Advice from MIT on Preparing a Philosophy Writing Sample.

APP Editors’ note: This memo was shared by one of our readers, who teaches in a top-ranked philosophy department somewhere in North America.

See also Philosophical Rigor as Rigor Mortis, Or, How to Write a Publishable Paper Without Even Having to Think.

  1. The most important thing is to label your theses. Even if your views are quite unclear, labeling them will give the appearance of rigor. You should think carefully about the labels. Something like ‘thesis 1′ or ‘main thesis’ is too boring. You need something with a bit of punch that is not too pretentious, like‘The Non-Circularity Claim’ or ‘The Unprincipled Principle’. It is also a good idea to distinguish different versions of the thesis and to give them separate names, such as ‘The Principal Unprincipled Principle’ and the ‘The Non-principal Unprincipled Principle’. That way you get the reader to believe that you are sensitive to the need to make distinctions.

  2. The next most important thing is to give examples. That way you give the appearance, not only of rigor, but of having your ‘feet on the ground’. The examples should also be labeled. In this case, the labels can be a bit more fun and down to earth. ‘Pam’s Predicament’, for example, or ‘Fred’s Fleeting Fancy’. Don’t worry if the examples do not bear on the point or give rise to further problems; as long as you make them complicated enough, the reader will not notice.

  3. Third, it is important to give your paper a technical sheen. This is all part of the MIT ‘halo’ effect. This can be achieved in a number of ways. Here are a few illustrations. (1) Set out your arguments (which can also be labeled) in numbered form and refer repeatedly to those numbers in the subsequent text, even if that is of great inconvenience to your reader. (2) Adopt the possible worlds framework, even if it has no particular bearing on your work. We appreciate the plug and it establishes that you have a solid technical background. (3) Quote some logical results that appear to bear on what you say, even if it is not clear what the bearing is.

  4. The focus of your paper should be extremely narrow. Preferably, you should start out with a puzzle, show how the familiar solutions fail, and then argue for an alternative solution. In rejecting the familiar solutions, you generate an initial interest in what you have to say; and in arguing for a solution that philosophers have previously considered too implausible to be taken seriously, you show yourself to be an original thinker.

  5. The defense of your views will no doubt give rise to difficulties which you are unable to answer. Tuck these away in the footnotes (which should always be in very small print). That way you make clear to the reader that you aware of the difficulties and can shirk the task of actually dealing with them.

  6. You should not cite any work published before 1980, with the exception of Lewis and Frege. Very little interesting work was done before that time; and citing it would incur the obligation to read it. It is important, on the other side, to cite the most recent work. That way you will earn the gratitude of your contemporaries and can expect to be cited in return.

  7. Finally, submit the paper to Philosophical Studies. They seem to like our narrow analytic style and they are likely to publish the paper regardless of its merits.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.