What the paper is supposed to be about
The basic idea of a philosophical paper is that you are supposed to argue for (or against) some specific idea. This means two things:
1. Find out, and specify what that specific idea is that you are arguing for or against.
2. Your task is to convince others, including people having opposite views, that you are correct.
– don’t be too broad. Otherwise you won’t be able to cover it all.
– specify your conclusion as precise as possible. (This is the same for all sciences – the hypothesis to be tested must be precisely specified.)
– look for what interests you the most. Read the readings again, and very often topics will come up.
– if you are arguing against certain idea or argument, make sure you do understand it in the first place.
– if you have come up with some rough idea about what you might write on, just send me an email. My responsibility is to help you with the entire writing process.
– You must contribute something new to the discussion. Let me example by an example. Suppose you want to argue that “utilitarianism is not a good moral theory” (which is a badly-picked thesis, because it is too imprecise and too broad). And then you reiterate the objections we already discussed in class, and that’s all. Surely such a paper is bad: are you convincing anyone by your paper? No! Because people already knew what you say … instead you are wasting their time to read it. Why should you waste your time to write rubbish and thereby waste my time to read rubbish?
I do not mean that you cannot reiterate the stuff we discussed in class – you can, when you are adding something new to it. For example, new perspectives to look at the same old issue, new rebuttals to the argument, etc. This will make a good paper (e.g. you can argue that certain argument is, despite looking very plausible to most people, not that plausible in fact, so we should reconsider it again. Then in the body of your paper you shall point out why the argument is not that plausible.)
– In any case, the golden test for whether you are contributing something new is: can my paper make my readers see things in a way they haven’t tried before? Of course, people have been discussing these issues for ages, so a lot have been said already. So in one sense you are probably not going to say anything new. But I am not demanding that much. I only want you to contribute something that is not already in the readings.
– suggestion (but not a requirement): doing research will greatly help you write the paper.
– You do not simply contribute something new; you have to convince people, too. So suppose you do provide one reason for accepting a certain statement. At the same time you can foresee that your readers would not be fully convinced by it – indeed, you know that they are going to doubt it. What should you do then? You should, of course, address their doubts proactively! Say that you know that your suggestion may be countered in these following ways, and explain how you would reply. In a word, you have to anticipate what others would say to you.
1. Since the paper is very short, cut out anything unnecessary. Go straight to the point.
2. Beautiful language is only a surplus. The most important thing is clarity, clarity, clarity. When people read it, they will understand your points right away, without any need to go back and forth. (Suggestion: ask your friends or your parents to read it.)
3. Credit the people whom you take ideas from.