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Philosophy essay writing guide

Introduction.

This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable, mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.

Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.

"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support - or fail to support - those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.

Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts - and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries - even millennia - and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.

In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)

It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in - even a passion for - ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.

This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.

This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:

  • A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
  • J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
  • R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)

Also, the websites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.

*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.

What do I do in a Philosophy essay?

Philosophy essay topics are not designed to provide an intellectual obstacle course that trips you up so as to delight a malicious marker. They are designed to invite you to "grapple with" with some particular philosophical problem or issue. That is to say, they are designed to offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a particular philosophical problem or issue, and to exhibit your own philosophical skills of analysis, argumentation, etc. These twin goals are usually best achieved by ensuring that your essay performs two basic functions (your understanding and your skills apply to both):

an exposition of the problem or issue in question (often as it is posed in some particular text); and a critical discussion of the problem or text

These two functions can, but need not always, correspond to physically or structurally distinct sections of your essay. See Section 5.1.

The expository ("setting forth") aspect of your essay is where you should make clear what the issue is and why it is an issue. Where you are dealing with an issue as it is presented in some particular text, your aim should be to make clear what it is that the author in question meant in their text, what they see as the issue and why they see it as an issue. This does not involve merely quoting or paraphrasing a text. Of course, occasional quotation and paraphrase may be appropriate - sometimes necessary - but these ought not to constitute the sole or major content of your exposition. Where you do quote or paraphrase, make sure you attribute your sources in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.)

Exposition is, then, primarily a matter of developing in your own words what you think the issue is or what you think the text means. In all expository work you should always try to give a fair and accurate account of a text or problem, even when the exposition becomes more interpretive rather than simply descriptive. You ought to be patient and sympathetic in your exposition, even if you intend later to criticise heavily the philosopher in question. Indeed, the better the exposition in this regard, usually the more effective the critique.

An important part of exposition is your analysis of the text or issue. Here you should try to "break down" the text, issue or problem into its constitutive elements by distinguishing its different parts. (E.g. "There are two basic kinds of freedom in question when we speak of freedom of the will. First, … . Second, …", or "There are three elements in Plato's conception of the soul, namely... He establishes these three elements by means of the following two arguments... ") This also involves showing the relationships between those elements, relationships which make them "parts of the whole".

As well as laying out these elements within a text or issue, you can also (when appropriate or relevant) show how a text or issue "connects up with" other texts, issues, or philosophical and/or historical developments, which can help to shed further light on the matter by giving it a broader context. (eg "Freedom of the will is importantly connected to the justification of punishment", or "Plato's tripartite theory of the soul bears interesting resemblances to Freud's analysis of the psyche", or "Kant's transcendental idealism can be seen as reconciling the preceding rationalist and empiricist accounts of knowledge".)

An exposition of a text need not always simply follow the author's own view of what it means. You should, of course, demonstrate that you understand how the author themself understands their work, but an exposition can sometimes go beyond this, giving another reading of the text. (eg "Heidegger might deny it, but his Being and Time can be read as developing a pragmatist account of human understanding.") A given text or issue may well be susceptible to a number of plausible or reasonable interpretations. An exposition should aim to be sensitive to such variety. When appropriate, you should defend your interpretations against rivals and objections. Your interpretation ought, though, to be aimed at elucidating the meaning or meanings of the text or issue and not serve merely as a "coat-hanger" for presenting your own favoured views on the matter in question, which should be left to your ...

Critical discussion

This is where your thought gets more of the centre stage. Here you should attempt to develop a response to the issues which your exposition has made clear, and/or, in the case of a discussion of some particular text, attempt to give a critical appraisal of the author's treatment of the issue. In developing a response to a philosophical problem, argumentation is, again, of central importance. Avoid making unsupported assertions; back up your claims with reasons, and connect up your ideas so that they progress logically toward your conclusions. Consider some of the various objections to and questions about your views that others might or have put forward, and try to respond to them in defence of your own line of thinking. Your goal here should be to discuss what you have expounded so as to come to some conclusion or judgement about it. ("Critical" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "to decide, to judge".) Critical discussion is thus not necessarily "destructive" or "negative"; it can be quite constructive and positive.

In the case of a critical appraisal of a particular author's text, you can negatively criticise the author's arguments by pointing out questionable assumptions, invalid reasoning, etc. If, on the other hand, you think that the text is good, then your critical discussion can be positive. This can be done by revealing its "hidden virtues" (that is, by showing that there is more to the author's arguments and views than what lies on the surface) and/or by defending an author against possible and/or actual criticisms. (eg "Norman Malcolm argues that Descartes is mistaken in assuming that dreams and waking episodes have the same content.* However, Malcolm fails to appreciate the subtlety of Descartes' argument in the First Meditation, which allows Descartes to claim . . .") Just to expound an author's arguments and then say "I disagree" or "That seems right" is not really enough - you need to "have something to say" about it. Of course, by all means go on, after finding fault with some philosopher, to answer in your own way the questions tackled or raised by the author. (eg "Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex suffers from serious weaknesses, as I have shown in Section 2 above. A better way to approach the issue, I shall now argue, is to . . .".)

Where you are not primarily concerned with evaluating or responding to a particular text, your critical discussion can be more focused on your own constructive response to the issue. (eg "Having used Dworkin's account to clarify the meanings of the concepts of 'the sanctity of life' and 'voluntariness', I shall now argue that voluntary euthanasia is morally permissible because its voluntariness respects what is of value in the notion of the sanctity of life" - where you now leave Dworkin behind as a source and move on to give your own account.)

* See Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 56.

Guide to researching and writing Philosophy essays

5th edition by Steven Tudor , for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003.

This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays ) was prepared in consultation with members of the Philosophy program, the University of Melbourne. For advice and assistance on this and earlier editions, thanks are due to Graham Priest, Barry Taylor, Christopher Cordner, Doug Adeney, Josie Winther, Linda Burns, Marion Tapper, Kimon Lycos, Brendan Long, Jeremy Moss, Tony Coady, Will Barrett, Brian Scarlett, and Megan Laverty. Some use was also made of materials prepared by the Philosophy Departments of La Trobe University, the University of Queensland, and The Australian National University.

Disclaimer: University, Faculty and program rules

Please note: this booklet does not provide authoritative statements of the official policies or rules of the University of Melbourne, the Faculty of Arts, or the Philosophy program with regard to student essays and examinations or any other matters. Students should, therefore, not rely on this booklet for such information, for which they should consult the various appropriate notice boards, handbooks, websites, and/or members of staff.

Essay topics

What do philosophy essay topics look like? There are, very roughly, two basic kinds of philosophy essay topics: "text-focused" topics and "problem-focused" topics. Text-focused topics ask you to consider some particular philosopher's writing on some issue. (eg "Discuss critically David Hume's account of causation in Part III of Book I of his A Treatise of Human Nature " or "Was Wittgenstein right to say that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language', in his Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 43?"). Problem-focused topics are more directly about a particular philosophical problem or issue, without reference to any particular philosopher's text. (eg "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" or "What is scientific method?")

There is another sort of topic, one which presents a statement and asks you to discuss it, where that statement is a "made up" or, at least, unattributed quote. (eg. "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss.") I shall regard these as variations of the problem-focused type of topic. Where you are asked to discuss some such statement "with reference to" some specified text or philosopher, then that topic becomes more text-focused. (eg "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss with reference to J.L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. ") Occasionally, a topic presents an unattributed statement, but the statement is, in fact, a quote from a particular philosopher you've been studying, or, at least, a good paraphrase of their thinking. (An example of the latter: "'All the ideas in our minds originate from either sense perception or our reflection upon sensory information.' Discuss.", in a course devoted to John Locke, whose views are summed up in the quoted statement, though those words are not actually his.) Should you take such topics as problem- or text-focused? Rather unhelpfully, I'll say only that it depends on the case. You might ask your lecturer or tutor about it. Whichever way you do take it, be clear in your essay which way you are taking it.

The difference between text-focused and problem-focused essay topics is, however, not very radical. This is because, on the one hand, any particular philosopher's text is about some philosophical problem or question, while, on the other hand, most philosophical problems (certainly virtually all those you will be given as essay topics at university) will have been written about by previous philosophers.

The basic way to approach text-focused topics, then, is to treat the nominated text as an attempt by one philosopher to deal with a particular philosophical problem or issue. The essay topic will, generally speaking, be inviting you to do philosophy with that philosopher, to engage with them in thinking about the issue, whether that engagement proves to be as an ally or an adversary. The chosen text will usually be one which has been (or deserves to be) influential or significant in the history of philosophy, but the task is not to pay homage to past masters. But, even if homage is your thing, the best way to do that here is to engage with the master philosophically.

With regard to problem-focused topics, you will often find your exploration of the problem aided by taking some text or texts which have dealt with it as reference points or prompts. This is not always strictly necessary, but many of you starting out in philosophy will find it helpful to do so - it can help you give focus to your response to the question. (Thus, you might, in an essay on the topic "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" take it upon yourself to use, for example, Ronald Dworkin's Life's Dominion and Peter Singer's Practical Ethics as reference points. Or, in an essay on the topic "What is scientific method?", you might set up your answer via a comparison of the two different accounts in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.*) How will you know which texts to adopt as reference points or prompts, if none is mentioned in the essay topic itself? One way is to consider what texts have already been mentioned with regard to the topic in your course reading guide and in lectures and tutorials. Another way is to do some of your own research. On this see Section 4 below.

* In this guide, in giving examples of how to go about answering an essay question, I am not necessarily giving any concrete or reliable advice for any particular topic. The examples are primarily to do with the form or style or strategy you might find helpful.

Researching your essay

To do research for your philosophy essay you need to do only two things: read and think. Actually, for problem-focused essays, thinking is the only truly necessary bit, but it's highly likely that you will find your thinking much assisted if you do some reading as well. Philosophical research at university is a little different to research in most other disciplines (especially the natural sciences), in that it is not really about "collecting data" to support or refute explanatory theories. Rather, the thinking that's involved in philosophical research (as part of one's preparation for philosophical writing) is more a matter of reflecting critically upon the problems in front of one. Researching the writings of other philosophers should, therefore, be primarily directed towards helping you with that reflection rather than aiming at gathering together and reporting on "the relevant findings" on a particular topic. In many other disciplines, a "literature review" is an important research skill, and sometimes philosophy academics do such reviews - but it is rare that philosophy students are asked to do one.

What, then, to read? It should be clear from your lectures and tutorials what some starting points for your reading might be. (All courses provide reading guides; many also have booklets of reading material.) Your tutor and lecturer are also available for consultation on what readings you might begin with for any particular topic in that subject. Independent research can also uncover useful sources, and evidence of this in your essay can be a pleasing sign of intellectual independence. Make sure, though, that what you come up with is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.) Whichever way you proceed, your reading should be purposive and selective.

In the case of essay questions that refer to a particular text, you should familiarise yourself thoroughly with this text. Usually, such a text will be a primary text, i.e. one in which a philosopher writes directly about a philosophical issue. Texts on or about a primary text are called secondary texts. (Many philosophical works will combine these two tasks, and discuss other philosophical texts while also dealing directly with a philosophical issue.) Some secondary texts can be helpful to students. However, don't think you will only ever understand a primary text if you have a nice friendly secondary text to take you by the hand through the primary text. More often than not, you need to have a good grasp of the primary text in order to make sense of the secondary text.

How much to read? The amount of reading you do should be that which maximises the quality of your thinking - that is, you should not swamp yourself with vast slabs of text that you can't digest, but nor should you starve your mind of ideas to chew over. There is, of course, no simple rule for determining this optimal amount. Be wary, though, of falling into the vice of looking for excuses not to read some philosopher or text, as in "Oh, that's boring old religious stuff" or "She's one of those obscure literary feminist types", or "In X Department they laugh at you if you mention those authors in tutes". If someone wants a reason not to think, they'll soon come up with one.

Philosophical writings

Most philosophical writings come in either of two forms: books or articles. Articles appear either in books that are edited anthologies or in academic journals, such as Philosophical Quarterly or Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Some academic journals are also on the internet. Most articles in the journals are written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers; similarly with many books. But by no means let this put you off. Everyone begins philosophy at the deep end - it's really the only kind there is!

There are, however, many books written for student audiences. Some of these are general introductions to philosophy as a whole; others are introductions to particular areas or issues (eg biomedical ethics or philosophy of science). Among the general introductions are various philosophical dictionaries, encyclopedias and "companions". These reference works collect short articles on a wide range of topics and can be very useful starting points for newcomers to a topic. Among the most useful of the general reference works are:

  • Edward Craig, ed., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
  • Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Thomas Mautner, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1998)
  • J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree, eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1993)
  • Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an internet-based reference work: plato.stanford.edu/ )

Note taking

Note taking, like your reading, should not be random, but ought to be guided by the topic in question and by your particular lines of response to the issues involved. Note taking for philosophy is very much an individual art, which you develop as you progress. By and large it is not of much use to copy out reams of text as part of your researches. Nor is it generally helpful to read a great number of pages without making any note of what they contain for future reference. But between these two extremes it is up to you to find the mean that best helps you in getting your thoughts together.

Libraries and electronic resources

The University's Baillieu Library (including the Institute of Education Resource Centre), which is open to all members of the University, contains more than 2,500 years' worth of philosophical writings. The best way to become acquainted with them is by using them, including using the catalogues (including the Baillieu's on-line catalogues and subject resources web-pages), following up a work's references (and references in the references), intelligent browsing of the shelves, etc.

In the main Baillieu Library, the philosophical books are located (mostly) between 100–199 in the Dewey decimal system, and philosophical journals are located in the basement. The Reference section on the ground floor also has some relevant works. The Education Resource Centre also has a good philosophy collection.

In addition to hard-copy philosophical writings, there is also a variety of electronic resources in philosophy, mostly internet-based. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was already mentioned above. Links to other useful internet sites (such as the Australasian Association of Philosophy website) can be found through the Baillieu Library's web-page and the Philosophy Department's web-page.

A strong word of warning, however, for the would-be philosophical web-surfer: because anyone can put material on a website, all kinds of stuff, of varying levels of quality, is out there - and new-comers to philosophy are usually not well placed to sort their way through it. Unless you have a very good understanding of what you're looking for - and what you're not looking for - most of you will be much better off simply carefully reading and thinking about a central text for your course, eg Descartes' First Meditation, rather than wandering about the internet clicking on all the hits for "Descartes". Exercise your mind, not your index finger.

Writing your essay

Planning and structuring your essay.

It is very important that you plan your essay, so that you have an idea of what you are going to write before you start to write it. Of course, you will most likely alter things in later drafts, but you should still start off by having a plan. Planning your essay includes laying out a structure. It is very important that your essay has a clearly discernible structure, ie that it is composed of parts and that these parts are logically connected. This helps both you and your reader to be clear about how your discussion develops, stage by stage, as you work through the issues at hand.

Poor essay structure is one of the most common weaknesses in student philosophy essays. Taking the time to work on the structure of your essay is time well spent, especially since skill in structuring your thoughts for presentation to others should be among the more enduring things you learn at university. A common trap that students fall into is to start their essay by writing the first sentence, then writing another one that seems to follow that one, then another one that sort of fits after that one, then another that might or might not have some connection with the previous one, and so on until the requisite 1,500 words are used up. The result is usually a weak, rambling essay.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about how to structure a philosophy essay. Again, it is a skill you develop through practice, and much will depend on the particular topic at hand. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to begin by developing an essay structure around the basic distinction between your exposition and your critical discussion (as discussed above). In this it will be important that you make clear who is putting forward which point, that is, make it clear whether you are presenting your own thoughts or are expounding someone else's. (Again, confusion in this regard is a common problem in student essays.) It can often help your structuring if you provide headings for different sections (possibly numbered or lettered). Again, this helps both your reader to follow your discussion and you to develop your thoughts. At each stage, show clearly the logical relations between and the reasons for your points, so that your reader can see clearly why you say what you say and can see clearly the development in your discussion.

Another key to structuring your essay can be found in the old adage "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you've told 'em", which provides you with a ready-made structure: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

In your Introduction, first introduce the issues the essay is concerned with. In doing so, try to state briefly just what the problem is and (if there is space) why it is a problem. This also applies, of course, to issues covered in text-focused essay topics. Next, tell the reader what it is that you are going to do about those problems in the Main Body. This is usually done by giving a brief sketch or overview of the main points you will present, a "pre-capitulation", so to speak, of your essay's structure. This is one way of showing your reader that you have a grasp (indeed, it helps you get a grasp) of your essay as a structured and integrated whole, and gives them some idea of what to expect by giving them an idea of how you have decided to answer the question. Of course, for reasons of space, your Introduction might not be very long, but something along these lines is likely to be useful.

In your Main Body, do what you've said you'll do. Here is where you should present your exposition(s) and your critical discussion(s). Thus, it is here that the main philosophical substance of your essay is to be found. Of course, what that substance is and how you will present it will depend on the particular topic before you. But, whatever the topic, make clear at each stage just what it is you are doing. You can be quite explicit about this. (eg "I shall now present Descartes' ontological argument for the existence of God, as it is presented in his Fifth Meditation. There will be three stages to this presentation.") Don't think that such explicitness must be a sign of an unsophisticated thinker.

A distinct Conclusion is perhaps not always necessary, if your Main Body has clearly "played out" your argument. So you don't always have to present a grand summation or definitive judgement at the end. Still, often for your own sake, try to state to yourself what it is your essay has achieved and see if it would be appropriate to say so explicitly. Don't feel that you must come up with earth-shattering conclusions. Of course, utter banality or triviality are not good goals, either. Also, your essay doesn't always have to conclude with a "solution" to a problem. Sometimes, simply clarifying an issue or problem is a worthy achievement and can merit first-class honours. A good conclusion to a philosophy essay, then, will usually combine a realistic assessment of the ambit and cogency of its claims with a plausible proposal that those claims have some philosophical substance.

