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Lecturer's advice

Graham Oppy, Lecturer Karen Green, Lecturer In this section, your lecturers - Graham Oppy and Karen Green - answer Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about researching and writing essays in first-year Philosophy.

FAQs: Click on those topic areas that are of interest to you, or that you need to know more about.

Writing in philosophy

  1. What's distinctive about Philosophy writing?
  2. What makes a good first-year Philosophy essay?
  3. What are the assessment criteria?
  4. How can I be "original" in Philosophy essays?
  5. What are the main difficulties students have in Philosophy?
  6. Is the approach to writing different from VCE?
  7. What is philosophical terminology? How can I learn it?

Reading for essays

  1. How much reading should students do for an essay?
  2. How useful is the internet for philosophy essays?
  3. How should students approach the reading of a difficult Philosophy text?
  4. How should students take notes from texts?
  5. What's plagiarism? How can it be avoided?

Essay style

  1. Should I try to imitate the writing style of philosophers I read?
  2. Can I write "I think" in my essays?
  3. Should I include biographical information about philosophers in my essays?
  4. Who's the target audience for a Philosophy essay?

Summary

  1. What's a good overall approach to researching and writing essays?


1. What's distinctive about philosophy writing?

Summary:

  • Participating in a "dialogue" of ideas
  • Having your own clear case to argue
  • having a logical structure

Karen: Philosophical writing in broad terms is largely about dialogue. For example, someone puts up a proposal (e.g. "Might is right") and then somebody else objects and says that that doesn't follow (e.g. "If might is right, then it is alright for someone to murder children"). So then the first person comes back and provides a qualification (e.g. "Might is right, if such and such a condition"). And so you get a dialogue. But it's not an endless to and fro - there is also a commitment in this dialogue to the possibility of discovering the truth, or at least getting closer to it.

For students new to Philosophy, part of their aim is to participate in some small way in this dialogue.

Graham: In Philosophy, there are two key elements: having a clearly identified case or thesis to argue and having a logical structure to the writing that supports what's being argued. In other subjects, there may be an interest in other aspects of the writing - so that it should be literary in some respect. This is not really required in Philosophy. You need to be direct and to the point.

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2. What makes a good first-year philosophy essay?

Summary:

  • It focuses on the way arguments are put together
  • It has a clear thesis and a logical structure

Karen: Writing in Philosophy is much more precise than writing in some other disciplines. It focuses more on the structure of arguments than on information you gather on a topic. We do not require a vast bibliography, but where articles are cited, we like citations to be to the precise page in which an argument occurs. It is quite possible for a very good and long philosophy essay to be written about a quite short argument. In philosophy, we value analytical skills which focus on finding ambiguities in arguments, discussion of the plausibility of the premises, recognition of the implications of accepting the argument as a good one, and counter-arguments which show that arguments which look plausible are not valid (that is to say their conclusions do not follow from their premises).

Graham: A good essay will have a clearly identified thesis that will be argued for - and a logical structure that supports the argument.

We generally make a distinction between serious attempts and "the night before" jobs.

In essays that have been rushed, there is usually a lack of a clear thesis (or case) that is being argued for. That comes from throwing it together - taking bits and pieces from the lecture notes and the tutorial guide - and not having thought about your argument and the essay's overall structure.

If you write the essay at the last minute and say there are considerations on this side and on the other side and it's hard to draw a conclusion, that's not really acceptable in Philosophy. You don't have to come up with some wonderful new argument - but there should be at least some sense that you've tried to work things out for yourself.

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3. What are the assessment criteria?

Summary: Presentation, Reading, and Argument - most importantly the last of these

Karen: With first-year essays we append a cover sheet which makes explicit the various elements that contribute to assessment. They are:

  • Presentation: legibility and layout; spelling and grammar
  • Reading: bibliography and citation; comprehension and exposition
  • Argument: clarity; argument structure; originality

The difference between a merely good essay and an extremely good essay comes down to the student's capacities in the argument category. A clear and grammatical essay that shows good comprehension will normally get a mark of 13 or 14 out of 20 (a Credit or low Distinction). In order to do better than this, a student needs to show the capacity to develop the argument in their own words, with clarity and with originality.

