1. A quick primer of some concrete
guidelines for composition return
Layout of a Good Paper
The most important thing is to pick a thesis and stick to it. Make sure every sentence in every paragraph you write is relevant to your thesis. Make sure your reader knows what the connection is.
a. Your paper should look like this:
b. Specific style/layout points
c. General stylistic points
d. Formatting guidelines
2. Understand the question and make sure you answer all parts of it. return to top
Usually, questions on philosophy exams or papers ask for you to give reasons or an argument. Analyze and argue, don't report. First, you should carefully set out the position you are arguing for or against (if you are arguing against a position, be charitable) and then provide an argument.
A philosophical question such as: ``why would someone believe there is a self?" should be answered with an argument. This means that answers which talk about history, society, or the (possible) psychology of the people of the time are not acceptable.
3. Organize your answer.
Decide what you are going to write and highlight what is important to your argument. State your thesis first and then defend it.
4. Give good arguments.
This means: give clear, concise, coherent reasons for your view or position. Argue for your position using uncontroversial premises. Make sure your conclusion follows. Like good writing skills, the ability to provide evidence for claims and the ability to evaluate such evidence is a skill essential to success in any field or endeavor. [Note: I hope that this class helps you to develop these skills somewhat, but you should also take a couple of Logic classes in the Philosophy Department here. (Over and over again I've heard students tell me that their Logic classes were the best classes they ever took, because learning logic enabled them to do so much better in their other classes.)]
What not to do in giving an argument:
a. Don't appeal to authority. That is, don't say things like:
``Buddha said so therefore it must be correct."
``My mommy told me so I know it is true."
I don't know your mother and maybe I don't agree with the Buddha.
b. Don't assume you're preaching to the choir! Pretend you are arguing with someone who has a different belief system than yours (within reason of course). ``Clinton is a good man because he is a democrat" is not a good argument. Your reader might not be a democrat. In general, appealing to religion or any large body of beliefs that your reader might not hold is not acceptable.
c. Every claim you make must be argued for. Do not say things like:
``I believe there is a self because I believe that I don't die when my body does''
This is not an argument. It is stating two of your beliefs.
d. Know your enemy. Attack the positions or arguments of your opponents, not your opponents themselves. Don't say things like:
``The Buddhists all believe there is no self because they are all crazy and don't believe their lives are worthwhile."
``The Buddhists believe there is no self because they don't think about their views."
``All the people who doubt my position are wrong."
e. Don't talk about your feelings. Say: ``I believe there is a self'' and then give reasons. Don't say:
``I believe there is a self because it makes me
``I feel that there is a self ."
f. Play the philosophy game. Don't say things like:
``I don't know the answer."
``We can't really know the truth."
Even if you are not sure which position is the correct one, you should think of the best arguments you can for both sides. Who knows, you may be convinced by one of them.
5. Cut out the fluff.
Don't say anything that doesn't relate to the question asked. Don't insult the assignment. This will not earn you points.
a. Don't provide historical background unless it is specifically asked for.
b. Don't tell us about your religious beliefs.
c. Don't make big general statements like:
``We can't really know the truth."
``Many people disagree with this position."
``I can't do anything about those who disagree with me."
``There are reasons to doubt any position." (This is my favorite! Good, then give me some reasons!)
None of these are informative statements and do not add to your argument.
d. Don't tell me what you had for breakfast. Longer isn't necessarily better. If you put in a lot of unnecessary stuff you won't get more points; instead I will have to dig for the important parts.
6. We can't read your mind.
Make sure everything you say is as clear as possible. Avoid analogies. ``Life is like a bowl of cherries" really doesn't tell me anything about why I should agree with your position.
7. Avoid rhetorical questions.
I shouldn't see any question marks in your paper. The purpose of philosophy papers is to argue for something, not to ask questions you are not going to answer.
8. Use campus resources.
Your university almost certainly has a writing center where people will help you at every stage of a paper's production. Avail yourself of these resource! Your university almost certainly has an on-line discussion of what constitutes plagiarism. Read it and if there is anything about it you don't get, discuss it with your professor.