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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: )

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.), 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.), 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?

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Tackling the Philosophy Essay: A Student Guide

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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 thesis statements and essay outlines).  This book may also be useful to instructors looking for teaching-related resources.

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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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All Essays at 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology  

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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.  

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philosophy review essay

How to Write a Philosophy Essay: Ultimate Guide

philosophy review essay

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 philosophy and psychology essay writing 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 custom essay as great as it is? You're in luck: you can 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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Referencing & help.

  • Good essay writing begins with good course preparation. You should remember that just attending courses is not enough. You will engage with the lectures and seminars only if you do the required primary and secondary reading. By the time you come to write your first essay you should already know enough to approach the subject confidently.
  • Make sure you have properly understood the question. If you do not, ask. Review your lecture notes and the course outline in order to put the question into context and to relate it to other aspects of the subject. If you can break down the question into parts, do so. Decide which are the most important and weight each part accordingly.
  • Read the suggested texts with your question or questions in mind. If you find the reading hard to understand, try reading a whole article or chapter to get the gist and then re-read slowly, making notes.
  • Think for yourself. Don't borrow thought or ideas without giving yourself time to digest them. Discuss them with your fellow students. It can be very helpful to discuss the articles and books you read with others. Also, when you take notes, don't simply excerpt long passages, write them in your own words.
  • Always start from a plan, however rudimentary; but you will inevitably find your argument developing a dynamic of its own, so do not be afraid to revise your plan as you go along. As Socrates says in Plato's Republic: 'Where the argument takes us, like a wind, hither we must go.'
  • Write a draft, leave it for a while, then come back and revise it. On the first draft concentrate on getting the content and structure right and do not dwell on the style. Do not be held up by the precise formulation of a sentence, jot down a phrase and move on.
  • Write the final draft. Check the spelling, grammar and make sure all the bibliographical details are correct. leave a wide margin on the right hand side of your page for the marker's comments. Be kind on your marker: use a font that is easy to read and a line spacing of at least 1.5 or 2. Make a photocopy of your essay as a precaution, since they sometimes can go astray.
  • Your essay should contain a clear exposition of the theory you are studying, a detailed discussion and critical assessment of that theory. The criticisms you look at may be your own, or those of other philosophers.
  • Make sure you indicate when you are expounding the view of someone else and when you are writing in your own voice. Don't just write a long list of objections to a particular argument. Indicate whether you endorse or reject them and give your reasons.
  • Use examples to illustrate your point. Preferably, choose your own examples. Always make the point of your example clear to the reader.
  • Don't worry too much about the 'originality' of the content of your essay. Nobody expects you to come up with a new philosophical theory in your first four pages of writing. Your essay will be original enough if you think for yourself, use your own words, give your own examples and always provide reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular view.
  • Avoid rambling introductions and conclusions. Some books begin with a portentous opening sentence e.g., 'Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.' (B. Russell) You can get away with such a sentence as the opening line of a 400 page book, but not as the opening line of a 4 page essay. State briefly what you think the question involves, if this is not obvious, and get stuck in to your answer. With conclusions, sum up your argument if you want to and leave it at that.
  • Think small or be methodical. There is a gap between your brain's ability to grasp something and your ability to express in writing what you have already understood. It is as if your intuition can leap up whole flights of stairs at once, whereas your written explanations climb one step at a time. This means that you can easily get ahead of yourself, producing the illusion that your ideas are far more lofty than they really are. Only by patiently stepping through the details of an argument can you avoid such illusions. So be patient! If you are not sure whether you have made your point, try putting it another way; 'The upshot of this argument is...', 'the point of this example is...'. Do not simply repeat yourself, try instead to look at your subject from different angles. Sometimes it will feel as if your point is trivial and not worth making. But a trivial point can be a solid step in an interesting argument. The ability to tease out the subtleties of a small point will serve you better than a grand philosophy of life, the universe and everything.
  • One way to structure your essay is to outline an argument, consider an objection, then reply to the objection and then move on to the next point. Avoid the two extremes of length and unbroken paragraphs on the one hand, and staccato sound bytes on the other. Divide your essay into clearly defined paragraphs and devote a whole paragraph to each point. Make the connections between them explicit, by telling the reader what they are. Write things like, 'There are two major objections to this line of thought...' or 'what this example shows is...' Think of these connections as signposts telling the reader where she is, where she has been or reminding her where she is heading.
  • 'Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.' Do not worry about repeating important words or phrases. In philosophy it is more important to be consistent in your terminology than to find new and imaginative ways of saying the same thing. Clear prose has its own elegance, wordiness can sometimes cloud the issue.
  • Empathise with your reader. Once you understand something, you forget what it was like not to understand it; but doing just this will help you to get your point across. To write clearly you have to put yourself in the place of your reader. Imagine the reader is someone who knows nothing about the subject. What would you have to do firstly to convince them and secondly to maintain their interest. Generally speaking a concrete example will get you much further than a passage of purple prose or a string of high-falutin' epithets. One useful way to attain clarity and simplicity of style is to write in short sentences. It is easier to waffle in long rambling sentences.
  • Use 'signposts' to let the reader know what you are trying to do. You can say things like , 'one objection is...', 'A possible reply to this is...', 'What this example shows...', 'This importance of this point is that...', 'What X is assuming is that...'. Be explicit about what you are arguing and why.
  • Stylistically it is vital to use your own words. Quite apart from the dangers of plagiarism, if you borrow chunks of text from another author and then insert them into your essay, you will end up with a patchwork of different styles that reads awkwardly. By all means paraphrase someone else's view, although make it clear that you are paraphrasing. This will help you to understand the position you are adumbrating; and there is a lot of skill involved in a lucid and concise exposition of somebody else's argument.
  • Occasionally you will want to cite somebody else's words directly. Be sparing in your use of quotation. There is much less skill to quotation than to paraphrase or précis. When you select a passage for quotation, make sure it is both brief and relevant. There is nothing worse than reading a string of long quotations interspersed with brief and gnomic comments.
  • Use a dictionary (or spell check) and a grammar. Good spelling and good grammar are not wholly unrelated to the content of your essay. The thread of an essay is easier to follow if the reader does not have to guess the word which you actually meant to write. Good grammar makes not only for elegant but for precise prose. So do not be ashamed to use a dictionary. I prefer the Chambers to the Collins single volume dictionary, but both are good. (Webster's and M.S. Word dictionaries are American.) Michael Dummet, the philosopher, has written an excellent little English grammar for his students, published by Duckworth.

Use of sources

  • All verbatim quotations, whether long or short should be enclosed in inverted commas or indented, and the precise source given. Make sure that you give enough information for the reader to find the passage, i.e. author, work, edition page number or section.
  • Passages of close paraphrase should be acknowledged, and the purpose of these paraphrases made clear e.g. as a summary of a view to be discussed disputed or agreed with.
  • When a point has been derived directly from an author, even though it mode of expression may be original, this should be acknowledged in a footnote or parenthesis.
  • Extensive use of an essay written by another student should be acknowledged. This applies to essays borrowed from the 'Essay Bank' and to essays which are borrowed on a personal basis. Just as the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence on published sources is not supposed to discourage you from reading widely, the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence where it exists, on other students' essays, is not supposed to discourage you from reading each others' essays. In the end however the only thing of value to you and of interest to us is work in which you express and develop your own thoughts.
  • At the end of any essay to be submitted for formal assessment (not tutorial essays) write a list in alphabetical order of all the works consulted or read during the preparation and writing of the essay, as well as those from which you quote directly (see Referencing).


The Philosophy Department accepts the Harvard or MLA styles of referencing.  Please refer to the specific information below on each permitted style.

Additional help

You may find the extra help below useful when writing Philosohy essays.

