How to Research Philosophy: A Guide for Students
Whenever you want to learn more about some topic, you will need to conduct your own research. This page has three things that will help you do this. The first is a set of procedures to use when you are researching. The second is a list of ways to find sources for your research. The third is a guide to incorporating research into your writing.
Step 1: Formulate the Question
Before you research anything you have to decide what you want to research. Sometimes you will already know your question, because you will be writing a research paper for a class and your professor will have provided you a prompt, like "is the Humean theory of motivation a plausible theory?" Other times, you will need to come up with your own question. You may already have the question in mind, because you thought it up while reading something or thinking about something. If you don't have a question, your question should be "what question do I want to research?"
Step 2: Find a Source on the Topic
Now that you have your question, look for a source relevant to your question. If your question is very broad, like "what question do I want to research," then it will be easy to find a source: just start browsing through websites, books, and philosophy journals until something pops out at you. If you have a more specific topic, use one of the strategies below to locate a source.
Step 3: Evaluate the Source for Trustworthiness and Relevance
Once you find a source, you need to assess whether it is going to be helpful. If the source is not a book published by an academic publishing company (like a university press) or an article published in a peer reviewed journal, you should be wary about whether it is a trustworthy source. To find out if a source is relevant, quickly skim through the source and check to see if it is talking about the topic you are interested in. If it isn't, you should go back to step two and find a new source.
Step 4: Read the Source
Read the source, or at least the relevant parts of the source, the way you read any other philosophy book or article. See the Resources page on my website for information on how to read philosophy.
Step 5: Repeat Until Satisfied
Repeat steps two through four until you feel like you have done enough. How do you know when you are finished? One option is to read everything, which is sensible if you are researching a very narrow topic and there are not many sources to read. Usually, though, you cannot read everything. Instead, you should concentrate on reading the most important sources. Sources can be important because they are very relevant to your topic, because they are very popular and influential (which you can tell by how many other sources cite them), or because they are very recently published. Beyond that, there is no clear answer to how many sources to read. Do not spend all your time reading: eventually you need to stop so that you can start writing. You can always read something later on if you find that your research has any gaps.
Step 6: Write your Paper
Now that you have done the research, you can write your paper. See part three of this guide for information about including sources in your writing, and see the Resources page on my website for information about writing more generally.
Ask a Philosopher: If you know a philosopher who is knowledgeable about the topic, you can ask them for their thoughts about what you should read. If you don't know any philosophers who know about the topic, you can ask any other philosopher (like any of your professors) for a list of philosophers, or you can do some other kinds of research and keep your eye out for people who are still alive and who have written about the topic. Then, you can reach out to those philosophers through email.
Go to the Library: If you have a good idea about what your topic is, or, better yet, you know of the title of a book that is relevant to your topic, you can go to a university library and look in the section that is related to your topic. You can find lots of helpful books by doing this. Sometimes there is no section specific to your topic, or your topic is spread out over multiple sections. In these cases, just browsing the shelves is less helpful.
Ask a Topic Librarian: Librarians know a lot about how to do research. If your university library has subject librarians, look for the one who focuses on philosophy.
Read Citations: If you are getting your topic from a book or from an article, typically there will be citations that you can investigate to find more sources. These are often in footnotes at the bottom of the page or end notes at the end of the article, the book chapter, or the entire book. Try to find a very recent article or book (published within the past two or three years) with a lot of citations, because this will help you find the most popular articles and books on the topic.
Use Google Scholar: Google Scholar is a powerful search engine for searching scholarly works. Try typing in words or phrases related to your topic. If your words or phrases are giving you lots of results that aren't related to philosophy, you can add the word 'philosophy' to your search. When you find something on Google Scholar, you can click the "Cited By" link under it to find things that cite that article or book. This can help you find other relevant works.
Use PhilPapers: PhilPapers is a website that organizes books and articles in philosophy according to their topic. Many of the topics also have short descriptions that point you to things that you can read to learn about the topic. PhilPapers can be very helpful for finding key articles or books to get you started, and for figuring out whether your topic fits in to a topic that is already popular in philosophy.
Use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a website that has lots of articles on lots of topics in philosophy. It can be helpful for finding topics that interest you and for finding references that are related to your topic.
Find a Bibliography: Sometimes you can find a topic-specific bibliography online if you use a search engine like Google. For instance, this is a bibliography on the philosophy of physics that I found by typing "philosophy of physics bibliography" into Google. Try to look for bibliographies maintained by philosophy professors, as these are less likely to lead you astray.
Once you have done your research, you will want to incorporate it into your paper. Just because you've read something doesn't mean you should cite it in your paper. Often you will read more things than you will cite in the paper. There are three main ways to use research in your paper: literature review, as interlocutors, and as objects of analysis.
Literature Review: Sometimes it can be helpful to include a section near the beginning of your paper that summarizes what other philosophers have to say about your topic. This is often called a "literature review" because you are taking all the things philosophers have said (the "literature") and you're going through it and summarizing it (the "review"). This can be helpful if the literature has a number of sides in a debate and you will later pick a side, or if the topic is complicated and it is helpful to explain the work that has already been done. You do not always need to do a literature review. Often it is better to just get straight to what your contribution is. If you're unsure about whether to include a literature review, you should ask your professor.
To do a literature review, you should take the relevant books and articles and then briefly summarize them for the reader by explaining what they have to say about the topic. If the different works break down into different categories, you should make this clear, and you should explain what those categories are (perhaps by giving them names, if they don't already have them). It is important to be fair and objective in this section. You are not trying to argue for or against anything. You are just explaining what others have said. You don't need to include every single work in a literature review, but you should try to include many, because you only need a literature review in the first place if you need to summarize lots of other works. If you are only going to summarize a few (say, three), you can probably skip the literature review section and just summarize the works whenever it makes the most sense.
Interlocutors: Philosophy is a conversation, and the most helpful part of research is finding people to have the conversation with. Your paper will be much stronger if your points occur in conversation with other philosophers. To do this, you should explain what you think, what other philosophers think, whether they agree or disagree with you, and why. If they disagree, it is usually good to explain why you think you are correct, perhaps by making reference to other philosophers who agree. A good research paper will tell the reader not just what you think but also how your thoughts line up with the thoughts of others.
Object of Analysis: Sometimes your research paper will be focused on a particular work or philosopher. For example, you might be writing a research paper about what Kant thinks about conflicts between duties. If this is your topic, then much of your research will consist of figuring out what Kant said, and talking about that. You will include quotations and citations from Kant and from people who have made claims about what Kant is saying. If this is the format of your research paper, you should make sure to include lots of quotes and summaries and to explain these in a lot of detail so that your reader can understand what your source is talking about.
When you do research, you will encounter lots of ideas from lots of different people. Any time your writing includes ideas, words, phrases, or anything else that comes from someone else, you need to cite the source that it came from. Failure to cite your sources is plagiarism, and for a variety of reasons plagiarism is not good. You must always avoid plagiarism in academic writing. If you are unsure how to cite a source, consult a style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style.