How to Write a Philosophy Paper at the Last Minute
April 9, 2013
Philosophical writing was the hardest skill I had to develop in undergrad. This is because philosophical writing is really just the product of philosophical thinking, and philosophical thinking is really hard. I was a philosophy major, so I developed my ability gradually, over the course of several semesters. Many non-majors don’t have this luxury. They must quickly learn to write philosophically in order to meet the humanities requirement and pass the introductory philosophy course. The end of the semester approaches, so I thought I’d give some pointers on how to write a philosophy paper at the last minute. Maybe this will help some people develop that skill more quickly.
Most students put off writing papers until the last minute. Most professors do this, too, by the way, and don’t let them tell you otherwise. After many years of writing philosophy papers at the last minute, I’ve identified four keys to success:
- Don’t be a hero.
- Follow a standard format.
- Know your argument.
- Label your sections.
DON’T BE A HERO. What does this mean. I’m talking about the temptation you have, as a student, to say something broad and profound, like you see the narrator of the Discovery channel or History channel do. You see an opportunity in your response to branch off into some other debate, and make one of your points there. Maybe you want to respond to the objection we consider below with something like, “blah blah blah, PLUS, if God is everywhere, then he would be inside the tummies of every starving child in Africa. Why would he just sit there, letting them starve to death?! Checkmate!”
This is not a bad argument to make, but it is not the argument we are making in this paper, and it does not address the specific objection we consider. It is bad philosophy to go rampaging through logical space with a machine gun, spraying your thought bullets at everything you see.
In a philosophy paper, you are like a sniper (I attribute the gun analogy to Tom Reynolds, though I’m not sure if he came up with it originally). You have one point to make, your thesis, and you want to stay focused on it. If you introduce another thesis, then you’ve got to consider objections to it, and defend it against them. This is also why the objection you consider should be about one of your premises.
In general, the whole paper should have this feel:
“Hey, Reader, I’m gonna try and convince you that E is true.
A, B, C, D, therefore E.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You think B is false, because of X. But X is false, because Y.
So there, you should think E is true.”
It should not feel like this:
“Hey, Reader, I’m gonna try and convince you that E is true.
A, B, C, D, therefore E.
Lots of people think E is false because of sweatpants. But sweatpants are bad because Wal-Mart. Z. Q. R!
And also I want to tell you about M. M is really important. In conclusion, M and N are the most important things to consider about this debate.”
Maybe you said all true things. But that doesn’t make it good philosophy. Good philosophy is focused and to the point. Don’t be a hero by trying to say all the true things. Say a few true things, to support the one thing you are focused on, and consider why a smart person might think one of those things is false, but ultimately show them why there’s still good reason to think it’s true.
In this blog, I’ll walk you through the process of writing a philosophy paper at the last minute, keeping you informed of the time elapsed. Start the clock at 00:00. I’ll include comments to you, the reader, about what I’m doing in brackets: [ ].
Here is the format you will use for every philosophy paper you ever write:
A. [Introduction: This is a three sentence paragraph in which you introduce the topic, usually something you had to read about for class, like a specific book or article by a specific philosopher. Something like: ]
Introduction [ <- Labelled section heading. ]
In So and So’s article, “God: A thing that exists,” she argues for God’s existence based on conceptual analysis. In doing so, she assumes a concept of God as an omnipresent being. In this paper, I will argue that an omnipresent being cannot possibly exist.
[That is the form every introduction should take: In Person’s article, s/he argues whatever. In doing so, she does something more specific. In this paper, I argue something about that more specific thing I just mentioned (this last part is your thesis statement).]
Introduction done. Time elapsed: 4 minutes.
B. [Your Argument (Know It): This is a good sized section, maybe a couple to a few paragraphs, in which you present your argument, preferably in logical form, with premises and such. For a refresher on logic, please see my three-part series on logic (1, 2, 3).
You might have waited until the last minute to start your paper, but you should have been thinking about your argument for at least a week. Even if you don’t have it down to a formalized version, you should have a very good sketch of a Good Reason to believe your thesis.
Because you’ve been thinking about it, letting it marinate in the back of your mind, you can pretty much spit it out in a timely fashion. Here’s mine, which occurred to me a couple nights ago while I was lying awake in bed.]
So and So assumes the traditional concept of God as an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent being. I now present an argument that such a being cannot possibly exist. My argument appeals to set theory. I will begin by explaining something about set theory. [Transition to some brief background.]
Set theory is a branch of mathematics used to reason rigorously about abstract collections of objects. A set is a collection of objects. For any object, and for any set, the object is either in the set, or it is not. There are no copies of objects in sets, so you won’t have an object in a set twice. Sets can be objects in other sets, and sets can even be members of themselves. So you can have a set of sets, and so on. This is all one needs to know about set theory for my argument, which I will now turn to. [After background is out of the way, transition to the meaty argument.]
Premise 1: If God exists, then God is an omnipresent being.
