Abstracts and Introductions (WritePhilosophy Guide)

Abstracts and Introductions (WritePhilosophy Guide)

Where to start? Writing an introduction or abstract for your philosophy paper can be daunting – and with good reason. The first paragraph of your paper is also the most important. Before those opening lines are through, a reader will have made up their mind about the value, or lack thereof, of your work. While what comes next could sway their opinion (if they give you that chance), changing someone’s mind away from their initial impressions is a significant task. This can be to your detriment or to your advantage, depending on whether your introduction is strong or weak.

There are three things that we see all across student essays which always make an assessor cringe and put you on the defensive from the outset. These are:

Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher, born in around 428BC in Athens, whose work has been extremely influential in Western philosophy.

Unnecessary biography. Unless your paper is in intellectual history, writing about the life, times and influence of Plato (in which case, you’ve come to the wrong place!) this material is irrelevant. It does nothing to defend your thesis, which is the sole aim of your paper. Cut it and nobody will miss it. As for claims that the philosopher whose work you will be discussing is “one of the most important/influential/brilliant minds in philosophical history”, unless your essay will focus on proving this claim, it really shouldn’t be the first thing you say.

The question of who should rule is one of the most important philosophical questions.

Vacuous importance. A rumour has made the rounds that it’s vital to establish that your paper is very important, drawing the reader in by emphasising the vast significance of the topic. Your reader already believes that the topic is important or at least interesting – that’s why they’re reading your paper, or have set you this assignment. While there is merit to establishing the relevance of your contribution to the topic at hand, this needs to be done with specifics, which detail what it is that your paper contributes to this debate. You don’t need to show that the debate itself is important, but if you really feel the need to, simply declaring it so won’t suffice. For that, you’d want specific examples of the real-world significance or impact of the debate.

Last, and definitely least:

Since the dawn of time, man has argued over the question of who should rule.

Lost to history. Having lost count of how many times I have read this phrase in first-year undergraduate essays, I sympathise with the inability to offer specifics. But so vague and inconsequential a phrase has no place in your paper. Rhetorical flourishes might add a little spark to your paper, but should be attended to once the substance of the piece has been thoroughly finalised.

In each of these cases, it’s clear what has happened. Students are often faced with blank page syndrome. A bare Word document and a flickering cursor which demands that you type something – anything. So you type something meaningless, inconsequential, indisputable, just to get you started. That’s all fine, but you must go back and take it all out once you’re in flow. If you really must type something to combat the fear of the void, try this:

In this paper, I will argue that…

It lacks finesse, but this seven-word phrase is everything you need to get your paper going. At the very least, there must be one sentence, somewhere in your first paragraph, which you could add this phrase to, and make perfect sense. Your essay does one thing: it defends your thesis through a single line of argument. Your opening should be the single most important thing in the whole paper: that thesis. You will hardly ever go wrong by opening your paper with your thesis statement. If you want to start with “In this paper, I will argue that…”, then that’s absolutely fine. Plenty of well-written, published academic papers by professional philosophers do exactly that, and their readers likely thank them for it.

The rule is that you want your reader to be in absolutely no doubt what your thesis is before the end of the first paragraph. If you can accomplish that in the first sentence, more’s the better. Admittedly, sometimes your thesis will be a little more specific or convoluted, and you’ll need a sentence or two of preamble so that the thesis itself makes sense to the reader the first time they encounter it. But always get it in before the first paragraph is up. If you really can’t, consider whether you have understood your material and formulated your thesis clearly.

The rest of the abstract

Now that you have one sentence of your abstract nailed down, your thesis statement, what else should you include? The other thing which is ineliminable is a summary of your argument. You should explain in broad strokes how you intend to demonstrate the truth of your thesis to your reader. Before they go beyond that first paragraph, they should have a decent expectation of what lies ahead. What are the key premises in your argument? Which are controversial, which will you spend time defending? Are there any assumptions you will be making?

Related to, but distinct from this is an overview of the structure of the paper itself. In what order do you accomplish these tasks? Is your paper divided into a series of sections? If so, what does each section achieve which adds to the argument you are making? In laying out the structure of your paper, you can largely dispense with anything which is obvious or common across philosophical papers (e.g. there’s no need to explain that you will begin by stating definitions of key terms, or that you will end with a conclusion).

You might not need anything more than that. You have your thesis and your argument, which is everything that really matters in your paper. But you might want to add a little more. Situate the reader in the context of the philosophical literature that informs your work. If your paper responds to or draws upon the arguments of other philosophers, you might want to make that clear, citing that author, at this stage. If they in turn are writing in response to another source, then you can lay out that line of intellectual back-and-forth, until you trace it back to the original question that this line of research is trying to answer.

Beyond that, you may wish to make some form of claim for importance to motivate the reader to value your paper and read on. This must be specific, in two senses. First, it must be about the importance of this work, not the debate in general, couched in terms of how the truth of your thesis impacts on this debate. Second, it should have some specific real-world implications. If this debate informs policy, practice, behaviour or research, then spell out with a clear example a way in which the truth of your thesis would impact that. Your reader wants to know that they (or maybe someone else) will have to change what they think or what they do after they’ve read your paper. That’s what merits a claim to importance. If you can’t think of ways in which the truth of your thesis might have this impact, that’s fine. You don’t have to include this kind of claim, and trying to do so without grounds will ring hollow. You can largely assume that a reader who set an assignment or fished out a paper on this topic is interested enough to go on.