This guide to writing Philosophy essays was written by Gordon Finlayson

Department of Philosophy University of York , York , YO10 5DD , UK Tel: work +44 (0)1904 323251 | Fax: fax +44 (0)1904 324023 | [email protected]

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Welcome to PhilPapers

Results of 2020 PhilPapers Survey posted 2021-11-01 by David Bourget We've now released the results of the 2020 PhilPapers Survey, which surveyed 1785 professional philosophers on their views on 100 philosophical issues.  Results are available on the 2020 PhilPapers Survey  website and in draft article form in " Philosophers on Philosophy: The 2020 PhilPapers Survey " . Discussion is welcome in the PhilPapers Survey 2020 discussion group .

Phiosophy Documentation Center


a journal of feminist philosophy

review essay guidelines

Hypatia review essays may take a number of different forms, depending on the topic, format, and significance of the books under review. We ask, however, that contributors follow these broad guidelines for the preparation and submission of review essay manuscripts to HRO. Reviewers may be required to revise their review essays to meet Hypatia's guidelines. Review essays that do not conform to these guidelines may be rejected by the Book Review Editor. Review essays will be refereed by a single anonymous referee.  Hypatia  does not accept unsolicited review essays.


  • Review essays should begin with a brief description of the books, to serve as an abstract that gives readers a sense of the topic and content of each book.
  • Reviewers should provide an overview of the books as a whole, not just of one of their aspects or sections, whether the books are monographs or anthologies.
  • Reviewers should contextualize the books, and offer an evaluation of at least some of their key themes or components, in addition to providing a summary. Reviewers may want to focus on a subset of the essays included in an anthology or a particular aspect of a monograph for detailed discussion. It is important to give reasons for any evaluation of the book under review, particularly if it is negative. Evaluative comments should be specific and constructive; reviewers should avoid making vague and unproductive claims, such as that an argument is “not feminist” or “not philosophical.”
  • Review essays must be written in a manner that shows respect to book author(s) or editor(s) and Hypatia Reviewers should evaluate the ideas and arguments presented in the books, avoiding ad hominem criticisms.
  • Reviewers are asked to be attuned to and respectful of diverse philosophical methods and voices. Reviewers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with common exclusionary practices that have served to render philosophy in general, and feminist philosophy in particular, less than welcoming to historically marginalized social groups, and to ensure that those practices are not repeated in the review. This is especially important when reviewing works that challenge dominant ways of doing philosophy.
  • Do the books you are reviewing make a significant, original contribution to feminist philosophy?
  • Do the authors reflect an awareness of the diversity of women’s lives, and of feminist perspectives relevant to the issues they discuss?

  2)   FORMAT  

  • Length: Review essays should run from 1500 to 2500 words. Review authors who feel that the books they are reviewing require longer or shorter treatment should consult the Book Review Editor.Bibliographic entry (header): Begin your review essay with a bibliographic entry that includes accurate information about the authors, titles, publishers, places and dates of publication, and ISBN numbers for the books you are reviewing.

Linda L. Layne, Sharra L. Vostral, and Kate Boyer (editors)

Feminist Technology

Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-252-07720-3

Kathryn T. Gines

Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014 ISBN 978-0-253-01171-8


  • Deadlines: To ensure that Hypatia publishes timely reviews of new books in feminist philosophy, we ask that you submit your review essay within six months of receiving the books you have agreed to review.
  • Submission: Please submit your review essay through the Manuscript Central submission and review system. The Hypatia submission page can be found at the following URL. When you reach this site, use the “Book Review” tab to submit your review manuscript.
  • Before submitting your review essay, please ensure that it is fully anonymous. All potentially identifying information must be removed for Hypatia’s anonymous review process.
  • Production: If your review essay is accepted by the Book Review Editor, the Hypatia Managing Editor will enter your review essay into the production process. They will provide you with further information and instructions about the production process at that time.


  • File type and format: Manuscripts should be submitted as Word files. They should be double- spaced (including quotations, notes, and references), and the right margin should be justified.
  • Spelling: Please use American spellings and punctuation, except when directly quoting a source that has followed British style.
  • Commas: Hypatia uses the serial, or Oxford, comma.
  • Notes: Please do not use the “insert endnote/footnote” function in Microsoft Word. Instead, place numerals between arrowheads (e.g.,<2>) in the text. List notes in the penultimate section of the paper (just before the references). For example:

Instead of: ...erroneous due to an improper standard of rationality.2 Use:

In text: ...erroneous due to an improper standard of rationality.<2>

In notes: 2. By "standard of rationality," I mean...


In text citations

We use the author/date system of citing references, as described in The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., University of Chicago Press, 2017). For in-text citations or endnotes, works should be cited as (author year, page number); for example (Card 2003, 65). Multiple citations should be in chronological order, and, if in the same year, alphabetical within year; for example (England 2004; Pierce 2005; Pratt 2005; Jiwani and Young 2006).

A list of all works cited should be included after the notes in a section called “References.” Works that are not actually cited should not be included in the “References” section. In the reference section, titles of articles and books follow sentence capitalization—only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized. Quotation marks are not needed for articles. Book and journal titles should be italicized. Journal citations should include both volume and issue numbers.

Aysha Hidayatullah. 2014. Feminist edges of the Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press.

Journal Articles

Calhoun, Chesire. 1995. Standing for something. Journal of Philosophy 92 (5): 235–61.

Chapter from a book

Roberts, Dorothy E. 1999. Mothers who fail to protect their children: Accounting for private and public responsibility. In Mother troubles: Rethinking contemporary maternal dilemmas , ed. Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick. Boston: Beacon.

Two or more authors

Pacala, Stephen, and Robert Socolow. 2004. Stabilization wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305 (5686): 968–72.

Newspaper Article

Clines, Francis X. 2001. Before and after: Voices in the wind, a new form of grieving evolves over last goodbyes. The New York Times , September 16.

National Down Syndrome Society. 2002. About Down Syndrome. (accessed January 8, 2002).

Legal Document

Education for All Handicapped Children Act. 1975. U.S. Public Law 94–142, U.S. Code. Vol. 20, sec. 1400 et seq.


  • 1.1 What Is Philosophy?
  • Introduction
  • 1.2 How Do Philosophers Arrive at Truth?
  • 1.3 Socrates as a Paradigmatic Historical Philosopher
  • 1.4 An Overview of Contemporary Philosophy
  • Review Questions
  • Further Reading
  • 2.1 The Brain Is an Inference Machine
  • 2.2 Overcoming Cognitive Biases and Engaging in Critical Reflection
  • 2.3 Developing Good Habits of Mind
  • 2.4 Gathering Information, Evaluating Sources, and Understanding Evidence
  • 2.5 Reading Philosophy
  • 2.6 Writing Philosophy Papers
  • 3.1 Indigenous Philosophy
  • 3.2 Classical Indian Philosophy
  • 3.3 Classical Chinese Philosophy
  • 4.1 Historiography and the History of Philosophy
  • 4.2 Classical Philosophy
  • 4.3 Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Philosophy
  • 5.1 Philosophical Methods for Discovering Truth
  • 5.2 Logical Statements
  • 5.3 Arguments
  • 5.4 Types of Inferences
  • 5.5 Informal Fallacies
  • 6.1 Substance
  • 6.2 Self and Identity
  • 6.3 Cosmology and the Existence of God
  • 6.4 Free Will
  • 7.1 What Epistemology Studies
  • 7.2 Knowledge
  • 7.3 Justification
  • 7.4 Skepticism
  • 7.5 Applied Epistemology
  • 8.1 The Fact-Value Distinction
  • 8.2 Basic Questions about Values
  • 8.3 Metaethics
  • 8.4 Well-Being
  • 8.5 Aesthetics
  • 9.1 Requirements of a Normative Moral Theory
  • 9.2 Consequentialism
  • 9.3 Deontology
  • 9.4 Virtue Ethics
  • 9.6 Feminist Theories of Ethics
  • 10.1 The Challenge of Bioethics
  • 10.2 Environmental Ethics
  • 10.3 Business Ethics and Emerging Technology
  • 11.1 Historical Perspectives on Government
  • 11.2 Forms of Government
  • 11.3 Political Legitimacy and Duty
  • 11.4 Political Ideologies
  • 12.1 Enlightenment Social Theory
  • 12.2 The Marxist Solution
  • 12.3 Continental Philosophy’s Challenge to Enlightenment Theories
  • 12.4 The Frankfurt School
  • 12.5 Postmodernism

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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Lauren Oyler: ‘slightly defensive, periodically anxious’

No Judgement by Lauren Oyler review – modish observations from a rarefied world

Despite occasional displays of wit and insight, the buzzy US critic’s ironic essays can feel airless and small

L auren Oyler is an American writer, very tall and very smart (or so I read). In 2021, she published her first novel, Fake Accounts , a plotless story about a young woman not unlike herself who is, as they used to say, very online. But she’s best known, at least in the US, as a critic whose work has appeared in the New Yorker , and whose 5,000-word takedown for the London Review of Books of Trick Mirror , a collection of essays by another thirtysomething American writer, Jia Tolentino, reputedly went viral (I am unable to verify this, being not very online).

