Philosophy term papers are almost always argumentative essays: you’re making a claim about a topic you think is important and then supporting that claim with philosophical argument and evidence, in an attempt to convince your reader that your claim is both true and important.
Starting any kind of paper is hard, and philosophy papers are no different. Focusing on the purpose of your paper’s introduction will make this task less daunting.
Think of your introduction as a lawyer’s opening statement to a jury. If you’ve ever watched a good law drama, you’ll notice that in the opening statement the lawyer is basically doing four things: grabbing the jury’s attention in a provocative way, and then telling the jury three things: what s/he is going to prove during the trial, a summary of how s/he is going to prove this claim, and why his/her claim is important and/or relevant. Notice that opening statements are short on details but long on promises; the details will be presented during the trial to come, and if the lawyer argues his/her case well, he or she will win the case.
Same thing here: your introduction is a promise to your audience with four parts: provocation, claim, summary of proof, and importance/relevance. You don’t need a lot of detail here; that’ll come in the body of the paper, where you’ll lay out in detail the proof for your claim. In sum, an introduction just points to the road you’ll be taking in the rest of the paper, where you’ll deliver on your promise.
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How to write an introduction: Your introduction must be no longer than 1-2 double-spaced pages, depending on the assignment. Your introduction should do four very specific things:
1. Provocatively but concisely introduce the topic so as to entice the reader into the essay.
First, re-read your Term Paper Assignment.
Second, and just as importantly: Don’t start your introduction with tired clichés (“Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of all times.” Zzzzzzzz). Don’t kill your reader’s interest in the first line! Relate a short anecdote or create a provocative turn of phrase relevant to your topic as a way of introducing it. The point here is to seduce your reader into wanting to read the rest of your paper.
2. Plainly state your specific claim or thesis about the topic.
Be straightforward here: state what your claim about this topic is: “In this essay I will claim . . . ,” or “This essay will argue that . . . ,” etc.
3. Outline in a clear and orderly way how this claim will be supported in the body of the paper.
Here you want to give a brief summary of the kind of evidence you’ll be introducing in support of the truth of your claim, and the order in which you’ll be presenting this evidence: “This essay will support this claim by first looking at W, then drawing on X, and finally relating Y’s argument about Z, all of which augment our overall claim . . . ,” etc.
4. Straightforwardly state the relevance and importance of this claim.
Relevant and important to whom? to what? In other words, why should anyone care about your claim, and why?
A vitally important point: All introductions are provisional introductions. When you go on to write your term paper, you can change or modify your claim! When you’re writing well, you’re thinking while you’re writing—it would be pretty weird if you didn’t change your mind about your topic in some respects. When you’ve finished the first draft of your paper, re-read it to make sure it has kept the promise(s) you made in your introduction; if not, address these deficiencies in your paper or re-write your introduction. So the main point here is to say that you shouldn’t feel “locked into” a claim once you’ve written it down—you can always change your mind as your thought evolves. In fact, this is a sign of deep reflection, which to a large degree is what philosophy is all about.