University Philosophy Essay Writing 1: Writing a good introduction


Since the dawn of time….

Since the dawn of time, great men have puzzled over the question of how to write a good introduction to a philosophy essay. Human civilization’s most august halls of learning have echoed sonorously with the familiar refrain “How do I write a good introduction to a philosophy essay?” This is an interesting and important question, and today this question will be examined with the aim of providing an answer to the question. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an introduction as “a short speech or piece of writing that comes before a longer speech or written text, usually giving basic information about what is to follow”. This essay will critically assess a number of ways that a good introduction might be written, and look at objections to each of them. After that, a conclusion will be reached.

Only kidding! Here is the real introduction

If your introductions have ever looked a little like what I have written in the previous paragraph, they are probably in need of a bit of finessing, but don’t worry, I can help you with that. There is no straightforward template for writing a good introduction in all cases, but in this guide, I hope that I can give you a few pointers. I will start by saying a little bit about what the introduction is actually for, before giving some tips about how you can write an introduction that meets those purposes. Finally, I will say a little about things that you should try to avoid.

As a short clarification, I should say that this guide is intended for undergraduate philosophers. Other disciplines have different conventions, and philosophy essays at school and college level are assessed according to the criteria used by specific exam boards. Sometimes these can be reassuringly directive, telling you what your introduction should include and in what order. Universities are often frustratingly vague about all that stuff. In fact, this is a good thing in the end! As your academic writing progresses, you will start to see that different kinds of essays require different approaches to the introduction, but when you are starting out, it can feel like there are lots of ways to get it wrong, with no clear indication of how to get it right.

What is the introduction for?

Think about the articles and books that you have most enjoyed reading as part of your studies. If you found them exceptionally clear and helpful, it is very likely that they have good introductions and conclusions. A well-written introduction can give the reader a framework for what they can expect, and help to guide you through what is to follow. Even if the main body of the writing is fabulously clear, the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming, and a good introduction gives you a little map that you can use to navigate through what follows. The conclusion reiterates this, and can feel nicely reassuring – if the conclusion echoes the introduction, it reminds you of the journey that the author has just guided you through, and shows how you safely reached the destination outlined at the start. You can think of the introduction and conclusion as a kind of frame for your essay. When they are written well, they can help the whole thing to make a lot of sense. The introduction should always:

  • Introduce the topic, if necessary clarifying any vague or obscure terminology in the question.
  • Provide an overview of the structure of your essay – this doesn’t need to be highly detailed, but it should make some kind of sense as a stand-alone thing. Ideally, you should state what you will conclude.

In some cases (often depending on word count and whether it seems needed) an introduction can also:

  • Tell us why we should care about the topic – why does it matter that we have an answer to this question?
  • Provide some useful context (but not too much of it!)
  • Explain what a good answer to this question should involve.

Introducing the Topic


This part does not need to take very long, and can often only be one to three sentences. If, for example, you have been asked to assess Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, you might want a very brief precis of what an ontological argument is, and what is particularly interesting about Anselm’s version. You do not need great detail here, as you can expand on it in the first part of the main body of your essay. For example:

“Ontological arguments for the existence of God are arguments that use ontology (the study of being or existence). They seek to establish God’s existence a priori, without reference to experience or empirical evidence. Anselm’s version was the first known example of an ontological argument in the Western tradition, and aims to establish God’s existence from the concept of God as ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived’ (Proslogion  II).”

Some essays are not so clearly directed to a particular argument or text, so let’s take another example. Let’s say you are answering the question “Do animals have rights?” Here you might need to offer a little more clarification:

“Campaigns against cruelty to animals often make reference to ‘Animal Rights’. This can mean nothing more than that animals should be treated with kindness and compassion, but it can also have a more technical meaning. I take ‘rights’ to mean moral claims or entitlements that place obligations on human beings. When I discuss ‘animals’, I am referring to non-human animals.”

Giving an Overview

This bit is usually a little longer, but it need not turn into a mini-essay. Here you are telling the reader what you are going to do, and you don’t actually need to do it. On the other hand, it does need to make a certain amount of sense. For example, anyone reading the following would have trouble seeing where this essay is going (by the way, this is composed from a random jumble of stuff, and I have no idea what the actual view could possibly be!):

“I will argue against this view on the grounds of metaphysics, human nature, and using an argument from Kant. I will consider an objection to my position and refute it.”

