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Philosophy essay writing guide


This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable, mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.

Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.

"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support - or fail to support - those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.

Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts - and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries - even millennia - and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.

In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)

It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in - even a passion for - ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.

This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.

This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:

  • A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
  • J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
  • R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)

Also, the websites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.

*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.

What do I do in a Philosophy essay?

Philosophy essay topics are not designed to provide an intellectual obstacle course that trips you up so as to delight a malicious marker. They are designed to invite you to "grapple with" with some particular philosophical problem or issue. That is to say, they are designed to offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a particular philosophical problem or issue, and to exhibit your own philosophical skills of analysis, argumentation, etc. These twin goals are usually best achieved by ensuring that your essay performs two basic functions (your understanding and your skills apply to both):

an exposition of the problem or issue in question (often as it is posed in some particular text); and a critical discussion of the problem or text

These two functions can, but need not always, correspond to physically or structurally distinct sections of your essay. See Section 5.1.

The expository ("setting forth") aspect of your essay is where you should make clear what the issue is and why it is an issue. Where you are dealing with an issue as it is presented in some particular text, your aim should be to make clear what it is that the author in question meant in their text, what they see as the issue and why they see it as an issue. This does not involve merely quoting or paraphrasing a text. Of course, occasional quotation and paraphrase may be appropriate - sometimes necessary - but these ought not to constitute the sole or major content of your exposition. Where you do quote or paraphrase, make sure you attribute your sources in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.)

Exposition is, then, primarily a matter of developing in your own words what you think the issue is or what you think the text means. In all expository work you should always try to give a fair and accurate account of a text or problem, even when the exposition becomes more interpretive rather than simply descriptive. You ought to be patient and sympathetic in your exposition, even if you intend later to criticise heavily the philosopher in question. Indeed, the better the exposition in this regard, usually the more effective the critique.

An important part of exposition is your analysis of the text or issue. Here you should try to "break down" the text, issue or problem into its constitutive elements by distinguishing its different parts. (E.g. "There are two basic kinds of freedom in question when we speak of freedom of the will. First, … . Second, …", or "There are three elements in Plato's conception of the soul, namely... He establishes these three elements by means of the following two arguments... ") This also involves showing the relationships between those elements, relationships which make them "parts of the whole".

As well as laying out these elements within a text or issue, you can also (when appropriate or relevant) show how a text or issue "connects up with" other texts, issues, or philosophical and/or historical developments, which can help to shed further light on the matter by giving it a broader context. (eg "Freedom of the will is importantly connected to the justification of punishment", or "Plato's tripartite theory of the soul bears interesting resemblances to Freud's analysis of the psyche", or "Kant's transcendental idealism can be seen as reconciling the preceding rationalist and empiricist accounts of knowledge".)

An exposition of a text need not always simply follow the author's own view of what it means. You should, of course, demonstrate that you understand how the author themself understands their work, but an exposition can sometimes go beyond this, giving another reading of the text. (eg "Heidegger might deny it, but his Being and Time can be read as developing a pragmatist account of human understanding.") A given text or issue may well be susceptible to a number of plausible or reasonable interpretations. An exposition should aim to be sensitive to such variety. When appropriate, you should defend your interpretations against rivals and objections. Your interpretation ought, though, to be aimed at elucidating the meaning or meanings of the text or issue and not serve merely as a "coat-hanger" for presenting your own favoured views on the matter in question, which should be left to your ...

Critical discussion

This is where your thought gets more of the centre stage. Here you should attempt to develop a response to the issues which your exposition has made clear, and/or, in the case of a discussion of some particular text, attempt to give a critical appraisal of the author's treatment of the issue. In developing a response to a philosophical problem, argumentation is, again, of central importance. Avoid making unsupported assertions; back up your claims with reasons, and connect up your ideas so that they progress logically toward your conclusions. Consider some of the various objections to and questions about your views that others might or have put forward, and try to respond to them in defence of your own line of thinking. Your goal here should be to discuss what you have expounded so as to come to some conclusion or judgement about it. ("Critical" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "to decide, to judge".) Critical discussion is thus not necessarily "destructive" or "negative"; it can be quite constructive and positive.

In the case of a critical appraisal of a particular author's text, you can negatively criticise the author's arguments by pointing out questionable assumptions, invalid reasoning, etc. If, on the other hand, you think that the text is good, then your critical discussion can be positive. This can be done by revealing its "hidden virtues" (that is, by showing that there is more to the author's arguments and views than what lies on the surface) and/or by defending an author against possible and/or actual criticisms. (eg "Norman Malcolm argues that Descartes is mistaken in assuming that dreams and waking episodes have the same content.* However, Malcolm fails to appreciate the subtlety of Descartes' argument in the First Meditation, which allows Descartes to claim . . .") Just to expound an author's arguments and then say "I disagree" or "That seems right" is not really enough - you need to "have something to say" about it. Of course, by all means go on, after finding fault with some philosopher, to answer in your own way the questions tackled or raised by the author. (eg "Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex suffers from serious weaknesses, as I have shown in Section 2 above. A better way to approach the issue, I shall now argue, is to . . .".)

Where you are not primarily concerned with evaluating or responding to a particular text, your critical discussion can be more focused on your own constructive response to the issue. (eg "Having used Dworkin's account to clarify the meanings of the concepts of 'the sanctity of life' and 'voluntariness', I shall now argue that voluntary euthanasia is morally permissible because its voluntariness respects what is of value in the notion of the sanctity of life" - where you now leave Dworkin behind as a source and move on to give your own account.)

* See Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 56.

Guide to researching and writing Philosophy essays

5th edition by Steven Tudor , for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003.

This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays ) was prepared in consultation with members of the Philosophy program, the University of Melbourne. For advice and assistance on this and earlier editions, thanks are due to Graham Priest, Barry Taylor, Christopher Cordner, Doug Adeney, Josie Winther, Linda Burns, Marion Tapper, Kimon Lycos, Brendan Long, Jeremy Moss, Tony Coady, Will Barrett, Brian Scarlett, and Megan Laverty. Some use was also made of materials prepared by the Philosophy Departments of La Trobe University, the University of Queensland, and The Australian National University.

Disclaimer: University, Faculty and program rules

Please note: this booklet does not provide authoritative statements of the official policies or rules of the University of Melbourne, the Faculty of Arts, or the Philosophy program with regard to student essays and examinations or any other matters. Students should, therefore, not rely on this booklet for such information, for which they should consult the various appropriate notice boards, handbooks, websites, and/or members of staff.

Essay topics

What do philosophy essay topics look like? There are, very roughly, two basic kinds of philosophy essay topics: "text-focused" topics and "problem-focused" topics. Text-focused topics ask you to consider some particular philosopher's writing on some issue. (eg "Discuss critically David Hume's account of causation in Part III of Book I of his A Treatise of Human Nature " or "Was Wittgenstein right to say that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language', in his Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 43?"). Problem-focused topics are more directly about a particular philosophical problem or issue, without reference to any particular philosopher's text. (eg "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" or "What is scientific method?")

There is another sort of topic, one which presents a statement and asks you to discuss it, where that statement is a "made up" or, at least, unattributed quote. (eg. "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss.") I shall regard these as variations of the problem-focused type of topic. Where you are asked to discuss some such statement "with reference to" some specified text or philosopher, then that topic becomes more text-focused. (eg "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss with reference to J.L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. ") Occasionally, a topic presents an unattributed statement, but the statement is, in fact, a quote from a particular philosopher you've been studying, or, at least, a good paraphrase of their thinking. (An example of the latter: "'All the ideas in our minds originate from either sense perception or our reflection upon sensory information.' Discuss.", in a course devoted to John Locke, whose views are summed up in the quoted statement, though those words are not actually his.) Should you take such topics as problem- or text-focused? Rather unhelpfully, I'll say only that it depends on the case. You might ask your lecturer or tutor about it. Whichever way you do take it, be clear in your essay which way you are taking it.

The difference between text-focused and problem-focused essay topics is, however, not very radical. This is because, on the one hand, any particular philosopher's text is about some philosophical problem or question, while, on the other hand, most philosophical problems (certainly virtually all those you will be given as essay topics at university) will have been written about by previous philosophers.

The basic way to approach text-focused topics, then, is to treat the nominated text as an attempt by one philosopher to deal with a particular philosophical problem or issue. The essay topic will, generally speaking, be inviting you to do philosophy with that philosopher, to engage with them in thinking about the issue, whether that engagement proves to be as an ally or an adversary. The chosen text will usually be one which has been (or deserves to be) influential or significant in the history of philosophy, but the task is not to pay homage to past masters. But, even if homage is your thing, the best way to do that here is to engage with the master philosophically.

With regard to problem-focused topics, you will often find your exploration of the problem aided by taking some text or texts which have dealt with it as reference points or prompts. This is not always strictly necessary, but many of you starting out in philosophy will find it helpful to do so - it can help you give focus to your response to the question. (Thus, you might, in an essay on the topic "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" take it upon yourself to use, for example, Ronald Dworkin's Life's Dominion and Peter Singer's Practical Ethics as reference points. Or, in an essay on the topic "What is scientific method?", you might set up your answer via a comparison of the two different accounts in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.*) How will you know which texts to adopt as reference points or prompts, if none is mentioned in the essay topic itself? One way is to consider what texts have already been mentioned with regard to the topic in your course reading guide and in lectures and tutorials. Another way is to do some of your own research. On this see Section 4 below.

* In this guide, in giving examples of how to go about answering an essay question, I am not necessarily giving any concrete or reliable advice for any particular topic. The examples are primarily to do with the form or style or strategy you might find helpful.

Researching your essay

To do research for your philosophy essay you need to do only two things: read and think. Actually, for problem-focused essays, thinking is the only truly necessary bit, but it's highly likely that you will find your thinking much assisted if you do some reading as well. Philosophical research at university is a little different to research in most other disciplines (especially the natural sciences), in that it is not really about "collecting data" to support or refute explanatory theories. Rather, the thinking that's involved in philosophical research (as part of one's preparation for philosophical writing) is more a matter of reflecting critically upon the problems in front of one. Researching the writings of other philosophers should, therefore, be primarily directed towards helping you with that reflection rather than aiming at gathering together and reporting on "the relevant findings" on a particular topic. In many other disciplines, a "literature review" is an important research skill, and sometimes philosophy academics do such reviews - but it is rare that philosophy students are asked to do one.

What, then, to read? It should be clear from your lectures and tutorials what some starting points for your reading might be. (All courses provide reading guides; many also have booklets of reading material.) Your tutor and lecturer are also available for consultation on what readings you might begin with for any particular topic in that subject. Independent research can also uncover useful sources, and evidence of this in your essay can be a pleasing sign of intellectual independence. Make sure, though, that what you come up with is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.) Whichever way you proceed, your reading should be purposive and selective.

In the case of essay questions that refer to a particular text, you should familiarise yourself thoroughly with this text. Usually, such a text will be a primary text, i.e. one in which a philosopher writes directly about a philosophical issue. Texts on or about a primary text are called secondary texts. (Many philosophical works will combine these two tasks, and discuss other philosophical texts while also dealing directly with a philosophical issue.) Some secondary texts can be helpful to students. However, don't think you will only ever understand a primary text if you have a nice friendly secondary text to take you by the hand through the primary text. More often than not, you need to have a good grasp of the primary text in order to make sense of the secondary text.

How much to read? The amount of reading you do should be that which maximises the quality of your thinking - that is, you should not swamp yourself with vast slabs of text that you can't digest, but nor should you starve your mind of ideas to chew over. There is, of course, no simple rule for determining this optimal amount. Be wary, though, of falling into the vice of looking for excuses not to read some philosopher or text, as in "Oh, that's boring old religious stuff" or "She's one of those obscure literary feminist types", or "In X Department they laugh at you if you mention those authors in tutes". If someone wants a reason not to think, they'll soon come up with one.

Philosophical writings

Most philosophical writings come in either of two forms: books or articles. Articles appear either in books that are edited anthologies or in academic journals, such as Philosophical Quarterly or Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Some academic journals are also on the internet. Most articles in the journals are written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers; similarly with many books. But by no means let this put you off. Everyone begins philosophy at the deep end - it's really the only kind there is!

There are, however, many books written for student audiences. Some of these are general introductions to philosophy as a whole; others are introductions to particular areas or issues (eg biomedical ethics or philosophy of science). Among the general introductions are various philosophical dictionaries, encyclopedias and "companions". These reference works collect short articles on a wide range of topics and can be very useful starting points for newcomers to a topic. Among the most useful of the general reference works are:

  • Edward Craig, ed., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
  • Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Thomas Mautner, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1998)
  • J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree, eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1993)
  • Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an internet-based reference work: plato.stanford.edu/ )

Note taking

Note taking, like your reading, should not be random, but ought to be guided by the topic in question and by your particular lines of response to the issues involved. Note taking for philosophy is very much an individual art, which you develop as you progress. By and large it is not of much use to copy out reams of text as part of your researches. Nor is it generally helpful to read a great number of pages without making any note of what they contain for future reference. But between these two extremes it is up to you to find the mean that best helps you in getting your thoughts together.

Libraries and electronic resources

The University's Baillieu Library (including the Institute of Education Resource Centre), which is open to all members of the University, contains more than 2,500 years' worth of philosophical writings. The best way to become acquainted with them is by using them, including using the catalogues (including the Baillieu's on-line catalogues and subject resources web-pages), following up a work's references (and references in the references), intelligent browsing of the shelves, etc.

In the main Baillieu Library, the philosophical books are located (mostly) between 100–199 in the Dewey decimal system, and philosophical journals are located in the basement. The Reference section on the ground floor also has some relevant works. The Education Resource Centre also has a good philosophy collection.

In addition to hard-copy philosophical writings, there is also a variety of electronic resources in philosophy, mostly internet-based. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was already mentioned above. Links to other useful internet sites (such as the Australasian Association of Philosophy website) can be found through the Baillieu Library's web-page and the Philosophy Department's web-page.

A strong word of warning, however, for the would-be philosophical web-surfer: because anyone can put material on a website, all kinds of stuff, of varying levels of quality, is out there - and new-comers to philosophy are usually not well placed to sort their way through it. Unless you have a very good understanding of what you're looking for - and what you're not looking for - most of you will be much better off simply carefully reading and thinking about a central text for your course, eg Descartes' First Meditation, rather than wandering about the internet clicking on all the hits for "Descartes". Exercise your mind, not your index finger.

Writing your essay

Planning and structuring your essay.

It is very important that you plan your essay, so that you have an idea of what you are going to write before you start to write it. Of course, you will most likely alter things in later drafts, but you should still start off by having a plan. Planning your essay includes laying out a structure. It is very important that your essay has a clearly discernible structure, ie that it is composed of parts and that these parts are logically connected. This helps both you and your reader to be clear about how your discussion develops, stage by stage, as you work through the issues at hand.

Poor essay structure is one of the most common weaknesses in student philosophy essays. Taking the time to work on the structure of your essay is time well spent, especially since skill in structuring your thoughts for presentation to others should be among the more enduring things you learn at university. A common trap that students fall into is to start their essay by writing the first sentence, then writing another one that seems to follow that one, then another one that sort of fits after that one, then another that might or might not have some connection with the previous one, and so on until the requisite 1,500 words are used up. The result is usually a weak, rambling essay.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about how to structure a philosophy essay. Again, it is a skill you develop through practice, and much will depend on the particular topic at hand. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to begin by developing an essay structure around the basic distinction between your exposition and your critical discussion (as discussed above). In this it will be important that you make clear who is putting forward which point, that is, make it clear whether you are presenting your own thoughts or are expounding someone else's. (Again, confusion in this regard is a common problem in student essays.) It can often help your structuring if you provide headings for different sections (possibly numbered or lettered). Again, this helps both your reader to follow your discussion and you to develop your thoughts. At each stage, show clearly the logical relations between and the reasons for your points, so that your reader can see clearly why you say what you say and can see clearly the development in your discussion.

Another key to structuring your essay can be found in the old adage "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you've told 'em", which provides you with a ready-made structure: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

In your Introduction, first introduce the issues the essay is concerned with. In doing so, try to state briefly just what the problem is and (if there is space) why it is a problem. This also applies, of course, to issues covered in text-focused essay topics. Next, tell the reader what it is that you are going to do about those problems in the Main Body. This is usually done by giving a brief sketch or overview of the main points you will present, a "pre-capitulation", so to speak, of your essay's structure. This is one way of showing your reader that you have a grasp (indeed, it helps you get a grasp) of your essay as a structured and integrated whole, and gives them some idea of what to expect by giving them an idea of how you have decided to answer the question. Of course, for reasons of space, your Introduction might not be very long, but something along these lines is likely to be useful.

In your Main Body, do what you've said you'll do. Here is where you should present your exposition(s) and your critical discussion(s). Thus, it is here that the main philosophical substance of your essay is to be found. Of course, what that substance is and how you will present it will depend on the particular topic before you. But, whatever the topic, make clear at each stage just what it is you are doing. You can be quite explicit about this. (eg "I shall now present Descartes' ontological argument for the existence of God, as it is presented in his Fifth Meditation. There will be three stages to this presentation.") Don't think that such explicitness must be a sign of an unsophisticated thinker.

A distinct Conclusion is perhaps not always necessary, if your Main Body has clearly "played out" your argument. So you don't always have to present a grand summation or definitive judgement at the end. Still, often for your own sake, try to state to yourself what it is your essay has achieved and see if it would be appropriate to say so explicitly. Don't feel that you must come up with earth-shattering conclusions. Of course, utter banality or triviality are not good goals, either. Also, your essay doesn't always have to conclude with a "solution" to a problem. Sometimes, simply clarifying an issue or problem is a worthy achievement and can merit first-class honours. A good conclusion to a philosophy essay, then, will usually combine a realistic assessment of the ambit and cogency of its claims with a plausible proposal that those claims have some philosophical substance.

