Write a Paper in the History of Philosophy

Writing Philosophy Papers

Composing a paper on a topic in the history of philosophy is not hard. All you need to do is understand the task, plan your paper, and write it. Since your paper needs to be philosophy in talking about the history of philosophy, you need to make a claim about some topic in the history of philosophy and support it with arguments backed up by evidence. Here are some more detailed step-by-step instructions.   

Step 1: Where Do I Start?

Understand the task at hand.

A paper in the history of philosophy defends an interpretation of a philosophical claim made in the past.

What counts as 'past' here? For the moment, let's just say that if a position seems no longer in tune with our current linguistic conventions, social context and commonly held beliefs, then this position needs to be contextualized. This way historians make comprehensible past philosophical positions. They enable current philosophers to take these positions into account in an informed way. 

Undergraduates are assigned such papers in various ways. There are roughly three types of assignments that often look like this:

  1. Why does Xenophanes believe that there is a difference between belief and knowledge?
  2. Sextus Empiricus reports that Xenophanes held, “No man has seen nor will anyone know the truth about the gods and all the things I speak of. For even if a person should in fact say what is absolutely the case, nevertheless he himself does not know but belief is fashioned over all things.” Discuss.
  3. Design your own paper topic on Xenophanes' epistemology.


Answering a Direct Question

The first task asks you to give reasons for a specific thesis. The thesis in question is “Xenophanes believes that there is a difference between belief and knowledge.” Your task is to defend the claim by giving good reasons why Xenophanes held this belief. 

This doesn't typically mean that you are asked to defend why there is a difference between belief and knowledge, but to explain why this is the correct interpretation of Xenophanes' view on knowledge. You make arguments which support this claim and are in turn backed by evidence. Then, you anticipate possible counterarguments against the interpretation and counterevidence.


Discussing a Passage

The second task asks you to discuss some quote. In contrast to the first, slightly easier, assignment, you are not asked to defend a specific claim. You are asked to assess the quote and come up with a claim about what this tells us about Xenophanes' philosophy. So you claim that you can give a correct interpretation of the text passage. Whatever your interpretation is, you are supposed to defend it.

It is always a good idea to keep your claim simple and very minimal. Something like this will do

"I claim that Xenophanes argues that the nature of human inference is limited." 

You should now collect arguments and evidence for your position from the quote itself, from surrounding texts by Xenophanes (or ascribed to him) that give further reasons why Xenophanes would endorse this position and from the general philosophical and historical context in which he wrote. The strongest arguments are those that are supported by direct textual evidence and those that show that this position ties back to some very foundational element of his philosophy. If you can easily show that, without having to defend the view laboriously, then you are writing a good paper. You are also supposed to discuss possible alternative readings in a way that portrays them as charitably as possible, but shows that you have good reason to prefer your reading over the alternatives.  

Designing Your Own Essay

This presupposes that you know what a good philosophy paper looks like, so let's come back to that later. 

Step 2: Plan Your Work

I found that good preparation enables me to be very happy while I work. Here's how to do it:

Estimate what tasks you have to complete to finish the paper and how much time you will spend on each task. This will make it easier for you to complete the paper and not stress out. Here's an example from my own planning with some reasons why I allotted as much or little time as I did for each task. 

  1. Prepare your desk: You will need the following

    1. a comfortable, quiet, well-lit workplace

    2. writing, review and revision tools (paper, pens, pencils, post-its, etc.)

    3. water

    4. snacks

    5. your primary material (e.g. your Critique of Pure Reason)

    6. optional: your secondary material (e.g. your Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy)

    7. optional: your original language dictionary and grammar book of the period in question (e.g. an 18th century German dictionary such as the Grimm's)   

    8. optional: a Cambridge Companion on your material. N.B.: If you have the dictionary, secondary material and Cambridge Companion, you can turn off the internet. Rarely are there questions that cannot be answered by consulting these sources. 

  2. Reviewing the material should take up about 25% of your time. This seems too little for many people. They have not yet understood the material and so don't feel confident to start writing and they feel like the texts should be learned by heart. This is what I think: I always underestimate how little I understood the material until I try to articulate clearly what the author's position is. More reading does not necessarily help. And I try not to get lost in the secondary literature. It is rather a mix between reading and writing that really helps me internalize the material. Sometimes this is different. Sometimes I spend an excessive amount of time reconstructing every single argument in a text. But even that is actually writing about the text. Students should not have to learn philosophers' positions by heart. They should have understood the gist of a text in their first round of careful reading. Philosophy texts need to be carefully read. Here's how to best do this.

