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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Philosophy Writing Projects

Page address: http://english.mnsu.edu/vwp/studentresources/writing/philosophy/criticalessay.htm

Philosophy Writing Projects: Critical/Analytical Essays

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This mid-length (five page) paper does what you'd expect such a paper would do: it looks at both sides of an issue or philosophical position. It's not your philosophical position that's at stake in such a paper. It's the quality of the argument that your Philosophy instructor has asked you to "critique." That simply means to look objectively at both sides of an argument. To consider the positive aspects as well as the negative aspects of an argument and to reach an overall evaluation.

Frequently, such a paper is written in the third person in order to distance the writer even further from an emotional connection with it. Additionally, such a paper often begins with a set of criteria (standards of judgement) about what's necessary in order for an argument on a particular topic to be sound.

And, finally, two more qualities of a good "Critical/Analytical" paper emerge: identifying and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of an argument or position, and using evidence to demonstrate those strengths and weaknesses.

"Critical/Analytical" really translates into "evaluation." You need standards to perform that task, along with detachment.

Expectations for the "Critical/Analytical" paper

  • Objectivity—the words "critical" and "analytical" point to a rational process of investigation. You need to keep your own opinions out of that inquiry.
  • Standards of evaluation—"standards" refer to criteria, which are means for measuring the relative value or quality of portions of an argument. Holding up specific claims made within an argument to such standards will help to separate you and your emotions from the evaluative process.
  • Introduction—as always, you need one. This one needs to establish your purpose: that you're focusing on a particular argument, and that you'll be identifying specific standards of measurement to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that argument.
  • Shape—organization matters in this, the most logical and objective of arguments. You'll need to summarize the "skeleton" of the article or argument, including its main points, major pieces of evidence, and conclusions. Then you'll need to clearly identify the standards of evaluation you'll be imposing on the claims in that argument, take them on one by one (with evidence in each case), and reach an unbiased conclusion on the relative quality of the argument.
  • Support—for each claim that is being evaluated, some evidence must be used to demonstrate the strength or weakness of that claim.
  • The strong and the weak—this is the heart of the matter. What's at stake here isn't really the construction of a strong argument. Instead, you'll be evaluating the quality of a specific argument. That will require identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a position.

Types of Evidence

  • Textual evidence—this will constitute the main "stuff" of your "Critical/Analytical" paper. You'll be responding to an article or an argument provided by your instructor. You should be able to build your paper with that alone.
  • Other-textual evidence—you won't, however, be prevented from using evidence from other sources that help you demonstrate the quality of the claims in a philosopher's argument. A scholarly article built on statistical or scientific evidence or other fact-based and tested information could support your evaluation.
  • Personal evidence—unless you can demonstrate that your anecdotal experience (examples, details, observations, the observations of others) carries no personal slant on the argument you're evaluating, you shouldn't use it.

Using Your Evidence

  • Direct quotes—the actual words of the article are essential here. They will either support the article's or argument's claims or weaken them. That goes for the other pieces of evidence you bring to the act of evaluation.
  • Paraphrases—you must paraphrase portions of the philosopher's argument. You can't quote it all; and a reasoned and detached analysis of an argument requires that you know it well enough to put major parts of it into your own words.
  • Summary—a major subdivision of this paper is the summary. That is, you should devote a paragraph of the paper to reducing the contents of the article into its lowest common denominators (i.e., its thesis, its major claims, its major pieces of proof, and its conclusions). You'll need a scattering of little quotes as you move through it, but a careful examination of the claims made in the argument cannot proceed until the bones of the argument are exposed.

Methods of Citation

  • Internal citation—always cite parenthetically within the text of your paper the elements from the article you are critiquing. And, if you're using other sources, cite them internally. Philosophy doesn't require that you use a specific method of citation (i.e., MLA or APA). It merely asks you to adhere consistently to the conventions of the style you've chosen to use.
  • Works cited—you'll need a separate "works cited" page. It should be set up according to the conventions of the style you've used to cite internally.

What's Valued in the "Critical/Analytical" Paper

  • Detachment—emotionally, keep yourself out of this evaluation. This paper isn't about you. It's about the quality of an argument.
  • Logical method—there are variations to work on this form, but you should direct your evaluation at the quality of the claims in the argument, as well as the evidence used to support it. Organize your "Critical/Analytical" paper according to whether you want to stress the strengths or weaknesses.
  • Standards of judgement—without these rational "yard sticks," there can be no critical evaluation. You'll need two or three of them.
  • Summary—if you're presenting your evaluation to an audience that may have less familiarity with the argument you're critiquing than you do, you should front-load that evaluation with a skeletal summary.
  • Evaluation of strengths and weaknesses—consistent with a true and rational evaluation, you need to be looking at the strengths and weaknesses of an argument.
  • Support—an argument's claims are only as good as the evidence that supports it. You'll need to evaluate the presence, quality, and sufficiency of that support.
  • Careful editing—the credibility of your evaluation will erode exponentially with the frequency of mechanical and grammatical errors.

...and What's NOT

  • Opinions—nothing will kill a "Critical/Analytical" paper quicker than bias.
  • Incoherence—logic rests upon a strong structural foundation. Organization and sequential development enhances the quality of the evaluation.
  • Generalizations—demonstration of the quality of an argument's claims require evidence.
  • No evaluative standards—these rational measuring sticks drive the evaluation. No critical analysis can survive without them.

Sample "Critical/Analytical" Paper Assignments

Links to assignments

Sample Student Responses to the "Critical/Analytical" Paper

Links to student reponses.

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