What you write in your essay should always be relevant to the question posed. This is another common problem in student essays, so continually ask yourself "Am I addressing the question here?" First-class answers to a question can vary greatly, but you must make sure that your essay responds to the question asked, even if you go on to argue that the question as posed is itself problematic. (eg "To ask ‘What is scientific method?' presupposes that science follows one basic method. However, I shall argue that there are, in fact, several different scientific methods and that these are neither unified nor consistent.") Be wary, however, of twisting a topic too far out of shape in order to fit your favoured theme. (You would be ill-advised, for example, to proceed thus: "What is scientific method? This is a question asked by many great minds. But what is a mind? In this essay, I shall discuss the views of Thomas Aquinas on the nature of mind.")

This requirement of relevance is not intended as an authoritarian constraint on your intellectual freedom. It is part of the skill of paying sustained and focused attention to something put before you - which is one of the most important skills you can develop at university. If you do have other philosophical interests that you want to pursue (such as Aquinas on mind), then please do pursue them, in addition to writing your essay on the set topic. At no stage does the requirement of relevance prevent you from pursuing your other interests.

Citing Philosophical "Authorities"

There might be occasions when you want to quote other philosophers and writers apart from when you are quoting them because they are the subject of your essay. There are two basic reasons why you might want to do this. First, you might quote someone because their words constitute a good or exemplary expression or articulation of an idea you are dealing with, whether as its proponent, critic, or simply its chronicler. (eg "As Nietzsche succinctly put the point, 'There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena'.*") You may or may not want to endorse the idea whose good expression you have quoted, but simply want to use the philosopher as a spokesperson for or example of that view. But be clear about what you think the quote means and be careful about what you are doing with the quote. It won't do all the work for you.

The second reason you might want to quote a philosopher is because you think their words constitute an "authoritative statement" of a view. Here you want to use the fact that, eg Bertrand Russell maintained that there are two kinds of knowledge of things (namely, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description) in support of your claim that there are two such kinds of knowledge of things. However, be very careful in doing this, for the nature of philosophical authority is not so simple here. That is to say, what really matters is not that Bertrand Russell the man held that view; what matters are his reasons for holding that view. So, when quoting philosophers for this second reason, be careful that you appreciate in what exactly the authority lies - which means that you should show that you appreciate why Russell maintained that thesis. Of course, you can't provide long arguments for every claim you make or want to make use of; every essay will have its enabling but unargued assumptions. But at least be clear about these. (eg "For the purposes of this essay, I shall adopt Russell's thesis* that ...").

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first German ed.1886]), Sec. 108.

* See Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 [first pub. 1912]), Ch. 5.

Philosophy is by its nature a relatively abstract and generalising business. (Note that abstractness and generality are not the same thing. Nor do vagueness and obscurity automatically attend them.) Sometimes a longish series of general ideas and abstract reasonings can become difficult for the reader (and often the writer) to follow. It can often help, therefore, to use some concrete or specific examples in your discussion. (Note that there can be different levels of concreteness and specificity in examples.)

Examples can be taken from history, current events, literature, and so on, or can be entirely your own invention. Exactly what examples you employ and just how and why you use them will, of course, depend on the case. Some uses might be: illustration of a position, problem or idea to help make it clearer; evidence for, perhaps even proof of, a proposition; a counter-example; a case-study to be returned to at various points during the essay; or a problem for a theory or viewpoint to be applied to. Again, be clear about what the example is and how and why you use it. Be careful not to get distracted by, or bogged down in, your examples. Brevity is usually best.

English expression

There's another old saying: "If you can't say what you mean, then you can't mean what you say" - and this very much applies to philosophical writing. Thus, in writing philosophically, you must write clearly and precisely. This means that good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written, including its grammar and vocabulary. (See Section 9.3 for advice for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.) A high standard of writing skills is to be expected of Arts graduates. Indeed, this sort of skill will last longer than your memory of, for example, the three parts of the Platonic soul (though it is also hoped that some of the content of what you study will also stick). So use your time at university (in all your subjects) to develop these skills further.

Having a mastery of a good range of terms, being sensitive to the subtleties of their meaning, and being able to construct grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentences are essential to the clear articulation and development of your thoughts. Think of grammar, not as some old-fashioned set of rules of linguistic etiquette, but rather as the "internal logic" of a sentence, that is, as the relationships between the words within a sentence which enable them to combine to make sense.

Virtually all sentences in philosophical writing are declarative (ie. make statements), as opposed to interrogative, imperative or exclamatory types of sentences. There is some place, though, for interrogative sentences, ie. questions. (Note that, in contrast, this guide, which is not in the essay genre, contains many imperative sentences, ie. commands.) As you craft each (declarative) sentence in your essay, remember the basics of sentence construction. Make clear what the sentence is about (its subject) and what you are saying about it (the predicate). Make clear what the principal verb is in the predicate, since it is what usually does the main work in saying something about the subject. Where a sentence consists of more than one clause (as many do in philosophical writing), make clear what work each clause is doing. Attend closely, then, to each and every sentence you write so that its sense is clear and is the sense you intend it to have. Think carefully about what it is you want each particular sentence to do (in relation to both those sentences immediately surrounding it and the essay as a whole) and structure your sentence so that it does what you want it to do. To help you with your own sentence construction skills, when reading others' philosophical works (or indeed any writing) attend closely to the construction of each sentence so as to be alive to all the subtleties of the text.

Good punctuation is an essential part of sentence construction. Its role is to help to display the grammar of a sentence so that its meaning is clear. As an example of how punctuation can fundamentally change the grammar and, hence, meaning of a sentence, compare (i) "Philosophers, who argue for the identity of mind and brain, often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." and (ii) "Philosophers who argue for the identity of mind and brain often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." In the first sentence it is asserted (falsely, as it happens) that all philosophers argue for the identity of mind and brain; in the second, only some philosophers are said to argue for the identity of mind and brain. Only the punctuation differs in the two strings of identical words, and yet the meanings of the sentences are very different. Confusions over this sort of thing are common weaknesses in student essays, and leave readers asking themselves "What exactly is this student trying to say?"

It will be assumed that you can spell - which is not a matter of pressing the "spell-check" key on a word-processor. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should always be within reach as you write your essay.

Also, try to shorten and simplify sentences where you can do so without sacrificing the subtlety and inherent complexity of the discussion. Where a sentence is becoming too long or complex, it is likely that too many ideas are being bundled up together too closely. Stop and separate your ideas out. If an idea is a good or important one, it will usually deserve its own sentence.

Your "intra-sentential logic" should work very closely with the "inter-sentential logic" of your essay, ie. with the logical relations between your sentences. (This "inter-sentential logic" is what "logic" is usually taken to refer to.) For example, to enable sentences P and Q to work together to yield sentence R as a conclusion, you need to make clear that there are elements within P and Q which connect up to yield R. Consider the following example: "Infanticide is the intentional killing of a human being. However, murder is regarded by all cultures as morally abhorrent. Therefore, people who commit infanticide should be punished." This doesn't work as an argument, because the writer has not constructed sentences which provide the connecting concepts in the various subjects and predicates, even though each sentence is grammatically correct (and possibly even true).

If you are concerned to write not only clearly and precisely, but also with some degree of grace and style (and I hope you are), it's still best to get the clarity and precision right first, in a plain, straightforward way, and then to polish things up afterwards to get the style and grace you want. But don't sacrifice clarity and precision for the sake of style and grace - be prepared to sacrifice that beautiful turn of phrase if its presence is going to send your discussion down an awkward path of reasoning. Aim to hit the nail on the head rather than make a loud bang. What you are likely to find, however, is that a philosophy essay which really is clear and precise will have a large measure of grace and style in its very clarity and precision.

Remember that obscurity is not a sign of profundity. (Some profound thought may well be difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean that one can achieve profundity merely through producing obscure, difficult-to-read writing.) Your marker is interested in what's actually in your essay, not what's possibly inside your head (or indeed what's possibly in some book you happen to have referred to in your essay). So avoid hinting at or alluding suggestively to ideas, especially where they are meant to do some important work in your essay. Instead, lay them out explicitly and directly. Of course, you won't have space to spell out every single idea, so work out which ideas do the most important work and make sure that you at least get those ideas clearly articulated. In expounding a text or problem that ultimately just is vague, muddled, or obscure, try to convey such vagueness, muddle or obscurity clearly, rather than simply reproducing it in your own writing. That is, be clear that and how a text or problem has such features, and then perhaps do your best to make matters clearer.

Despite these stern pronouncements, don't be afraid of sometimes saying things which happen to sound a little odd, if you have tried various formulations and think you have now expressed your ideas just as they should be expressed. Philosophy is often an exploratory business, and new ways of seeing and saying things can sometimes be a part of that exploration.

The need for clarity and precision in philosophical writing sometimes means that you need to stipulate your own meaning for a term. When you want to use a particular word in a particular way for the purposes of your essay - as a "technical term" - be clear about it. (eg "In this essay, I shall intend ‘egoism' to mean ...") Also, be consistent in your technical meanings, or else note when you are not. Be wary, though, of inventing too many neologisms or being too idiosyncratic in your stipulations.

With regard to what "authorial pronoun" to adopt in a philosophy essay, it's standard to write plainly in the first person singular ("I", "me", "my", etc.) rather than use the royal "we" (as in "we shall argue that ..."), or the convoluted quasi-legal indirect form ("It is submitted that ..."), or the scientific objectivity of a physics experimental report. Nonetheless, stick closer to "I argue", "I suggest", "my definition", etc., than to "I wish", "I hate", "my feeling", etc. A philosophy essay is still something more intellectual and formal than a personal reminiscence, polemic, or proclamation. In terms of audience, it's probably best to think of your reader as someone who is intelligent, open to discussion and knows a little about the topic you're writing on, but perhaps is not quite clear or decided about the issues, or needs convincing of the view you want to put forward, or is curious about what you think about the issues.

Try also to use non-discriminatory language, ie. language which does not express or imply inequality of worth between people on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. As you write, you will be considering carefully your choice of words to express your thoughts. You will almost always find that it is possible to avoid discriminatory language by rephrasing your sentences.

Other things to avoid:

  • waffle and padding
  • vagueness and ambiguity
  • abbreviations (this guide I'm writing isn't an eg. of what's req'd. in a phil. essay)
  • colloquialisms (which can really get up your reader's nose)
  • writing whose syntax merely reflects the patterns of informal speech
  • unnecessary abstractness or indirectness
  • unexplained jargon
  • flattery and invective
  • overly-rhetorical questions (do you really need me to tell you what they are?) and other flourishes

There are many guides to good writing available. Anyone who writes (whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether beginners or experienced professionals) will do well to have some on hand. Most good bookshops and libraries will have some. Among the most consulted works are (check for the latest editions):

  • J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000)
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)
  • R. W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Australian Government Publishing Service, Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 5th ed. (Canberra: AGPS, 1995)

Vocabulary of logical argument

Closely related to the above points about English expression is the importance of having a good grasp of what can rather generally be called "the vocabulary of logical argument". These sorts of terms are crucial in articulating clearly and cogently a logical line of argument. Such argumentation will, of course, be of central importance in whatever discipline you are studying, indeed in any sphere of life that requires effective thinking and communication. I have in mind terms such as these (grouped a little loosely):

all, any, every, most, some, none, a, an, the that, this, it, he, she, they if . . . , then. . . ; if and only if . . . , then . . . ; unless either . . . or . . .; neither . . . nor . . . not, is, are therefore, thus, hence, so, because, since, follows, entails, implies, infer, consequence, conditional upon moreover, furthermore which, that, whose and, but, however, despite, notwithstanding, nevertheless, even, though, still possibly, necessarily, can, must, may, might, ought, should true, false, probable, certain sound, unsound, valid, invalid, fallacious, supported, proved, contradicted, rebutted, refuted, negated logical, illogical, reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational assumption, premise, belief, claim, proposition argument, reason, reasoning, evidence, proof

Most of these are quite simple terms, but they are crucial in argumentative or discursive writing of all kinds. (Many are themselves the subject of study in logic, a branch of philosophy). The sloppy use of these sorts of terms is another common weakness in students' philosophy essays. Pay close and careful attention to how you employ them. Moreover, pay close and careful attention to how the authors you read use them. For further discussion of some of these terms and others, see:

  • Basic Philosophical Vocabulary, prepared by the staff of the Philosophy Department and available from the programs Office
  • Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973)
  • Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking (London: Fontana, 1985)
  • Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Revising your essay

It is virtually essential that you write a first draft of your essay and then work on that draft to work towards your finished essay. Indeed, several drafts may well be necessary in order to produce your best possible work. It is a rare philosopher indeed who can get things perfectly right on the first attempt, so be prepared to revise and re-develop what you write. Don't be too precious about what you have written, if it appears that it should be sacrificed in the revision process. There is usually a very marked difference between essays which are basically first draft rush-jobs done the night before they are due and those which have been revised and polished. Give yourself time to revise by starting writing early on. For most philosophy students, the greater part of the work in essay writing is in the writing, not in the preliminary researches and planning stages. So be wary of thinking "I've done all the research. I only need to write up my notes, which I can do the night before the essay's due". This is likely to lead to a weak, perhaps non-existent, essay (and very likely a sleepless night).

Stick to the word limit given for your essay. Why are word limits imposed? First, to give the markers a fair basis for comparing student essays. Second, to give you the opportunity to practise the discipline of working creatively under constraints. Skill in this discipline will stand you in very good stead in any sphere where circumstances impose limitations. Again, word limits are not constraints on your intellectual freedom. Outside your essay you are free to write without limit. But even there you'll probably find that your creativity is improved by working under a self-imposed discipline.

As a general rule, most student essays that fall well short of the word limit are weak or lazy attempts at the task, and most essays that go well over the limit are not much stronger or the result of much harder work - the extra length is often due to unstructured waffle or padding which the writer hasn't thought enough about so as to edit judiciously. If you structure your essay clearly, you'll find it easier to revise and edit, whether in order to contract or expand it. ("Hmm, let's see: section 2 is much longer than section 4, but is not as important, so I'll cut it down. And I should expand section 3, because that's a crucial step. And I can shift that third paragraph in the Introduction to the Conclusion.")

Plagiarism and originality

Plagiarism is essentially a form of academic dishonesty or cheating. At university level, such dishonesty is not tolerated and is dealt with severely, usually by awarding zero marks for a plagiarised essay or, in some cases, dismissing a student from the university.

When you submit your essay, you are implicitly stating that the essay is your own original and independent work, that you have not submitted the same work for assessment in another subject, and that where you have made use of other people's work, this is properly acknowledged. If you know that this is not in fact the case, you are being dishonest. (In a number of university departments, students are in fact required to sign declarations of academic honesty.)

Plagiarism is the knowing but unacknowledged use of work by someone else (including work by another student, and indeed oneself - see below) and which is being presented as one's own work. It can take a number of forms, including:

  • copying : exactly reproducing another's words
  • paraphrasing : expressing the meaning of another's words in different words
  • summarising : reproducing the main points of another's argument
  • cobbling : copying, paraphrasing or summarising the work of a number of different people and piecing them together to produce one body of text
  • submitting one's own work when it has already been submitted for assessment in another subject
  • collusion : presenting an essay as your own independent work when in fact it has been produced, in whole or part, in collusion with one or more other people

None of the practices of copying, paraphrasing, summarizing or cobbling is wrong in itself, but when one or more is done without proper acknowledgment it constitutes plagiarism. Therefore, all sources must be adequately and accurately acknowledged in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.) Plagiarism from the internet in particular can be a temptation for a certain kind of student. However, be warned: there is a number of very good internet and software tools for identifying plagiarism.

With regard to collusion, it's undoubtedly often very helpful to discuss one's work with others, be it other students, family members, friends or teachers. Indeed, philosophy thrives on dialogue. However, don't kid yourself that you would simply be extending that process if you were to ask your interlocutor to join with you in the writing of your essay, whether by asking them to tell you what you should write or to write down some of their thoughts for you to reproduce in your essay. At the end of the day, you must be the one to decide what goes into your essay.


Students sometimes worry about whether they will be able to develop "original ideas", especially in light of the fact that nearly every philosophical idea one comes up with seems to have been thought of before by someone else. There is no denying that truly original work in philosophy is well rewarded, but your first aim should be to develop ideas that you think are good and not merely different. If, after arguing for what you believe is right, and arguing in way that you think is good, you then discover that someone else has had the same idea, don't throw your work away - you should feel vindicated to some extent that your thinking has been congruent with that of another (possibly great) philosopher. (If you have not yet handed your essay in when you make this discovery, make an appropriately placed note to that effect.) Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that plagiarism can be easily passed off as congruent thinking. Of course, if that other philosopher's ideas have helped you to develop your ideas, then this is not a matter of congruent ideas but rather of derivative ideas, and this must be adequately acknowledged. If, after developing your ideas, you discover that they are original, then that is an added bonus. But remember that it is more important to be a good philosopher than an original one.

Quotations, footnotes, endnotes and bibliography

Quotations in your essay should be kept to a minimum. The markers know the central texts pretty well already and so don't need to have pages thereof repeated in front of them. Of course, some quotation will usually be important and useful - sometimes essential - in both exposition and critical discussion.