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4. How can I be "original" in philosophy essays?

Summary:

  • Demonstrate that you have been thinking for yourself
  • Show you have understood material - and have thought about it enough to have your own view

Graham: Students need to realise that they don't have to come up with something startlingly new. In this context, originality just means demonstrating that you've been thinking for yourself.

How do I spot originality in an essay? If a student seems to be saying something that wasn't said in the lectures or in the course readings - and I can't source it to texts in the bibliography - that's a reasonable indication of originality.

You can often tell in the student's language that they're grappling with something themselves. This originality can come out in just one or two critical comments they make about arguments they've read. Or it might come out in the examples they draw on to demonstrate a point - these might be ones that they've drawn from their own sources, like novels they've read. Or they might even have thought of the example entirely by themselves. Sometimes this originality shows up because the student makes a point that's not exactly right. But they get credit for this (if it's not outrageously bad) for at least trying to put things in their own terms.

Karen: Hardly anyone in first year can achieve genuine originality, and we don't expect it. The important thing is to show you've understood the material - and that you've thought about it enough to come up with your own view. I often reward students who express some "unease" about an argument - rather than just accepting that what the text says is true. If you can say that this doesn't seem to follow because of this, then that is a sign you've engaged independently. But it is hard.

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5. What are the main difficulties students have in philosophy?

Summary:

  • Grasping the structure of arguments
  • Realising that the subject is mainly about arguments, and deciding whether arguments are good ones.

Karen: Some students find the emphasis on argument in Philosophy difficult to come to grips with. They may be more used to subjects where they mainly need to gather information about the topic. Philosophers raise difficult questions like, "What is the truth?" "What is the nature of right or wrong?" "What is wrong with killing?" "Does God exist?" These are questions that do not have simple uncontested answers. And we are not so much interested in the answers that students give to these questions. What's important is the arguments that they give for their answers, and their ability to comprehend the arguments that others have given and deciding whether these are good arguments. Sometimes philosophy can be confusing. A good philosopher can develop a very persuasive argument for one conclusion, and then offer an equally persuasive argument for another conclusion. Some students find this frustrating at first, but often the same students come to appreciate the analytical skills that philosophy provides.

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6. Is the approach to writing different from VCE?

Karen: Students at VCE have often been given a structure (or template) for their writing by their teacher. To a certain extent we attempt to provide such templates, but ideally we are looking for more autonomy. We want to see evidence that you're doing more than just following instructions; you need to show that you've done the reading carefully enough to have understood it, and that you've spent some time thinking about it independently. So the main transition is from doing what one is told to do, to using one's own skills and judgement to produce something worthwhile.

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7. What is philosophical terminology? How can I learn it?

Summary:

  • Terms such as argument, premise, conclusion, validity, soundness etc.
  • Practise using these terms - try to work out how they're being used in the course readings

Karen: Philosophy, like all other disciplines, has its own special vocabulary. To be a successful student you need to learn this vocabulary. Some of the more important terms that students have particular difficulty with are:

Argument: We don't mean here a confrontation between people, as in "I had an argument with my boyfriend last night". Rather it is the sorts of reasons people have for believing something. In Philosophy, an argument is typically made up of certain statements ( premises), plus a conclusion that follows on from these premises.

As we have said, in Philosophy, students need to make their own judgements about arguments. There are three terms that are very important in this type of activity: truth, validity, and soundness.

Truthfulness is the concept we apply when we make judgements about premises; that is a premise is true, if the state of affairs it describes is thought to be the case in the real world. For example the premise "All men are mortal" is arguably true, at least in the way we normally interpret this statement; that is, all human life physically comes to an end.

Validity is a fairly technical term. Often students use valid to mean true. For example, "That's a valid fact". But we use valid as a term of appraisal for arguments. So an argument is valid if the conclusion follows on logically from the premises. In the following:

All men are mortal (Premise 1)

Socrates is a man (Premise 2)

Socrates is mortal (Conclusion)

the argument is valid because the conclusion follows on from the premises.

