Notes on Writing Philosophy

Notes on Writing Philosophy
There are a few things that I’m looking for in the papers that you’re all working on these
days. Here are some remarks about them, and about the business of writing philosophy
in general.
1. I’m looking for contact with the readings and/or with some other literature.
Philosophy is an ongoing conversation. To participate, you have to pick up a
thread & show that you understand what it’s about. So don’t just seize on a
question raised in one or another paper & go off in your own way. Show me that
you understand what some other philosopher(s) has(ve) said about it; this can
establish a starting point for your own remarks & help make them clearer by
providing a context.
2. Clarity is very important. It’s easy to get caught up in your own ideas & lose
track of how what you’ve written will strike the audience (me, for instance).
Make sure you explain any new terms you introduce (and think carefully about
how they relate to the vocabulary used in the paper(s) you’re responding to).
Reading what you've written out loud can really help, too: It tends to make any
really bad writing stand out...
3. Don’t just lay out your own position. Think about what someone who disagrees
with you might say in response. This is a key point on which philosophy differs
from (say) blogging or writing an opinion column. In philosophy we’re all
responsible not just for expressing our own views, but for fairly & accurately
contrasting them with the alternatives. No straw men allowed, no cosmetic arts to
disguise the warts on your own position. Enthusiasm is fine, but honest, fairminded enthusiasm is really important.
4. On the other hand, don’t be shy or coy. If you have a strong criticism of another
position, lay it out & draw your conclusion. (A prof of mine told me years ago,
‘Go for the jugular’… there is an element of blood sport in the business.)
5. Have some fun. Choose a topic that bothers you, or interests you, and think it
through. Talk to yourself about it (I find it helps). Take time to write out some
notes on the ideas and arguments that are the starting point for what you have to
say, and allow yourself enough time to write a full rough & then think it through
again. My ideas are almost always different by the time I’ve written something
through once—so I need to go back and re-arrange and re-write to make it all fit
together. This is healthy. The first idea that you have is usually a good starting
point, but not a good ending point, for your views on an issue. Let your mind and
your thinking change & grow here. It really is fun (as well as instructive).
As for references: Do be sure to cite any quotations or ideas you draw from your
readings. The form that I find easiest is to put side-remarks in as footnotes, and
references in the text using (last name, year) format, with a bibliography (alphabetical by
author’s name) at the end. If you’re just using the text, you can list the articles
separately, as “Author, “….title…”, pp. xxx-yyy, in…”. But I’m not hugely fussy about
the format here—the journals differ on the details, so there is no general standard for