I always put these kinds of details in a review somewhere: if I didn’t, an editor would soon be in touch. But in this case, I’m getting them out the way early in order to give you, from the off, a sense of the rarefied niche into which we’re about briefly to wiggle. It is an airless place. If Jane Austen worked on two inches of ivory, Oyler’s territory is at once vast (the internet) and minute (her part of the internet). The very online – I would say the very, very online – may know all about her slightly defensive, periodically anxious and (at moments) hugely self-congratulatory style: an ironic, somewhat callow tone born of her addiction to what used to be known as Twitter. But for the rest of us, she brings in her wake (should we read her) the exhausting feeling of only half-knowing what – in truth, I mean who – she is on about.

Already I sound like I hated her new book, an essay collection called No Judgement . In fact, I didn’t, or not all of it. If I were the kind of person who kept a journal, I might have been moved to scribble down the odd, dubious aphorism from it (“the fictional ‘I’ is always truer than it purports to be, and the non-fictional less”); it brought me to order a novel Oyler says she likes ( Mating by Norman Rush), and I laughed out loud at the line: “In the US, we have only three stages of grief.” (This was provoked by the case of a woman who responded to betrayal by a friend first by feeling betrayed, then with embarrassment, and finally by becoming litigious.) But nor can I say that I liked it, exactly. While I understand its modishness perfectly well – its preoccupations could not be more Small Circulation Lit Mag, spring 2024, if they tried – it’s also rather cold and blank and small. There’s something emptied out about it, which is also how it makes you feel, in a bad way (I’m talking about hollowness, not catharsis). Where are the trees, you think. Where is the real world? It’s almost a surprise to look up from it and see not a screen, but a window.

There are six full essays. One is about vulnerability, that quality we’re suddenly all expected to encourage in ourselves (I refuse this particular form of self-optimisation and so, I think , does the author). Others are about Oyler’s not-quite-crippling-but-almost-so anxiety; the value (or not) of gossip; the rise of the star rating system, particularly as it pertains to books and those who write them; and life in Berlin, where she now lives. But the longest of them, and the one into which she seems to have put most effort, is called I Am the One Who Is Sitting Here, for Hours and Hours and Hours, and it is about so-called autofiction, something that she has, of course, written herself, and which seems to fascinate her to the point where she feels the need to be as definitive about it as it’s possible to be (which is to say, not hugely). This essay comes with bossy subheadings such as What It Is, What It Isn’t, What Does Lolita Have to Do With This? and Scene Inspired by a Popular Misreading of Another Essay by Roland Barthes.

Three years ago, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates lobbed one of her periodic stink bombs in the direction of X (then Twitter) by posting her light disappointment at the rise and rise of what she called these “wan little husks of autofiction with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer” (cue lots of younger writers holding their noses). While Oyler quotes this in her essay, she doesn’t precisely rip it apart – and in her novel she sent up the “white spaces” beloved of Jenny Offill and co. But she also devotes 50 long pages to the subject of autofiction, a piece of writing that by necessity means she must chew – and chew – on other people’s wan little husks.

This doesn’t strike me as very nourishing: for her, the poor little squirrel, or for the reader. Or not this reader, at any rate. Again, that feeling: an emptying out. Middlemarch , metaphorically speaking, is now as distant as the brightly shining moon. Literature – novels, criticism, all of it – seems to be draining away before our very eyes, and it makes me feel very sad and depressed.

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  • 12 February 2024

China conducts first nationwide review of retractions and research misconduct

  • Smriti Mallapaty

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Technicians wearing full PPE work in a lab

The reputation of Chinese science has been "adversely affected" by the number of retractions in recent years, according to a government notice. Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty

Chinese universities are days away from the deadline to complete a nationwide audit of retracted research papers and probe of research misconduct. By 15 February, universities must submit to the government a comprehensive list of all academic articles retracted from English- and Chinese-language journals in the past three years. They need to clarify why the papers were retracted and investigate cases involving misconduct, according to a 20 November notice from the Ministry of Education’s Department of Science, Technology and Informatization.

The government launched the nationwide self-review in response to Hindawi, a London-based subsidiary of the publisher Wiley, retracting a large number of papers by Chinese authors. These retractions, along with those from other publishers, “have adversely affected our country’s academic reputation and academic environment”, the notice states.

A Nature analysis shows that last year, Hindawi issued more than 9,600 retractions, of which the vast majority — about 8,200 — had a co-author in China. Nearly 14,000 retraction notices, of which some three-quarters involved a Chinese co-author, were issued by all publishers in 2023.

This is “the first time we’ve seen such a national operation on retraction investigations”, says Xiaotian Chen, a library and information scientist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, who has studied retractions and research misconduct in China. Previous investigations have largely been carried out on a case-by-case basis — but this time, all institutions have to conduct their investigations simultaneously, says Chen.

Tight deadline

The ministry’s notice set off a chain of alerts, cascading to individual university departments. Bulletins posted on university websites required researchers to submit their retractions by a range of dates, mostly in January — leaving time for universities to collate and present the data.

Although the alerts included lists of retractions that the ministry or the universities were aware of, they also called for unlisted retractions to be added.

philosophy review essay

More than 10,000 research papers were retracted in 2023 — a new record

According to Nature ’s analysis, which includes only English-language journals, more than 17,000 retraction notices for papers published by Chinese co-authors have been issued since 1 January 2021, which is the start of the period of review specified in the notice. The analysis, an update of one conducted in December , used the Retraction Watch database, augmented with retraction notices collated from the Dimensions database, and involved assistance from Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse in France. It is unclear whether the official lists contain the same number of retracted papers.

Regardless, the timing to submit the information will be tight, says Shu Fei, a bibliometrics scientist at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China. The ministry gave universities less than three months to complete their self-review — and this was cut shorter by the academic winter break, which typically starts in mid-January and concludes after the Chinese New Year, which fell this year on 10 February.

“The timing is not good,” he says. Shu expects that universities are most likely to submit only a preliminary report of their researchers’ retracted papers included on the official lists.

But Wang Fei, who studies research-integrity policy at Dalian University of Technology in China, says that because the ministry has set a deadline, universities will work hard to submit their findings on time.

Researchers with retracted papers will have to explain whether the retraction was owing to misconduct, such as image manipulation, or an honest mistake, such as authors identifying errors in their own work, says Chen: “In other words, they may have to defend themselves.” Universities then must investigate and penalize misconduct. If a researcher fails to declare their retracted paper and it is later uncovered, they will be punished, according to the ministry notice. The cost of not reporting is high, says Chen. “This is a very serious measure.”

It is not known what form punishment might take, but in 2021, China’s National Health Commission posted the results of its investigations into a batch of retracted papers. Punishments included salary cuts, withdrawal of bonuses, demotions and timed suspensions from applying for research grants and rewards.