What you write in your essay should always be relevant to the question posed. This is another common problem in student essays, so continually ask yourself "Am I addressing the question here?" First-class answers to a question can vary greatly, but you must make sure that your essay responds to the question asked, even if you go on to argue that the question as posed is itself problematic. (eg "To ask ‘What is scientific method?' presupposes that science follows one basic method. However, I shall argue that there are, in fact, several different scientific methods and that these are neither unified nor consistent.") Be wary, however, of twisting a topic too far out of shape in order to fit your favoured theme. (You would be ill-advised, for example, to proceed thus: "What is scientific method? This is a question asked by many great minds. But what is a mind? In this essay, I shall discuss the views of Thomas Aquinas on the nature of mind.")

This requirement of relevance is not intended as an authoritarian constraint on your intellectual freedom. It is part of the skill of paying sustained and focused attention to something put before you - which is one of the most important skills you can develop at university. If you do have other philosophical interests that you want to pursue (such as Aquinas on mind), then please do pursue them, in addition to writing your essay on the set topic. At no stage does the requirement of relevance prevent you from pursuing your other interests.

Citing Philosophical "Authorities"

There might be occasions when you want to quote other philosophers and writers apart from when you are quoting them because they are the subject of your essay. There are two basic reasons why you might want to do this. First, you might quote someone because their words constitute a good or exemplary expression or articulation of an idea you are dealing with, whether as its proponent, critic, or simply its chronicler. (eg "As Nietzsche succinctly put the point, 'There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena'.*") You may or may not want to endorse the idea whose good expression you have quoted, but simply want to use the philosopher as a spokesperson for or example of that view. But be clear about what you think the quote means and be careful about what you are doing with the quote. It won't do all the work for you.

The second reason you might want to quote a philosopher is because you think their words constitute an "authoritative statement" of a view. Here you want to use the fact that, eg Bertrand Russell maintained that there are two kinds of knowledge of things (namely, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description) in support of your claim that there are two such kinds of knowledge of things. However, be very careful in doing this, for the nature of philosophical authority is not so simple here. That is to say, what really matters is not that Bertrand Russell the man held that view; what matters are his reasons for holding that view. So, when quoting philosophers for this second reason, be careful that you appreciate in what exactly the authority lies - which means that you should show that you appreciate why Russell maintained that thesis. Of course, you can't provide long arguments for every claim you make or want to make use of; every essay will have its enabling but unargued assumptions. But at least be clear about these. (eg "For the purposes of this essay, I shall adopt Russell's thesis* that ...").

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first German ed.1886]), Sec. 108.

* See Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 [first pub. 1912]), Ch. 5.

Philosophy is by its nature a relatively abstract and generalising business. (Note that abstractness and generality are not the same thing. Nor do vagueness and obscurity automatically attend them.) Sometimes a longish series of general ideas and abstract reasonings can become difficult for the reader (and often the writer) to follow. It can often help, therefore, to use some concrete or specific examples in your discussion. (Note that there can be different levels of concreteness and specificity in examples.)

Examples can be taken from history, current events, literature, and so on, or can be entirely your own invention. Exactly what examples you employ and just how and why you use them will, of course, depend on the case. Some uses might be: illustration of a position, problem or idea to help make it clearer; evidence for, perhaps even proof of, a proposition; a counter-example; a case-study to be returned to at various points during the essay; or a problem for a theory or viewpoint to be applied to. Again, be clear about what the example is and how and why you use it. Be careful not to get distracted by, or bogged down in, your examples. Brevity is usually best.

English expression

There's another old saying: "If you can't say what you mean, then you can't mean what you say" - and this very much applies to philosophical writing. Thus, in writing philosophically, you must write clearly and precisely. This means that good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written, including its grammar and vocabulary. (See Section 9.3 for advice for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.) A high standard of writing skills is to be expected of Arts graduates. Indeed, this sort of skill will last longer than your memory of, for example, the three parts of the Platonic soul (though it is also hoped that some of the content of what you study will also stick). So use your time at university (in all your subjects) to develop these skills further.

Having a mastery of a good range of terms, being sensitive to the subtleties of their meaning, and being able to construct grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentences are essential to the clear articulation and development of your thoughts. Think of grammar, not as some old-fashioned set of rules of linguistic etiquette, but rather as the "internal logic" of a sentence, that is, as the relationships between the words within a sentence which enable them to combine to make sense.

Virtually all sentences in philosophical writing are declarative (ie. make statements), as opposed to interrogative, imperative or exclamatory types of sentences. There is some place, though, for interrogative sentences, ie. questions. (Note that, in contrast, this guide, which is not in the essay genre, contains many imperative sentences, ie. commands.) As you craft each (declarative) sentence in your essay, remember the basics of sentence construction. Make clear what the sentence is about (its subject) and what you are saying about it (the predicate). Make clear what the principal verb is in the predicate, since it is what usually does the main work in saying something about the subject. Where a sentence consists of more than one clause (as many do in philosophical writing), make clear what work each clause is doing. Attend closely, then, to each and every sentence you write so that its sense is clear and is the sense you intend it to have. Think carefully about what it is you want each particular sentence to do (in relation to both those sentences immediately surrounding it and the essay as a whole) and structure your sentence so that it does what you want it to do. To help you with your own sentence construction skills, when reading others' philosophical works (or indeed any writing) attend closely to the construction of each sentence so as to be alive to all the subtleties of the text.

Good punctuation is an essential part of sentence construction. Its role is to help to display the grammar of a sentence so that its meaning is clear. As an example of how punctuation can fundamentally change the grammar and, hence, meaning of a sentence, compare (i) "Philosophers, who argue for the identity of mind and brain, often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." and (ii) "Philosophers who argue for the identity of mind and brain often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." In the first sentence it is asserted (falsely, as it happens) that all philosophers argue for the identity of mind and brain; in the second, only some philosophers are said to argue for the identity of mind and brain. Only the punctuation differs in the two strings of identical words, and yet the meanings of the sentences are very different. Confusions over this sort of thing are common weaknesses in student essays, and leave readers asking themselves "What exactly is this student trying to say?"

It will be assumed that you can spell - which is not a matter of pressing the "spell-check" key on a word-processor. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should always be within reach as you write your essay.

Also, try to shorten and simplify sentences where you can do so without sacrificing the subtlety and inherent complexity of the discussion. Where a sentence is becoming too long or complex, it is likely that too many ideas are being bundled up together too closely. Stop and separate your ideas out. If an idea is a good or important one, it will usually deserve its own sentence.

Your "intra-sentential logic" should work very closely with the "inter-sentential logic" of your essay, ie. with the logical relations between your sentences. (This "inter-sentential logic" is what "logic" is usually taken to refer to.) For example, to enable sentences P and Q to work together to yield sentence R as a conclusion, you need to make clear that there are elements within P and Q which connect up to yield R. Consider the following example: "Infanticide is the intentional killing of a human being. However, murder is regarded by all cultures as morally abhorrent. Therefore, people who commit infanticide should be punished." This doesn't work as an argument, because the writer has not constructed sentences which provide the connecting concepts in the various subjects and predicates, even though each sentence is grammatically correct (and possibly even true).

If you are concerned to write not only clearly and precisely, but also with some degree of grace and style (and I hope you are), it's still best to get the clarity and precision right first, in a plain, straightforward way, and then to polish things up afterwards to get the style and grace you want. But don't sacrifice clarity and precision for the sake of style and grace - be prepared to sacrifice that beautiful turn of phrase if its presence is going to send your discussion down an awkward path of reasoning. Aim to hit the nail on the head rather than make a loud bang. What you are likely to find, however, is that a philosophy essay which really is clear and precise will have a large measure of grace and style in its very clarity and precision.

Remember that obscurity is not a sign of profundity. (Some profound thought may well be difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean that one can achieve profundity merely through producing obscure, difficult-to-read writing.) Your marker is interested in what's actually in your essay, not what's possibly inside your head (or indeed what's possibly in some book you happen to have referred to in your essay). So avoid hinting at or alluding suggestively to ideas, especially where they are meant to do some important work in your essay. Instead, lay them out explicitly and directly. Of course, you won't have space to spell out every single idea, so work out which ideas do the most important work and make sure that you at least get those ideas clearly articulated. In expounding a text or problem that ultimately just is vague, muddled, or obscure, try to convey such vagueness, muddle or obscurity clearly, rather than simply reproducing it in your own writing. That is, be clear that and how a text or problem has such features, and then perhaps do your best to make matters clearer.

Despite these stern pronouncements, don't be afraid of sometimes saying things which happen to sound a little odd, if you have tried various formulations and think you have now expressed your ideas just as they should be expressed. Philosophy is often an exploratory business, and new ways of seeing and saying things can sometimes be a part of that exploration.

The need for clarity and precision in philosophical writing sometimes means that you need to stipulate your own meaning for a term. When you want to use a particular word in a particular way for the purposes of your essay - as a "technical term" - be clear about it. (eg "In this essay, I shall intend ‘egoism' to mean ...") Also, be consistent in your technical meanings, or else note when you are not. Be wary, though, of inventing too many neologisms or being too idiosyncratic in your stipulations.

With regard to what "authorial pronoun" to adopt in a philosophy essay, it's standard to write plainly in the first person singular ("I", "me", "my", etc.) rather than use the royal "we" (as in "we shall argue that ..."), or the convoluted quasi-legal indirect form ("It is submitted that ..."), or the scientific objectivity of a physics experimental report. Nonetheless, stick closer to "I argue", "I suggest", "my definition", etc., than to "I wish", "I hate", "my feeling", etc. A philosophy essay is still something more intellectual and formal than a personal reminiscence, polemic, or proclamation. In terms of audience, it's probably best to think of your reader as someone who is intelligent, open to discussion and knows a little about the topic you're writing on, but perhaps is not quite clear or decided about the issues, or needs convincing of the view you want to put forward, or is curious about what you think about the issues.

Try also to use non-discriminatory language, ie. language which does not express or imply inequality of worth between people on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. As you write, you will be considering carefully your choice of words to express your thoughts. You will almost always find that it is possible to avoid discriminatory language by rephrasing your sentences.

Other things to avoid:

  • waffle and padding
  • vagueness and ambiguity
  • abbreviations (this guide I'm writing isn't an eg. of what's req'd. in a phil. essay)
  • colloquialisms (which can really get up your reader's nose)
  • writing whose syntax merely reflects the patterns of informal speech
  • unnecessary abstractness or indirectness
  • unexplained jargon
  • flattery and invective
  • overly-rhetorical questions (do you really need me to tell you what they are?) and other flourishes

There are many guides to good writing available. Anyone who writes (whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether beginners or experienced professionals) will do well to have some on hand. Most good bookshops and libraries will have some. Among the most consulted works are (check for the latest editions):

  • J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000)
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)
  • R. W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Australian Government Publishing Service, Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 5th ed. (Canberra: AGPS, 1995)

Vocabulary of logical argument

Closely related to the above points about English expression is the importance of having a good grasp of what can rather generally be called "the vocabulary of logical argument". These sorts of terms are crucial in articulating clearly and cogently a logical line of argument. Such argumentation will, of course, be of central importance in whatever discipline you are studying, indeed in any sphere of life that requires effective thinking and communication. I have in mind terms such as these (grouped a little loosely):

all, any, every, most, some, none, a, an, the that, this, it, he, she, they if . . . , then. . . ; if and only if . . . , then . . . ; unless either . . . or . . .; neither . . . nor . . . not, is, are therefore, thus, hence, so, because, since, follows, entails, implies, infer, consequence, conditional upon moreover, furthermore which, that, whose and, but, however, despite, notwithstanding, nevertheless, even, though, still possibly, necessarily, can, must, may, might, ought, should true, false, probable, certain sound, unsound, valid, invalid, fallacious, supported, proved, contradicted, rebutted, refuted, negated logical, illogical, reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational assumption, premise, belief, claim, proposition argument, reason, reasoning, evidence, proof

Most of these are quite simple terms, but they are crucial in argumentative or discursive writing of all kinds. (Many are themselves the subject of study in logic, a branch of philosophy). The sloppy use of these sorts of terms is another common weakness in students' philosophy essays. Pay close and careful attention to how you employ them. Moreover, pay close and careful attention to how the authors you read use them. For further discussion of some of these terms and others, see:

  • Basic Philosophical Vocabulary, prepared by the staff of the Philosophy Department and available from the programs Office
  • Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973)
  • Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking (London: Fontana, 1985)
  • Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Revising your essay

It is virtually essential that you write a first draft of your essay and then work on that draft to work towards your finished essay. Indeed, several drafts may well be necessary in order to produce your best possible work. It is a rare philosopher indeed who can get things perfectly right on the first attempt, so be prepared to revise and re-develop what you write. Don't be too precious about what you have written, if it appears that it should be sacrificed in the revision process. There is usually a very marked difference between essays which are basically first draft rush-jobs done the night before they are due and those which have been revised and polished. Give yourself time to revise by starting writing early on. For most philosophy students, the greater part of the work in essay writing is in the writing, not in the preliminary researches and planning stages. So be wary of thinking "I've done all the research. I only need to write up my notes, which I can do the night before the essay's due". This is likely to lead to a weak, perhaps non-existent, essay (and very likely a sleepless night).

Stick to the word limit given for your essay. Why are word limits imposed? First, to give the markers a fair basis for comparing student essays. Second, to give you the opportunity to practise the discipline of working creatively under constraints. Skill in this discipline will stand you in very good stead in any sphere where circumstances impose limitations. Again, word limits are not constraints on your intellectual freedom. Outside your essay you are free to write without limit. But even there you'll probably find that your creativity is improved by working under a self-imposed discipline.

As a general rule, most student essays that fall well short of the word limit are weak or lazy attempts at the task, and most essays that go well over the limit are not much stronger or the result of much harder work - the extra length is often due to unstructured waffle or padding which the writer hasn't thought enough about so as to edit judiciously. If you structure your essay clearly, you'll find it easier to revise and edit, whether in order to contract or expand it. ("Hmm, let's see: section 2 is much longer than section 4, but is not as important, so I'll cut it down. And I should expand section 3, because that's a crucial step. And I can shift that third paragraph in the Introduction to the Conclusion.")

Plagiarism and originality

Plagiarism is essentially a form of academic dishonesty or cheating. At university level, such dishonesty is not tolerated and is dealt with severely, usually by awarding zero marks for a plagiarised essay or, in some cases, dismissing a student from the university.

When you submit your essay, you are implicitly stating that the essay is your own original and independent work, that you have not submitted the same work for assessment in another subject, and that where you have made use of other people's work, this is properly acknowledged. If you know that this is not in fact the case, you are being dishonest. (In a number of university departments, students are in fact required to sign declarations of academic honesty.)

Plagiarism is the knowing but unacknowledged use of work by someone else (including work by another student, and indeed oneself - see below) and which is being presented as one's own work. It can take a number of forms, including:

  • copying : exactly reproducing another's words
  • paraphrasing : expressing the meaning of another's words in different words
  • summarising : reproducing the main points of another's argument
  • cobbling : copying, paraphrasing or summarising the work of a number of different people and piecing them together to produce one body of text
  • submitting one's own work when it has already been submitted for assessment in another subject
  • collusion : presenting an essay as your own independent work when in fact it has been produced, in whole or part, in collusion with one or more other people

None of the practices of copying, paraphrasing, summarizing or cobbling is wrong in itself, but when one or more is done without proper acknowledgment it constitutes plagiarism. Therefore, all sources must be adequately and accurately acknowledged in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.) Plagiarism from the internet in particular can be a temptation for a certain kind of student. However, be warned: there is a number of very good internet and software tools for identifying plagiarism.

With regard to collusion, it's undoubtedly often very helpful to discuss one's work with others, be it other students, family members, friends or teachers. Indeed, philosophy thrives on dialogue. However, don't kid yourself that you would simply be extending that process if you were to ask your interlocutor to join with you in the writing of your essay, whether by asking them to tell you what you should write or to write down some of their thoughts for you to reproduce in your essay. At the end of the day, you must be the one to decide what goes into your essay.

Originality

Students sometimes worry about whether they will be able to develop "original ideas", especially in light of the fact that nearly every philosophical idea one comes up with seems to have been thought of before by someone else. There is no denying that truly original work in philosophy is well rewarded, but your first aim should be to develop ideas that you think are good and not merely different. If, after arguing for what you believe is right, and arguing in way that you think is good, you then discover that someone else has had the same idea, don't throw your work away - you should feel vindicated to some extent that your thinking has been congruent with that of another (possibly great) philosopher. (If you have not yet handed your essay in when you make this discovery, make an appropriately placed note to that effect.) Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that plagiarism can be easily passed off as congruent thinking. Of course, if that other philosopher's ideas have helped you to develop your ideas, then this is not a matter of congruent ideas but rather of derivative ideas, and this must be adequately acknowledged. If, after developing your ideas, you discover that they are original, then that is an added bonus. But remember that it is more important to be a good philosopher than an original one.

Quotations, footnotes, endnotes and bibliography

Quotations in your essay should be kept to a minimum. The markers know the central texts pretty well already and so don't need to have pages thereof repeated in front of them. Of course, some quotation will usually be important and useful - sometimes essential - in both exposition and critical discussion.

When you quote the words of someone else directly, you must make the quotation clearly distinct from your own text, using quotation marks . (eg "Descartes said that 'it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.'* He makes this claim …" - where the words quoted from Descartes are in 'single quotation marks'. Note that it is relatively arbitrary whether one uses 'single' or "double" quotation marks for "first order" quotations, but whichever style you adopt, use it consistently in the one essay.) Alternatively, where the quoted passage is greater than three lines, put the quoted words in a separate indented paragraph , so that your essay would look like this:

In his First Meditation , Descartes argues as follows:

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.* In this essay I shall argue that prudence does not in fact require us to distrust our senses and that Descartes's sceptical method is therefore seriously flawed.

In both cases, the quotations must be given proper referencingin a footnote or endnote.