When you quote the words of someone else directly, you must make the quotation clearly distinct from your own text, using quotation marks . (eg "Descartes said that 'it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.'* He makes this claim …" - where the words quoted from Descartes are in 'single quotation marks'. Note that it is relatively arbitrary whether one uses 'single' or "double" quotation marks for "first order" quotations, but whichever style you adopt, use it consistently in the one essay.) Alternatively, where the quoted passage is greater than three lines, put the quoted words in a separate indented paragraph , so that your essay would look like this:

In his First Meditation , Descartes argues as follows:

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.* In this essay I shall argue that prudence does not in fact require us to distrust our senses and that Descartes's sceptical method is therefore seriously flawed.

In both cases, the quotations must be given proper referencingin a footnote or endnote.

When you are not quoting another person directly, but are still making use of their work - as in indirect quotations (eg "Descartes says that it is wise not to trust something that has deceived us before"*), paraphrases, summaries, and cobblings - you must still acknowledge your debts, using footnotes or endnotes.

* Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy , trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [first French ed., 1641]), p. 12.

Footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes appear at the foot of the same page on which the cited material appears, clearly separated from the main body of the text, each one clearly numbered. Endnotes appear at the end of the essay, again clearly separated from the main body of text, numbered and headed "Endnotes" or "Notes". Either method is acceptable, but you should choose one and stick with it throughout the one essay.

Below are some examples of how to put the relevant referencing information in footnotes and endnotes. This is not intended as an exercise in pedantry, but as a guide to how to provide the information needed for adequate referencing. The reason we provide this information is to enable our readers to find the sources we use in order to verify them and to allow them to pursue the material further if it interests them. In your own researches you will come to value good referencing in the texts you read as a helpful source of further references on a topic. Again, it is this sort of research skill that an Arts graduate will be expected to have mastered.

There are various conventions for writing up footnotes and endnotes. The Philosophy Department does not require that any particular convention be followed, only that you be consistent in your use of the convention that you do choose. For other conventions see the style guides mentioned above, or simply go to some texts published by reputable publishers and see what formats they employ.

Imagine, then, that the following are endnotes at the end of your essay. I will explain them below.

  • James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 25.
  • Philippa Foot, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 155.
  • Ibid., p. 160.
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed., 1785]), p. 63.
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub. 1651]),p. 65.
  • Rachels, The Elements, p. 51.
  • Peter Winch, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965), p. 212.
  • Antony Duff, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2001/entries/legal-punishment/ at 15 June 2003, sec. 6.

Notes explained

  • This is your first reference to a book called The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The title is given in full and in italics. If you are unable to use italics, then you should underline the title. The book's author is James Rachels. It's the 2nd edition of that book, which was published in New York, by the publishers McGraw-Hill, in 1993. The page you have referred to in your main text is page 25
  • This is your first reference to Philippa Foot's article, "Moral Relativism", the title of which is put in "quotation marks". This article appeared in a book (title in italics) which is an anthology of different articles, and which was edited by Krausz and Meiland (names in full). The rest is in the same style as note (1)
  • "Ibid." is short for "ibidem", which means "in the same place" in Latin. Use it on its own when you want to refer to exactly the same work and page number as in the immediately preceding note. So here the reference is again to Foot's article at page 155
  • Ditto, except this time you refer to a different page in Foot's article, namely page 160
  • This is reference to a book by Kant. Same book details as per note (1), except that, because this is a translation, you include the translator's name, and the date of the first edition in the original language
  • This is a book reference again, so it's the same as note (1), except that, because it's an old book, you include the date of the original edition. (How old does a book have to be before it merits this treatment? There is no settled view. Note, though, that this convention is not usually followed for ancient authors)
  • Here you are referring to Rachels' book again, but, because you are not in the very next note after a reference to it, you can't use "ibid.". Simply give the author's surname and a short title of the book, plus page reference. There is also a common alternative to this, whereby you give the surname, and write "op. cit." (which is short for "opere citato", which is Latin for "in the work already cited") and page reference (eg "Rachels, op. cit., p. 51.") Your reader then has to scan back over the notes to see what that "op." was exactly. The first option (author plus short title) is usually easier on the reader
  • This is a reference to an article by Peter Winch in a journal called The Monist. The article's title is in "quotes", the journal title is in italics. The volume of the journal is 49, the year of publication is 1965, the page referred to is p. 212
  • This is a reference to an article in the internet-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article is titled "Legal Punishment" and was written by Antony Duff. The Encyclopedia was edited by Edward N. Zalta. Note that I have basically followed the mode of citation that the Encyclopedia itself recommends. (This is one sign of the site being a reputable one. Where a site makes such a recommendation, it's best to follow it.) I have, however, also added the date on which the article was retrieved from the site, and put the author's given name first, to be consistent with the other footnotes. I have also added the reference to section 6, in an effort to be more precise as to where in the article the material I used came from. Since web pages aren't numbered in the manner of hard copy works, it will help if you are able to refer to some other feature, such as paragraphs or sections, so as to pin-point your reference. In the absence of a site recommending a mode of citation to its own material, the basic information needed for adequate citation of internet-based material is (where identifiable) the author, the document title, the year the document was created, the website name, the uniform resource locator (URL) in <arrow-brackets>, date of retrieval, and a pin-point reference*

* I am here following the mode of citation of internet materials recommended in Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, Australian Guide to Legal Citation , 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, 2002), pp. 70-73. I have, though, added the desirability of a pin-point reference.


At the end of your essay (after your endnotes, if used) you should list in a bibliography all of the works referred to in your notes, as well as any other works you consulted in researching and writing your essay. The list should be in alphabetical order, going by authors' surnames. The format should be the same as for your notes, except that you drop the page references and should put surnames first. So the bibliography of our mock-essay above would look like this:

  • Duff, Antony, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2001/entries/legal-punishment/ at 15 June 2003
  • Foot, Philippa, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub.1651])
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals , trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed. 1785])
  • Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
  • Winch, Peter, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965)

Presentation of essays and seeking advice

Generally, you should present an essay that is legible (hand-writing is OK, but typed or word-processed essays are preferable), in English, on one side of pieces of paper that are somewhere in the vicinity of A4 size and are fixed together . You should attach a completed Cover Sheet provided by the Philosophy program. Plastic document covers, spiral binding and other forms of presentational paraphernalia are not necessary (nor are they usually even desirable, as they mostly just get in the marker's way).

Late essays

Late essays are penalised . (For details of penalties consult the Philosophy program's notice board.)

Essays not handed in

Essays not handed in at all get zero marks. An essay that is handed in but gets a mark below 50 (and so is technically a "failed" essay) still gets some marks. (At least, it will so long as it's not so extremely late that the deducted marks wipe out all the marks it would have received if handed in on time.) All marks received for your essay (whether pass or fail) go toward your final score in the subject. Therefore, even if you think your essay is bound to fail (but please let your marker be the judge of that), or the due date has already passed, or both, it is still in your interests to hand your essay in .

Tutors and lecturers

Philosophy staff are not there just to be listened to by you; they are also there to listen to you. So don't hesitate to contact your tutor or lecturer to discuss questions or problems you have concerning your work.

If you have a legitimate excuse, you may be granted an extension on the due date for your essay by the lecturer in charge. Similarly, special consideration may also be granted when illness or other circumstances adversely affect your work. Applications for special consideration are made online via the Special Consideration web page.

Student counselling

Some personal or non-philosophical academic difficulties you might have you might want to discuss with someone other than your tutor or lecturer. Student Counselling and Psychological Services are there for you to discuss all sorts of problems you might encounter. Please consult your student diary for details on the counselling service.

English language assistance

As noted above, good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written. If you are from a non-English speaking background and are having difficulties with your English expression in an academic context, you might like to make use of the services provided by Student Services Academic Skills . Many native English speakers, too, can benefit from short "refresher" courses and workshops run by the Centre. Please consult your student diary for details about this service.

A bit on Philosophy exams

Essays of the sort discussed so far in this guide are not the only form of assessment in the Philosophy program - examinations are also set. What is to be said about them?

First, not much that is different from what's been said above about philosophy essays. This is because what you write in a philosophy exam is none other than a philosophy essay . Have a look at past philosophy exam papers, in the Gibson and Baillieu libraries, to get a feel for them. The only basic difference between essays and exams is the matter of what constraints you're working under. Essays have word limits; exams have time limits . Again, stick to them. (Actually, you'll be made to stick to them by the exam invigilators.)

It's best, then, to think about how long to spend writing on an exam essay topic, rather than about how many words to write on it. Simple arithmetic will tell you how much time to spend on each exam question. (eg if you have a 2-hour exam and have to answer 3 questions, each worth one-third of the exam mark, then spend 40 minutes on each question.) Avoid the trap of "borrowing time" from a later question in order to perfect your answer to an earlier question, and then working faster on the later questions to catch up on lost time - this is likely to get you in a tangle. There are no word limits in philosophy exam essays, but don't think that the more you scrawl across the page, the more marks you'll get. Nonetheless, use the time you've got so as to maximise your display of your philosophical understanding and skills in answering the question.

Planning and structuring remain very important in exam essays. With regard to the niceties of footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies, etc., these are not necessary, so don't waste time on these. However, if you quote or refer to a specific passage from a text, do indicate clearly that it is a quotation or reference. (The principle of being clear as to who is saying what remains central.) If you have the reference handy, just put it briefly in the text of your exam essay. (eg "As Descartes says in Meditation I (p. 12), . . ." or "'[I]t is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once' (Descartes, Meditation I, p. 12)".) Generally speaking, you will show your familiarity with any relevant texts by how you handle them in your discussion. This is also true for your non-exam essays.

Your preparation for the exam should have been done well before entering the exam hall. Note that various subjects have restrictions on what texts and other items can be brought into the exam hall. (Consult the Philosophy program's notice board for details.) Many subjects will have "closed book" exams. Even if an exam is "open book", if you are properly prepared, you should not need to spend much time at all consulting texts or notes during the exam itself.

You won't have time for redrafting and revising your exam essay (which makes planning and structuring your answers before you start writing all the more important). If you do want to delete something, just cross it out clearly. Don't waste time with liquid paper or erasers. Write legibly . Don't wr. "point form" sav. time. Diff. kn. mean. use incomp. sent.

Finally, read the instructions at the beginning of the exam paper. They are important. (eg it's not a good strategy to answer two questions from Part A, when the Instructions tell you to answer two questions, one from Part A and one from Part B.) Note the (somewhat quaint) University practice of starting Reading Time some time before the stated time for the exam. Philosophy exams usually have 15 minutes of reading time. (Check for each of your exams.) So, if your exam timetable says the exam is at 2.15 pm, with reading time of 15 minutes, then the reading time starts at 2.00 pm and the writing time starts at 2.15pm - so get to the exam hall well before 2.00 pm. Reading time is very important. Use it to decide which questions you'll answer and to start planning your answers.

Checklist of questions

  • Do I understand the essay question ? Do I know when the essay is due ?
  • Do I know which texts to consult? Do I know where to find them?
  • Have I made useful notes from my reading of the relevant texts?
  • Have I made a plan of how I'll approach the question in my essay?
  • Have I given myself enough time to draft and redraft my essay?
  • Have I written a clearly structured essay? Is it clear what each stageis doing? Do I do what I say I'll do in my Introduction?
  • Have I clearly distinguished exposition and critical discussion ? Have I given a fair and accurate account of the author(s) in question?
  • Is my response to the topic relevant ? Do I answer the question? Have I kept my essay within the general bounds of the topic?
  • Have I displayed a good grasp of the vocabulary of logical argument ? Are my arguments logically valid and sound? Are my claims supported by reasons ? Am I consistent within my essay?
  • Is my English expression clear and precise ? Are my grammar, punctuation and spelling correct? Have I said what I meant to say? Is my writing legible?
  • Have I fully acknowledged all my sources in footnotes or endnotes? Are my quotations accurate? Have I included a bibliography ?
  • Do I need to revise any part of my essay again?
  • Have I made a copy or photocopy of my essay for myself?
  • Have I kept the receipt for my handed-in essay?

about philosophical essays

How to Write a Philosophy Essay: Ultimate Guide

about philosophical essays

What Is a Philosophy Essay: Definition

Philosophical writing isn't your typical assignment. Its aim isn't to provide an overview of professional philosophers' works and say whether you agree with them.

Philosophy demands becoming a philosopher for the time of writing, thinking analytically and critically of ideas, pondering the Big Questions, and asking 'Why?'. That's why it requires time and energy, as well as a lot of thinking on your part.

But what is philosophy essay, exactly? If you're tasked with writing one, you'll have to select a thesis in the philosophical domain and argue for or against it. Then, you can support your thesis with other professional philosophers' works. But it has to contain your own philosophical contribution, too. (This is only one definition of philosophy essay, of course.)

What's a Good Philosophy Paper Outline?

Before you start writing your first line, you should make a philosophy essay outline. Think of it as a plan for your philosophy paper that briefly describes each paragraph's point.

As for how to write a philosophy essay outline, here are a few tips for you:

  • Start with your thesis. What will you be arguing for or against?
  • Read what philosophical theory has to say and note sources for your possible arguments and counterarguments.
  • Decide on the definitions of core concepts to include precise philosophical meanings in your essay.
  • After careful and extended reflection, organize your ideas following the structure below.

How To Structure a Philosophy Paper?

Like any other essay, a philosophy paper consists of an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. Sticking to this traditional philosophy essay structure will help you avoid unnecessary stress.

Here's your mini-guide on how to structure a philosophy essay:

  • Introduction - Clarify the question you will be answering in your philosophy paper. State your thesis – i.e., the answer you'll be arguing for. Explain general philosophical terms if needed.
  • Main body - Start with providing arguments for your stance and refute all the objections for each of them. Then, describe other possible answers and their reasoning – and counter the main arguments in their support.
  • Conclusion - Sum up all possible answers to the questions and reiterate why yours is the most viable one.

What's an Appropriate Philosophy Essay Length?

In our experience, 2,000 to 2,500 words are enough to cover the topic in-depth without compromising the quality of the writing.

However, see whether you have an assigned word limit before getting started. If it's shorter or longer than we recommend, stick to that word limit in writing your essay on philosophy.

What Format Should You Use for a Philosophy Paper?

As a service we can attest that most students use the APA guidelines as their philosophy essay format. However, your school has the final say in what format you should stick to.

Sometimes, you can be asked to use a different college philosophy essay format, like MLA or Chicago. But if you're the one to choose the guidelines and don't know which one would be a good philosophy argumentative essay format, let's break down the most popular ones.

APA, MLA, and Chicago share some characteristics:

  • Font: Time New Roman, 12 pt
  • Line spacing: double
  • Margins: 1" (left and right)
  • Page number: in the header

But here's how they differ:

  • A title page required
  • Sources list: 'References' page
  • No title page required
  • Sources list: 'Works cited' page
  • Sources list: 'Bibliography' page
  • Footnotes and endnotes are required for citations

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Guideline on How to Write a Philosophy Essay

If you still don't feel that confident about writing a philosophy paper, don't worry. Philosophical questions, by definition, have more than one interpretation. That's what makes them so challenging to write about.

To help you out in your philosophical writing journey, we've prepared this list of seven tips on how to write a philosophy essay.

guide philosophy essay

  • Read Your Sources Thoughtfully

Whether your recommended reading includes Dante's Divine Comedy or Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism Is a Humanism , approach your sources with curiosity and analytical thinking. Don't just mindlessly consume those texts. Instead, keep asking yourself questions while you're reading them, such as:

  • What concepts and questions does the author address?
  • What's the meaning behind key ideas and metaphors in the text?
  • What does the author use as a convincing argument?
  • Are there any strange or obscure distinctions?

As for which sources you should turn to, that all depends on your central question; philosophy topics for essay are diverse and sometimes opposed. So, you'll have to do your fair share of research.

  • Brainstorm & Organize Your Ideas

As you're reading those texts, jot down what comes to your mind. It can be a great quote you've stumbled upon, an idea for an argument, or your thoughtful, critical responses to certain opinions.

Then, sort through and organize all of those notes into an outline for your essay in philosophy. Make sure that it holds up in terms of logic. And ensure that your arguments and counterarguments are compelling, sensible, and convincing!

Now, you might be wondering how to write a philosophy essay introduction. Don't worry: there's an explanation right below!

  • Craft Your Introductory Paragraph

Think of your introduction as a road map preparing your reader for the journey your essay will take them on. This road map will describe the key 'stops' in your essay on philosophy: your topic, stance, and how you will argue for it – and refute other stances.

Don't hesitate to write it out as a step-by-step guide in the first or third person. For example: 'First, I will examine... Then, I will dispute... Finally, I will present….'

Need an example of an excellent introduction for a philosophy paper? You’ll be thrilled to know that we have one of our philosophy essay examples below!

  • Present Your Key Arguments & Reflections

Philosophy papers require a fair share of expository writing. This is where you demonstrate your understanding of the topic. So, make your exposition extensive and in-depth, and don't omit anything crucial.

As for the rest of the main body, we've covered how to structure a philosophy essay above. In short, you'll need to present supporting arguments, anticipate objections, and address them.

Use your own words when writing a philosophy paper; avoid pretentious or verbose language. Yes, some technical philosophical terms may be necessary. But the point of a philosophical paper is to present your stance – and develop your own philosophy – on the topic.

  • Don't Shy Away from Critical Ideas

Whenever you examine a philosophical theory or text, treat it with a fair share of criticism. This is what it means in practice – and how to structure a philosophy essay around your critical ideas:

  • Pinpoint what the theory's or idea's strengths are and every valid argument in its support;
  • See the scope of its application – perhaps, there are exceptions you can use as counterarguments;
  • Research someone else's criticism of the theory or idea. Develop your own criticism, as well;
  • Check if the philosopher already addressed those criticisms.
  • Ponder Possible Answers to Philosophical Questions

Writing an essay in philosophy is, in fact, easier for some students as the topic can always have multiple answers, and you can choose any of them. However, this can represent an even tougher challenge for other students. After all, you must consider those possible answers and address them in the paper.

