Philosophy is a fascinating subject. It used to be regarded as the queen of all sciences but slowly faded into a more obscure domain on the margins of humanities. If you say that you major in philosophy, people don’t really know what you study or do but might have some bizarre stereotypes about you: that you are a very spiritual person, that you are a hippie, that you are pretentious – or even confuse philosophy with psychology. The reason for this mixed perception is the nebulous nature of philosophy’s main subject: the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.
Philosophy strives to give us a fundamental understanding of everything, yet it doesn’t have a concrete, verifiable manifestation or at least an explanation that relates to the everyday experience. Math counts things, physics explains how things interact, chemistry explains what things are made of, and psychology studies how the human brain works. What does philosophy study? Even the name that usually provides some clue fails here: linguistics studies language, biology explores life. Philosophy, on the other hand, is “love of wisdom.” It’s abstract. It’s confusing. It creates more questions than it answers (if any).
How is one supposed to write about it? How do you, as a student of philosophy, approach the daunting task of writing your first college essay on philosophy?
Yet here is a verifiable fact: philosophy has been around for thousands of years. From ancient Greece to the modern day, from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to Sally Haslanger, Noam Chomsky, and Alexandre Monnin, philosophers have been writing pages upon pages and tomes upon tomes. So, it’s possible. However, there are some specific challenges associated with writing on philosophical topics as opposed to other disciplines and writing about philosophy since the advent of the internet in particular.
This text is meant to help you overcome some of the common challenges an essay writer might experience while writing about philosophy in the 21st century.
Why writing philosophy essays is so difficult?
First, let’s find out what makes it so difficult to write philosophy essays compared to essays in other subjects. There are several quite objective reasons.
- Abstract concepts
Philosophy deals with highly abstract ideas and complex concepts that are difficult to grasp and articulate. To write a coherent, meaningful essay, you need to have a deep understanding of fundamental philosophical ideas and theories. This is incredibly stressful when you are only beginning your study of philosophy as a pupil. Moreover, you are supposed to construct and defend abstract arguments, which is very different from empirical subjects, where you can rely on concrete evidence. In philosophy, all you have to justify your claims is reasoning.
- Critical thinking
Arguably, critical thinking is a staple of all studies and all good writing, but it’s even harder to get away with muddled thinking in philosophy than in any other field. Philosophy essays require rigorous critical thinking and astute analysis. The depths of nuanced thinking required can be challenging compared to a more surface-level analysis in other subjects. Overall, the level of critical engagement in philosophy is more intense than in other subjects, where you can present facts and statistics to back up your arguments.
- Clarity and precision
Philosophy demands clarity and precision in writing, which implies masterful penmanship. A philosophy essay writer must convey their thoughts clearly, avoiding any ambiguity or vagueness. This requires careful consideration of each word and phrase, making writing and editing philosophy essays more laborious and time-consuming, especially for inexperienced writers.
- Engagement with primary sources
Philosophy essays require active reading and understanding of a host of complex works, which is challenging and requires a lot of thought discipline, focus, and time. This is particularly difficult for students who have other subjects to study for. And let’s be honest, philosophical tractates are usually door-stoppers. Unfortunately, there is no getting around this – reading a summary of ideas won’t get you far.
As if reading and understanding it all weren’t enough, philosophical texts can have multiple interpretations. You must not only understand the author’s ideas but interpret them accurately; not only summarize existing knowledge but contribute new insight and perspective. This can be very demanding, especially for a student. It’s easy to run to both extremes: either be overconfident and misinterpret the text, thus constructing a flawed argument, or feel like you have nothing to add, dreading the task and procrastinating.
- Ethical considerations
Finally, writing about topics like morality and ethics can be emotionally taxing. On the one hand, it requires careful but somewhat detached consideration of sensitive issues. On the other hand, philosophers know better than anyone that ideas aren’t just empty words. Ideas have terrifying power and lasting consequences, especially if they are treated religiously instead of critically or are intentionally weaponized, like Nietzschean ideas of greatness and heroic individualism in Nazi Germany or Marxist ideas of class struggle in revolutionary and Soviet Russia.
Overcoming challenges when writing a philosophy essay
As a college admission essay writing service, we gave a great deal of tips on writing all sorts of personal essays and narratives, answering probing questions, and conveying ideas. However, a few of those tips are particularly helpful for writing a philosophy essay. To rectify that, here are some specific guidelines on overcoming challenges when working on your philosophy assignment as a student.
- Start early
Philosophy essays require familiarity with primary sources, deep thinking and interpretation, and careful revision. All of this takes more time than other types of assignments. Start working on your essay well before the deadline to allow ample time for the pre-writing stage (reading and reflection) and multiple drafts since revision and rewriting are essential for the clarity of the philosophical essay.
