Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
The aim of the assignments in your philosophy classes
is to get you doing philosophy.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. But what is philosophy,
and how is it to be done? The answer is complicated.
Philosophers are often motivated by one or more of what
we might call the “Big Questions,” such as: How should
we live? Is there free will? How do we know anything?
or, What is truth? While philosophers do not agree among
themselves on either the range of proper philosophical
questions or the proper methods of answering them, they
do agree that merely expressing one’s personal opinions
on controversial topics like these is not doing philosophy.
Rather, philosophers insist on the method of first attaining
clarity about the exact question being asked, and then
providing answers supported by clear, logically structured
arguments.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
An ideal philosophical argument should lead the reader in
undeniable logical steps from obviously true premises to an
unobvious conclusion. A negative argument is an objection
that tries to show that a claim, theory, or argument is
mistaken; if it does so successfully, we say that it refutes
it. A positive argument tries to support a claim or theory,
for example, the view that there is genuine free will,
or the view that we should never eat animals. Positive
philosophical arguments about the Big Questions that are
ideal are extremely hard to construct, and philosophers
interested in formulating or criticizing such arguments
usually end up discussing other questions that may
2 s Begin by formulating your precise thesis.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. State
your thesis clearly and concisely in your introduction
so that your reader understands what your paper sets
out to achieve. Get to the point quickly and without
digression. Don’t try to introduce your argument
within a grand historical narrative, for example. Your
thesis does not have to be the same as any thesis
mentioned in the assignment, although in some cases it
GOOD WRITING EXAMPLE
Jen was an excellent philosophy writer who
received the following assignment:
Evaluate Smith’s argument for the claim
that people lack free will.
Jen decided before she began writing her paper
that Smith’s argument ultimately fails because it
trades on an ambiguity. Accordingly, she began
her paper with the following sentence:
In this paper, I will refute Smith’s argument against
the existence of free will by showing that it trades on an
ambiguity.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Jen’s thesis, then, was that Smith’s argument is
invalid because it trades on an ambiguity – and she
stated it clearly right at the beginning of her paper.
Note that Jen need not say anything at all about
the truth or falsity of the thesis that people lack
free will; even if Smith’s argument for it is invalid,
it might still be true that people lack free will.
s Define technical or ambiguous terms used in
your thesis or your argument. You will need
to define for your reader any special or unclear terms
that appear in your thesis, or in the discussion at hand.
Write so that you could be clearly understood by a
student who has taken some classes in philosophy but
not this particular class. (Think of this imaginary reader
whenever you need to decide how much you need to
say to set up a discussion, or to judge the overall clarity
of your work.)
s If necessary, motivate your thesis (i.e. explain
to your reader why they should care about it).
You’ll need to do this, especially in longer assignments,
when it isn’t clear why a reader would care about the
truth of the claim you are arguing for.
s Explain briefly how you will argue in favor of
your thesis. In the example above, Jen’s thesis itself
is stated in such a way as to indicate how the argument
for it will proceed. Jen might reasonably have chosen
to enlarge a little on this explanation, for example by
indicating in her introduction which term in Smith’s
argument is ambiguous, or by indicating why she thinks
others may have overlooked the ambiguity.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
s If necessary, explain the argument you will
be critiquing. If your assignment asks you to critique
someone else’s argument (as in the example above), you
will need to explain that argument before presenting
your critique of it. Sometimes, the entire task of an
assignment will be simply to explain an argument
originated by somebody else, rather than to provide an
argument for your own thesis. While you will not always
be expected to provide your own completely original
arguments or theories in philosophy papers, you must
always practice philosophy.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. This means that you should
explain the argument in your own words and according
to your own understanding of the steps involved in
it. You will need to be very clear on the precise logical
structure of an author’s argument (N.B. this may not be
clearly represented by the order in which the argument
is written down in the readings). Don’t try to impress
your reader with your wide knowledge by summarizing
everything in a particular article, or everything you
have learned about the topic: stick to explaining only
the details that are essential to the author’s argument
for the particular thesis and to your own argument for
your thesis. Also take care to clearly indicate when you
are speaking in your own voice, and when you are
explicating someone else’s argument or point of view but
not yourself advocating it.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Take care to clearly indicate
when you are speaking in your
own voice, and when you are
explicating someone else’s
argument or point of view but not
POOR WRITING EXAMPLE
In answer to the previously mentioned
assignment, George wrote a paper arguing that
there was free will, on the grounds that George
was himself aware of making all kinds of free
choices every day.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. His conclusion was that
Smith’s argument (which he had not explained,
and mentioned only at the end of the paper) must
be false, since there is free will.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
George’s professor asked him to rewrite, telling
him that he had failed to engage with Smith’s
argument in the first draft. Here is an excerpt
from George’s less-than-successful rewrite…
… Smith says on p.9, “The truth of causal
determinism having been established by this argument
from elimination, we shall move on to prove
incompatibilism.” Smith then says that the source of
an agent’s actions is some event that occurred before he
was even born. If an event occurred before someone was
born, it cannot be a product of his choices. Therefore
incompatibilism is true. On p.10, Smith addresses the
objection that…Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
George does not properly explain and analyze
the logic of Smith’s argument (a philosophy
paper), but rather reports what Smith says and
the way in which it appears in the text (a book
report). In the first sentence George quotes
Smith directly where there is no need to do
so, and he provides no explanation of Smith’s
sentence or the technical terms in it that shows
that George actually understands it. In his second
sentence, George just follows Smith’s text while
paraphrasing it. In his third, George may be
attempting to: (i) simply paraphrase Smith, or
(ii) paraphrase and endorse Smith’s claim, or (iii)
make his own personal point – but to the reader
it is left ambiguous what George thinks Smith’s
view is and what George’s own view is.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
If you use a claim that your
reader might find doubtful,
then you must try to give the
reader convincing reasons for
s Make an argument to support your thesis.
This is the main focus of your paper. To make the
strongest possible argument, do not skip any steps,
and try not to rest your argument on any premises
that your reader might not be willing to accept. If you
use a claim that your reader might find doubtful, then
you must try to give the reader convincing reasons for
accepting it. It will almost always be more effective to
use a single argument and make it as compelling as you
can than to use more than one argument supported less
comprehensively, so avoid taking a “shotgun” approach
by using multiple weaker arguments. In presenting your
argument, be straightforward in your language, and say
precisely what you mean. At times you will need to use
examples or otherwise elaborate, yet you must still be as
concise as possible – unnecessary words or information
will distract and confuse your reader.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
s In order to strengthen your argument,
anticipate and answer objections to it. In most
philosophy assignments, this will be an essential part
of your paper; it helps support your main argument
and makes it more compelling. When you present an
objection, you must always present a reason or reasons
for thinking it true; the simple negation of a thesis is
not an objection to it.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
GOOD WRITING EXAMPLE:
After offering her argument, Jen summarized
her conclusion and introduced an objection as
As I have shown clearly in my reconstruction of Smith’s
argument, the word “free” as it appears in Smith’s
first premise (meaning uncaused) must be interpreted
differently from the word “free” as it appears in Smith’s
third premise (meaning unforced) – otherwise at least
one of those premises would be highly implausible. But
in that case, Smith’s argument is logically invalid.
