Writing Workshop: Writing a Thesis Statement for Philosophy Papers

“The crux of a philosophical argument often appears to be a Dedekind cut between a series of ‘as I will show’s and a series of ‘as I have shown’s. In a sense the preliminaries are the argument, and there is no crux apart from their perspicuous deployment. A few more introductory remarks, therefore, and my job will be done” (Wilfrid Sellars, Science and Metaphysics, qtd. in Rosenberg iii).

Aim: To develop the skill of writing a thesis statement for argumentative philosophical essays and to introduce a process approach to writing.

Audience: Students of philosophy; preferably first-year students.

Activity: Practice writing a thesis statement using the A-B-C method.

Breakdown: Introduction (5 min.)

Writing Process:

Writing for a philosophy course can seem an interminable task when facing an essay as a single event—an obstacle you try to hurdle without taking a running start. To lessen the degree of difficulty when writing a philosophical essay where you have to make and defend an argument or position, consider approaching the essay as a process—that is, allow for a distance between you and your finished writing piece.

Approaching the Essay (10 min.)

First Part of Writing:

To begin, when writing an essay for philosophy you are usually not starting from a position of zero prior knowledge. Within the philosophy course you will be assigned readings of primary sources, and it is from these that essay prompts are derived and argumentative papers are built. Often, these readings are dense and challenging. The “great works” of philosophy are not texts to be read through like you would a novel; rather, they are works to be read deeply into, taken apart, and analyzed (not to say you cannot do this with a novel).

For many students of philosophy, the point a philosopher is trying to get across may not be so clear upon first, or even second, read. To ease your way into a philosophical text and truly develop an understanding, try giving the text a preliminary read-through, marking-up the text as you go, highlighting and annotating sections of particular confusion or clarity or interest, etc. After this preliminary read you should be able to identify the central claim of the philosopher; if not, revisit your marginalia. Then free-write on what you have been able to glean from the text. Once you have done this, reread the text, this time taking more care to understand exactly what is at issue, define key terms, expound on arguments, etc. By taking this read-write-read approach to understanding a text, you place yourself in a position of intellectual engagement with the text and awareness of the philosopher’s position (Cf. Elbow 12).

The Foundation of the Essay (10 min.)

Thesis Statements:

Now that you have read the text, you can begin to write an argumentative paper in response to it. The crux of your paper will be your thesis statement, a clear, specific, and arguable point generated from the reading. Your thesis statement will be a constricting and structuring force in your essay; so the clearer and more specific it is, the clearer and more specific your essay will be.

Sample Thesis:

(A) In On the Division of Nature, Eriugena discusses the possibility of ascribing characteristics to God. (B) Although Eriugena refers to God in the positive, I hold he does so only metaphorically to explain how referring to God in any other way is non-indicative. Since nothing can be said literally about God, I argue that nothing at all should be said because such discussion is technically and strictly meaningless. (C) Thus, attempts at understanding God through language are futile.

Writing a Thesis (refer to sample thesis):

(A). Present your topic: What are you writing about? Clearly state the author and text which your essay concerns and the ideas on which you will focus.

(B). Develop a claim: What is your take on the work? Formulate an arguable claim about the topic, which you will analyze throughout the body of your essay.

(C). Address the audience: Why is what your writing relevant, that is, why should your audience take your essay as having significance in the real-world? Pique the interest of your audience with a connection to the practical application(s) or implication(s) of your theory.

Application (15 min.)

Class Thesis Writing Activity

Topic: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Book 1:1-2.

Prompt: What is “the good”?

Following the A-B-C method, students take five minutes to write a thesis statement. Breaking up into groups of two, students review each other’s thesis statements, checking off each portion of the thesis (A, B, and C) and providing feedback, especially on B and C (Duranczyk and Lee, par. 4-5).

Concluding Remarks (5 min.)

Open discussion:

Was this an effective approach to writing their thesis statements? Can they see the method of reading, writing, and rereading as a plausible approach to their own writing? How might they incorporate a process to their writing in the future, whether it be this, as outlined, or another?


Writing A Philosophy Essay

When reading a philosopher, consider the following as a backdrop on which to build your original thesis claim:

1.   What are the philosopher’s conclusions?

– Be able to indicate the philosopher’s theses, what it is (s)he is arguing for.

2.   What are the arguments?

– Follow the reasoning and logic of the philosopher by indicating premises from which (s)he draws conclusions; be exegetical in your reading; once you understand what it is the philosopher is arguing and how (s)he argues for it, you can begin to analyze the text critically.

3.   What is the philosopher’s “dialectical setting”?

– Here, an understanding of the history of philosophy is useful. Be able to place the philosopher, and her or his philosophy, within the context of history. Out of what school of philosophy is (s)he emerging; is (s)he founding a new one; what are the views of his or her predecessors, contemporaries, and followers? These are all questions to consider even from a limited approach, where your essay will focus on a particular philosopher and a particular work because it heightens your understanding of 1 and 2. If you are approaching your essay from a holistic view, consider not only those questions, but also relevant and pervading views from other disciplines (e.g. psychology, mathematics, etc.), in so doing, you will be able to integrate perceivable arguments for or against the philosopher’s claims as well as your own. In essence, your essay will be stronger if you can substantiate your claims with common sense where common sense is most appropriate, and technical knowledge where technical knowledge is appropriate (Gunter, 29-30).

(Adapted from Rosenberg 110-111).

Following your reading, draw on your interests to develop a thesis that satisfies A (a presentation of your topic), B (a statement of what you intend to argue), and C (a connection to broader themes).

Works Cited

Duranczyk, Irene M. and Amy Lee. “Process Pedagogy, Engaging Mathematics.” Academic Exchange Quarterly. FindArticles.com. 15 March 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3325/is_2_11/ai_n29397969&gt;.

Elbow, Peter. “Writing First!.” Educational Leadership 62.2 (Oct. 2004): 8-13. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Giovale Lib., Salt Lake City, UT. 15 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.westminstercollege.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=14635586&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Gunter, Pete A.Y. “Coherence Lost.” Humanist 55 (1995): 25-30, 6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Giovale Lib., Salt Lake City, UT. 15 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.westminstercollege.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9505160980&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Rosenberg, Jay F. The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.


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