How to write an essay
At the seminar version of exphil you will learn how to write two types of text; one which is ’analytical’ and one which is ’argumentative’. (Assignments in Part 1, History of Philosophy and Science, are analytical . Assignments in Part II, Ethics, are argumentative.)
In this brief note we will explain what is meant by these notions. We will, however, start by listing some general expectations as to how the essay should be composed, and some hints which will be useful in writing such a short, philosophical essay.
1. General expectations
Common to both types of text is that, due to their brevity, you are forced to express yourself in a focused and structured manner.
An extract of a text from the curriculum or a short argument will be the best subject of such an essay, because the essay in itself is rather short. In that way you will still have the opportunity to consider the text or the argument in a proper way. Such ’focused’ essays will normally succeed better than essays trying to discuss bigger issues or deal with many separate issues at the same time.
The structure of the essay
The essay should start with a short introduction, which will give an overview of the present argument or topic. It should also explain why this issue is interesting and/or important.
Then follows the main part, covering about 75% of the essay.
A short conclusion should be included, summing up the main issues, and perhaps mentioning any remaining ’loose threads’, i.e. questions which haven’t been answered in the discussion.
There is no one obvious method on how to write a short philosophical essay. Here are, however, some hints and tips which may prove useful.
* Start writing early, perhaps just a short outline, in order to get started.
* You need to write several drafts in order to come up with a satisfactory version. This takes time.
* Discuss with friends. Read and comment on each others’ drafts. That way you will find out quicker what will work and what will be too obscure.
* Use simple language! Philosophy is a difficult subject, so don’t make it more difficult by using obscure language. Use examples to illustrate your arguments.
Use of quotations
Quote from the sources, but:
- Always refer to sources, and include page reference.
- The quotation can usefully be paraphrazed (the argument re-phrazed in your own words).
- Do not quote too much: you are supposed to be the main author.
How you should relate to the philosopher you are dealing with
The reason the author has been included in the curriculum is probably because he or she is a smart person who has worked extensively on the topic. You should relate critically to the author and his/her arguments. But always treat him or her with respect.
It is nearly always necessary to interpret the text you are discussing. You should always try to come up with a charitable interpretation, i.e. an interpretation which makes the argument come out as plausible and as convincing as possible. This is particularly important if you disagree with the author. It does not require much intellectual effort to find fault in a biased or poor interpretation of an author. It is a much more impressive effort to present the argument in the best possible way, and still come up with clear and persuasive counter-arguments.
2. Analytical texts
In this type of text you will present a point of view, or an argument. The way the title you are given is worded will give you a hint about where the focus should be. Avoid presenting a simple paraphraze, without further focus or structure. It is important that you interpret the text in a way that enables the reader to grasp the essential argument(s).
This type of essay can be about extracts as well as complete texts. If an essay is about a smaller part of a text, you should still be able to place it within a context which will aid the understanding of that particular part.
Focus should be on the argument or the standpoint you are discussing, and not on your own understanding of the issue. The argument or the standpoint should be presented clearly and unambiguously. This will probably imply the following:
a Interpretation of the text
b A discussion of what kind of arguments the author uses and the logical structure of these arguments
3. Argumentative texts
This type of text includes your independent evaluations. This will include several possible angles: from arguments for and against, to taking an independent stand on the issue. The way the essay title is worded will give you an indication of what you should do in each case.
In order to make such assessments, it can be useful to look carefully at what the text is actually saying, and what is expressed in other texts in your curriculum. You can state your own opinions, but not just for the sake of it, but always as contributions to the discussion. They need not even necessarily be your own, but can be gathered from other sources.
You need not reach a definite conclusion. A sound philosophical essay can consist of some arguments in favour of, and some arguments against a statement, without leading to one clear conclusion.
An argumentative text can be about a smaller section of a text, or a complete text. In case you deal with a smaller part, be conscious of the larger context it is a part of.
An argumentative text will, to a large extent, use some of the same tools as an analytic summary, but the purpose is different, i.e. to defend an opinion. This opinion can, as mentioned, take many forms. You are not supposed to develop or defend your own, privately held views. Your contribution can consist of demonstrating that an author’s argument is (or is not) persuasive, that it needs to be more nuanced or that it should be further developed.
Some things to consider when you write an argumentative text
* Try to anticipate objections to your own arguments!
