PHIL 1300
Introduction to Philosophy

Curtis Brown
Fall, 2007


Assignment Details

As mentioned in the syllabus, the final due date for the paper is Monday, November 26, 2007.

The paper should be approximately 2000 to 2500 words in length. (With 12 point Times New Roman and approximately one-inch margins, this is in the ballpark of 6-8 pages double-spaced, but that can vary a lot depending on font, font size, margins, etc.)

I would like to have a paper proposal indicating the topic you would like to address, which class material you will make use of, and a preliminary indication of what position you will argue for and how, and what other resources you might find useful.  (All of these things may change as you work on the paper.) This is due by Wednesday, October 31. It should be approximately one page in length.

The paper must be turned in electronically. If you wish to, you may also give me a hard copy, but that is not necessary. The simplest procedure is to attach the paper to an email. If you don't receive a reply from me within a few hours of submission, send a follow-up email to make sure I received it.

The paper should include a list of references with complete publication details of any works cited. Any specific references to texts should include specific page numbers. (Any major format for references is acceptable, e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago.)


1. Thesis. The paper should have a thesis or main point. This could be either positive (an attempt to develop and defend a novel position on a philosophical issue, such as an analysis of what it is to know something or of what it is to act freely) or negative (a critique of one of the readings or positions we have studied). If you are discussing a text whose interpretation is controversial and difficult, a substantial emphasis of the paper might be on developing an adequate interpretation of the text, but the overall goal should be to reach an assessment of the author's position rather than simply an interpretation of it.

2. Argument. Your paper needs to be more than an autobiographical account of what you liked or didn't like about the material you discuss. It also needs to do more than simply develop an aesthetically pleasing theory. You need to explain why your views are plausible; that is, you need to support them with critical argument. One very good strategy students often do not use enough is to think of possible objections to your view and respond to them. In addition, if you are criticizing someone else’s work, it is a very good idea to discuss how you think the writer would defend his or her position against your criticisms. This helps to deepen your argument.

Students sometimes think that writing a persuasive argumentative paper requires never mentioning any criticisms that might be offered, and even caricaturing the views they are criticizing instead of presenting those views and the arguments for them fairly. This might conceivably be a good strategy if (a) you care only about persuading your audience, not about how good your arguments are, and (b) your audience is neither very bright nor very well informed. Perhaps this is why the level of political argument is generally so low. In any case, in this paper your aim should be to develop and defend a position as carefully and completely as you can; the paper should be a search for the truth, not simply an attempt to persuade. The more objections you consider and respond to, and the more fair you are to your opposition, the more cogent and thoughtful your own view is likely to be. In addition, though, to an informed and thoughtful reader, your paper will be more persuasive if you present the opposition to your view clearly, fully, and fairly (and, of course, show why your own view is superior nonetheless).

3. Accuracy in your discussion of reading material for the class. The paper must make some use of class material, and should use it in a way that shows you have understood it well enough to apply it to an issue that interests you. When you cite ideas or passages from the reading or from other sources, it is very important to give page references; format does not matter--you can use footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references with a bibliography--but it is vital that I know where to look to find the relevant quotation or idea.

4. Clarity of presentation. Clarity is important in any kind of writing, but especially in philosophy: if you don't say exactly what you mean I may not be able to figure out what you had in mind. So I would like for you to write carefully and to organize the paper very explicitly. Individual sentences should be unambiguous and grammatically correct; individual paragraphs should make a single main point, and connections between sentences should be clear; the overall paper should constitute a sustained defense of a thesis, and it should be clear at every point in the paper what stage of the argument you are currently at (e.g. responding to the second objection to your first main argument for your thesis). 

5. Concreteness, detail, focus. Try to avoid vague generalities and empty abstractions. Your points should be made concrete by illustrating them with examples. References to texts should be specific and should include page references. Not only does this provide your reader with needed information, it also helps to keep you honest; you may find yourself reevaluating your view of what the philosopher says as you search for evidence that he says what you thought he did!

6. Academic Integrity. You should be familiar with the University’s Honor Code or the academic integrity policy, whichever applies to you. Both are described in the Student Handbook; information about the honor code is also available on the Honor Code web site. Note that violations of academic integrity include cheating, counterfeit work (i.e. turning in work that was done by someone else), unauthorized reuse of your own work ("turning in the same work to more than one class without consent of the instructors involved"), and plagiarism. The Student Handbook description of plagiarism is important enough to quote at length: "presenting as one's work the work of someone else without properly acknowledging the source. . . . Exact copying should be enclosed in quotation marks and be appropriately documented in footnotes or end notes that indicate the source of the quotation. Paraphrasing, when the basic sentence structure, phraseology, and unique language remain the same, is also plagiarism. When in doubt about these matters, it is the student's responsibility to seek guidance from the instructor of the course."  

Like most faculty at Trinity, I take academic integrity very seriously. Remember that any use of material you did not write yourself, either word-for-word or in close paraphrase, is plagiarism. This is true even if the passage is only a sentence or two long, and no matter where the material came from, including web sites, discussion groups, or the papers of other students. I will strictly follow the Honor Code policy by reporting any suspected violation of the policy to the Honor Council. (For students to whom the academic integrity policy applies, I will strictly follow that policy as well, including sending the appropriate letters of notification to university administrators.) I have had some students suggest that their plagiarism is “not a big deal.” You should be aware that I do regard it as a big deal. Other students have told me they were not aware that what they were doing was a violation of academic integrity. If you have any uncertainty about the policy, or about whether the specific use of other sources you are considering is acceptable, come and talk with me. I’ll be happy to clarify what is acceptable and what is not. Finally, I have heard from some students that they resorted to plagiarism because they were overwhelmed by an assignment and saw no way of completing it successfully without resorting to cheating. Ironically, in many cases, if these students had worked as hard at writing a paper as they did at plagiarizing, they could certainly have written an acceptable paper. If you are having trouble getting started on a paper, please come and talk with me.

Remarks on writing the paper

1. This is not primarily a research paper. Your goal is not to find out what a number of other people have said about your topic, but to develop and defend your own view. I do encourage you to do some library research to find other relevant material. (Looking to see what's available on the Internet can also be valuable, but web materials must be used with discretion; since anyone can put anything they please up on the net, professional-looking sites may still contain material with no intellectual value. I have links to a few sites worth a look on the class web page.) But don't get buried under a mass of secondary material; your time will be much more productively spent by examining one or two articles very carefully than by quickly reading a great deal of material. (Of course, the ideal case may be one in which you quickly read a great deal of material and then select a small number of pieces for a very careful study.)

2. If you are to write a good paper, you will need to write at least two drafts. (No one ever seems to believe me when I say this - or at least, they think that while it may be true for most people, it isn't true for them. But they're wrong! Even if you can write a passable first draft, a second draft is likely to be much better.) You probably have your own strategies for writing papers, but here is one approach: study the class reading and other material you have found on your topic and begin to gather your thoughts about it. Before writing your first draft, it is a good idea to just write anything that comes to mind on your topic; ideas will come to you as you write. Then think about how to organize this material into a draft; outline the paper and write a complete draft. Let it sit for a few days, then reread it and begin work on the second draft; for this draft, clean up the prose, fill in missing steps in your arguments, add material that will make the structure of the paper clear to the reader, and consider and respond to objections to your position. In your final draft, pay careful attention to such mechanical matters as sentence structure and spelling.

Last update: October 8, 2007.
Curtis Brown  |  Introduction to Philosophy  |  Philosophy Department  |  Trinity University