Composing an abstract

The only way to learn to write good abstracts or introductions is to practice. But we can gain some understanding by analysing and dissecting abstracts written by philosophers in published works. Let’s focus on the paper which has been an example running through this guide so far: James Rachels’ celebrated 1975 paper Active and passive euthanasia from the New England Journal of Medicine. Let’s look only at the abstract of this paper.

The traditional distinction between active and passive euthanasia requires critical analysis. The conventional doctrine is that there is such an important moral difference between the two that, although the latter is sometimes permissible, the former is always forbidden. This doctrine may be challenged for several reasons. First of all, active euthanasia is in many cases more humane than passive euthanasia, Secondly, the conventional doctrine leads to decisions concerning life and death on irrelevant grounds. Thirdly, the doctrine rests on a distinction between killing and letting die that itself has no moral importance. Fourthly, the most common arguments in favor of the doctrine are invalid. I therefore suggest that the American Medical Association policy statement that endorses this doctrine is unsound.

Rachels, J. (1975) ‘Active and passive euthanasia’, New England Journal of Medicine, 292(2): 78-80.

There’s so much to like here. Within the first sentence, we know what Rachels’ topic is: the distinction between active and passive euthanasia. Though, strictly speaking, we might’ve got that from the title. Rachels then defines the ‘conventional doctrine’ against which he will argue. He systematically lists the arguments he will make against the conventional doctrine – first of all, secondly, thirdly, fourthly. By the end of the abstract, we know exactly what arguments he will make and in what order, which gives us the structure of the paper. Finally, he offers a thesis statement: “the American Medical Association policy statement that endorses this doctrine is unsound.” Thesis statement and importance claim rolled into one: not only will he be smashing down a distinction between active and passive euthanasia that is well-used in medical practice and policy, his doing so will invalidate the official policy of the American Medical Association. If you have any interest at all in this topic, you can’t not read this now.

But if we dig a little deeper, we might find some things we could tweak. This actually looks a little more like a draft abstract than the final polished article. With an editorial eye, take a look at that first sentence, the one that gives the crucial first impression:

The traditional distinction between active and passive euthanasia requires critical analysis.

This is not a particularly interesting statement. It establishes little more than that some people have drawn a distinction between active and passive euthanasia. It is vague about who (“traditional” is something of a weasel word, enabling the writer to escape specificity). This is a shame, because at least some of the people are the American Medical Association, a massive and influential organisation. “The distinction between active and passive euthanasia upon which the American Medical Association bases its euthanasia policy requires critical analysis” might be a second go at this. Now it’s a more startling and engaging statement, with an underlying threat: if you don’t read this, then you – like the AMA – might be deeply misguided. After all, so major and conscientious an organisation has committed this error.

But “requires critical analysis” is similarly insipid. This phrase doesn’t even specify that the distinction lacks critical analysis, which would add some urgency. Given that Rachels will suggest that the distinction “has no moral importance“, leading to “decisions concerning life and death on irrelevant grounds“, it is surprising that he chose such temperate language. Given that his title already told us we’re dealing with the distinction between active and passive euthanasia, he might’ve been able to cut this sentence already, and lead in with the high-impact stuff that comes later.

The second sentence, beginning “The conventional doctrine” again rather buries the lede. This is the doctrine of the American Medical Association and many besides, which only becomes clear in the final sentence. If something is important and widely endorsed, getting that across quickly will get us slavering to know more. Much the same goes for “This doctrine may be challenged for several reasons.” This is a passive voice construction, which does not explicitly say that this paper actually will challenge the conventional doctrine. Moreover, “challenged” is inconclusive. It suggests that he will raise some noisome arguments, but not that he will knock down the distinction so hard that “the American Medical Association policy statement that endorses this doctrine is unsound“.

Were I Rachels’ editor (and to be clear, this is a superb piece in almost all respects and could benefit little from my attentions beyond this uncharacteristically mild opener), I would offer this advice:

  • Put the thesis front and centre. If you have dismantled a widely-used moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia and shown it to have no moral importance, lead with that.
  • Make it clear from the outset that this has serious implications for medical practice and policy, with specific reference to the invalidation of the AMA policy.
  • Replace some of the filler sentences (“This doctrine may be challenged…”) with a little bit more to explain how the four strands of argumentation come together (which they do) to compel the conclusion, rather than standing alone as four mere potential challenges to the conventional doctrine.

As a last bit of pedantry, I’d suggest that the American Medical Association policy statement is not unsound. Arguments are sound or unsound, valid or invalid. Statements are true or false, correct or incorrect. You can claim that the AMA statement is wrong, or that the arguments for that statement are unsound.