- Philosophical texts tend to be very abstract. Try to use specific examples or cases in order to support your arguments.
- Try to bring out the logical structure of your argument. Which statements follow from which, and in what way?
- Attempt to be impartial and fair: Even if you have strong opinions about an issue, treat your opponent with respect. Use arguments, not ridicule.
4 Some useful notions about logic and arguments
This is useful both in relation to analytic and argumentative texts.
- An argument consists of one or more premises, and a conclusion. The premises are statements that (i) are considered evident, (ii) are acceptable to all parties, or (iii) are accepted for the time being, and will be defended at a later stage. The conclusion is the statement which the argument defends.
- An argument is (logically) valid if the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The premises need not be true. I.e.:
1 premise: The moon is made from cheese
2 premise: I like cheese
Conclusion: I like the moon
- An argument is sound or tenable if it is both logically valid and has true premises. The argument above is valid, but not sound.
- Preciseness: Many statements are ambiguous or imprecise. They should then be interpreted in more precise ways. The following is an example :
I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.
This phrase has several different meanings:
There’s a man on a hill, and I’m watching him with my telescope.
There’s a man on a hill, who I’m seeing, and he has a telescope.
There’s a man, and he’s on a hill that also has a telescope on it.
I’m on a hill, and I saw a man using a telescope.
- Definitions: A stipulative definition tells us how a word or a phrase should be understood. An essential definition attempts to explain what a thing or a property really or essentially is.
Stipulative definition: ”Terrorist” will in this text be used about a person who uses violence to achieve political gains through spreading fear.
Essential definition: A terrorist is a person who uses violence to achieve political gains through spreading fear.
Forms of arguments
- A deductive argument attempts to demonstrate that the conclusion follows logically from the premises.
Premise 1: All swans are white
Premise 2: This bird is a swan
Conclusion: This bird is white
- An inductive argument attempts to generalize on the basis of particular cases in order to reach a general conclusion, or to say something about further (as of now unobserved) cases.
Premise 1: All swans in Norway are white (true)
Conclusion: All swans in Australia are probably white (not true)
- An abductive argument moves from some premises to a conclusion which is considered the best available explanation of these premises.
Premise 1: All swans in Norway are white (true)
Premise 2: This swan is white (true)
Conclusion: This swan comes from Norway (not necessarily true)
Certain other argument forms are much used in philosophical contexts.
- Thought experiments: Philosophical texts frequently use thought experiments where an imaginary situation is considered in order to test a philosophical theory.
Mind-body identity: Imagine your brain being transplanted into another person’s body, while your body receives another person’s brain. Are you identical to the person that has your brain or the one that has your body?
Is torture always morally wrong? Suppose that by torturing a terrorist you can make him confess to where he has hidden a bomb which would kill hundreds of innocent people.
- Analogies have the following form:
A statement holds good for a case or an opinion A
Another case or opinion B is strikingly similar to A
It follows that the same statement also holds good for B
A box of sweets can hold many pleasant surprises
People can sometimes surprise us
People are like boxes of sweets
The question you need to ask is: How good is this analogy? Is B here so similar to A that you can transfer the same statement from A to B?
Note: With the exception of deductive arguments, none of these forms pretend to be logically valid. Such arguments can therefore not be criticised just because they are not logically valid.
The structure of arguments
An argument, then, has one or several premises and a conclusion. In order to be persuasive, the argument must demonstrate how to get from the premises to the conclusion. It will be useful, when you argue or when you analyse arguments, to move successively one step at the time, and then explain (or discuss) whether each step follows from the previous. Which form of argument is used? How convincing is each move?
Some examples of fallacious arguments
* Logical fallacy: the conclusion does not follow from the premises
Premise 1: If I win the sweepstakes, I can pay my rent
Premise 2: I paid my rent
Conclusion: I won the sweepstakes
- Circular arguments (you assume what is to be proven)
Premise 1: If God exists, then everything which seems to me to be clear and distinct is true
Premise 2: It seems to me clearly and distinctly that God exists
Conclusion: It is true that God exists
- Irrelevance: The argument (or parts of it) has nothing to do with the conclusion
Premise 1: If you drive a petrol- or diesel-fuelled car, you release CO2 into the atmosphere
Premise 2: You state that we should reduce CO2 emissions, but you drive a petrol fuelled car
Conclusion: You cannot take part in the debate about the future of the environment