The notice states explicitly that the first corresponding author of a paper is responsible for submitting the response. This requirement will largely address the problem of researchers shirking responsibility for collaborative work, says Li Tang, a science- and innovation-policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. The notice also emphasizes due process, says Tang. Researchers alleged to have committed misconduct have a right to appeal during the investigation.

The notice is a good approach for addressing misconduct, says Wang. Previous efforts by the Chinese government have stopped at issuing new research-integrity guidelines that were poorly implemented, she says. And when government bodies did launch self-investigations of published literature, they were narrower in scope and lacked clear objectives. This time, the target is clear — retractions — and the scope is broad, involving the entire university research community, she says.

“Cultivating research integrity takes time, but China is on the right track,” says Tang.

It is not clear what the ministry will do with the flurry of submissions. Wang says that, because the retraction notices are already freely available, publicizing the collated lists and underlying reasons for retraction could be useful. She hopes that a similar review will be conducted every year “to put more pressure” on authors and universities to monitor research integrity.

What happens next will reveal how seriously the ministry regards research misconduct, says Shu. He suggests that, if the ministry does not take further action after the Chinese New Year, the notice could be an attempt to respond to the reputational damage caused by the mass retractions last year.

The ministry did not respond to Nature ’s questions about the misconduct investigation.

Chen says that, regardless of what the ministry does with the information, the reporting process itself will help to curb misconduct because it is “embarrassing to the people in the report”.

But it might primarily affect researchers publishing in English-language journals. Retraction notices in Chinese-language journals are rare.

Nature 626 , 700-701 (2024)


Data analysis by Richard Van Noorden.

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  • Stuart Madnick  is the John Norris Maguire (1960) Professor of Information Technologies in the MIT Sloan School of Management, Professor of Engineering Systems in the MIT School of Engineering, and Director of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS): the Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity. He has been active in the cybersecurity field since co-authoring the book Computer Security in 1979.

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Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will


Robert M. Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will ,  Penguin Press, 2023, 528pp., $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780525560975.

Reviewed by John Martin Fischer, University of California, Riverside

This is a big, splashy book, both in number of pages and ambitions. It is much ballyhooed, receiving reviews and attention throughout the Anglophone world. Sapolsky wishes to disabuse us of what he takes to be our false beliefs that we are free and morally responsible, and even active agents, three central and foundational aspects of human life and our navigation of it. Much of the book contains summaries (necessarily somewhat brief) of various scientific and mathematical fields (and sub-areas) relevant to his topics: neuroscience (the appendix is a “primer on neuroscience”), chaos theory, quantum mechanics, emergence, and some results from psychology and sociology.

It is a compendious book. The summaries will be helpful in bringing readers up to speed, or at least beginning that process, in a wide variety of disciplines and areas of inquiry. Whereas many in the history of philosophy have contended that all our mental states and behavior are causally determined, a significant feature of this book is to fill in this claim with its specific empirical basis. The view that causal determinism is true is not new, nor is the view that this entails no free will or moral responsibility, but Sapolsky collates and marshals the evidence (some of it recent and cutting-edge) as it bears on these issues. The cumulative effect of the discussions and Sapolsky’s analyses can be an overwhelming sense that we might be wrong about our very foundational beliefs in free will and moral responsibility, and even our selfhood. He writes, “… put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there’s no room for free will” (8; emphasis in text). [1]

Considered as philosophy, however, the picture is very different. Right off the bat, one is struck by the title. Sapolsky writes, “This book … is both about the science of why there is no free will and the science of how we might best live once we accept that.” (10) But these do not appear to be scientific questions. Science, of course, is relevant ; but that does not make free will a scientific question. Note that slavery is beyond a doubt morally wrong. The empirical facts about slavery are relevant, but this does not make the issue of the moral justifiability of slavery a scientific question. How we should adjust our attitudes and behavior in light of a belief in determinism, if we were to acquire such a belief, is definitely not a scientific question.

Surprisingly, in a book about free will, Sapolsky offers no definition of it (or, for that matter, determinism—or even moral responsibility!). He writes, “What is free will? Groan… I’ll do my best to mitigate the drag of this” (14). Although he does not present a  full definition proper, it is clear that he holds that free will requires the falsity of determinism— by definition (not as a result of argumentation):

[To establish free will] [s]how me a neuron being a causeless cause in this total sense. …Show me a neuron (or brain) whose generation of a behavior is independent of the sum of its biological past, and for the purposes of this book, you’ve demonstrated free will. (15)

This is problematic in various ways. First, it claims that “being a causeless cause” or “independent of the sum of its biological past” would be sufficient for a choice/action’s being an instance of free will. This is however surely false; pure randomness is incompatible with the control involved in free will. (In his discussion of quantum indeterminacy, Sapolsky is aware of this.) More plausibly, we should interpret him (here and throughout the book) as contending that, as a matter of definition or “meaning,” indeterminism is a necessary condition of free will. Note that the indeterminism of “causeless cause” or “independent of the sum of its biological past” is a very strong kind of indeterminism, leaving out the more appealing idea of not being fully determined by antecedent causes. (Sapolsky elides the distinction between causation and deterministic causation and thus does not consider indeterministic causal accounts of free will).

As Alfred Mele noted, this sets the bar “absurdly high” for a definition of free will, but Sapolsky simply dismisses this worry (15). Mele is clearly correct. It might turn out that one wishes in the end to insist on this indeterministic constraint, but it is problematic to build it into the  definition of free will.

Sapolsky also fails to offer a definition of determinism, but one gets the flavor of it, and it is not too different from a standard formulation in philosophical discussions, according to which everything is caused in such a way that the past and the laws entail a unique present and future. This is a metaphysical, not an epistemic point about predictability (as in LaPlace). Much of the book is devoted to establishing that our behavior (choices/formations of intentions and actions) is determined in this sense, and thus not free. Sapolsky holds that this implies we cannot legitimately be held morally responsible for it. He thinks of moral responsibility in terms of the Strawsonian reactive attitudes (Strawson 1962), including indignation and resentment, as well as their “positive” counterparts. He focusses especially on blame and punishment.

Sapolsky sums up his position:

You cannot decide all the sensory stimuli in your environment, your hormone levels this morning, whether something traumatic happened to you in the past, the socioeconomic status of your parents, your fetal environment, your genes, whether your ancestors were farmers or herders. … we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment. (4)

The “nothing more than” claim is not just that we lack free will (and thus moral responsibility), but we are not even agents (in the sense of being active) at all. We do not make genuine decisions and engage in robust practical reasoning. Rather, things just happen to us. Indeed, we are nothing more than a bunch of cells (neurons), determined to bounce around as they do. Importantly, we do not actively change our moral behavior. It does indeed change, but not as a result of active choices on our part (265-299). As Sapolsky puts it, we are not the captains of our ships. (It seems that, on his view, we are not even cabin boys!)

So, we don’t have free will and moral responsibility, but can we live with this? Sapolsky admits it is difficult and he hasn’t entirely succeeded. He sets out, however, in the second half of the book, to argue that we can do it because “we’ve done it before.” What he means, at least in part, is that over the course of human history we have learned more and more about the causes of certain human behaviors. In some cases, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, as we have discovered their causes, we have stopped holding individuals with these afflictions morally responsible. He believes this supports a general principle to the effect that as we understand the neurobiological (and other) bases of behavior (the ways in which it is determined), we will correspondingly diminish or eliminate moral responsibility for it. As we do so, we become more humane and eschew the dark urges for revenge and the pleasures of witnessing the suffering of others. So far as determinism is indeed true, we can in principle find the causes of all our behavior, in which case we would give up moral responsibility for it, as with epilepsy and schizophrenia. Given this, we should abandon our moral responsibility practices now, even if we do not yet have specific explanations for all kinds of behavior (on the assumption that determinism is true). Sapolsky writes, “…we can subtract responsibility out of our view of aspects of behavior. And this makes the world a better place” (340).

