Arts: Writing philosophy essays
What is distinctive about philosophy essays?
Philosophy essays are different from other research essays in that, in general, their purpose is to clearly and carefully consider arguments. This means that your essay should:
- clearly identify an argument
- critically respond to its premises.
Identify the argument
The first thing to do for your essay is to establish what the author is arguing and write it in standard form. This will provide you with the claims that need to be considered and analysed one by one. An example of an argument in standard form is:
P1) Premise 1
P2) Premise 2
Here we have broken the author’s argument down, identifying 2 premises and a conclusion. You can, of course, have more than two premises, but an undergraduate will typically consider an argument with 2-4 premises.
In the formulation above, there are two premises and a conclusion which is called a categorical syllogism. There are many other logical schemas you will learn in philosophy which will alert you to whether the argument’s logic is deductive or inductive, or valid or invalid.
Check your understanding View
Matching/Drag and Drop
Put the following arguments into standard form by dragging the sentences into the correct place. Some sentences are indicated by inclusion of P1, P2 or C.
Consider the argument
After you have identified the argument, you need to carefully consider it, critically responding to its premises.
When considering an argument, there are a number of things that you can do to demonstrate your depth of understanding and ability to reason.
- Consider the logical structure to ensure it is valid.
- Provide counterexamples to show that different interpretations and theoretical perspectives exist.
- Defend an argument with reasons provided by yourself or other authors.
- Compare and contrast an argument with an opposing view.
- Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.
- Provide examples to illustrate something conceptual in a concrete way.
- Identify assumptions that are questionable.
- Consider the consequences of accepting an argument and whether this is tenable or viable.
- Consider the significance of the argument within a broader context.
- Revise the argument stipulating limitations.
Example essay excerpt
The following essay excerpt provides a good example of a philosophy essay. Note this is not a complete essay.
Essay question: Gettier raises some serious challenges for the traditional account of knowledge. Nozick develops his tracking account in part to answer the problems identified by Gettier. After explaining both Gettier's challenge and Nozick's proposal, evaluate the strength of Nozick's proposal as a response to Gettier's challenge.
The School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University recommends Jim Pryor’s Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.