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Guidance for Writing Essays for your Upper Level Political Theory Class

For guidance on writing essays for your upper level political theory class, begin by reviewing the following:

  1. First, check out my guide to “Writing an Essay for your Intro Political Theory Class with Arash Abizadeh.” That guidance is for an introductory political theory class, not for an upper level course, so I certainly don’t expect you to follow the advice there mechanically, but it may help you organize your thoughts.

  2. Second, check out the excellent guidance provided by Professor Alison McQueen on how to write a political theory paper at:

  3. Third, check out my guide to “How (Not) to Use ChatGPT in Your Undergraduate Political Theory Class,” much of which applies to graduate classes as well

  4. I add some basic guidance below:

For an advanced political theory class there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of papers you might choose from: papers that advance a substantive thesis about some topic and papers that advance an exegetical thesis about some text. (The guide to the intro class assumes we are dealing with the first kind.) The first kind advances a substantive claim on some theoretical or philosophical question: for example, that democracy is the best form of government, that Locke is wrong to think there is a right to revolution, that tacit consent does not ground any political obligations, that there is a human right to subsistence, etc. An exegetical thesis, by contrast, advances a claim of interpretation about a particular text: for example, that Hobbes’s theory of the social contract actually commits him to freedom of conscience, that Hobbes is a proto-liberal, that Locke would defend the government’s right to redistribute wealth, that Rousseau is an enemy of participatory democracy, etc. Of course these two kinds of paper often overlap in practice, but they are in principle distinct.

Please note that in either case your paper must have:

  1. an explicit thesis

  2. explicit arguments in support of your thesis

  3. good explicit objections to your thesis and/or arguments; you must of course deal with these objections and show that they do not undermine your thesis

If you choose a substantive thesis, you can still engage texts in the history of political thought, by using these texts as a source of arguments, theses, etc., with which you may agree or disagree.

If you choose an exegetical thesis, you will need to pick a thesis about which there is some plausible controversy. For example, a paper defending the thesis that Locke is a social contract theorist is not very interesting at all. (The contrary thesis would of course be very interesting, but it would be rather difficult to defend and render plausible.) A good source for exegetical (or interpretive) disagreement is obviously the secondary literature; of course you are welcome to use it to deepen your understanding of a text. But you should always be sure that your paper remains a paper about the primary text, not the secondary literature. You should never give a secondary piece of literature as a reference to show that Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. believe X. You need to give evidence from the primary text for that. Your reference to the secondary literature only serves as evidence for what such-and-such interpreter of the primary text believes.



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