By Andrew Pyle
There are, very roughly, three main types of philosophy essay - exegetical, critical, and constructive. (Most essays will of course contain some aspects or parts of all three kinds.)
(A) In an exegetical essay, your main aim is to state, as clearly as possible and in your own words, the position and arguments of the philosopher you are studying. Normally in philosophy, exegesis alone is not enough and the point of exegesis is to lead into phase (B), criticism. A purely exegetical essay may, however, be appropriate where the work you are studying is particularly difficult or obscure, eg Kant on synthetic a priori knowledge, or Wittgenstein on private language. Clearly, you must make sure you understand a position before you can go on to criticise it effectively. In an essay of this kind, you must take special care to distinguish the author's own words (use quotation marks and provide a reference) from your gloss or paraphrase. If you find yourself merely reproducing large chunks of the text, or unable to paraphrase the author's technical terminology into ordinary English, that is a sign that you haven't yet mastered it.
(B) In a critical essay, exegesis is of less importance. You might start with a brief statement of the position or arguments you will be considering, but this should be brief and can often be condensed into an opening paragraph or two. The key questions are the following:
Remember that propositions are true or false; arguments are valid or invalid. To say that a proposition is valid or an argument is true is as nonsensical as saying of the number 7 that it is red, or of a curtain that it is prime. The only necessary connection between the two pairs of concepts is that a valid argument cannot lead from true premises to a false conclusion.
(A) In a constructive essay, you are attempting to give your own positive views on the subject in question, and to support those views by appropriate (and valid) arguments. Normally, your views and arguments will emerge out of your familiarity with the views of other philosophers, and with the perceived difficulties of their positions. Don't imagine that you are supposed, in your first year, to solve off your own bat all the riddles of existence. But by the time you are writing your finals essays in your third year you should be sufficiently prepared to move beyond phases (A) and (B) into phase (C).
Students often ask about the relation between Philosophy and its history. Some ask, "Why should I care what Plato, or Descartes, thought?" and accuse their teachers of being mere pedants, over-obsessed by the heroic figures of the past. Others seem to think that merely repeating "Plato claimed that p" or "Descartes believed that q" counts as doing Philosophy. Both groups are wrong. Some knowledge of the History of Philosophy is necessary but not sufficient for doing good Philosophy. (If you don't understand necessary and sufficient conditions, ask!)
An analogy may help illustrate the point. Suppose you go to a technical college to learn the art of building. Your instructor takes you to an empty field and says "Get on with it! Build a three-storey town house!" You would, quite properly, ask for (a) materials, (b) tools, and (c) some advice and instruction regarding technique. For the apprentice philosopher, a critical study of the history of his or her discipline can provide all three. The doctrines believed, rejected, and debated through the ages provide a rich mine of materials. The arguments employed by the thinkers of the past provide the tools. The ways in which particular types of argument are used to support (or overthrow) particular doctrines provides a basis of technique. A type of argument (counter-example, reductio, infinite regress) familiar from one field may prove applicable in many others.
The point of the analogy is this. You are no more likely to do first-rate philosophy without some grounding in its history than our apprentice builder is to build a palace without adequate materials, tools, and skills. The notion that you can just "think deep thoughts" without such training is a piece of romantic nonsense. But when you are learning what Plato said about Justice, or what Hume said about Causality, you are not studying these authors merely to enable you to regurgitate their views in an exam; you are, crucially, invoking the aid of Plato or Hume to assist your own thinking. The natural movement of thought is from exegesis ("What did Plato think?") to criticism ("Why did he think that? Was he right?") to construction ("What is the truth of the matter?")
Be clear about what kind of essay you are writing. If exegetical, keep quotation and paraphrase distinct, and don't overdo the former. If critical, keep the issue you are addressing in sharp focus, and concentrate on the validity of the relevant arguments. If constructive, state clearly what you are going to argue for and by what means ("I shall show that Theory T1 is self-contradictory, and will then provide arguments for the rival theory T2".)
Don't confuse questions about truth and meaning with questions about knowledge. The proposition "p is true" does not entail that anyone knows that p is true. Very often, analytic questions in philosophy involve discussion of truth-conditions, i.e. of what would be the case if p were true (note the subjunctive mood). These are logically independent of epistemological questions about what people do or do not know. (Although, of course, no one can know that p if p is not true).
Don't be afraid of suppositional reasoning. You will often be required to follow up a train of suppositional reasoning, i.e. enquiring what follows from some proposition p, taken merely as a supposition. Here the truth of p is not being assumed - indeed, the final conclusion may be that p must be false (reductio). Alternatively, you may be asked to assume a ceteris paribus clause ("other things being equal"). The point is that such assumptions, even when false (and known to be false) can help to simplify and clarify patterns of reasoning. (Cf Newton's First Law of Motion, Malthus on Population).
Beware of Saying "This is all Subjective (Relative)" unless you are prepared to (a) say exactly what you mean, and (b) defend it. The mere fact that different people (or societies) hold different views about, eg ethics no more shows that ethics is subjective than the fact that different people (societies) hold different views about astronomy shows that astronomy is subjective. All it may show is that some people (societies) are wrong!
"I?m entitled to my opinions". What rubbish! Whether you are or are not entitled to hold and express an opinion on a subject depends on whether you have thought long and hard about it, are familiar with the evidence, and can handle objections. As a rational being, you are entitled to think for yourself, and to try to arrive at a settled view for yourself. But this is a right to think for yourself, to form your own opinion ? it is not a right to affirm and defend any old prejudice.
Never say that a proposition is partly true or an argument partly valid. The latter is complete nonsense - an argument can no more be partly valid than a woman can be partly pregnant. The former is at best misleading. Either avoid such usage altogether, or be prepared to spell out what you mean. A theory might contain several claims, some true and others false. A sentence might be ambiguous between two distinct propositions, one true and one false. Something might be generally true but not universally true (eg "human beings are less than seven feet tall"). In writing a philosophy essay, try to find a way of stating proposition that you think is simply true or false. It may be better to state a bold claim "p is true", "q is false" and then address objections, rather than say something flabby and (often) senseless like " p is partly true".
In first year essays in particular, but also more generally, don't be afraid of being wrong. How else does one learn? A tutor will often give better marks for an essay which sets out a clear case for something he or she disagrees with than for an essay which is woolly and indecisive.