One of the most important and difficult skills for philosophy students to develop is writing clear, cogent and interesting philosophy papers. Indeed, mastering the philosophical essay may be the single most important skill after mastering philosophical texts. I submit this article as an aid towards that mastery.
Ever since I started graduate school I have been on a quest for the perfect method and/or system for writing philosophical essays. I have collected a veritable heap of articles and books that suggest tools and techniques for developing clear, cogent and interesting philosophical essays, but none have been as simple, clear and useful as this book: The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay. In my view, this is the clearest guide on the market for writing the academic essay.
In this book Dr. Scott F. Crider (University of Dallas) supplants the tired model of the Five Paragraph Essay by returning to the art of rhetoric (which he defines as “the intellectual power to discover, even fashion, formulae to persuade,” pg. 9 ) and recovering the model of Classical Oration. This model consists of three elements: invention, organization and style. Each of these elements operates simultaneously as a part of the essay and stages of the writing process itself.
In the Invention Stage, the writer focuses the argument of the essay by developing a thesis that can be articulated as a proposition, rhetorically developed and logically demonstrated. This is the “what” stage of the writing process, namely, defining what you are writing about. Crider suggests three ways to rhetorically develop and logically demonstrate a thesis: syllogisms of logic, topics of invention, and explication of texts (Crider, 19.) There are three types of syllogisms: categorical, hypothetical and disjunctive (see the template below for examples) and five topics of invention: definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, and testimony (Ibid, 25; 29-30.) Explicating texts involves analyzing parts of a text to “untie the textual knot” and synthesizing them together (Ibid., 35, 37.) At the end of the invention stage one has the content of the essay (hopefully composed in a very rough first draft), but now one comes the hard part – organizing the content into an intelligible form.
In the Organization Stage the writer creates a unifying framework within which the invented case can unfold. This stage takes the “what” of the earlier stage and decides “in what order” it will unfold (Ibid., 44.) The six parts (not paragraphs!) of organization are: introduction, statement of case, outline, proof, refutation, and conclusion (Ibid, 68.) Anyone who has ever experienced the dilemma of writing introductions and conclusions at the end of a long writing project will appreciate Crider’s discussion of the various forms of introductions and conclusions. Additionally, Crider offers extensive help on the often absent or weak “refutation” section of philosophical essays. After all, if there is no counter-argument one must wonder if there was any argument to begin with; and if there is no argument the essay will neither be interesting, nor persuasive. Readers want to read clear, cogent and interesting essays and in a well designed essay, Crider writes, “the reader experiences a harmony of invention and organization (Ibid., 71.) This harmony corresponds to the desire of the reader to be led to a truth. In order to lead readers to truth one must be capable not only of invention and organization but also style. Or as Crider puts it “one’s ordered case must be carried by one’s written prose, one’s style (Ibid., 73.)”
In the Style Stage the writer persuades the reader of their well designed case and expresses who they are as a writer through the style of prose they choose. This is the “how” part of the writing process in which the “what” and the “in what order” of the earlier stages come together in a harmonious “how” (Ibid., 73.) Crider defines a writer’s style as “his or her diction and periods, both of which must be parallel, varied and correct to be persuasive (Ibid., 104.)” Crider emphasizes the persuasiveness of precision. “Academic work,” her writes, “must be professional to be persuasive, edited until it is letter perfect, formatted correctly, printed clearly and darkly on decent paper (Ibid., 104-105.)” This penchant for precision reminds me of Dr. Philipp Rosemann‘s usual concluding comment after assigning an essay: “If you think you are going to write a brilliant essay with grammatical errors – it doesn’t exist.” Revision and editing train the mind to think clearly and express itself in a cogent and interesting way. It is also that the case that an essay that is well-organized and free from grammatical error is more persuasive than sloppily put together essay riddled with misspelled words, poor punctuation and incomplete sentences. In the latter case, the reader may well assume that if the writer has been careless in his or her prose perhaps they have also been careless in their research and analysis.
I highly recommend that you buy, read and frequently use The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay by Dr. Scott F. Crider. As a graduate student who is constantly writing and working to improve my rhetorical skills, I have found it invaluable. Below is an essay template that I developed from Crider’s book. Use it as a guide (this is not an essay generator!) and develop it to suit your needs as a writer.
Part I: Introduction
- Types of introductions
- “Funnel-In”: establish the essay’s subject, limit the focus, and state the thesis.
- “Inquisitive”: persuade the reader that the subject is a question worth exploring.
- “Paradoxical”: persuade the reader that although the argument seems improbable, it is actually true.
- “Corrective”: persuade the reader that the subject has not been addressed adequately yet, an inadequacy the essay will remedy.
- “Preparatory”: persuade the reader that some unusual feature of the argument is worth attending to.
- “Narrative”: persuade the reader by providing narrative detail that leads the reader to the subject at hand.
Part II: Statement of Circumstance
- Provide the reader with the background necessary to situate the argument
- Narrate the central events (historical or fictional)
- Define the important terms
- Articulate the crucial questions
Part III: Outline
- Provide the reader with knowledge of the shape of the essay’s body by delineating the parts of the proof and refutation
Part IV: Proof
- Demonstrate the truth of the essay’s argument
- Develop the essay’s argument through logical demonstration
- Categorical Syllogism:
- Major Premise: All X are Y
- Minor Premise: A is X
- Conclusion: Therefore, A is Y
- Hypothetical Syllogism:
- Major Premise: If P, then Q
- Minor Premise: P
- Conclusion: Therefore, Q
- Disjunctive Syllogism:
- Major Premise: Either A, or B
- Minor Premise: Not A
- Conclusion: Therefore, B
- Categorical Syllogism:
- Prove the argument through topics of invention
- Define the general and specific characteristics of X.
- Place X in its genus and distinguish it from others within the genus.
- Compare X and Y to show how and to what degree they are alike and different.
- Show the degree to which X and Y share a genus but differ in their specific characteristics.
- Show the relationship between X and Y: cause and effect, antecedent and consequence, contraries, or contradictions.
- Show whether X is impossible, possible, probable, improbable, or certain
- Provide testimony to support your arguments about X through a testimonial, an authority, a statistic, a maxim, a law, and/or a precedent or example.
- Explicate the argument through textual analysis
- Articulate your point
- Quote a passage that supports the point
- Relate the point and the passage and explore
Part V: Refutation
- Imagine and critique arguments counter to the essay’s argument
Part VI: Conclusion
- Lead the reader out of the essay
- “Summary”: provide a brief and accurate summary of what has been discussed in the essay.
- “Emotional Appeal”: arouse an emotion proper to the subject and direct it towards an action.
- “Tail-Biting-Snake”: return to some idea, image or textual reference in the introduction and repeat it in a different and more compelling way.