School of Humanities

Essay instructions

Philosophy essay instructions.

  1. Essay presentation
  2. The importance of essays
  3. The writing of essays
  4. Some common faults
  5. Source material for essays
  6. Footnotes / endnotes
  7. How to give references

I. Essay presentation

  1. The Department prefers essays to be typed or word processed.
  2. Use double spacing and one side of the paper only.
  3. Leave a 50 mm margin on one side of the page for short comments by your tutor.
  4. All the pages of your essay should be clipped or stapled together. The first page should be one of the standard cover sheets available from the School.
  5. Unless the essay is itself of no more than 1,000 words, the second page should contain a summary of the essay, not more than 200 words long (not included in the essay word limit). This should not be merely a series of headings but should give the skeleton of the argument which will be expanded in the essay. Essays for first year philosophy, being no more than 1,000 words in length, should not contain a summary.
  6. References. Give references by means of numbered footnotes which should appear at the bottom of the same page as the passages to which they refer. In the text of your essay, place the reference numeral immediately after the word or passage to which it refers. The numeral can be raised above the line or it may be placed on the line in round brackets. For the importance of references, see Section VI. For the method of citing sources in footnotes, see Section VII.
  7. Deadlines. Essays must be submitted by the time stated. You will have plenty of time to write them and it is foolish to leave them to the last minute. Extensions will be granted only when there is good reason for them. If you want an extension, you must apply in writing to the unit coordinator, at least one working day before the closing date. If an extension is refused you must submit as much of the essay as you have done and be marked on that.

NOTE: The Department has rules about extensions for essays. For first year students, these are set out in the document Rules regarding assessment and procedures regarding essays and examination papers in first year philosophy, a copy of which is posted on the Notice Board. Copies can be obtained from the Secretary.

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II. The importance of essays

One of the most useful things you can learn at the University is how to write an essay: that is, how to assemble material and clarify your thought, and how to express yourself.

Long after you have forgotten the content of your course material you will still have these useful skills - but only if you take the trouble to acquire them.

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III. The writing of essays

  1. You will need to read critically and with discrimination from a range of material. You must learn to question your sources, no matter how eminent their authors. Not all you read can be accepted merely because it is in a book. Even where there is no dispute about facts, careful and honest people may come to different conclusions about what the facts mean.
  2. Your essay must be an argument. You must learn to express the argument in your own words. It is not enough in Philosophy if you correctly summarise the main points from a standard book or get the answer right. Marks will be based on the quality of your argument rather than on the correctness of your conclusion.
  3. The argument must be relevant to the questions set. Side issues should be avoided. The awareness that there are side issues is often a sign of intelligent reading, but the ability to show awareness of them without being distracted by them is a sign of intelligent writing.
  4. The argument should be consistent. All parts of the essay should hang together and not contradict one another unless you are explicitly setting out both sides of a dispute.
  5. Your language should be clear, grammatical and precise. The simplest words and constructions are often the best.
  6. The essay should be a finished piece of work, and not a mere draft. Note forms and abbreviations are out of place.

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IV. Some common faults

  1. Some essays show a lack of integration (or coherence) and a tendency to irrelevance. These weaknesses spring not so much from a lack of knowledge as a lack of judgement in using it. They can be overcome by mental discipline - the extra effort required to get a subject clearly in focus, to achieve certainty as to what you want to say, and to arrange it logically. This is why you should make a plan of your essay. It should not (unlike the summary mentioned in I, 5 above) be a synopsis of the essay after it is written, but a chart previously made out, showing the course you intend to follow in your argument. If plans are formless, so naturally are the resulting essays.
  2. Some students seem to spend too great a proportion of their time in reading, and too little in sorting out and digesting what has been read, constructing an argument, and deciding on the form of the essay. You should be prepared to write three drafts of an essay before submitting it.
  3. Much irrelevance in essays springs from a failure to see exactly what is the question to be discussed. Make sure that you read the question carefully and pick out the key words. Remember that the point of the question will usually be a philosophical one. If, e.g., you are asked to discuss how we can know whether somebody else is in pain, it may seem that you need say no more than that we must observe his behaviour and listen to what he tells us. Ask yourself: why should anybody think there is a problem about this? What philosophical issues does the question raise?
  4. It is not enough to read a number of different authors and summarise their arguments. You must show what weight you attach to their arguments, and why.
  5. There is sometimes a lack of judgement in the use of quotations. If quotations are used they should be short and to the point. They should be used mainly because they state pithily some point you wish to elaborate, or some point of view you wish to cite or discuss. They should not be used in order to make other writers do your work for you, nor should they be left without comment. (In direct quotations omissions, even if a single word, must be indicated by the conventional three dots, while any words inserted by the writer of the essay - this is sometimes necessary to show what the quotation is about - should be put in square brackets.)
  6. Essays must be written in decent English. If you cannot do this, then you must learn. This will take time, and trouble. But if you cannot express what you know, you cannot expect your reader to give you credit for knowing it. What is not expressed is not communicated, and is not going to be intuited, in some mysterious way, by the people who mark your essays. If you cannot say clearly what you mean, no one else can tell what you mean.