It might be objected that I have interpreted Smith’s
argument unfavorably. I can think of only one other
reasonable interpretation of Smith’s argument. It uses
the same first two premises but has a different third
premise…Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Jen might reply to the objection she has imagined
by showing that Smith’s argument would suffer
some other defect if it were reconstructed in the
way the objection suggests, such as resting on a
logical fallacy or an implausible premis
Don’t try to write a philosophy paper from scratch, from beginning to end: you must leave plenty
of time to plan things out first. Think about the assigned topic for a while, and figure out a possible
thesis and a rough argument for it in your head. If you’re finding this hard, start writing rough
sketches of relevant ideas. You’ll throw a lot of this material away later, but the act of writing can help
you to think things through. When you’re ready, begin to develop a master outline on paper. Your
outline should show your thesis and your argument in abbreviated form but with maximal logical
clarity; try to use one line for each logical step of your argument. Make sure it includes potential
objections and replies, using just a couple of lines for each.
You’ll almost certainly find, as you produce your outline, that you need to revise pieces of your
argument or even your entire answer. Keep writing sketches of pieces of your paper throughout the
outlining process if it helps. Continue revising the outline until the argument in it is completely clear
and satisfactory to you. (Try explaining your argument to someone else; if you can’t explain it, your
outline needs more work!) At this point, write a first complete draft of your paper from your outline,
focusing on clarity of the overall structure of your argument.
Once you have a first draft in hand, continue to revise it, with both the argument’s structure and
your particular word choices in mind. Save your drafts as you go along, so that you can go back if you
change your mind. Read your paper out loud or have a friend read it to work out which parts of your
argument might confuse or fail to persuade the reader and need more work. Be open to changing
your mind and your arguments at all stages of the process, and keep your outline up to date as you do.
Your final draft should offer the clearest expression you can manage of your final, properly outlined
argument.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
You should always raise and reply to the strongest
objections you can think of rather than making up
unconvincing objections that you find it easier to reply
to. If you cannot think of a decisive reply to an objection,
you should admit this, and then give your reader some
reason to think the objection might not succeed anyway.
If you cannot offer such a reason, you might have to go
back and revise the thesis that you want to argue for. In
some cases, the correct response to an objection, if you
cannot answer it, will be to start your paper over and
argue for a point of view opposite to that which you
started with. If this happens to you, congratulations on
making a philosophical discovery!
Sometimes, an assignment will contain instructions to
think of one or more objections to your thesis and defend
against them. Generally, except for the very shortest
assignments, of three double-spaced pages or less, you
should take such a requirement to be implicit even if it
isn’t mentioned outright. Also except in these very brief
papers:Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
s Briefly conclude by explaining what you
think your argument has established.
HOW TO GE
T IT D
In presenting your argument, be
straightforward in your language,
and say precisely what you mean.
At times you will need to use
examples or otherwise elaborate,
yet you must still be as concise
as possible – unnecessary words
or information will distract and
confuse your reader
From your philosophy instructor, a request for evidence
for a claim is generally a request for an argument, or
for a better argument. While philosophers may from
time to time make use of scientific generalizations or
results, they generally avoid the messy and specialized
business of collecting and arguing about empirical data,
and confine their investigations to their armchairs. This
is a broad generalization; sometimes empirical evidence
from psychology, physics or other fields of inquiry can be
put to good use in philosophical arguments. But if you
do use such evidence from elsewhere, never just assume
that it solves your philosophical question: be careful to
explain exactly why it is relevant and exactly what we can
conclude from it, and do make sure that you accurately
report what the scientists have to tell us.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Philosophers still find a lot to argue about even when
they put empirical questions aside. For one thing, the
question of what sort of empirical evidence would be
needed to decide the answer to a question might itself be
a non-empirical question that philosophers discuss. For
another, philosophers spend a lot of time discussing how
different claims (which may be empirical) relate logically
to each other. For example, a common philosophical
project is to show how two or more views cannot be held
consistently with each other, or to show that although
two views are consistent with one another, they together
entail an implausible third claim. If successful, this type of
argument, known as a reductio ad absurdum or reductio for
short, shows that we have reason to reject at least one of
its premises.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
EXAMPLE OF A REDUCTIO
s Premise 1: People sometimes ought morally to
do what they are not in fact going to do.
s Premise 2: If a person morally ought to do
something, then they could do what they ought to
do (Principle that “Ought implies can”).
s Premise 3: If a person is in fact going to do one
thing, then it is not the case that they could do
something else (Determinism).
s Conclusion (from 2 and 3): People never
ought morally to do what they are not in fact
going to do
Here, the conclusion contradicts the first premise.
If the argument is logically valid, it shows that the
three premises of the argument cannot all be true.
A further argument would be needed to show
which of the three premises ought to be rejected.
Philosophical arguments are not always in the form of a
reductio; we often need to start from some basic premises
that our ultimate conclusions will depend on. Unless they
are scientific results as mentioned above, they should
generally be claims that any reasonable reader can be
expected to agree with, and they might be drawn from
common experience, or from our stronger intuitions.
So, for example, one might begin an argument with the
intuition that murder is wrong if anything at all is wrong,
or with the common experience that things look smaller
when they are further away. When you introduce a set
of basic premises, you should be careful to avoid the
fallacy of begging the question – which is to say, using any
premises that one would reasonably doubt if not for one’s
prior acceptance of the conclusion the argument attempts
to establish. (This is the correct logical use of the phrase
“begs the question”, by the way. Avoid using the phrase
“begs the question” to mean raises the question, at least in
EXAMPLE OF A QUESTIONBEGGING ARGUMENT
s Premise (1): I have religious experiences.
s Premise (2): If anyone has religious experiences,
then God exists.
s Conclusion: God exists.
Note that in this argument, the term “religious
experiences” is ambiguous between two
readings. On one reading, it means genuine
experiences of something supernatural. On this
reading, premise (2) is plausible, but premise
(1) is question-begging, since one would have
to assume that God exists to think that one has
had a religious experience. On a second reading,
“religious experiences” means experiences as if
of something supernatural. But on this reading,
premise (2) is implausible. Finally, the argument
is not logically valid (it equivocates) if the term
“religious experiences” means a different thing
in each of the two premises. If the writer of this
argument had defined his terms more carefully,
its weakness would be clear. Ambiguous terms in
philosophical arguments are a common problem,
and can mask other weaknesses.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Since a lot of the things philosophers talk about are
very abstract, it may be difficult to bring our common
experiences and intuitions to bear on them. This is one
place where examples may be a useful source of evidence.