A very useful exercise which I set for all of my philosophy students to improve their abstract writing is to read through Rachels’ paper (presently freely available here) and rewrite his abstract accordingly, to foreground the thesis, clarify the structure of the argument (as opposed to arguments) and emphasise the practical implications of his claim. [As a bonus question: what precisely is Rachels’ thesis? It may not be exactly what he says it is…]

This gives us a few principles for abstract or introduction writing:

1. Lead with your thesis.

2. Explain how your argument will demonstrate the truth of that thesis.

3. Summarise the structure of the paper (ideally, this will be evident from your overview of the argument).

4. Give a brief precis of the context into which your work fits.

5. (optional) Offer specific examples of the importance of the thesis to this debate and/or to practical matters.

You do not need eloquent turns of phrase or grand claims to achieve this. If anything, they are more likely to detract from that to amplify your claims. Ultimately, the more precisely and concisely you can get all of this done in your introduction, the more space you have, and the more time your reader will have, for the good part: the argument itself.

Let’s look at one more example, from the same topic. Natalie Abrams’ 1978 paper responds to Rachels’ arguments under the selfsame title of Active and Passive Euthanasia. She writes:

This paper is divided into three sections. The first presents some examples of the killing/letting die distinction. The second draws a further distinction between what I call negative and positive cases of acting or refraining. Here I argue that the moral significance of the acting/refraining distinction is different for positive and for negative cases. In the third section I apply the above distinction to euthanasia, and argue that mercy killing should be regarded as analogous to positive rather than negative cases. On the basis of this, I then support active rather than passive euthanasia.

Abrams, N. (1978) ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’, Philosophy, 53(204): 257-63

Abrams’ abstract has no frills, no context, no claims for importance beyond her own endorsement of a particular view. She could equally have cited American Medical Association policy statements, used the Rachels paper to show that this distinction is contentious to the point that some (Rachels) have suggested it should be changed, and noted that her argument would invert that policy. But instead she focuses on her thesis and her argument. It’s not inspiring but it’s clear as glass and leaves us in no doubt at all as to what comes next. The only reason not to read on is if you’re already sold.

But that first impression is ugly. “This paper is divided into three sections” is a rough first sentence. If Abrams flipped the running order here, we would have a more compelling opener. With barely any modification, we get:

This paper shows that the moral significance of the acting/refraining distinction is different for positive and for negative cases. On this basis, I argue that euthanasia should be regarded as analogous to positive rather than negative cases, and therefore that active but not passive euthanasia is morally permissible. The paper is divided into three sections. The first presents some examples of the killing/letting die distinction. The second draws the distinction between negative and positive cases of acting or refraining, showing that the moral significance of the acting/refraining distinction is different for positive and for negative cases. In the third section I apply the above distinction to euthanasia, and argue that mercy killing should be regarded as analogous to positive rather than negative cases, supporting active rather than passive euthanasia.

This is a little repetitive. But by leading with the most interesting thing, the thesis and its implications for the euthanasia debate, this turnaround delivers an abstract that can’t be ignored. Layering in some of the significance in terms of the impact on actual policy might elevate it further. Again: it’s a worthwhile exercise to draft your own abstract for this paper, and try it out for other papers which you are reading as a way of summarising the argument for your own reference whilst practicing a pivotal writing skill.

Using your abstract to improve your writing

An introduction or abstract is not only a necessary component of your finished product, it can also help you to improve the structure of your paper. These tips can help you use this tool:

  • If you know what you want your paper to achieve, write your abstract as a statement of purpose, laying out what you intend to achieve. Keep it open in a second document on your screen, and refer back to it with each paragraph that you write. Always ask: does this contribute to what my abstract said I’d do? If not, you probably should cut the paragraph. If you don’t keep referring back to your abstract in this way, you risk veering off your topic and expending valuable time on a line of argument that won’t help you to establish your thesis.
  • When the body of your essay is written, move your introduction to a separate document and read the paper without it. Now, write a new introduction which summarises exactly what you read. Compare your new and old introduction. Is there anything missing in the new version which was in the old? If so, do you need to add that into your paper? Is there anything in the new version which wasn’t in the old? Has this taken you off on a tangent? Do you need to restate your thesis to make it fit what you’ve actually written? Draw on both versions to find the best phrasing for your abstract.
  • Use the sentences of your abstract as a rough guide for the paragraphs of your essay. If you have, say, a five-sentence abstract, you can try to use each sentence as the opening for each paragraph of the body of your text (deleting it or editing it later to prevent direct repetition). This should help ensure you stay on topic, and deliver exactly what is needed for your essay. If you find that you have to add a new paragraph in the midst which isn’t described by your abstract in order to make your paper’s structure work, consider adding a line for it into your abstract.
  • If you have the body of your essay in place but still can’t write an introduction which states a clear thesis and summarises the argument, take this as a sign that your paper lacks a clear focus.
  • Compare your introduction and your conclusion. The two should match very closely in terms of what is claimed – albeit the conclusion in the past tense. If there is any deviation between the two, this is a sign that your paper has wandered off track. You can either rewrite those sections which have strayed to bring it back to your original thesis, or rewrite your thesis and abstract to match the essay you have actually written.

Latest edit: 13/04/2021 by CJ Blunt