In his concluding chapter, he puts it this way:

…we need to accept the absurdity of hating any person for anything they’ve done; ultimately, that hatred is sadder than hating the sky for storming, hating the earth when it quakes, hating a virus because it’s good at getting into lung cells. This is where science has brought us… (403)

O boy. I cannot possibly engage with all the provocative claims in this book, but I’ll pick a few for special consideration (in addition to the ones I’ve touched on above).

Above I pointed out that Sapolsky defines free will as requiring causal indeterminism. He is not alone among neuroscientists in defining free will in this way, but this leads to serious confusions. Much unproductive debate has taken place between neuroscientists and philosophers due to this (often implicit) definition or assumption. The neuroscientists in question believe that establishing that the brain works deterministically implies (without further argumentation) that there is no free will. The philosophers deem this unacceptable, because it rules out compatibilism by definition.

As with Sapolsky, many neuroscientists use the spatial metaphor about “room in the brain.” They seem to think that determinism would entail no gaps, no space in the brain, as though free will has to occupy some gap or space. This is clearly misleading, and, at the least, tilts the discussion away from compatibilism right from the start. [2]

Defining free will in this way evidently begs the question against compatibilism about free will and causal determinism. If this is the correct definition of free will, why bother arguing for incompatibilism at all? It is already there on a beautiful metaphysical silver platter! There are reasonable and plausible arguments for the incompatibility of free will (interpreted in certain specific ways) with determinism, but these arguments are not decided by definitions of the two key notions alone. The history of discussions of free will, including the contemporary debates, is filled with various critiques and defenses of compatibilism. To evaluate these arguments, we need to be clear about what notion of free will is under consideration, and we should consider the arguments carefully. It would be egregiously unhelpful and unfair simply to define compatibilism out of existence from the beginning of the inquiry. Yet this is precisely what Sapolsky does.

Perhaps this is why he offers no arguments in the entire book against compatibilism! He focusses his attention on establishing determinism, but does not seek to refute or in any way argue against compatibilism, where free will is understood in any of a range of ways offered historically and currently. Free will, roughly speaking, is a kind of active power that is typically thought to be necessary for moral responsibility, and that we can grasp inchoately. This power can be analyzed in different ways, some of which are compatibilistic. I can identify no arguments in the book to the effect that any of the prima facie plausible compatibilist accounts of the free will required for responsibility is inadequate; nor do I find an argument that all such accounts must be rejected.

No need to get one’s hands dirty with the tedious business of argumentation! But this does not stop Sapolsky from casting aspersions on compatibilism throughout the book, substituting name-calling for serious philosophical engagement. Here’s just one example:

One compatibilist philosopher after another reassuringly proclaims their belief in material, deterministic modernity… yet somehow, there is still room for free will. As might be kinda clear by now, I think that this doesn’t work [Sapolsky refers to his entire book, chapter by chapter here]. I suspect that most of them know this as well. When you read between the lines, or sometimes even the lines themselves in their writing, a lot of these compatibilists are actually saying that there has to be free will because it would be a total downer otherwise, doing contortions to make an emotional stance seem like an intellectual one (387).

So we compatibilists are lying or perhaps simply deceiving ourselves in a desperate attempt to avoid a “downer”? I (a compatibilist) certainly do not think compatibilism must be true because its falsity would create serious problems in our self-conceptions. I believe it is true because it has various truth-making characteristics that are independent of the desirability of maintaining moral responsibility, even in a deterministic world (Fischer 2023). There are other dismissive animadversions throughout the book. One wonders whether this is the compassion Sapolsky aspires to (and thinks is required by his arguments).

By using the term “free will” in a vague way, and avoiding any consideration of the power it typically is taken to refer to, Sapolsky’s analysis is significantly vitiated. For example, is the freedom in question an alternative-possibilities kind (requiring freedom to choose and do otherwise), or an actual-sequence kind (requiring acting freely, but not necessarily access to alternative possibilities)? In neglecting the inchoate power that is, arguably, the nature of free will, Sapolsky elides (or, at the least, ignores) this distinction in kinds of freedom (a staple of contemporary philosophical discussions of free will and its relationship to moral responsibility.

In taking this path, he cannot specify exactly why determinism threatens (or rules out) free will. It is crucial to acknowledge the distinction between alternative-possibilities and actual-sequence freedom, as the challenges from determinism to the two kinds of freedom are not the same. For instance, causal determinism threatens alternative-possibilities freedom via concerns about the fixity of the past and natural laws (what van Inwagen dubbed the “Consequence Argument” in his [1983]), but it does not thereby threaten actual-sequence freedom. This is not to say that causal determinism does not threaten actual-sequence freedom, but it is not in the same way. Here the worry is that the “source” of the relevant behavior is out of the agent’s control (Fischer 1982; Pereboom 2001 and 2016). The distinction between alternative-possibilities and actual-sequence freedom is important insofar as one’s critique of compatibilism (if one is inclined to offer a critique) would need to depend on the particular version of compatibilism is at issue.

Suppose that a compatibilist denies that moral responsibility requires alternative-possibilities freedom, but only actual-sequence freedom. Now if an incompatibilist worries about causal determinism because she holds that it eliminates alternative-possibilities freedom, this will be irrelevant to the indicated version of compatibilism. On the version of compatibilism I prefer, we do not require freedom to intend or do otherwise for moral responsibility, and thus it wouldn’t matter if causal determinism threatens such freedom. In order to target my preferred sort of compatibilism, the incompatibilist would have to make a different sort of argument, perhaps contending that causal determinism is inconsistent with the required kind of “internality” or “sourcehood.” Thus, it is important to make the distinction between the two kinds of freedom in evaluating arguments for incompatibilism.

There are many sophisticated and prima facie plausible accounts of both kinds of freedom (alternative-possibilities and actual-sequence) on offer in the contemporary philosophical debates about free will. These have prototypes throughout the history of philosophy, some inspired by Hume, some by Kant, some by Reid, and so forth. Some of these accounts are compatibilist, others incompatibilist. One will find no discussions and thus no illumination of these accounts or their historical ancestors in Sapolsky’s book. The entire focus is on whether determinism is true, not its relationship to free will (and its specific variants), where free will is understood (as it must be) as more than simply indeterminsim.

Sapolsky refers to himself as a “hard incompatibilist” (10), a term introduced by Derk Pereboom (2001). This term refers to the view that we almost certainly lack free will (and moral responsibility), whether or not causal determinism is true. As with the compatibilism side of the equation, I find no reflections on indeterministic notions of free will, or a general argument against any of them, in Sapolsky’s book.

Again, the focus is on whether determinism is true, not on whether, in this case, its falsity is compatible with free will. Sapolsky does contend that our free will cannot simply arise from quantum mechanical indeterminacies, but he does not consider approaches, such as Robert Kane’s, that build out from such (purported) indeterminacies in the brain, amplified by chaotic processes, to get a libertarian conception of free will (Kane 1996). There are many other indeterministic strategies for analyzing free will that don’t rest on quantum mechanics or total randomness at any level—event-causal, agent-causal, and non-causal. The proponents of these accounts contend that indeterminism need not imply randomness or lack of control. Sapolsky does not engage with any of them. There are, then, no serious reflections on free will, compatibilist or libertarian, in this book.

Have we really “done this before?” Scientific progress in understanding the neurophysiological bases of various impairments, disorders, and diseases has led to important and salutary changes in our attitudes and responsibility practices. No disagreement here! The problem comes when Sapolsky extrapolates to the general principle that causal understanding implies no responsibility. This is a spurious transition—a hasty generalization of monumental proportions.

We increasingly understand the neurobiology and other causes of various specific conditions, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, other mental disorders, addictions, and so forth. The conclusion to be drawn is that there are certain kinds of causal histories and conditions that typically or sometimes etiolate or eliminate free will and moral responsibility. It does not follow that all causal factors play the same role, or that we should take this general principle (that understanding eo ipso exculpates) as a working hypothesis. It is important that the underlying physical/causal bases of these specific conditions are different from the bases of ordinary human action in ways that can be identified. These atypical causes are contrasted with what underwrites the distinctive human capacity for practical reasoning, and the contrasts are illuminating and important. We can understand scientifically why these differences from normal functioning lead to the specific syndromes of behaviors associated with each condition, and we thus either withdraw or diminish (say) blameworthiness. We’ve done this before, but it would be inappropriate to leap to the conclusion that any causal explanation of human behavior will be exculpating, simply in virtue of being such an explanation.

