How to Write a Philosophy Essay
To write a focused paper that argues for a particular point of view, we must pick an issue and
take a position on that issue. While we could invent an issue and position out of the blue, if we
pick an issue already discussed it is easier to stay focused and relevant to the subject matter.
Let us say that a thinker or school of thought has taken a position on an issue, and we want to
argue for or against this position. Let us assume that there are rival thinkers with opposite
positions on the issue. Let us call the first position A, and the opposite position B. While A and
B can agree on any unlimited number of points, they must disagree on at least one point. To
begin an essay, we briefly state the two positions before we take a position ourselves.
Example 1: Kant argues that morality is anchored in good beginnings (intent, morals, duty) Mill
argues that morality is anchored in good ends (happiness, utility, consequences). Both Kant
and Mill believe one should use rules and act for the good of society, but Kant believes that one
should never break rules while Mill believes rules only serve as tools to achieve good
Example 2: Mencius argues that human nature is essentially good, while Hsun Zi argues that
human nature is essentially evil. Both agree that society is necessary for self improvement, but
Mencius argues that society is rooted in human nature while Hsun Zi argues that society is
corrective to human nature.
Example 3: Hindus argue that the self/mind/soul is eternal, while Buddhists argue that the
self/mind/soul is temporary/mortal. Both agree that karma determines rebirth, but Hindus argue
that we always retain our particular individual self while Buddhists argue that extinction of the
self and identity with the whole can be achieved through effort and practice.
Now that we have stated the issue and the two opposite positions, we can take a position or
stand on it ourselves. There are five possible positions to take between positions A and B.
The first position is ‘All A, no B’. This is an ‘all and none’,‘absolute’, ‘categorical’, or ‘black and
The second position is ‘Mostly A, but also some B’. This is a ‘some and some not’, relative,
‘grey’ or ‘grey area’ position, yet it still gives dominance to one side versus the other.
The third position is ‘Some A and also some B’. This is a ‘some/some not’, relative and ‘grey
area’ position that gives dominance to neither side.
The fourth position is ‘Mostly B and also some A’. It is the second position, but favors B.
The fifth position is ‘All B, no A’. This is the first position, but entirely for B.
If we examine the issue and find ourselves agreeing with position A, we need only consider the
first three. We must choose one of the three based on how much we agree or disagree with the
opposite position B. In a debate with an answering opponent, we must also judge based on
how effectively and in what position our opponent will argue for B.
If we believe that there is no argument or evidence for B, we can argue ‘All A, no B’. The
advantage is that this is the most forceful and least conceding position to take. The
disadvantage is that any effective argument for any B, even some little B, makes this position
seem ignorant and overly generalizing.
Ex: “Mill is entirely correct. Rules, morals and laws exist simply for the good of humanity.”
If we believe that there is some argument or evidence for B, but there is more argument and
evidence for A, we can argue ‘Mostly A but also some B’. The advantage is that any argument
for B can be incorporated into our argument and the position still maintained. The disadvantage
is that we must concede from the start to ‘some B’, which gives the opponent a foothold. We
are still putting our money on A, but we are hedging our bets.
Ex: “I side with Mill, but Kant also has a point. While rules, morals and laws exist for the good of
humanity, it is also true that they must be upheld in many situations where there will be bad
If we believe that there is equal argument and evidence for A and B, we can argue ‘Some A and
also some B’. The advantage of being on both sides is that any argument or evidence can be
incorporated into our argument. The disadvantage is that this does not forcefully argue for any
particular position, and our opponent can argue we are not taking a stand on the issue. The
counter to this is we are taking all sides and viewing the issue as a whole.
Ex: “Kant and Mill are two sides of the same coin. We should equally uphold rules, morals and
laws while also questioning their effectiveness when we repeatedly fail to achieve good ends.”
To write an effective essay, pick an issue from the material and argue for one side ‘all and none’
(position 1), for one side ‘some and some not’ (position 2) or both sides equally (position 3).
Remember to use examples from the lectures, reading and your life experience, but also
remember to focus on developing your own thought and argument rather than taking time and
space repeating what has already been argued and written by others.
The goal of the paper is not to simply take a position, but to take a position effectively. If you
take positions 1 or 2, demonstrate why your are taking position A over B. If you take position 3,
argue why neither A nor B is sufficient without its complimentary opposite.
