UCL Philosophy


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.
What are you looking for?

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.

Can I use: section headers / bullet points / the first person / diagrams / etc?

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!)

How should I write? What is “good writing”?

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.
How much do I need to say about other authors?

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.

How much of my essay should be “exposition”?

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.
How can I possibly address this title in only a few thousand words?

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.

What should I read?

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.