How to Write a Philosophy Essay

After all, it has rarely been the most damning indictment of a philosopher's work to claim that it is false.
(Stephen Priest, Mind 413, p168)
I shall use phrases such as "the Greek view" without intending to commit myself to the historical thesis that these views were actually held by the Greeks.
(Colin Allen, Mind 413, p 216)

Both the above quotes are taken from book reviews in the most prestigious philosophy journal, and they capture two important facts about philosophy essays. First, being right is not particularly important. Second, in dealing with historical positions, it is not necessary to limit oneself to the positions that historical figures actually held. This does not mean that anything goes, however!

Philosophy essays are different from essays in all other fields. A number of years ago, some psychologists did an experiment to test reasoning ability. They found that people from most professions did equally badly; only philosophers did well. This probably indicates that the psychologists had taken their criteria for good reasoning from philosophers; it certainly indicates that philosophical reasoning differs from that in most other fields.

This means that the most important thing you should learn in this course is how to think and write philosophically. These skills can be learned, and anyone at Cambridge is capable of learning them. However, unless you have done philosophy before, you do not already have them, as they can only be learned by practice. That means that your first essay is likely to be quite bad (so don't worry if it is) and that it is absolutely essential that you do essays over the course of the year. Native wit will not get you through, and it is not possible to cram the subject in the last couple of weeks before the exam.

Your essays should be grammatical and correctly spelled, but I am not going to spend time in supervisions on basic literacy. If you have a spell checker, use it, because spelling errors that a spell check would have caught look particularly stupid. You should add the correct spelling of technical philosophical terms to your custom dictionary, if you have one. Grammar checkers tend to be of little use, and are only worth using if your grammar is particularly bad.

The purpose of the rest of this essay is to give you some ground rules for writing a philosophy essay. Do not apply these rules to your history essays; they are completely different. The advice falls into two parts, basic and advanced. You should follow the basic advice for your first essay, even if you have done philosophy before. Once you are getting clear II:i marks for essays according to the basic advice, it is worth trying the advanced hints.

Bear in mind that, as with all advice, it is possible to take it too far in various directions. I will tell you in supervision if you are doing so, and give you some guidance on how far to pull back. It isn't possible to give explicit rules for this, which is why supervisions are such an important part of the course.

Basic Advice

This advice is given in abstract and general terms. Thus, when you first read it, it will probably make little sense. It will be more useful if you read over it while planning and writing your first essay. However, you should read through it first, so that you have some idea of what you need to do.

First, do the reading recommended for the topic, and read over your lecture notes, if you have had the lectures before writing the essay. (This will not always be the case, due to the constraints of the timetable.) You should do this before choosing a question, because you will have to answer a different question in the exam. Take notes in whatever way you find most useful (without writing in library books, of course). If you photocopy part of a book, make sure you follow the copying guidelines posted near the photocopier, and fill in what you have copied in the record book.

Next, choose a question from the ones on my list of topics. Write the question down somewhere prominent, and check back while you are writing the essay to make sure that you are still answering the question.

The first stage in planning your essay is deciding what to leave out. You could easily write a PhD dissertation (about 80,000 words) on any of the topics given for your essays, so a 1,500 word essay must leave a lot out. Your essays must not provide a comprehensive survey of the course material. This is a vital point, and a major difference from other NatSci courses. You cannot both write a philosophy essay and survey the entire course. Leave things out.

Some topics will obviously not be relevant to the question you have chosen. For example, if you have read about Berkeley and Locke, and decide to write about primary and secondary qualities, Berkeley is not relevant, and can be left out entirely. Most things, however, will look relevant. This is the occupational hazard of philosophy: everything is relevant to everything else.

To narrow things down further, go through your notes and pick out the central claims and arguments. Make a list of them, on paper if you find that helpful, but certainly in your mind. Choose one to be the finishing point of the essay. This point should be clearly relevant to the question, but otherwise you may choose it however you like. It may be a position, or a criticism of a position. It is perfectly all right to produce an essay saying that you don't think any of the proposed theories really work. Next, choose a starting point. This may be obvious from the way that the course was taught (causation and induction should start from Hume), but otherwise choose one that can lead up to your finishing point.

Once you have a starting point and a finishing point, you need to plot a route between them. Your essay should break down into sections with the structure describe-criticise-respond. The starting point is your first description, the finishing point the final criticism or response. The response to one section will also be the decription part of the next. There should only be three or four such sections in a 1,500 word essay, and these will mostly deal with features of one position. Thus, in an essay on Descartes, you might have one section on the dream argument, one section on the evil demon argument, and one section on Descartes's argument for God, concluding with a criticism of that argument.

The first paragraph of your essay should be a short introduction which sets out the structure of the whole essay. This makes it easier for the reader to follow, and also makes it look like you planned in advance. For the rest, write as follows:

Essays following this structure will be a bit formulaic, but they could get a high II:i. Remember that the idea is to prove to me that you have understood the positions and arguments, and can use them to construct a coherent line of reasoning. Thus, although I do know all the philosophy you are being taught, you should be explicit about anything that is relevant to your argument, because I need to know that you know. On the other hand, if you just want to say that you are not going to discuss a particular aspect, you can just say so, because I will know what you are talking about. (This is usually only necessary if your description raises that aspect, but you want to criticise another aspect.)

Advanced Advice

Once you have produced a couple of II:i essays by following the above guidelines, you should start varying things a bit. The simplest form of variation is a variation in the structure of the essay. Instead of a linear structure, you could show how two lines of argument lead to the same conclusion, or set up a dilemma and show that both sides are undermined by different considerations.

