Kirby 63)

However, I personally 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., Sinnott, Mind: I Know I Left Mine Somewhere 223). 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 or endnotes 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 italics, commas, etc. in the same way).


Ryan Coke. Metaphysicians. (Peirce-Horton Publishing, 2017), p. 210.


Jane Grey. “Drinking Water Concerns.” Environmental Problems, edited by Martin Smith and Debra Hans, 3rd ed., (Roughhat Sons and Daughters, 1999), p. 34.


Jason Jefferson. “Righting Wrongs with Revolutionary Science.” Philosophy and New Scientific Affairs, vol. 12, no. 1. (Jan.-Mar. 2007), p. 101.


Coke. Metaphysicians. p. 212.


Jeff McLaughlin. “Philosophy 1100.” 7 January 2018, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC. Lecture.


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.

Jeff McLaughlin. “How to Do Philosophy.” Why or Why Not, May 1999, http://www.whyorwhynot.ca. Accessed 12 June 2018.


A bibliography is simply a list of works that you used. It is put after your essay or endnotes (when relevant). Put the author’s last name first and keep the information the same as above (but drop the parentheses and page references):

Knight, Storey. Epistemology and Personal Awareness. New Gem Press, 2013.

Footnote or endnote citation or reference numbers are sequentially ordered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. Numbers are also superscript (small numbers placed above the text line). You need a new number for each separate reference. Thus, even if you cite the same author and the same page three times, you will have a different number for each use.

Long quotes must be separated from the body of your text, indented, and single spaced. Quotation marks are not used in this case, and the passage is followed with a citation number. For example: According to the New York Tribune journalist Jay J. Lee:

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. There were no able bodies to help rebuild Europe but in the USA there was no shortage of men, just jobs.

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 text:

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.”

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.

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 [to be] expensive.

Please remember that e.g., (an abbreviation of the Latin “exempli gratia”) is used when you wish to give examples, and i.e., (an abbreviation of the Latin “id 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, hot water tanks, dishwashers).”

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…

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 argument. 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.” Indeed, if I were to ask whether your statement was true or not, notice that the additional inclusion of “I think” changes what you originally intended. You write “I think truth is achieved by correspondence with the way the world is.” Is this statement true or false? True, of course, because you are only telling me what you think! Whether truth is achieved by correspondence with the way the world is has not been determined!

Finally, have some respect when putting your presentation together. Don’t just fold over the corner of your essay. Ask your instructor how they would like the submission. Do they want you to email it? If so, be sure they will be able to open the file. Buy a stapler tomorrow if you don’t own one. Don’t use that personalized letter paper covered in pink roses 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. Assuming that your instructor will even allow you to hand in such work that looks unprofessional, I don’t need to tell you how they will judge the level of respect that you are demonstrating to the material, the course, and to them.


The Originals: Classic Readings in Western Philosophy, by Dr. Jeff McLaughlin, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,


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