Examples can also help clarify the intended meaning of
terms. Philosophers make great use of hypothetical examples
in particular, and you should feel free to use them yo
A GOOD USE OF EXAMPLES
Jen is arguing for the thesis that it is permissible
for me to perform some actions that have
foreknown side effects which it wouldn’t be
permissible to aim at directly. She uses examples
successfully both to elucidate the notion of a
“foreknown side-effect,” and to help bring our
intuitions to bear on her thesis:
A foreknown side-effect of an action is an event or state
of affairs that one does not aim at when one acts, but
that one knows will (likely) result from one’s action.
For example, I decide to drive to class in order to save
time. I know that my driving will leave the parking
space in front of my house empty. The empty parking
space is a foreknown side-effect of my action: I don’t
aim at it, because my aim is only to get myself to school
faster.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
To help prove my point about the difference in
permissibility between aims and foreknown side-effects,
I will use the following hypothetical example: Bill
the bomber pilot has decided to bomb an important
munitions factory. Bill knows that the factory is next
to a hospital, and that about 1,000 civilian casualties
are likely. But bombing the factory will bring an early
defeat to the enemy by cutting their arms flow. This
will demoralize them and help end the war. Bill’s
action, I contend, may be permissible. Now I’ll just
alter the case slightly: Bob the bomber pilot has decided
to bomb a munitions factory. Bob knows that the
factory is next to a hospital, and that about 1,000
civilian casualties are likely. In fact, bombing the factory
is the best way to bring about such a high number of
casualties, and this is why Bob has decided to bomb
there. Bringing about this many civilian casualties will
help weaken the enemy’s resolve and thereby bring an
early end to the war. (It will also have a side-effect of
cutting their arms flow). I contend that Bob’s action is
clearly impermissible.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Examples like these might bring clear moral
intuitions, and if Jen can construct an example
in which she can convince us that it is indeed
clear that something would be permitted as a
foreknown side-effect but not as an aim, she will
have a good argument for her thesis.
There are a couple of types of “evidence” that you should
not use in philosophy papers: Do not argue that a claim
is true, or is likely to be true, just because someone of
great authority believed it. Authorities can be wrong, and
philosophers want to see the arguments for a view. And do
not argue from what the dictionary says about something.
If the dictionary defines truth as “correspondence with
reality”, you cannot use this as an argument that truth
is correspondence with reality because either you are
treating the dictionary as an authority, or you are citing
it as a reporter of common usage. But philosophers don’t
want to know what most people think or assume about
what truth is, they want to know what is actually the
case! (N.B.: you may also be misled when you consult
the dictionary because some words have technical,
philosophical meanings within the subject that differ from
their ordinary usage.)Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
You may freely use the arguments of other philosophers
in your papers as long as you credit them appropriately,
and also do your own philosophical thinking. Again, if
you need to explain someone else’s argument, you must
do so in your own words and according to your own clear
understanding of the logical steps involved in it. It is also
extremely important that when you explain the arguments
of other philosophers, you interpret them charitably. This
does not mean that you are barred from criticizing them,
but rather that you must interpret each author as holding
the strongest possible argument consistent with what they
have written. If a philosopher’s argument seems obviously
wrong, then you probably do not understand it properly.
Even if a philosopher’s argument seems right, you must
take great care to avoid confusing their argument with any
other argument that sounds similar to it.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
You can help yourself to avoid these difficulties by training
yourself to read philosophy articles extremely slowly and
carefully in order to understand the precise steps of the
author’s argument. It is not unusual to have to read a
philosophy article several times in order to grasp its details.
Philosophy is difficult by nature: to avoid making things
even harder, make sure that the argument in your paper is
absolutely as clear and easy to understand as possible!
If you are asked to offer an argument or an objection and
the assignment does not require that it be your own, then
you may generally use one that you have learned in class
or from the readings, with proper credit. In this case, you
should not only put the argument in your own words
and in the logical form that seems clearest to you, but also
see whether there is any way in which you can improve
on the argument you have heard. Perhaps you can offer
reason to modify it, or offer extra considerations in defense
of it that help explain why you yourself find it plausible.
Look for ways to show that you are doing your own
philosophical reasoning.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Certain conventions are helpful and generally expected in
s Avoid direct quotes. If you need to quote, quote
sparingly, and follow your quotes by explaining what
the author means in your own words. (There are times
when brief direct quotes can be helpful, for example
when you want to present and interpret a potential
ambiguity in the text of an author’s argument.) When
you paraphrase, you must do philosophical work in
doing so: explain any ambiguous terms or technical
terms in the source, and remember that your task is not
to explain the author’s sentences in the text but his or
her argument: aim to show that you’ve understood it
and aren’t merely repeating it in different words.
s Use first person personal pronouns and
possessive pronouns freely; signpost. Phrases
such as “I will use the term ‘realist’ to mean…”
are useful in clarifying your use of concepts and
terminology. Phrases such as, “I will argue that…”, “I
will now show that…”, “I will give three examples…”,
“My second objection is…” or “My argument
has shown that…” are an extremely useful aid to
communicating the structure of your arguments and
your paper overall. Use “sign-posting” phrases like
these frequently in your papers in order to give your
reader a clear sense of where your argument is going at
all times (note that such sign-posting phrases are not
always formulated first-personally, e.g. “Smith offers
three main objections … Smith’s first objection is …
but it might be replied that … Smith’s second objection
is ….”).Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
s¬ &OR A LONGER GUIDE ON THIS TOPIC SEE
A Guide to Philosophical Writing by Elijah Chudnoff.
s¬ *IM 0RYORS WEB PAGE AT
has some other introductory resources you will
find useful, including his “Guidelines on Reading
Philosophy” (because you need to learn to read in
philosophy before you can write!) and some notes on
“Philosophical Terms and Methods.”
FOR FURTHER READI
Special thanks to Dina Bogecho, Warren Goldfarb, Ned Hall, Christine Korsgaard, and Brian Wood for their helpful comments.
Copyright 2008, Simon Rippon, for the Harvard College Writing Center.
s Say exactly what you mean, and no more
than you need to say. Use simple prose and short,
simple sentences. If you can complete your argument
in fewer pages than the assignment allows, look for
premises or steps that might need further support,
or anticipate and answer additional objections. Add
examples where they may help to clarify the meaning
of a concept or a claim or to persuade a doubtful reader
of something. A philosophy paper should establish
a modest point as clearly, carefully, and concisely as
possible.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
s Be careful with specialized language. Certain
terms and phrases are reserved in philosophy for special,
narrow meanings that are peculiar to the subject. These
include deduction, begs the question, valid, invalid, sound,
and unsound (used to describe arguments), and vague
(used to describe terms or concepts). Understand how
these words are used in philosophy before you use any
of them in your writ
This handout discusses common types of philosophy assignments and strategies and resources that will help you write your philosophy papers.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
What is philosophy, and why do we study it?