When you are not quoting another person directly, but are still making use of their work - as in indirect quotations (eg "Descartes says that it is wise not to trust something that has deceived us before"*), paraphrases, summaries, and cobblings - you must still acknowledge your debts, using footnotes or endnotes.

* Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy , trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [first French ed., 1641]), p. 12.

Footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes appear at the foot of the same page on which the cited material appears, clearly separated from the main body of the text, each one clearly numbered. Endnotes appear at the end of the essay, again clearly separated from the main body of text, numbered and headed "Endnotes" or "Notes". Either method is acceptable, but you should choose one and stick with it throughout the one essay.

Below are some examples of how to put the relevant referencing information in footnotes and endnotes. This is not intended as an exercise in pedantry, but as a guide to how to provide the information needed for adequate referencing. The reason we provide this information is to enable our readers to find the sources we use in order to verify them and to allow them to pursue the material further if it interests them. In your own researches you will come to value good referencing in the texts you read as a helpful source of further references on a topic. Again, it is this sort of research skill that an Arts graduate will be expected to have mastered.

There are various conventions for writing up footnotes and endnotes. The Philosophy Department does not require that any particular convention be followed, only that you be consistent in your use of the convention that you do choose. For other conventions see the style guides mentioned above, or simply go to some texts published by reputable publishers and see what formats they employ.

Imagine, then, that the following are endnotes at the end of your essay. I will explain them below.

  • James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 25.
  • Philippa Foot, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 155.
  • Ibid., p. 160.
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed., 1785]), p. 63.
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub. 1651]),p. 65.
  • Rachels, The Elements, p. 51.
  • Peter Winch, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965), p. 212.
  • Antony Duff, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2001/entries/legal-punishment/ at 15 June 2003, sec. 6.

Notes explained

  • This is your first reference to a book called The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The title is given in full and in italics. If you are unable to use italics, then you should underline the title. The book's author is James Rachels. It's the 2nd edition of that book, which was published in New York, by the publishers McGraw-Hill, in 1993. The page you have referred to in your main text is page 25
  • This is your first reference to Philippa Foot's article, "Moral Relativism", the title of which is put in "quotation marks". This article appeared in a book (title in italics) which is an anthology of different articles, and which was edited by Krausz and Meiland (names in full). The rest is in the same style as note (1)
  • "Ibid." is short for "ibidem", which means "in the same place" in Latin. Use it on its own when you want to refer to exactly the same work and page number as in the immediately preceding note. So here the reference is again to Foot's article at page 155
  • Ditto, except this time you refer to a different page in Foot's article, namely page 160
  • This is reference to a book by Kant. Same book details as per note (1), except that, because this is a translation, you include the translator's name, and the date of the first edition in the original language
  • This is a book reference again, so it's the same as note (1), except that, because it's an old book, you include the date of the original edition. (How old does a book have to be before it merits this treatment? There is no settled view. Note, though, that this convention is not usually followed for ancient authors)
  • Here you are referring to Rachels' book again, but, because you are not in the very next note after a reference to it, you can't use "ibid.". Simply give the author's surname and a short title of the book, plus page reference. There is also a common alternative to this, whereby you give the surname, and write "op. cit." (which is short for "opere citato", which is Latin for "in the work already cited") and page reference (eg "Rachels, op. cit., p. 51.") Your reader then has to scan back over the notes to see what that "op." was exactly. The first option (author plus short title) is usually easier on the reader
  • This is a reference to an article by Peter Winch in a journal called The Monist. The article's title is in "quotes", the journal title is in italics. The volume of the journal is 49, the year of publication is 1965, the page referred to is p. 212
  • This is a reference to an article in the internet-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article is titled "Legal Punishment" and was written by Antony Duff. The Encyclopedia was edited by Edward N. Zalta. Note that I have basically followed the mode of citation that the Encyclopedia itself recommends. (This is one sign of the site being a reputable one. Where a site makes such a recommendation, it's best to follow it.) I have, however, also added the date on which the article was retrieved from the site, and put the author's given name first, to be consistent with the other footnotes. I have also added the reference to section 6, in an effort to be more precise as to where in the article the material I used came from. Since web pages aren't numbered in the manner of hard copy works, it will help if you are able to refer to some other feature, such as paragraphs or sections, so as to pin-point your reference. In the absence of a site recommending a mode of citation to its own material, the basic information needed for adequate citation of internet-based material is (where identifiable) the author, the document title, the year the document was created, the website name, the uniform resource locator (URL) in <arrow-brackets>, date of retrieval, and a pin-point reference*

* I am here following the mode of citation of internet materials recommended in Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, Australian Guide to Legal Citation , 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, 2002), pp. 70-73. I have, though, added the desirability of a pin-point reference.

Bibliography

At the end of your essay (after your endnotes, if used) you should list in a bibliography all of the works referred to in your notes, as well as any other works you consulted in researching and writing your essay. The list should be in alphabetical order, going by authors' surnames. The format should be the same as for your notes, except that you drop the page references and should put surnames first. So the bibliography of our mock-essay above would look like this:

  • Duff, Antony, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2001/entries/legal-punishment/ at 15 June 2003
  • Foot, Philippa, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub.1651])
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals , trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed. 1785])
  • Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
  • Winch, Peter, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965)

Presentation of essays and seeking advice

Generally, you should present an essay that is legible (hand-writing is OK, but typed or word-processed essays are preferable), in English, on one side of pieces of paper that are somewhere in the vicinity of A4 size and are fixed together . You should attach a completed Cover Sheet provided by the Philosophy program. Plastic document covers, spiral binding and other forms of presentational paraphernalia are not necessary (nor are they usually even desirable, as they mostly just get in the marker's way).

Late essays

Late essays are penalised . (For details of penalties consult the Philosophy program's notice board.)

Essays not handed in

Essays not handed in at all get zero marks. An essay that is handed in but gets a mark below 50 (and so is technically a "failed" essay) still gets some marks. (At least, it will so long as it's not so extremely late that the deducted marks wipe out all the marks it would have received if handed in on time.) All marks received for your essay (whether pass or fail) go toward your final score in the subject. Therefore, even if you think your essay is bound to fail (but please let your marker be the judge of that), or the due date has already passed, or both, it is still in your interests to hand your essay in .

Tutors and lecturers

Philosophy staff are not there just to be listened to by you; they are also there to listen to you. So don't hesitate to contact your tutor or lecturer to discuss questions or problems you have concerning your work.

If you have a legitimate excuse, you may be granted an extension on the due date for your essay by the lecturer in charge. Similarly, special consideration may also be granted when illness or other circumstances adversely affect your work. Applications for special consideration are made online via the Special Consideration web page.

Student counselling

Some personal or non-philosophical academic difficulties you might have you might want to discuss with someone other than your tutor or lecturer. Student Counselling and Psychological Services are there for you to discuss all sorts of problems you might encounter. Please consult your student diary for details on the counselling service.

English language assistance

As noted above, good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written. If you are from a non-English speaking background and are having difficulties with your English expression in an academic context, you might like to make use of the services provided by Student Services Academic Skills . Many native English speakers, too, can benefit from short "refresher" courses and workshops run by the Centre. Please consult your student diary for details about this service.

A bit on Philosophy exams

Essays of the sort discussed so far in this guide are not the only form of assessment in the Philosophy program - examinations are also set. What is to be said about them?

First, not much that is different from what's been said above about philosophy essays. This is because what you write in a philosophy exam is none other than a philosophy essay . Have a look at past philosophy exam papers, in the Gibson and Baillieu libraries, to get a feel for them. The only basic difference between essays and exams is the matter of what constraints you're working under. Essays have word limits; exams have time limits . Again, stick to them. (Actually, you'll be made to stick to them by the exam invigilators.)

It's best, then, to think about how long to spend writing on an exam essay topic, rather than about how many words to write on it. Simple arithmetic will tell you how much time to spend on each exam question. (eg if you have a 2-hour exam and have to answer 3 questions, each worth one-third of the exam mark, then spend 40 minutes on each question.) Avoid the trap of "borrowing time" from a later question in order to perfect your answer to an earlier question, and then working faster on the later questions to catch up on lost time - this is likely to get you in a tangle. There are no word limits in philosophy exam essays, but don't think that the more you scrawl across the page, the more marks you'll get. Nonetheless, use the time you've got so as to maximise your display of your philosophical understanding and skills in answering the question.

Planning and structuring remain very important in exam essays. With regard to the niceties of footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies, etc., these are not necessary, so don't waste time on these. However, if you quote or refer to a specific passage from a text, do indicate clearly that it is a quotation or reference. (The principle of being clear as to who is saying what remains central.) If you have the reference handy, just put it briefly in the text of your exam essay. (eg "As Descartes says in Meditation I (p. 12), . . ." or "'[I]t is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once' (Descartes, Meditation I, p. 12)".) Generally speaking, you will show your familiarity with any relevant texts by how you handle them in your discussion. This is also true for your non-exam essays.

Your preparation for the exam should have been done well before entering the exam hall. Note that various subjects have restrictions on what texts and other items can be brought into the exam hall. (Consult the Philosophy program's notice board for details.) Many subjects will have "closed book" exams. Even if an exam is "open book", if you are properly prepared, you should not need to spend much time at all consulting texts or notes during the exam itself.

You won't have time for redrafting and revising your exam essay (which makes planning and structuring your answers before you start writing all the more important). If you do want to delete something, just cross it out clearly. Don't waste time with liquid paper or erasers. Write legibly . Don't wr. "point form" sav. time. Diff. kn. mean. use incomp. sent.

Finally, read the instructions at the beginning of the exam paper. They are important. (eg it's not a good strategy to answer two questions from Part A, when the Instructions tell you to answer two questions, one from Part A and one from Part B.) Note the (somewhat quaint) University practice of starting Reading Time some time before the stated time for the exam. Philosophy exams usually have 15 minutes of reading time. (Check for each of your exams.) So, if your exam timetable says the exam is at 2.15 pm, with reading time of 15 minutes, then the reading time starts at 2.00 pm and the writing time starts at 2.15pm - so get to the exam hall well before 2.00 pm. Reading time is very important. Use it to decide which questions you'll answer and to start planning your answers.

Checklist of questions

  • Do I understand the essay question ? Do I know when the essay is due ?
  • Do I know which texts to consult? Do I know where to find them?
  • Have I made useful notes from my reading of the relevant texts?
  • Have I made a plan of how I'll approach the question in my essay?
  • Have I given myself enough time to draft and redraft my essay?
  • Have I written a clearly structured essay? Is it clear what each stageis doing? Do I do what I say I'll do in my Introduction?
  • Have I clearly distinguished exposition and critical discussion ? Have I given a fair and accurate account of the author(s) in question?
  • Is my response to the topic relevant ? Do I answer the question? Have I kept my essay within the general bounds of the topic?
  • Have I displayed a good grasp of the vocabulary of logical argument ? Are my arguments logically valid and sound? Are my claims supported by reasons ? Am I consistent within my essay?
  • Is my English expression clear and precise ? Are my grammar, punctuation and spelling correct? Have I said what I meant to say? Is my writing legible?
  • Have I fully acknowledged all my sources in footnotes or endnotes? Are my quotations accurate? Have I included a bibliography ?
  • Do I need to revise any part of my essay again?
  • Have I made a copy or photocopy of my essay for myself?
  • Have I kept the receipt for my handed-in essay?

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Preparation

Referencing & help.

  • Good essay writing begins with good course preparation. You should remember that just attending courses is not enough. You will engage with the lectures and seminars only if you do the required primary and secondary reading. By the time you come to write your first essay you should already know enough to approach the subject confidently.
  • Make sure you have properly understood the question. If you do not, ask. Review your lecture notes and the course outline in order to put the question into context and to relate it to other aspects of the subject. If you can break down the question into parts, do so. Decide which are the most important and weight each part accordingly.
  • Read the suggested texts with your question or questions in mind. If you find the reading hard to understand, try reading a whole article or chapter to get the gist and then re-read slowly, making notes.
  • Think for yourself. Don't borrow thought or ideas without giving yourself time to digest them. Discuss them with your fellow students. It can be very helpful to discuss the articles and books you read with others. Also, when you take notes, don't simply excerpt long passages, write them in your own words.
  • Always start from a plan, however rudimentary; but you will inevitably find your argument developing a dynamic of its own, so do not be afraid to revise your plan as you go along. As Socrates says in Plato's Republic: 'Where the argument takes us, like a wind, hither we must go.'
  • Write a draft, leave it for a while, then come back and revise it. On the first draft concentrate on getting the content and structure right and do not dwell on the style. Do not be held up by the precise formulation of a sentence, jot down a phrase and move on.
  • Write the final draft. Check the spelling, grammar and make sure all the bibliographical details are correct. leave a wide margin on the right hand side of your page for the marker's comments. Be kind on your marker: use a font that is easy to read and a line spacing of at least 1.5 or 2. Make a photocopy of your essay as a precaution, since they sometimes can go astray.
  • Your essay should contain a clear exposition of the theory you are studying, a detailed discussion and critical assessment of that theory. The criticisms you look at may be your own, or those of other philosophers.
  • Make sure you indicate when you are expounding the view of someone else and when you are writing in your own voice. Don't just write a long list of objections to a particular argument. Indicate whether you endorse or reject them and give your reasons.
  • Use examples to illustrate your point. Preferably, choose your own examples. Always make the point of your example clear to the reader.
  • Don't worry too much about the 'originality' of the content of your essay. Nobody expects you to come up with a new philosophical theory in your first four pages of writing. Your essay will be original enough if you think for yourself, use your own words, give your own examples and always provide reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular view.
  • Avoid rambling introductions and conclusions. Some books begin with a portentous opening sentence e.g., 'Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.' (B. Russell) You can get away with such a sentence as the opening line of a 400 page book, but not as the opening line of a 4 page essay. State briefly what you think the question involves, if this is not obvious, and get stuck in to your answer. With conclusions, sum up your argument if you want to and leave it at that.
  • Think small or be methodical. There is a gap between your brain's ability to grasp something and your ability to express in writing what you have already understood. It is as if your intuition can leap up whole flights of stairs at once, whereas your written explanations climb one step at a time. This means that you can easily get ahead of yourself, producing the illusion that your ideas are far more lofty than they really are. Only by patiently stepping through the details of an argument can you avoid such illusions. So be patient! If you are not sure whether you have made your point, try putting it another way; 'The upshot of this argument is...', 'the point of this example is...'. Do not simply repeat yourself, try instead to look at your subject from different angles. Sometimes it will feel as if your point is trivial and not worth making. But a trivial point can be a solid step in an interesting argument. The ability to tease out the subtleties of a small point will serve you better than a grand philosophy of life, the universe and everything.
  • One way to structure your essay is to outline an argument, consider an objection, then reply to the objection and then move on to the next point. Avoid the two extremes of length and unbroken paragraphs on the one hand, and staccato sound bytes on the other. Divide your essay into clearly defined paragraphs and devote a whole paragraph to each point. Make the connections between them explicit, by telling the reader what they are. Write things like, 'There are two major objections to this line of thought...' or 'what this example shows is...' Think of these connections as signposts telling the reader where she is, where she has been or reminding her where she is heading.
  • 'Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.' Do not worry about repeating important words or phrases. In philosophy it is more important to be consistent in your terminology than to find new and imaginative ways of saying the same thing. Clear prose has its own elegance, wordiness can sometimes cloud the issue.
  • Empathise with your reader. Once you understand something, you forget what it was like not to understand it; but doing just this will help you to get your point across. To write clearly you have to put yourself in the place of your reader. Imagine the reader is someone who knows nothing about the subject. What would you have to do firstly to convince them and secondly to maintain their interest. Generally speaking a concrete example will get you much further than a passage of purple prose or a string of high-falutin' epithets. One useful way to attain clarity and simplicity of style is to write in short sentences. It is easier to waffle in long rambling sentences.
  • Use 'signposts' to let the reader know what you are trying to do. You can say things like , 'one objection is...', 'A possible reply to this is...', 'What this example shows...', 'This importance of this point is that...', 'What X is assuming is that...'. Be explicit about what you are arguing and why.
  • Stylistically it is vital to use your own words. Quite apart from the dangers of plagiarism, if you borrow chunks of text from another author and then insert them into your essay, you will end up with a patchwork of different styles that reads awkwardly. By all means paraphrase someone else's view, although make it clear that you are paraphrasing. This will help you to understand the position you are adumbrating; and there is a lot of skill involved in a lucid and concise exposition of somebody else's argument.
  • Occasionally you will want to cite somebody else's words directly. Be sparing in your use of quotation. There is much less skill to quotation than to paraphrase or précis. When you select a passage for quotation, make sure it is both brief and relevant. There is nothing worse than reading a string of long quotations interspersed with brief and gnomic comments.
  • Use a dictionary (or spell check) and a grammar. Good spelling and good grammar are not wholly unrelated to the content of your essay. The thread of an essay is easier to follow if the reader does not have to guess the word which you actually meant to write. Good grammar makes not only for elegant but for precise prose. So do not be ashamed to use a dictionary. I prefer the Chambers to the Collins single volume dictionary, but both are good. (Webster's and M.S. Word dictionaries are American.) Michael Dummet, the philosopher, has written an excellent little English grammar for his students, published by Duckworth.

Use of sources

  • All verbatim quotations, whether long or short should be enclosed in inverted commas or indented, and the precise source given. Make sure that you give enough information for the reader to find the passage, i.e. author, work, edition page number or section.
  • Passages of close paraphrase should be acknowledged, and the purpose of these paraphrases made clear e.g. as a summary of a view to be discussed disputed or agreed with.
  • When a point has been derived directly from an author, even though it mode of expression may be original, this should be acknowledged in a footnote or parenthesis.
  • Extensive use of an essay written by another student should be acknowledged. This applies to essays borrowed from the 'Essay Bank' and to essays which are borrowed on a personal basis. Just as the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence on published sources is not supposed to discourage you from reading widely, the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence where it exists, on other students' essays, is not supposed to discourage you from reading each others' essays. In the end however the only thing of value to you and of interest to us is work in which you express and develop your own thoughts.
  • At the end of any essay to be submitted for formal assessment (not tutorial essays) write a list in alphabetical order of all the works consulted or read during the preparation and writing of the essay, as well as those from which you quote directly (see Referencing).