We should reject “ tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner. ” This is not to say that understanding the background of the individual and the causal history of the behavior should not cause us to mitigate or adjust the level of blame or severity of punishment we attach to it, or that we should not be empathetic. After all, there but for the grace of God (or the luck of the draw), go I. This fact should make us all deeply humble in assigning blame and careful in carrying out punishment. Indeed, there are some kinds of causal sequences leading to behavior that totally exculpate the agent. Here it is not understanding qua understanding that eliminates blameworthiness, but understanding that the causal background is of a certain sort.

Determinism and Trading Places

Sapolsky writes:

Imagine a university graduation ceremony. Almost always moving… The happiness, the pride. The families whose sacrifices now all seem worth it. …

And then you notice someone. Amid the family clusters postceremony… you see the person way in the back, the person who is part of the grounds crew, collecting the garbage from the cans on the perimeter of the event.

Randomly pick any of the graduates. Do some magic so that this garbage collector started life with the graduate’s genes. Likewise for getting the womb in which nine months were spent and the lifelong epigenetic consequences of that. Get the graduate’s childhood as well—one filled with, say, piano lessons and family game nights, instead of, say, threats of going to bed hungry, becoming homeless, or being deported for lack of papers. Let’s [suppose] that, in addition to the garbage collector having gotten all that of the graduate’s past, the graduate would have gotten the garbage collector’s past. Trade every factor over which they had no control, and you will switch who would in the graduation robe and who would be hauling garbage cans. This is what I mean by determinism. (16-17)

This notion of determinism is essentially the metaphysical version of the LaPlacean conception of determinism referred to above. Formative circumstances—the total package—together with the natural laws, entail the choices and behavior of all of us (including the graduate and garbage collector), thus rendering true the claim about what would result from “switching” the formative circumstances. Does such determinism obtain in our world? Sapolsky argues that it does, but it is unclear that he succeeds.

First, a quibble about the thought experiment. If we think of particular individuals as defined in part by their “narratives,” including key features of their formative circumstances, then the garbage collector and the graduate could not trade places in the way envisaged by Sapolsky. The thought-experiment only makes sense if we take a different sort of view of personal identity, according to which the self is some sort of bare subject of consciousness, which is not defined in terms of a particular narrative.

Let this go. A second question is whether the world really works in this way, i.e., whether Sapolsky’s arguments succeed. An evaluation is very difficult, as the elements and their combination require specialized expertise. Some neuroscientists disagree with his conclusions, contending that the brain works in a metaphysically indeterministic way. Some also hold that our brains are indeed the locus, or physical basis, of our free will (and, for that matter, agency). For example, Kevin Mitchell, an associate professor of genetics and neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, writes:

Our free will is thus not some nebulous, spooky, mystical property granted to us by the gods. It is an evolved biological function that depends on the proper functioning of a distributed set of neural resources.

What are the implications of this position for our views on moral and legal responsibility? … I believe that our views on these issues do not need to change. Despite the headlines proclaiming the death of free will, it remains stubbornly alive and well. Nothing in philosophy or physics or neuroscience or genetics or psychology or neurology or any other science undermines the idea that we do have the capacity for conscious, rational control of our actions.

So there’s no reason, in my view, not to continue to hold people responsible for their behavior…. The broad idea of moral responsibility is … unaffected by discoveries from science that are revealing the neural and cognitive underpinnings of rational control. (Mitchell 2023: 282, 283)

I once attended a graduation ceremony at Stanford University (although not as a professor). Many of my friends in my graduating class were scions of rich and famous people (the owners of the trash-collecting companies, not the trash collectors). Not me. But I did as well as any of them, and there were many more like me. I’m sure many had challenges much larger than mine.

We know that many emerge from challenging circumstances to achieve extraordinary things in all aspects of human life. This suggests that the brain does not work deterministically, as understood by Sapolsky. This suggestion, however, might not survive critical scrutiny, because Sapolsky would insist that we take into account all the formative factors—the total package. The anecdotal evidence does not decide the issue, because it doesn’t (and cannot) do this. It may be that all the formative factors, together with the laws, entail all our choices/formations of intentions and behavior, as Sapolsky contends.

What are we to make of all this? First, to reiterate: it is a scientifically open question whether determinism of the sort Sapolsky defends (or any other kind) actually obtains. There is anecdotal evidence that at least suggests otherwise, and perhaps more importantly, well-regarded neuroscientists disagree. If indeterminism is true, there are various plausible options for analyzing the freedom that would arguably be present, and Sapolsky offers no reasons to reject them.

Second, causal determinism of the sort Sapolsky defends (or some other kind) might obtain in our world. It would be dialectically infelicitous and unproductive at this point simply to dig in one’s heels and claim that it follows straightaway that there is no free will (of any relevant kind). The thought experiment simply brings out a consequence of the truth of a certain kind of causal determinism: switching formative factors (trading places, so to speak) would entail switching outcomes.

Why exactly would this fact about the counterfactuals in question imply no free will (or moral responsibility)? It seems that Sapolsky believes that it, in itself, entails the absence of free will, but, again, this seems to me to be dialectically unhelpful, if not downright question-begging. The question we need to ask is whether the agent (either the garbage collector or graduate) has or exhibits free will of the kind required for moral responsibility along the actual paths they take, and I see no argument in Sapolsky that they don’t. Why exactly does the graduate not have freedom to choose and do otherwise? Why doesn’t he act freely? And why exactly does the garbage collector not possess alternative-possibilities freedom? Why does he lack actual-sequence freedom?

We need to scrutinize the “actual-sequences” that unfold and figure out whether the agent has free will. I do not see why the trading places counterfactuals are relevant to this question (as opposed to that of causal determinism), nor do I find any argument in Sapolsky’s book defending their relevance. It is surely more difficult in various ways for the garbage collector to achieve the feats of the graduate and to behave ethically, but this in itself does not imply lack of responsibility. Formative circumstances of this sort may mitigate (say) blameworthiness and severity of punishment, but not necessarily moral responsibility per se . There are various compatibilist accounts of free will of either the alternative-possibilities or actual-sequence kind, and none is addressed in a serious way by Sapolsky. The presence of the sorts of free will captured by these accounts seem to be consistent with the stories that unfold involving the garbage collector and graduate. One might be dubious about this, or about the plausibility of these accounts, but further illumination is not offered in the book.

Moral Responsibility

Sapolsky doesn’t define moral responsibility, but he gives pride of place to the blaming emotions, such as indignation, resentment, and hatred, and the associated practice of punishment. Like moral responsibility skeptics in general, Sapolsky argues that we do not deserve in a “basic” way (not derived from particular laws or institutions that specify the rules of the social game, so to speak) these attitudes (and, by extension, the positive ones). Punishment, thought of in part as the state’s expression of resentment, is out, in favor of something like the public health “quarantine” model favored by Pereboom (2016).

There are many worries about such an approach, which entirely eshews considerations of moral guilt and desert of proportionate punishment. When a COVID sufferer no longer has the disease, there is no reason to continue to detain him, on the quarantine model. Similarly, when a criminal has been fully rehabilitated (including a recognition of the wrongness of his behavior and a reliable commitment not to do it ever again), there is no reason to continue to detain him, no matter how serious the crime. This is jarring, to my sensibilities, at least. If Putin were apprehended and recanted sincerely (and we believed him), would it be appropriate to let him leave the detention facility? Would it have been so with Hitler?