There is a distinction between an argument being valid and it being sound. For an argument to be valid , the premises don't necessarily have to be true. So in the example above, if the Socrates we are referring to is not Socrates the philosopher, but a dog named Socrates, then the premise "Socrates is a man" would be false. The argument nevertheless would still be valid. But it would not be sound. The requirements of a sound argument are that: i) the premises are true; and ii) the conclusion follows on from the premises.

One other term that is worth mentioning in relation to arguments is persuasive. This is a looser term - there are all sorts of devices and techniques people can use to make their arguments persuasive . For example an appeal to the emotions may make an argument persuasive to some. So a persuasive argument is not necessarily valid or sound. Part of the job of philosophers is to show that arguments that appear persuasive are really flawed because on analysis they are not valid.

You need to learn how to use these terms. Probably the best way to do this is to read a lot in the area, and cumulatively absorb how the terminology works. In your writing, if you aren't sure about the technical vocabulary it is better not to risk making major errors - initially it may be best to use a nontechnical vocabulary and express yourself in words you are sure you understand.

Graham: To learn these terms, you need to practise using them - and to figure out how they're being used in the course readings. You should also pay close attention to the feedback you get on your essays.

All disciplines in the faculty have their own vocabularies, which you have to learn. You need to remember too that different disciplines may not make the same distinctions between terms. For example in some subjects there may not be a big difference between say statement and argument; in Philosophy it is crucial.

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8. How much reading should a student do for an essay?

Summary:

  • For an essay, usually only several texts - the required readings
  • In the course generally, read widely

Karen: In essays, we want students to deal intensively with specific arguments, so you will usually only need to deal with several texts - the required readings. We do not encourage large amounts of further reading for essays. It is more important to understand a few articles well than to have a confused impression of the positions that may be taken from having read a lot with little comprehension.

That's in the essay, but in the course generally we encourage wider reading - as much as possible really. This is so you can understand where an argument fits. For example, if we are dealing with utilitarianism - a key ethical theory - we will discuss it in relation to a number of issues. If you haven't got a broad understanding of the utilitarian way of seeing things it will be difficult for you to deal with when it comes up, say, in the abortion issue.

Graham: Generally for Philosophy essays, it's enough just to look at the course readings and lecture notes. There is probably a difference here with other subjects in Arts. Surprisingly, in Philosophy extra reading can make an essay worse. So it is not really a good idea to go to the library and just search for books generally on the topic. Usually we want you to focus on specific arguments.

So what's a reasonable number of texts to read? It will depend on the essay topic, but it could be just one or two or three. Generally you will need to look at at least one primary text (e.g. Aquinas) and then it may be reasonable to look at several secondary sources - that is, commentaries on the primary text. There will have been mentioned in the lectures of at least one or two important critics.

But there is another type of reading that we do encourage. It's good to read a variety of things roughly around the subject - but not necessarily with a view to incorporating them into the essay - just so you know more about the area. In this case, just focus on whatever you're interested in. You shouldn't think that all of the reading you do in Philosophy is just for the purpose of completing the essay task before you.

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9. How useful is the internet for philosophy essays?

Summary: Most philosophy-related websites will not be helpful. Consult your tutor first if you are interested in web resources.

Graham: There are many websites which house valuable philosophical resources: texts, discussions, papers, class notes, and so on. However, there are also a lot which contain nothing but rubbish. And it is not always easy to tell the difference between the two. It seems to me that the "not likely to be helpful or useful" sites far outnumber the "likely to be helpful or useful" - so that I would recommend against surfing the Net (or even browsing in the library for that matter) when given an assignment. If you are interested in web resources, you should talk to your lecturer or tutor to get recommendations of sites which are worth having a look at.

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10. How should students approach the reading of a difficult philosophy text?

Summary:

  1. Skim read the text to get an overview
  2. Read slowly and try to work out the text's logical structure
  3. Try to work out what you think of the text

Karen: Since the structure of the argument in some articles can be quite complex, it is of great benefit to read the articles more than once. A good practice is to read the readings relevant to a particular lecture or tutorial fairly quickly before the lecture or tutorial. Then, in the light of the discussion, to reread the article, reading carefully those portions which now seem most relevant to the issues raised.