  3. Drafting an outline should take up about 5% of your time. Sitting there and thinking about a very slim claim on a complex piece of philosophy always feels like it takes forever. It really doesn't and most of the original ideas will be refined or thrown out in the revision process anyway. This step is to ensure that the claim you picked can actually be defended in the allotted amount of space. And, importantly, that there are more obvious and stronger arguments in support of your claim than against it. You should not skip this step and have the outline within eyesight while you're writing. You need to stay on topic and this is a good reminder.  

  4. Writing the main text should take you 35% of your time. As soon as you have collected your evidence and your arguments, you should be in a good position to write your text. This step may take a little longer than anticipated, because this is often where we understand that we did not get the point of the text, that our arguments do not actually support the claim and that the evidence does not support the arguments. But a rough text should be written during this stage.  

  5. Writing the introduction and conclusion should be a fast task, so it should take up about 5%. Nobody expects you to situate your essay on Kant's transcendental arguments in the contemporary debate on the nature of space. So you can keep it short and to the point. Undergraduates often think that they should start their philosophy papers with the words "Since the dawn of time..." But you really don't need to waste space with these words. As your reader, I'd like to hear your claim and your strongest argument and I'd like to hear them fast. 

  6. Revising is laborious and should take up a whopping 30% of your time. Your first draft is almost certainly riddled with jumps in argumentation, has hasty and clumsy formulations and some superfluous or underdeveloped arguments. There is no other way to say this: you need to let it rest for at least a day or give it to someone else for revision. Finding the appropriate distance from the text you are working on is necessary for your own arguments to be strong. Finding the appropriate distance from your own text is necessary for you to be able to see jumps in argumentation and typos. 

When planning out your text, assess how many words you spend on the respective tasks. Most arguments can be made and backed up with some evidence in 260 words. Writing is practice, make sure to revise often and plan some time for the revisions, they make the difference between a B paper and an A paper.

Step 3: Review the Material

  1. Note which passages are important for answering your question
  2. Read the passages again
  3. Take notes in light of what you have learned and what was revealed to you in discussion
  4. Based on your marginal notes, you can now easily write up and compile
    1. a summary of the main claim
    2. all arguments given in support of this claim
    3. all evidence given in support of the arguments and 
    4. possible counterarguments and counterevidence.

Step 4: Draft an Outline

Now make a rough outline on how you intend to approach the question. Your outline should be minimalistic. It should contain your main claim and all your arguments. This structure is supposed to be a guideline but can and often does change as you start writing the paper.


Because as you write out how your arguments are intended to support the claim, you may see that the arguments lack strength, are imprecise or don’t actually support the claim. And as you attempt to write the arguments out, this will again become clear and you will have to revise the outline. Try not to get frustrated here. Take joy in making your reasoning better! 

Example of an outline:

  • claim: Xenophanes argues that humans can never achieve absolute knowledge.
    • argument in support: since humans model their gods on their own likeness, human beliefs are modeled on their own experience, so human beliefs are based on their experiences
      • evidence: text passage 1
      • evidence: text passage 2
    • argument in support: experiences are not absolute knowledge, since they are gathered by induction, and induction can never give absolute knowledge
      • evidence: text passage 3
      • evidence: text passage 4
    • counterargument: Xenophanes never makes explicit what he means by absolute knowledge, except for that it is not equal to human experiences. Therefore we cannot know with certainty that Xenophanes rules out that humans can have absolute knowledge...

Step 5: Start Writing

You can either write a very rough text and revise it many times before you have a first draft or carefully write a first draft. Just write, and write continuously. Don't take extensive reading and research breaks unless you cannot move on in your argument because it depends on a certain claim you want to make. Many people have more specific things to say about the writing process itself. I find myself happiest and most productive when I feel like I have found a good solution to a problem that has bothered me for a long time. Otherwise, I have no magic writing technique.    