Sapolsky discusses the trial and detention of Anders Breivik, who gunned down—murdered-sixty-nine teenagers attending a summer camp in Norway. He was found guilty and given the longest sentence possible in Norway (twenty-one years). (379)

Breivik was deposited in one of Norway’s dens of [enlightened detention (JMF’s term)]. He has a three-room living space, computer, TV, PlayStation, treadmill, and kitchen (he was able to submit an entry to a prison gingerbread house competition. (379)

And one survivor opined, “If he [Breivik] is deemed not to be dangerous any more after twenty-one years, then he should be released…” 380.

Sapolsky does not contend that all survivors or their families feel the same way, but he finds this Norwegian approach appealing. He points out that the jurors disagreed about the issue of Breivik’s free will, and the basis of the decision had more to do with longstanding Norwegian attitudes toward crime and respect for the humanity of the criminal. Sapolsky himself argues that we are all determined in such a way as to rule out free will and moral responsibility. If that were true, why would one even favor detaining someone for twenty-one years, if he were deemed no longer dangerous? Why detain him at all, after that point is reached? This, despite the individual having (say) gunned down 69 innocent teenagers at a summer camp (or, for that matter, overseen the Holocaust or Russia’s war in the Ukraine).

Sapolsky seems to think the alternative to this sort of health-quarantine model inevitably is in some sense based on, or leads to, ghoulish joy in watching others’ suffering or even being put to death, or at least in knowing that they will suffer. Similarly, Pereboom (whom Sapolsky cites approvingly) contends that punishment based on retribution “comes from” vengeance (in some way that would, in my opinion, need further specification). Sapolsky gives a detailed history of disturbing human practices around cruel punishments and executions. He contends that it is difficult to convince people to abandon the punishment model in favor of the quarantine approach due to “…our enjoyment of seeing righteous punishment served” (370). He adds, “Good luck convincing people that blame and punishment are scientifically and morally bankrupt” (371).

Indisputably, there are excesses and corruptions of the punishment model, but they are not intrinsic to it. One can believe in justified blame and punishment that is proportional to the offense, implemented in ways that are deemed morally acceptable and even humane. Even a retributivist about the justification of punishment (there are various views) need not be a moral monster or indifferent to the awful conditions of penal (or “carceral,” in Foucault’s term) institutions, despite the suggestions of Sapolsky and various of the moral responsibility skeptics. It is a mistake to suppose that there is no middle ground between the quarantine model and one in which people delight in witnessing macabre executions and take ghoulish pleasure in others’ suffering (or accept harsh and inhumane prisons). In applying the reactive attitudes and implementing punishment, we “acquiesce in suffering,” in Peter Strawson’s formulation, but need not delight in it. (Strawson 1962) Insofar as there is free will, deserved blame and punishment are not morally corrupt, and Sapolsky has offered no arguments against free will. It is much likelier that it would be morally corrupt to banish moral responsibility, creating a flatland of the soul, so to speak.

Why exactly are blame and punishment “scientifically corrupt?” Again: free will and moral responsibility are not scientific questions. How best to respond to ill will or norm violations, including the proper response of the state, is a complex moral question with many moving parts. It involves empirical facts but also metaphysical and normative analyses. Science is relevant, but by no means dispositive.

From my perspective as a philosopher, it is jarring that a book on free will would not discuss free will. Sapolsky spends his energy seeking to establish the truth of causal determinism but does not investigate in any serious way how this would relate to free will and moral responsibility. Like many other neuroscientists who adopt a spatial metaphor and proclaim there is no room for free will in the brain (Sapolsky is late to the party), he assumes that causal determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility, rather than arguing for this contention. Further, he believes that indeterministic sequences don’t underwrite free will either, but he never addresses a range of proposals on offer for indeterministic accounts of free will. His discussions of the putative problems with moral responsibility are shopworn, and he has certainly not established that our world would be better off if we “subtracted” moral responsibility. It is more plausible that it would be a desiccated world—a moral desert. This book, despite all the commotion over it, does not offer anything new or illuminating about free will or moral responsibility. [3]

I pause to observe that Sapolsky writes, “I haven’t believed in free will since adolescence [but presumably not for the empirical reasons he invokes in the book!], and it’s been a moral imperative for me to view human beings without judgment…” (9). He agrees that he has not entirely succeeded, but how exactly could this be a moral imperative, given his theory? He certainly could not legitimately feel any regret, or be blameworthy, for not living up to it. Can we still have morality, and moral imperatives, without free will? Perhaps we could still be criticized from a moral point of view without the reactive attitudes, such as indignation and resentment, and without punishment. It is however difficult to fit morality and its distinctive framework of evaluation within a no-responsibility theory, and Saposlky does not explore this in any depth. If we are morally criticizable for failing to live up to moral principles and imperatives, wouldn’t many of the same putative drawbacks of moral responsibility re-emerge? “Subtracting” moral responsibility is not so easy.

This is what I think is going on, and why the book will reach and move many. Sapolsky is filling in the details of how our behavior is caused (and, in his view, determined). He is, you might say, B.F. Skinner on steroids, or better, on neurobiology. We blithely assume, for the sake of our lofty philosophical ruminations, that causal determinism obtains, but when you actually immerse yourself in the details, you can feel the tug of the view that we do not have free will (and cannot fairly be held morally responsible). Sapolsky is seeking to bring philosophical theorizing down to earth in this way, or at least to ensure we recognize we are standing on a particular kind of ground floor. Neuroscientists and social scientists have been making progress in challenging philosophers to make our theorizing more empirically informed, and Sapolsky takes this many steps further. As he describes the causal mechanisms, the details become vivid. It is not just that we are determined by our past and the laws of nature, but in these specific kinds of ways , laid out in their florid detail.

Sapolsky’s challenge to compatibilists is to explain how we could be free and responsible, given that this is the specific way nature unfolds, the particular way in which we are determined. The recognition of the previously hidden causes of our behavior and functioning of our brains can issue in a sense of helplessness. We’re not the captains of our ships or the cabin-boys; having fallen off the ship, it is as if we are in a small raft in the ocean, being carried along willy nilly by the currents.

The challenge for Sapolsky, however, is to explain why this sense of helplessness is not just an unreflective reaction elicited by his impressive weaving together of the strands that enmesh and propel us forward. How is it not a “framing effect” of dubious rational status, employing Kahneman and Twersky’s term? Can he provide an argument for , or at least an explanation of, the claim that this sort of determination entails no free will or moral responsibility? If not, we simply have an unarticulated and vague unease, the basis of which remains obscure. This is where the book leaves us.

Are the human mechanisms of deliberation and our capacity for reasons-responsiveness incompatible with the way our behavior is caused? Why can’t these freedom-conferring properties be in place and play a role in our unfolding stories, even if we are determined in the way outlined by Sapolsky? I believe that physical determination, even of this sort, does not crowd out reasons-responsiveness, a key element of the freedom implicated in moral responsibility, an actual-sequence kind of freedom. But this is a long story (Fischer 1994 and Fischer and Ravizza 1998).

Recall Sapolsky’s claim that hating someone for his behavior is even sadder than hating the sky for storming. What is genuinely sad, however, is that a serious scholar would blur the distinction between the emanations of Hitler and those of the sky. Sapolsky’s elaborate theorizing has made him blind to the difference between thunder and lightning and Sturm und Drang.


Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves . New York: Viking.

Fischer, John Martin. (1982). “Responsibility and Control,” The Journal of Philosophy 89: 24-40.

Fischer, John Martin. (1994). The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay on Control . Oxford: Blackwell.

Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza. (1998). Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility . (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Fischer, John Martin. (2023). “The Resilience of Moral Responsibility.” In Taylor Cyr, Andrew Law, and Neal Tognazzini, Freedom, Responsibility, and Value: Essays in Honor of John Martin Fischer . (New York: Routledge).

Kane, Robert. (1996). The Significance of Free Will . (New York: Oxford University Press).