Philosophy is the practice of making and assessing arguments. An argument is a set of statements (called premises) that work together to support another statement (the conclusion).Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Making and assessing arguments can help us get closer to understanding the truth. At the very least, the process helps make us aware of our reasons for believing what we believe, and it enables us to use reason when we discuss our beliefs with other people. Your philosophy teacher wants to help you learn to make strong arguments and to assess the arguments other people make.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Elements of philosophy papers
A philosophy paper may require several kinds of tasks, including:
Objections and replies
Let’s examine these elements one at a time.
To reconstruct an argument, you’ll need to present it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the material will understand. Often, this requires you to say a lot more than the philosopher whose work you are writing about did!Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
There are two main ways to reconstruct an argument: in regular prose or as a formal series of numbered steps. Unless your professor or TA has told you otherwise, you should probably use regular prose. In either case, keep these points in mind:Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Keep your ideas separate from the author’s. Your purpose is to make the author’s argument clear, not to tell what you think of it.
Be charitable. Give the best version of the argument you can, even if you don’t agree with the conclusion.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Define important terms.
Organize your ideas so that the reader can proceed logically from premises to conclusion, step by step.
Explain each premise.
Let’s walk through an argument reconstruction. Here is a passage by 18th-century British philosopher David Hume:Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact, but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature).
Step 1: Reread the passage a few times, stopping to look up any unfamiliar words—”disapprobation,” maybe. Be sure you understand the important terms, like “vicious.” (By “vicious,” Hume seems to mean “wicked, depraved, or immoral,” which probably isn’t the way you use the word in everyday speech.)
Step 2: Identify the conclusion. Sometimes your teacher will identify it for you, but even if she didn’t, you can find it. (Caution: It won’t always be the first or the last sentence in the passage; it may not even be explicitly stated.) In this case, Hume’s conclusion is something like this: The viciousness of an action is a feeling of disapprobation in the person who considers it, not a property of the action itself.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Step 3: Identify the premises. Consider the conclusion and ask yourself what the author needs to do to prove it. Hume’s conclusion here seems to have two parts:
When we call an action vicious, we mean that our “nature” causes us to feel blame when we contemplate that action.
There is nothing else that we could mean when we call an action “vicious.”
Step 4: Identify the evidence. Hume considers an example, murder, and points out that when we consider why we say that murder is vicious, two things happen:
We realize that when we contemplate murder, we feel “a sentiment of disapprobation” in ourselves.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
No matter how hard we look, we don’t see any other “matter of fact” that could be called “vice”—all we see “in the object” (the murder) are “certain passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts.”
Step 5: Identify unspoken assumptions. Hume assumes that murder is a representative case of “viciousness.” He also assumes that if there were “viciousness” in the “object” (the murder), we would be able to “see” it—it isn’t somehow hidden from us. Depending on how important you think these assumptions are, you may want to make them explicit in your reconstruction.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Step 6: Sketch out a formal reconstruction of the argument as a series of steps.
If we examine a vicious action like murder, we see passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts.
We don’t see anything else.
So we don’t see any property or “matter of fact” called “viciousness.”
Assumption: What we don’t see is not there.
When we examine our feelings about murder, we see a “sentiment of disapprobation.”
Unstated premise: This feeling of disapprobation is the only thing all the acts we think are vicious have in common, and we feel it whenever we confront a vicious act—that is, all and only vicious acts produce the feeling of disapprobation.
Conclusion: So the viciousness of a bad action is a feeling of disapprobation in the person who considers it, not a factual property of the action itself.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Step 7: Summarize the argument, explaining the premises and how they work together. Here’s how such a prose reconstruction might go:
To understand what we mean when we call an action “vicious,” by which he means “wrong,” Hume examines the case of murder. He finds that whenever we consider a murder itself, all we see are the “passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts” of the people involved. For example, we might see that the murderer feels the passion of anger and is motivated by a desire to make his victim suffer, and that the victim feels the passion of fear and is thinking about how to escape. But no matter how hard we look, we don’t see “viciousness” or wrongness—we see an action taking place, and people with motives and feelings are involved in that action, but none of these things seem to be what we mean by “viciousness” or wrongness. Hume next turns his inquiry inward, and considers what is happening inside a person who calls a murder “vicious.”Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. The person who thinks or says that murder is wrong always seems to be feeling a certain “sentiment of disapprobation.” That is, the person disapproves of the action and blames the murderer. When we say “murder is wrong,” we usually think that we are saying something about murder itself, that we are describing a property (wrongness) that the action of murder has. But Hume thinks what we are in fact describing is a feeling in us, not a property of murder—the “viciousness” of a vicious action is just an emotion in the person who is thinking about or observing that action, rather than a property of the action itself.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Objections and replies
Often, after you reconstruct an argument, you’ll be asked to tell whether it is a good or a bad argument and whether you agree or disagree with it.
Thinking of objections and examining their consequences is a way that philosophers check to see if an argument is a good one. When you consider an objection, you test the argument to see if it can overcome the objection. To object to an argument, you must give reasons why it is flawed:Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
The premises don’t support the conclusion.
One or more of the premises is false.
The argument articulates a principle that makes sense in this case but would have undesirable consequences in other cases.
The argument slides from one meaning of a term to another.
The argument makes a comparison that doesn’t really hold.
Here are some questions you can ask to make sure your objections are strong:Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Have I made clear what part of the argument I object to?
Have I explained why I object to that part of the argument?
Have I assessed the severity of my objection? (Do I simply point out where the philosopher needs to do more work, or is it something more devastating, something that the philosopher cannot answer?)
Have I thought about and discussed how the philosopher might respond to my objection?Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Have I focused on the argument itself, rather than just talking about the general issues the conclusion raises?
Have I discussed at least one objection thoroughly rather than many objections superficially?
Let’s look at our example again. What objections might you make to Hume’s argument about murder? Here are some possible arguments:
You might object to premises 2 and 3, and argue that wrong actions do have a property that makes us call them wrong. For example, maybe we call actions wrong because of their motives—because the actions are motivated by cruelty, for example. So perhaps Hume is right that we don’t see a property called “viciousness,” but wrong that “viciousness” is thus only a feeling in us. Maybe the viciousness is one of the motives or passions.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
You might also object to premise 5, and say that we sometimes judge actions to be wrong even though we don’t feel any “sentiment” of disapproval for them. For example, if vigilantes killed a serial murderer, we might say that what they did was wrong, even if we shared their anger at the murderer and were pleased that they had killed him.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Often you’ll be asked to consider how a philosopher might reply to objections. After all, not every objection is a good objection; the author might be able to come up with a very convincing reply! Use what you know about the author’s general position to construct a reply that is consistent with other things the author has said, as well as with the author’s original argument.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
So how might Hume, or someone defending Hume, reply to the objections above? Here are some possible objections:
To the first, Hume might reply that there is no one motive that all “vicious” actions have in common. Are all wrong actions motivated by cruelty? No—theft, for example, might be motivated by hunger. So the only thing all “vicious” actions have in common is that we disapprove of them.