How do you pinpoint those possible answers? Some of them can come to your mind when you brainstorm, especially if you'll be writing about one of the Big Questions. Others will reveal themselves when you start reading other philosophers' works.

Remember to have arguments for and against each possible answer and address objections.

  • Write a Powerful Conclusion

The conclusion is where you sum up your paper in just one paragraph. Reiterate your thesis and what arguments support it. But in philosophical writing, you can rarely have a clear, undebatable answer by the end of the paper. So, it's fine if your conclusion doesn't have a definitive verdict.

Here are a few tips on how to write a conclusion in a philosophy essay:

  • Don't introduce new arguments or evidence in conclusion – they belong in the main body;
  • Avoid overestimating or embellishing the level or value of your work;
  • Best conclusions are obvious and logical for those reading the paper – i.e.; a conclusion shouldn't be surprising at all;
  • Stay away from poorly explained claims in conclusion.

Philosophical Essay Example

Sometimes, it's better to see how it's done once than to read a thousand guides. We know that like no one else, so we have prepared this short philosophy essay example to show you what excellent philosophy papers look like:

Like this example? Wondering how to get a perfect philosophy essay as great as it is? You're in luck: you can leave " write my philosophy paper " request and buy online essay at EssayPro without breaking the bank! Keep in mind: this example is only a fraction of what our writers are capable of!

30 Philosophy Paper Topic Ideas

Philosophical writing concerns questions that don't have clear-cut yes or no answers. So, coming up with philosophy essay topics yourself can be tough.

Fret not: we've put together this list of 30 topics for philosophy papers on ethics and leadership for you. Feel free to use them as-is or tweak them!

15 Ethics Philosophy Essay Topics

Ethics deals with the question of right and wrong. So, if you're looking for philosophy essay topic ideas, ethics concerns some of the most interesting – and most mind-boggling – questions about human behavior.

Here are 15 compelling philosophy essay topics ethics has to offer you:

  • Is starting a war always morally wrong?
  • Would it be right to legalize euthanasia?
  • What is more important: the right to privacy or national security?
  • Is justice always fair?
  • Should nuclear weapons be banned?
  • Should teenagers be allowed to get plastic surgery?
  • Can cheating be justifiable?
  • Can AI algorithms behave ethically?
  • Should you abide by an unfair law?
  • Should voting become mandatory?
  • When can the right to freedom of speech be limited?
  • Is it the consumers' responsibility to fight climate by changing their buying decisions?
  • Is getting an abortion immoral?
  • Should we give animals their own rights?
  • Would human gene editing be immoral?

15 Leadership Philosophy Essay Topics

You're lucky if you're tasked with writing a leadership philosophy essay! We've compiled this list of 15 fresh, unconventional topics for you:

  • Is formal leadership necessary for ensuring the team's productivity?
  • Can authoritative leadership be ethical?
  • How do informal leaders take on this role?
  • Should there be affirmative action for formal leadership roles?
  • Is it possible to measure leadership?
  • What's the most important trait of a leader?
  • Is leadership an innate talent or an acquired skill?
  • Should leadership mean holding power over others?
  • Can a team function without a leader?
  • Should you follow a leader no matter what?
  • Is leader succession necessary? Why?
  • Are leadership and power the same?
  • Can we consider influencers contemporary leaders?
  • Why do people follow leaders?
  • What leadership style is the most ethical one?

7 Helpful Tips on Crafting a Philosophical Essay

Still, feeling stuck writing a philosophical essay? Here are seven more tips on crafting a good philosophy paper that can help you get unstuck:

  • Write the way you would talk about the subject. This will help you avoid overly convoluted, poor writing by using more straightforward prose with familiar words.
  • Don't focus on having a definitive answer by the end of your philosophical essay if your conclusion states that the question should be clarified further or that there are multiple answers.
  • You don't have to answer every question you raise in the paper. Even professional philosophers sometimes don't have all the answers.
  • Get straight to the point at the start of your paper. No need to warm up the reader – and inflate your word count.
  • Avoid using quotes. Instead, explain the author's point in your own words. But if you feel it's better to use a direct quote, explicitly state how it ties to your argument after it.
  • Write in the first person unless your assignment requires you to use the third person.
  • Start working on your philosophical essay well in advance. However much time you think you'll need, double it!

7 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Philosophy Writing

Sometimes, knowing what you shouldn't do in a philosophical essay is also helpful. Here are seven common mistakes that often bring down students' grades – but are easily avoidable:

guide philosophy essay

  • Appealing to authority – in philosophy, strive to develop your own stance instead;
  • Using convoluted sentences to appear more intelligent – instead, use simpler ways to deliver the same meaning;
  • Including interesting or important material without tying it to your point – every piece of evidence and every idea should explicitly support your arguments or counterarguments;
  • Inflating your word count without delivering value – in the writing process, it's crucial to 'kill your darlings';
  • Making poorly explained claims – explicitly present reasons for or against every claim you include;
  • Leaving core concepts undefined – explain what you mean by the words like 'free will' or 'existentialism' in the introduction;
  • Worrying about being wrong – no one can be proven wrong in philosophy!

Realize that your draft contains those mistakes, and it's too late to fix them? Then, let us help you out! Whether you ask us, 'Fix my paper' or ' Write my paper from scratch,' our philosophy writers will deliver an excellent paper worth the top grade. And no, it won't cost you a fortune!

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1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

Philosophy, One Thousand Words at a Time

What is Philosophy?

Author: Thomas Metcalf Category: Metaphilosophy Word count: 1000

Listen here , video below

If you’ve ever wondered whether God exists, whether life has purpose, whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what makes actions right or wrong, or whether a law is fair or just, then you’ve thought about philosophy. And these are just a few philosophical topics.

But what is philosophy? The question is itself a philosophical question. This essay surveys some answers.

'Philosophy' in a dictionary.

1. Defining Philosophy

The most general definition of philosophy is that it is the pursuit of wisdom, truth, and knowledge. [1] Indeed, the word itself means ‘love of wisdom’ in Greek.

Whenever people think about deep, fundamental questions concerning the nature of the universe and ourselves, the limits of human knowledge, their values and the meaning of life, they are thinking about philosophy. Philosophical thinking is found in all parts of the world, present, and past. [2]

In the academic world, philosophy distinguishes a certain area of study from all other areas, such as the sciences and other humanities. Philosophers typically consider questions that are, in some sense, broader and/or more fundamental than other inquirers’ questions: [3] e.g., physicists ask what caused some event; philosophers ask whether causation even exists ; historians study figures who fought for justice; philosophers ask what justice is or whether their causes were in fact just; economists study the allocation of capital; philosophers debate the ethical merits of capital ism .

When a topic becomes amenable to rigorous, empirical study, it tends to be “outsourced” to its own field, and not described in the present day as “philosophy” anymore: e.g., the natural sciences were once called “natural philosophy,” but we don’t now just think about whether matter is composed of atoms or infinitely divisible: we use scientific experiments. [4] And most of the different doctoral degrees are called “Doctor of Philosophy” even when they’re in sociology or chemistry.

Philosophical questions can’t be straightforwardly investigated through purely empirical means: [5] e.g., try to imagine a lab experiment testing whether societies should privilege equality over freedom—not whether people believe we should, but whether we actually should . What does moral importance look like in a microscope?

The main method of academic philosophy is to construct and evaluate arguments (i.e., reasons intended to justify some conclusion). Such conclusions might be that some theory is true or false or might be about the correct analysis or definition of some concept. These arguments generally have at least some conceptual, intellectual, or a priori , i.e., non-empirical, content. And philosophers often incorporate relevant scientific knowledge as premises in arguments. [6]

2. Branches of Philosophy

Philosophy deals with fundamental questions. But which questions, specifically, is philosophy about? Here’s a standard categorization: [7]

Logic : Logicians study good and bad arguments and reasoning, and they study formal, symbolic languages intended to express propositions, sentences, or arguments. [8]

Metaphysics : Metaphysicians study what sorts of entities exist, what the world and its constituents are made of, and how objects or events might cause or explain each other. [9]

Epistemology : Epistemologists study knowledge, evidence, and justified belief. An epistemologist might study whether we can trust our senses and whether science is trustworthy. [10]

Values : In value theory, philosophers study morality, politics, and art, among other topics. For example: What makes wrong actions wrong? How do we identify good people and good lives? What makes a society just or unjust? [11]

There are many sub-branches within these fields. Many other fields— the sciences, art, literature, and religion—have a “philosophy of” attached to them: e.g., philosophers of science might help interpret quantum mechanics; philosophers of religion often consider arguments about the existence of God. [12]

There are also unique and important philosophical discussions about certain populations or communities, such as feminist philosophy and Africana philosophy. [13] People from all cultures contribute to philosophy, more than are typically discussed in Western philosophy courses. [14] Western academic philosophy has often neglected voices from non-Western cultures, and women’s voices. [15]

Philosophers sometimes import tools, knowledge, and language from other fields, such as using the formal tools of statistics in epistemology and the insights from special relativity in the philosophy of time. [16] When your project is understanding all of existence [17] in the broadest and most fundamental way, you need all the help you can get.

3. The Point(s) of Philosophy

Academic philosophy doesn’t present a body of consensus knowledge the way chemistry and physics do. [18] Do philosophical questions have correct answers? Does philosophical progress exist? Does philosophy get closer to the truth over time? [19] These are all matters of philosophical debate. [20] And philosophical debates are rarely resolved with certainty.

So what’s the point? Here are some answers: [21]

  • To discover truth, wherever and whatever it is. [22]
  • To learn how to better live our lives. [23]
  • To understand our own views, including their strengths and weaknesses.
  • To examine our own lives and be more conscious of our choices and their implications.
  • To learn how to better think and reason. Recall: The main method of philosophy is to present and examine arguments. [24]

And arguably, all of us are already naturally interested in at least some philosophical questions. Many people find that philosophy is a lot of fun. And it’s difficult to dispute that it is very important to find the answers to philosophical questions, if the answers exist. It’s important to know, for instance, that slavery is wrong and whether scientific consensus is generally trustworthy. So as long as it’s at least possible to find the answers to these questions, we should try.

Also, there are strong correlations between studying philosophy and high achievement in other academic areas, such as GRE scores and professional-school admission. [25]

4. Conclusion

We’ve contrasted philosophy with other fields. We’ve looked at the branches of philosophy. And we’ve looked at the purposes or benefits of philosophy. But what is philosophy, really? Given everything we’ve said so far, we can provide at least a partial definition of ‘philosophy’ as follows:

A largely (but not exclusively) non-empirical inquiry that attempts to identify and answer fundamental questions about the world, including about what’s valuable and disvaluable.

Is this a good definition? That’s a philosophical question too.


This entry has benefited enormously from the comments and suggestions of Shane Gronholz, Chelsea Haramia, Dan Lowe, and Nathan Nobis.

[1] Berkeley 2003 [1710]: 5; Blackburn 1999: 1.

[2] Some of the oldest formal philosophy writing we have is attributed to a group of ancient Greek philosophers called the ‘Pre-Socratics,’ because they wrote before Socrates and Plato did (cf. Curd 2019). The earliest Upanishads may go back even further (Olivelle 1998: 4 ff.).

[3] This is similar to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s (n.d.) definition: “the rational, abstract, and methodical consideration of reality as a whole or of fundamental dimensions of human existence and experience.”

[4] See e.g., Berryman 2020 on ancient atomism.

[5] Metcalf 2018.

[6] Most philosophers believe that the sciences provide knowledge relevant to traditional philosophical issues. That is, most philosophers endorse the meta-philosophy of ‘naturalism,’ according to which philosophy should be informed by the natural sciences. The usual justification for naturalism is based on the track-record of the natural sciences, including their tending toward consensus. See Bourget and Chalmers 2014: 476; Metcalf 2018; and Papineau 2019. For examples of the relevance of science to traditional philosophical issues, see Ingram and Tallent (2019: § 8); Wilce 2019; and Knobe and Nichols 2019. In these examples, special relativity may be relevant to philosophy of time; quantum mechanics may be relevant to philosophy of logic; and social science may be relevant to ethics.

[7] This is a version of common anthologies’ categorizations. See e.g., Blackburn 1999: vii and Rosen et al. 2015.

[8] Logicians can also study logics about obligation (McNamara 2019), about necessity and possibility (Garson 2019), and whether useful logics can contain sentences that are both true and false simultaneously (Priest et al. 2019).

[9] Van Inwagen and Sullivan 2019.

[10] Steup 2019; Metcalf 2020.

[11] Value theorists also study specific topics, such as our obligations to animals (Gruen 2019) and whether governments can be legitimate (Peter 2019). See also Haramia 2018 (the entry on applied ethics in 1000-Word Philosophy ) for an overview of applied ethics.

[12] Indeed, one area where people see many connections is with religion. So what’s the difference between philosophy and religion? This is not an easy question to answer, but most religious practice proceeds from a shared starting-point consensus body of putative knowledge, and these beliefs are almost all about God or gods, the afterlife, and how to live a pious life. In contrast, in philosophy, everything is constantly open to question, and the topics are much broader than gods and the afterlife.

[13] See e.g., McAfee 2019 and Outlaw 2019.

[14] Van Norden 2017.

[15] See e.g., Van Norden (op. cit.) and Buxton and Whiting 2020.

[16] Indeed, one popular metaphilosophical view is methodological naturalism about philosophy, according to which philosophy should use the methods of the natural sciences. Some naturalists go so far as to say that traditional philosophical methods should be replaced by scientific methods. See Metcalf 2018 and Papineau 2019 for more discussion. As for tools and knowledge from other fields, statistical and probabilistic analysis is common in many areas of philosophy (see, e.g., Weisberg 2019) and special relativity may tell us something important about the philosophy of time (Ingram and Tallant 2019).

[17] And maybe even the objects that don’t exist; see Reicher 2019.

[18] Bourget and Chalmers 2014. Arguably, there is consensus about many philosophical questions, but we don’t consider those questions in academic philosophy, at least not anymore. For example, almost everyone knows that slavery is wrong and that women should be allowed to vote if anyone is. See also Gutting 2009 for a general survey of some apparent philosophical discoveries.

[19] Cf. Chalmers 2015.

[20] See, e.g., Miller 2019.

[21] See Bierce 2008; de Montaigne 1987: 204; Russell 2010: 20 for some other statements about the nature or purpose of philosophy.

[22] Bierce 2008.

[23] De Montaigne 1987: 204.

[24] See e.g., Groarke 2019.

[25] Daily Nous n.d. However, we do not yet know what proportion of this is a ‘selection effect’—people who are already smart major in philosophy—and how much of this is a ‘treatment effect,’ i.e., majoring in philosophy actually makes you smarter.

Berkeley, George. 2003 [1710]. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge . Mineola, NY: Dover Philosophical Classics.

Berryman, Sylvia. 2019. “Ancient Atomism.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Edition.   

Bierce, Ambrose. 2008. “The Devil’s Dictionary.” In Project Gutenberg (ed.), Project Gutenberg.

Blackburn, Simon. 1999. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy . Oxford, UK and New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. 2014. “What Do Philosophers Believe?” Philosophical Studies 170(3): 465-500.

Buxton, Rebecca and Lisa Whiting. 2020. The Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women. London, UK: Unbound Publishers.

Chalmers, David J. 2015. “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” Philosophy 90(1): 3-31.

Curd, Patricia. 2019. “Presocratic Philosophy.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Daily Nous. n.d. “Value of Philosophy.”

De Montaigne, Michel. 1987. Complete Essays . Tr. M. A. Screech. London, UK: Penguin Books.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. N.d. “Philosophy.” In The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (eds.), Encyclopaedia Britannica , Online Edition.

Garson, James. 2019. “Modal Logic.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Groarke, Leo. 2019. “Informal Logic.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Edition.

Gruen, Lori. 2019. “The Moral Status of Animals.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Gutting, Gary. 2009. What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ingram, David and Jonathan Tallant. 2019. “Presentism.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Knobe, Joshua and Shaun Nichols. 2019. “Experimental Philosophy.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Edition.

Markosian, Ned. 2019. “Time.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

McAfee, Noëlle. 2019. “Feminist Philosophy.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Edition.

McNamara, Paul. 2019. “Deontic Logic.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Miller, Alexander. 2019. “Realism.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Olivelle, Patrick (tr. and ed.). 1998. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation . New York, NY and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Outlaw, Lucius T. Jr. 2019. “Africana Philosophy.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Papineau, David. 2019. “Naturalism.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Peter, Fabienne. 2019. “Political Legitimacy.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Priest, Graham et al. 2019. “Paraconsistent Logic.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Reicher, Maria. 2019. “Nonexistent Objects.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Rosen, Gideon et al. 2015. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy , Second Edition. New York, NY and London, UK: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Russell, Bertrand. 2010. The Philosophy of Logical Atomism . Oxford, UK: Routledge Classics.

Sartwell, Crispin. 2019. “Beauty.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Steup, Matthias. 2019. “Epistemology.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Van Inwagen, Peter and Meghan Sullivan. 2019. “Metaphysics.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Van Norden, Bryan W. 2017. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto . New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Weisberg, Jonathan. 2019. “Formal Epistemology.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

Wilce, Alexander. 2019. “Quantum Logic and Probability Theory.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Winter 2019 Edition.

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About the author.