- Read actively
Understanding the primary source material is crucial for every essay, but even more so for philosophy. Start by thoroughly reading and engaging with the assigned philosophical texts. Read slowly. Make sure you understand what you read. Don’t rush through the text. Highlight key passages, stop to ponder, take notes, and write down questions or points of confusion for you.
- Practice critical thinking
Engage with your reading material actively and critically. Analyze arguments, identify assumptions, evaluate evidence, and consider possible counterarguments. Philosophy demands clarity of thought. Before you start writing, make sure you understand all the concepts, arguments, and positions you are discussing.
- Engage in discussions
David Hume once said, “The truth springs from argument amongst friends.” Engaging in philosophical disputes with your peers and professors can help you gain a deeper understanding of the problem you explore and refine your ideas about it. For sharing different perspectives, join or form a study group with your classmates. Actively participate in class discussions and seminars. Also, don’t forget that you can discuss the topic with your professor during office hours. They can give guidance and feedback on your ideas and drafts.
Before you start writing, create an organized outline with the main points you want to make, the structure of your argument, and the evidence you intend to use to support your claims. A well-structured outline will make it easier for you not to forget anything.
- Revise and seek feedback
After completing your essay, take a break if you can and then revise with fresh eyes. Consider seeking feedback from peers, professors, or writing centers on your campus. Leave proofreading for later. Of course, you must make sure that your final copy is free from grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, but first, seek clarity and precision. Your task for the first several rounds of editing is to avoid vague or ambiguous language and seek precise definitions.
Writing about philosophy is a skill that improves with practice. You might want to write some practice essays on philosophical topics even when they are not assigned. This is a great way to develop your analytical and argumentative skills.
Topics to explore in a modern philosophy essay
However, the most challenging part of writing about philosophy is finding a unique topic for your essay. What can you contribute? How can you give a new answer to one of the perennial questions that philosophers have been answering for millennia? Discovering a compelling topic for a philosophical essay requires not only careful consideration and exploration but also creativity and a certain confidence. Here are some strategies you can use to find a unique and inspiring topic to write about.
- Explore contemporary issues
Despite its abstract nature, philosophy has always been deeply connected to contemporary life and its challenges. Look at current events, debates, and trends. Consider how philosophical concepts help shed light on these issues, for example, what is identity in the age of social media, can consumption be ethical under globalized capitalism, etc.
- Read widely
Expand your reading beyond the assigned texts: read books, articles, and essays by contemporary philosophers, such as Linda Marin Alcoff, Martha Nussbaum, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, Jennifer Saul, and other influential thinkers. Pay attention to the topics that are currently discussed in the field. Some valuable resources are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (find at plato.stanford.edu) and Philosophy Now Magazine (find at philosophynow.org)
- Look at philosophical intersections
Philosophy intersects with many areas of knowledge, such as psychology, neuroscience, ethics, politics, environment, technology, physics, etc. Think about how philosophical inquiry can contribute to these disciplines and vice versa: what metaphysical questions do advances in quantum physics raise, what ethical implications can gene editing have, what does the emergence of artificial intelligence mean for our understanding of cognition, humanity, and personhood, etc.
For example, a group of modern philosophers, including Alexandre Monnin, Harry Halpin, and Alva Noë, focus their research on the philosophy of the web. They see the web not as a distinct area of inquiry but instead as a historical event, a revolution that has restructured philosophical understanding itself. How can one think of “individual mind” when memories are spread into collective data banks and stored in the cloud? How do we now think about language when it’s possible to communicate with anyone across the globe, traversing state borders, cultural divides, and linguistic barriers? So many unique philosophical issues arise from the web that the philosophy of the web becomes its own field of study.
The same can be said of environmental philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, bioethics, social justice, and many, many other interdisciplinary areas of study.
- Inspect your personal interests
Reflect on your personal interests and passions. Is there an aspect of your life, hobbies, or experiences that you’d like to explore on a deeper, philosophical level? For example, you can explore how social media consumption habits influence societal norms or analyze other significant social and cultural phenomena through the philosophical lens, examining issues of identity, representation, power, ideology, etc. Your unique perspective can lead to innovative philosophical questions.
- Search everyday life
Philosophical questions abound in everyday life: philosophy of friendship or the nature of self in the digital age, metaphysics of time in the modern pace of life, ethics of consumer choices, complex social structures of the globalized world, unique dynamics introduced into philosophical discussions by the technology of communication and information sharing, information overload and ideological diversity and their influence on our understanding of right, wrong, good, evil, moral, immoral, etc. While all these factors make contemporary philosophical exploration more complex, they also provide opportunities for innovative thinking and addressing new intellectual dilemmas.
Remember that writing philosophy essays is a process of discovery and refinement. It’s okay to grapple with difficult concepts and ideas. Embrace the challenge, stay curious, and don’t be afraid to revise and rewrite until you’re satisfied with your work. Over time, you’ll become more proficient in the art of philosophical writing.