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 they are going to prove during the trial, a summary of how they are going to prove this claim, and why their 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 their case well, they 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.
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 in three paragraphs:
First Paragraph. Remember that the idea in starting any paper is to be dramatic and reach out and grab your readers by both ears and pull them into your paper. Nothing is more unimaginative than starting a paper with “Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of all time” or some other such clichéd pabulum. Yaaawn. Boooring! You need to make your readers care about what you’re about to say, and nothing is more off-putting than starting your paper with some general, innocuous statement swiped from Wikipedia. Begin you paper in a way that will make any reader who starts it want to read the whole first page and then keep on reading. Your first paragraph should be provocative!
Second Paragraph. Remember to write a good transition by picking up a fragment of an idea from the end of your first paragraph and starting this paragraph with that idea. And then develop this paragraph to a point where you make your claim explicitly in a straightforward declarative sentence. “My claim is . . .”
And then, immediately following, explicitly summarize how you will be supporting this claim in the body of the paper to come. (You don’t have to lay out the whole case here. We’re not looking for details here, just a summary.) “I will support this claim by . . .”
Third Paragraph. Again, after writing a good, flowing transition from the second paragraph to this one, explicitly convey the importance and relevance of your claim in a straightforward declarative sentence. In outline and in summary, state the larger importance of your claim. Why should your audience care about what you’re about to say? “My claim is important and relevant because . . .”
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.
© D. R. Koukal