Researching & Writing Philosophy Papers


The following writing guide is from Visiting Assoc. Professor of Philosophy Dr. Justin Steinberg, who is also a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. This writing guide was written for a philosophy course on Kant, however, we think others writing in philosophy classes may find it useful! 


Researching a Philosophy Paper


  1. Beginning Stages: Finding a Suitable Topic

    1. Text-Based Approach: A good place to begin is with stretch of the text that you found particularly insightful, mystifying, dubious, or just intriguing.

      1. Benefits: this will give you a manageable starting point for analysis (depth > breadth).

      2. Potential hazards: it might take some work to find the central question that you are trying to answer. This can be overcome by seeking out the secondary literature on the topic and reading selectively (*see secondary literature document*).

    2. Concept-Based Approach: might start with a concept (e.g., “space,” “causality,” “apperception”) that you would like to analyze more deeply.

      1. Benefits: having a concept in mind will help to find suitable secondary material.  

      2. Potential hazards: if the concept is rich enough, it could lead you into an overwhelming heap of material. You can counter this by glomming onto a particular scholarly debate.

    3. Comparative Approach: consider how Kant’s approach to X differs from someone else’s view of X (e.g., Kant and Spinoza on substance; Kant and Leibniz on space and time).

      1. Benefits: this is a rather easy entry point and gives you built-in material for the paper, since you will have to do quite a bit of explication.

      2. Potential hazards: the amount of relevant material might be overwhelming, and, more importantly, it might be difficult to figure out how to formulate an interesting question to pursue.


  1. Researching your Topic (Moving from Topic to Question)

    1. Search databases

      1. Philosophers Index

      2. PhilPapers

      3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see Bibliography)

      4. JSTOR

      5. Project Muse

    2. Consult the “Secondary Materials” sheet.

    3. Consult various anthologies on Kant and the Critique.

    4. When searching for relevant materials to help formulate a question, you want to read abstracts and paper introductions.

    5. Ultimately, you want to settle upon a particular problem or question that you will set out to answer. It is often helpful to piggyback on secondary literature for this. Find a good debate!


  1. Constructing a Thesis (Response to Question)

    1. Thesis: A thesis is a contestable assertion. To test whether your assertion is contestable, try negating it and see whether the resulting view is one that a reasonable person might defend. One way to ensure that your thesis is contestable is to find a foil or an opponent, someone whose view you are going to dispute. Be aware: your thesis need not be extremely bold or utterly original. A good thesis might simply lend weight to an existing position, rather than staking out a striking new one.

      1. Poor theses:

        1.  “I will argue that implicit racial bias is harmful and must be overcome” (seems to fail negation test: “Implicit racial bias is not harmful and need not be overcome”).

        2. “I will argue that moral character is an illusion” (passes negation test but seems insupportably strong).

      2. Better theses:

        1. “I will argue that Korsgaard makes an effective case against Williams’ view that the internalist constraint on reasons limits the role that reason can play in guiding action” [acceptable piggybacking].

        2. “I will argue that much of the evidence that Haidt cites for the Social Intuitionist model of moral judgment is more ambiguous than he admits and that he draws inferences that are not supported by the evidence. On the basis of this, I maintain that the case for Social Intuitionism is inconclusive, at best” [complex].


Writing a Philosophy Paper

  1. Aim of philosophical writing. The aim of a philosophy paper is to persuade the reader by building a (reason-based) case for a thesis. Philosophy papers are not merely descriptive or expository: they are not book reports. Still, there might be a substantial expository component.

  2. Thesis statement. A thesis is a contestable assertion. It is the engine of a good paper, since it expresses what the paper sets out to establish. Be careful not to over-reach here: make sure that you can adequately support whatever you are claiming in your thesis. Papers may be:

    1. Interpretative: there is some disagreement about how to understand a claim in Kant that you want to weigh in on.

    2. Resolutive: there is some puzzle (e.g., some internal tension in the text) that you seek to resolve.

    3. Critical: there is a problem that you wish to expose with Kant’s view (note: be careful with this one!).

  3. Structure. Your paper as a whole is an attempt to prove your main thesis. The organization of your paper should reflect the individual steps of your proof. Consider writing an outline. Before you begin writing the paper itself, it might be helpful to first summarize for yourself the main steps of your argument in an outline. The paper should include the following components:

  • A clear articulation of the problem or puzzle that is motivating the paper

  • A statement and explication of the thesis

  • Presentation of arguments in support of the thesis

  • The examination of objections to the thesis

  • The response to the objections


A typical way of structuring these components is as follows:

  1. Part I: Introduction (No more than 1 – 2  pages). You want your introduction to be brief and to pack a punch. Avoid longwinded and florid openings, and just focus on the essentials. Open by (1) briefly motivating and articulating the main problem/question that is guiding your paper, expressing why you take this to be an interesting problem. Then (2) state your thesis and indicate why it answers the problem/question better than alternatives (interpretative, resolutive) or why you think that there is an insuperable problem (critical). Directly and explicitly state the thesis, using something like the following locution: “In this paper, I will argue/show/establish that…..” And, finally, (3) provide a map of the remainder of the paper (section by section). This will orient the reader.

Final note on introductions: it is typically best to write the introduction last. There are at least two reasons for this. First, introductions are often daunting, as you are trying to find a catchy way of framing your paper. Often it is less intimidating to begin with the body. Second, often one does not know exactly what one’s thesis will be until one works through the body of the paper.

  1. Part II: Exposition of the Target View. Explicate in some depth the target claim/view on which your paper is focused. If your paper is resolutive, this is where you carefully present the relevant context, showing how it seems to lead to the problem around which your paper is organized. Think of this as the full articulation of the problem/question that you are answering. If your paper is critical, this is where you present as charitably as possible the position that you will challenge. Either way, this section sets the stage for your original intervention.

  2. Part III: Defense of Thesis. This is where you directly make the case in support of your thesis and defend it against potential objections.

    1. If the main aim of your paper is interpretative/resolutive, argue for your interpretation of the claim/concept/text. Explain what alternative interpretations there could be and show why they are less successful than yours. (What do they fail to explain? How do they result in contradictions/tensions? What problems do they face? How does your approach fare better?). After fully expressing your own resolution, raise and respond to at least a couple of potential criticisms. Don’t just set up straw people; present objections that are strong enough to merit response.

    2. If the main aim of your paper is critical, present your objection(s) as carefully and fully as possible. Then present a potential defense (e.g. think of ways the author could defend herself against your objections). Be as charitable as possible! Then try to show why even this potential defense won’t work.

Parts II and III constitute the body of the paper. This is where all the real work is done. Some further advice for the body of the paper: 

  1. Part IV: Conclusion. Conclusions should include at most a very compressed summary of the main claims of the preceding chapters, perhaps followed by a mere gesture in the direction of further consequences of the analysis or potential directions for development. You don’t want to enter too far into a new discussion that will obscure the preceding discussion or cry out for more analysis. So, keep it brief.


Further General Advice

  • Make sure to clearly and explicitly define any relevant technical terms (e.g,. a priori, noumenon, reason, etc.)

  • Avoid too much summarizing. Present only what is necessary for setting up and advancing your argument. Too much summarizing can be very distracting and can disrupt the flow of your paper.

  • Draw clear transitions and use topic sentences. Make the structure of your paper is unmistakable to the reader. Each paragraph should contribute to the larger case that you are making. And the logical structure of the paper should be apparent to the reader. When reviewing your paper, ask yourself what each paragraph is doing to support your argument. If you can’t easily identify its purpose within the larger structure, it is probably extraneous and should be excised.

  • Do not rely too heavily on the MS Word thesaurus. Writing is an opportunity to improve your prose, but the voice should be your own. The thesaurus can be a helpful tool when used in the right way; but it should not be relied upon to elevate one’s diction. If the language sounds stilted when you read the paper out loud, most likely the language should be simplified. That brings me to my next suggestion….

  • Read the paper out loud. This is a corrective to “lazy eyes” (anticipating what is on the page rather than actually reading what is there).

  • Be prepared to recalibrate and reformulate your thesis as you go. Often one cannot tell what one’s position will be before working through the arguments in one’s paper. If one has to make post hoc adjustments, this is often a sign that one is responding to argumentation rather than stubbornly committing oneself to a particular view.

  • Leave yourself plenty of time to write and rewrite. Since your ideas will likely change or at least become more refined as you work through the paper, you want to give yourself plenty of time to tighten and sharpen your claims.

  • When in doubt, cite! If you are presenting someone else’s ideas, you must credit them, even when you are paraphrasing or using different language. The failure to do so is plagiarism.

  • Be charitable. Do not assume that the author whose work you are critiquing is making a foolish claim. If an argument seems flawed, assume that you misunderstood, and redouble your efforts at deciphering the text.

  • Clarify, Clarify, Clarify!!!


A Link to a PDF Handout of this Writing Guide