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Writing a philosophy paper is your opportunity to think through and reflect on ideas on your own so that you arrive at greater clarity about your own values. The purpose of this essay assignment is to help you to develop a deeper, more nuanced and complex, understanding of philosophical ideas and the reading material, and to develop and formulate your own philosophical position.

Your paper should formulate, develop, and support a substantive thesis that addresses the question prompt and gives your essay focus and direction. In other words, your aim is to support a position by engaging in conceptual inquiry and analysis. This task requires reconstructing arguments, synthesizing relevant concepts, recognizing complexity, defining terms, and showing that you understand how related ideas are connected and make sense of each other. A good paper is not simply a summary of lectures or class discussion, and it goes beyond empty generalities. Your paper should reflect your own independent and well-supported insight into the material.

Essay Question

Your task is to respond to the question prompt and write an essay that is around 1000 words (typed and double-spaced and uploaded to Canvas in a Word doc).

Topic Prompt

The clergymen to whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” have called his actions “‘unwise and untimely’” (King 1). Using Socrates’ metaphor of the gadfly, King writes that the purpose of non-violent direct action is to create tension in society (King 2) and that this tension is the pathway to “positive peace,” which he defines as “the presence of justice” (King 3). Why, according to King, does positive peace require justice rather than the absence of tension? In what specific ways can we compare King’s discontent with, and critique of, the value of moderation (exemplified for King by the “white moderate”) to Socrates’ philosophical practice? How do King’s explanations of the importance of “creative extremism” and “creative tension” accord with the value of a “well-examined life” (38a) that Socrates puts forward in the Apology?

Your essay should work with 2 sources: King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Plato’s “Apology”, As you work through your own thinking on this question, it will help you to notice where authors agree or disagree with one another. Your goal is to explain King and Socrates’ ideas in terms of one another so that they are mutually elucidating. Try not to think of the prompt as a list of disparate questions; instead develop a thesis (a claim you want to make in response to the questions) that gives you a pathway to integrate your ideas into a coherent whole and build relations among them. When developing your thesis, think about what you want your paper to accomplish (what interpretive position are you arguing for?).


Whenever you either use a direct quote, or paraphrase a quote or idea, or use someone else’s ideas, you must cite your sources. For this paper, you should only use assigned texts (no outside or secondary sources). You can cite by using parenthetical references: that means you cite the text by placing the author and page number (or line number if it’s a reference to Plato) in parentheses after the quote or specific point. (See citation examples in question prompts.)

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism is any form of borrowing the words or ideas of someone else without appropriate attribution. If you look at any secondary sources in the process of writing this paper, you must include them in a bibliography, and you must acknowledge specific points where you are borrowing words or ideas that are not your own with a full citation.

Writing Guidelines

The practice of writing is also the practice of learning, thinking, and communicating.

Before you begin writing, and as your writing is underway, reread the texts, take lots of notes, and be attentive to passages that help you understand and clarify arguments and ideas. Reading for meaning is one of the most important features of writing well.

Your essay should have a thesis. A thesis is your position on a topic, question, or problem: What argument or interpretation do you want to support in your paper and what is its significance? This thesis should be the organizational focus of your essay and provide the framework for your elucidation of ideas and arguments. It is important that you present your thesis in a clear and lucid manner early in the essay.

By giving your essay a clear direction, your thesis should enable you to concentrate on the specific points in the texts that are most salient to the ideas you develop, and help you avoid simply trying to say everything or summarize in a general manner. Your thesis should help you to put your ideas in an order that makes sense and has a clear trajectory and organizational plan.

Figure out what your main ideas are and make sure you offer both textual support and clear definitions for key concepts.

A strong essay is one that thoughtfully interprets and explains the ideas being discussed while being careful to anchor those ideas with textual support. Be explicit in stating how you think this evidence upholds your claims. The work of the essay is to support your thesis (and your interpretations of the texts) by way of arguments, examples, concepts, definitions, and textual references. To avoid vagueness in your argument, refer to and cite specific passages and ideas in the readings that support your thesis.

You also want your essay to be clearly organized. What is the right order in which to present, explain, and analyze claims? How do the concepts you are discussing hang together and develop?

Be sure to proof-read your paper for typos, spelling, and grammar.

Criteria for Evaluation (See Syllabus for Evaluation Scale)

A successful paper will:

  • Present a specific and substantive thesis
  • Offer well-reasoned arguments in support of claims
  • Demonstrate a nuanced and complex analysis of ideas: interpret and explain (rather than merely summarize) the central ideas and arguments under consideration
  • Make thoughtful and well-supported connections between different concepts, synthesizing ideas and showing how they hold together
  • Offer clear definitions of crucial concepts, supported by the texts
  • Provide textual support, with appropriate citations, for claims made
  • Be appropriately specific and focused
  • Communicate effectively, by being clearly and carefully written and well organized
  • Show active and engaged understanding of the readings and ideas and show insight into their significance

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