Referencing

The Philosophy Department accepts the Harvard or MLA styles of referencing.  Please refer to the specific information below on each permitted style.

Additional help

You may find the extra help below useful when writing Philosohy essays.

This guide to writing Philosophy essays was written by Gordon Finlayson

Department of Philosophy University of York , York , YO10 5DD , UK Tel: work +44 (0)1904 323251 | Fax: fax +44 (0)1904 324023 | [email protected]

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Writing a Philosophy Essay

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Is there a God? Are there objective, universal moral norms or rules? What is meant by ‘reality’? Do we have free will? In studying philosophy, students aim to do the following:

  • understand such philosophical questions and the concepts, arguments, and theories that philosophers use to address them
  • think critically about such arguments and theories
  • develop their own answers to philosophical questions

Writing philosophy essays is a key part of studying philosophy. Make sure first to understand the assignment, looking out for the questions asked and paying attention to prompts such as “outline” or “evaluate” or “compare”. Most philosophy assignments will ask you to demonstrate your understanding of the subject through exposition of arguments and theories, and many will also test your ability to assess these arguments and theories by writing a critical evaluation of them. Write your paper so that the reader understands how your exposition and evaluation answer the questions and address all parts of the assignment.

Read the Texts Carefully, Asking Questions

Before you write a paper, though, you need to understand the course texts and recommended readings. Philosophical works need to be read slowly and with focused attention. As you read, ask yourself the following:

  • What philosophical question(s) is the author addressing?
  • What exactly is meant by key ideas or concepts in the text (e.g., Plato’s “Forms”, Aristotle’s “substance” and “accident”, Kant’s “categorical imperative,” Sartre’s “being-for-itself”)? Each discipline has its own technical language, which students must learn.
  • What arguments does the author make (e.g., Aquinas’s five arguments for the existence of God)?
  • What theories does the author propose (e.g., a dualist mind-body theory or—one of its competitors—a physicalist theory of mind)?

Organize Your Ideas into a Logical Structure

Take notes as you read. Then put your ideas for the essay into a logical order. Because philosophy papers proceed by logical argument, creating a point-form outline that captures the structure of your argument is generally a good strategy. An outline will allow you to spot problems in your argument more easily.

Augment Your Thesis with a Road Map that Reveals the Structure of Your Argument

Most assignments will require you to present a clear thesis statement that sums up the position for which you are arguing. In the introduction you should also provide a ‘road map’—a few sentences that announce in sequence what you intend to accomplish in each of the key stages of your paper. Road maps often rely on first person (“First, I will analyze . . . “), but if your professor prefers that you don’t use the first person, you can instead describe what your essay will accomplish (“First, the essay will analyze . . . “).

Show Your Understanding through Clear and Accurate Exposition

Try to make your expository writing as clear and accurate as possible, and try to show the logical connections between the different parts of a philosophical system. Avoid vague or overly brief exposition, serious omissions, or misunderstandings.

In some first year courses, an early assignment may ask you to write a short paper expounding but not evaluating a concept or theory. For example: “Explain what Plato means by Forms.” Subsequent assignments in the course usually involve evaluation as well as exposition (e.g., “Outline and evaluate Plato’s theory of Forms”). In some courses, assignments may call for detailed interpretation of a text rather than an assessment of it. “Was Hume an idealist?”, “Was Wittgenstein a behaviourist?” and “Was Marx a nihilist about morality?” are examples. Such questions are posed when there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret a philosopher. In such essays, you will need to examine texts very closely, find passages which support a yes or no answer, choose where you stand in the debate, and defend your answer.

Critically Evaluate a Philosophical Theory

When studying a philosophical theory, you will need to think about both its strengths and weaknesses. For example, is a particular theory of art (such as the view that art is the expression of emotion) comprehensive: does it apply to all the arts and all types of art, or only to some? Is it logically consistent or does it contain contradictions? Are there counterexamples to it?

As you think about your topic, read the course materials, and take notes, you should work out and assemble the following:

  • the strengths of a philosopher’s theory
  • the arguments the philosopher gives in support of the theory and those the philosopher did not provide but which might still support it
  • possible criticisms of those arguments
  • how the philosopher has replied or could reply to these criticisms

Finally, ask yourself how you would evaluate those replies: do they work or not? Be selective, especially in a shorter paper. In a 1,000-word essay, for instance, discuss one or two arguments in favour and one or two against. In a 2,000- or 2,500-word paper, you can include more arguments and possible replies. Finally, plan carefully: leave enough space for your assessment.

A different type of critical evaluation assignment may ask for a comparative appraisal of two or more theories. For example, “Which account of human decision-making is stronger: X’s free will theory or Y’s determinist theory?” In such essays, your thesis could be that one account is better than the other or, perhaps, that neither account is clearly superior. You might argue that each has different strengths and weaknesses.

Develop Your Own Answers to Philosophical Questions

In the type of critical assessments above, you are already, to some extent, articulating your own philosophical positions. As you read texts in a course on, say, philosophy of mind or philosophy of art, you should be asking, based on what you have read so far, which theory is the best? Don’t be content to just understand theories and know their strengths and weaknesses. Push yourself to think out your own account of mind or art.

Some upper-year essay assignments may throw a fundamental philosophical question at you: “What is art?”, “Do we have free will?”, “What is morality?”, or “What is reality?”. Here, you will present your own answer, giving reasons, answering objections, and critically evaluating alternative approaches. Your answer/thesis might be an existing theory or a synthesis of two or more theories, or (more rarely) a completely new theory. Now you are not only expounding theories or critically evaluating them; you are also developing your own philosophy!

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Writing a Philosophy Essay

Is there a God? Are there objective, universal moral norms or rules? What is meant by reality? Do we have free will? In studying philosophy, students aim to do the following:

  • Understand such philosophical questions and the concepts, arguments, and theories that philosophers use to address them;
  • Think critically about such arguments and theories; and
  • Develop their own answers to philosophical questions.

Writing philosophy essays is a key part of studying philosophy. Make sure first to understand the assignment, looking out for the questions asked and paying attention to prompts such as outline or evaluate or compare .

Most philosophy assignments will ask you to demonstrate your understanding of the subject through the exposition of arguments and theories, and many will also test your ability to assess these arguments and theories by writing a critical evaluation of them. Write your paper so that the reader understands how your exposition and evaluation answer the questions and address all parts of the assignment.

Read the texts carefully, asking questions

Before you write a paper, though, you need to understand the course texts and recommended readings. Philosophical works need to be read slowly and with focused attention. As you read, ask yourself the following:

  • What philosophical question(s) is the author addressing?
  • What exactly is meant by key ideas or concepts in the text (e.g., Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s substance and accident, Kant’s categorical imperative, Sartre’s being-for-itself)? Each discipline has its own technical language that students must learn.
  • What arguments does the author make (e.g., Aquinas’s five arguments for the existence of God)?
  • What theories does the author propose (e.g., a dualist mind-body theory or -- one of its competitors -- a physicalist theory of mind)?

Organize your ideas into a logical structure

Take notes as you read. Then put your ideas for the essay into a logical order. Because philosophy papers proceed by logical argument, creating a point-form outline that captures the structure of your argument is generally a good strategy. An outline will allow you to spot problems in your argument more easily.

Augment your thesis with a road map that reveals the structure of your argument

Most assignments will require you to present a clear thesis statement that sums up the position for which you are arguing. In the introduction, you should also provide a road map -- a few sentences that announce in sequence what you intend to accomplish in each of the key stages of your paper.

Road maps often rely on first person ("First, I will analyze . . . "), but if your professor prefers that you don't use the first person, you can instead describe what your essay will accomplish ("First, the essay will analyze . . . ").

Show your understanding through clear and accurate exposition

Try to make your expository writing as clear and accurate as possible, and try to show the logical connections between the different parts of a philosophical system. Avoid vague or overly brief exposition, serious omissions or misunderstandings.

In some first-year courses, an early assignment may ask you to write a short paper expounding, but not evaluating, a concept or theory. For example: Explain what Plato means by Forms. Subsequent assignments in the course usually involve evaluation as well as exposition (e.g., Outline and evaluate Plato’s theory of Forms.).

In some courses, assignments may call for detailed interpretation of a text rather than an assessment of it. “Was Hume an idealist?", “Was Wittgenstein a behaviourist?” and “Was Marx a nihilist about morality?” are examples.

Such questions are posed when there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret a philosopher. In such essays, you will need to examine texts very closely, find passages which support a yes or no answer, choose where you stand in the debate and defend your answer.

Critically evaluate a philosophical theory

When studying a philosophical theory, you will need to think about both its strengths and weaknesses. For example, is a particular theory of art -- such as the view that art is the expression of emotion -- comprehensive: does it apply to all the arts and all types of art, or only to some? Is it logically consistent or does it contain contradictions? Are there counterexamples to it?

As you think about your topic, read the course materials, and take notes, you should work out and assemble the following:

  • The strengths of a philosopher’s theory;
  • The arguments the philosopher gives in support of the theory and those the philosopher did not provide but which might still support it;
  • Possible criticisms of those arguments; and.
  • How the philosopher has replied or could reply to these criticisms.

Finally, ask yourself how you would evaluate those replies: do they work or not? Be selective, especially in a shorter paper. In a 1,000-word essay, for instance, discuss one or two arguments in favour and one or two against. In a 2,000- or 2,500-word paper, you can include more arguments and possible replies.

Finally, plan carefully: leave enough space for your assessment. A different type of critical evaluation assignment may ask for a comparative appraisal of two or more theories. For example, Which account of human decision-making is stronger: X’s free will theory or Y’s determinist theory? 

In such essays, your thesis could be that one account is better than the other or, perhaps, that neither account is clearly superior. You might argue that each has different strengths and weaknesses.

Develop your own answers to philosophical questions

In the type of critical assessments above, you are already, to some extent, articulating your own philosophical positions. As you read texts in a course on, say, philosophy of mind or philosophy of art, you should be asking, based on what you have read so far, which theory is the best? Don’t be content to just understand theories and know their strengths and weaknesses. Push yourself to think out your own account of mind or art.

Some upper-year essay assignments may throw a fundamental philosophical question at you: What is art?, Do we have free will?, What is morality? or What is reality?. Here, you will present your own answer, giving reasons, answering objections and critically evaluating alternative approaches.

Your answer/thesis might be an existing theory or a synthesis of two or more theories or (more rarely) a completely new theory. Now you are not only expounding theories or critically evaluating them; you are also developing your own philosophy.

Written by Michael O'Connor, University College Writing Centre

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Writing A Philosophy Paper

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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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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A dogmatic FAQ on writing philosophy essays

There is not a single “method” for writing a good philosophy essay. But there are some helpful rules of thumb.

Caution : in reading this FAQ, bear in mind the following points: 

  • Heuristics : these are some rules of thumb, not an exhaustive list of fixed regulations.
  • Pluralism : these are the dogmatic views of just one Department member (Tim Button), and even he agrees that there are many different ways to write good philosophy.
  • Specificity : these answers might not apply to all of your specific assignments; check with your teachers.

I want a convincing answer to the question posed by the title. Unpacking these two components:

  • I need to know what your answer is. In fact, I should know roughly what your answer will be within the first few sentences.
  • You answer must be convincing. Don’t simply list the answers that various different people have given. Don’t simply add your answer to that list. Give me reasons to accept your answer.

Also: do nothing else . Each section, each paragraph, each sentence, each word, should be a part of your convincing answer to the question posed by the title.

Yes, to all of these. Absolutely. Do whatever you like. Provided that it helps you to give a convincing answer to the question posed by the title .

It’s extremely likely that you will find section headers helpful. Breaking up your essay into explicit sections helps your reader understand your argument’s structure. (It also helps you to understand your own argument!)

Plenty of people will have given you advice about writing style. Those people probably meant well. But they probably gave you dreadful advice.

Thinking clearly is difficult. Putting your thoughts into words—which is part of the thinking process—is really difficult. Don’t make your task even harder by worrying about “good writing”. Just try to put things as clearly as you can.

That said, here are four rules of thumb which might help.

  • Use short, complete sentences.
  • Use sentences which are easy to parse. Here’s a helpful heuristic: once you’ve written a paragraph, try reading it out loud; rephrase any sentences that make you stumble.
  • Don’t be afraid of repeated phrases. Repetition is your friend. When you repeat a phrase, you signal to your reader that you’re still talking about the same thing.
  • Avoid rhetorical questions. Unless either (a) it is bewilderingly obvious what the answer is, or (b) you immediately answer it yourself, your reader will not know what to do with your question.

Remember your aim: give a convincing answer to the question posed by the title . How much you say about other authors will depend both upon the title, and the answer you want to give.

If your title has an explicitly historical component, you will need to discuss that component explicitly. For example: suppose the title has the form “Why did Anscombe think p , and was she right?” Then you will need to address Anscombe’s motivations head-on.

If your title has no explicit historical component, you have more flexibility. For example: suppose your title is “Is there a defensible form of the doctrine of double-effect?” The title mentions nobody by name, but you will still need to discuss other authors. This is not to prove that you’ve done the reading; it’s because other people have said interesting, important things. The best way to formulate your answer is by discussing these people and their ideas.

Before I answer that FAQ, I want to deal with a presupposition that might be lurking behind it.

Remember that you aim is to give a convincing answer to the question posed by the title . Given this aim, don’t think of “exposition” as separate from your “answer”; everything you write is part of your answer!

Still: a good answer will almost certainly include some exposition, exegesis, scene-setting, etc. So now we can return to the issue of how much exposition it should contain.

The golden rule is a philosophical version of Chekhov’s gun : every bit of exposition must be relevant to the argument you are crafting; include no more, and no less, than your (convincing) argument needs.

Here are some rules of thumb for introducing ideas (or concepts, or points of view, or technical terms, or what-have-you):

  • introduce them when, and only when, you first need to use them;
  • introduce them clearly and sympathetically;
  • introduce them before you problematise / critique them.

You don’t need to address every single possible aspect of the title, from every single possible angle; that would be impossible even if you had 100,000 words. You just need to give an answer, alongside reasons for thinking that it’s right .

Relatedly: bear in mind that you can limit the scope of your essay (within reason; and here you should check with your lecturer). For example: perhaps your title is “Should we be logicists?” To limit your scope, you could say something like this in your introduction: “In this essay, I will restrict my attention to Frege’s logicism”; you could then go on to argue that we should (or should not) be Fregean logicists (setting aside the other varieties of logicism). Alternatively, you could flag the same kind of restriction by adding a subtitle to your title (perhaps “in defence of Fregean logicism”, or “against Fregean logicism”).

This would be a legitimate restriction of scope, since you would still be addressing an interesting and important aspect of the question (whilst sensibly acknowledging that you obviously don’t have space to discuss every possible variety of logicism). But some restrictions, of course, are illegitimate . Don’t restrict your scope in a way that makes the title insignificant, boring or trivial. (If you have any doubt about this, ask me.)

One last point: acknowledging your answer’s limitations doesn’t undermine your answer; it gives it nuance.

The specific answer, of course, depends on the title of your essay! But here are some generic suggestions for how you can find things to read.

  • Read the items on the reading list

Obvious as this is, it’s worth emphasising: read the items on the reading list . If they’re especially relevant, read them more than once. And don’t feel like you have to restrict yourself to the readings which most obviously relate to your title; many of the other readings will help to flesh out your understanding of your chosen topic, by situating it in a broader setting.

  • Look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The SEP is an amazing resource. It’s not a normal encyclopedia; instead, professional philosophers are commissioned to write a survey article on one of their specialist topics. Many of the resulting articles are genuinely exceptional, and they typically cover a huge amount of terrain in a (relatively) accessible way.

  • Follow up references

Everything you read will cite various other papers. If something strikes you as interesting or relevant, chase down that reference: look up what other people are discussing.

  • Find papers which cite things that interested you

You can do this easily with scholar.google.com . For example: if you search for “Blanchette the Frege-Hilbert Controversy” in Google scholar, you get a link to Blanchette’s paper. Underneath that, it says “Cited by 38” [at the time I wrote this]. Clicking that link takes you to a list of all the citations. Browse through them, and delve into any which catch your eye.

  • Browse PhilPapers

PhilPapers is a huge collection of philosophical bibliographies. For example, here is their entry on logicism . Scrolling through the vast number of papers, many of them will quickly turn out to be irrelevant to you (based on their title, the abstract, and the location of publication); but some will catch your interest. Download them, skim through them, and if something looks particularly worth reading, spend more time with it.

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Writing Philosophy: A Student's Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays

Profile image of Lewis Vaughn

Writing Philosophy is a brief tutorial/manual that covers the basics of argumentative essay writing and encourages students to master fundamental writing skills with minimal teacher input. It provides step-by-step instructions for each phase of the writing process, from formulating a thesis and creating an outline, to writing a final draft. For the benefit of both students and teachers, it uses a rulebook format that encapsulates core principles of good writing while providing models of well-written essays, outlines, introductions, and conclusions.

Related Papers

Brendan Shea

This is a guide to writing philosophy papers aimed at introductory students prepared by the philosophy faculty at Rochester Community and Technical College. It includes sections on reading philosophy and writing philosophy, as well as an explanation of common grading criteria for essays in philosophy

philosophy degree essay

Brian D. Earp

I wrote up the following tips a couple of years ago when I was teaching assistant for an introductory philosophy class at Yale led by Daniel Greco called “Problems in Philosophy.” The tips were intended, then, for college students, many of them right out of high school, and most of whom had never written a philosophy paper before. So the focus is on clarity and mastering the basics. With that in mind, I hope you will find these tips helpful for teaching or writing in philosophy (or any other relevant field or discipline).

Benjamin P. Davis

I wrote this "tip sheet" for philosophical writing a la other tip sheets passed around in creative writing workshops. I invite feedback on what has worked for your students and how you might modify my suggestions.