Core Elements of a History Paper

Your Textual Analysis

The main part of your writing will be textual analysis. Here, you should summarize the position clearly, and clarify any ambiguities from a quote if that is your main object of analysis.

If the claim the author makes is supported by an argument (hint: it almost always is), then you need to be analyzing the structure of the argument and the way it supports the claim. This involves giving a charitable reading of the claim, but also pointing out whether it is successful, that is whether it is sound in case of a deductive argument and strong in case of an inductive argument

Your Claim

Your text should contain a claim that you are defending with arguments and your arguments should be supported by evidence. Your claim should be of the following form “Anaximander thinks cats are dogs because he believes all animals are of one species.”

This is a claim. It’s a claim about what the correct interpretation of Anaximander’s equation of cats and dogs.  

Your Argument

There are many many sources in the field that tell you what an argument is and why you need to make it.

Roughly, an argument consists of statements that support a conclusion. In writing about historical arguments and positions, you are asked to make arguments yourself. Your task is not solely to give an analysis of the text, it is to give a convincing argument why your analysis is the correct interpretation of the text. Historians of philosophy may be historians, but their method is philosophical argumentation.

Your Evidence

In almost all cases evidence for your arguments is textual evidence. A claim within your argument is “Xenophanes believes that people model gods after their own liking.”

Direct evidence can be given when you find a piece of writing by Xenophanes stating “I believe that people model gods after their own liking.” This is the strongest kind of evidence supporting your arguments.

Indirect evidence is evidence that could but mustn't support the claim. Here are two kinds of indirect evidence: 

  • Text passages where Xenophanes claims something similar, “Ethiopians say gods have flat noses and dark skin.”
  • Text passages where Xenophanes is critical of the opposite claim “Some say that humans do not model their gods after their own liking, but they are not trustworthy.

N.B.: Direct evidence is the stronger evidence, but if the context of your quote is an auxiliary passage where something different is discussed, it may not be as strong as good indirect evidence from the core of the argument. Context matters.


Step 6: Revise, Revise, Revise

Revisions can be tormenting and fun. Fun because sometimes you do stumble upon a very convincing argument and tormenting because we find ourselves using phrases that are awkward, childish, or cringeworthy, and we find ourselves stating things that are just plain false. I have a hard time to get over things like these, but it helps me to approach the text as if I was my own mean teacher. I'll ruthlessly mark up formulations that are awkward and write better formulations on the side. Then when I'm done being mean to past Rima, I go ahead and work in my mean teacher's remarks. But to each their own. 

When revising, ask yourself: 

  • Is your structure clear? Do the arguments support the claim? Does the evidence support the arguments?
  • Is the issue discussed with enough complexity, did you take another viewpoint into account?
  • Is your grammar correct and your writing clear?
  • Is the format correct? Are there page numbers? Are the citations correctly done?

Once Again: Designing Your Own Essay

Now that we know how to write an essay on a particular claim or a text passage, we can infer how to write a paper of your own design. You should approach it as if you were giving yourself an assignment. You can either make a claim to defend or pick a passage to interpret. Your claim should be simple and modest but not immediately obvious. Your main philosophical work consists in convincing me of an interpretation. If your interpretation is so obvious that nobody needs much convincing, then you are depriving yourself of writing an excellent essay. Similarly, your chosen passage should be interesting and ambiguous enough to really puzzle someone. Or it should stand in stark contrast to a prominently held differing position by the same author. If you have ever asked yourself how could she write x, when she has claimed y in another passage? then you might have a good paper topic. Your claim could then be "The author claimed that x, while y, because z allows her to claim this without contradiction." 

Now you can start planning, writing and revising.

Two more notes on things that get more difficult when you write your own paper:

  1. It is very important for you to spend more time on drafting the outline since you need to estimate whether or not your claim has too broad of a scope to be defended within the space of your paper. It usually is too broad. You can sift through some academic papers that were published during the last years on your author, period, or strand of thought (e.g. Skepticism) and see how narrow the topics usually are. This is because philosophers want to be convincing and spend a lot of energy on a claim that will then be ironclad, rather than little energy on many claims that then seem poorly supported.
  2. Beware the rabbit hole. Once you think about Aristotle's De Anima, you may be tempted to find more information on how his epistemology works in his Physics. Try to hierarchize the texts you need to consult. More on this here.

Good luck on your papers!