Plagiarism is wrong, no question. Searching the internet before writing a paper might help, but philosophy is done not only in English. There are philosophy publications of all sorts in other languages than English. There are also countless unpublished essays, papers of some students who might have accidentally had the same idea before etc.

My question is, when writing a philosophy paper, how can one make sure that the the idea is really original and has not been addressed by someone else before in one way or the other?

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    The chances of it being original are so small that I wouldn't worry. You might as well assume it is not.
    – user20253
    Sep 19 '18 at 11:14
  • It might help if you contextualize your concern a little more. I wasn't sure if you were worried about being charged with plagiarism for a school philosophy paper or if you had more general concern about the possibility of writing an original philosophical idea. Sep 19 '18 at 17:29
  • Actually both. And I think the former is rather a subset of the latter. What is my paper worth as a contribution to human knowledge, if I can not properly cite previous works, because of their unavailability to me, e.g. by being written in a different language or having been "out there", but only not findable. But if I really need to choose, then as I commented below, I would first go with the former, i.e. "worried about being charged with plagiarism for a school philosophy paper".
    – xaratustra
    Sep 19 '18 at 19:08

Welcome xaratustra. I think you over-rate the importance of originality in philosophy. There are genuinely original papers such as Russell's 1905 paper, 'On Denoting', but a good philosophy paper can have many virtues besides originality.

For instance, a paper might reduce ideas and arguments to coherence. A service is done by organising disconnected material into a logical arrangement. This exhibits analytical power which is valuable and quite distinct from originality.

A philosophical paper can also revive a topic or problem which has fallen into neglect. If you come across a book or article, perhaps from some time back, that addresses interesting questions to which attention isn't now being paid, by reviving the topic or problem you produce a valuable philosophical paper. No originality is involved.

Also I see philosophy as a personal enterprise, a way of inching towards clarity about some topic or problem that I care about. In this spirit the American philosopher, William James, described philosophy as a 'dogged struggle to achieve clarity' - clarity in his own mind. I use whatever materials are to hand in that dogged struggle. What matters is not whether the material is original to me but whether it helps in the struggle.

  • While I appreciate your comment, I would like to express my concern in a somewhat different direction. It can happen in a paper that I offer some arguments, not knowing that exactly the same arguments have been put forward by another person before, in a different time, in a different language etc. Chances are, when human beings think about things, at some point they statistically come to similar conclusions. In the simplest case it would be an unknowingly missing citation, in the worst case an accusation of plagiarism. What to do?
    – xaratustra
    Sep 19 '18 at 14:24
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    The best plan in my view is to indicate clearly if and where you have used material from a specific source. If you come up with ideas out of your own head, then it doesn't matter if someone has had the same ideas before; you did not copy those ideas and since you have not used a source it is extremely unlikely that you will express those ideas in anything like the language of the original ...
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 19 '18 at 19:17
  • ...Plagiarism is usually, in the context in which you are operating, mainly a matter of lifting text without acknowledgement from another writer. This you have not done since you are worried about the similarity of your ideas to writers you have not read.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 19 '18 at 19:19
  • I have marked thousands of essays. It is very rare to come across ideas and arguments that are original. What matters to me as a marker is mainly whether an essay avoids dogmatism, irrelevance and obscurity and shows that the student really does understand the question and has thought-out an answer to it.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 19 '18 at 19:43
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    @Yechiam Weiss. Totally agreed. I meant only that the theory of descriptions set out in the paper was new. But of course it was inspired by reaction against Frege and Meinong, and in that sense like everything else it grew out of an existing debate. Good to talk again. Best : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 23 '18 at 10:31

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