South African Journal of Philosophy

Ewa Latecka

This article aims at presenting the argument for the modification of Dennis Earl’s “four-sentence paper” template into the “six-line essay” writing intervention. The underlying reason for this research is a relative paucity of literature covering the topic of philosophy writing interventions at a beginner’s level. In order to fill this gap, the article takes the following course. For general background, it presents the general views on teaching essay writing and the relative unavailability of philosophydirected methods and techniques. It then describes Earl’s template in relative detail. Further, it refers to my experience teaching philosophical writing to University of Zululand students. Next, it describes the specific group of students with whom I first tried the method in 2019 and whose needs prompted the modifications. I then explain the “six-line essay” model step by step, commenting on the rationale behind each step and the way in which it is presented to students. True to form, the article also presents objections and the relevant counterarguments. Finally, the article points to the possibility of further, more structured research, with formal questionnaires/ structured interviews and their subsequent analysis.

tilahun guade

IJOLTL: Indonesian Journal of Language Teaching and Linguistics

Assessment of essay writing varies in product oriented, primary trait scoring system, and process oriented. This study examines how rubric in argumentative essay writing are developed. The findings emphasized that essay writing focused on the argumentative essay. Models of essay utilized for TOEFL test are considerably suggested for the topics. In addition, descriptors of the essay elaborated for standard assessment refer to characteristics of a good paragraph outlining: topic sentence and controlling ideas, developing sentences, and concluding sentence; and those for essay writing would emphasize on introductory paragraph whose thesis statement is included in the paragraph, developing paragraphs for details, and concluding paragraph.

Eduscience Journal

Fuad Abdullah , Fuad Abdullah

Since argumentative writing skills play an indispensable role in higher educational contexts, the students are required to produce academic works representing their academic insights and critical perspectives towards problematized issues around them. Conversely, the students may frequently encounter intricacies while applying complicated syntactic forms and proper aspects during writing Discussion essays as one of the argumentative writing genres. For this reason, the current study aimed at exploring how Talk-Write technique facilitates the students in writing Discussion essays. This study involved 30 EFL students and an experienced writing teacher at a university in Indonesia. The data were analyzed through thematic analysis following the notions of Talk-Write (Meyers, 1985; Ling, 1986; Radcliffe: Crasnich & Lumbelli, 2005). The findings indicated that Talk-Write technique enables the students to produce the Discussion essays. Besides, it stimulated them to speak actively in English while negotiating ideas, exchanging debatable arguments and positioning stance and voice. Briefly, Talk-Write technique can facilitate the students in exchanging vocal to scribal dialogue, gaining pivotal and desired ideas and fostering professional competencies as the talkers and the writers and personal styles.

Journal of English for Academic Purposes

Ursula Wingate

Journal of Writing Research

Montserrat Castello

This study investigated students&#39; practice of philosophical thinking through collaborative writing in secondary education. A philosophy course was developed following the rationale of the learning communities in which writing was used as an epistemic tool. 45 students organized into 13 teams participated in the course. In this study, a subsample of six students working in 2 teams during one collaborative argumentative writing activity were analyzed. These groups were selected on the basis of their output (high and medium quality) and because both followed an integrating construction strategy for collaborative writing. Data collected included audio, video and computer screen recordings of both groups&#39; discourse and writing activity during collaborative writing (using Camtasia and Atlas-ti software). Analysis focused on collaborative writing interaction (types of talk; evidence of philosophical competences - problematization, argumentation and conceptualization; regulation of ...

Shazna Abu Bakar , Aysha Sharif

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Why Study Philosophy?

What is philosophy, and why should i study it.

“Philosophy” comes from Greek words meaning “love of wisdom.”  Philosophy uses the tools of logic and reason to analyze the ways in which humans experience the world.  It teaches critical thinking, close reading, clear writing, and logical analysis; it uses these to understand the language we use to describe the world, and our place within it.  Different areas of philosophy are distinguished by the questions they ask.  Do our senses accurately describe reality?  What makes wrong actions wrong?  How should we live?  These are philosophical questions, and philosophy teaches the ways in which we might begin to answer them.

Students who learn philosophy get a great many benefits from doing so.  The tools taught by philosophy are of great use in further education, and in employment.  Despite the seemingly abstract nature of the questions philosophers ask, the tools philosophy teaches tend to be highly sought-after by employers.  Philosophy students learn how to write clearly, and to read closely, with a critical eye; they are taught to spot bad reasoning, and how to avoid it in their writing and in their work.  It is therefore not surprising that philosophy students have historically scored more highly on tests like the LSAT and GRE, on average, than almost any other discipline.  Many of our students combine studying philosophy with studying other disciplines.

The most important reason to study philosophy is that it is of enormous and enduring interest.  All of us have to answer, for ourselves, the questions asked by philosophers.  In this department, students can learn how to ask the questions well, and how we might begin to develop responses.  Philosophy is important, but it is also enormously enjoyable, and our faculty contains many award-winning teachers who make the process of learning about philosophy fun.  Our faculty are committed to a participatory style of teaching, in which students are provided with the tools and the opportunity to develop and express their own philosophical views.  

Critical Thinking “It was in philosophy where I learned rigorous critical thinking, a skill that is invaluable when creating art.” - Donald Daedalus, BA ‘05, Visual Artist “Philosophy taught me to think critically and was the perfect major for law school, giving me an excellent start to law school and my career.” - Rod Nelson, BA ‘75, Lawyer
Tools for Assessing Ethical Issues “The courses I took for my minor in philosophy ... have provided a valuable framework for my career work in the field of global health and have given me a strong foundation for developing a structured, logical argument in various contexts.” - Aubrey Batchelor, Minor ‘09, Global Health Worker “Bioethics is an everyday part of medicine, and my philosophy degree has helped me to work through real-world patient issues and dilemmas.” - Teresa Lee, BA ‘08 Medical Student “The ability to apply an ethical framework to questions that have developed in my career, in taking care of patients ... has been a gift and something that I highly value.” - Natalie Nunes, BA ‘91, Family Physician Analytic Reasoning “... philosophy provided me with the analytical tools necessary to understand a variety of unconventional problems characteristic of the security environment of the last decade.” - Chris Grubb, BA ‘98, US Marine “Philosophy provides intellectual resources, critical and creative thinking capacity that are indispensable for success in contemporary international security environment “ - Richard Paz, BA ‘87, US Military Officer
Understanding Others’ Perspectives “... philosophy grounds us in an intellectual tradition larger than our own personal opinions. ... *making+ it is easier to be respectful of and accommodating to individual differences in clients (and colleagues)...” - Diane Fructher Strother, BA ‘00, Clinical Psychologist “... comprehensive exposure to numerous alternative world/ethical views has helped me with my daily interaction with all different types of people of ethnic, cultural, and political orientation backgrounds.” - David Prestin, BA ‘07, Engineer
Evaluating Information “Analyzing information and using it to form logical conclusions is a huge part of philosophy and was thus vital to my success in this position.” - Kevin Duchmann, BA ‘07, Inventory Control Analyst
Writing Skills “My philosophy degree has been incredibly important in developing my analytical and writing skills.” - Teresa Lee, BA ‘08, Medical Student
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  • Are you thinking of studying Philosophy?

philosophy degree essay

Philosophy is arguably the oldest academic discipline in the world. It introduces students to undergraduate thinking skills in their purest form. It asks fundamental questions that inform virtually every other subject area – consider jurisprudence (the philosophy of Law) or historiography (the philosophy of History). Students of Philosophy address the big questions from the essence of good and evil to the existence of God, or indeed the existence of anything at all. Philosophy students need to be assertive, eager debaters, as much of Philosophy is concerned with discussion, debating and the construction and dissection of a good argument. Philosophy is also often taken with another subject as a joint honours degree – this can be a language, Theology, or something like Oxford’s well-known Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. One factor that students may wish to consider is how much Theology they would like in their Philosophy, as this will vary greatly between degrees.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

Image shows Bibles laid on a church pew.

Though the distinction is said to be eroding, British university syllabi still focus on analytic philosophy in contrast to continental philosophy. Typical first-year modules include Metaphysics, Logic and Ethics. Expect to do a great deal of reading, from the ancients to modern philosophers via the Enlightenment. Modern philosophy is likely to be under-represented in at the start of your degree when you are still laying the foundations for later study. After first year, the modules you can study will become more varied and you will have more choice. Possible modules might include Mathematical Logic ( Cambridge ), Feminist Philosophy (Sussex), Global Bioethics (Birmingham) and Indian Philosophy (Liverpool). The focus in compulsory modules is likely to be on mainstream western philosophy, from which you can then diversify in your optional modules.

What do I need for a Philosophy degree?

Image shows a highlighted essay.

Grade requirements for Philosophy vary widely, and there aren’t any specific subject requirements either. A-level Philosophy is not a requirement; only one exam board offers it, its future is in question and it isn’t taught in many schools. In fact, you may find that taking other subjects may serve you better. However, at least one essay subject is a must, and two is preferable, if only to prepare you for the workload in terms of reading, writing and research that you will have to adapt to at university. Religious Studies is probably the most relevant subject that is widely taught; some specifications include more Philosophy than others. However, if you are less interested in Philosophy in a religious context, subjects like English Literature and History will also serve you very well. University-level Philosophy can also be more scientific than you might expect. Partly for that reason, A-level Mathematics might suit you better than you would expect. Modern Philosophy frequently uses mathematical notation, and training in Logic will also be helpful. Similarly, there is overlap between Philosophy and Physics.

What skills will I acquire?

Philosophy students primarily acquire skills in thinking, reasoning and logical argument – and in being able to put their thoughts on paper in a clear and coherent way. Philosophers learn thinking skills to a higher level than almost any other degree, and are able to put forward their own arguments, analyse those of others, and find common ground – a value skill in a wide variety of careers. Philosophers also learn how to present complex ideas in straightforward ways. Additionally, Philosophy students will gain all the skills you would expect from any humanities degree, such as research, time management and the ability to motivate themselves when working independently.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Image shows a view over Paris.

Philosophy lends itself reasonably well to a year or a term spent abroad, so you may be able to arrange this. There is no travel inherent in a Philosophy. However, Philosophy major with a language minor is a popular combination for many students, and this would involve a year spent abroad.

What careers are possible with a Philosophy degree?

The job market for Philosophy graduates could be better. 10% of recent Philosophy graduates are unemployed, and 20% of those who are employed are working in retail, catering and bar work. This is connected to the fact that Philosophy has very few vocational uses, and has been seen as a degree for students who don’t really know what they want to study (a stereotype that soon falls down in conversation with actual Philosophy students). Of course, Philosophy graduates do have the full range of careers for which a degree in almost any discipline is acceptable open to them; you can read more about these kinds of careers here . Philosophy students, like most humanities students, can also take advantage of their flexible timetable to pursue extracurricular activities and part-time jobs to flesh out their CV and boost their job prospects.

Related degrees

Image shows Roman ruins and statues.

If you are thinking of studying Philosophy, you might also wish to consider:

  • Politics and International Relations – with much the same level of discussion and debate, these degree subjects, often taken in combination, relate the ethical dilemmas of Philosophy to real-world issues.
  • Law – similarly, Law involves philosophical discussion, but with a vocational bent.
  • Classics – as so much of modern-day Philosophy is still based on the writings of the ancient world, it makes sense that the study of Classics appeals to prospective Philosophy students.

A final thought on Philosophy

In subjects that deal in hypothesis, opinion and debate rather than concrete facts, it’s inevitably the case that while there are no right answers, there are plenty of wrong ones. This is the case in Philosophy, but possibly less so that in other subjects; Philosophy has been criticised as having been studied for longer than virtually any other subject but having produced very little by the way of definitive answers in all that time. But this means that for students who are keen to challenge ideas, to discuss, to debate and above all, never to take any established fact or norm for granted, Philosophy is the perfect home.

Image credits: banner ; Bibles ; essay ; Paris ; Classics .

  • 1.1 What Is Philosophy?
  • Introduction
  • 1.2 How Do Philosophers Arrive at Truth?
  • 1.3 Socrates as a Paradigmatic Historical Philosopher
  • 1.4 An Overview of Contemporary Philosophy
  • Review Questions
  • Further Reading
  • 2.1 The Brain Is an Inference Machine
  • 2.2 Overcoming Cognitive Biases and Engaging in Critical Reflection
  • 2.3 Developing Good Habits of Mind
  • 2.4 Gathering Information, Evaluating Sources, and Understanding Evidence
  • 2.5 Reading Philosophy
  • 2.6 Writing Philosophy Papers
  • 3.1 Indigenous Philosophy
  • 3.2 Classical Indian Philosophy
  • 3.3 Classical Chinese Philosophy
  • 4.1 Historiography and the History of Philosophy
  • 4.2 Classical Philosophy
  • 4.3 Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Philosophy
  • 5.1 Philosophical Methods for Discovering Truth
  • 5.2 Logical Statements
  • 5.3 Arguments
  • 5.4 Types of Inferences
  • 5.5 Informal Fallacies
  • 6.1 Substance
  • 6.2 Self and Identity
  • 6.3 Cosmology and the Existence of God
  • 6.4 Free Will
  • 7.1 What Epistemology Studies
  • 7.2 Knowledge
  • 7.3 Justification
  • 7.4 Skepticism
  • 7.5 Applied Epistemology
  • 8.1 The Fact-Value Distinction
  • 8.2 Basic Questions about Values
  • 8.3 Metaethics
  • 8.4 Well-Being
  • 8.5 Aesthetics
  • 9.1 Requirements of a Normative Moral Theory
  • 9.2 Consequentialism
  • 9.3 Deontology
  • 9.4 Virtue Ethics
  • 9.6 Feminist Theories of Ethics
  • 10.1 The Challenge of Bioethics
  • 10.2 Environmental Ethics
  • 10.3 Business Ethics and Emerging Technology
  • 11.1 Historical Perspectives on Government
  • 11.2 Forms of Government
  • 11.3 Political Legitimacy and Duty
  • 11.4 Political Ideologies
  • 12.1 Enlightenment Social Theory
  • 12.2 The Marxist Solution
  • 12.3 Continental Philosophy’s Challenge to Enlightenment Theories
  • 12.4 The Frankfurt School
  • 12.5 Postmodernism

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify sages (early philosophers) across historical traditions.
  • Explain the connection between ancient philosophy and the origin of the sciences.
  • Describe philosophy as a discipline that makes coherent sense of a whole.
  • Summarize the broad and diverse origins of philosophy.

It is difficult to define philosophy. In fact, to do so is itself a philosophical activity, since philosophers are attempting to gain the broadest and most fundamental conception of the world as it exists. The world includes nature, consciousness, morality, beauty, and social organizations. So the content available for philosophy is both broad and deep. Because of its very nature, philosophy considers a range of subjects, and philosophers cannot automatically rule anything out. Whereas other disciplines allow for basic assumptions, philosophers cannot be bound by such assumptions. This open-endedness makes philosophy a somewhat awkward and confusing subject for students. There are no easy answers to the questions of what philosophy studies or how one does philosophy. Nevertheless, in this chapter, we can make some progress on these questions by (1) looking at past examples of philosophers, (2) considering one compelling definition of philosophy, and (3) looking at the way academic philosophers today actually practice philosophy.

Historical Origins of Philosophy

One way to begin to understand philosophy is to look at its history. The historical origins of philosophical thinking and exploration vary around the globe. The word philosophy derives from ancient Greek, in which the philosopher is a lover or pursuer ( philia ) of wisdom ( sophia ). But the earliest Greek philosophers were not known as philosophers; they were simply known as sages . The sage tradition provides an early glimpse of philosophical thought in action. Sages are sometimes associated with mathematical and scientific discoveries and at other times with their political impact. What unites these figures is that they demonstrate a willingness to be skeptical of traditions, a curiosity about the natural world and our place in it, and a commitment to applying reason to understand nature, human nature, and society better. The overview of the sage tradition that follows will give you a taste of philosophy’s broad ambitions as well as its focus on complex relations between different areas of human knowledge. There are some examples of women who made contributions to philosophy and the sage tradition in Greece, India, and China, but these were patriarchal societies that did not provide many opportunities for women to participate in philosophical and political discussions.

The Sages of India, China, Africa, and Greece

In classical Indian philosophy and religion, sages play a central role in both religious mythology and in the practice of passing down teaching and instruction through generations. The Seven Sages, or Saptarishi (seven rishis in the Sanskrit language), play an important role in sanatana dharma , the eternal duties that have come to be identified with Hinduism but that predate the establishment of the religion. The Seven Sages are partially considered wise men and are said to be the authors of the ancient Indian texts known as the Vedas . But they are partly mythic figures as well, who are said to have descended from the gods and whose reincarnation marks the passing of each age of Manu (age of man or epoch of humanity). The rishis tended to live monastic lives, and together they are thought of as the spiritual and practical forerunners of Indian gurus or teachers, even up to today. They derive their wisdom, in part, from spiritual forces, but also from tapas , or the meditative, ascetic, and spiritual practices they perform to gain control over their bodies and minds. The stories of the rishis are part of the teachings that constitute spiritual and philosophical practice in contemporary Hinduism.

Figure 1.2 depicts a scene from the Matsya Purana, where Manu, the first man whose succession marks the prehistorical ages of Earth, sits with the Seven Sages in a boat to protect them from a mythic flood that is said to have submerged the world. The king of serpents guides the boat, which is said to have also contained seeds, plants, and animals saved by Manu from the flood.