After studying with the lectures of "Shamanism, ancient Egyptian thought and ancient Indian
thought," I need to take a position on this issue, supporting or criticizing it. For example, my
argument is that human perspective changes over time. This essay should have a clear argument,
evidence and supports. I need to use example from my lectures(in the uploaded file), readings and
The following is what my professor says, "Essays should focus on a single idea or issue, clearly
stating your position at the beginning and then using evidence and reasoning to support your
position. You are welcome to use your own life experience, current events, historical examples, or
examples from fiction, but make sure it is relevant to your argument. I am looking for creative and
critical thinking, not a report summarizing the material we study."
Intro Philosophy 1: Human Thought, Shamanism & Ancient Cosmology
Before diving into the philosophers of ancient India, Greece and China, we must look at the early
stages of human knowledge, wisdom and civilization to understand what philosophy is and
where it comes from. First, we will consider the positives and negatives of human thought as a
general frame for understanding philosophy and all systems/cultures of thought. Second, we will
look at shamanism as the basic worldwide culture out of which all cultures emerged. Third, we
will look at early city states (focusing on ancient Egypt and its wisdom) to see how cultures
developed as they grouped together in the first empires.
The Positives and Negatives of Human Thought
Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often
useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is
negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is
negative. Note that “positive” does not always mean happy or good and “negative” does not
always mean sad or bad. When we say “order” and “chaos”, closure (stability) sounds good and
openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say “freedom” and “restraint”, openness
(unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or
order, openness is bad (“chaos”). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good
(“freedom”). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It
depends on context, position and location. In many ways, places and times, happiness and
solidity are good and in others they are bad.
No particular thing is perfectly good or completely solid. We judge the table (and the
wheel, as Laozi the Daoist will explain soon) to be simply solid and the space around it to be
simply empty, but no table is immortal or unbreakable, and no space is a perfect vacuum. Even
outer space is full of dust, light and everything else in the universe. In the same way, particular
things that are good or make us happy do not always make us happy and do not make everyone
happy. Often, things that make one person happy continue to make another unhappy because
they make the first person happy.
Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief
(positive) and doubt (negative). Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or
questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often
looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and
questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of
thought, dogmatists (also called positivists today) lean towards answers and affirming the truths
of the system (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards
questions and doubting the truths of the system (“Are there certain facts, morals and truths?”).
According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle
between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both
When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its
evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both
dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and
unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and
questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers
in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they
are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have
to question the very system that they stand for.
Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact
wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve. The wise, though rarer
than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom has similarity across
all cultures even though their beliefs can differ widely. While the word ‘philosophy’ is an
ancient Greek word, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and sages in any
It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as
they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death
for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle fled Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a
foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome
foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher,
complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would
be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of
What is philosophy?
Philosophy has been called “thinking about thinking”, questioning and answering the
very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as
Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, who we will study) critically examined their own thinking and
their traditions of thought and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society.
While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient
thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.
The Greek word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”. What is wisdom? The German
philosopher Hegel tells us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and
cooperate on the individual level just as dogmatism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the
social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge
and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while
reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set
understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both
understanding and reason to produce both knowledge and wisdom.
The Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that
individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or
only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Pontilla’s book Aztec Thought and
Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of
knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?”, “Is there an
afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?”, and “Can we ever know these things?”. Indeed, when
we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as
wisdom, in ancient Greece and ancient everywhere else. No society would survive without
pushing in both directions. Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they
are of agreement.
Only a few years ago, the Attorney General of Arizona crafted legislation against
teachers who provide programs celebrating Latino culture as they are dangerously “antiWestern”, and pointed specifically to teaching that Aztecs and Mayans had philosophers as
Leon-Portilla argues. Apparently, it is biased and thus un-Western to teach that concepts such
as, “You are my other self” (much like Confucius, who we will study) and “Continue to
investigate things endlessly” (much like Heraclitus, who we will study) is evidence that the
Aztecs and Mayans had philosophy. It is perceived as a threat to American culture to equate the
ancient Mayans with the ancient Greeks. It is not just the Attorney General who thinks this, but
academics with PhDs who continue to provide the ground for this belief in their publications.