To the second, Hume might reply that when we call the actions of vigilantes wrong, even though we are pleased by them, we must still be feeling at least some disapproval.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Sometimes you will be asked to summarize an author’s argument and apply that position to a new case. Considering how the author would think about a different case helps you understand the author’s reasoning and see how the argument is relevant. Imagine that your instructor has given you this prompt:
“Apply Hume’s views on the nature of vice to the following case: Mr. Smith has an advanced form of cancer. He asks Dr. Jones what she thinks his prognosis is. Dr. Jones is certain Mr. Smith will die within the month, but she tells him he may survive for a year or longer, that his cancer may not be fatal. Dr. Jones wants to give Mr. Smith hope and spare him the painful truth. How should we think about whether what Dr. Jones did is wrong?”Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Consider what you know about Hume’s views. Hume has not given a list of actions that are right or wrong, nor has he said how we should judge whether an action is right or wrong. All he has told us is that if an action is wrong, the wrongness is a sentiment in the people considering the action rather than a property of the action itself. So Hume would probably say that what matters is how we feel about Dr. Jones’s action—do we feel disapproval? If we feel disapproval, then we are likely to call the action “wrong.”Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
This test case probably raises all kinds of questions for you about Hume’s views. You might be thinking, “Who cares whether we call the action wrong—I want to know whether it actually is wrong!” Or you might say to yourself, “Some people will feel disapproval of the doctor’s action, but others will approve, so how should we decide whether the action is wrong or not?” These are exactly the kinds of questions your instructor wants to get you thinking about.
When you go back to read and discuss Hume, you will begin to see how he might answer such questions, and you will have a deeper understanding of his position. In your paper, though, you should probably focus on one or two main points and reserve the rest of your speculation for your conclusion.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Original argument/taking a position
Sometimes an assignment will ask you to stake out a position (i.e., to take sides in a philosophical debate) or to make an original argument. These assignments are basically persuasive essays, a kind of writing you are probably familiar with. If you need help, see our handouts on argument and thesis statements, among others.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Remember: Think about your audience, and use arguments that are likely to convince people who aren’t like you. For example, you might think the death penalty is wrong because your parents taught you so. But other people have no special reason to care what your parents think. Try to give reasons that will be interesting and compelling to most people.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
If scientists want to test a theory or principle, they design an experiment.
In philosophy, we often test our ideas by conducting thought experiments. We construct imaginary cases that allow us to focus on the issue or principle we are most interested in. Often the cases aren’t especially realistic, just as the conditions in a scientific laboratory are different from those in the outside world.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
When you are asked to write about a thought experiment, don’t worry about whether it is something that is ever likely to happen; instead, focus on the principle being tested. Suppose that your bioethics teacher has given you this thought experiment to consider:
An elderly, unconscious patient needs a heart transplant. It is very unlikely that a donor heart will become available before the patient dies. The doctor’s other option is to try a new and risky procedure that involves transplanting the heart of a genetically engineered chimpanzee into the patient. This will require killing the chimp. What should the doctor recommend?
This scenario may be unrealistic, but your instructor has created it to get you to think about what considerations matter morally (not just medically) when making a life-or-death decision. Who should make such decisions—doctors, families, or patients? Is it acceptable to kill another intelligent primate in order to provide a heart for a human? Does it matter that the patient is elderly? Unconscious? So instead of focusing on whether or not the scenario is likely to happen, you should make an argument about these issues. Again, see our handouts on argument and thesis statements for help in crafting your position.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Other things to keep in mind
Be consistent. For example, if I begin my paper by arguing that Marquis is right about abortion, I shouldn’t say later that Thomson’s argument (which contradicts Marquis’s) is also correct.
Avoid overstatement. Watch out for words like “all,” “every,” “always,” “no,” “none,” and “never”; supporting a claim that uses these words could be difficult. For example, it would be much harder to prove that lying is always wrong than to prove that lying is usually or sometimes wrong.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Avoid the pitfalls of “seeing both sides.” Suppose you think Kant’s argument is pretty strong, but you still disagree with his conclusion. You might be tempted to say “Kant’s argument is a good one. I disagree with it.” This appears contradictory. If an argument really is good and you can’t find any weaknesses in it, it seems rational to think that you should agree with the argument. If you disagree with it, there must be something wrong with it, and your job is to figure out what that is and point it out.
Avoid personal attacks and excessive praise. Neither “Mill was obviously a bad person who didn’t care about morality at all” nor “Kant is the greatest philosopher of all time” adds to our understanding of Mill’s or Kant’s arguments.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Avoid grandiose introductions and conclusions. Your instructor is not likely to appreciate introductions that start with sentences like “Since the dawn of time, human beings have wondered about morality.” Your introduction can place your issue in context, explain why it’s philosophically important, and perhaps preview the structure of your paper or argument. Ask your instructor for further guidance about introductions and conclusions.
Stay focused. You may be asked to concentrate closely on a small piece of text or a very particular question; if so, stick to it, rather than writing a general report on a “topic.”
Be careful about appealing to faith, authority, or tradition. While you may believe something because it is a part of your religion, because someone you trust told you about it, or because it is the way things have always been done, be careful about basing your arguments or objections on these sorts of foundations. Remember that your reader may not share your assumptions and beliefs, and try to construct your argument so that it will be persuasive even to someone who is quite different from you.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Be careful about definitions. Rather than breaking out Webster’s Dictionary, concentrate on the definitions the philosophers you are reading have carefully constructed for the terms they are using. Defining terms is an important part of all philosophical work, and part of your job in writing a philosophy paper will often be thinking about how different people have defined a term.
Consider reading the Writing Center’s handout on fallacies. Fallacies are common errors in arguments; knowing about them may help you critique philosophers’ arguments and make stronger arguments yourself.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Feinberg, Joel. Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers. 3rd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Holowchak, Mark. Critical Reasoning & Philosophy: A Concise Guide to Reading, Evaluating, and Writing Philosophical Works. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout (just click print) and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
If you enjoy using our handouts, we appreciate contributions of acknowledgement.
Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific “do”s and “don’t”s.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish – something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept – together with grounds or justification for its acceptance.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. Sometimes this is called the “fortress approach.” In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer’s shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY
Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer’s exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else’s views.
Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion – the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion – that abortion is morally wrong – will not accept Smith’s premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER
Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas – one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that “infer” does not mean “imply”; “disinterested” does not mean “uninterested”; and “reference” does not mean either “illusion” or “allusion.” Make certain that you can use “its” and “it’s” correctly. Notice that certain words such as “therefore,” “hence,” “since,” and “follows from” are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for “existance” appearing in any philosophy essay.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as “Why should I accept that?” If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer’s words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies’ ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting – often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts – not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser’s, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.
Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out.
In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.
My last post on philosophical writing addressed the issue of constructing arguments for your philosophical theses. Since then, model students of philosophy that you are, I’m sure you’ve been wandering the streets, haunting the parks, and occupying the coffee shops of Manhattan, Cambridge, Kalamazoo, or wherever you happen to live, dreaming up ingenious arguments for your revolutionary ideas. As I, your humble philosophy tutor, did my best to communicate, it can be helpful to think of coming up with an argument as simply finding the best reasons for why someone, anyone, should believe the thesis or claim you have in mind.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Easier said than done, I know. And so I proposed the strategy of considering the opposite of the thesis you want to argue for and asking yourself why you think it is false. Then, think about what you would need to do to convince someone who actually did believe the opposite of what you want to argue for to come around to realize their error. A further suggestion was to think about and model your argument on how a dialectic might go in an actual case of debate. What are the kinds of general principles and actual or hypothetical cases you would ask your interlocutor to consider?Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
So far, then, we’ve discussed choosing and formulating a main claim to be argued for, and then constructing an argument for it. The next step in assembling the nuts and bolts of a good philosophy paper may also be usefully modeled by thinking about how actual, reasonable debates go with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. This is the step where you think up potential objections to your argument along with your replies. It corresponds to the part of a real live debate when your interlocutor says, “But what about….”.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
If your real life debates are anything like mine, it doesn’t matter how good of an argument you offer for the point you’re trying to make. As soon as you are finished, the person you are arguing with will have a worry or concern, usually having very little to do with the argument you just offered. The lack of general criteria to decide between players of different positions or different eras means that there is no saying who the greatest basketball player is, you argue. “But what about the fact that Michael Jordan was the best dunker ever!?”, comes your friend’s reply (please note the illustrative purpose of the example which I am neither endorsing nor denying). When writing your own paper, you have to be your own interlocutor, generating objections and potential counterexamples to the case you are trying to make.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Now, you may be wondering, why would anyone try to undermine their own argument? The proper answer (of course!) is that we are interested in the truth more than in being right and so we want to test our own ideas to see whether they are actually true and not just that we wish they were true. But, to continue our theme, it is helpful to think about it dialectically as well. Think about someone who antecedently believes the opposite of what you are arguing coming along and reading your paper. They are going to be doing their best to think up their own objections and counterexamples to what you say. If you haven’t anticipated them and done your best to preemptively address their worries, they will be much more likely to dismiss your original argument without giving it its proper due.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Now, of course you cannot think up, let alone address, every possible objection, good or bad, that someone might raise. You obviously need to narrow them down to the best ones. So how does one do that? This is where knowing the literature concerning the topic you are working on becomes crucial. What are the kinds of considerations that opponents of your thesis typically raise (because, trust me, the likelihood that no one has ever tried to argue something very similar to what you are saying at this point in the history of philosophy is very small)? How would they tailor such considerations to address the new moves you try to make in the debate? Can you come up with an original objection to the thesis? Try imagining yourself into the place of a colleague who was giving someone feedback on their argument. What worries or concerns would you raise for yourself?Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Finally, not only do you not have to come up with objections and replies all by yourself, you shouldn’t. Philosophy is a collective and cooperative enterprise, not one where people go into solitude until they have thought their deepest thoughts. Share your ideas with others and see what objections they come up with. Try out your replies on them and see what they say. This will improve the quality of your paper tremendously. Perhaps you will have objections brought up to you that you hadn’t thought of yourself. You can incorporate them into your paper and respond. Just be sure to credit whomever offered the objection. Articles in professional philosophy journals are filled with footnotes crediting objections and concerns to people the authors have shared the papers with.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
The important thing to remember is this: no matter how good an argument you have, if someone has a worry or objection that is not directly addressed by your argument, he or she will not be convinced until you do something to directly address the concern. This is what makes coming up with both objections and convincing replies absolutely crucial to assembling the skeleton of a philosophy paper.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
One kind of philosophy assignment is the argumentative essay, which typically includes an expository
component and a lengthier, argumentative section. Often, the essay’s argument consists of a critique (or
critical evaluation) of a given author’s position together with your own positive argument on the
assigned topic. For instance, you might be required to present Descartes’ argument for mind-body
dualism, critically assess that argument, and then provide your own argument for or against dualism.
While some philosophy assignments require only an exposition and critical evaluation of an author’s
work, the focus of this document is on an assignment in which you must provide exposition, a critical
evaluation, and your own positive argument.
(i) Introductory Paragraph: This paragraph should be brief, ranging in length from one-third of a page to
half a page. In this paragraph, identify your topic and state your thesis claim, which is the conclusion for
which you will argue. For instance, your thesis claim might be that Descartes’ argument for dualism is
unpersuasive due to its reliance on a priori methods; or, to change the example, your thesis might be
that active euthanasia should be legalized in order to respect the autonomy of patients. Once you have
formulated a thesis claim, briefly indicate your strategy for supporting it (e.g., by considering a given
author’s argument for legalizing euthanasia and showing how it is superior to another author’s
argument against legalizing the practice). Indicate your strategy by means of a ‘road map’, in which you
outline the sections of your paper (e.g., “After presenting Y’s argument for allowing active euthanasia, I
will present X’s argument against allowing the practice. I will then argue that Y’s reasoning is superior,
since it involves a better conception of the duty to respect autonomy and includes regulations for
euthanasia that obviate X’s worries”).
Notice the use of the first-person voice in the above example of road-mapping. The introductory
paragraph is one of the few places where it is preferable to write in the first-person, and philosophy
professors tend to allow students to do so. For example, a thesis claim may take the following form: “I
will defend Y’s argument for allowing active euthanasia by refuting objections to the practice that arise
from X’s reasoning.” In the main body of the essay, use the first-person sparingly. Avoid introducing your
claims with phrases such as “I believe that…”, “I feel that…”, and “In my opinion…”. These phrases are
usually redundant. Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. For example, “I believe that active euthanasia will reduce suffering” conveys no more
to the reader than, “Active euthanasia will reduce suffering.”
