Structural Guidelines for Term Papers
Prof. David W. Cheely
Philosophy papers should get directly to the point. In this way, philosophical writing is very different from what you were likely taught. Do not start off with overly general statements. Be very explicit and use particularly clear and concise (i.e. short) sentences in your introductory paragraph. If you cannot explain your thesis in one sentence, your thesis is probably inadequate. Creative introductions designed to catch your reader’s interest are fine; however, most of you would be better off sticking to a traditional style in which the introductory paragraph presents the thesis without much fanfare. Your thesis is your position with respect to the author’s ideas, but it should not be the final conclusion of your paper. It is not your argument. It is not your response to an objection. It is not the author’s position. It is not your conclusion. Your thesis is essentially what your paper will be about; however, good writing should not give away the cart before the horse – i.e. your thesis should relate to your conclusion, but it should not be your conclusion, thus your paper will always suggest more than it actually is about (your conclusion should make a tentative step beyond what your thesis states). Your thesis statement in your introductory paragraph is the most important sentence in your paper, thus it should be the best. You should worry about your thesis statement. It should be considered, and re-considered. Make sure it is highly crafted and explicit. Often times, thesis statements start off with “In this essay, I will argue….” While it isn’t necessary to use this stock approach, this approach does have the advantage of being highly explicit and informative. Even those of you who favor a more creative writing style should strongly consider using a highly explicit statement of your thesis within your introduction.
Thesis statement DON’Ts:
1. Do not fail to mention what you will argue in your paper. Your thesis statement should be very explicit and firm.
2. Do not write “I THINK”, “I BELIEVE”, “I FEEL” PHRASES (anywhere in your paper). I don’t care what you think, feel, or believe. I only care about what you will show through argument.
3. Write as if you are writing to God, not to your friends, or even to me. In other words, don’t write the way you speak. Colloquialisms, over-used phrases, and humorous anecdotes should be avoided.
Thesis statement Dos:
1. State your thesis very clearly and as concisely as is possible. Don’t spend a lot of words ‘working up to it’. Your reader should know VERY EARLY on in your paper exactly what you will be arguing and, in a general way, why.
2. Your thesis statement should take a definitive stand on an issue to be examined. Avoid wishy-washy, this-and-that, either-or, perhaps, and maybe phrasings.
3. Write as if everyone you mention is still alive – use the present tense whenever possible. In philosophy, ideas never die.
Whatever you do, take your time on your thesis statement as it will both guide your inquiry, and your reader.
Body of Paper:
Remember the four “-ations”. The body of the paper should be broken into sections that correspond to these four structural components.
Explication – The point of this section of your paper is to present both your understanding of the text and the arguments of the author. Most of your primary textual citations will be used in this section of your paper (for your term papers, following MLA citation procedures is important – You will want to include a works cited page that does not count toward the page minimum. You will want to quote the text and then place the (author, page number) in parentheses at the end of the sentence, unless you reference anything external to the text – i.e. a website or a text we did not read for the class, then insert a footnote and include the full citation – per MLA – in the footnote). This will help to ground your thought in the text; however, this does not mean that you can make a slew of references to the text without explaining those references or incorporating them into your paper’s thesis. Make sure that your explication of the text is complete; however, it is important that you refrain from referencing irrelevant material.
Interrogation – In this section of your paper, you will need to critically evaluate the ideas presented in the text that you have already explicated. If you disagree with the ideas, then you will want to state why you disagree with the ideas. If you agree with the ideas, then you will want to further strengthen them by analyzing them in detail (you might want to concretize them by showing how they could be considered in the practices of everyday life, for instance, or you could show how they relate well conceptually with other, more intuitive ideas).
Declaration – This section tends to blend in with the concept of interrogation. In this section, I want you to make a definitive stand on the issue under consideration. Here, you’ll want to re-state your thesis statement, while clarifying it with greater detail and support. As a result of your extensive critical analysis in the proceeding section, you might definitively state your disagreement with the author and offer another view upon the subject (this can be your own, or it can be derived from another work), or even (and this is rare) a totally unique idea. If you agreed with the author’s ideas, this is where you might improve the original idea by adding considerations that the author failed to incorporate into the original work. Again, you’ll want to declare exactly what you are contributing to the original inquiry, and this can be derived from other sources (our readings, or other readings – our readings need only be cited with a page number, but if you bring in other works, you’ll need to site those works according to MLA guidelines)
Elaboration – This is another key section in your overall argument. Think carefully about what someone who disagrees with you might say. Try to wear the skeptical hat, and present this as an objection to your declared thesis. Good objections improve papers tremendously and (when defended well) are an important key to solid philosophical writing. A philosopher must be able to consider the opposing viewpoint and present it with a strong objection that can’t easily be destroyed (in fact, some of the best papers will destroy their own theses with their objection and will conclude with further, more fundamental questions!).
A mere re-stating of your thesis is not sufficient. Your thesis was argued for prior to your considered objection. If the objection causes you to reject your thesis, then your conclusion will express the result of your inquiry in the form of further questions. If you were able to elaborate upon your thesis in spite of (and often times, because of) your considered objection, then your conclusion will be a wrapping up of the inquiry. In this case, you have expanded your (and your reader’s) understanding of the original question/idea and have reached an answer/ viewpoint that is sufficient (at least, for now!). Often times, at this point, it is a good idea to suggest where your line of thought might lead. Think of it as an “end-of-movie” trailer that leaves something open-ended to the plot, suggesting a likely sequel. In this case, your inquiry has addressed your thesis, but you have several new questions you might want to ask. Suggesting these new questions, either implicitly or explicitly, is a good way to extend your conversation with the reader beyond the text. As is the case with almost every topic philosophy examines, such new questions suggest the possibility of a future amendment to your current thought. I am of the opinion that if you are thinking the same way at 30 that you did at 20, then you have lost a decade of thought; philosophers change their beliefs and opinions constantly. They are never married to their last paper, or book.
The above structural guidelines are meant to help you in the creation of your paper. Your grade will be based upon a grading rubric that I have designed and you will have access to on blackboard; however, that does not mean that you must strictly follow these structural guidelines. They are, after all, only guides.