The following is a description of what TAs, instructors, and professors are usually looking for in a philosophy essay, as adapted from a document prepared and shared by a recent PhD graduate colleague here at UWO, Ryan Robb. It tries to include all the basic points about writing good essays. Although it is offered as a guide, rather than as an official ‘how to’, it is intended to be generally applicable to every essay you ever have to write in every class that you ever take. There’s nothing mysterious in any of the following – this description is a set of guidelines that you’ve all heard or seen before, though maybe not laid out in exactly this way. That is, what you’re about to read is a guide to success on every ‘argumentative’ essay assignment you ever write (it is hoped). Please don’t hesitate to ask further questions if you are unsure of something.
The following is a description of the parts of an 'argumentative' essay, that is, an essay wherein you are, at the very least, trying to convince your reader that your point of view is the point of view they ought to adopt, using an argument/the power of reason. That is, the goal of your paper is to convince every person that ever reads your paper that your position is the position they should adopt. The means by which you will achieve that goal is by presenting an argument that provides a rational basis for your position. In an ideal universe, you might also be stumbling on to some previously unknown ‘T’ruth about the world. The main goal is to improve upon your written philosophical skills (i.e., ability to make convincing arguments) so for now, don’t be too concerned with the ‘T’ruth.
There are three major parts to every argumentative essay:
1. The thesis/point of view
If you are going to convince your reader of something, you must have something to convince them of, i.e., a point. Because your essays are short, and the goal of these papers is to improve upon your ability to make focused arguments in a way that convinces others to accept your conclusion, you should start by explicitly stating your thesis. For example, an essay from an intro course in philosophy might begin with the claim:
“The coherence theory best equips us with evaluating the statement ‘there is milk in the fridge’ by informing us how such a truth is in fact established.”
Starting an essay this way is generally recognized as good form. This is because argumentative essays are not mystery novels; it's best to begin every essay by telling your reader precisely what it is you'll be trying to convince them of. It's also important that your point is clear, and bluntly stating your conclusion at the beginning of your paper should make it clear.
In the interest of clarity, you can also take the opportunity to outline the steps you’ll be taking to reach your conclusion, i.e., present a more complete introduction. Following the above example, you could say something like:
“According to Russell, the correspondence theory of truth does not ask whether a statement such as the one we are considering is true or false, but rather asks what it means for such a claim to be true or false. I will argue that the correspondence theory is insufficient for evaluating claims about the world when our goal is to determine whether they are true or not, rather than what it means for them to be true. I will then focus more precisely on the issue of how the truth of such statements are established, showing that the correspondence theory is useless to us when it comes to verifying the truth or falsity of a claim. I will argue that the coherence theory, as advanced by Bradley, allows us to understand facts about the world as true or false based on fallible judgements we make about particular claims such as ‘there is milk in the fridge’.”
(Please note that this example isn’t necessarily a ‘good’ one in the sense of being original, engaging, and rigorous, but is rather offered as a ‘good’...
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