Tom Metcalf is an associate professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He specializes in ethics, metaethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Tom has two cats whose names are Hesperus and Phosphorus. http://shc.academia.edu/ThomasMetcalf  

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1.1 What Is Philosophy?

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify sages (early philosophers) across historical traditions.
  • Explain the connection between ancient philosophy and the origin of the sciences.
  • Describe philosophy as a discipline that makes coherent sense of a whole.
  • Summarize the broad and diverse origins of philosophy.

It is difficult to define philosophy. In fact, to do so is itself a philosophical activity, since philosophers are attempting to gain the broadest and most fundamental conception of the world as it exists. The world includes nature, consciousness, morality, beauty, and social organizations. So the content available for philosophy is both broad and deep. Because of its very nature, philosophy considers a range of subjects, and philosophers cannot automatically rule anything out. Whereas other disciplines allow for basic assumptions, philosophers cannot be bound by such assumptions. This open-endedness makes philosophy a somewhat awkward and confusing subject for students. There are no easy answers to the questions of what philosophy studies or how one does philosophy. Nevertheless, in this chapter, we can make some progress on these questions by (1) looking at past examples of philosophers, (2) considering one compelling definition of philosophy, and (3) looking at the way academic philosophers today actually practice philosophy.

Historical Origins of Philosophy

One way to begin to understand philosophy is to look at its history. The historical origins of philosophical thinking and exploration vary around the globe. The word philosophy derives from ancient Greek, in which the philosopher is a lover or pursuer ( philia ) of wisdom ( sophia ). But the earliest Greek philosophers were not known as philosophers; they were simply known as sages . The sage tradition provides an early glimpse of philosophical thought in action. Sages are sometimes associated with mathematical and scientific discoveries and at other times with their political impact. What unites these figures is that they demonstrate a willingness to be skeptical of traditions, a curiosity about the natural world and our place in it, and a commitment to applying reason to understand nature, human nature, and society better. The overview of the sage tradition that follows will give you a taste of philosophy’s broad ambitions as well as its focus on complex relations between different areas of human knowledge. There are some examples of women who made contributions to philosophy and the sage tradition in Greece, India, and China, but these were patriarchal societies that did not provide many opportunities for women to participate in philosophical and political discussions.

The Sages of India, China, Africa, and Greece

In classical Indian philosophy and religion, sages play a central role in both religious mythology and in the practice of passing down teaching and instruction through generations. The Seven Sages, or Saptarishi (seven rishis in the Sanskrit language), play an important role in sanatana dharma , the eternal duties that have come to be identified with Hinduism but that predate the establishment of the religion. The Seven Sages are partially considered wise men and are said to be the authors of the ancient Indian texts known as the Vedas . But they are partly mythic figures as well, who are said to have descended from the gods and whose reincarnation marks the passing of each age of Manu (age of man or epoch of humanity). The rishis tended to live monastic lives, and together they are thought of as the spiritual and practical forerunners of Indian gurus or teachers, even up to today. They derive their wisdom, in part, from spiritual forces, but also from tapas , or the meditative, ascetic, and spiritual practices they perform to gain control over their bodies and minds. The stories of the rishis are part of the teachings that constitute spiritual and philosophical practice in contemporary Hinduism.

Figure 1.2 depicts a scene from the Matsya Purana, where Manu, the first man whose succession marks the prehistorical ages of Earth, sits with the Seven Sages in a boat to protect them from a mythic flood that is said to have submerged the world. The king of serpents guides the boat, which is said to have also contained seeds, plants, and animals saved by Manu from the flood.

Despite the fact that classical Indian culture is patriarchal, women figures play an important role in the earliest writings of the Vedic tradition (the classical Indian religious and philosophical tradition). These women figures are partly connected to the Indian conception of the fundamental forces of nature—energy, ability, strength, effort, and power—as feminine. This aspect of God was thought to be present at the creation of the world. The Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic writings, contains hymns that tell the story of Ghosha, a daughter of Rishi Kakshivan, who had a debilitating skin condition (probably leprosy) but devoted herself to spiritual practices to learn how to heal herself and eventually marry. Another woman, Maitreyi, is said to have married the Rishi Yajnavalkya (himself a god who was cast into mortality by a rival) for the purpose of continuing her spiritual training. She was a devoted ascetic and is said to have composed 10 of the hymns in the Rig Veda. Additionally, there is a famous dialogue between Maitreyi and Yajnavalkya in the Upanishads (another early, foundational collection of texts in the Vedic tradition) about attachment to material possessions, which cannot give a person happiness, and the achievement of ultimate bliss through knowledge of the Absolute (God).

Another woman sage named Gargi also participates in a celebrated dialogue with Yajnavalkya on natural philosophy and the fundamental elements and forces of the universe. Gargi is characterized as one of the most knowledgeable sages on the topic, though she ultimately concedes that Yajnavalkya has greater knowledge. In these brief episodes, these ancient Indian texts record instances of key women who attained a level of enlightenment and learning similar to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, this early equality between the sexes did not last. Over time Indian culture became more patriarchal, confining women to a dependent and subservient role. Perhaps the most dramatic and cruel example of the effects of Indian patriarchy was the ritual practice of sati , in which a widow would sometimes immolate herself, partly in recognition of the “fact” that following the death of her husband, her current life on Earth served no further purpose (Rout 2016). Neither a widow’s in-laws nor society recognized her value.

In similar fashion to the Indian tradition, the sage ( sheng ) tradition is important for Chinese philosophy . Confucius , one of the greatest Chinese writers, often refers to ancient sages, emphasizing their importance for their discovery of technical skills essential to human civilization, for their role as rulers and wise leaders, and for their wisdom. This emphasis is in alignment with the Confucian appeal to a well-ordered state under the guidance of a “ philosopher-king .” This point of view can be seen in early sage figures identified by one of the greatest classical authors in the Chinese tradition, as the “Nest Builder” and “Fire Maker” or, in another case, the “Flood Controller.” These names identify wise individuals with early technological discoveries. The Book of Changes , a classical Chinese text, identifies the Five (mythic) Emperors as sages, including Yao and Shun, who are said to have built canoes and oars, attached carts to oxen, built double gates for defense, and fashioned bows and arrows (Cheng 1983). Emperor Shun is also said to have ruled during the time of a great flood, when all of China was submerged. Yü is credited with having saved civilization by building canals and dams.

These figures are praised not only for their political wisdom and long rule, but also for their filial piety and devotion to work. For instance, Mencius, a Confucian philosopher, relates a story of Shun’s care for his blind father and wicked stepmother, while Yü is praised for his selfless devotion to work. In these ways, the Chinese philosophical traditions, such as Confucianism and Mohism, associate key values of their philosophical enterprises with the great sages of their history. Whether the sages were, in fact, actual people or, as many scholars have concluded, mythical forebearers, they possessed the essential human virtue of listening and responding to divine voices. This attribute can be inferred from the Chinese script for sheng , which bears the symbol of an ear as a prominent feature. So the sage is one who listens to insight from the heavens and then is capable of sharing that wisdom or acting upon it to the benefit of his society (Cheng 1983). This idea is similar to one found in the Indian tradition, where the most important texts, the Vedas, are known as shruti , or works that were heard through divine revelation and only later written down.

Although Confucianism is a venerable world philosophy, it is also highly patriarchal and resulted in the widespread subordination of women. The position of women in China began to change only after the Communist Revolution (1945–1952). While some accounts of Confucianism characterize men and women as emblematic of two opposing forces in the natural world, the Yin and Yang, this view of the sexes developed over time and was not consistently applied. Chinese women did see a measure of independence and freedom with the influence of Buddhism and Daoism, each of which had a more liberal view of the role of women (Adler 2006).

A detailed and important study of the sage tradition in Africa is provided by Henry Odera Oruka (1990), who makes the case that prominent folk sages in African tribal history developed complex philosophical ideas. Oruka interviewed tribal Africans identified by their communities as sages, and he recorded their sayings and ideas, confining himself to those sayings that demonstrated “a rational method of inquiry into the real nature of things” (Oruka 1990, 150). He recognized a tension in what made these sages philosophically interesting: they articulated the received wisdom of their tradition and culture while at the same time maintaining a critical distance from that culture, seeking a rational justification for the beliefs held by the culture.


The chapter on the early history of philosophy covers this topic in greater detail.

Among the ancient Greeks, it is common to identify seven sages. The best-known account is provided by Diogenes Laërtius, whose text Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a canonical resource on early Greek philosophy. The first and most important sage is Thales of Miletus . Thales traveled to Egypt to study with the Egyptian priests, where he became one of the first Greeks to learn astronomy. He is known for bringing back to Greece knowledge of the calendar, dividing the year into 365 days, tracking the progress of the sun from solstice to solstice, and—somewhat dramatically—predicting a solar eclipse in 585 BCE. The eclipse occurred on the day of a battle between the Medes and Lydians. It is possible that Thales used knowledge of Babylonian astronomical records to guess the year and location of the eclipse. This mathematical and astronomical feat is one of Thales’s several claims to sagacity. In addition, he is said to have calculated the height of the pyramids using the basic geometry of similar triangles and measuring shadows at a certain time of day. He is also reported to have predicted a particularly good year for olives: he bought up all the olive presses and then made a fortune selling those presses to farmers wanting to turn their olives into oil. Together, these scientific and technical achievements suggest that at least part of Thales’s wisdom can be attributed to a very practical, scientific, and mathematical knowledge of the natural world. If that were all Thales was known for, he might be called the first scientist or engineer. But he also made more basic claims about the nature and composition of the universe; for instance, he claimed that all matter was fundamentally made of up water. He also argued that everything that moved on its own possessed a soul and that the soul itself was immortal. These claims demonstrate a concern about the fundamental nature of reality.

Another of the seven sages was Solon , a famed political leader. He introduced the “Law of Release” to Athens, which cancelled all personal debts and freed indentured servants, or “debt-slaves” who had been consigned to service based on a personal debt they were unable to repay. In addition, he established a constitutional government in Athens with a representative body, a procedure for taxation, and a series of economic reforms. He was widely admired as a political leader but voluntarily stepped down so that he would not become a tyrant. He was finally forced to flee Athens when he was unable to persuade the members of the Assembly (the ruling body) to resist the rising tyranny of one of his relatives, Pisistratus. When he arrived in exile, he was reportedly asked whom he considered to be happy, to which he replied, “One ought to count no man happy until he is dead.” Aristotle interpreted this statement to mean that happiness was not a momentary experience, but a quality reflective of someone’s entire life.

Beginnings of Natural Philosophy

The sage tradition is a largely prehistoric tradition that provides a narrative about how intellect, wisdom, piety, and virtue led to the innovations central to flourishing of ancient civilizations. Particularly in Greece, the sage tradition blends into a period of natural philosophy, where ancient scientists or philosophers try to explain nature using rational methods. Several of the early Greek schools of philosophy were centered on their respective views of nature. Followers of Thales, known as the Milesians , were particularly interested in the underlying causes of natural change. Why does water turn to ice? What happens when winter passes into spring? Why does it seem like the stars and planets orbit Earth in predictable patterns? From Aristotle we know that Thales thought there was a difference between material elements that participate in change and elements that contain their own source of motion. This early use of the term element did not have the same meaning as the scientific meaning of the word today in a field like chemistry. But Thales thought material elements bear some fundamental connection to water in that they have the capacity to move and alter their state. By contrast, other elements had their own internal source of motion, of which he cites the magnet and amber (which exhibits forces of static electricity when rubbed against other materials). He said that these elements have “soul.” This notion of soul, as a principle of internal motion, was influential across ancient and medieval natural philosophy. In fact, the English language words animal and animation are derived from the Latin word for soul ( anima ).

Similarly, early thinkers like Xenophanes began to formulate explanations for natural phenomena. For instance, he explained rainbows, the sun, the moon, and St. Elmo’s fire (luminous, electrical discharges) as apparitions of the clouds. This form of explanation, describing some apparent phenomenon as the result of an underlying mechanism, is paradigmatic of scientific explanation even today. Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, used logic to conclude that whatever fundamentally exists must be unchanging because if it ever did change, then at least some aspect of it would cease to exist. But that would imply that what exists could not exist—which seems to defy logic. Parmenides is not saying that there is no change, but that the changes we observe are a kind of illusion. Indeed, this point of view was highly influential, not only for Plato and Aristotle, but also for the early atomists, like Democritus , who held that all perceived qualities are merely human conventions. Underlying all these appearances, Democritus reasoned, are only atomic, unchanging bits of matter flowing through a void. While this ancient Greek view of atoms is quite different from the modern model of atoms, the very idea that every observable phenomenon has a basis in underlying pieces of matter in various configurations clearly connects modern science to the earliest Greek philosophers.

Along these lines, the Pythagoreans provide a very interesting example of a community of philosophers engaged in understanding the natural world and how best to live in it. You may be familiar with Pythagoras from his Pythagorean theorem, a key principle in geometry establishing a relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle. Specifically, the square formed by the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the two squares formed by the remaining two sides. In the figure below, the area of the square formed by c is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares formed by a and b. The figure represents how Pythagoras would have conceptualized the theorem.

The Pythagoreans were excellent mathematicians, but they were more interested in how mathematics explained the natural world. In particular, Pythagoras recognized relationships between line segments and shapes, such as the Pythagorean theorem describes, but also between numbers and sounds, by virtue of harmonics and the intervals between notes. Similar regularities can be found in astronomy. As a result, Pythagoras reasoned that all of nature is generated according to mathematical regularities. This view led the Pythagoreans to believe that there was a unified, rational structure to the universe, that the planets and stars exhibit harmonic properties and may even produce music, that musical tones and harmonies could have healing powers, that the soul is immortal and continuously reincarnated, and that animals possess souls that ought to be respected and valued. As a result, the Pythagorean community was defined by serious scholarship as well as strict rules about diet, clothing, and behavior.

Additionally, in the early Pythagorean communities, it was possible for women to participate and contribute to philosophical thought and discovery. Pythagoras himself was said to have been inspired to study philosophy by the Delphic priestess Themistoclea. His wife Theano is credited with contributing to important discoveries in the realms of numbers and optics. She is said to have written a treatise, On Piety , which further applies Pythagorean philosophy to various aspects of practical life (Waithe 1987). Myia, the daughter of this illustrious couple, was also an active and productive part of the community. At least one of her letters has survived in which she discusses the application of Pythagorean philosophy to motherhood. The Pythagorean school is an example of how early philosophical and scientific thinking combines with religious, cultural, and ethical beliefs and practices to embrace many different aspects of life.

How It All Hangs Together

Closer to the present day, in 1962, Wilfrid Sellars , a highly influential 20th-century American philosopher, wrote a chapter called “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy . He opens the essay with a dramatic and concise description of philosophy: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” If we spend some time trying to understand what Sellars means by this definition, we will be in a better position to understand the academic discipline of philosophy. First, Sellars emphasizes that philosophy’s goal is to understand a very wide range of topics—in fact, the widest possible range. That is to say, philosophers are committed to understanding everything insofar as it can be understood. This is important because it means that, on principle, philosophers cannot rule out any topic of study. However, for a philosopher not every topic of study deserves equal attention. Some things, like conspiracy theories or paranoid delusions, are not worth studying because they are not real. It may be worth understanding why some people are prone to paranoid delusions or conspiratorial thinking, but the content of these ideas is not worth investigating. Other things may be factually true, such as the daily change in number of the grains of sand on a particular stretch of beach, but they are not worth studying because knowing that information will not teach us about how things hang together. So a philosopher chooses to study things that are informative and interesting—things that provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it.

To make judgments about which areas are interesting or worthy of study, philosophers need to cultivate a special skill. Sellars describes this philosophical skill as a kind of know-how (a practical, engaged type of knowledge, similar to riding a bike or learning to swim). Philosophical know-how, Sellars says, has to do with knowing your way around the world of concepts and being able to understand and think about how concepts connect, link up, support, and rely upon one another—in short, how things hang together. Knowing one’s way around the world of concepts also involves knowing where to look to find interesting discoveries and which places to avoid, much like a good fisherman knows where to cast his line. Sellars acknowledges that other academics and scientists know their way around the concepts in their field of study much like philosophers do. The difference is that these other inquirers confine themselves to a specific field of study or a particular subject matter, while philosophers want to understand the whole. Sellars thinks that this philosophical skill is most clearly demonstrated when we try to understand the connection between the natural world as we experience it directly (the “manifest image”) and the natural world as science explains it (the “scientific image”). He suggests that we gain an understanding of the nature of philosophy by trying to reconcile these two pictures of the world that most people understand independently.

Read Like a Philosopher

“philosophy and the scientific image of man”.

This essay, “ Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man ” by Wilfrid Sellars, has been republished several times and can be found online. Read through the essay with particular focus on the first section. Consider the following study questions:

  • What is the difference between knowing how and knowing that? Are these concepts always distinct? What does it mean for philosophical knowledge to be a kind of know-how?
  • What do you think Sellars means when he says that philosophers “have turned other special subject-matters to non-philosophers over the past 2500 years”?
  • Sellars describes philosophy as “bringing a picture into focus,” but he is also careful to recognize challenges with this metaphor as it relates to the body of human knowledge. What are those challenges? Why is it difficult to imagine all of human knowledge as a picture or image?
  • What is the scientific image of man in the world? What is the manifest image of man in the world? How are they different? And why are these two images the primary images that need to be brought into focus so that philosophy may have an eye on the whole?

