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How to Write a Philosophy Essay

Step by step

1a. An opening paragraph

Look at the set essay question. You have one job: Answer that question. That doesn't mean "report on issues related to that question", but instead that you must explain, to the reader, what the right answer is. So your first task is to decide what answer your essay will defend. For example, imagine the question is "Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?". If that's the question, your essay must either defend the "yes" answer, or else defend the "no" answer. Your first job is to work out which one you are defending.

Let's assume you know what answer you'll defend. (If you don't, read this anyway, and I'll return to you under "This is hard!", below.) Given that you know what answer you'll defend, you can start writing your essay. Write: "In this essay, I defend the view that ___", where the blank is a very succinct answer to the title question. Now write: "I show this by ___.", and leave the blank for now. You now have an outline of the first paragraph of your essay! Like so:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

1b. Further setup

Next, we'll need to ensure the reader understands the basic subject matter of the essay. We'd better explain the central topic, and define key terms. For each named thing in the title (and possibly one or two other things besides), write down a word or two to indicate you need a paragraph on that thing. Your essay will now look something like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God [first thing I need to explain]
  2. the cosmological argument [and a second]

1c. Add your central argument

Now you need to give your central argument. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain theory is false because you have a counterexample to it. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain argument fails because a premise is false. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain argument survives a certain objection because the objection misunderstands the argument. Again, let's assume you know what argument you'll give. (Again, if you don't, read this anyway, and I'll return to you under "This is hard!", below.) Possibly, you'll need more than one paragraph to explain your point. Again, write a couple of words to summarise each such paragraph.

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main argument against the cosmological argument]

1d. Discuss possible replies

Next, you'll need to consider objections to your argument. Think about what others might say in response to your argument. Perhaps there is a natural counterpoint they might make. Add a word or two summarising that point, and then a word or two for how you would respond. Very possibly, there is more than one natural objection to your own argument. As a rough guide, you should respond to somewhere between one and three such worries. Your essay now looks like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main point]
  4. big bang [opponent's first reply]
  5. big bang had a cause [how I'd respond to that reply]
  6. nothing infinite [opponent's second reply]
  7. infinitely many atoms [how I'd respond to that reply]

1e. Complete the introduction, add the final paragraph

Now you can return to the introductory paragraph to your essay, and fill in the blank. This is easy: just summarise the outline you have just written, in the future tense. You can then add the final paragraph of your essay too: just write the same thing but in the past tense. Your essay now looks something like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I object to the argument by claiming that past time is infinite and had no beginning. An opponent might reply that time had a beginning with the big bang, but I reply that even the big bang had a prior cause. An opponent might alternatively reply that time cannot be infinite because nothing is infinite, but I show that there are various real-world infinities, such as the number of atoms in the universe.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main point]
  4. big bang [opponent's first reply]
  5. big bang had a cause [how I'd respond to that reply]
  6. nothing infinite [opponent's second reply]
  7. infinitely many atoms [how I'd respond to that reply]
In this essay, I have defended the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I objected to the argument by claiming that past time is infinite and had no beginning. An opponent might reply that time had a beginning with the big bang, but I showed that even the big bang had a prior cause. An opponent might alternatively reply that time cannot be infinite because nothing is infinite, but I showed that there are various real-world infinities, such as the number of atoms in the universe.

People sometimes call this final paragraph the "conclusion" of the essay. I find this a bit confusing, since in one important sense, your "conclusion" is the central claim that you defend (here: that the cosmological argument fails), and that claim should be clear from the very start of the essay, not appear only at the end!

1f. Done!

The plan above is a serious and appropriately detailed essay plan. Write the missing paragraphs. You now have a draft essay!

As you get more practice, and more confident, you might write essays with a slightly more adventurous structure, content, and so on. But although the instructions above are a bit formulaic, this is the formula for a good reason: it keeps things crystal clear. I still start new work in roughly this way, and it is not just a model for babies! Philosophers think - and rightly so! - that simplicity in presentation is a virtue, not a vice.


2a. This is hard!

The progress described above was the best-case scenario. Unless you are very lucky, it won't work like that. Probably, you'll face one of three stumbling blocks:

  1. You don't know what answer to defend.
  2. You know what answer to defend, but not which argument(s) to use to defend it.
  3. You thought you knew those things, but as you wrote your plan, or the paragraphs themselves, it fell apart.

Now for the key message: Overcoming these obstacles is often the central task of writing a philosophy essay. Possibly, you are used to thinking of the challenge of writing an essay as the challenge of filling up the word count. You might well need to hit some assigned word count, of course, but making the content good is the really hard part of a philosophy essay, and that means overcoming the problems above.

2b. Three Strategies

I have three main pieces of advice for overcoming these difficulties.

First, have a go. First drafts of all my work are absolutely dreadful. But with each draft I learn something new, and that informs the next version. Again, your goal is not to write one essay which reaches the word limit, but instead to write a good essay. Often, you do that by writing an essay, realizing that half of it is wrong, and starting afresh. Always remember that this is progress, and not moving backwards. Even if you are really unsure about the best way to proceed, start planning an essay - any! - with an argument - any! - and see how well it works. This process is the writing process, and it is often time-consuming. Sorry about that. But it gets easier, and over time you'll find yourself spotting upcoming pitfalls, and ways to avoid them, at a greater distance.

Second, talk the essay through. Find a classmate, friend, partner, or whatever, and discuss the issues with them. Talk through your argument and see how they react. Ask if they have better ideas about how you might make your case. (Criticise those ideas together too!) Again, a large part of writing a philosophy paper is working through the relevant ideas, and that's often easier with someone else to work them through with.

Third, sometimes, you should simply be happy to hand in an essay that makes a case for a view that you aren't sure about. Perhaps you don't really know if the cosmological argument fails, and aren't sure if there are infinitely many atoms in the universe. But if your essay makes a sensible case for those claims, it's ok to have residual doubts. A philosophical essay is always written as a firm case for a conclusion, but need not be an expression of confident personal belief. You might make a hypothetical case for a view, acting as a kind of devil's advocate.