Premise 2: If God is an omnipresent being, then no set excludes Him.
Premise 3: There is a set of objects that are not God, call it S.
Premise 4. Either God is in S, or God is excluded from S.
Premise 5: If God is in S, then God is not God, a contradiction.
Premise 6: God is excluded from S.
Premise 7: If God is excluded from S, then God is not omnipresent.
Premise 8: So, God is not omnipresent.
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.
[Now that the argument is just sitting there, you’ve got to say a few things about it, explaining the premises and such.]
This argument is deductively valid. Premise 1 follows from the standard assumption about God’s properties. Presumably this is uncontroversial.
Premise 2 translates the notion of omnipresence into set theoretic terms. It is based on the idea that an omnipresent being is everywhere, and so it is in every set.
Premise 3 is clearly true, because no one claims that every object is God. So, it makes sense to refer to these non-God objects collectively as a set.
Premise 4 follows from the axioms of set theory, and so is not controversial.
Premise 5 follows from the definition of the set S, as the collection of those things that are not God. So, if God is in S, then God is not God. This is a contradiction, and since it follows from supposing God is in S, we can rule out God’s being in S. Thus, premise 6, God is excluded from S.
Premise 7 is logically equivalent to premise 2, as its contropositive.
Premise 8 follows logically from premises 7 and 6, by modus ponens.
The conclusion follows logically from the argument. I turn now to a potential objection one might make. [ After you lay out your argument, you always consider One Good Objection. Many students fail to present an objection to their argument, and instead present an objection to their conclusion.
For example, it would be a common mistake for a student to now present a reason to believe that God exists, and call that an objection. But this is not what your philosophy teacher is looking for. He or she wants an objection to your argument; a reason to think one of your premises is false.
That’s why it is good to present it as a formalized argument. It makes thinking of objection targets way easier. For my argument, really the only possible premise that one could object to is 2, or equivalently, 6. So, I’ll think of an objection to that one. It is really important that you come up with a relatively solid objection, because this is what philosophical thinking is all about. By the way I am at 30 minutes elapsed, which includes the time I’ve taken to write these comments.]
C. [Your objection. Nicely labelled, to make sure your teacher knows you included one when s/he’s pretending to grade but really drinking, or facebooking, or both.]
I consider the following objection to premise 2. Premise 2 interprets set membership as a kind of physical location, in order to translate omnipresence into set theoretic terms. Clearly, omnipresence refers to God’s presence at every physical location. However, belonging to a set in set theory is not about physical location. Set theory is an abstract way of grouping things together based on relevant properties, not a physical way of grouping objects together. The objects in a set need not be physical at all, nor do they need to be physically inside a set.
So, the objection goes, premise 2 is false because set membership is not about being physically located inside a set. Next I’ll consider a response to this objection.
[This is a pretty good objection, and it should be. You want to come up with the best objection you can, because that shows the teacher you’ve really thought long and hard about the paper, even if you haven’t. I haven’t thought very hard about this argument, as I’m sure Redditors will point out if this blog ever makes it to Reddit, but it would be good enough for a last minute paper (and blog).]
D. [Your Response]
The objection is correct that set membership is not about being physically located inside a set. However, I am not convinced that omnipresence is about being physically located somewhere, either. The notion that God is omnipresent usually refers to some more metaphysical plane of existence, beyond the merely physical. God’s existence is supposed be primarily in some transcendent, abstract realm. In my view, it is reasonable to consider the existence of sets as likewise being on some higher, more abstract plane. Thus, arguing that set membership is not physical does not falsify premise 2.
If God exists everywhere, including the non-physical domains, then presumably he exists everywhere in whichever domain sets exist in. So, his omnipresence puts him inside sets according to whatever metaphysical rules govern location in that domain. Thus, premise 2 is still true.
[See how little I did with that response? I just poked a tiny hole in the objection, and provided a reason to think premise 2 is still true. That’s all you need to do.]
E. [Your conclusion: A three sentence paragraph briefly restating your thesis and summarizing what you just did. Time elapsed: 1 hour.]
In this paper, I argued that an omnipresent being cannot exist. I did this by introducing a set theoretic interpretation to omnipresence, and showing that omnipresence leads to a contradiction. I considered an objection that set membership is not about being physically located inside a set, but I responded to it by noting that God’s omnipresence does not seem to be primarily physical, either.
[And you’re done. It is just a tiny little wrap up, introducing nothing new. That’s what conclusions do.]
The paper I wrote above, in a little over an hour, is a little over 800 words. This is good, because most undergrad philosophy papers are around 1000 pages long. You could extend the paper by saying a little more about each premise, saying a little more about the objection, and then responding to that additional stuff in the response. It wouldn’t take too long. Just make sure the stuff you add is relevant to the argument you’ve made.
Good luck with your upcoming papers!
About the Author: Seth KurtenbachSeth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at Seth.Kurtenbach@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.
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