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Getting Started: Finding a Philosophy Topic

The most important resources for Philosophy at Union County College Libraries would probably be the Reference book collection.  It's also the best starting point.  Here are three ways to get started:

  1. Browse the Reference Collection in MacKay Library (Cranford).   Especially
    • Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Ref 103 En19e2)
    • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Ref 100 Ro764)
    • Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Ref 111.8503 EN19)
  2. Search Reference Universe to find any philosophy topic in the Union County College Reference book collection. 
  3. Search the Union County College Libraries' Catalog to find print or electronic books  by or about the philosopher of your choice.

Major branches of philosophy include Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics.  Exploring one of these areas might be a useful approach to finding a topic.

Focus Your Topic

As in all student research, finding a topic that is broad enough to provide a lot of resources and narrow enough to explore in a short paper is a challenge.

You know your topic is too broad if it can be categorized as "All about XYZ."  Topics broad enough to cover "all about" something tend to be very vague and general.  You'll have a hard time writing anything in five to seven pages that your professor doesn't already know.  Causing a professor to snore is hazardous to your GPA.

You know your topic is too narrow, or altogether unsuitable, if there are NO resources for this topic.  Before you give up on it, though, ask a reference librarian for help with your topic.  Often, a librarian can find a way to reframe your topic and help you search more effectively.

Once you have a topic, start with a reference book, especially

  • Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Ref 103 En19e2)
  • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Ref 100 Ro764)
  • Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Ref 111.8503 EN19)

These books contain introductions to many well-established philosophy topics --these are those broad "all about" articles that you read first.  Your job is to learn what has already been said and find a narrower topic that you can explore in greater depth.  As you read and explore, try to think of a researchable question that can be answered in a short paper.  Rather than "Machiavelli's Philosophy"  or "Was Machiavelli Immoral?" (too broad), ask "How Did Political Events in 15th -Century Florence Impact Machiavelli's Philosophy?" or "What Did the President Learn from Machiavelli?"  A narrower topic will actually require you to read more information, to read more broadly, and to read more carefully.  You'll learn more and write a better paper.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

  • Primary sources in philosophy would include works written by a given philosopher. In addition to the author's own writings, primary sources might also include relevant documents from the author's lifetime written by others.  For example, any document written in Descarte's lifetime that sheds light on the political, religious, or scientific developments of that time, or any other ideas that might have influenced Descartes, could be considered a primary source for Descartes.  One of the best places to find primary documents would be in print, in the Library or bookstore.   A print version is preferable, since scholarly editions will include criticism and notes that are very helpful to students.  However, whenever such items are not currently in print, the Internet might be the only place to find them.
  • Secondary sources in philosophy interpret, analyze, and comment on primary sources. They are invaluable in explaining to modern readers the circumstances in which the work was written and received.   Students frequently find that reading secondary sources will give them a lens through which to view a particular work that makes the whole work more meaningful and interesting.   The best places to find secondary sources are books, reference books, and journal articles.  Union County College Libraries contains many books about philosophers or philosophies that can be found through the Library Catalog. Or, after finding a call number, you can browse the shelves  on the  topic of your choice.  The Gale Literary Criticism books in Reference are especially useful for finding essays by known critics that will enhance your understanding and jump start your literary research paper.  Most contemporary secondary sources are copyright protected, and therefore not available for free on the Web. 
  • Tertiary resources include encyclopedias, bibliographies, textbooks, or indexes.  You go to a tertiary source to learn where to go for additional information.  An encyclopedia, such as Britannica (in print or online) or Wikipedia, will give an overview of the subject and then list other sources to use.  A bibliography is a list of books, articles, and other resources.
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