Unlike other subjects that have clearly defined subject matter boundaries and relatively clear methods of exploration and analysis, philosophy intentionally lacks clear boundaries or methods. For instance, your biology textbook will tell you that biology is the “science of life.” The boundaries of biology are fairly clear: it is an experimental science that studies living things and the associated material necessary for life. Similarly, biology has relatively well-defined methods. Biologists, like other experimental scientists, broadly follow something called the “scientific method.” This is a bit of a misnomer, unfortunately, because there is no single method that all the experimental sciences follow. Nevertheless, biologists have a range of methods and practices, including observation, experimentation, and theory comparison and analysis, that are fairly well established and well known among practitioners. Philosophy doesn’t have such easy prescriptions—and for good reason. Philosophers are interested in gaining the broadest possible understanding of things, whether that be nature, what is possible, morals, aesthetics, political organizations, or any other field or concept.

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Philosophical Essays, Volume 1

  • Scott Soames

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Philosophical Essays, Volume 1: Natural Language: What It Means and How We Use It

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The two volumes of Philosophical Essays bring together the most important essays written by one of the world’s foremost philosophers of language. Scott Soames has selected thirty-one essays spanning nearly three decades of thinking about linguistic meaning and the philosophical significance of language. A judicious collection of old and new, these volumes include sixteen essays published in the 1980s and 1990s, nine published since 2000, and six new essays. The essays in Volume 1 investigate what linguistic meaning is; how the meaning of a sentence is related to the use we make of it; what we should expect from empirical theories of the meaning of the languages we speak; and how a sound theoretical grasp of the intricate relationship between meaning and use can improve the interpretation of legal texts. The essays in Volume 2 illustrate the significance of linguistic concerns for a broad range of philosophical topics—including the relationship between language and thought; the objects of belief, assertion, and other propositional attitudes; the distinction between metaphysical and epistemic possibility; the nature of necessity, actuality, and possible worlds; the necessary a posteriori and the contingent a priori; truth, vagueness, and partial definition; and skepticism about meaning and mind. The two volumes of Philosophical Essays are essential for anyone working on the philosophy of language.

Scott Soames is director of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. His books include Reference and Description (Princeton), Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century , Volumes 1 and 2 (Princeton), Beyond Rigidity , and Understanding Truth .

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"Soames's work is of an exceptionally high quality, the selections made here are truly excellent, and the organization is well thought out. Having these papers available in this form is a great boon to scholars." —Stephen Neale, CUNY Graduate Center

"Since many of these important papers are relatively inaccessible, it is particularly useful to have them collected together, and Soames has done an excellent job of selecting and arranging them. These two volumes are really terrific." —Alex Byrne, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding its Meaning and Impact

This essay about the essence of philosophy examines its critical role in enhancing human understanding and decision-making across ethical, political, and existential domains. It highlights how philosophy fosters critical thinking and influences societal frameworks through its rigorous analysis of existence, knowledge, and morality. The text also addresses contemporary philosophical challenges posed by technological advancements, affirming philosophy’s ongoing relevance and adaptability in modern life.

How it works

Philosophy stands as a venerable quest for wisdom, deeply rooted in the pursuit of knowledge through reasoned dialogue and thoughtful critique. This exploration seeks to shed light on the essence of philosophy, delving into its significance and the profound influence it wields over human thought and society.

At its heart, philosophy is dedicated to unraveling the deepest inquiries concerning existence, knowledge, morality, reason, consciousness, and language. It transcends the confines of empirical science by addressing questions that go beyond the tangible and measurable.

Philosophy compels us to examine the underpinnings of our convictions and the structures that shape our understanding of the world.

A key contribution of philosophy is its cultivation of critical thinking skills. It encourages not merely the acceptance of facts, but a rigorous examination of them. Through logical analysis, robust argumentation, and deep reflection, philosophy equips individuals with the tools necessary for effective decision-making and intellectual independence. These skills are crucial not just in academic pursuits but in everyday life, enhancing one’s ability to navigate complex choices and engage in meaningful debates.

In the realm of ethics, the influence of philosophy is profound. It has given rise to significant ethical frameworks such as utilitarianism, deontology, and Aristotelian virtue ethics, which guide individuals and societies through moral complexities. These philosophical explorations help refine our ethical intuitions, promoting a more nuanced understanding of right and wrong. Engaging with philosophical ethics encourages us to consider the broader impacts of our actions and to live in alignment with principles of good and justice.

Politically, philosophy has been instrumental in shaping the ideologies that govern societies. The thoughts of ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle on justice and civic responsibility have echoed through the ages, influencing modern political theory and practice. The democratic ideals espoused by philosophers such as John Locke, and the critiques of capitalism by thinkers like Karl Marx, have had lasting impacts on global political structures and policies.

Existentially, philosophy seeks answers to the fundamental questions of human purpose and existence. Thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre have explored themes of individual autonomy, existential freedom, and the search for meaning in an often indifferent universe. This branch of philosophy challenges individuals to forge their own paths and meanings, embracing the freedom that comes with profound personal responsibility.

The influence of philosophy extends further, permeating other fields of study. In science, philosophical debates on the nature of knowledge and truth challenge and refine scientific methods and theories. In the arts, philosophical themes enrich our engagement with cultural expressions, deepening our appreciation and interpretation of artistic works.

Today, philosophy faces new questions brought forth by technological advancements and societal shifts. Issues surrounding artificial intelligence, data privacy, and the ethical implications of technology are at the forefront of philosophical inquiry, demonstrating its continued relevance and adaptability.

In sum, the essence of philosophy is not just found in abstract theorization but in its powerful ability to deepen our understanding and enhance our lives. Through its persistent questioning and insightful critiques, philosophy provides essential tools for addressing personal, ethical, and societal challenges. Its enduring impact across various domains underscores its pivotal role in human progress and enlightenment. Thus, philosophy remains a cornerstone of intellectual and practical development, essential to navigating the complexities of modern life and beyond.


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The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding Its Meaning and Impact. (2024, May 21). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/the-essence-of-philosophy-understanding-its-meaning-and-impact/

"The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding Its Meaning and Impact." PapersOwl.com , 21 May 2024, https://papersowl.com/examples/the-essence-of-philosophy-understanding-its-meaning-and-impact/

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"The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding Its Meaning and Impact." PapersOwl.com, May 21, 2024. Accessed May 27, 2024. https://papersowl.com/examples/the-essence-of-philosophy-understanding-its-meaning-and-impact/

"The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding Its Meaning and Impact," PapersOwl.com , 21-May-2024. [Online]. Available: https://papersowl.com/examples/the-essence-of-philosophy-understanding-its-meaning-and-impact/. [Accessed: 27-May-2024]

PapersOwl.com. (2024). The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding Its Meaning and Impact . [Online]. Available at: https://papersowl.com/examples/the-essence-of-philosophy-understanding-its-meaning-and-impact/ [Accessed: 27-May-2024]

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The Practical Value of Studying Philosophy

Posted in: Why Study Philosophy?

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Transferable Skills

By studying philosophy, students develop cognitive transferable skills that pay off in a variety of professions—transferable skills such as Logical Reasoning • Analysis • Abstract Conceptualization • Problem-Solving • Creative Thinking • Clear and Persuasive Writing • Mental Dexterity • An Ability to Assess Different Perspectives and Frameworks • Information Management.

Earning Potential

The national median salary of Philosophy graduates is higher than nearly every other major in the social sciences, humanities, and higher than many other majors—higher than Psychology, Criminology, Communication, Special Education, Early Childhood Education, Business Management, Political Science, History, English, and so on (data source:  payscale.com ).

Which professions do philosophy graduates pursue? • Technology • Business • Law • Publishing • Government • Advertising • Journalism • Teaching • Sales • Human Resources • Public Relations • Activism • Public Policy, and so on.

Read about the practical value of studying philosophy

• Forbes  (2017) – “ A Case For Majoring In Philosophy ”

“Every year, college students choose their majors with an eye toward the return on investment. Among the usual lucrative suspects like finance and engineering, one liberal arts field stands out: philosophy. It turns out that philosophy majors earn significantly more than most majors, especially over the long term.”

“The surprisingly robust ROI [return on investment] for philosophy majors can be traced to its intellectual rigor. Philosophers are taught to seek out the pressure points in arguments and to reason for themselves. They dive into highly technical conversations, construct their own positions and arguments, and analyze relevant problems from multiple perspectives.”

“Beyond finances, the study of philosophy can also help students learn for themselves how they define the good life and how to go about living it.”

• U.S. News & World Report  (2020) – “ What You Can Do With a Philosophy Degree ”

“Philosophy students learn how to question conventional thinking, which is a marketable skill.”

“A Wall Street Journal analysis of the long-term earning potential of people with various college majors revealed that philosophy majors tend to get raises and promotions more quickly than individuals with other majors, and a result of this rapid career progression is that philosophy majors’ mid-career earnings are usually double the size of their starting salaries.”

• CNBC  (2018) – “ Mark Cuban says studying philosophy may soon be worth more than computer science—here’s why ”

“’I’m going to make a prediction’, Cuban told AOL in 2017. ‘In 10 years, a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree’…He views previously lucrative jobs in industries like accounting and computer programming as subject to the powers of automation. To remain competitive, Cuban advises ditching degrees that teach specific skills or professions and opting for degrees that teach you to think in a big picture way, like philosophy.”

• Times Higher Education  (2019) – “ What Can You Do with a Philosophy Degree? ”

“Philosophy graduates have highly transferable skills that are valuable to employers.”

“Graduates secure work in a variety of disciplines after their degree, such as teaching, PR or politics. Communications, publishing, HR and advertising can be attractive options for philosophy graduates, as well as law, banking, the civil service, business and science. Others go on to further study, research, academia and/or lecturing in philosophy or a related field.”

• Entrepreneur Magazine  (2017) – “ 5 Reasons Why Philosophy Majors Make Great Entrepreneurs ”

“When accomplished entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel and Carly Fiorina credit their philosophy backgrounds for their success, you have to wonder if they’re on to something.”

• New York Times  (2018) – “ A Wall Street Giant Makes a $75 Million Bet on Academic Philosophy ”

“Philosophy, he [Bill Miller] added, ‘has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I’ve made in investing’.”

“Mr. Miller, 67, is not the only old-guard Wall Street figure with a background in philosophy. George Soros was heavily influenced by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. Carl Icahn was a philosophy major at Princeton . . . (On the watchdog side of the street, Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, was also a philosophy major.)”

• Harvard Business Review  (2014) – “ How Philosophy Makes You a Better Leader ”

“A CEO client . . . found that contemplating the teachings of an ancient philosopher (Socrates) and a 20th century philosopher (Habermas) empowered him to implement an enhanced process of dialogue, consensus building, and ‘communicative rationality’ with his leadership team.”

• National Bureau Of Economic Research  (2017) – “ The Costs Of And Net Returns To College Major ”

“Health and Engineering majors, where earnings returns are large on a per graduate basis, have per-dollar returns similar to those observed in education, math, philosophy , and language degrees. .  .”

Graduate Study

Some philosophy majors go on to graduate studies in philosophy in order to pursue an academic career. The philosophy major is also exceptional training for many other post-graduate paths, such as law school. In fact, statistics indicate that philosophy majors perform very well on standardized tests for post-graduate and professional study.

  • The GRE (“the SAT for graduate school”) – Philosophy majors come out on top.

“When students are compared by major on how far above average they do on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), a standardized test used in many disciplines to assess applicants to graduate programs, philosophy majors come out on top , according to a new look at test score data over the past few years.” (Daily Nous)

  • Our philosophy department and Montclair State’s Feliciano School of Business have partnered for a “4 + 1” Philosophy BA/MBA program .
  • The LSAT (the entrance exam for law school admissions) – Philosophy majors tie for first place with Economics majors.
  • Medical School – The Philosophy major is a solid path to medical school. Consider the data and facts as explained by Paul Jung, M.D: “ If you think biochemistry is your ticket into medical school, think again. “

Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives Essay

Humans developed philosophy as a discipline to try and describe and understand objective reality, the processes that occur in it, and their causes. In fact, philosophy evolved alongside humankind, and different eras’ philosophers conveyed other concepts. Nevertheless, the division of philosophy into Eastern and Western schools, and even Eastern and Western civilizations, had the most significant influence on its growth. People who believe in the inner strength of a human being tend to support Eastern philosophy. In contrast, those who believe in the social nature of all processes tend to hold Western philosophical views. A canonical group of thinkers, including Pythagoras, René Descartes, Plato, and Aristotle, defines Western philosophy. The impact of monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity, is another characteristic. In totality, these philosophies provide a suggestion that knowledge is a necessity for every human being since they would inevitably face the difficulties of meeting the unknown in their life.

The philosophers and ideas from Europe and the United States are called Western philosophy. Students who are given the freedom to express their ideas are less frightened to stand out or make mistakes because Western education views mistakes as valuable learning opportunities (Hassan et al. 2). Most Western philosophers provided insight into some of the most critical discussions in modern environmental ethics, including those involving the inherent value of nature (James 3). Many talks have been about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic. A canonical group of thinkers and some recurrent distinctions and notions can be used to identify Western philosophy. Western and Eastern philosophies have different sets of thinkers and have been influenced by various religions.

Pythagoreanism was started by a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and polymath who merged rationalism with irrationalism more thoroughly than any previous movement in ancient Greek philosophy. His worldview has been described in contradicting ways; therefore, anything we say or read elsewhere must be seen as a compromise between extremely divergent viewpoints held by academics. In addition to being a nearly inextricable mixture of truth and lies, beliefs about Pythagoras reveal a highly peculiar psyche, even in their most fundamental and debatable forms (Russel 30). The Pythagoreans also created the idea of harmony, which is essential. The structures that give existence its order would not simply appear; they follow a system, form a coherent whole, and maintain a sense of cosmic harmony.

Plato was a Greek philosopher who established the Platonist school and founded the Academy in Athens, the first Western institution of higher learning. Regarded as the greatest thinker in human history, he has profoundly impacted how Western philosophy developed and progressed. Plato clarifies the difference between knowledge and belief in a way that has significantly more nuanced implications about the nature of reality (Cottingham 12). According to English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the best way to summarize the European philosophical tradition is that it is a collection of footnotes to Plato (Sidiropoulos 8). Like his mentor Socrates, Plato advocated for the pursuit of truth through discussion. Plato’s theories are frequently discussion-starting premises and are only sometimes a part of a comprehensive theory. Platonic concepts are often disputed within the dialogues.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle studied under Plato, although he created a different school of thought. He established a philosophical and scientific system that served as the foundation for all logic, Christian Scholasticism, and the modern scientific method, making him one of the most extraordinary intellectual personalities in Western history. Despite its origins in Plato’s concepts, Aristotle’s philosophy evolved due to his development. The key figures of Western philosophy are Plato and Aristotle, and no student of philosophy today can avoid a thorough study of Platonic and Aristotelian concepts. The importance of chance in the natural world was first clearly defended by Aristotle, a famous philosopher. There are two reasons for such a phenomenon, the first one being a causal chain. He rejected the oversimplified notion that each event has a single excuse. Accidents brought on by chance may occur in a sequence of events (Russell). The origin of indeterminism and randomness in modern science, including quantum mechanics, can be traced back to Aristotle’s conception of the function of chance.

Descartes, regarded as the father of contemporary philosophy, is also credited with founding rationalism, which holds reason as the only reliable knowledge source. Empiricism, which asserts that knowledge is derived through experiences, is opposed to this. Modern philosophy was launched by Descartes’ method of doubt, but ancient philosophy was created by diverse applications of the dialectic method (Gracious 9). Descartes created dream arguments to demonstrate that the data we gather via our senses is unreliable. However, he knew experiments were required to confirm and validate theories. One of the main pillars of the contemporary scientific method is Descartes’ approach to systematic skepticism.

In conclusion, all Western philosophers would concur that proper knowledge is a priori. People can build or expand on this intrinsic knowledge to find what Plato and Descartes could characterize as ultimate truths if they use it. Many of the difficulties one encounters everyday stem from a lack of knowledge. Even such necessities as procuring enough food and a place to live, present knowledge-related difficulties. Furthermore, once one moves past the necessities of basic survival, they meet with hurdles on practically every front. Knowledge questions range from bigger, more important ones like figuring out who real friends are, what to do with a career, how to spend time, and settle a disagreement with others. Every day, people make decisions based on their knowledge, some of which significantly impact their own lives and those around them.

Works Cited

Cottingham, John G., Western Philosophy: An Anthology. John Wiley & Sons, 2021.

Gracious, Thomas. Introduction to Western Philosophy. Indira Gandhi National Open University School of Interdisciplinary and Trans-disciplinary Studies.

Hassan, Aminuddin, et al. “Western and Eastern Educational Philosophies.” 40th Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia conference, Murdoch University, Western Australia, 2010.

James, Simon P. Zen Buddhism, and Environmental Ethics. Routledge, 2017.

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy: Collectors Edition. Routledge, 2013.

Sidiropoulos, Michael. “ Great Thinkers in Western Philosophy ” Researchgate, 2021, pp. 1–38. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2024, May 26). Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives. https://ivypanda.com/essays/western-philosophy-the-main-representatives/

"Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives." IvyPanda , 26 May 2024, ivypanda.com/essays/western-philosophy-the-main-representatives/.

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IvyPanda . 2024. "Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives." May 26, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/western-philosophy-the-main-representatives/.

1. IvyPanda . "Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives." May 26, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/western-philosophy-the-main-representatives/.


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John Donne (1572–1631), the great metaphysical poet, provides a metaphor that is useful for close reading. In “The Canonization” (1633) he writes:

We’ll build sonnets pretty rooms;

As well a well-wrought urn becomes

The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,

And by these hymns, all shall approve

Us canonized for Love.John Donne, “The Canonization,” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173353 .

