Writing philosophy essays

What is distinctive about philosophy essays?

Philosophy papers require clear and careful consideration of arguments. This means that your essay should clearly identify an argument and critically respond to its premises. Typically, this means expressing an argument in standard form and responding to each of its claims one by one. For example:

P1) Premise 1

P2) Premise 2


C) Conclusion

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. 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. You can of course, have more than two premises, but an undergraduate will typically consider an argument with 2-4 premises.

Matching/Drag and Drop

Put the following arguments into the standard form by dragging the sentences into the correct place. Some sentences are indicated by inclusion of P1, P2 or C.

How do you consider an argument?

When considering an argument, there are a number of things that you can do to demonstrate your depth of understanding and ability to reason.

For example:

  • Consider the logical structure to ensure it is valid (For more on argument structures refer to the RLO Critical thinking reasoning pages)
  • Provide counterexamples to show that something is not always the case
  • Defend an argument with reasons provided by yourself or other authors
  • Compare and contrast an argument with an opposing view
  • Consider strengths and weaknesses of the argument
  • Provide examples to illustrate something conceptual in a concrete way
  • Identify assumptions that are questionable
  • Consider 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

Look at the following essay excerpt below to see examples of the above.

Annotated Essay Excerpt

Example Essay excerpt:  Knowledge as Justified True Belief

The following essay excerpt provides a good example of a philosophy essay. Note this is not a complete 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.

Click the icons next to each paragraph to show the lecturer’s comments. Click again to hide the comment.


Good Problem Suggestion Question
Show/hide lecturer's comment 1

Universities seek knowledge to provide a basis for society to make reasonable decisions about what to think and how to act. But what exactly is knowledge? What does it mean to know something?  This essay will consider the traditional account of knowledge formulated by Plato as justified true belief and consider the challenges identified by Gettier (1963). It will then consider Nozick’s (1981) tracking account as a response to the Gettier problem and argue that while Nozick’s account has strengths, it is nonetheless subject to successful counterexamples, resulting in an unsatisfactory account of knowledge. Lecturer's comment 1:
This is a very good, succinct introduction that responds directly to the question. It provides a general context for the idea of knowledge, identifies the issue, outlines what will be considered and states its conclusion. Well done!

Show/hide lecturer's comment 2 Show/hide lecturer's comment 3 Show/hide lecturer's comment 4

The traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief (JTB) is founded upon Plato’s account of knowledge in Theaetetus (201d-210a). It is generally accepted that truth and belief are necessary conditions for knowledge (Hohwy, Chadha, Townsend & May 2013, p. 218) Lecturer's comment 2:
Great that you have referenced this but in Harvard style it can be simplified when there are 4 authors to (Hohwy et al. 2013, p. 218). Refer to Monash Library Guide for Harvard style.
as it is difficult to consider an instance of knowledge where it is not true and/ or where one does not believe it. For instance, I believe that there is a climate crisis but only because my parrot keeps saying “crisis, crisis, it’s getting hotter.” It is true that there is a climate crisis and I believe it, however my reason for having this is questionable, and hence my claim of knowledge is questionable. Lecturer's comment 3:
Providing an example is a great way to show your understanding of a concept/theory.
Plato recognised that a true belief (or opinion) was not sufficient for knowledge and suggested that it be accompanied by reason, that is, justification. Knowledge was thereby defined as JTB, and thus, the necessary and sufficient conditions for a subject (S) to know a proposition (p) are IFF:Lecturer's comment 4:
Provide the full meaning of IFF, e.g. if and only if (IFF)

Show/hide lecturer's comment 5

P1) p is true

P2) S believes that p

P3) S is justified in believing that p

C) S knows that pLecturer's comment 5:
Good formatting of argument in standard form. It would be ok to just state the premises given the conclusion is stated in the preceding sentence.

Show/hide lecturer's comment 6 Show/hide lecturer's comment 7

The traditional account of knowledge was challenged by Gettier (1963) with counterexamples to illustrate that JTB is an insufficient understanding of knowledge.Lecturer's comment 6:
Good topic sentence to provide theme for this paragraph.
One counterexample (Gettier 1963, p. 122) provides a scenario where Smith and Jones have applied for a job. Smith has strong evidence that Jones will get the job (evidence such as the President of the company confirmed this) and that Jones has 10 coins in their pocket (evidence such as having counted Jones’ coins ten minutes ago). Hence, Smith concludes, and is justified in believing that the person to receive the job has ten coins in their pocket. Gettier (1963) suggests however that Smith will get the job and that they also have ten coins in their pocket. So Smith’s justified belief that the person to receive the job has ten coins in their pocket is in fact true, however they cannot claim to know this is true because they do not know that they have 10 coins in their pocket and they falsely believe that Jones will get the job. In other words, Gettier (1963) argues, JTB is insufficient for a claim of knowledge.Lecturer's comment 7:
Good summary of Gettier example with good use of philosophical terms.

Nozick (1981) responds to the Gettier problem by providing alternative necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, referred to as the tracking account. He claims that S knows that p IFF:

P1) p is true

P2) S believes that p

P3) If p were not true, S would not believe p

P4) If p were true, S would believe p

C) S knows that p

Show/hide lecturer's comment 8

Nozick's account asserts that a definition of knowledge requires counterfactual conditions rather than justification, that is, the inclusion of premises 3 and 4 as a means of testing or tracking the truth of a proposition. He contends that P3 provides sensitivity to the falsity of a claim, as, if a claim were not true, then you would not believe it was true. Similarly, P4 as the adherence conditional says that if a claim was true, then you would believe it. Together these premises seek to track the truth or falsity of a claim to show that S’s belief (P2) would alter given the truth of p (P1).Lecturer's comment 8:
Good account.
While this account appears plausible, and was refined by Nozick with respect to incorporating a reliable method as the basis for forming a belief, the account created some counterintuitive results.

Further information:

The School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University recommends Jim Pryor’s Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper available at http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html