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Tips for Writing a Great History of Philosophy Paper

written by: •edited by: Trent Lorcher•updated: 12/19/2011

This article discusses the art of writing a history of philosophy paper. By reading this article, you will learn how to research, outline, write, and revise such a paper.

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    Start by Researching

    So you're taking a survey course, or a course on Kant? Either way, you've been asked to write a paper involving an historical figure in philosophy. The first step in this process is to narrow your topic down -- if you haven't been assigned a specific topic. The best history of philosophy papers either trace a concept in a philosopher's works, or compare one philosopher's concept to another. This paper will be the most like a research paper of all the types of philosophy papers you can write.

    To begin, research the concept. For example, if you are writing a paper on Kant's notion of "Will" in Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals, you would begin with that text. Reread the passages that contain the concept. Next, look to secondary resources. For this process, you will want to use JSTOR and Philosopher's Index (Your university should have a subscription to each of these.). You may want to also look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a general overview, and as a place to gather references for your paper. You won't want to use an encyclopedia for a reference, however, because it isn't thorough enough.

    One you've gathered your reference material, read through the sections pertaining to your topic and take notes. Be sure when taking notes that you distinguish between your own thoughts and the author's thoughts. One popular way of doing this is using an index card for each thought.

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    Outlining the Paper

    Once you've performed your research it's time to outline your paper. As mentioned in the previous section, there are a few different approaches to take:

    • Discussion of a philosopher's theory (i.e. Kant's Will).
    • Comparing two or more philosopher's on a common theory (i.e. Kant and Schopenhauer on the Will).
    • Tracing the history of a theory through many philosophers (i.e. Freedom of the Will).

    The type of paper you are writing will dictate its outline. You already know how the paper will begin and end: with an introduction and a conclusion, respectively. All you need to worry about now, is the body.

    In a discussion of one component of a philosopher's writing, your sections most likely will be for each book, or usage of the theory. You could have a section for each commentator's interpretation of the theory, and then conclude with which commentator you believe is more correct.

    In a discussion of two or more philosopher's on one theory, you would most likely divide your paper according to philosopher, in the historical order.

    In the genealogy of a theory paper, you will most likely divide the paper first by era and then by usage of the term. As you do your research, your outline will become clearer.

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    Writing and Revising

    In writing your history of philosophy paper, you may be tempted to pull a lot of quotes from primary (the author's work) and secondary (the commentators' works) materials. The best thing to do is to use short quotes, if you must quote, and to quote infrequently. Quotes from the primary material should be used to illustrate a point you are making. Quotes from secondary material should be used only if you cannot paraphrase what is being said. The most important thing to remember when quoting and paraphrasing other authors is to cite the text. Your professor will most likely have a preferred method of text citation - usually APA or MLA format.

    Be sure to be concise and clear when writing your paper. Also, don't include biographical information about the author unless it directly pertains to the theory (very rare). When writing history of philosophy papers, you often will come across foreign terms. Foreign terms should be italicized in your paper. If you are using a translation, and the paper is an analysis of one of the terms used by the author, you may want to check the original to make sure that terms that appear the same in English are really the same in the original. As an undergraduate, this last point will often come from secondary material research, but as a graduate student you really should do the dirty work and look at the original.

    Finally, when editing your paper, double check all citations, quotes, and paraphrases to ensure that you've properly attributed any knowledge that was not your own going into the paper. Check for spelling, grammar, and typos. Finally, check for accuracy in term usage. Add your bibliography and turn it in!