Typically, your thesis will be provisional at the outset of the writing process. It is normal to revise the
thesis claim after completing a first draft of the paper. With a completed draft in hand, ask yourself,
“What conclusion did I end up supporting?” Capture that detailed conclusion in the thesis claim. For
example, suppose that while arguing for the legalization of active euthanasia, it occurs to you that it
would be wrong to allow this procedure to be used in a case in which the patient is not mentally
competent enough to understand what the procedure entails. This consideration suggests that you
should modify your thesis. Thus, instead of arguing for the relatively simple thesis that active euthanasia
should be legalized, you may defend the thesis that active euthanasia should be legally permitted for
patients who are mentally competent. Next, suppose that you come to the conclusion that euthanasia
should not be used when a patient is suffering but is not expected to die from her condition.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers. Instead of
being discouraged by this realization – “Oh no! I’ve found an objection to my thesis, and I agree with the
objection!” – take it as an opportunity to make your thesis more nuanced. In this case, your reasons for
agreeing with the objection suggest that you should further refine your thesis claim, so that it now reads
as follows: active euthanasia should be legally permitted for patients who are mentally competent and
who have a terminal condition. In this fashion, your thesis becomes more detailed and more interesting.
Notice, also, that each qualification that you add to your thesis must be explained and supported in your
subsequent argument.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
(ii) Exposition: This part follows the introductory paragraph. Distill the essential steps in the author’s
argument. What are the argument’s premises? What is its conclusion?
Summarizing the author’s argument seldom requires summarizing her whole paper. The author might
have presented her central argument
(iii) Critique (evaluation): Are the author’s premises true? Even if they are true, do they provide
adequate support for the author’s conclusion?
A critique may involve identifying some vagueness or ambiguity in one of the author’s crucial terms.
More generally, it may involve giving a negative argument, in which you pinpoint a flaw in the author’s
reasoning. Even if a negative argument succeeds, it is important to see its limitations. For example, even
if you convincingly refute an author’s argument for banning active euthanasia, you do not thereby
establish that this practice should be allowed; for there might be other, more persuasive arguments for
banning the practice that you have not yet considered.
If one of your objections to an author’s reasoning represents her as having made an obvious, silly
mistake, then your objection is likely to be based on a misunderstanding of the author’s position.
Once you have presented a plausible objection to the author’s reasoning, you may then proceed in one
of several directions. For instance, you may decide that the objection succeeds in exposing a fatal flaw in
the author’s reasoning. By contrast, you may decide that the objection, though it seemed plausible, fails
to discredit the author’s argument. In this latter case, you may treat the objection in question as an
instructive failure; that is, you may treat it as an occasion for appreciating more fully the subtlety or
power of the author’s reasoning. In this way, explaining why an objection fails can be a good strategy for
scratching beneath the surface and giving a deeper analysis of the author’s reasoning.
(iv) Positive Argument: If you are arguing for a conclusion, be clear about how many arguments you are
giving. Are you presenting two arguments for allowing euthanasia that are independent of each other
(in the sense that the failure of one would leave the other argument unscathed)? Are you, instead,
developing one long argument with many steps? If you opt to give several, independent arguments for
your conclusion, it is generally preferable to limit yourself to no more than three arguments (in a paper
that is 2500 words in length). Otherwise, you will not have enough room to go into sufficient depth in
your development of the arguments.
Reflect on the points from the lectures and required readings that are relevant to your reasoning. Does
one of these ideas seem to pose a problem for your reasoning? If so, then you should address the
difficulty and explain why it has not persuaded you to abandon your argument. For example, if you
argue for permitting euthanasia, and the professor dwelt in class on the ‘slippery slope’ argument
against euthanasia, then you should have something to say in your paper about why you are not
persuaded by the ‘slippery slope’ argument.
You should indicate what sort of support your reasoning provides for your conclusion. Thus, you might
intend your reasoning to show that your conclusion must be true. To use another example, you might
argue that, given the existence of evil, there cannot possibly be a good and all-powerful deity.
Alternatively, you might take your reasoning to establish only that your conclusion is probably true,
establishing (e.g.) that while it is at least possible for there to be a good and omnipotent deity, the
amount of evil renders such a thing’s existence very unlikely. Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Finally, keep in mind that one of the main purposes of an argumentative essay in philosophy is for you to
explore the relevant ideas and demonstrate your understanding of them. Consider the following
analogy. Suppose that Pat can name some of the more familiar parts of a car (e.g., the steering wheel,
the hood, the doors) and provide a rough account of what they do. By contrast, Lee identifies the main
components of the engine and explains how they function in order to keep the car operating. Lee also
spots a flaw in the engine and fixes it. Clearly, Lee has demonstrated more understanding of the car than
Pat has. Similarly, in an argumentative essay, you take apart some arguments and identify their parts
(their premises and conclusions); you may then identify an argument’s weakness and explain how it
prevents the argument in question from moving forward. On this basis, you may then build your own
argument in support of your thesis claim.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
At the heart of philosophy is philosophical argument. Arguments are different
from assertions. Assertions are simply stated; arguments always involve giving
reasons. An argument is a reasoned inference from one set of claims – the
premises – to another claim – the conclusion. The premises provide reasons to
believe that the conclusion is true. If the premises are true, the conclusion is
more likely to be true. Arguments seek to ‘preserve truth’ – true premises will
lead to a true conclusion. It is worth knowing a little bit more about arguments
Philosophers distinguish between two types of argument – deductive and
inductive. Successful deductive arguments are valid – if the premises are true,
then the conclusion must be true. In this case, we say that the conclusion is
entailed by the premises. Here is a famous example:
Premise 1: Socrates is a man.
Premise 2: All men are mortal.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.
A valid deductive argument with true premises is called sound. But a valid
deductive argument doesn’t have to have true premises. Here is an example:
Premise 1: There are gnomes in my house.
Premise 2: My house is in Oxford.
Conclusion: Therefore, there are gnomes in Oxford.
If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true – so the argument is
valid. But the premises aren’t both true.
There are two ways that a deductive argument can ‘go wrong’. First, it could be
invalid: even if t
But they can also go wrong in just two ways. First, the premises might not make
the conclusion more likely – they don’t offer good reasons for believing the
conclusion is true. Second, one of the premises may be false.
One type of induction is induction through enumeration, as in this famous
Premise 1: This swan is white.
Premise 2: This other swan is white.
Premise 3: That third swan is white.
Premise 500: That swan is white as well.
Conclusion: All swans are white.
The example shows that an inductive argument can be a good argument, but the
conclusion can still be false!
There are other types of inductive argument, e.g. hypothetical reasoning. A
hypothesis is a proposal that needs to be confirmed or rejected by reasoning or
experience. In hypothetical reasoning, we try to work out the best hypothesis that
would explain or account for some experience or fact.
Medical diagnosis provides an example – what would explain exactly this set of
symptoms? This isn’t a matter of comparing this case with other cases which all
have exactly the same symptoms. There may only be some overlap or the case
might involve some complication, such as more than one disease being involved.
