Your essays should typically contain an introduction, three main paragraphs and a conclusion.
- What the general topic is about (and why it matters)
- What the question is asking about within that topic
- Who is on either side of the debate of the essay question
- What you are going to argue and why.
Your essay should contain three paragraphs of this structure:
Part 1: A view on the question. An argument/theory/perspective/scholar for or against the question. Begin each paragraph by introducing the relevance of the view for answering the question.
Part 2: A criticism of the view in part 1.
It is then optional to go back and forth some more with a defence of part 1 and then, again optionally, a counter to that defence, etc.
Part 3: Give your judgement as to which side of the debate is right and why.
Part 4: Link back to the question using the language of the question.
Sum up the part 3 evaluative judgements of each paragraph. “Because X happened in paragraph 1, and Y happened in paragraph 2 and Z happened in paragraph 3, my overall conclusion is:….”
“A view on the question”. This will be a scholar, theory, argument or approach which has a view either for or against the essay question. You need to explain their view which involves explaining why they think they are right. Lay out their argument for their position. This will often involve AO1 explanation, especially for the first paragraph. It’s fine to start paragraphs 2 and/or 3 with a criticism though.
Some topics involve more of a range of scholars than others. For example, in the Soul topic, for “a view on the question” to start a paragraph you could choose from: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Ryle or Dawkins. In topics which are more focused on one or two scholars, like the Augustine topic, your choices for the views on the question would be more likely to feature sub-topics of Augustine’s theory. For example, if the question is something like “Assess Augustine’s account of human nature”, his views on: The Fall, Original sin and Grace/Predestination could all be “a view on the question” as to why Augustine thinks he is right in his account of human nature.
General vs specific essay questions. Some essay questions are general. E.g. “do religious experiences prove the existence of God?”. However some are specific, e.g. “Assess the approach of William James to religious experience’.
If the essay question picks out a specific sub-topic that it wants you to evaluate, then paragraph 1 must start with that topic. For example, if the question is on religious experience and asks you to evaluate William James, you could bring up other thinkers like Otto and do a paragraph on him, but for it to be relevant to the question you would need to bring him up for the purpose of evaluating James. The purpose would be to see whether Otto’s approach is better or worse than James’. This can only be properly done if you have already explained James’ approach.
“A criticism of that view”. Simply put, after you have explained the view on the question your paragraph starts with, you need to criticise it. This can either involve using a scholar/perspective/theory who criticises/disagrees or a stand-alone criticism.
Part 3: giving your judgement. After part 1 and 2 you will have given two sides of a debate on a particular evaluation point. You then need to give your judgement as to which is successful. Start this section of the paragraph by saying “X’s argument is successful/unsuccessful because…” and then give a reason, before going on to part 4 and explaining how that side being un/successful answers the question.
The simplest way to do part 3 is just to do a final criticism of whatever the previous argument was in your back and forth in part 2. If part 2 was just one criticism, no back and forth, just do a criticism of part 2 which would therefore be a defence of part 1. If this final criticism is a scholar, you need to avoid juxtaposition (see below).
It’s also an option for part 3 to explain why you think part 2 is right. It’s hard to do this without just repeating part 2 however – you have to try to identify and spell out the logic of the argument of part 2 and say why you think it is successful without just repeating part 2 again. That is difficult, which is why it’s easier to just criticise part 2, or the argument which ended the back and forth in part 2 (if you did back and forth) – or simply to present the final argument in the back and forth as your judgement, so long as it wasn’t a scholar’s view!
Avoid juxtaposition. Whenever using a scholar/perspective/theory for evaluation, whether for a criticism or defence or counter-defence, etc, you then have to avoid juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is when you put two things next to each other. It’s basically like saying “Here’s a view on the question, and here’s an opposing view”. That is not yet evaluation. Evaluation is when you say which side is right and why.
It doesn’t matter how many back and forth you do in your evaluation, whether it’s simply a view on the question and one criticism or a longer chain, the crucial thing is to avoid juxtaposition; avoid ending the evaluation by stating what a scholar’s views are, even if those views are that the original view is wrong. You need to end your evaluation with your judgement on the success/failure of a theory/perspective/scholar’s views, having given a good reason for that judgement.
Evaluation = who is right, and why?
Make sure your evaluative mini-conclusions at the end of each paragraph which link back to the question fit your final conclusion.
Always end a paragraph in a way that fits your conclusion. Your intro should say what your concluding answer to the question is going to be. It’s incoherent for you to conclude one side of the debate is correct if you have a paragraph which ends on a criticism of that side. This is because just leaving it like that makes it look like you don’t have an answer to it, which means you haven’t managed to justify your conclusion. However, it is acceptable to conclude a side is correct even if you end a paragraph with the evaluation that one of the points in support of it fails, so long as when ending the paragraph in the link back to the question you make clear that it’s not an essential point. For example, you could agree with Hume that the teleological/design argument fails, even if in one of your paragraphs you end up evaluating that one of his criticisms of it actually fails. So long as he has at least one criticism which you evaluate as successful, then the design argument fails (if that is indeed what the criticism shows).
Linking back to the question is not as simple as it seems. To get the best marks, it’s often not enough simply to end a paragraph with “therefore this side of the question is true/false”. Often, the final AO2 evaluative point you made to end the paragraph doesn’t exactly say that. It’s important that you notice exactly how your evaluative point is helping to justify your conclusion. For example:
It may be that you have merely undermined one of the arguments for one side of a debate, rather than completely proven the other side. For example, imagine the question is “does the soul exist?” and you spend a paragraph evaluating Plato and decide his arguments for the soul fail. It would be wrong of you to link back to the question by saying “Therefore, the soul does not exist”. Really, what your paragraph has actually shown in a deeper more precise sense is “Therefore, Plato’s argument for the soul fails”. If you evaluate all the arguments for the soul as false and the arguments against the soul as true, then in your final conclusion you would be justified in claiming that we have best reason to believe that the soul does not exist.