How to Survive a College Philosophy Class
So you have taken a philosophy course, and now you feel you might be in over your head. This is not an uncommon feeling. Many people who take undergraduate philosophy courses do so because they are required to or because they need an elective and this one just happened to fit their schedule. Philosophy courses are different from other college courses you may have taken. Tests in philosophy require you to explain concepts in a clear and concise manner rather than to simply regurgitate information. Philosophers do not write research papers but instead write argument papers and this too can be a daunting task for those students that are unfamiliar with it. As an undergraduate, half of the students who were not majoring in the subject routinely dropped any philosophy course I was enrolled in. This was not necessary. While taking a philosophy course can seem daunting, any student who is willing to do a little bit of work and has a little bit of proper guidance can get an A or B in a philosophy course.
Reading and Understanding Philosophy
One of the things that makes studying philosophy difficult is that many of our greatest philosophers were simply not good writers or use styles of writing that are archaic and confusing to modern readers. In addition, they will often use confusing jargon that is specific to their particular philosophical viewpoint or had a historical meaning that may be different than the one in modern usage. This makes the reading itself one of the most daunting things that first-time philosophy students must deal with. The fact is that there is simply no way around the reading if a student is going to write effective philosophical papers. You might be able to get through tests by simply paying attention in class and using sources such as Sparknotes but this will not help you make the kind of critique of a philosopher's work that you will need to form your own argument.
However, there are things that you can do that might make this process easier. I am going to post a number of guides on the viewpoints of the different philosophers and the use of their “Jargon” to help students. There are also other sources, such as books and essays, that can help explain the basic concepts and languages that many of the most famous philosophers use. Your professor might provide you with a glossary of terms to help you while trying to determine what certain philosophers mean but they may also leave this interpretation up to you. If you find a certain philosopher daunting, first read their work and try to figure it out. If you cannot figure it out for yourself use another source, such as my own guides, to try to clarify terms you find confusing or ask questions of your professor. Then read the text a second time. You will be surprised how clear a philosopher’s work will seem once you strip away the cultural and linguistically challenging barriers.
Once you have a basic idea of what the philosopher’s language means, you will have to identify their arguments. For most philosophers this will not be very hard because most philosophical work is written in a very systematic way. The way that most philosophers write their arguments will be the way you will be expected to write your own papers. A philosopher will usually make a very specific claim (or thesis) and then will present premises that are in support of that claim. When you read a philosopher’s work what you want to do is carefully identify each argument, the conclusion of that argument, and the premises to support the argument. As a philosophy student you will want to try and come up with your own reasons that you might think the philosopher’s argument is correct or incorrect. You will have to read and think critically and carefully to do so effectively.
This may be more difficult with certain philosophers because of their writing style. For instance, Immanuel Kant is famously difficult to understand partly because of his eccentric writing style. Aristotle is more difficult because his original writings are lost and we only have notes from his students in order to understand him. Other philosophers write in a literary style, and while this may make them more fun to read it makes their arguments less obvious.
How to Write a Philosophy Paper
Many guides on how to write a philosophy paper go into grammar and punctuation but this is a necessary part of writing any paper and of succeeding in college in general so I won’t go into it. A perfect philosophy paper consists of four parts. The first part is the thesis, which is the conclusion of the argument you will be making. Your thesis should ideally be the very first sentence of the paper and it should tell your reader exactly what you are trying to prove and how you are going to do it. There should be no surprises in a thesis paper. You are not writing a story. The first sentence of the paper tells us exactly where we are going and how we are going to get there. The rest of your paper is an attempt to convince us that the conclusion of the argument that you are making is correct.
The second part is the exegesis. This just means an interpretation of the text. You will need to explain exactly what the philosopher or philosophers you are using mean by their writing. If you are arguing against a philosopher you will want to portray their argument as strongly as possible. The reason for this is that it will make your argument against them seem stronger if you give their argument as fair a case as possible. There is a common logical fallacy called a “straw man” where someone intentionally misrepresents an argument so they can more easily refute it. If you commit this fallacy in your paper it was almost certainly hurt your grade a bit.
That brings us to the third part of the paper which is the argument itself. While putting together an argument the most important thing is to avoid fallacies. It will help if you look up informal fallacies so you can familiarize yourself with as many as possible but I will bring up a number of the most common ones here. When criticizing another person’s argument remember that you must find fault with the argument itself. Never attack the person who made the argument (ad hominem) or say that an argument is true because it is popular or that it has always been done that way. You also cannot say that something is wrong just because of where it came from. An idea may have come from bad roots, such as a corrupt society, but that does not make it a bad idea in itself. This is also called the genetic fallacy.
You must also remember that proving that another argument is false doesn’t prove that your argument is true. If you are going to attack an idea and propose an alternative you need to build a separate case in support of your claim. Just proving that another idea is wrong or that it doesn’t prove your idea wrong does not make your argument true. You will need to develop your own reasons in support of your conclusion. You often see these mistakes in arguments about politics or religion where a person tries to claim their view must be true by finding fault with an opposing view.
Remember that your professor does not expect you to solve a major philosophical problem. Many of these ideas have been debated by the greatest minds of history for centuries and have never been truly resolved. All that is expected of you is that you will take a stance and make the best case for that position that you possibly can. Now that you have written the argument out comes the hard part. While some professors will not expect beginning students to be able to do this effectively a standard philosophy paper is expected to deliver objections to the writer’s own argument.
This is very hard to do, and as I said before any philosophy professor knows this, but if you can do it effectively it will almost guarantee you an A paper. What you must do is try to imagine what kind of objections someone who disagreed with you might make to your thesis and then counter those objections. It is not expected that you need write very many objections, two would be sufficient. By doing this you are once again showing that your argument is strong enough and that you are being fair enough to handle the strongest possible arguments against it. If you have trouble coming up with these objections on your own try asking a friend to try and come up with an objection to your thesis and if they come up with one that you think you can argue against half the work is already done.
The last thing you will have to worry about is citing sources properly. While your professor may leave it up to you which citation style to use the standard style for Philosophy papers is APA. I also find that this is the most effective style to use for these types of papers because it avoids any chance of accidental plagiarism if done correctly. To avoid plagiarism remember to cite each individual idea taken from another source with an in-text citation. (APA uses numbers in-text and then endnotes.) Whenever you are using the exact words of a philosopher you must put the passage in quotes. Even when you take another philosopher’s ideas and rephrase them you still must cite them. Remember that plagiarism is never worth it. Even if you write a paper and get an F on it, you will still be better off than if you were to get caught plagiarizing.
If you still feel you need more help writing philosophy papers the best book I can recommend is Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays. It is a cheap and short book that answers every question you could possibly have—you can get it at Amazon. Good luck!