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Instructions for Writing a Philosophical Essay

Summary: Give an answer to the question set for the essay and defend it with arguments. A survey of the readings is not what is required. Do not write anything which does nothing to support your argument. Understand the question correctly.

Essays for tutorials should be between 2.000 and 3.000 words long.

  1. Answer the question. Do not misunderstand the question, which happens easily.
  2. Begin by raising the question. Do not write about something else, even if you were taught to do so. Raise the question, explain it, answer it, defend your answer. Nothing else.
  3. One possible structure is
    1. Raise and clarify the question.
    2. Say which answer you are going to defend and how you will proceed.
    3. If necessary introduce terminology (define terms) and name presuppositions you make.
    4. State your answer. Spell it out. Describe the object of your investigation. Lead the reader to see that this answer is true. Put forward arguments in favour of your view. Consider counterarguments. "One might object ... But ..." (Although you defend one view here, keep an open mind! Do not be dogmatic. Do not imply that defenders of another view are stupid, even if they are.)
    5. Present the most plausible alternative answer. (Two possible ways: 1. "Smith put forward the view ..." 2. "One answer is that ..." Add in a foot note: "Along these lines have argued Smith 2001, Reinach 1917...") Present the arguments for it. Refute these arguments. Give arguments against the answer. "X has claimed that ... But ..."
    6. Repeat this for all answers which are worth being discussed but which you reject.
  4. Do not just say who said what. Do not just describe the content of the readings.
  5. If you present a certain author's view, you should discuss it either after you have presented it or while you present it.
  6. If you find the material difficult and are struggling, do this (before you write the essay, you need a document with notes for the essay):
  7. Devote at least one paragraph to each argument.
  8. Use sub-headings to structure the essay.

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Obtaining the Literature

Read the texts that I have given you in order to become acquainted with the various answer that have been given to the question and with the arguments. Besides the texts given, look for further information and literature: Buy and read one of the anthologies (also called readings, reader, collection), this is often more fruitful than reading an introduction ('textbook'), which often just presents various views without defending one. ‘Handbooks’ (e.g. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion) and ‘Companions’ (e.g. Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion) contain new articles describing the various questions and positions in the field. They are at a ligher level than introductions. Particularly helpful for students writing essays is often the series Contemporary Debates in … (e.g. philosophy of religion, metaphysics, etc.), which are collections containing for each question two articles defending opposing views. Often it is useful to read the relevant entries in philosophical dictionaries: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Also the Catholic Encyclopedia can be interesting. If you understand German, read the first German encyclopedia: Walch, Johann Georg, 1726, Philosophisches Lexicon (scan). There are also dicionaries on paper: Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

At www.philpapers.org philosophers put their writings online, thoroughly categorized. There are of course many other sites with philosophy articles, e.g. for the philosophy of religion Last Seminary and Common Sense Atheism, for the philosophy of mind NewDualism.org, for ethics Ethics Updates. Some of such sites I have listed at www.von-wachter.de.

The best way to find a text is to search for a fragment in quotation marks (an example). If you do not know one, search for the title in quotation marks and the name of the author (example). Many articles that are older than two years you find at JSTOR, but access has a price. You might have a library or a university close to you where you can access. At Questia.com you can read books for a fee. Oxford Scholarship Online gives access to books by OUP, and University Press Scholarship Online provides access to books by other university presses too, but only libraries and institutions can subscribe.

Technical instructions

If you have not done so already, start learning touch typing today. That is, type with a system using all ten fingers so that you can close your eyes, look out of the window or at a text while you type. As a student of philosophy you are a professional writer, therefore you have to learn touch typing. "Search and peck" typing is very inefficient. Start learning touch typing today!

For writing essays, you need to learn to use software. I recommend Writer by LibreOffice (or OpenOffice) or LaTeX or LyX, which is a front end for LaTeX. Also good, but much smaller, is Abiword. All these are free, but you can also use Microsoft Word. The best PDF-file and the best result for printing you get with LaTeX. If you ever need to typeset a book or article for publication, you should use LaTeX (not MS Word!). OpenOffice, LaTeX, and Abipro are also available for Linux, which is a very good, free operating system.

There is software which administers bibliographical data, produces bibliographies automatically, and imports bibliographical data from library catalogues or the internet. Do not type bibliographies by hand! I recommend you use Zotero (for which you need to install first the browser Firefox) (Zotero is good if you use OpenOffice or MS Word), Jabref (especially good if you use LaTeX), or Bibus (good for OpenOffice). Do not procrastinate, start using it today! I use Jabref, and additionally Zotero in order to collect bibliographical date in the web and in catalogues.