Despite the fact that classical Indian culture is patriarchal, women figures play an important role in the earliest writings of the Vedic tradition (the classical Indian religious and philosophical tradition). These women figures are partly connected to the Indian conception of the fundamental forces of nature—energy, ability, strength, effort, and power—as feminine. This aspect of God was thought to be present at the creation of the world. The Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic writings, contains hymns that tell the story of Ghosha, a daughter of Rishi Kakshivan, who had a debilitating skin condition (probably leprosy) but devoted herself to spiritual practices to learn how to heal herself and eventually marry. Another woman, Maitreyi, is said to have married the Rishi Yajnavalkya (himself a god who was cast into mortality by a rival) for the purpose of continuing her spiritual training. She was a devoted ascetic and is said to have composed 10 of the hymns in the Rig Veda. Additionally, there is a famous dialogue between Maitreyi and Yajnavalkya in the Upanishads (another early, foundational collection of texts in the Vedic tradition) about attachment to material possessions, which cannot give a person happiness, and the achievement of ultimate bliss through knowledge of the Absolute (God).

Another woman sage named Gargi also participates in a celebrated dialogue with Yajnavalkya on natural philosophy and the fundamental elements and forces of the universe. Gargi is characterized as one of the most knowledgeable sages on the topic, though she ultimately concedes that Yajnavalkya has greater knowledge. In these brief episodes, these ancient Indian texts record instances of key women who attained a level of enlightenment and learning similar to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, this early equality between the sexes did not last. Over time Indian culture became more patriarchal, confining women to a dependent and subservient role. Perhaps the most dramatic and cruel example of the effects of Indian patriarchy was the ritual practice of sati , in which a widow would sometimes immolate herself, partly in recognition of the “fact” that following the death of her husband, her current life on Earth served no further purpose (Rout 2016). Neither a widow’s in-laws nor society recognized her value.

In similar fashion to the Indian tradition, the sage ( sheng ) tradition is important for Chinese philosophy . Confucius , one of the greatest Chinese writers, often refers to ancient sages, emphasizing their importance for their discovery of technical skills essential to human civilization, for their role as rulers and wise leaders, and for their wisdom. This emphasis is in alignment with the Confucian appeal to a well-ordered state under the guidance of a “ philosopher-king .” This point of view can be seen in early sage figures identified by one of the greatest classical authors in the Chinese tradition, as the “Nest Builder” and “Fire Maker” or, in another case, the “Flood Controller.” These names identify wise individuals with early technological discoveries. The Book of Changes , a classical Chinese text, identifies the Five (mythic) Emperors as sages, including Yao and Shun, who are said to have built canoes and oars, attached carts to oxen, built double gates for defense, and fashioned bows and arrows (Cheng 1983). Emperor Shun is also said to have ruled during the time of a great flood, when all of China was submerged. Yü is credited with having saved civilization by building canals and dams.

These figures are praised not only for their political wisdom and long rule, but also for their filial piety and devotion to work. For instance, Mencius, a Confucian philosopher, relates a story of Shun’s care for his blind father and wicked stepmother, while Yü is praised for his selfless devotion to work. In these ways, the Chinese philosophical traditions, such as Confucianism and Mohism, associate key values of their philosophical enterprises with the great sages of their history. Whether the sages were, in fact, actual people or, as many scholars have concluded, mythical forebearers, they possessed the essential human virtue of listening and responding to divine voices. This attribute can be inferred from the Chinese script for sheng , which bears the symbol of an ear as a prominent feature. So the sage is one who listens to insight from the heavens and then is capable of sharing that wisdom or acting upon it to the benefit of his society (Cheng 1983). This idea is similar to one found in the Indian tradition, where the most important texts, the Vedas, are known as shruti , or works that were heard through divine revelation and only later written down.

Although Confucianism is a venerable world philosophy, it is also highly patriarchal and resulted in the widespread subordination of women. The position of women in China began to change only after the Communist Revolution (1945–1952). While some accounts of Confucianism characterize men and women as emblematic of two opposing forces in the natural world, the Yin and Yang, this view of the sexes developed over time and was not consistently applied. Chinese women did see a measure of independence and freedom with the influence of Buddhism and Daoism, each of which had a more liberal view of the role of women (Adler 2006).

A detailed and important study of the sage tradition in Africa is provided by Henry Odera Oruka (1990), who makes the case that prominent folk sages in African tribal history developed complex philosophical ideas. Oruka interviewed tribal Africans identified by their communities as sages, and he recorded their sayings and ideas, confining himself to those sayings that demonstrated “a rational method of inquiry into the real nature of things” (Oruka 1990, 150). He recognized a tension in what made these sages philosophically interesting: they articulated the received wisdom of their tradition and culture while at the same time maintaining a critical distance from that culture, seeking a rational justification for the beliefs held by the culture.

Connections

The chapter on the early history of philosophy covers this topic in greater detail.

Among the ancient Greeks, it is common to identify seven sages. The best-known account is provided by Diogenes Laërtius, whose text Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a canonical resource on early Greek philosophy. The first and most important sage is Thales of Miletus . Thales traveled to Egypt to study with the Egyptian priests, where he became one of the first Greeks to learn astronomy. He is known for bringing back to Greece knowledge of the calendar, dividing the year into 365 days, tracking the progress of the sun from solstice to solstice, and—somewhat dramatically—predicting a solar eclipse in 585 BCE. The eclipse occurred on the day of a battle between the Medes and Lydians. It is possible that Thales used knowledge of Babylonian astronomical records to guess the year and location of the eclipse. This mathematical and astronomical feat is one of Thales’s several claims to sagacity. In addition, he is said to have calculated the height of the pyramids using the basic geometry of similar triangles and measuring shadows at a certain time of day. He is also reported to have predicted a particularly good year for olives: he bought up all the olive presses and then made a fortune selling those presses to farmers wanting to turn their olives into oil. Together, these scientific and technical achievements suggest that at least part of Thales’s wisdom can be attributed to a very practical, scientific, and mathematical knowledge of the natural world. If that were all Thales was known for, he might be called the first scientist or engineer. But he also made more basic claims about the nature and composition of the universe; for instance, he claimed that all matter was fundamentally made of up water. He also argued that everything that moved on its own possessed a soul and that the soul itself was immortal. These claims demonstrate a concern about the fundamental nature of reality.

Another of the seven sages was Solon , a famed political leader. He introduced the “Law of Release” to Athens, which cancelled all personal debts and freed indentured servants, or “debt-slaves” who had been consigned to service based on a personal debt they were unable to repay. In addition, he established a constitutional government in Athens with a representative body, a procedure for taxation, and a series of economic reforms. He was widely admired as a political leader but voluntarily stepped down so that he would not become a tyrant. He was finally forced to flee Athens when he was unable to persuade the members of the Assembly (the ruling body) to resist the rising tyranny of one of his relatives, Pisistratus. When he arrived in exile, he was reportedly asked whom he considered to be happy, to which he replied, “One ought to count no man happy until he is dead.” Aristotle interpreted this statement to mean that happiness was not a momentary experience, but a quality reflective of someone’s entire life.

Beginnings of Natural Philosophy

The sage tradition is a largely prehistoric tradition that provides a narrative about how intellect, wisdom, piety, and virtue led to the innovations central to flourishing of ancient civilizations. Particularly in Greece, the sage tradition blends into a period of natural philosophy, where ancient scientists or philosophers try to explain nature using rational methods. Several of the early Greek schools of philosophy were centered on their respective views of nature. Followers of Thales, known as the Milesians , were particularly interested in the underlying causes of natural change. Why does water turn to ice? What happens when winter passes into spring? Why does it seem like the stars and planets orbit Earth in predictable patterns? From Aristotle we know that Thales thought there was a difference between material elements that participate in change and elements that contain their own source of motion. This early use of the term element did not have the same meaning as the scientific meaning of the word today in a field like chemistry. But Thales thought material elements bear some fundamental connection to water in that they have the capacity to move and alter their state. By contrast, other elements had their own internal source of motion, of which he cites the magnet and amber (which exhibits forces of static electricity when rubbed against other materials). He said that these elements have “soul.” This notion of soul, as a principle of internal motion, was influential across ancient and medieval natural philosophy. In fact, the English language words animal and animation are derived from the Latin word for soul ( anima ).

Similarly, early thinkers like Xenophanes began to formulate explanations for natural phenomena. For instance, he explained rainbows, the sun, the moon, and St. Elmo’s fire (luminous, electrical discharges) as apparitions of the clouds. This form of explanation, describing some apparent phenomenon as the result of an underlying mechanism, is paradigmatic of scientific explanation even today. Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, used logic to conclude that whatever fundamentally exists must be unchanging because if it ever did change, then at least some aspect of it would cease to exist. But that would imply that what exists could not exist—which seems to defy logic. Parmenides is not saying that there is no change, but that the changes we observe are a kind of illusion. Indeed, this point of view was highly influential, not only for Plato and Aristotle, but also for the early atomists, like Democritus , who held that all perceived qualities are merely human conventions. Underlying all these appearances, Democritus reasoned, are only atomic, unchanging bits of matter flowing through a void. While this ancient Greek view of atoms is quite different from the modern model of atoms, the very idea that every observable phenomenon has a basis in underlying pieces of matter in various configurations clearly connects modern science to the earliest Greek philosophers.

Along these lines, the Pythagoreans provide a very interesting example of a community of philosophers engaged in understanding the natural world and how best to live in it. You may be familiar with Pythagoras from his Pythagorean theorem, a key principle in geometry establishing a relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle. Specifically, the square formed by the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the two squares formed by the remaining two sides. In the figure below, the area of the square formed by c is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares formed by a and b. The figure represents how Pythagoras would have conceptualized the theorem.

The Pythagoreans were excellent mathematicians, but they were more interested in how mathematics explained the natural world. In particular, Pythagoras recognized relationships between line segments and shapes, such as the Pythagorean theorem describes, but also between numbers and sounds, by virtue of harmonics and the intervals between notes. Similar regularities can be found in astronomy. As a result, Pythagoras reasoned that all of nature is generated according to mathematical regularities. This view led the Pythagoreans to believe that there was a unified, rational structure to the universe, that the planets and stars exhibit harmonic properties and may even produce music, that musical tones and harmonies could have healing powers, that the soul is immortal and continuously reincarnated, and that animals possess souls that ought to be respected and valued. As a result, the Pythagorean community was defined by serious scholarship as well as strict rules about diet, clothing, and behavior.

Additionally, in the early Pythagorean communities, it was possible for women to participate and contribute to philosophical thought and discovery. Pythagoras himself was said to have been inspired to study philosophy by the Delphic priestess Themistoclea. His wife Theano is credited with contributing to important discoveries in the realms of numbers and optics. She is said to have written a treatise, On Piety , which further applies Pythagorean philosophy to various aspects of practical life (Waithe 1987). Myia, the daughter of this illustrious couple, was also an active and productive part of the community. At least one of her letters has survived in which she discusses the application of Pythagorean philosophy to motherhood. The Pythagorean school is an example of how early philosophical and scientific thinking combines with religious, cultural, and ethical beliefs and practices to embrace many different aspects of life.

How It All Hangs Together

Closer to the present day, in 1962, Wilfrid Sellars , a highly influential 20th-century American philosopher, wrote a chapter called “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy . He opens the essay with a dramatic and concise description of philosophy: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” If we spend some time trying to understand what Sellars means by this definition, we will be in a better position to understand the academic discipline of philosophy. First, Sellars emphasizes that philosophy’s goal is to understand a very wide range of topics—in fact, the widest possible range. That is to say, philosophers are committed to understanding everything insofar as it can be understood. This is important because it means that, on principle, philosophers cannot rule out any topic of study. However, for a philosopher not every topic of study deserves equal attention. Some things, like conspiracy theories or paranoid delusions, are not worth studying because they are not real. It may be worth understanding why some people are prone to paranoid delusions or conspiratorial thinking, but the content of these ideas is not worth investigating. Other things may be factually true, such as the daily change in number of the grains of sand on a particular stretch of beach, but they are not worth studying because knowing that information will not teach us about how things hang together. So a philosopher chooses to study things that are informative and interesting—things that provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it.

To make judgments about which areas are interesting or worthy of study, philosophers need to cultivate a special skill. Sellars describes this philosophical skill as a kind of know-how (a practical, engaged type of knowledge, similar to riding a bike or learning to swim). Philosophical know-how, Sellars says, has to do with knowing your way around the world of concepts and being able to understand and think about how concepts connect, link up, support, and rely upon one another—in short, how things hang together. Knowing one’s way around the world of concepts also involves knowing where to look to find interesting discoveries and which places to avoid, much like a good fisherman knows where to cast his line. Sellars acknowledges that other academics and scientists know their way around the concepts in their field of study much like philosophers do. The difference is that these other inquirers confine themselves to a specific field of study or a particular subject matter, while philosophers want to understand the whole. Sellars thinks that this philosophical skill is most clearly demonstrated when we try to understand the connection between the natural world as we experience it directly (the “manifest image”) and the natural world as science explains it (the “scientific image”). He suggests that we gain an understanding of the nature of philosophy by trying to reconcile these two pictures of the world that most people understand independently.

Read Like a Philosopher

“philosophy and the scientific image of man”.

This essay, “ Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man ” by Wilfrid Sellars, has been republished several times and can be found online. Read through the essay with particular focus on the first section. Consider the following study questions:

  • What is the difference between knowing how and knowing that? Are these concepts always distinct? What does it mean for philosophical knowledge to be a kind of know-how?
  • What do you think Sellars means when he says that philosophers “have turned other special subject-matters to non-philosophers over the past 2500 years”?
  • Sellars describes philosophy as “bringing a picture into focus,” but he is also careful to recognize challenges with this metaphor as it relates to the body of human knowledge. What are those challenges? Why is it difficult to imagine all of human knowledge as a picture or image?
  • What is the scientific image of man in the world? What is the manifest image of man in the world? How are they different? And why are these two images the primary images that need to be brought into focus so that philosophy may have an eye on the whole?

Unlike other subjects that have clearly defined subject matter boundaries and relatively clear methods of exploration and analysis, philosophy intentionally lacks clear boundaries or methods. For instance, your biology textbook will tell you that biology is the “science of life.” The boundaries of biology are fairly clear: it is an experimental science that studies living things and the associated material necessary for life. Similarly, biology has relatively well-defined methods. Biologists, like other experimental scientists, broadly follow something called the “scientific method.” This is a bit of a misnomer, unfortunately, because there is no single method that all the experimental sciences follow. Nevertheless, biologists have a range of methods and practices, including observation, experimentation, and theory comparison and analysis, that are fairly well established and well known among practitioners. Philosophy doesn’t have such easy prescriptions—and for good reason. Philosophers are interested in gaining the broadest possible understanding of things, whether that be nature, what is possible, morals, aesthetics, political organizations, or any other field or concept.

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What can you do with a philosophy degree?

Why study a philosophy degree our essential guide to what you will learn on a philosophy course, what you should study to get your place on a degree, and what jobs you can get once you graduate..

Philosophy

What jobs can you get with a philosophy degree?  

Philosophy graduates think about the big questions in life and have the ability to analyse and communicate complex ideas intelligently. These are skills that employers value and can lead to several career paths. 

Some common careers for philosophy graduates include:  

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What is philosophy?

Philosophy is the study of the nature of existence, knowledge, truth and ethics. It involves consideration of the most fundamental questions about who we are, and examines philosophical thought across the breadth of history right up to the present day.

It hones your ability to reason effectively and form coherent arguments, to write persuasively, and improves your logical and critical thinking. It challenges your understanding and assumptions of concepts like human nature and whether God exists. The diverse sub-sections of philosophy address questions ranging from why we dream to whether free will exists.

Expect lots of essays, chances to debate different philosophical theories and set texts, and the opportunity to diversify your studies to explore philosophy further.

Explore the best universities for arts and humanities degrees

What do you learn in a philosophy degree.

The first year of a philosophy degree usually has broad modules, offering you a solid grounding in fundamental ideas and arguments. From second and third year, students tend to begin to specialise or choose a particular pathway or modules that best reflect their interests.

Undergraduate courses tend to take three but sometimes four years. Modules can include logic, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of science and political philosophy. Many modules are heavily essay-based, which can lead to independent research and dissertations towards the end of your degree.

Philosophy is often classed as a humanities degree, although there are strands that are in fact closer to mathematics and science. It can be taken as a single honours subject or in addition to another subject. It is particularly complemented by humanities courses like history, politics, English literature, law, a language or classics, but also by science subjects like maths, computer science, physics and psychology.

Consider the size of the groups, whether you want to be part of a smaller or larger department of philosophy, whether it’s more lecture-led or focused on smaller seminars, and the links the department has with other faculties. Look closely at the modules on offer and don’t be afraid to chat to department representatives about the aspects you’re particularly interested in.

Many students have the opportunity to complete work experience in the final year of their degree.

What can you do with a languages degree? What can you do with an English literature degree? What can you do with an English language degree? What can you do with a psychology degree? What can you do with a politics degree? What can you do with a philosophy degree? What can you do with a theology degree?

What should I study at high school if I want to study philosophy?

Broadly speaking, students who like reading, analysis and forming arguments might enjoy undergraduate philosophy.

Many students don't have the option to study philosophy as a formal subject at high school. Universities do recognise this and no specific subjects are necessary in order to apply for a philosophy degree, but you might find suggestions of useful or related subjects on university websites. You may find an essay based subject such as English is helpful, as is a science or mathematics which can help you hone your logic. A language may also be useful. 

What do people who study philosophy do after graduation?

The skills learned on a philosophy degree include clear and analytical thinking, persuasive writing and speaking innovative questioning and effective reasoning.

These skills are highly transferable to a range of careers, such as teaching, PR, communications, publishing, HR, advertising and many more.

Often, the parts of a philosophy course you enjoy the most can be a good indication of where you might want to go with it. If you’re interested in justice you may want to pursue a career in the legal field, an interest in ethics might take you into politics, journalism, or the civil service, or if logic’s your thing you may be attracted to business or science.

Alex Court studied philosophy at University College Dublin , which became a springboard to a successful career in journalism.

“My degree taught me how to construct a persuasive argument and clearly articulate a point of view. I learned that no matter what your belief is, it’s only as strong as your ability to persuade others that one set of beliefs is more logical than another,” he says.

“This way of thinking about argumentation and persuasion has really helped me develop a career in journalism and corporate communications.” Alex went on to study a master’s degree in journalism and write breaking news stories for CNN, the BBC and Bloomberg. He later joined the United Nations Refugee Agency in a communications role.

