Advice on philosophy essay writing for first-year students
Writing your first university philosophy essay can be daunting, especially if you are new to the subject. First-year students are often confused about what a philosophy essay should look like. My sense is that many students think there is something different about philosophy, such that the normal ‘rules’ don’t apply. In this post, I will offer some advice on writing philosophy essays based on my seven years studying philosophy (and three years marking essays). Some of this advice will be tailored to philosophy writing in particular; some will be more generally applicable – because contrary to perceptions, philosophy is not all that different to other disciplines.
“I’ve heard there are no right answers in philosophy…”
This one needs to be treated with caution. As a philosopher, I would say that whether there are right answers in philosophy is itself a philosophical question. That said, philosophical questions do not have established right answers of the kind you may find in disciplines like science and history. The question “Did Napoleon win the Battle of Waterloo?” has an established answer. The question “Should I donate most of my wealth to charity?” does not. You could receive an A+ by answering yes or no to this question, provided you give a compelling argument for the view you accept.
Quality over quantity
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give. The average philosophy journal article is about 6000-8000 words. Within this number of words, an academic philosopher will cover a fairly small amount of ground, but develop their arguments thoroughly and respond to several potential objections to their position. Undergraduate philosophy essays are much smaller, in the first year around 1500-2000 words. If you try to cram in too many arguments, you will only be able to give each point a surface-level treatment. By homing in on one or two key points, you will be able to comprehensively develop your point of view and consider and respond to objections.
To reiterate, you are being assessed primarily on the quality of the argument, not on how many points you can make. So don’t try to do too much in the essay.
What do you think?
As a philosopher, you will be expected to engage with the views of other philosophers and to utilise sources to back up your points. But make sure to go beyond the sources by putting your own stamp on the essay. Do not be afraid to be original. In fact, the more original the better, so long as you provide good reasons for accepting your claims! For this reason, you should not treat philosophical texts as though they were sacrosanct. If you disagree with a philosophical text, tell the reader why. Disagreeing with the philosophers you read is to be encouraged, so long as your arguments against their views are backed up with good arguments of your own. Though it is also important to reconstruct their arguments accurately, otherwise your argument will fall afoul of the straw person fallacy.
Use quotations sparingly
Linking in with the previous point, if we are primarily interested in what you think, there is no need to excessively quote from other sources. But also, as part of the assessment criteria, the marker will need to gauge your level of understanding. This cannot be done if you use quotes from other authors to explain your points. By putting the arguments into your own words, you will be able to demonstrate your level of understanding and ability to explain complex ideas.
My final piece of advice is to be critical. Philosophy stands out in the way that it takes an extremely critical attitude toward things that are often taken for granted. Being critical means not accepting the views of other philosophers at face value. But it also means being critical of your own ideas. Having developed your own argument, ask yourself how an intelligent reader might object. Having outlined possible objections to your view, respond to them and try to get a back-and-forth dialogue going, making sure to end on a high note by answering any unresolved questions.
Graduate Teaching Assistant at Lancaster University