The most primitive societies value individual achievement, which often becomes the subject of
legend. It is difficult and frightening to oppose common opinion, but worth it. While many
think that Western thought is more individual and free than other traditions, arguments over the
meaning of common knowledge and traditions are found everywhere. In the logic class, we read
a text by the famed anthropologist Malinowski who studied the tribes of Papua, New Guinea in
the 1940s. He asks, “Are primitive people logical?”, and he argues that they are. Human
language typically has words for ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘if-then’, and all the operations of ancient Greek,
ancient Indian, and modern European logic. He gives an excellent example of a tribesman
tripping and falling, accusing an evil spirit of causing it, and his fellow tribes-people rebuking
him and saying that he is merely clumsy.
Many reputable books state that the ancient Greeks were the first to understand things in
terms of cause and effect, which is ludicrous. Demons and spirits were thought to cause things
by the ancient Greeks and many ancient cultures long before them. It is also commonly held that
the ancient Greeks such as Aristotle invented logic. Not only did ancient India have talented
logicians in many schools of thought, but as Malinowski argues you can see people in the most
primitive cultures arguing rationally, systematically and hypothetically (“If that were
true…”). Consider the following argument: “Because all elevators play jazz music, jazz is the
Devil’s playground, and one should avoid the Devil, elevators are to be avoided.” You can
follow this argument because it is logical. As we learn early on in any modern logic course, an
argument is logically valid if the conclusion follows from the premises, and it does not matter
whether or not the premises are true. You can construct logical arguments that include the
premise, “all puppies are green”, which is useful to show how logic works. The elevator
argument is Aristotle’s first syllogism, and it does not appear that he invented the form but rather
examined it critically.
Tribal Shamans and Ecstatic Quests
Before humanity settled down into civilizations, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in
tribes of dozens to hundreds of individuals. While beliefs vary between tribes, our ancestors
shared similar beliefs about spirits as the invisible forces behind the visible in nature and
ourselves, a system of thought known as animism. While many today believe that we modern
and civilized people are beyond superstitious beliefs in invisible spirits, we could also consider
the view that our species never got beyond animism, but rather the invisible spirits became more
complicated along with our living arrangements. For the last thousand years, Christians and
Muslims also claimed to be beyond the superstitions of nomadic tribes they encountered. From
an evolutionary perspective, organized religion and institutionalized science are ancestors of
animism. The French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno LaTour claims that it is we, the
Tribe of the Moderns, who are the most superstitious and mythological people yet on the planet.
Shaman is a Siberian word that means ‘one who knows’, the earliest authorities. Life is full of
problems, and across cultures we consult experts to explain the forces behind things and then use
the invisible forces of good against the forces of evil, such as using reason and wisdom to fight
ignorance and stupidity in a philosophy class. Consider that a “scientist” is one who “sees” and
“divides” in the Latin, and that philosophy and theology used to be the highest of the sciencias.
The Shaman is the one who not only holds the traditions of knowledge but who seeks new
answers to problems. The shaman is both the preserver of the old and the seeker of the new, the
one who keeps the traditions but also searches for new answers when the old traditions do not
In tribal culture, traditional knowledge and wisdom is often kept and passed on in the
form of stories or narratives. These stories explain the world and help people with their
problems. The wise elder can even tell a story they know to be fiction as if it were true to help
others and be passed on to future generations as an answer to a common problem. There are,
however, times when the stories do not help and a new answer must be sought for a problem.
Guided by the traditions but seeking beyond it, experts and leaders must broaden their horizons
and then often become celebrated by new legends.
To do this, the shaman goes on quests, both physical and mental, for the solution and new
knowledge needed to solve the problem. Often the shaman is selected by another shaman or
shamans as a youth who has gone through a near death experience (sickness, struck by lightning,
attacked but survives). The shaman is thought to have an affinity for seeking into the unknown
because they are already experienced in the unknown. Near death experiences give new
To quest for knowledge, the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy known to produce an
ecstatic experience. “Ecstasy” comes from ancient Greek and means “standing outside” (exstasis) or “outstanding”. It is both a going beyond and going within, beyond common reality by
getting deeper into reality. When one is in an ecstatic trance or having an ecstatic vision, one is
standing outside normal reality and seeing it from a different place and context. Consider that
shamans often go down into a cave or up on a mountain to ...
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