How to write a good philosophical essay
1. Be pedantic. That is, explain everything, including stating fully the premises of an
argument, and providing thumbnail definitions of state-of-the-art terms. Never use a
state-of-the-art term such as ‘deontological’, ‘consequentialist’, intuitionist, etc. unless
you have provided a brief definition somewhere so that the reader can go back to it and
hold you to it, verifying that you are using the term consistently with your definition. (If
you defined more than one sense, be clear later which sense you are using).
2. Show awareness of the best arguments against your own view. Don’t ignore the
strongest objections or create straw men that are easy to knock down. In any major
controversy there will be opposing considerations. Develop the discipline of striving to
criticise your own view, not just to defend it, and try to anticipate all reasonable
objections. Be intellectually honest, and be ready to modify or even abandon a view you
wished to defend if you can’t answer an objection. It is sometimes perfectly respectable,
as well, to state that you can’t take sides on some issue, as long as you have articulated
good reasons why neither side is more appealing.
3. Refute or neutralise the opposing considerations to the best of your ability. It is not
enough simply to cite opposing views and then announce that you agree with the other
side. You have to argue this out by defeating or sidelining the objections. But be sure
that you have first shown the appeal of the rival view as fairly as possible; this will only
strengthen and add subtlety to your position.
4. By all means use secondary sources (commentaries on the main texts) to help make
various points, and to familiarise yourself with the main positions on an issue. But
always, YOU must take responsibility for any point that you make. It doesn’t lend
authority to your point that so-and-so happens to say the same thing: if the reader can
disagree with you the reader can also disagree with your famous commentator. So you
may say, “As Feinberg points out…”, etc., since then you are responsible for defending
the point if it requires defense. But the fact that he or she said it doesn’t prove it’s true.
You may also, of course, make an important point by disagreeing with a commentator.
5. Avoid wasting valuable time and space with flowery introductions and irrelevant
rhetoric and information, including biographical facts. No need, for instance, to say:
“Rawls is one of the most important…”; go straight to the arguments. (This advice was
originally intended for exam essays. In a longer paper there is a bit more space for
stylistic flourishes or contextual introductions, but it is important to be aware that
normally these contribute nothing to the philosophical value of the paper. Elegance and
precision, however, do.)
6. Avoid announcing your undefended opinions, o