Another poet returns to the same metaphor 118 years later. Thomas Gray, in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), writes:

Can storied urn or animated bust

Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard,” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173564 .

Both Donne and Gray use the image of the urn in their poetry. An urn , according to the Oxford English Dictionary ( OED ), is “an earthenware or metal vessel or vase of a rounded or ovaloid form and with a circular base, used by various peoples especially in former times…to preserve the ashes of the dead. Hence vaguely used (esp. poet .) for ‘a tomb or sepulchre, the grave.’” Oxford English Dictionary , s.v. “urn.” Donne and Gray use the urn poetically, or metaphorically, for the urn is an image, a container to hold poetic meaning. To Donne, the poet can “build sonnets pretty rooms; / As well a well-wrought urn becomes”; to Gray the urn becomes “storied” or an “animated bust” capable of containing stories and meaning. As an image, then, the urn becomes symbolic: poets argue that a poem is like an urn, a container for artistic meaning.

Let’s add one final component to our urn image. Jump ahead another sixty-nine years from Gray’s poem and read John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820). At the end of this poem, Keats writes:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse , ed. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1919; Bartleby.com, 1999), http://www.bartleby.com/101/625.html .

Donne’s “ well-wrought urn ” became the title of a book by Cleanth Brooks— The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947)Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1956).—a central manifesto of the New Criticism. New Criticism is synonymous with close reading, so the urn becomes an important symbol for the New Critics: the urn as artistic container of beauty and meaning represents the New Critical enterprise. A poem, a play, a novel, a short story is like a “storied urn” or “well-wrought urn,” capable of conveying poetic beauty and truth. Even if the poem is “Jabberwocky”!

In all likelihood, you have already practiced New Criticism , the close reading of a poem, short story, or longer narrative that focuses on the unity of that work. When you examine a short story for its character development, a drama for its plot construction, or a poem for its imagery, you are reading as a New Critic, looking at the literary work through the lens of close reading. In a sense, New Critical close reading is at the heart of every form of literary analysis you do, regardless of the theoretical approach taken. Thus it becomes essential that you become proficient in close readings of texts, for this skill is the foundation of all forms of literary criticism. If you cannot read a text closely and analyze it, you will have difficulty reading from any critical perspective.

Your Process

  • List the papers, if any, you have written in high school or college using the close reading approach.
  • Describe your experience writing such papers.
  • What challenges or questions do you remember having as you were working on these papers?
  • On which literary work have you decided to write your paper?
  • What are the fundamental questions you have about this work?

Focus on New Critical Strategies

The New Critics, as we discussed, regard a literary work as an urn —a well-wrought, storied urn, or a Grecian urn. As Keats writes, this urn contains not only beauty but also truth: a work of literature has some objective meaning that is integral to its artistic design. In other words, literature is the art of conveying truth about the world. Thus the New Critics view the study of literature as an inherently valuable enterprise; literary criticism, it follows, is fruitful because it clarifies art by assigning a truth value to this art. To quote the nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold, as he writes in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1865), literature reflects “the best that is known and thought in the world.”Matthew Arnold, Function of Criticism in the Present Time (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2010) . To the New Critics, as you can see, literature—in particular the analysis of it—was a profound activity.

A central concern of the New Critics is to understand how meaning and form interweave into a total artistic effect, the well-wrought urn. A New Critical reading assumes that the literary work has an organic structure that leads to unity or harmony in the work. An important concern for New Critics, consequently, is to show how meaning is achieved or dependent on the organic structure—the form—of the work. A New Critical reading, then, focuses on the various elements of literature that complement and create the theme.

Basic Philosophy of Close Reading

A New Critic’s toolbox will hold those elements of literature that allow for the discussion of form and technique as it applies to meaning. Since New Critics perform a close reading of the text to illustrate how structure and theme are inseparable, they are eager to tell us both how to read and how not to read. They identify various fallacies of reading that must be avoided:

The Intentional Fallacy

The intentional fallacy occurs when readers claim to understand an author’s intended meaning for a work of literature. The New Critics believed that a literary work belongs to the readers, to the public, which suggests that we should read the work isolated from what the author may have said about the work. In other words, the critic never knows specifically what the author intended. Indeed, an author may have conveyed meanings he or she did not intend at all, but those meanings are still present in their work. The literary critic, then, must concentrate solely on the extrinsic formal qualities of the poem, play, short story, or novel.

The Biographical Fallacy

Related to the intentional fallacy is the biographical fallacy , which, as you might suspect, is committed when you use an author’s life as a frame of reference to interpret a work of art. The New Critics took painstaking measures to keep the focus on the work of art itself.

The Affective Fallacy

The affective fallacy is produced when the critic brings in his or her personal feelings about how a literary work moves them. While New Critics were aware that many readers found meaning in the emotional impact of literature, they were careful to distinguish between subjective emotional responses and objective critical statements about a literary work. Critics, then, should stick closely to the work of art, eliminating the author’s intention from consideration, and they should also eliminate their emotional involvement in the reading experience. We discover later in our study that many critical theories—psychoanalytic and reader-response theories, in particular—are diametrically opposed to New Criticism: both psychoanalytic and reader-response theories highlight the way a literary work affects a reader’s emotional and intellectual responses.

The Heresy of Paraphrase

Finally, the New Critics warned against the heresy of paraphrase , which happens when readers artificially separate meaning from structure or form. You have probably fallen into this trap once or twice when you concentrated on summarizing a work’s plot rather than analyzing its meaning. New Criticism teaches us not to assign a meaning to a literary work unless that meaning can be supported by a close examination of the artistic elements of the text. To say that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about the death of a migrant worker fails to acknowledge that the poem does not support such a reading. Humpty Dumpty, in fact, could be accused of the heresy of paraphrase, as Amy Chisnell explores in her student paper later in the chapter.

In review, a close reading, as defined by the New Critics, focuses narrowly on the literary work as a well-wrought urn. All we need for our interpretation is the literary work itself, where we examine how the artistry of the work leads to a larger theme that reflects the truth value of the work. Easy to state, more difficult to do! So let’s now turn to see how a close reading can be connected to the writing process itself.

  • How do you react to such rules that define the philosophy of New Critical close reading?
  • What do you see as the strengths to such an approach?
  • What do you see as some of the limits to this approach?

The Writing Process and the Protocols of Close Reading

If New Critics provide us with so many strategies for not reading a text, they should present us with strategies for reading texts. And they do. They suggest protocols of reading that are the heart of traditional close readings of texts. In a nutshell, a close reading exposes a problem or issue that needs examination to bring unity to the work; a close reading demonstrates how a literary work’s meaning is unified, balanced, and harmonized by its aesthetic—or literary—structure. Your close reading, then, often identifies a tension or ambiguity —the issue or problem—that can be resolved by showing that the literary work achieves unity even in the apparent tension or ambiguity. Consequently, the critic can often examine how language creates tension through paradox or irony . Paradox (when something appears contradictory or discordant, but finally proves to be actually true) and irony (when a perceived meaning or intention is eventually found not to be accurate) are a result of a writer’s use of language in a metaphorical way.

  • Read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” ( http://www.bartleby.com/101/625.html ).
  • Examine the last two lines of the poem (49–50).
  • Do you think the urn is speaking the lines at the end? Does it matter?
  • Read Cleanth Brooks’s interpretation of the ending lines ( www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html ).
  • Then read the following overview.

There is no more famous example of a professional critical reading than Cleanth Brooks’s “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html . You can access the essay at www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html .

Brooks’s reading of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” begins by disagreeing with T. S. Eliot, who believed the concluding lines of the poem—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—constituted a major flaw in the poem, for, as Brooks relates, “the troubling assertion is apparently an intrusion upon the poem—does not grow out of it—is not dramatically accommodated to it.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html . Eliot feels the urn’s speech doesn’t make much sense—and that the statement simply isn’t true. Brooks sets out to counter Eliot and prove that the poem is unified around the central paradox of the poem: “What is the relation of the beauty (the goodness, the perfection) of a poem to the truth or falsity of what it seems to assert?”

Brooks contends that the poem is “a parable on the nature of poetry, and of art in general” and that the concluding lines must be taken in the “total context of the poem.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html . When read in this manner, the urn’s speech was “‘in character,’ was dramatically appropriate, [and] was properly prepared for.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html . To support his contention, Brooks provides a stanza-by-stanza close reading in which he suggests that the paradox of the speaking urn is naturally part of each stanza and related to a key thematic concept: the poem highlights the tension between bustling life depicted on the urn and the frozen vignettes of the “Cold Pastoral.” Brooks concludes, “If the urn has been properly dramatized, if we have followed the development of the metaphors, if we have been alive to the paradoxes which work throughout the poem, perhaps then, we shall be prepared for the enigmatic, final paradox which the ‘silent form’ utters.’”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html . In concluding his essay, Brooks warns readers not to fall into the trap of paraphrase, for we must ultimately focus on “the world-view, or ‘philosophy,’ or ‘truth’ of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic wholeness” (Brooks’s emphasis).Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, www.mrbauld.com/keatsurn.html .

Brooks’s reading of Keats’s ode is an exemplar of New Critical reading. Remember, a close reading will examine a literary work and find some objective meaning (a theme) that is harmonized with structure, thus balancing theme and form.

Implementing the Reading Protocols: A Strategy

To perform a close reading, use the following strategy:

  • Identify a tension or ambiguity in the literary work, the “problem” that needs to be solved by a close reading. In other words, your interpretation will highlight a theme or meaning that resides in the work.
  • point of view
  • language use (i.e., denotation, connotation, metaphor, simile, personification, rhythm)

Of course, the principle of composition is determined by the literary genre you are analyzing (i.e., short story, poetry, drama, novel). By showing that #1 is dependent on #2, you present a New Critical interpretation reflecting how meaning is integral to theme.

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Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky. Courtesy the Russian State Library/Wikimedia

Quantum dialectics

When quantum mechanics posed a threat to the marxist doctrine of materialism, communist physicists sought to reconcile the two.

by Jim Baggott   + BIO

The quantum revolution in physics played out over a period of 22 years, from 1905 to 1927. When it was done, the new theory of quantum mechanics had completely undermined the basis for our understanding of the material world. The familiar and intuitively appealing description of an atom as a tiny solar system, with electrons orbiting the atomic nucleus, was no longer satisfactory. The electron had instead become a phantom. Physicists discovered that in one kind of experiment, electrons behave like regular particles – as small, concentrated bits of matter. In another kind of experiment, electrons behave like waves. No experiment can be devised to show both types of behaviour at the same time. Quantum mechanics is unable to tell us what an electron is .

More unpalatable consequences ensued. The uncertainty principle placed fundamental limits on what we can hope to discover about the properties of quantum ‘wave-particles’. Quantum mechanics also broke the sacred link between cause and effect, wreaking havoc on determinism, reducing scientific prediction to a matter of probability – to a roll of the dice. We could no longer say: when we do this , that will definitely happen. We could say only: when we do this, that will happen with a certain probability.

As the founders of the theory argued about what it meant, the views of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr began to dominate. He concluded that we have no choice but to describe our experiments and their results using seemingly contradictory, but nevertheless complementary, concepts of waves and particles borrowed from classical (pre-quantum) physics. This is Bohr’s principle of ‘complementarity’. He argued that there is no contradiction because, in the context of the quantum world, our use of these concepts is purely symbolic. We reach for whichever description – waves or particles – best serves the situation at hand, and we should not take the theory too literally. It has no meaning beyond its ability to connect our experiences of the quantum world as they are projected to us by the classical instruments we use to study it.

Bohr emphasised that complementarity did not deny the existence of an objective quantum reality lying beneath the phenomena. But it did deny that we can discover anything meaningful about this. Alas, despite his strenuous efforts to exercise care in his use of language, Bohr could be notoriously vague and more than occasionally incomprehensible. Pronouncements were delivered in tortured ‘Bohrish’. It is said of his last recorded lecture that it took a team of linguists a week to discover the language he was speaking. And physicists of Bohr’s school, most notably the German theorist Werner Heisenberg, were guilty of using language that, though less tortured, was frequently less cautious.

It was all too easy to interpret some of Heisenberg’s pronouncements as a return to radical subjectivism, to the notion that our knowledge of the world is conjured only in the mind without reference to a real external world. It did not help that Bohr and physicists of Bohr’s school sought to shoehorn complementarity into other domains of enquiry, such as biology and psychology, and attempted to use it to resolve age-old conundrums concerning free will and the nature of life. Such efforts garnered little support from the wider scientific community and attracted plenty of opprobrium.

Albert Einstein famously pushed back, declaring that, unlike quantum mechanics, God does not play dice . He argued that, while quantum mechanics was undoubtedly powerful, it was in some measure incomplete.

In 1927, Bohr and Einstein commenced a lively debate. Einstein was joined in dissent by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who devised the conundrum of ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ to highlight the seemingly absurd implications of quantum mechanics. But although both Einstein and Schrödinger remained strident critics, they offered no counter-interpretation of their own. Despite their misgivings, there was simply no consensus on a viable alternative to complementarity.

C omplementarity also fell foul of the principal political ideologies that, in different ways, dominated human affairs from the early 1930s, through the Second World War, to the Cold War that followed. Both Bohr and Einstein were of Jewish descent and, to Nazi ideologues, complementarity and relativity theory were poisonous Jewish abstractions, at odds with the nationalistic programme of Deutsche Physik , or ‘Aryan physics’. But the proponents of Deutsche Physik failed to secure the backing of the Nazi leadership, and any threat to complementarity from Nazi ideology disappeared with the war’s ending. Much more enduring were the objections of Soviet communist philosophers who argued that complementarity was at odds with the official Marxist doctrine of ‘dialectical materialism’.

Vladimir Lenin, who had led the Bolshevik Party in the October Revolution of 1917, was a dogmatic advocate of the materialist worldview expounded by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto , first published in 1848. The world according to Marxism consists of objectively existing matter in constant motion, bound by laws. Such laws govern different levels of existence that we attempt to describe through different scientific disciplines that are not necessarily reducible one to another. For example, sociology – regarded as an empirical science – is not reducible to physics and is therefore bound by its own laws of human social and economic behaviour.

Marx and Engels observed that such behaviour breeds functional contradictions within an organised society. To survive, people submit to exploitative relationships with the means of economic production and those who own them. Distinct classes emerge: masters and their slaves, lords and their serfs, business owners (the bourgeoisie) and their low-wage workers (the proletariat).

It was not enough just to interpret the world, Marx claimed. Philosophers must also seek to change it

These functional contradictions are ultimately resolved through inevitable class struggle resulting in irreversible changes in social organisation and the means of production. The classical antiquity of Greece and Rome had given way to feudalism. Feudalism had given way to capitalism. And capitalism was destined to give way to socialism and communism, to the utopia of a classless society. But the necessary changes in social organisation would not happen by themselves. The path led first through socialism and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, supported by an autocratic state that would eventually no longer be needed when the communist utopia was realised. For Lenin, the ends justified the means, which included the violent repression of bourgeois capitalist and counter-revolutionary forces.

In Marxist philosophy, the method of studying and apprehending both social and physical phenomena is dialectical, and the interpretation of natural phenomena is firmly materialistic. It was not enough just to interpret the world, Marx claimed. Philosophers must also seek to change it, and this could not be done in a world built only from perceptions and ideas. Any philosophy that sought to disconnect us from material reality, by reducing the world to mere sensation and experience, posed a threat to Marxism.

In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), Lenin had berated the physicist Ernst Mach and his Russian followers, and the German philosopher Richard Avenarius, who had formulated the positivist doctrine of empirio-criticism. The philosophy of positivism was anathema, as it sought to reduce knowledge of the world to sensory experience. Lenin argued that such thinking led only to a subjective idealism, or even solipsism. To him, this was just so much ‘gibberish’.

Complementarity looked just like the kind of positivist gibberish that Lenin had sought to annihilate. A reality accessible only in the form of quantum probabilities did not suit the needs of the official philosophy of Soviet communists. It appeared to undermine orthodox materialism. Nevertheless, an influential group of Soviet physicists, including Vladimir Fock, Lev Landau, Igor Tamm and Matvei Bronstein, promoted Bohr’s views and for a time represented the ‘Russian branch’ of Bohr’s school. This was not without some risk. Communist Party philosophers sought their dismissal, to no avail, largely because they could not agree on the issues among themselves.

T he situation in the Soviet Union changed dramatically a few years later. As his health declined, Lenin had tried to remove the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin, whom he deemed unfit for the role. But Stalin had been quietly consolidating his position and had placed loyalists in key administrative posts. After a brief power struggle following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin became supreme leader. In 1937-38, he tightened his grip by unleashing a reign of terror, known as the Great Purge, in which many of the old Bolsheviks who had fought alongside Lenin in 1917 were executed. Although the total death toll is difficult to determine, a figure of 1 million is not unreasonable. Physicists were not exempt. Bronstein was arrested, accused of terrorism offences, and executed in February 1938.

Stalin put his own stamp on the political ideology of Soviet communists in his short text titled Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938), a formulation of Marxist philosophy that would be adopted as the official Communist Party line. Those intellectuals who resisted the official doctrine now faced real risks of losing more than just their jobs.

An outspoken commitment to complementarity became positively dangerous

The distractions of the Second World War meant that little changed for physicists until Andrei Zhdanov, the Party’s philosopher and propagandist-in-chief, who was thought by many to be Stalin’s successor-in-waiting, specifically targeted the interpretation of quantum mechanics in a speech delivered in June 1947. ‘The Kantian vagaries of modern bourgeois atomic physicists,’ he proclaimed, ‘lead them to inferences about the electron’s possessing “free will”, to attempts to describe matter as only a certain conjunction of waves, and to other devilish tricks.’ This was the beginning, writes the historian Loren Graham, ‘of the most intense ideological campaign in the history of Soviet scholarship’. An outspoken commitment to complementarity became positively dangerous.

