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Pathways to Philosophy Writing a Philosophy Essay


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There is no technique, or recipe, or set of guidelines for writing an essay in philosophy. — That statement might not appear very helpful. To the beginner, the very idea of a philosophy essay seems mysterious, and the prospect of having to write one quite intimidating. Any attempt to explain the nature of philosophical writing in the abstract, however, merely serves to deepen the mystery. All one can say is that once you have started to grapple with various actual examples of such writing, you will begin to form an idea of the type of approach that is needed. Then, all you can do is have a go yourself. In short, like the very first things we were taught as infants, one learns by imitation and by trial and error.

But why is it necessary to write philosophy anyway? Isn't it enough just to study the works of philosophers? Writing — whether in the form of books, articles, essays, or dialogues — is, quite simply, the way one works at philosophy. Reading, thinking, talking philosophy are all parts of the process. But none of these is a satisfactory substitute for the discipline of expressing your thoughts on paper. (The lone figure of Socrates is perhaps the only recorded exception to this statement.) A student who has not yet produced his or her first piece of written work has simply not reached first base. — That is why at Pathways we encourage our students to get into the practice of writing from the start.

By 'writing' one does not mean simply jotting down thoughts as they come into your head, though this too can be an initial part of the process. Philosophical writing involves constructing an argument. It is reflective and self-critical. Even when the writing flows, the words form an organised structure. For all the wide variations in style and presentation, the writings of philosophers possess a common architecture, which is none other than that of logic itself.

What is so special about writing a philosophy essay, as opposed to an essay on any other subject? — Simply that the cogency of one's argument depends solely on reasoning and logic. The appeal to observations, or to the results of experiments or surveys, or to any other forms of recorded data has no place in a philosophical argument. — At the risk of over-simplifying, the subject matter of philosophy is not the way things, as a matter of contingent fact, happen to be in our world, but rather how things must be in every logically possible world.

Unfortunately, one all-too-easily becomes a victim of the mystique of philosophy, the thought that while a few exceptional individuals might possess the extraordinary vision or powers of reasoning needed to create works of philosophy, the most one can aspire to as a mere student is to be able to read and appreciate the writings of others: in short, to be a consumer, but never a producer.

There are two replies to this. The first is that studying philosophy is an active, not a passive process. If you do not try to produce examples of philosophical writing yourself, you will find that you are severely handicapped in your ability to appreciate the productions of others. There is no better way to test your understanding of a theory or an argument than to attempt to express it in your own words. And since it is hardly possible to agree with everything you read (since the writings of philosophers themselves disagree!) you need some way of testing your disagreements, of seeing whether your criticisms of a piece of philosophy are valid. The only sure way is to express those criticisms in writing, where their validity can be subjected to further examination.

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