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V. Source material for essays

  1. The reading lists, if any, given on essay sheets are not intended to be exhaustive. They are a starting point only, and the works listed will be of unequal value. Many other works, some of great importance, can be found in the library and you are expected to look for them. The library staff will gladly show you how to use the catalogues and other library resources. Familiarity with the library is an essential prerequisite for good essay writing. Sometimes no reading is prescribed and you are expected to think about the topic unaided.
  2. When you are faced with a textual or historical question (for example, a question about what Descartes meant by 'clear and distinct ideas' or about the importance to Plato's argument of a particular passage in Euthyphro), you should concentrate on primary sources, that is, on the writings of Descartes or on Euthyphro. Secondary sources, books or articles written by other people about Descartes or Plato, may give you ideas or suggest interpretations for you to think about, but they are not the only or the most important source. Any ideas or interpretations that you take over from secondary sources must be tested against the text itself; it is on that, not the illustrious name in the footnote, that the mark will be based. The lectures you are given are given are secondary sources.
  3. Articles in periodical journals are also a valuable source for the latest developments in many fields, particularly on controversial topics. You should use these wherever possible, but first year students should show extreme discretion in the use of this kind of material, which to the inexperienced can often be a source of confusion.

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VI. Footnotes / endnotes

  1. It is important that your essay be properly documented. This means that you must give the exact sources in your footnotes for every item taken from your sources which is important in your essay. It is not sufficient merely to give references for direct quotations (and in general there should be few of these). You must also give them for such things as statements of fact, arguments, summaries of passages taken from your sources, paraphrased opinions, and any facts about which there might be a difference of opinion. The Department prefers footnotes to endnotes. At the same time, it is necessary to use some discrimination. You do not need to give references for well known facts about which there is no dispute, even should you have found it necessary to refresh your memory by reference to a text. Essays can be over-documented as well as under-documented.
  2. Footnotes can also be used to qualify, amplify, or to make incidental comments on discussion in the text of the essay. Thus worthwhile material can be included which might otherwise disrupt the flow of the argument if introduced into the text.

Note: This should be done sparingly. Footnotes should not contain argument which belongs properly to the text; nor should they be used as a device to overcome the difficulty of stating your argument within a prescribed length. This is a device only too familiar to your reader, and will lose you marks.

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VII. How to give references

References to your sources should be given in such a way that the reader can find quickly and precisely the work and passage referred to. Different editions of a book may have the pages numbered differently; they may be found in a different number of volumes; and the material may have been brought up to date or altered because of a change of mind. Thus it is necessary to give a more precise description of a work than merely its title and author's name. You must give as much detail as will identify the work to a reader totally ignorant of the subject.

When you give the full details of a work in a final bibliography, you need not do so at each place you refer to it, provided you use some clear identification of it such as a short title or author/date citation.

The Faculty of Arts has decreed that essays should use either of two standard referencing conventions.

These are the Harvard Style (author/date citation, common in the social sciences) and the MLA Style (common in the humanities).

The Department accepts both styles (but author/date conventions are often misleading when dealing with older works or when it is important to indicate the date of first publication).

Full explanations of these can be found on the Library's website; here are the most common types:

Harvard Style

Final Bibliography

O'Shaughnessy, B. 1980 The Will, 2 vols, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Olson, E. 1998 'Human atoms', The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (3) pp 396-406.

Candlish, S. 1998 'The wrong side of history: relations, the decline of British idealism, and the origins of analytical philosophy', in Appearance versus Reality, ed. Guy Stock, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp 111-151.

Levine, M. P. 1996 'Miracles', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. M. Zalta. Available from [accessed 19th May, 1999].

Footnote or In-Text Citations

Olson 1998, pp. 398-9

MLA Style

Final Bibliography

O'Shaughnessy, Brian. The Will, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Olson, Eric. 'Human Atoms', The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (1998): 396-406.

Candlish, Stewart. 'The Wrong Side of History: Relations, the Decline of British Idealism, and the Origins of Analytical Philosophy'. Appearance versus Reality. Ed. Guy Stock. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998: 111-51.

Levine, Michael P. 'Miracles', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. M. Zalta. 1996. (19th May, 1999)

Footnote or In-Text Citations

Olson 398-9

The Discipline of Philosophy is less interested in a particular referencing convention than in your referencing's being accurate, clear, consistent and honest.

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