Which famous people studied philosophy?

Among those who studied philosophy at university are former US president Bill Clinton, who spent time at the Harvard University . Director Wes Anderson studied it at the University of Texas and actor Ricky Gervais, graduated from UCL with a degree in philosophy

Other famous philosophy graduates include novelist Dame Iris Murdoch, who studied at the Yale University .

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Senior Essay, Honors and Awards

Wittgenstein Youth Brigade image for Senior Essay page

The Senior Essay (or “BA Essay”) is one of the requirements for students admitted to the Intensive Major. Standard majors and Philosophy and Allied Fields majors may also apply to write an essay. Note that all majors will be required to meet with the Assistant to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Tyler Zimmer at the end of their third year to review their program of study and discuss the possibility of writing the senior essay. All preliminary questions should be addressed to Prof. Zimmer as well.

Click here to view detailed information about the Senior Essay . 

Students writing a BA essay will have the supervision of two departmental faculty: the preceptor of the Senior Seminar, as well as the primary faculty advisor to the project. Students may write their senior essay on any topic in philosophy they choose, provided they can secure the agreement of a departmental faculty member to supervise their work. In recent years, topics have included omniscience and free will, the expression of emotion in music, Aristotle's ethics, the nature of coercion, Wittgenstein's legacy, the idea of authenticity, the philosophy of Michel Foucault, the role of context in shaping linguistic meaning, Kierkegaard on irony, and dualism about the mental. The BA essay should be between 15 and 30 pages long.

The Senior Seminar serves as a forum in which BA essay writers gather for presentation and mutual criticism of their work in progress. The course, under the supervision of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and graduate student preceptors, meets the entire academic year. Participation in all three quarters is required for all senior essay writers.

Academic Honors and Awards

Special Departmental Honors: The requirements for Honors include a 3.25 GPA in Philosophy courses, an "A" on the BA Essay, and, in addition, the recommendation of both the BA thesis advisor and the second reader. This  recommendation must then be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS), the Department Chair, as well as the Master of the Humanities Division of the College.  Please contact the DUS for further details. 

The Departmental Essay Prize: In 2022-23, Kaidi Pan won the Departmental Essay Prize. In 2021-22,  Liana Raguso won the Departmental Essay Prize. No award was given in 2020-21. In previous years, t wo awards were given to the best essay each year in practical and theoretical philosophy. In 2019-20, Madeleine L. Norman and Eleanor Wachtel (practical) and Indigo Stelian (theoretical) won awards. In 2018-19, Caroline Wall (practical) and Cal Fawell (theoretical) won awards.

The Manley Thompson Book Prize: Every student who writes a Senior Essay and receives departmental honors will receive a book chosen by faculty with whom they have worked.

The vaulted ceiling of the Divinity School.

Philosophy and Theology

  • Admissions Requirements
  • Fees and Funding
  • Studying at Oxford

Course overview

UCAS code: VV56

Entrance requirements: AAA

Course duration: 3 years (BA)

Subject requirements

Required subjects: Not applicable

Recommended subjects: Not applicable

Helpful subjects: A subject involving essay writing

Other course requirements

Admissions tests:  Philosophy Test

Written Work: One piece

Admissions statistics*

Interviewed: 38% Successful: 19% Intake: 29 *3-year average 2020-22

Philosophy contact

Tel: +44 (0) 1865 276926 Email:  [email protected]

Theology contact

Tel: +44 (0) 1865 270790 Email: [email protected]

Unistats information for this course can be found at the bottom of the page

Please note that there may be no data available if the number of course participants is very small.

About the course

Philosophy and Theology brings together some of the most important approaches to understanding and assessing the intellectual claims of religion.

The study of Philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticise and reason logically. It allows you to apply these skills to many contemporary and historical schools of thought and individual thinkers. You will also apply these skills to questions ranging from how we acquire knowledge and form moral judgements to central questions in the philosophy of religion, including the existence and nature of God and the relevance of religion to human life.

The study of Theology provides an understanding of the intellectual underpinning of religious traditions and of the social and cultural contexts for religious belief and practice. It brings together a wide range of skills and disciplines, historical, textual, linguistic, sociological, literary-critical and philosophical.

Central to this degree is a recognition that parallel study of these related disciplines leads to a deeper understanding of each.

The Philosophy Faculty is the largest in the UK and one of the largest in the world. Many faculty members have a worldwide reputation, and its library and other facilities are acknowledged as among the best in the country.

The Faculty of Theology and Religion includes more than 100 academics. The Faculty's academics range from experts in the ancient languages and literature of the world’s religions to historians and systematic theologians. The Faculty’s reputation and excellent library facilities attract scholars from all over the world.

Astrophoria Foundation Year

If you’re interested in studying Philosophy and Theology but your personal or educational circumstances have meant you are unlikely to achieve the grades typically required for Oxford courses, then applying for a Foundation Year might be right for you.

Visit our Foundation Year course pages for more details. 

Unistats information

Discover Uni  provides applicants with Unistats statistics about undergraduate life at Oxford.

Please select 'see course data' on the following course option to view the full Unistats data for Philosophy and Theology. 

Please note that there may be no data available if the number of course participants is very small. 

A typical week

Your weekly timetable will be divided usually between one or two tutorials, which may take place at your college or at the college of a specialist tutor. A large part of your week will be spent in independent study to prepare for tutorials. In addition, you will attend up to six lectures each week, as well as classes for some course options.

Tutorials usually involve two students and a tutor. Class sizes may vary depending on the options you choose, but there would usually be no more than around 10 students. 

Most tutorials, classes, and lectures are delivered by academics who are specialists in their subject. Many are world-leading experts with years of experience in teaching and research. Some teaching may also be delivered by advanced postgraduate students.

To find out more about how our teaching year is structured, visit our  Academic Year  page.

Course structure

Years 2 and 3.

The content and format of this course may change in some circumstances. Read further information about potential course changes .

Academic requirements 

Wherever possible, your grades are considered in the context in which they have been achieved.

Read further information on  how we use contextual data .

If a practical component forms part of any of your science A‐levels used to meet your offer, we expect you to pass it.

If English is not your first language you may also need to meet our English language requirements .

If your personal or educational circumstances have meant you are unlikely to achieve the grades listed above for undergraduate study, but you still have a strong interest in the subject, then applying for Philosophy and Theology with a Foundation Year might be right for you. Visit the Foundation Year course page  for more details of academic requirements and eligibility.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown on our  Applying to Oxford  pages.

The following information gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Admissions tests

All candidates must take the  Philosophy Test  as part of their application. 

Separate registration for this test is required and it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that they are registered.

We strongly recommend making the arrangements in plenty of time before the deadline.

Everything you need to know, including guidance on how to prepare, can be found on the  Philosophy Test page .

Written work

Read our further guidance on the  submission of written work  more information, and to download a cover sheet.

If you have any questions, please contact the college handling your application, or email the Faculty of Theology and Religion at [email protected]

What are tutors looking for?

Tutors consider your whole application very carefully. They look for evidence of a consistently excellent academic record, for example in GCSE or other examination results.

Your submitted piece of work should demonstrate your ability to: 

  • think clearly and to reason coherently
  • structure work and arguments in a logical way
  • write clearly (and grammatically), with clear expression of thought
  • provide evidence of independence of thought.

Your UCAS personal statement should focus on your academic reasons for wishing to study Philosophy and Theology. References should comment primarily on academic performance.

In interviews, tutors look for interest in the proposed fields of study, a critical and analytical approach to abstract questions and the ability to defend a viewpoint by reasoned argument.

You may be asked to consider a philosophical or ethical question or to study a brief text. Whatever the subject of discussion, interviewers are interested in how you think and how you approach questions. Students are not expected to have prior subject knowledge.

Visit the  Philosophy website  and the  Theology and Religion website  for more detail on the selection criteria for this course. 

Philosophy and Theology graduates have secured wide-ranging positions as authors, writers, newspaper and periodical editors, academics and teachers.

Recent graduates include a barrister, a member of a political think tank, a student at the Royal Academy of Music and a marketing executive for a philanthropy adviser.

Others have entered careers such as commerce, banking, financial services and communications. Visit the Theology and Religion Faculty website for  more information about careers .

John, now a KC says:

‘I could not recommend Philosophy and Theology at Oxford more highly. It was such a wide-ranging "Liberal Arts" type degree with so many subject options. On a practical level theology encourages deep thought and creative thinking whilst my philosophical tutors taught me to question and doubt every claim. That was an ideal preparation for the Bar.’

We don't want anyone who has the academic ability to get a place to study here to be held back by their financial circumstances. To meet that aim, Oxford offers one of the most generous financial support packages available for UK students and this may be supplemented by support from your college.

Further details about fee status eligibility can be found on the fee status webpage.

For more information please refer to our  course fees page . Fees will usually increase annually. For details, please see our  guidance on likely increases to fees and charges.

Living costs

Living costs at Oxford might be less than you’d expect, as our  world-class resources and college provision can help keep costs down.

Living costs for the academic year starting in 2024 are estimated to be between £1,345 and £1,955 for each month you are in Oxford. Our academic year is made up of three eight-week terms, so you would not usually need to be in Oxford for much more than six months of the year but may wish to budget over a nine-month period to ensure you also have sufficient funds during the holidays to meet essential costs. For further details please visit our  living costs webpage .

  • Financial support

**If you have studied at undergraduate level before and completed your course, you will be classed as an Equivalent or Lower Qualification student (ELQ) and won’t be eligible to receive government or Oxford funding

Fees, Funding and Scholarship search

Additional Fees and Charges Information for Philosophy and Theology

There are no compulsory costs for this course beyond the fees shown above and your living costs.

Contextual information

Unistats course data from Discover Uni provides applicants with statistics about a particular undergraduate course at Oxford. For a more holistic insight into what studying your chosen course here is likely to be like, we would encourage you to view the information below as well as to explore our website more widely.

The Oxford tutorial

College tutorials are central to teaching at Oxford. Typically, they take place in your college and are led by your academic tutor(s) who teach as well as do their own research. Students will also receive teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. However, tutorials offer a level of personalised attention from academic experts unavailable at most universities.

During tutorials (normally lasting an hour), college subject tutors will give you and one or two tutorial partners feedback on prepared work and cover a topic in depth. The other student(s) in your tutorials will be doing the same course as you. Such regular and rigorous academic discussion develops and facilitates learning in a way that isn’t possible through lectures alone. Tutorials also allow for close progress monitoring so tutors can quickly provide additional support if necessary.

Read more about tutorials and an Oxford education

College life

Our colleges are at the heart of Oxford’s reputation as one of the best universities in the world.

  • At Oxford, everyone is a member of a college as well as their subject department(s) and the University. Students therefore have both the benefits of belonging to a large, renowned institution and to a small and friendly academic community. Each college or hall is made up of academic and support staff, and students. Colleges provide a safe, supportive environment leaving you free to focus on your studies, enjoy time with friends and make the most of the huge variety of opportunities.
  • Porters’ lodge (a staffed entrance and reception)
  • Dining hall
  • Lending library (often open 24/7 in term time)
  • Student accommodation
  • Tutors’ teaching rooms
  • Chapel and/or music rooms
  • Green spaces
  • Common room (known as the JCR).
  • All first-year students are offered college accommodation either on the main site of their college or in a nearby college annexe. This means that your neighbours will also be ‘freshers’ and new to life at Oxford. This accommodation is guaranteed, so you don’t need to worry about finding somewhere to live after accepting a place here, all of this is organised for you before you arrive.
  • All colleges offer at least one further year of accommodation and some offer it for the entire duration of your degree. You may choose to take up the option to live in your college for the whole of your time at Oxford, or you might decide to arrange your own accommodation after your first year – perhaps because you want to live with friends from other colleges.
  • While college academic tutors primarily support your academic development, you can also ask their advice on other things. Lots of other college staff including welfare officers help students settle in and are available to offer guidance on practical or health matters. Current students also actively support students in earlier years, sometimes as part of a college ‘family’ or as peer supporters trained by the University’s Counselling Service.

Read more about Oxford colleges and how you choose

FIND OUT MORE

  • Download the course brochure
  • Visit the Philosophy Faculty website
  • Visit the Theology and Religion Faculty website

Oxford Open Days

Our 2024 undergraduate open days will be held on 26 and 27 June and 20 September.

  Register to find out more about our upcoming open days.

RELATED PAGES

  • Which Oxford colleges offer my course?
  • Your academic year
  • Foundation Year

RELATED COURSES

  • Foundation Year (Humanities)
  • Theology and Religion
  • Religion and Oriental Studies

Feel inspired?

For an introduction to philosophy have a look at:

  • Myles Burnyeat and Ted Honderich’s  Philosophy
  • Martin Hollis'  An Invitation to Philosophy  
  • Simon Blackburn’s  Think.

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Department of Philosophy

Why Major in Philosophy?

The best reason to major in philosophy would be that you love it. (And contrariwise, if you have taken a philosophy course and found that you don’t love it, that’s about the best reason there could be for not majoring in it.) But other reasons for majoring in philosophy are given in the following articles.

  • According to this World Economic Forum post, philosophy majors have higher average salary potential than chemistry, marketing, business administration, history, and many other majors (with the biggest increase of any major in earning power during the first ten years after graduation).
  • A Washington Post article in which various philosophy majors explain how their philosophical education contributed to their success here .
  • A Forbes Magazine article about high-tech companies seeking philosophy majors, including an interview with the co-founder of “Slack Technologies” who explains what studying philosophy taught him here .
  • For an article in the Huffington Post about why philosophy is good for business, see here .
  • For an article about majoring in philosophy, doing fantastically well on the GRE, and other good things, see here and here .
  • An article on the most recent GREs, in which philosophy majors dominated, see  here .
  • A journalist writes, “The most useful classes I took were all in philosophy” here .
  • A Forbes article about humanities degrees providing “great return on investment”, see here .
  • The earning power of philosophy majors is explored in a recent article here .
  • Employer’s demand of philosophy graduates is on the rise, read more here .
  • A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for the liberal arts and philosophy here .
  • Philosophy is a great major! Read why here .
  • An NPR piece supporting how and when to think like a philosopher may be found here .
  • Here are 5 reasons why philosophy majors make great entrepreneurs!
  • A CNBC article details why Mark Cuban says studying philosophy may soon be worth more than computer science here .
  • See here to read why businesses are interested in hiring professional thinkers, and are looking to philosophy majors.
  • See here to read about a Princeton philosophy major and his successful path to journalism, covering crises and war.
  • A NYT article  describes how a philosophy degree prepared former Secretary of the Treasury, Robert E. Rubin, for a career in finance and government.
  • See here  to read entrepreneur and social-change advocate Nick Hanauer’s reflection on his BA in philosophy.
  • See here for a chart illustrating that philosophy majors make more money than majors in any other humanities field.
  • Discover the truth about philosophy majors here .

“ I have a degree in Philosophy: Why do you want fries with that? ” Want a good job? Major in philosophy

  • This NYT piece offers ways that a philosophy major has impacted the writer’s everyday life in invaluable ways daily.

“What’s the point of studying a field in which there aren’t any right answers?”

It’s true that there is no consensus, even among professional philosophers, on the correct answers to most of the basic problems of philosophy (e.g., what makes some actions morally right and others wrong? do we have free will? what is reality ultimately made out of? is there a god? can the legitimacy of the authority of the state be established, and if so then how? is mathematics something humans discovered or something humans invented?), but that doesn’t mean that philosophy doesn’t make progress, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn by studying other philosophers. What we learn by studying the field of philosophy includes:

  • the range of possible answers to philosophical questions
  • the range of possible reasons that have been given for adopting one or another of these   answers
  • the objections these reasons are subject to.

Having studied these things, you might not know for certain what the answer to any particular basic philosophical question is, but you will be able to make your mind up about what to think from a position in which you are more fully conscious of what the alternatives are, and what their known strengths and weaknesses are. This gives you a kind of freedom to responsibly decide for yourself what to think that, alas, not everyone enjoys.

Training in the practice of philosophy means training in:

  • Stating your own views as clearly and precisely as possible
  • Seeking out the best possible arguments  against  your own views
  • Seeking out the full range of alternatives to your own views that a reasonable person might take seriously
  • Understanding the arguments for alternative views as charitably as you can
  • Critically evaluating the cases for and against a range of possible views

and these are skills that will serve you well in any intellectual problem you might encounter.

“What are you going to do with that?”

There aren’t many careers that a bachelor’s degree in philosophy will give you specific training for. But there are very many different kinds of careers that philosophy majors go into after receiving their bachelor’s degrees. The study of philosophy develops many skills, including:

•    critical thinking •    evaluation of chains of reasoning •    construction of chains of reasoning •    consideration of many different perspectives on a single subject •    clear written communication on complex topics

and these are skills that will serve you well no matter what you end up doing.

After graduation, philosophy majors go to law school, to medical school, to business school, to seminary, and to graduate school in a range of fields from art business to education to gender studies to philosophy; they go to work for business consulting firms and for humanitarian non-government organizations; they take jobs as technical writers, teachers, web designers…

About Law School and Medical School

Law schools know that philosophy is one of the best pre-law majors. The skills you develop while taking philosophy courses – such as careful, critical writing about detailed arguments – are the very ones you will need in law school. Philosophy majors typically do extremely well on the LSAT (though to be honest, we must add that it is not clear whether this is because studying philosophy causes students to get better at solving LSAT-type problems, or whether it just reflects the fact that brighter students tend to be drawn into philosophy to begin with – see above concerning “seeking out the best arguments against your own views”). For more information, click here .

Though it is often overlooked for this purpose, philosophy is also an excellent pre-med major. Here at Chapel Hill, the requirements of the philosophy major have a great deal of flexibility built into them, making it relatively easy to fit in all the science courses you need to take as a pre-med. A recent issue of a journal published by the American Medical School Association indicates that a very high proportion of philosophy majors applying to medical schools have been accepted. See it here .