Format of the document: paper format "A4"; left margin 2 cm, right margin 5 cm, single space (unlike in the USA, where double space is used), insert page numbers. (But LaTeX's layout is always suitable.) Font size 12 pt, use a serif font for the text body (e.g. Garamond, DejaVu Serif, Minion Pro, or Palatino; Times New Roman is less suitable because it is too narrow). Align the text with justification ("Blocksatz", "margen perfecto"). Use hyphenation (Silbentrennung). Leave half a line (6 pt) or one line between the paragraphs. Indent the first line of each paragraph (except the first one after each heading). Use subheadings, formatted with the style ‘Heading 2’ etc.

Write the title on the top. The title is the question you were given as essay topic. Change no word of the question. Write your name and you email address and the date on the first page.

Send me the essay as a file in format ODT (OpenOffice), ABW (AbiWord), or DOC. If you use LaTeX, send me the file as PDF with line numbers with \usepackage{lineno} and \linenumbers.

If you use not LaTeX but a text processor like OpenOffice, use paragraphy styles (also called ‘paragraph templates’, Absatzformatvorlagen) instead of direct formatting (or ‘hard formatting’, hartes Formatieren). Use direct formatting only for emphacizing certain words through italics. So a section heading should be "Heading 1" ("Überschrift 1") or "Heading 2" …, body text should be "body text" ("Textkörper"). Instructions: Writer Handbook chs. 6–7; MS Word: addbalance.com, shaunakelly.com, officearticles.com, tips.net, microsoft.com (Word 2010, course), mvps.org, search (typography).

Name the file according to the scheme "Surname-2012-06-13-keyword.odt"

I shall write my comments into the file with your essay in ODT format with the ‘tracking changes’ function. To see them, open the file for example in Writer or MS Word. MS Word can open ODT files since version 2007 Service Pack 2 (install Service Pack 3) or 3. For earlier versions install the compability pack or the open add-in or the SUN ODF-Plugin. Switch on tracking changes and showing changes: see Writer Handbook ch. 3, or in MS Word ‘show all revisions inline’.

More advice.

Instructions for the bibliography

Unless I tell you otherwise, your essay needs to contain a bibliography, i.e. a list of the bibliographic details of those, and only those, texts you have quoted or referred to. You can use any system if you use it consistently. I recommend parenthetical referencing with the author-date system, also called "Harvard style" (Wikipedia). After a quotation you write, not in a footnote but, in the text a reference in parenthesis: "bla bla bla" (Smith 2004, 78). This means that the quotation is taken from the text by Smith, published in 2004, page 78. In the bibliography you then have to list the bibliographical date of this text. I recommend this form:

I recommend that you do not list more than two or three parenthetical references in one place in the text. If you want to refer to more texts, put the whole reference in a footnote.

In a parenthetical reference in the text you can add a few words, e.g. (contra Smith 1978) or (following Smith 1978). If you have to say more, put the whole reference in a footnote, e.g. "An argument along these lines has also been put forward by (Smith 1978), but Smith presupposes ..."

A good, only slighly different system is described in The Chicago Manual of Style. Use "Chicago B". More information:

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Criteria for marking

In the following I specify criteria for marking a philosophical argumentative essay, answering a given philosophical question. Other courses or professors may of course require different types of essays and hence use different criteria.

Basic requirements

Normally an essay which does not fulfill all of these fails:

Criteria:

The more of this applies to the essay and the higher the degree in which it applies, the better is the mark the essay deserves. Depending on the difficulty of the task and the material, the standards used for post-graduate students may be higher than those for undergraduates.

  1. The structure of the essay is clear, logical, and suitable.
  2. The most influential and the most plausible alternative positions are considered and correctly presented, taking into account the limited length of the essay. It becomes clear which one is the strongest alternative view.
  3. The most important arguments for and against these positions are considered and correctly presented.
  4. Positions and arguments by other authors are presented in one's own words (they may be quoted additionally), as clearly and simply as possible.
  5. The essay shows that the assigned readings were read and understood.
  6. Where necessary, terms are defined ("By x I mean ...") and presuppositions declared ("I shall assume that ...").
  7. The sentences are precise. For example: "Universals are related to substances" is too vague, "Universals are instantiated by substances" is precise.
  8. The sentences are clear and short. For each sentence, think hard what exactly the point is and whether it can be expressed more clearly. There are no gaps or jumps in the line of thought.
  9. The essay contains that and only that which is necessary for the defense of the answer.
  10. Each point which is necessary for the answer is expounded once in the essay, in appropriate length, and where it fits best. In other places in the essay the point is referred to where necessary as briefly as possible.
  11. The answer is well developed and defended.
  12. The answer or the arguments contains much original philosophical thought and strong original arguments. The arguments and positions are presented in an independent way, using ones own words and thoughts, and not just quoting texts. (Undergraduate essays can deserve a very good mark without much original thought.)

The chilean marking scheme

See ensayos.htm.

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In the reading lists which I give you there are mainly contemporary texts. But you should read also old texts. I recommend these neglected texts, which are available at Archive.org or Google Books. (More about neglected texts.)

Of anglophone philosophers I recommend:

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