What is truth? Do people have free will? Can we know we exist?
Questions like these are what philosophers think and write about. As a philosophy student, it’s your job to learn from the great philosophers and write about their responses—and yours—to life’s big questions.
Philosophy essays can be a bit intimidating. You may feel like you don’t understand the material. And even if you do, you don’t know how to fit it all into one cohesive essay.
While it’s unlike the literary essays you might have grown accustomed to, the philosophy essay is actually kind of fun when you start getting into it.
Once you master this type of essay, you’ll see how rewarding it can be to ponder the deep questions and debate the scholars.
What Is a Philosophy Essay?
Philosophy essays can take many forms. From explaining a philosopher’s thesis to trying to refute it, you’ll be asked to look at different philosophical questions from many angles throughout your time as a student.
However, no matter what the prompt, you have to write a clear, logical response that very clearly states your argument.
The structure of a philosophy essay
After that, you’ll probably need to establish some definitions. For example, regardless of whether you’re writing a paper on your own thesis about free will or someone else’s, you need to first define what free will is.
This may sound like an unnecessary step, but ambiguous words and terms aren’t often felt or expressed by people in the same way.
“Love” may mean something entirely different to you than it may mean to your grandmother. By defining terms in your philosophy essay, you ensure your reader is on the same page.
If you’re writing in favor or in opposition to someone else’s thesis, explain the person’s argument. The reader may not know the specifics of that philosopher’s argument, but you can assume the reader knows something about philosophy.
Keep your explanation brief here (unless the purpose of your paper is to explain the argument).
Now, you’ll get into the meat of your philosophy essay: your argument. Here, you lay out your entire argument to support your thesis.
Of course, since even the brightest minds in philosophy don’t agree on everything, your argument is not going to be impenetrable. You need to anticipate any strong criticism you may get and defend your argument against it.
This way, your reader knows you have a firm grasp of all the nuances of your argument.
Do Your Research
The point of a philosophy essay is to do your own thinking and draw your own conclusions. However, you need to have a firm understanding of any philosopher’s work that you’re trying to evaluate or critique.
This means you need to study the philosopher’s argument in detail.
When you’re doing your research, it’s okay to look at what others have had to say about this argument—if it strengthens your own thesis. However, if you do, make sure you give that person proper attribution.
This not only saves you from academic trouble, but also makes it clear that you know what you’re talking about.
Things to Keep in Mind While Outlining
Your outline is where all the magic happens.
While a standard literary essay outline can afford to be sparse, the same is not true of a philosophy essay. These are big questions you’re thinking about, and there are many ways to approach the topics.
Furthermore, organization is critical because it’s the only way readers can follow your train of thought.
How to organize your outline
Your outline not only needs your thesis and your argument, but also any other support you have for your argument. It should look something like this:
- Defining ambiguous terms
- Explanation of philosopher’s argument
- Criticism of argument
- Counter to criticism
- Criticism of argument
- Counter to criticism
- What your argument has accomplished
Here, you see five main sections. These should not be confused for paragraphs. Your introduction section may be two or three paragraphs long. Just ensure each paragraph transitions well from one to the next.
In the argument section, you must use your own arguments to prove your thesis. However, the evidence/support can be from other philosophers, other arguments entirely, or even relevant anecdotes.
In fact, anecdotes (fictional or not) help break all the philosophical jargon down into terms your reader can more easily understand.
Even with the strongest argument, there will be criticism. Show that you anticipate it.
It can be tempting to write every critique that could be made against your argument or to choose the weakest critiques to make your own argument look stronger. Resist that temptation.
Choose only one or two very strong criticisms. This way, your reader knows you can think critically and anticipate even the strongest counterarguments. Once you say what those criticisms are, explain how they might be wrong.
If you don’t know, you can always say that. However, it’s important to be open-minded with this process.
If the criticisms are stronger than your own argument, remove your biases as best as possible and consider rewriting your philosophy essay from a different point of view (if the instructions allow it).
It’s best to do this during the outlining phase than to get halfway through your essay and have to start over.
The Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Philosophy Essay
I don’t have a precise formula laid out to help you write your own philosophy essay because there are so many ways to approach each topic. But I do have some useful tips.
Write as clearly and concisely as possible.
Use “I” statements.
Unlike with literature essays, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I’m going to argue this,” or, “As I have shown…” After all, the ideas are your own.
Thoroughly explain your argument and any supporting evidence.
It’s better to have one or two arguments covered extensively than to have many more that are only briefly explained.
Use direct quotations.
This philosophy essay is about your thoughts, not other people’s. If you need to draw support from other thinkers and writers, it’s best to simply state how their arguments or theories are relevant to your point.
The only time you should be giving direct quotes are when you are explaining or critiquing the way someone else’s thesis is worded.
Euphemisms, symbolism, and metaphors don’t belong in a philosophy essay. They make what you’re trying to argue unclear.
Feel the need to define everything.
While you want to define ambiguous terms, there’s no need to define every word of someone’s thesis. The best thing to do is to think about the terminology upon which your argument rests.
If it’s something that could be interpreted differently by others or in different situations, it needs to be defined.
The Final “Do” of the Writing Process—Edit
Editing is critical to ensuring all of your thoughts and arguments make sense. Go over your essay a few times. Clarify confusing points. Use examples to illustrate difficult-to-follow areas. Remove words you don’t need.
If you’ve done everything you could and are still finding it hard to understand, send it to the Kibin editors. They’ll ensure it all flows well, from your thesis to your conclusion.
If you’re not even sure where to start, here are a few examples to get your mind on the right track:
- A Comparison of Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s Philosophies
- Comparing Locke and Hobbes
- Applying Soleveichick’s and Maimonides’ Views on Love to Modern Day Social Work
- Rene Descartes Tries to Prove Existence of Body via Space and Form