I am writing an essay to outline one of my philosophical theories. My current argument builds upon the work of others that are in the fields of neuroscience, statistics, epistemology, and ethics. If I want to explain my argument am I expected to provide a summary of the two works I am building off of? They are by no means popular so I intend to provide a basic summary but how long would one typically make it? Does this differ in the case of a book v. an essay?

Additionally, am I expected in any way to justify my belief in these works as a basis for my theories? My argument is based on the assumption that aspects of these theories are correct (and they may or may not be). Is it common in modern academic philosophy to explain to the reader that the assumptions in my argument rely upon the theories expounded in these works and then move forward from there? Or do I need to provide justifications of my own?

Other Information: I do not have any sort of degree in philosophy but I have been writing some essays and have been trying to follow the general academic guidelines used in the field. I don't know if any publisher will take it seriously but it's a personal project so I may just self-publish.

  • 1
    What do similar papers (published papers in the field) do?
    – ff524
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:12

3 Answers 3


Your citing standards are not just defined by the standard procedures of your journal or the literacy level of your audience, but also by whether the source you cite argues the point, assumes the point, entertains the point as one of many possibilities, or even whether the source exists solely to address the point you are making.

If you wish to quote Douglas Adams to argue that life is meaningless, very little summary is required. As we see in Douglas Adams's parable of the supercomputer and the meaning of life, "meaning" is not a property of life, and requesting a calculation of "meaning" results in meaningless answers, such as "42".

This is a summary not of a book or a story, but of a paragraph of a book. It is a tiny story within a larger story. Those who have read it will appreciate a chance to chuckle, but everyone will see the connection whether they've read it or not, and there will be no need to summarize further.

But if you need to challenge the straightforward interpretation, for example if you're disagreeing with another author who cited the source, more detail is required.

  • "The anti-meaning school of thought emphasizes the results of Douglas Adams's supercomputer", - summarize opposition,
  • "which was asked to calculate the meaning of life, and which concluded that life is meaningless." - summarize opposition's summary,
  • "But in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" it was understood that meaning can exist even when it cannot be calculated, which is why the story called for an organic invention (earth) to discover the meaning of life" - re-interpret the source,
  • "indeed, what is "meaning" if not "value which defies quantification"?" - summarize your interpretation of the source.

Your style and level of detail should walk a delicate balance between risk and rigor.

If you publish a correlation between lung cancer and smoking, hardly anyone will care what the more rigorous points of your argument are; the established topic lacks the risk to be interesting. You won't get published unless your writing breathes new fascination into the old question.

Don't worry about being fascinating or risky if you're presenting a correlation between chocolate consumption and IQ though; a fifth of your audience will label you a clown or classist before they read your work, so everyone will have plenty of energy to read every sentence and citation you write as they scan for technical mistakes. Just focus on accuracy and rigor, that'll be your bottleneck to even being published.

So my final answer is, if you justify too much, you'll be boring. If you justify too little, you'll be stupid.


I don't have any idea what your specific competencies and training are (though you point out it's not philosophy) nor what the goals of your book are. My main thought reading your question is that you might not grasp what it is academic philosophy does.

In terms of your summarization question, my answer doesn't differ much from the others already present (2 at time of writing). I would say summarization is not important per se but if you're integrating works across multiple disciplines or depending on idiosyncratic readings or esoteric claims, then you need to spell those out.

To put it another way, if I'm writing something that builds on Kant, no one needs to read my summary of the Critique of Pure Reason but I do need to spell out the claims I am getting from it. Odds on these claims will not be universally accepted by Kant scholars, so I will need to explain where I'm getting these interpretations relative to his text.

The basic rule of thumb is that you need to state everything you need to make your argument and preferably nothing further. Anything further, such as debatable readings that don't affect your argument cuts the number of people who will look at your main point (being sidetracked by other things).

This gets even harder if you're working with philosophers from disparate fields, because I may be up on my Kant and Hegel, but I'm not up on my neuroscience. So if you write a book on Kant and neurophilosophy, I"m going to need way more neuroscience than Kant where as a neuro-philosophy scholar may not be so familiar with standard interpretations of Kant.

My best guess based on the list of fields that you're integrating is that what you want to write would probably not be publishable within academic philosophy. It sounds too big and too off about what philosophy does just from the field list. I would guess you're grouping together some things you believe into a whole you think makes sense of a lot of things (I could be completely wrong about what you're hoping to do by integrating so many fields). If the goal is in part a personal project, you're probably better off avoiding academic philosophy.

Later, you ask about "essay" versus book. As an element of academic writing, I don't know what a "essay" is per se. You might mean "journal article", but journal articles need to be very limited in scope to fit within publication lengths. Books, on the other hand, can be longer and integrate more ideas together. But again, generally these sort of integrative works should be written by people who are experts in at least one of the areas (not experts as in possessors of degrees but experts as in thoroughly knowledgeable).

  • My training is in neuroscience/bioinformatics; I am in the final year of my PhD. You might remember me from that post you deleted about Georges Bataille on the philosophy SE (post was too meandering). I am writing a critique of his philosophy by comparing it to other fields in what I hope is a unique interpretation. This includes complexity theory, neuroscience, and machine learning - fields I am familiar with in my work. It surprises me that such cross-disciplinary integration is uncommon to academic philosophy since empirical evidence from the sciences can support philosophical arguments.
    – syntonicC
    Dec 1, 2015 at 17:04
  • Even if I cannot get published by an academic press (which seems likely), I would still want to follow as many academic conventions as possible. It's a personal project but I still want it to be professionally done.
    – syntonicC
    Dec 1, 2015 at 17:19
  • I don't remember that re phil.SE, but there could be any of a number of reasons a question isn't a good fit there. If your hope is to write like a philosopher, then you should take some courses in the philosophy department at your university while you can (or at whatever university you do you post-doc).
    – virmaior
    Dec 1, 2015 at 22:27

The level of detail in which you should explain work upon which you base your own is fundamentally given by the following consideration: How much do you need to explain so that your anticipated reader gets a complete picture?. In other words, when writing anything at all, your first question should always be "Why is my audience?". If you know this, then you do not need to worry as much any more about what the "standard" is in a field, what is "expected", etc: you know how much is necessary to make your readers understand where you are coming from.

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