Abstracts and Introductions

In this section, we will discuss how to write abstracts and introductions. Writing an abstract is one of the best tools for starting your essay, and for improving its argument and structure. Most often, when you get the feedback that your essay is too broad, does not go into enough depth, or is too descriptive, writing an abstract will help you get back on track.

In the English philosophical tradition, philosophers are not trying to be comprehensive (say, by covering all positions on moral relativism). Instead, the point of the paper is to make your own contribution to the already existing literature (say, by considering one counterargument to a famous philosopher’s position). In a 1500- or 2000-word essay, this means you have to limit yourself to stating your argument, and your argument alone; others’ positions only come into it if they are directly related to the point you are trying to make. An abstract is a summary of your own argument, and helps you follow the golden rule of essay writing: a good philosophy paper makes an argument that is not only deep, but also narrow.

What does a good abstract look like?

As we said, a good abstract only needs to contain one thing: your argument. Here’s an example of such an abstract:

In this paper I argue (i) that choosing to abide by realist moral norms would be as arbitrary as choosing to abide by the mere preferences of a God (a difficulty akin to the Euthyphro dilemma raised for divine command theorists); in both cases we would lack reason to prefer these standards to alternative codes of conduct. I further develop this general line of thought by arguing in particular (ii) that we would lack any noncircular justification to concern ourselves with any such realist normative standards. Kawall, Jason (2005) “Moral Realism and Arbitrariness”, Southern Journal of Philosophy 43(1): 109-129.

Having read this abstract, a reader knows exactly what to expect from Kawall’s paper. That is what you should aim for in your own papers as well. Unlike in novels, a mystery structure (in which the reader may only find out the butler did it on the very last page) is frowned upon in philosophy papers: you should state your argument early and clearly. The trick: start the very first sentence of your essay with: ‘In this paper, I argue…’

As we said above, a good philosophy essay is narrow. If you find it too difficult to summarize your entire argument in a few sentences, like Kawall does, that’s a sign your essay is too broad!

Some students find an argument-based abstract a bit too bare-boned, and decide to add extra elements to their abstract. There are several elements you might consider adding: context (some discussion of what other people have written about the topic), subject (what kind of philosophy are you doing: is this meta-ethics? philosophy of gender? scientific realism?), and a claim for significance (a line or two that ‘sells’ the paper to the reader). Larry Laudan, in the abstract below, not only talks about his argument, but also about its subject and context:

This essay contains a partial exploration of some key concepts associated with the epistemology of realist philosophies of science. It shows that neither reference nor approximate truth will do the explanatory jobs that realists expect of them. Equally, several widely-held realist theses about the nature of inter-theoretic relations and scientific progress are scrutinized and found wanting. Finally, it is argued that the history of science, far from confirming scientific realism, decisively confutes several extant versions of avowedly ‘naturalistic’ forms of scientific realism. (Laudan, Larry (1981) “A Confutation of Convergent Realism”, Philosophy of Science 48(1): 19-49. )

Having read this abstract, we know a little bit more than just Laudan’s own position: we also know what kinds of arguments he responds to. (Unfortunately, adding too many new elements to your abstract can cause problems as well – we will consider some below.)

What does a bad abstract look like?

Now that we have seen what a good abstract looks like, let us turn to some of the most common pitfalls – things we have seen in students’ essays over the years.

Too descriptive

Here’s an example of an abstract that is too descriptive. A lecturer or teaching assistant reading this abstract will have little hope for what comes next!

In works by Frankfurt, moral philosophy is a key issue. Frankfurt’s counterexamples are hypothetical scenarios, which describe situations where a person’s decision in taking a course of action was their best option, or their only viable one, but which we nonetheless consider to be a decision made in free will. Frankfurt claims that “a willing heroin addict is morally responsible for taking heroin, whereas an unwilling addict is not”. At first glance, his statement seems very sensible and even logical. However, I will attempt to explain Frankfurt’s argument through analysis of his counterexamples.

This abstract tells the reader a little bit about what Frankfurt’s argument is, but does not give any clue as to what the writer herself will argue . The reader won’t expect this student to be making any significant point in what follows.

Bold claims

The second pitfall for abstracts is when a student trying to jazz up their abstract too much. Here’s an example we have both come across in both undergraduate and graduate essays:

Among all ancient observations of planetary motions that seemed to contradict the simplicity of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world system, the most enticing one is definitely the retrograde motion.

Here’s another example of the same problem:

The most important discussion in political philosophy surely concerns Plato’s concept of the philosopher king. Attacking Plato’s key premises, I will argue that Plato successfully defends his argument and that if we look at his proposals in more detail, his argument is both valid and sound.

Or consider this:

Since the dawn of time, man has pondered the question of who should rule. Plato, in the Republic, argues that “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize”.

All three essays start with the author’s claim for significance: they say that the problem they will write about is the most enticing, or important, or that it has been on everyone’s mind, like, forever. This is a typical strategy students use when they don’t know how to start their essay; it tricks them into writing. Unfortunately, leaving such a sentence in your final paper is bound to annoy a reader. What do you mean, this problem is the most enticing? You’d better back that up – and for that, you need to give some psychological evidence (this is indeed the most enticing problem). Of course, a student starting a philosophy essay this way has no intention of proving the claim – it was simply a way of getting started, and they are told that it is good to ‘draw the reader in’. We therefore recommend that you take a good look at the first sentence of your paper once you’re finished. If you find yourself caught in this trap, there’s an easy solution: most of the time, the first sentence can simply be deleted. No one will ever miss it.

How do I get started?

Now that we have seen a couple of examples of good and bad abstracts, let’s get down to the details of writing an abstract yourself. Whether you just got started on your paper, or are trying to write the introduction last, this exercise will help you pin down what you are arguing:

1) Describe your paper to a chosen confidant (someone you know is in the target audience of your paper; generally, aim for an intelligent and interested person who has not read the sources you have). Start with, “My article is about…” and try to give the other person a real sense for your topic, approach, findings, and argument. When you have finished, ask your confidant if they still any comments or questions.

2) Use your confidant’s comments to formulate a description in a more succinct form. Distill your paper’s argument into no more than two or three sentences. (If you feel stuck, consider filling in the blanks in this sentence: “Although …, I will argue …, because …..”. For instance, “Although Frankfurt claims that his examples are instances of free will, I will argue that they are not, because Frankfurt fails to distinguish between X and Y.)

3) Draft your abstract, including any additional elements you think are important (context, subject, significance).

How do I use the abstract to improve a paper?

There are a couple of tricks you can use to make your paper better, now that you have written your abstract. These anticipate some of the advice we will come back to in later weeks, so it is good to check back to these tips every once in a while as your essay writing progresses!

1) Introduction. Re-read your introduction and check if it follows the rules for good abstract writing. Is your introduction written like an abstract, i.e. organized around your argument? Did you start with ‘Since the dawn of time…’, or with ‘In this paper, I will argue…’?

2) Body. Is the body of your paper organized around your argument? Is every point you make directly related to your argument as you summarized it in your abstract / introduction?

3) Support. Have you indeed argued what you said you would, and supported every step of the argument? (We will come back to this in later weeks, when we cover argumentative strategies!)

4) Conclusion. A good conclusion summarizes what you have said in your paper. Do you restate your argument in the conclusion, or does it disappear?