Soviet physicists scrambled to defensible positions. Fock retreated from complementarity as an objective law of nature, and criticised Bohr for his vagueness. Others sought ways to ‘materialise’ quantum mechanics. Dmitry Blokhintsev, a student of Tamm’s, favoured a statistical interpretation based on the collective properties of an ‘ensemble’ of real particles. In such an interpretation we are obliged to deal with probabilities simply because we are ignorant of the properties and behaviours of the individual material particles that make up the ensemble. Einstein had used this conception in the opening salvo of his debate with Bohr in 1927. Yakov Terletsky who, like Tamm, had studied under the Soviet physicist Leonid Mandelstam, favoured a ‘pilot-wave’ interpretation of the kind that had initially been promoted by the French physicist Louis de Broglie before it was shot down by Bohr’s school in 1927. In this interpretation, a real wave field guides real particles, and probabilities again arise because we are ignorant of the details.

A s the 1930s progressed towards world war, many Western intellectuals had embraced communism as the only perceived alternative to the looming threat of Nazism. Numbered among the small group of Jewish communist physicists gathered around J Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley was David Bohm. As Oppenheimer began to recruit a team of theorists to work on the physics of the atomic bomb at the newly established Los Alamos National Laboratory in early 1943, Bohm was high on his list. But Bohm’s communist affiliations led the director of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, to deny him the security clearance necessary to join the project.

Bohm was left behind at Berkeley and joined with his fellow communist and close friend Joseph Weinberg in teaching the absent Oppenheimer’s course on quantum mechanics. His long discussions with Weinberg, who argued that complementarity was itself a form of dialectic and so not in conflict with Marxist philosophy, encouraged him to accept Bohr’s arguments, although he was not free of doubt. In his textbook Quantum Theory (1951), derived in part from his experiences teaching Oppenheimer’s course, Bohm broadly adhered to Bohr’s views.

Bohm had by this time moved to Princeton University in New Jersey. Einstein, who in 1933 had fled from Nazi Germany to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, asked to meet with him sometime in the spring of 1951. The meeting re-awakened the Marxist materialist in Bohm. As Einstein explained the basis for his own misgivings, Bohm’s doubts returned. ‘This encounter with Einstein had a strong effect on the direction of my research,’ he later wrote, ‘because I then became seriously interested in whether a deterministic extension of the quantum theory could be found.’ Was there, after all, a more materialistic alternative to complementarity? ‘My discussions with Einstein … encouraged me to look again.’ Although there is no documented evidence to support it, Bohm later claimed he had also been influenced ‘probably by Blokhintsev or some other Russian theorist like Terletsky’.

Bohm’s theory sought to restore causality and determinism to the quantum world

But Bohm’s relationship with Weinberg had by now returned to haunt him. In March 1943, Weinberg had been caught betraying atomic secrets by an illegal FBI bug planted in the home of Steve Nelson, a key figure in the Communist Party apparatus in the San Francisco Bay Area. This evidence was inadmissible in court. In an attempt to expose Weinberg’s betrayal, in May 1949 Bohm had been called to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, set up by the House of Representatives to investigate communist subversion in the US. He pleaded the Fifth Amendment, a standard means of avoiding self-incrimination, which only raised more suspicion.

Bohm was arrested, then brought to trial in May 1951. He was acquitted (as was Weinberg a couple of years later). Now caught in the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by Joseph McCarthy, Bohm lost his position at Princeton. Only Einstein tried to help, offering to bring him to the Institute. But its new director – Oppenheimer, now lauded as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ and increasingly haunted by the FBI’s interest in his own Leftist past – vetoed Bohm’s appointment. Bohm left the US for exile in Brazil, from where he published two papers setting out what was, in effect, a re-discovery of de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory. The theory sought to restore causality and determinism to the quantum world and was firmly materialist. Oppenheimer rejected Bohm’s efforts as ‘juvenile deviationism’. Einstein, who had once toyed with a similar approach and might have been expected to be sympathetic, declared it ‘too cheap’.

Under a barrage of criticism, Bohm gained support from the French physicist Jean-Pierre Vigier, then assistant to de Broglie in Paris. He was just what Bohm needed: a resourceful theorist, a man of action, a hero of the French Resistance during the war, and a friend of the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Invited to join Einstein in Princeton, Vigier’s communist associations had led the Department of State to forbid his entry into the US. He worked with Bohm on another variation of the pilot-wave theory and persuaded de Broglie to rekindle his interest in it, sounding alarm bells among the Bohr faithful: ‘Catholics and communists in France are uniting against complementarity!’

B ut Bohm’s mission to restore materiality to quantum mechanics amounted to more than demonstrating the possibility of a deterministic alternative. In 1935, working with his Princeton colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, Einstein had set up a stubborn challenge, a last throw of the dice in his debate with Bohr. In the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) thought experiment, a pair of quantum particles interact and move apart, to the left and right, their properties correlated by some physical law. Schrödinger invented the term ‘ entanglement ’ to describe their situation. For simplicity, we assume that the particles can have properties ‘up’ and ‘down’, each with a 50 per cent probability.

We have no way of knowing in advance what results we’re going to get for each particle. But if the particle on the left is found to be ‘up’, the correlated particle on the right must be ‘down’, and vice versa. Now, according to quantum mechanics, the entangled particles are mysteriously bound together no matter how far apart they get, and the correlation persists. Suppose the particles move so far apart that any message or influence sent from one cannot get to the other even if it travels at the speed of light. How then does the particle on the right ‘know’ what result we obtained for the particle on the left, so that it can correlate itself?

We could assume that when they are sufficiently far apart the particles can be considered separate and distinct, or ‘locally real’. But this conflicts with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which forbids messages or influences from travelling faster than light, as Einstein himself explained: ‘One can escape from this conclusion only by either assuming that the measurement of [the particle on the left] (telepathically) changes the real situation of [the particle on the right] or by denying independent real situations as such to things which are spatially separated from each other . Both alternatives appear to me entirely unacceptable.’ (Emphasis added.) Particles that do not exist independently of each other are said to be ‘nonlocal’.

A prospective Soviet spy codenamed ‘Quantum’ attended a meeting at the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC

Einstein was known for his pacifist and Leftist inclinations. Podolsky was Russian-born, and Rosen was a first-generation descendant of Russian émigrés. Both of Einstein’s assistants were sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Six months after the publication of the EPR paper, Rosen asked Einstein to recommend him for a job in the Soviet Union. Einstein wrote to the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Vyacheslav Molotov, praising Rosen for his talents as a physicist. Rosen was at first delighted with his new home, and soon he had a son. ‘I hope,’ Einstein wrote in congratulation, ‘that he too can help in furthering the great cultural mission that the new Russia has undertaken with such energy.’ But by October 1938 Rosen was back in the US, having discovered that his research did not prosper in the people’s paradise.

Podolsky had earned his PhD at the California Institute of Technology and had returned to the Soviet Union in 1931 to work with Fock and Landau (and the visiting English theorist Paul Dirac) at the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkiv. From there, he joined Einstein at the Institute in Princeton in 1933. Ten years later, a prospective atomic spy assigned the codename ‘Quantum’ by Soviet intelligence attended a meeting at the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC and spoke with a high-ranking diplomat. Quantum was seeking an opportunity to join the Soviet effort to build an atomic bomb, and offered information on a technique for separating quantities of the fissile isotope uranium-235 . He was paid $300 for his trouble. In Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) files made public in 2009, Quantum was revealed to be Podolsky.

B ohm examined the EPR experiment in considerable detail. He developed an alternative that offered the prospect of translation from a thought experiment into a real one. With the Israeli physicist Yakir Aharonov, in 1957 he sought to demonstrate that real experiments had in fact already been done (in 1950), concluding that they did indeed deny independent real situations to the separated particles, such that these cannot be considered locally real.

This was far from the end of the matter. Befuddled in his turn by Bohrian vagueness and inspired by Bohm, the Irish physicist John Bell also pushed back against complementarity and in 1964 built on Bohm’s version of EPR to develop his theorem and inequality. The experiments of 1950 had not gone far enough. Further experiments to test Bell’s inequality in 1972 and in 1981-82 demonstrated entanglement and nonlocality with few grounds for doubt.

It began to dawn on the wider scientific community that entanglement and nonlocality were real phenomena, leading to speculations on the possibility of building a quantum computer, and on the use of entangled particles in a system of quantum cryptography. The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the three experimentalists who had done most to expose the reality of entanglement and its promise of ‘a new kind of quantum technology’. The projected value of the quantum computing industry is estimated to be somewhere between $9 billion and $93 billion by 2040. I doubt there is any other example in history of such a high-value industry constructed on a physical principle that nobody understands.

Marxism powered many objections to Bohr’s complementarity, and so helped to shape the development of postwar quantum mechanics. Soviet physicist-philosophers lent their support by finding positivist tendencies in Bohr’s teaching in conflict with dialectical materialism. Some sought an alternative materialistic interpretation. Podolsky and Rosen both admired the Soviet Union and in different ways sought to contribute to its mission. Bohm laboured at a time when there was little appetite for what many physicists judged to be philosophical, and therefore irrelevant, foundational questions. It says much about Bohm’s commitment that he resisted the temptation to leave such questions to play out in the theatre of the mind. The Marxist in Bohm sought not only to show that a materialistic alternative was possible, but also to find a way to bring the arguments into the real world of the laboratory.

It was not enough just to interpret the world. Bohm also sought to change it.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my colleague, co-author and friend, John Heilbron, who died on 5 November 2023.

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  1. PDF A Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper

    GOOD WRITING EXAMPLE Jen was an excellent philosophy writer who received the following assignment: Evaluate Smith's argument for the claim that people lack free will. Jen decided before she began writing her paper that Smith's argument ultimately fails because it trades on an ambiguity. Accordingly, she began her paper with the following ...

  2. How to Write a Philosophical Essay

    1. Planning. Typically, your purpose in writing an essay will be to argue for a certain thesis, i.e., to support a conclusion about a philosophical claim, argument, or theory.[4] You may also be asked to carefully explain someone else's essay or argument.[5] To begin, select a topic. Most instructors will be happy to discuss your topic with ...

  3. 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

    Welcome to 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, an ever-growing set of over 180 original 1000-word essays on philosophical questions, theories, figures, and arguments.. We publish new essays frequently, so please check back for updates, follow us on Facebook, Twitter / X, and Instagram, and subscribe by email on this page to receive notifications of new essays.

  4. PDF Tackling the Philosophy Essay A Student Guide Edition One

    essay-related problems. The intention is to explain and illustrate a handful of recommendations that address some of the most common mistakes students make when writing philosophical essays. There are numerous resources available to you if you are concerned about your essay-writing skills, beginning with your supervisors.

  5. Tackling the Philosophy Essay: A Student Guide

    This short book, written by recent Cambridge PhD students, is designed to introduce students to the process of writing an essay in philosophy. Containing many annotated examples, this guide demonstrates some of the Do's and Don'ts of essay writing, with particular attention paid to the early stages of the writing process (including the creation ...

  6. Philosophy essay writing guide

    Guide to researching and writing Philosophy essays. 5th edition by Steven Tudor, for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003. This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays) was prepared in consultation with members of the ...


    construct successful argumentative essays. Writing a good philosophy essay is challenging but worthwhile. Some of the most important skills the study of philosophy can help you to acquire are skills of analytical thinking and clear expression: writing essays is the main way you will develop those skills. Essays in philosophy have rather

  8. Philosophy Essay Ultimate Guide

    Philosophical writing concerns questions that don't have clear-cut yes or no answers. So, coming up with philosophy essay topics yourself can be tough. Fret not: we've put together this list of 30 topics for philosophy papers on ethics and leadership for you. Feel free to use them as-is or tweak them! 15 Ethics Philosophy Essay Topics

  9. Guide for Writing in Philosophy

    Philosophical writing is both argumentativeand. exegetical. Argumentative writing takes a position or asks a question and consistently states the reasons for the position the writer holds or for the answer they provide to the question they've asked. Exegetical writing consists of cogent and sophisticated interpretations of selected texts.

  10. What is Philosophy?

    This essay surveys some answers. 'Philosophy' in a dictionary. 1. Defining Philosophy. The most general definition of philosophy is that it is the pursuit of wisdom, truth, and knowledge.[1] Indeed, the word itself means 'love of wisdom' in Greek.

  11. 1.1 What Is Philosophy?

    Closer to the present day, in 1962, Wilfrid Sellars, a highly influential 20th-century American philosopher, wrote a chapter called "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy. He opens the essay with a dramatic and concise description of philosophy: "The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is ...

  12. PDF Writing a Philosophical Essay1

    The philosophical essay generally follows a very simple structure: State the proposition to be proved. Give the argument for that proposition. Show that the argument is valid. Show that the premises are true. Consider an objection to your argument and respond to that objection. State the upshot of what has been proven.


    WRITING PHILOSOPHY ESSAYS VolkerHalbach New College,Oxford ˇŁthAugust}"ˇŁ IntutorialsandclassesIhavefoundmyselfrepeatingthesameinstructionsand

  14. Best of Philosophy

    Best of Philosophy. Join us in celebrating another year of excellence in philosophy research at Oxford University Press. Our 'Best of Philosophy' collection brings together the most read content published in our philosophy portfolio in 2021, offering a free selection of journal articles and book chapters from the year's most popular publications.

  15. Philosophical Essays, Volume 1

    The two volumes of Philosophical Essays bring together the most important essays written by one of the world's foremost philosophers of language. Scott Soames has selected thirty-one essays spanning nearly three decades of thinking about linguistic meaning and the philosophical significance of language. A judicious collection of old and new ...

  16. Top 200+ Philosophy Essay Topics and Ideas

    The Philosophy of Education: Purpose and Approach. The Concept of Liberty in Political Philosophy. The Ethics of Care: A Challenge to Traditional Moral Theories. The Philosophy of Art: Aesthetics and Meaning. The Notion of Self in Eastern and Western Philosophies. The Ethics of Animal Rights and Welfare.

  17. PhilPapers: Online Research in Philosophy

    PhilPapers is a comprehensive index and bibliography of philosophy maintained by the community of philosophers. We monitor all sources of research content in philosophy, including journals, books, and open access archives.We also host the largest open access archive in philosophy.Our index currently contains 2,861,871 entries categorized in 5,907 categories.

  18. Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide

    Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide (mobi version) Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide (epub version) Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide (Word version) 09 Plagiarism 2018revJuly18. Postgraduates. MPhil. PhD. University Timetable. Part IA Seminar (Discussion Group) Readings.

  19. Philosophical Essays

    Books. Philosophical Essays. Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz. Hackett Publishing, Jan 1, 1989 - Philosophy - 366 pages. Although Leibniz's writing forms an enormous corpus, no single work stands as a canonical expression of his whole philosophy. In addition, the wide range of Leibniz's work--letters, published papers, and fragments on a ...

  20. List of important publications in philosophy

    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1822, 1828, 1830, printed 1837. Auguste Comte, Course of Positive Philosophy, 1830-1842. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835. William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences: Founded upon their History, 1840.

  21. What Is the Philosophy?

    Philosophy is a broad system of ideas concerning human nature and the kind of real human beings live in. It can be compared with a guide for living because the issues it tackles are essential and pervasive in determining how we associate and treat other people and the path human beings take in life, (p, 6). We will write a custom essay on your ...

  22. The Essence of Philosophy: Understanding its Meaning and Impact

    This essay about the essence of philosophy examines its critical role in enhancing human understanding and decision-making across ethical, political, and existential domains. It highlights how philosophy fosters critical thinking and influences societal frameworks through its rigorous analysis of existence, knowledge, and morality.

  23. The Practical Value of Studying Philosophy

    Transferable Skills By studying philosophy, students develop cognitive transferable skills that pay off in a variety of professions—transferable skills such as Logical Reasoning • Analysis • Abstract Conceptualization • Problem-Solving • Creative Thinking • Clear and Persuasive Writing • Mental Dexterity • An Ability to Assess Different Perspectives and Frameworks ...

  24. Western Philosophy: The Main Representatives Essay

    The philosophers and ideas from Europe and the United States are called Western philosophy. Students who are given the freedom to express their ideas are less frightened to stand out or make mistakes because Western education views mistakes as valuable learning opportunities (Hassan et al. 2). Most Western philosophers provided insight into ...

  25. 2.2: The Foundations of New Criticism: An Overview

    In concluding his essay, Brooks warns readers not to fall into the trap of paraphrase, for we must ultimately focus on "the world-view, or 'philosophy,' or 'truth' of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic wholeness" (Brooks's emphasis).Cleanth Brooks, "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes," Mr. Bauld ...

  26. The Philosophy of Furniture

    The Philosophy of Furniture. " The Philosophy of Furniture " is an essay written by American author Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1840. The essay is an unusual work by Poe, whose better-known works include horror tales like "The Tell-Tale Heart". The essay presents Poe's theories on interior decorating .

  27. How Soviet communist philosophy shaped postwar quantum theory

    3,500 words. Syndicate this essay. The quantum revolution in physics played out over a period of 22 years, from 1905 to 1927. When it was done, the new theory of quantum mechanics had completely undermined the basis for our understanding of the material world. The familiar and intuitively appealing description of an atom as a tiny solar system ...

  28. China's latest answer to OpenAI is 'Chat Xi PT'

    Officials have also required school children as young as 10 to study his political philosophy. They created the Study Xi Strong Nation app to teach and test the country's roughly 100mn party ...