We use hypothetical reasoning – if such-and-such were true (e.g. the patient has
disease x), would that explain the evidence we have? The evidence supplies the
premises of the argument, and the conclusion is that some hypothesis is true
because it accounts for the evidence.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
When we are using hypothetical reasoning, it is not usually enough to find some
hypothesis that can explain the evidence. We want to find the best hypothesis.
What makes a hypothesis a good hypothesis? Philosophers have argued for several
1. Simplicity: the best-known is probably Ockham’s razor, which says ‘Don’t
multiply entities beyond necessity’. Don’t put forward a hypothesis that says
many different things exist when a simpler explanation will do as well. A
simpler explanation is a better explanation, as long as it is just as successful.
For example, the explanation that plants flower in the spring in response to an
increase in light and temperature is a better explanation than saying that they
flower in the spring because that’s when the fairies wake them up. The second
explanation is committed to the existence of fairies – and we shouldn’t think
that fairies exist unless there is something we cannot explain without thinking
2. Accuracy: a good hypothesis fits the evidence that we are trying to explain.
3. Plausibility: a good hypothesis fits with what else we already know.
4. Scope: a good hypothesis explains a wide range of evidence.
5. Coherence: a good hypothesis draws and explains connections between
different parts of the evidence.
The best hypothesis will be the hypothesis that demonstrates all these virtues to a
higher degree than alternative hypotheses. A lot of philosophy involves arguing
about which theory provides the best hypothesis to account for our experience.
Understanding arguments is central to doing philosophy well, so you should give
yourself lots of practice.
Understanding an argument involves identifying the conclusion, identifying the
premises, and understanding how the premises are supposed to provide reasons
for believing the conclusion. Use linguistic clues, like ‘since’, ‘because’,
‘if…then…’ and many others, to help you do this. It is also important to distinguish
between what someone supposes for the purposes of argument, and what they
actually want to assert.
Many arguments involve quite a complex structure, with some premises
establishing an initial conclusion, which is then used as a premise to establish a
second conclusion. In coming to understand an argument, it can be very helpful to
create an argument map. This is a visual diagram of how the argument works. For
When you evaluate an argument, you are yourself making an argument. You are
arguing that the argument evaluated is either a good or bad argument. In other
words, the conclusion of your evaluation is that the argument evaluated is a
good/bad argument, and you have to provide reasons to support this claim. There
are three types of reason you can give, three different ways of evaluating
All men are mortal. + Socrates is a man.
Socrates is mortal.
1. As already stated above, you can argue that one or more of the premises is
false. If you are right, then the argument does not give you a reason to believe
the conclusion, because it rests on a false premise.
2. As also already stated above, you can argue that the conclusion does not follow
from the premises. If you are evaluating a deductive argument, you are
claiming that the argument is not valid. If you are evaluating an inductive
argument, you are claiming that the premises do not provide a (good or strong)
reason to believe the conclusion. For example, with inferring the best
hypothesis, you could argue that the conclusion is not the best explanation for
the premises, e.g. that it isn’t plausible or simple, or at least that the
argument doesn’t show that it is, e.g. there may be other explanations that
haven’t been considered.
3. You can also evaluate the formal features of an argument. Without worrying
about whether it is true, you can ask whether it is clear, whether the premises
are relevant to the conclusion, whether the support offered by the premises
has been demonstrated, and so on. You may want to offer an improvement on
the argument, e.g. rephrasing it to be clearer, supplying missing premises,
identifying assumptions, and so on.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
In addition to evaluating arguments, you can evaluate claims on their own. In
evaluating a claim, you provide an argument for thinking that it is true or false.
For any claim C (e.g. ‘God exists’), there are four related ways of discussing it, as
shown in this diagram:
C is true: God exists C is false: God does not exist
1. Arguments for C being true 2. Arguments for C being false
3. Objections to arguments for C
4. Objections to arguments for C
When you are arguing for or against a claim, don’t overstate your case. Your
claim is only as strong as the reasons that you can provide for it.
If you are asked to evaluate a claim, you need to break down your answer into a
series of arguments and their evaluation. After you’ve explained the claim, for
each section of the answer, you should consider an argument for or against the
claim, objections to that argument, and possible responses. You’ll also need to
indicate how strong you think the argument is, and weigh up the strengths of the
arguments for the claim against the strengths of the arguments against. This isn’t
a matter of ‘comparing strengths and weaknesses’ on the page, but identifying
what you think the really important and critical arguments or objections are. This
is, of course, something that you need to argue for!
AN ASIDE: WHY REASON?
Why, you may wonder, should we place so much importance on reasoning in this
way? Is it worth it? Here are four quick reasons in favour of reasoning:
1. To discover the truth
2. To uncover poor reasoning, e.g. fallacies (see below) and sophistry
3. To recognise when, where, and how a dialogue ceases to be reasonable or
4. To probe both sides of a controversial issue in a sensitive and intelligent way
Can I justify these claims? If I present an argument in favour of reasoning, then
I’m using reasoning to justify reasoning, which is circular. Then again, if you
object to reasoning for this reason, you are using reasoning to make your
objection! An alternative justification of reason is to check the results of
reasoning by a different method. Science does this all the time by hypothesis and
observation. In many cases, we can confirm, by observation, that the conclusion
of a piece of reasoning is correct. Some people are sceptical about reasoning or
claim, for example, that all beliefs are equally ‘reasonable’. For an excellent
discussion dismantling this view, see Stephen Law’s Believing Bullshit, Ch. 4.
To criticise an argument or claim is not necessarily to reject it. You can be
concerned to reject bad reasons because you want to find stronger ones! To show
respect to someone does not require that you agree with them. Taking someone
else’s thought seriously – so seriously that you test it rigorously in your mind – is to
pay them a compliment.
It is important to remember that the point of philosophical argument is not
A fallacy, as philosophers use the word, is not a mistake of fact or truth. A fallacy
is an error in reasoning. More exactly, it is an argument in which the premises do
not offer rational support to the conclusion. If the argument is deductive, then it is
fallacious if it is not valid. If the argument is inductive, it is fallacious if the
premises do not make the conclusion more likely to be true.
There are many types of fallacy; the Nizkor Project lists 42, Changing Minds 53,
and Wikipedia over 100 (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies). It’s good to become familiar with
some of the main types. If you do, it is really important to understand why the
fallacy is a fallacy.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.
Spotting fallacies has two purposes: 1) evaluating the strength of an argument and
2) improving it. When learning how to spot fallacies, try to develop the skill of how
you would reformulate the argument to avoid it. It is not always clear-cut whether
a fallacy is being committed or not, and the answer depends on just how the
premises are being deployed or further assumptions being made. The question is
always ultimately about the strength of support the premises offer.Arguing Your Philosophical Claim Assignment Papers.