Philosophy Tutor: The Delicate Dance of the Outline (Pt. 1)

Posted by Enoch Lambert on 4/18/14 9:14 AM

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Today, our Philosophy Tutor breaks down that most essential--and all-too-frequently-neglected--part of the essay-writing process: the Outline.


Hello again, philosophy students!  Thus far I have given you three essential building blocks of a good philosophy paper: the main thesis, the main argument(s) for it, and a list of objections to each along with your replies.  Now we need to figure out what to do with those building blocks.  We need to figure out how to put them together into a paper that presents and communicates your ideas clearly and persuasively.  And the way to do that is through the time-honored way that you’ve probably been taught since elementary school: creating an outline!  You might not expect it, but a lot of thought goes into making an outline.  Enough, in fact, that I’ll have to split the topic into two posts.  Today I’ll talk about outlining the first major sections of your papers.   

What does outlining do for you?  It helps you make organizational and presentational decisions about how to structure your paper both as a whole and in individual sections.  By knowing where the paper is going as a whole, you will be able to construct and connect individual sentences in a way that helps guide your readers and gives them a sense for how all your ideas fit together.  Even more importantly it helps you figure out how your ideas all fit together.  

Let’s talk about the structure of a philosophical paper, then, and about the decision points you will be faced with that outlining will help you resolve.  From the outset I want to be clear that there is no one way that a philosophy paper has to be structured.  There is likely no common structure to the ten most important philosophy papers of the last century.  And as you become expert at writing philosophy papers, you will probably employ a diversity of styles and organizational schemes to them.  But there is a common structure for beginners to master that I will discuss here.  

Use an outline to determine what the major sections of the paper will be.  As with just about any piece of writing, the first major section should be an introduction.  In a philosophy paper an introduction can be very short and to the point.  What is the issue you are addressing and what is your main thesis concerning it?  Next, can you give a two- to three-sentence summary of what your main argument for your thesis is (if not, you’ll need to spend some time getting clearer about what your main argument is)?  Finally, will you respond to objections, sketch out some implications of your thesis, etc.?  Give a very brief summary of these other things.  An introduction can do all these things straightforwardly without “wind up” or protracted preamble.  You will simply tell the reader what to expect in the paper.  An outline of the introduction can simply list the type of sentences you need to accomplish this.  

The second major section of your paper should be “stage-setting”.  Why is the issue you are addressing important?  What is the state of the literature surrounding the issue and how does your main thesis relate to it (i.e., is it a new thesis, a new defense of an old thesis, etc.)?  


Next, clarity is a paramount philosophical virtue.  Write so that there can be no mistake or misunderstanding of what your thesis is.  Don’t assume that it is clear as day as it stands.  Are there any theses in the literature that are close to yours but not identical?  If so, take the time to distinguish them.  Is there any novel use of terminology in the way you formulate your thesis? If so, explain.  What are some important immediate implications of your thesis that readers might not initially grasp?  What would it take to establish your thesis over another?  These are the kinds of issues that a “stage-setting” section must address.  Of course, which questions to focus on will need to be tailored to the demands of your particular thesis.  The outline is the place to determine what your “stage” will look like in order to best present and communicate your thesis and its significance.  In your outline you will decide how much of the section needs to be addressed to motivating the issue you are addressing, how much to devote to literature review, how much to clarification of your main thesis, etc.

Once you’ve set the stage for your main claim, you need to turn to the primary argumentation.  This will be the third major section of your paper.  There are as many ways to present an argument as one’s imagination allows, but the point is always to make the structure and steps of your argument as transparent as possible.  Trying to pick a way of presenting your main argument will take more extended discussion, and so I will pick that up next time.  Until then, good luck!

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Tags: philosophy, expository writing