How to write: Philosophy papers

by Gavin Meichelbock

Writing a philosophy paper is not rocket science, but it is still math.

Before UCLA opened up a writing center specifically for philosophy papers, the Undergraduate Writing Center, or UWC, was flooded with students asking how to write these kinds of papers; a philosophical question unto itself. Lucky for UCLA students and the other Peer Learning Facilitators at the UWC, their fellow facilitator and third-year philosophy student Quinton Wood is here to answer these questions.

“You shouldn’t really think about a philosophy paper as listing reasons why your conclusion is true. Instead, you’re deriving your conclusions,” said Wood. “It often helps to compare a philosophy paper to a mathematical proof or some sort of theorem derivation.”

The key to any philosophy paper, Wood said, is a strong logic foundation. This is partly derived from the use of strong definitions. In a philosophy paper, a “definition” is the necessary and sufficient conditions for when a term should apply, Wood said. For example, Wood said, if the conditions for a chair are that it has four legs, a back and a place to sit, then a bean bag would not be a chair. So therefore the definition would need to be refined or the writer needs to show why a bean bag is not a chair. This also helps strengthen the foundation by illustrating the definition.

Another part of a strong foundation, said Wood, is to specifically outline the premises of the argument. In the introduction or throughout the essay, students should list out all of their premises and label them with numbers or letters as if they were an appendix. This allows the reader to easily refer back to them anytime throughout the paper and clearly see the structure of the argument. An important note about the premises, Wood said, is that they do not have to link directly to the conclusion; they can just be one of many of the deductive steps the writer needs to get there.

“You’re (not) gonna have paragraph A that says the conclusion is probable, paragraph B that says the conclusion is probable,” Wood said. “You’re gonna have one paragraph that argues for a premise. Another paragraph that argues for what could be a completely different premise, but only when the two premises are locked together does the conclusion follow.”

To argue a point in a philosophy paper, modus ponens is the simplest logical inference, said Wood. “Modus ponens” describes the situation where by proving the first premise, you also prove the second premise. Wood said students do not have to directly argue all of their points because they can be inferred or deduced from each other. As an example, said Wood, to prove free will does not exist if the universe is determined by scientific laws, the student just has to provide an argument for free will not existing and an argument for why the universe is determined by scientific laws. By making an argument for these two premises, it can be inferred that free will does not exist if the universe is determined by scientific laws. Another way to argue a premise, Wood said, is with “modus tollens,” where proving premise two to be false also proves premise one to be false.

In addition to modus ponens and tollens, students can use thought experiments, but these should used with caution, Wood said. “Thought experiments should be used with caution … and are best used for illustrative purposes rather than deductive purposes,” said Wood. “They might lead you astray when you use them to prove a conclusion as opposed to just merely illustrating it.”

When conducting a thought experiment, Wood said, writers want to make sure it is possible under the set conditions. A man in an empty universe who is rigged to a machine made to keep him alive would prove the premise that mankind is immortal since readers can picture the conditions of the thought experiment, Wood said. Saying an object is blue and green all over simultaneously, does not work because this cannot exist and hence won’t illustrate the writer’s point, said Wood. Writers should first use traditional deductive strategies such as statistical analysis to make their point and then use inductive strategies such as thought experiments to illustrate them, said Wood.

Wood said a way to help the reader from getting lost in the paper is by using signposting. Signposting is a first-person statement where the writer queues the reader into what they are doing at each step of the argument by literally saying what they will argue. At the beginning of each new premise, Wood said, the writer can say exactly what they will be proving in that paragraph. Wood said in addition to this, writers can tell the reader what specific pieces of information will be helpful later in the essay.

When wrapping up a philosophy paper, Wood said, the writer should summarize their argument and reasonings. The simplest way to do this is by restating the premises. Students should clearly draw the lines between their premises and how they lead to the conclusion. After the connections are clearly made, writers can go on to explain the further implications of their argument. In the example about free will, said Wood, the writer can go on to explore what ethics and laws look like in a world without free will.

Even though it is complicated and mathematical on the surface, Wood wants students to remember to have fun and be creative when writing philosophy papers.

For more help on how to write philosophy papers, click here. To book an in-person or Zoom appointment with the UWC, click here.

Featured Image via Adobe Stock

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