Graham: It depends a bit on whether it's a primary text for the essay (e.g. Aquinas' Five Ways) or if it's some secondary material (e.g. a commentary on Aquinas).

If it's Aquinas for example, it will be only a short text and what you've got to do is take the text apart. You need to work out what the argument is - work out the logical structure, its premises and conclusions, any sub-arguments. For this you need to read slowly.

If you're reading secondary sources, it will be more like reading the newspaper - skimming to find out what you want. Once you've found an argument that you're interested in (that's relevant to your essay), then you've got to slow down again.

It's hard to separate the reading from the reflection - you really have to do both at once. You're trying to work out the argument being presented and you're also thinking about what you think of it.

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11. How should students take notes from texts?

Summary: Once you have come to an understanding of the text, put the text aside and try setting out its argument in your own words.

Karen: The way a student takes notes has a big bearing on how they write their essays. There is a way of writing where the student more or less copies what they've read - not quite word for word - but changing a bit of sentence structure here and putting a few words in there. The problem here is that we're not entirely convinced that the student has understood the material. Writing in your own words means reading the material, going away and thinking about it - and then setting down the ideas as you've understood them . There will be times when you need to look back over the text - at something important or when the vocabulary is unfamiliar - or there'll be a phrase that is crucial. But fundamentally you want to be writing it out of your own head, not just copying it. This comes down to having a bit of mental distance between you and the text.

Graham: In reading and notetaking, what students need to do is work out the logical structure of the texts they read. That means you have to read texts several times and then make some notes and try to set out the structure of the text in your own terms. So you may write:

First of all he states the argument... and then he considers some objections to this premise... and then in the next section he considers some objections to that premise and then... The next section is an elaboration of his original argument... and then he gives a hypothetical example to support this argument, and so on.

Karen: In general a good practice for reading philosophy papers is to read once quickly, to get an overall feeling for the structure of the article. Then you should re-read slowly, concentrating on those parts of the article which the quick reading has shown to be most important for the overall argument. Then you should put the article aside and try to lay it out in your own terms.

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12. What's plagiarism? How can it be avoided?

Summary:

  • Failing to acknowledge the words and ideas of others in your work
  • Ways to avoid it:
    1. summarise arguments in your own words
    2. adorn your summaries with expressions like: "Brown argues that..."
    3. include citations (name of reference, date, page number)

Graham: The subject's view of plagiarism is set out in the Green Guide:

Plagiarism occurs where someone fails to acknowledge that ideas have been borrowed from any source such as the internet, published books or periodicals, or another student's work.

Where students are taking notes from a primary source and they put those down in an essay, even if it's in their own words, but they're presenting someone else's position, then they've got to realise they're borrowing this - and they need to acknowledge their sources.

To avoid plagiarism, students need to use language like "In The Five Ways, Aquinas thinks that..." or "Aquinas says that..." This also applies to secondary sources. For example "Brown says that Aquinas' argument about X is..." And when you're doing this, you have to cite the original source and page number.

Some students also have a problem where the summary extends over several paragraphs. If you've got "Aquinas says..." in the first paragraph and then you get a few more paragraphs, it may not be clear whether we've got more of Aquinas or whether it's another writer's views or even the student's view. It's important to clearly indicate whose views you're dealing with, because this won't be immediately apparent to the reader.

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13. Should I try to imitate the writing style of philosophers I read?

Summary: No, you should really just try to write to make yourself clear.

Graham: Not really. Unfortunately, there are too many writers who set a bad example. There are some contemporary philosophers whose sentences can run on for a whole paragraph - and they can be awfully difficult to understand. You should really just try to write to make yourself clear.

Problems in grammar often arise if you try to write in long sentences and you have bits in sentences that keep referring back to something you said earlier. But problems also occur if you haven't thought about things enough and they're not really clear in your mind. So you need to work on two things: keeping your language straightforward and being clear about what you want to say.