Mitchell, Kevin J. (2023). Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will . (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Pereboom, Derk. (2001). Living Without Free Will . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Pereboom, Derk. (2014). Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life . (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Strawson, P.F. (1962). “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy 48: 1-25.

[1] Throughout the book, Sapolsky reiterates, like a mantra, his conclusion that there is no free will. All his arguments would imply, if they work, that everything we do is entirely determined, and thus, on his view, there is no free will. Yet, mysteriously, he writes, “This book has two goals. The first is to convince you that there is no free will, or at least that there is much less [italics in text] than generally assumed when it really matters.” I don’t understand. Why “less”, rather than “none,” and what does it mean to suggest that one has at least some “when it really matters”? Perplexing.

[2] The same spatial metaphor is employed in regard to the self: “if determinism is true, there is no room for the self.” It is as if we need to find space for a ghost in the machine (to use Ryle’s metaphor), at least a physical one. The underlying picture is of the self as homunculus, not fully supervenient on physical events and processes in the brain. But a physicalist/determinist will simply point out that the self is constituted by, or supervenes on, the neural processes in the brain; we don’t need to find a special, separate (first class?) compartment for it.

Must the self disappear in the buzz and confusion of the complex functioning of the events and processes in the brain? Some argue for the disappearing self thesis, but Sapolsky simply asserts it.

[3] Somewhat presumptuously, I believe most philosophers (perhaps the vast majority) would agree with me that Sapolsky leaves all the major free will issues untouched. I have the feeling, however, that most neuroscientists would think that his book addresses them in a serious and sustained way. How to reconcile the two perspectives is a delicate question. It strongly suggests that philosophers are on Venus, and neuroscientists Mars.

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Reliable Essay Writing Services: Summing Up

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Article paid for by: Ocasio Media The news and editorial staffs of the Bay Area News Group had no role in this post’s preparation.

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OpenAI teases an amazing new generative video model called Sora

The firm is sharing Sora with a small group of safety testers but the rest of us will have to wait to learn more.

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OpenAI has built a striking new generative video model called Sora that can take a short text description and turn it into a detailed, high-definition film clip up to a minute long.

Based on four sample videos that OpenAI shared with MIT Technology Review ahead of today’s announcement, the San Francisco–based firm has pushed the envelope of what’s possible with text-to-video generation (a hot new research direction that we flagged as a trend to watch in 2024 ).

“We think building models that can understand video, and understand all these very complex interactions of our world, is an important step for all future AI systems,” says Tim Brooks, a scientist at OpenAI.

But there’s a disclaimer. OpenAI gave us a preview of Sora (which means sky in Japanese) under conditions of strict secrecy. In an unusual move, the firm would only share information about Sora if we agreed to wait until after news of the model was made public to seek the opinions of outside experts. [Editor’s note: We’ve updated this story with outside comment below.] OpenAI has not yet released a technical report or demonstrated the model actually working. And it says it won’t be releasing Sora anytime soon. [ Update: OpenAI has now shared more technical details on its website.]

The first generative models that could produce video from snippets of text appeared in late 2022. But early examples from Meta , Google, and a startup called Runway were glitchy and grainy. Since then, the tech has been getting better fast. Runway’s gen-2 model, released last year, can produce short clips that come close to matching big-studio animation in their quality. But most of these examples are still only a few seconds long.  

The sample videos from OpenAI’s Sora are high-definition and full of detail. OpenAI also says it can generate videos up to a minute long. One video of a Tokyo street scene shows that Sora has learned how objects fit together in 3D: the camera swoops into the scene to follow a couple as they walk past a row of shops.

OpenAI also claims that Sora handles occlusion well. One problem with existing models is that they can fail to keep track of objects when they drop out of view. For example, if a truck passes in front of a street sign, the sign might not reappear afterward.  

In a video of a papercraft underwater scene, Sora has added what look like cuts between different pieces of footage, and the model has maintained a consistent style between them.

It’s not perfect. In the Tokyo video, cars to the left look smaller than the people walking beside them. They also pop in and out between the tree branches. “There’s definitely some work to be done in terms of long-term coherence,” says Brooks. “For example, if someone goes out of view for a long time, they won’t come back. The model kind of forgets that they were supposed to be there.”

Impressive as they are, the sample videos shown here were no doubt cherry-picked to show Sora at its best. Without more information, it is hard to know how representative they are of the model’s typical output.   

It may be some time before we find out. OpenAI’s announcement of Sora today is a tech tease, and the company says it has no current plans to release it to the public. Instead, OpenAI will today begin sharing the model with third-party safety testers for the first time.

In particular, the firm is worried about the potential misuses of fake but photorealistic video . “We’re being careful about deployment here and making sure we have all our bases covered before we put this in the hands of the general public,” says Aditya Ramesh, a scientist at OpenAI, who created the firm’s text-to-image model DALL-E .

But OpenAI is eyeing a product launch sometime in the future. As well as safety testers, the company is also sharing the model with a select group of video makers and artists to get feedback on how to make Sora as useful as possible to creative professionals. “The other goal is to show everyone what is on the horizon, to give a preview of what these models will be capable of,” says Ramesh.

To build Sora, the team adapted the tech behind DALL-E 3, the latest version of OpenAI’s flagship text-to-image model. Like most text-to-image models, DALL-E 3 uses what’s known as a diffusion model. These are trained to turn a fuzz of random pixels into a picture.

Sora takes this approach and applies it to videos rather than still images. But the researchers also added another technique to the mix. Unlike DALL-E or most other generative video models, Sora combines its diffusion model with a type of neural network called a transformer.

Transformers are great at processing long sequences of data, like words. That has made them the special sauce inside large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google DeepMind’s Gemini . But videos are not made of words. Instead, the researchers had to find a way to cut videos into chunks that could be treated as if they were. The approach they came up with was to dice videos up across both space and time. “It’s like if you were to have a stack of all the video frames and you cut little cubes from it,” says Brooks.

The transformer inside Sora can then process these chunks of video data in much the same way that the transformer inside a large language model processes words in a block of text. The researchers say that this let them train Sora on many more types of video than other text-to-video models, varied in terms of resolution, duration, aspect ratio, and orientation. “It really helps the model,” says Brooks. “That is something that we’re not aware of any existing work on.”

“From a technical perspective it seems like a very significant leap forward,” says Sam Gregory, executive director at Witness, a human rights organization that specializes in the use and misuse of video technology. “But there are two sides to the coin,” he says. “The expressive capabilities offer the potential for many more people to be storytellers using video. And there are also real potential avenues for misuse.” 

OpenAI is well aware of the risks that come with a generative video model. We are already seeing the large-scale misuse of deepfake images . Photorealistic video takes this to another level.

Gregory notes that you could use technology like this to misinform people about conflict zones or protests. The range of styles is also interesting, he says. If you could generate shaky footage that looked like something shot with a phone, it would come across as more authentic.

The tech is not there yet, but generative video has gone from zero to Sora in just 18 months. “We’re going to be entering a universe where there will be fully synthetic content, human-generated content and a mix of the two,” says Gregory.

The OpenAI team plans to draw on the safety testing it did last year for DALL-E 3. Sora already includes a filter that runs on all prompts sent to the model that will block requests for violent, sexual, or hateful images, as well as images of known people. Another filter will look at frames of generated videos and block material that violates OpenAI’s safety policies.

OpenAI says it is also adapting a fake-image detector developed for DALL-E 3 to use with Sora. And the company will embed industry-standard C2PA tags , metadata that states how an image was generated, into all of Sora’s output. But these steps are far from foolproof. Fake-image detectors are hit-or-miss. Metadata is easy to remove, and most social media sites strip it from uploaded images by default.  

“We’ll definitely need to get more feedback and learn more about the types of risks that need to be addressed with video before it would make sense for us to release this,” says Ramesh.

Brooks agrees. “Part of the reason that we’re talking about this research now is so that we can start getting the input that we need to do the work necessary to figure out how it could be safely deployed,” he says.

Update 2/15: Comments from Sam Gregory were added .

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