Instead, you want to be saying something like:

“I will show that this theory is metaphysically implausible because it requires us to invent strange kinds of entities unlike anything else in existence. This means that the burden of proof lies with the proponent of this theory. Having established this I will show that they cannot meet this burden of proof, because doing so would rest on a false account of human cognition. Finally, I will draw on Kant’s argument from geometry to show that this view must be rejected. The biggest objection to my view is that it is incompatible with Leibniz law, but I will demonstrate that this rests on a misinterpretation of the position.”

Kant (I tried to draw him, and he turned out a bit like Inspector Morse, so just imagine this is Kant as portrayed by the late great John Thaw).

If you can, try to move beyond a simple list (e.g. “I will argue a, then b, then c.”). Instead, think about how your arguments fit together. For example, perhaps you have two ethical arguments and one legal one, or perhaps one argument provides some grounds for doubt, while the next delivers the killer blow (see example above). It may not always be possible, but if you can sketch a kind of shape to your essay that goes beyond a list, it shows that you have a nicely cohesive line of thought.

Motivating the Question

This is where you say why this question (and its answer) matters. This is not always necessary. For example, most people can probably see some value in knowing whether or not God exists, or when it is acceptable for governments to limit free speech. In other cases, it may not be so clear why we should care: who gives a damn about whether noncognitivism is true, or whether colours are physical properties of objects?

Sometimes this might involve saying why the answer has pressing importance to how we live our lives, but this doesn’t have to be the case – perhaps this question hooks up with other larger debates within the subject, or perhaps answering in one way rather than another would have implications that are just darn fascinating. Again, this does not have to be a lengthy discussion (and you may not need it at all) but essays sometimes benefit from the author telling us why we should care about what they say.

Providing Context

Often, this can be done at the same time as motivating the question. For example, if the question plays a key role in major ongoing arguments, the context and the motivation may be the same. Sometimes though, additional context is required in order to understand what the topic is all about. For example, we might have a better understanding of noncognitivism in ethics if we know a bit about G.E. Moore arguing that ‘good’ is undefinable, or about the Vienna Circle arguing that the only statements that could be true or false were those that could be tested empirically or logically.

Sometimes a little historical context can be useful, but make sure that you keep it relevant. It might matter that Hobbes was writing during the English Civil War and the Scientific Revolution if this ties in with the explanation that you will give of Hobbes’ philosophy. Unless you are going to psychoanalyse him (and you probably shouldn’t) it almost certainly doesn’t matter that Hobbes had an older brother, or that his dad was hounded out of London for getting into fisticuffs with fellow clergymen (those vicars were wild).

Explain What a Good Answer Would Involve

This is something that you should consider adding in longer essays. Maybe, for example, you think that a good refutation of the view in question has to provide a plausible alternative, or perhaps your answer needs to explain some phenomenon. What are the major objections to which a good answer would respond? Typically, you would include this part before you outline your argument, so that you can say what a good answer to the question would look like, and then show that you are able to provide such an answer. Quite aside from being good intellectual practice, this makes you look very clever indeed – well done you!

Some Things to Avoid

  • Don’t use overly florid grandiose language, and never talk about ‘the dawn of time’. Any references to ‘aeons’ or ‘countless millennia’ are probably unmerited. Basically try to avoid anything that sounds like it could be read aloud by this guy:
  • You are making general statements at this point, but try not to be vague.
  • Dictionary definitions can look rather clichéd, and don’t usually add much (although there are some exceptions). Philosophical definitions are usually more specialised. Usually it is better to offer definitions in your own words, but if you need to quote a definition, find one in the relevant philosophical literature.

Additional Tips

  • I can use the first person, and so can you! Unless your lecturer or tutor tells you otherwise, it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘I’, particularly in an introduction. In school we are sometimes taught that we should never do this. The reason is that we are supposed to be providing an objective set of facts and arguments, and not simply expressing how we feel about something. Clearly you shouldn’t say “I don’t find this convincing” and leave it at that, because I can read that and think “Well, that’s fine for you, but I happen to be convinced”. You need to back up your statements with arguments and evidence. However, when you say “I will argue that rule utilitarianism is more plausible than direct utilitarianism”, that is an objective fact, because you will argue it (you will – I believe in you!)
  • Finally, it is absolutely fine to write your introduction last. Some people find it useful to write a stand-in introduction just to get going. Personally I like to do this: the firm sense of intent in stating what I will do gives me the psychological motivation to go ahead and write the bloody thing. Sometimes though, what I have written ends up looking rather different from what I set out to do. So even if you write an initial introduction, you might want to go back and rewrite it at the end.

Right! I think that’s about it. Time to work on my introduction…