Karen: Some students think they should try to use the same complex writing in the readings that we prescribe, rather than aiming to produce a clear piece of writing that demonstrates their understanding. This is not a good approach. Using complex sentences which are beyond their control causes problems. A student may have a basic comprehension of the issues, but end up saying silly things which they did not intend. As a broad principle you want to make your ideas complex, and your language simple - not the other way round!

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14. Can I write " I think..." in my essays?

Summary: Yes, especially to express your own view of a philosophical argument.

Graham: Absolutely! It's curious that there is such a barrier against using "I" in some subject areas. In philosophy essays, we want students to express a view, and the easiest way to do this is to write: " I think that...". It makes things clear that at this point in your essay you're not presenting someone else's view (e.g. Aquinas). So it may be important in the essay to have one paragraph which has expressions like " Aquinas thinks that..." and then in the next paragraph - " I think that..."

In Philosophy we're interested in getting students to develop their own views on a particular subject. If you get out the journals, it's common to find philosophers using expressions like " I think that..." or "I wish to argue that...". But there are of course other ways of signalling a personal view like - " It would appear that..." or just come out directly and say " There is a problem in X's argument".

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15. Should I include biographical information about philosophers in my essays?

Summary: No, keep your focus on a philosopher's ideas, not on their personal circumstances.

Graham: Some students are inclined to put in this type of detail - for example " Thomas Aquinas was born on such and such a date, and lived in Rome and Paris where he..." etc. In an essay where you're asked to assess the validity of arguments, this type of information is really going to be a waste of words. If you've only got 1,000 words, and use 30 of them to give dates, that's another few sentences you could have written about the argument. As a rule, keep your focus on a philosopher's ideas, not on their personal circumstances.

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16. Who's the target audience for a philosophy essay?

Summary: A broader audience than your lecturer. Don't presuppose too much background knowledge.

Karen: It's best not to imagine you are writing just for your lecturer. I suggest a broader approach - perhaps aiming the essay at another student, more or less at the same level. You need then to be able to explain clearly the issues you are dealing with and your solutions to them. The main thing is not to presuppose that your audience has all the background you have.

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17. What's a good overall approach to researching and writing essays?

Summary:

  1. Be clear what the topic is asking
  2. Select and carefully read relevant articles
  3. Decide what your argument is going to be
  4. Structure your writing so that the argument comes through clearly
  5. Always re-read the completed essay

Karen: First, be clear about exactly what the topic is asking you to consider, and what you are expected to form a judgement on (e.g. "Is abortion murder?" or "The existence of evil shows that God does not exist"). You might also begin by thinking about a very provisional response to the topic to focus your reading (e.g. "Yes, abortion probably is murder in such and such a circumstance" or "No, the existence of evil does not preclude God's existence).

Second, you need to select which articles and book chapters are going to be relevant to the topic. You need to read these texts very carefully and be clear about the arguments on the issue. This is actually the hard bit. Some texts will present arguments in favour of the proposition to be discussed; others will be counter-arguments to earlier arguments. Further arguments will be replies to counter-arguments. You need to get clear on this kind of structure both within articles and between articles.

Third, after your reading, you need to decide exactly how you are going to argue (what position you are going to take). This will be which of the arguments presented you are going to endorse. So long as you show that you are familiar with the arguments in the readings, further arguments can be your own. Deciding how to argue is often very difficult because the articles chosen will often be inconclusive. There might be good arguments for a position and good arguments against it. This often leads students to write essays which have the structure: X argues in this way for proposition P, and Y argues in this way against proposition P, and I can't decide either way. This is honest, but rather uninteresting. A better strategy is to decide that you are going to argue for a particular conclusion, even if you are not absolutely certain that this is the right one. So, for instance, you might decide to argue for the proposition that "abortion is always murder", or that "it never is", or that "it sometimes is". One usually does best to choose to argue for what seems most plausible - this can then help you to clarify why.

Fourth, think carefully how you are going to structure your essay. Begin with a short introduction in which you spell out the question or proposition being dealt with, and say what you are going to conclude. In the body, deal with arguments and objections in a fairly ordered sequence. Exactly how you do this depends on what you think about the issue.

Finally, always re-read the essay to make sure that you have in fact said what you intended to say.

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