Another simple variation is to choose your own question.

However, the best way to vary things is to come up with your own ideas. I can't offer any advice on how to come up with the idea in the first place, merely on how to put them into an essay. There are two main sorts of idea: new criticisms, and new theories.

The first thing to realise is that your chances of coming up with something genuinely new are virtually nil. That doesn't matter; you will come up with your own spin on the idea, and at undergraduate level it is impressive enough to come up with a good philosophical idea by yourself. There are two main types of idea. You may come up with a new criticism of an established theory, or you may come up with a new theory.

New criticisms are the easiest to deal with, as they fit easily into the basic structure. You should make your criticism as clear as possible, and come up with an example that illustrates it. If you are very lucky, there will be a natural case that perfectly illustrates your idea. Most of the time, however, you will have to construct an artificial example. Don't worry about plausibility; you'd be amazed at some of the daft examples in the published literature. For example:

On the other hand, a spontaneously generated dog on some empty planet has a good of its own, even though it only acquires a function and becomes a sheepdog when an astronaut (with a herd of sheep) lands on its planet.
Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain, page 201.

In constructing an example, stick to fields you know well, and that you can expect the reader to know well. (I did Natural Sciences for my undergraduate degree, so examples drawn from your other courses are probably safe.) The consequences of not doing so can be embarrassing, to say the least. There is a famous philosophical example concerning two planets, one with water, and one with another substance with very similar properties but a completely different chemical formula. The example asks us to consider two people, one on each planet, who are exact molecular copies of one another. Apart, presumably, from the 70% percent of each that is either water or the replacement stuff... In particular, do not use examples from quantum mechanics unless you absolutely have to, and are sure you understand both the physics and the philosophy involved. The interpretation you are taught in IB Physics is philosophically controversial, not 'the truth'.

Once you have a good field for the example, look at your argument and see what structure a counter-example would have to have. Suppose that you want to argue that A may cause B even if B would have happened even if A hadn't. (This is a response to a theory of causation which you will encounter in the lectures, along with version of this example.) In the actual case, then, A must happen and cause B. However, since B must happen even if A doesn't, there must be something else, C, which will cause B if A does not. C must not, however, cause B in the actual case, because it must be clear that A does. Thus, something must interfere with it. Since you want to be sure that C will cause B if A fails to occur, A should be the thing that interferes with C. Philosophers seem to like violent examples, so you choose to describe an elaborate murder. The victim stands on a trap door and falls onto poisoned spikes, while an assassin shoots just as he drops, and the bullet passes through the space that the victim's head occupied moments earlier. The opening of the trap door causes the death, although, had it not opened, the bullet would have killed the victim. This, then, is a counter-example to the thesis that A only causes B if B would not have occurred had A not occurred.

This looks quite complex, and it is. Doing this successfully will often create a first class essay, so it should be difficult. However, an example is almost essential when you are propounding a new criticism. When you have your own ideas, clarity becomes even more important, because I do not know what you are trying to say. You are likely to fail, because it is very difficult to be clear in philosophy (as you may gather from your reading), but it is important to make the attempt, as clarity is a vital part of philosophical argument. If people don't know what you are saying, it is hard for them to engage with it. If your essay is unclear, we will discuss it in the supervision, so that you can be clearer if you want to use the same argument in the exam.

Coming up with your own theory presents serious problems. On the one hand, this is exactly what you should be doing, and I want to encourage it. On the other, it is all but impossible to describe a new theory clearly in 1,500 words. Thus, focus becomes extremely important.

Even when you are finishing with your own theory, you should start from the literature. Choose a criticism to which you can respond with your theory. The description of your theory should be rather longer than descriptions of ideas from the literature, to improve my chances of understanding it. You should make sure, before writing the essay, that none of the standard problems in the field defeat your theory. If you have to think about how it deals with one of the cases, raise that case as a criticism in your essay, and show how your theory handles it. If there are several cases that raise problems, but you think you can handle them, you can say that there are other apparent problems, your theory can handle them, but there isn't space to go into it. This is legitimate, as long as you address at least one problem, and are prepared to defend your assertion in the supervision.

You may come up with a nice-looking theory, and then think of a non-standard criticism to which you cannot see an answer. In that case, it is perfectly all right to end the essay with that criticism, and the admission that you cannot see a way round it. If the theory is interesting, and initially plausible, you could still get a first for such an essay. Remember, being right is not that important. You are not risking marks by including new ideas in an essay.

New Ideas in Supervision

If you write an essay with a new idea in, or come up with a new idea in supervision, I will try to knock it down. This is my job. The only way to test the quality of a new idea is to try to knock it down, so that is what philosophers do. If I'm trying to shred your theory, you're doing very well: you've come up with something that is interesting and original enough to be worth criticising in detail.

In most cases, I will be able to present apparently devastating arguments. This is an inevitable consequence of the difference in our philosophical experience; I have had much more practice at criticising theories than you have had at creating them. Even then, you should try to respond, possibly modifying your theory a bit to take account of the criticism. Responding to criticism in this way is an important philosophical skill, and another one that can only be learned by practice.

You should not assume that I think my criticisms are unanswerable. Often, I will also have ways you could modify the theory to meet the criticism in mind. Obviously, I will be more impressed if you manage to come up with them for yourself. I'll be even more impressed if you manage a good response to a criticism I did think was unanswerable.

I will tell you if I think an idea is worth using in an exam essay. This will not always be the case, but bear in mind that you have nothing to lose in the supervision by trying ideas out. That is one of their functions.