Directions for Writing the Final Course Essay

Directions for Writing the Final Course Essay

As will become evident, when you start reading below, there is a series of very particular directions for writing this essay, near the end of the course. Understand that these directions are designed to a) give you the opportunity to answer the question asked in a manner specific to the academic discipline of philosophy, and b) to thereby demonstrate the degree to which you have understood both the content of the course material, and the three main ideas that define the procedure used and expected in academic philosophy, the principles of charity and burden of proof, and the formal standard of soundness in deductive argument. Since writing this final essay is a kind of culmination of the course, it is appropriate here to indicate the noted directions, even though you won’t write and turn in the essay until near the end of the course.

Format for the Essay

  • The essay must be no less than three (3) pages in length, doubled-spaced, with normal margins and some ordinary, 12-point font; and no more than six (6) such pages. It must be submitted as a document in Word, or some other similar, widely available document format.
  • Centered, at the top of the first page, you must first identify the course for which it is being submitted—PHL 110—and then provide, in this order, on separate lines, a suitable title (one that expresses vividly but succinctly your view of the topic being a addressed in the essay), and then your name.
  • Here is the general format for the paper:
    1. The very first sentence: the interrogative sentence (or question), “Should John vote to expel Janet?” [Of course the reference here is to the characters who have those names in Lemos, Freedom, Responsibility and Determinism.]
    2. The next sentence: your thesis, which is also the conclusion of the main argument you will be constructing. That thesis must take one of three forms: a yes or affirmative answer to the question you have chosen, a no or negative answer; or a refusal to answer yes or no, for reasons you will have to specify, in your main argument.
    3. This must be followed by a brief summary of your main argument; or rather, of the premises of that argument and their structure, since you have just stated your conclusion.
    4.  All that (and nothing else) must constitute the first paragraph of your paper.
    5. The second paragraph must consist of an explanation of why you think the topic you are addressing is important. It should not consist of what are in such cases the usual clichés (such as “This is a topic long known by philosophers to be really important”), but rather a somewhat detailed account of why the topic is important.
    6. The first two paragraphs constitute the Introduction to your paper, which should be labeled as such.
    7. The body of your paper, labeled as “Main Argument,” begins with the third paragraph, and extends to the next section, which should be labeled as “Anticipated Objection and Response.” The final section, the “Summary,” is just what the title of the section indicates, a summary of what you think you have accomplished in the paper.
    8. As you already know, or will have anticipated, given the content of Module 1, your main argument must be in either modus ponens or modus tollens:

Modus ponens

If p, then q.
But p.
So, q.

Modus tollens

If p, the q.
But not-q.
So, not-p.

Recall that when expressing argument forms in this fashion, the “p” and the “q” range over grammatically whole or stand-alone propositions (expressed as sentence-tokens in English). Perhaps the main challenge here will be to make sure that once you establish precisely what the p is, and what the q, you plug in the very same proposition, when that same letter or variable appears elsewhere in the argument. If you fail to do so, though you may think your argument is valid, it will really be invalid.

This is an invalid form (think of the equivalent error, with respect to modus tollens):

If p, then q.
But r [where r looks superficially like p, but is really different than p].
So, q.

These are also invalid forms, superficially resembling modus ponens and modus tollens:

If p then q.
But q.
So, p.


If p then q.
But not-p.
So, not q.

  1. Express your main argument at the beginning of your third paragraph. [You should be able to see that it does not impact validity, whether you express first or second the conditional premise.] Then write words to this effect, showing that you know your argument is valid: “If these premises are true, then the conclusion of the argument must be true. So, my burden of proof is to show that in fact each of these premises is true.”
  2. By writing words to that effect, you are indicating that you have accepted the standard of soundness in (formal, deductive) argument: since your argument is valid (you think), your burden of proof is to show that your premises are true. If they are, then your argument is sound and the conclusion must be accepted as true.
  3. Now, at the beginning of the next paragraph, write words to this effect: “Before I can show that these premises are true, I must define or clarify the meaning of the key concepts they contain.” This is the point at which you are free, to stipulate whatever you think you should stipulate, without thereby either violating the principles of charity and burden of proof, or misrepresenting any relevant content from the course material.  These stipulations must be done in terms of either individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, or (just) individually necessary conditions.
  4. After the clarification or definition of key terms in the premises is complete, in the next several paragraphs you must carefully explain why each of these premises is true. Note or recall that the conditional premise, “If p then q” asserts something quite different than what is asserted by the premise “p” or the premise “not-q.”
  5. The conditional asserts two things, both of which must be true, if the entire premise is to be true, namely, that what falls in the p-position (by convention, “the antecedent”) is sufficient for what falls in the q-position (by convention, “the consequent”), and that the consequent is necessary for the antecedent. So, you must explain why both are true, when you explain why you think your conditional premise is true.
  6. Recall: Def. necessary condition= a necessary condition of x is a condition that must be met for x to be the case, and Def. sufficient condition= a sufficient condition of x is a condition which, if met, guarantees that x is the case.
  7. After finishing the presentation of your main argument, and after providing the label for the next section, “Anticipated Objection and Response,” you must in the next several paragraphs anticipate an objection to the main argument you have just presented, respond to this objection, and finally indicate what effect if any this objection and response has on your main argument. Since (presumably) your main argument actually is in a valid form, the anticipated objections must be objections to the claimed truth of one of your premises.
  8. The objection you anticipate must be the best such objection you can think of. In doing this, you are acting on the second intellectual principle or virtue ingredient in cogent and specifically academic philosophical argument. Earlier, by providing reasons (that is, premises) for the drawing the conclusion you do draw, in your main argument, you are acting on burden of proof. Now, in anticipating and responding appropriately to the best objection you can think of, you are acting on the principle of charity.
  9. Responding appropriately to the objection means giving reasons for thinking it is false, or otherwise flawed, not name-calling, and that sort of thing (of course). So, the most appropriate response, will be another argument, in effect a subsidiary argument in support of your main argument.
  10. You are not required, in making this response, to provide another argument, but ideally you should. Whether or not you do, will depend on such issues as how closely you are approaching the relevant page limit, whether you can actually think of such a supporting argument, and so forth. In any case, any appropriate response to the anticipated objection will consist of giving reasons for the thinking the objection is false, or otherwise inadequate.
  11. After finishing this response, to the anticipated objection, and providing the final label, “Summary,” you should do just that, in no more than one fairly short paragraph: summarize what you think you have accomplished in paper.
  12. Please note well: even with such meticulous directions for writing your essay, you may of course have questions about how it should be written.

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