You may also see this article about a major medical school that is very friendly to humanities majors.

How Much Money Do Philosophy Majors Make?

A lot of students are deterred from majoring in philosophy by the widespread belief that a degree in philosophy translates into low earning potential.  This turns out not to be true.  Each year, www.payscale.com issues a report on the median starting salaries and mid-career salaries of people  with only bachelor’s degrees , sorted by major.  Not surprisingly, philosophy isn’t at the very top of the list, but it is a lot higher than you might think:

According to the 2011 numbers, the median starting salary for philosophy BAs is $39,800 and the median mid-career salary is $75,600. This puts it at #2 among the humanities majors (behind American studies), only slightly behind accounting majors, and ahead of several science majors (including biology and psychology) and professional majors (including business, advertising, public administration and hotel management).

For the full report, click here .

The Wall Street Journal list, “Degrees that Pay You Back,” shows that philosophy majors have the highest increase in yearly earnings from starting median salary to mid-career salary at 103.5 percent. Philosophy is the top earning humanities major, ranking above chemistry, accounting, and business management for midcareer earning potential. For details, click here .

A Forbes article shows that philosophy majors have potential salary lifetime earnings of over $600,000, highlighting a solid return on their educational investment. For details, click here .

Needless to say, nobody should major in philosophy for the money. But this evidence suggests that avoiding majoring in philosophy for the sake of making money might not be such a great idea either.

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Philosophy Major

A philosophy major learns to think critically, identify and evaluate arguments and engage in moral and ethical reasoning.

Becoming a Philosophy Major

A group of college students talking around the table.

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A philosophy major is a humanities degree path that will challenge students to examine questions with no right answers.

PHILOSOPHY MAJORS WILL contemplate ideas that have engaged humankind for centuries as they confront questions related to free will, morality, religion, consciousness and much more. Students will study past approaches to major topics in philosophy while also learning to develop and express their own opinions. With a degree in philosophy, majors will be well-positioned to apply their strong critical thinking skills in fields including business, law and medicine.

What Is a Philosophy Major?

A philosophy major is a humanities degree path that will challenge students to examine questions with no right answers. As they become familiar with notable thinkers and diverse worldviews, majors will learn to think critically, identify and evaluate arguments and engage in moral and ethical reasoning. Students can learn both contemporary and historical philosophy, and they will develop the reading and analysis tools necessary to understand philosophical writings from across periods.

In their coursework, majors will ponder arguments related to the best ways to live, the existence of God and the relationship between mind and body. They will also learn the fundamentals of mathematical logic, including the nature of a sound deductive argument. Philosophy majors can also often work with faculty at their schools to study topics they find especially compelling as part of a senior thesis. Students can look for opportunities to publish their writing in undergraduate research journals.

Common Coursework Philosophy Majors Can Expect

Philosophy majors should expect their degree requirements to cover some fundamental topics while also leaving space to explore. Majors can take classes that survey parts of philosophy’s history, provide an introduction to logic and explore the philosophy of language. They will also likely become familiar with some new vocabulary, as parts of the field like metaphysics and value theory drive many class options and requirements. Broadly, metaphysics concerns the fundamental nature of the world, while value theory includes moral, social and political philosophy. By taking classes that host discussions for difficult questions and provide many possible answers, philosophy majors will become skilled at forming arguments that are critical and reasoned.

How to Know if This Major Is the Right Fit for You

If you are interested in grappling with hard questions and examining diverse views while considering your own beliefs, philosophy might be the right major for you. Studying philosophy can be relevant to your academic and personal development, since classes may prompt you to not only think critically about the course material but also your own principles. You can also find a place in the major if your interests range beyond philosophy, as classes connect to disciplines from computing and mathematics to art history.

Pick the Perfect Major

Discover the perfect major for you based on your innate wiring. The Innate Assessment sets you up for success by pairing you with majors, colleges and careers that fit your unique skills and abilities.

philosophy degree essay

What Can I Do With a Philosophy Major?

Philosophy majors will graduate with strong problem-solving, critical thinking and writing skills that apply to a wide range of professions. Depending on your interests and experience, those with a philosophy major can become journalists, financial analysts and paralegals. For students interested in graduate or professional study, training in philosophy supports strong performance on admissions tests. With additional degrees, philosophy majors go on to work as lawyers, doctors and university professors.

Schools Offering a Philosophy Major

Check out some schools below that offer philosophy majors and find the full list of schools here that you can filter and sort.

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Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

The Doctor of Philosophy program in the College of Education prepares students for careers in research or scholarly inquiry and teaching at the college level. The program consists of: (1) continuous research, (2) courses in education and related fields designed to develop a comprehensive academic basis for future work in research and teaching, and (3) teaching and other related experiences tailored to individual needs and career goals. Each student works closely with an advisor and a faculty Supervisory Committee to select courses, topics of research and inquiry, and teaching experiences. These three areas will combine to: (1) convey deep scholarly knowledge of education and a specialty outside of education (2) promote a broad understanding of various methods of inquiry in education and develop competency in several of those methods, (3) impart broad knowledge of theory and practice in two supportive cognates, and (4) promote excellence as a college teacher. Our Ph.D. alumni have positions at national research universities, at region and local universities, in community colleges, K-12 school settings, laboratories, foundations, agencies, and private businesses.

Culturally Sustaining Education

Educational policy, organization and leadership, language, literacy and culture, leadership in higher education, learning sciences & human development, measurement and statistics, school psychology (ph.d.), science or math education specialization, social and cultural foundations, special education doctoral, teacher education and teacher learning for justice.

Taylor Swift: why academics are studying the pop star

Taylor Swift is the biggest pop star in the world and a seemingly unlikely subject of academic study around Australia and the world. The American superstar made Grammys history this month winning Album of the Year for the fourth time, soon after being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Forbes magazine declared the 34-year-old American the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry and fifth in the world for 2023, stating she is “an advocate for the empowerment of women and a champion for all musicians seeking greater ownership of their work.”

The conference or Swiftposium - hosted by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with the University of Sydney, RMIT University, Curtin University, Auckland University of Technology and Monash University - highlighted how a single artist has impacted contemporary life, with papers exploring Swift’s influence across the intersection of music, economics, business, media studies, health, and societal and cultural impact.

Brittany Spanos, New York University (NYU) Adjunct Instructor and senior writer for Rolling Stone opened the conference, delivering a keynote address examining Swift’s career in relation to the music industry, musicology, feminism and race.

a young woman in a pink dress is giving a talk about Taylor Swift

Dr Georgia Carroll presenting the keynote at the Swiftposium. 

Dr Georgia Carroll, a researcher who completed her PhD on fandom and celebrity in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney delivered the Early Career Researcher keynote on the second day. Dr Carroll’s keynote was titled: “’My pennies made your crown’: Taylor Swift as your Billionaire Best Friend” and explored the intersection of fandom and economic consumption in the Taylor Swift fan community. It examined how Swift encourages individuals to purchase merchandise, multiple versions of her albums, and concert tickets in order to be viewed as the "right" kind of fan and gain her attention. 

Other papers covered topics such as lyrical poetics, cyber-security, AI, mental health, public relations and “Swiftonomics”, referring to the economic impact of Taylor on local and global economies both in terms of her touring and her wider role in the entertainment industry. There was also a stream exploring Swift as a teaching tool in higher education, following recent courses on her and her work at institutions including Harvard University, Stanford University and NYU.

@abcnewsaus How well do you know Taylor Swift and her international impact? Academics from around the world have gathered at the Swiftposium conference in Melbourne to discuss her influence on music, cities, creatives and more.  #TaylorSwift #ErasTour #ErasTourAus #ABCNews ♬ original sound - ABC News Australia

University of Sydney experts from philosophy, sociology, English and psychology share why they are studying the lyrics and music of the American pop star.

Philosophy, forgiveness and Taylor Swift

Associate Professor Luke Russell , lecturer in ethics and critical thinking in the Discipline of Philosophy, said the singer-songwriter has a strong view on forgiveness, a subject he has recently published a book on, Real Forgiveness .  

“I’m a philosopher who writes on the topic of forgiveness," he said. "Taylor Swift holds an interesting and contentious view about forgiveness, a view that she has explained in interviews and has expressed in her songs. 

“Swift rejects the claim that we always ought to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This puts her in conflict with advocates of unconditional forgiveness, including many Christians and therapists. I think that Swift is right about this, and her insights on this topic can help philosophers to see why sometimes forgiving is the wrong thing to do.” 

Greek philosophy, betrayal and Taylor Swift

Pop singer Taylor Swift wearing a sparkling bodysuit on stage for her Eras tour.

Taylor Swift performs in Nashville, May 5, 2023 Photo: George Walker IV, AP/AAP Photos

Dr Emily Hulme is a lecturer in Ancient Greek philosophy in the Discipline of Philosophy. Her research interests include Plato’s epistemology and ethics, philosophy of language from Parmenides to the Stoics, and arguments concerning the status of women in the ancient world. Dr Hulme said:

“I work in Greek philosophy, a philosophical tradition where reflection on art and emotions is understood to be a key part of our development as humans. We can learn a lot about ourselves through emotionally engaging with art that pulls no punches in talking about vulnerability, trust, and betrayal. And Taylor Swift has a lot of songs that fit that bill.” 

Sociology, identity, and Taylor Swift

Dr Georgia Carroll a researcher who completed her PhD in fandom in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney said:  “I wrote my PhD on Taylor Swift and her fandom because as a long-time Swiftie, I knew that there was something special about the relationship she shares with her fans. Many of Taylor's fans feel as though they have grown up alongside her, built a real connection with her, and that her music has served as a kind of overarching soundtrack to their lives. 

“As sociologists, we strive to understand society and its intersection with culture, identity, social relationships, and power structures, and celebrity fandom is a perfect window into all of those things.”  

English poetry, Shakespeare and Taylor Swift

Professor Liam Semler , is a Shakespeare scholar and teaches Early Modern Literature in the Discipline of English. He has a new paper on teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets using the lyrics from Taylor Swift’s album Midnights. He also teaches a unit called Shakespeare and Modernity, using Taylor Swift’s lyrics. Professor Semler said: “As the marketing for Midnights as a concept album started to permeate popular culture, I felt there was a fascinating, but not explicit, array of parallels to early modern sonnet sequences. 

“There are plenty of songs on the album that work well in class and connect to thematic and poetic elements relevant to Shakespeare’s sonnets. In my unit ‘Shakespeare and Modernity,’ Swift is part of a multidimensional picture as we explore the design principles and thematics of sonnet collections, including the literary work of Jen Bervin and Luke Kennard who rewrite the sonnets in fresh and provocative ways.” 

Psychology, archetypes and Taylor Swift

Kayla Greenstien, a PhD candidate in psychology said: “I study the theoretical orientations behind psychedelic therapies, including Jungian archetypes and using myths to explore deeper truths about human experiences. 

“After seeing Eras Tour footage on TikTok, I started thinking about Taylor Swift's entire artistic output as a form of uniquely modern mythopoeticism. There's a lot we can learn about archetypal experiences and who's voice they represent from looking at Swift's work through this lens.” 

Top Photo: Taylor Swift performs at the Monumental stadium during her Eras Tour concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko/AAP Photos)

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The following are real answers to Tripos questions. Following each answer is an indication of the expected class of an essay at this level together with a brief justification. They are supposed to give you some idea of what the examiners are expecting to see.

 We are very grateful to those undergraduates who agreed to release their papers for this purpose.

  • 2i/2ii borderline answer for Paper 1 Metaphysics
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  • 2i/2II Borderline Case for Paper 2 Ethics and Political Philosophy  21
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  1. How Philosophy Optional Helps You to Write Essay

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  1. PDF A Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper

    arguments or theories in philosophy papers, you must always practice philosophy. 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

  2. Tackling the Philosophy Essay: A Student Guide

    This short book, written by recent Cambridge PhD students, is designed to introduce students to the process of writing an essay in philosophy. Containing many annotated examples, this guide demonstrates some of the Do's and Don'ts of essay writing, with particular attention paid to the early stages of the writing process (including the creation ...

  3. Philosophy essay writing guide

    In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses.

  4. Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide

    phil-essay-guide.pdf. Expressions of Interest are invited for the 2024 British Academy International Fellowship applications: Faculty deadline midday Monday 12th February 2024. Faculty Manager position advert. Alexander Bird elected Correspondant de l'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Philosophy Podcasts.

  5. Writing Philosophy essays

    Writing Philosophy essays Preparation Content Structure Style Sources Referencing & help Preparation Good essay writing begins with good course preparation. You should remember that just attending courses is not enough. You will engage with the lectures and seminars only if you do the required primary and secondary reading.

  6. Philosophy: A brief guide for undergraduates

    Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and variety of human experience.

  7. PDF WRITING PHILOSOPHY ESSAYS

    _ere are not many ûrm rules (except for my rules on typesetting and dead-lines for submission). _ere is a lot of freedom, and the best philosophy essays in examinations vary signiûcantly in their style and content. I do not claim that all good essays conform to my rules. But you should think twice before you decide to ignore my advice.

  8. Writing a Philosophy Essay

    Writing philosophy essays is a key part of studying philosophy. Make sure first to understand the assignment, looking out for the questions asked and paying attention to prompts such as "outline" or "evaluate" or "compare".

  9. Writing a Philosophy Essay

    Writing philosophy essays is a key part of studying philosophy. Make sure first to understand the assignment, looking out for the questions asked and paying attention to prompts such as outline or evaluate or compare.

  10. PDF Tackling the Philosophy Essay A Student Guide Edition One

    essay-writing in philosophy. It is now presented to you as a handbook for students on the basics of philosophical writing. As supervisors ourselves, the four of us began the project out of a desire to offer extra assistance to broader audience of students experiencing difficulty with their essay-writing skills.

  11. Writing A Philosophy Paper

    Simon Fraser University. 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.

  12. A dogmatic FAQ on writing philosophy essays

    There is not a single "method" for writing a good philosophy essay. But there are some helpful rules of thumb. Caution: in reading this FAQ, bear in mind the following points: Heuristics: these are some rules of thumb, not an exhaustive list of fixed regulations. Pluralism: these are the dogmatic views of just one Department member (Tim ...

  13. Writing Philosophy: A Student's Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays

    Further, it refers to my experience teaching philosophical writing to University of Zululand students. Next, it describes the specific group of students with whom I first tried the method in 2019 and whose needs prompted the modifications. I then explain the "six-line essay" model step by step, commenting on the rationale behind each step ...

  14. Why Study Philosophy?

    The most important reason to study philosophy is that it is of enormous and enduring interest. All of us have to answer, for ourselves, the questions asked by philosophers. In this department, students can learn how to ask the questions well, and how we might begin to develop responses. Philosophy is important, but it is also enormously ...

  15. Are you thinking of studying Philosophy?

    Essay-writing skills are vital for Philosophy. Grade requirements for Philosophy vary widely, and there aren't any specific subject requirements either. A-level Philosophy is not a requirement; only one exam board offers it, its future is in question and it isn't taught in many schools.

  16. 1.1 What Is Philosophy?

    1.1 What Is Philosophy? 1.1 What Is Philosophy? Highlights Learning Objectives By the end of this section, you will be able to: Identify sages (early philosophers) across historical traditions. Explain the connection between ancient philosophy and the origin of the sciences. Describe philosophy as a discipline that makes coherent sense of a whole.

  17. What can you do with a philosophy degree?

    The skills learned on a philosophy degree include clear and analytical thinking, persuasive writing and speaking innovative questioning and effective reasoning. These skills are highly transferable to a range of careers, such as teaching, PR, communications, publishing, HR, advertising and many more. Often, the parts of a philosophy course you ...

  18. Senior Essay, Honors and Awards

    Senior Essay, Honors and Awards. The Senior Essay (or "BA Essay") is one of the requirements for students admitted to the Intensive Major. Standard majors and Philosophy and Allied Fields majors may also apply to write an essay. Note that all majors will be required to meet with the Assistant to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Tyler ...

  19. Philosophy and Theology

    Philosophy of religion; Remaining papers are chosen from a wide range of options in Philosophy and Theology. Students may choose freely from Theology papers that cover ... Final University examinations: eight papers (assessed either by written examination or by submitted coursework, depending upon the option), or seven papers plus a thesis.

  20. Why Major in Philosophy?

    The best reason to major in philosophy would be that you love it. (And contrariwise, if you have taken a philosophy course and found that you don't love it, that's about the best reason there could be for not majoring in it.) But other reasons for majoring in philosophy are given in the following articles. According to this World Economic ...

  21. What You Need to Know About Becoming a Philosophy Major

    A philosophy major is a humanities degree path that will challenge students to examine questions with no right answers. PHILOSOPHY MAJORS WILL contemplate ideas that have engaged humankind...

  22. Philosophy Essays

    A Possibility of Peace in the State of Nature. Example essay. Last modified: 29th Oct 2021. This paper disagrees with Raymond Aron's statement that implies that since the state of nature is one of anarchy, it is essential that statesmen prioritize their interests when engaging in international affairs, to ensure the survival of the state....

  23. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

    The Doctor of Philosophy program in the College of Education prepares students for careers in research or scholarly inquiry and teaching at the college level. The program consists of: (1) continuous research, (2) courses in education and related fields designed to develop a comprehensive academic basis for future work in research and teaching ...

  24. Taylor Swift: why academics are studying the pop star

    Associate Professor Luke Russell, lecturer in ethics and critical thinking in the Discipline of Philosophy, said the singer-songwriter has a strong view on forgiveness, a subject he has recently published a book on, Real Forgiveness. "I'm a philosopher who writes on the topic of forgiveness," he said. "Taylor Swift holds an interesting and contentious view about forgiveness, a view that ...

  25. Sample Answers

    Sample Answers. The following are real answers to Tripos questions. Following each answer is an indication of the expected class of an essay at this level together with a brief justification. They are supposed to give you some idea of what the examiners are expecting to see. We are very grateful to those undergraduates who agreed to release ...