Pathways to Philosophy
writing a philosophy essay
In this piece you will find some hints on how to get started in writing a philosophy essay. The advice is intended especially for students who are approaching philosophical writing for the first time. The main message is: there is no cookbook recipe for success but there is no mystery either. If you follow the advice here you will succeed in writing an essay.
No simple recipe
There is no technique, or recipe, or set of guidelines for writing an essay in philosophy. That statement might not appear very helpful. To the beginner, the very idea of a philosophy essay seems mysterious, and the prospect of having to write one quite intimidating. Any attempt to explain the nature of philosophical writing in the abstract, however, merely serves to deepen the mystery. All one can say is that once you have started to grapple with various actual examples of such writing, you will begin to form an idea of the type of approach that is needed. Then, all you can do is have a go yourself. In short, like the very first things we were taught as infants, one learns by imitation and by trial and error.
But why is it necessary to write philosophy anyway? Isn't it enough just to study the works of philosophers? Writing whether in the form of books, articles, essays, or dialogues is, quite simply, the way one works at philosophy. Reading, thinking, talking philosophy are all parts of the process. But none of these is a satisfactory substitute for the discipline of expressing your thoughts on paper. (The lone figure of Socrates is perhaps the only recorded exception to this statement.) A student who has not yet produced his or her first piece of written work has simply not reached first base. That is why at Pathways we encourage our students to get into the practice of writing from the start.
By 'writing' one does not mean simply jotting down thoughts as they come into your head, though this too can be an initial part of the process. Philosophical writing involves constructing an argument. It is reflective and self-critical. Even when the writing flows, the words form an organised structure. For all the wide variations in style and presentation, the writings of philosophers possess a common architecture, which is none other than that of logic itself.
Nature of philosophy
What is so special about writing a philosophy essay, as opposed to an essay on any other subject? Simply that the cogency of one's argument depends solely on reasoning and logic. The appeal to observations, or to the results of experiments or surveys, or to any other forms of recorded data has no place in a philosophical argument. At the risk of over-simplifying, the subject matter of philosophy is not the way things, as a matter of contingent fact, happen to be in our world, but rather how things must be in every logically possible world.
Unfortunately, one all-too-easily becomes a victim of the mystique of philosophy, the thought that while a few exceptional individuals might possess the extraordinary vision or powers of reasoning needed to create works of philosophy, the most one can aspire to as a mere student is to be able to read and appreciate the writings of others: in short, to be a consumer, but never a producer.
There are two replies to this. The first is that studying philosophy is an active, not a passive process. If you do not try to produce examples of philosophical writing yourself, you will find that you are severely handicapped in your ability to appreciate the productions of others. There is no better way to test your understanding of a theory or an argument than to attempt to express it in your own words. And since it is hardly possible to agree with everything you read (since the writings of philosophers themselves disagree!) you need some way of testing your disagreements, of seeing whether your criticisms of a piece of philosophy are valid. The only sure way is to express those criticisms in writing, where their validity can be subjected to further examination.
Why writing is important
'Yet surely the fact that thoughts and ideas are not written down does not detract from their intrinsic quality?' Beautiful thoughts are like cut flowers: condemned to swiftly wither and fade. Words written down acquire a life of their own which is more than the life we give them by our acts of thinking. (For all that, libraries of philosophy books would become mausoleums if there was no-one left who could grasp the significance of the words written therein.)
Secondly, you will find if you take the plunge that it is not so difficult as it might seem to put your thoughts down on paper. There is no mystique. To begin with, just write the way you would naturally speak. If you can argue with someone, then it does not require too great an effort to argue with yourself, to choose a topic where you find that both sides of an argument seem to 'have a case', and then give a voice to each of your conflicting viewpoints.
In a written form, that is the essence of the oldest and most respected form of philosophical writing: the dialogue. (Virtually all of Plato's works are of that form.) If you feel stuck, why not give that method a try? But then you will find that the difference between a dialogue and a more conventional essay format is, after all, relatively superficial, a matter of style rather than of content.
Choose your objective
There is no single thing that every essay in philosophy sets out to do. A philosophy essay can be an attempt to persuade the reader to accept a certain view, or reject some other view. It can be a means of clarifying your own ideas about a theory or problem, or exploring the logical consequences of a theory as a preliminary to examining whether the theory itself is tenable. It can take the form of a survey of different attempts to solve a problem, or a contrast of the strengths and weaknesses of two or more theories. A philosophy essay may be any combination of these, and more.
What all the examples in the previous paragraph have in common is, to repeat, argument. You are making a case. You cannot assume that the reader holds the same views as you, so each point has to be argued for, or else clearly labelled as an unargued assumption.
At the end of the day, the success of your essay depends on the strength of the arguments you have been able to muster, or the clarity with which you have represented a given philosophical issue. (But then again, clarity is not everything: success is measured against the difficulty of the task you have set yourself.)
If there is no recipe and no standard format, can one at least say how one gets started? Imagine a blank page. What is going to be your first sentence? Well, we may assume that your essay has a title, so, logically, the first thing the reader wants to see is something that will explain the title, or enlarge upon it, or perhaps put it in context. You are thus engaged in the first of many component tasks that will add up to a finished essay: the task of justifying its existence.
Perhaps you have set out to examine a theory held by a certain philosopher: 'According to Descartes, mind and body are two substances, not one. What did he mean by that claim?...'. You might go on to say that you intend to examine how Descartes defined 'substance', as a preliminary to giving an analysis of his argument for the dualism of mental and material substances.
Or maybe the title of your essay is in the form of a question, such as, 'How do I know I am not dreaming?' The first thing the reader wants to know is why that is a problem. People don't normally go around doubting whether they are dreaming or awake! So you need to begin by sketching in a context that will make the question intelligible. Thus, 'The experiences we have when we are awake seem, subjectively, to have a different quality to the experiences we have when we are dreaming. But how can one prove that the difference in subjective quality corresponds to a real difference in the ultimate source of the two experiences? Might not the whole of my so-called "waking experience" merely be a coherent dream?...'.
Once you have written your first paragraph, that is half the battle. The rest is a matter of following the argument wherever it leads (as Plato advised). If you have succeeded in planning out the main features of the argument in advance, all well and good. Alternatively, you may find yourself answering questions or responding to objections from your imaginary reader that you had perhaps not thought of when you began the essay. Then the direction that your thoughts take in response to this internal prompting may catch you completely by surprise. When that happens, it can be unsettling at times, but also very exciting. You have witnessed the process of a new idea coming to light, an idea that has arisen from you yourself. That is all the philosopher strives for.