A classification essay is a typical academic assignment you can often encounter in philosophy – after all, classifying and categorizing ideas, concepts and phenomena is one of philosophy’s declared purposes. As is obvious from its name, the purpose of a classification essay is to classify, i.e., divide something into groups or categories. However, the division itself is rarely the primary goal of the paper – usually it is just a tool used to reach some other end. For example, if you classify philosophical schools of thought, you can use their attitude towards a specific concept as your main organizing principle, and use this categorization to prove the connection between this factor and some other characteristic features of the schools that share this attitude.
Due to its versatility, classification essays are often used to check the ability of students to think critically, analyze information and draw their own conclusions. If you study philosophy, you can expect to deal with this type of work at least occasionally – and the purpose of this guide is to teach you what to do when you have to write something of this kind.
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As usual, it is one of the most important parts of writing an essay – a well-chosen topic defines its overall success or failure. However, in case of classification writing it is even more important. It is not much of a problem to decide what you want to classify (sometimes your instructor will outright assign you a general theme). The real difficulty lies in deciding how you are going to do it – in a sense, you have to plan out your entire essay as early as you choose a topic. You cannot decide, “I am going to found my classification on this organizing principle and modify things as I go along”. If you do so, you can run into a situation when your organizing criterion does not fit your subject matter in all respects, and changing it means rewriting the whole essay. In other words, when you choose a topic for a classification essay, you have to do the following things right away, without moving further on with your task:
Finding a topic that meets all these requirements can take a while. You may find certain brainstorming techniques like mind mapping or rapid ideation to generate some ideas. One of the most effective ways to do so is set yourself a time limit and start writing down ideas, aiming at producing as many of them as possible, without worrying if they are good, bad or silly. After the timer runs out, go through them, choose the one that suits you most, polish it and start writing. Eventually, you should end up with something like this:
To classify the set of things into categories, you need a single organizing principle or judge them by. For example, if you classify 20th century philosophers, you can choose their perception of the meaning of human life to be this factor. Before you proceed, make sure you can neatly classify the entire set of things using only this principle, without involving any additional criteria if some items do not fit into any particular group. You may use a combination of several criteria, but you should use them consistently throughout the entire essay. In the aforementioned example, you can additionally point out the religious views of the philosophers you study and connect them with this or that attitude to the idea of meaning of life.
Before you start writing, you have to decide what categories your classification is going to include and whether they meet your requirements. Make sure you do not leave out any meaningful subsets of things. However, try to keep the number of categories to a minimum – if your classification requires you to single out more than a half a dozen of them, you probably have to change your criteria or unite some subsets into larger categories. An essay is too small a text to pay sufficient attention to so many separate groups of things.
In a thesis statement, you boil down the main message of your essay to a single sentence. However, please note that the purpose of a classification essay is, counter-intuitively, not to classify things. Classification is usually a mere tool, a means to an end, and this end is usually to prove something based on the classification you make. Therefore, “In this essay I will classify the Western schools of philosophy based on their perception of the value of human life” may be a valid thesis statement, but it is not particularly interesting. Such classifications have been done before dozens of times, and you are unlikely to add anything significant to them. However, “In this essay I will classify the Western schools of philosophy based on their perception of the value of human life and prove that this attitude is connected to their perception of experience” is a much more interesting specimen.
The introduction to any good essay begins with a hook. Starting your paper with words in the line of ‘Modern philosophical schools can be subdivided into the following categories’ is not a very good way to provoke the reader’s curiosity and motivate him/her to read on. A hook is a first sentence aiming to do just that. The most popular ways to start an essay include:
After that, you have to provide background information – just enough for the reader to be able to follow the rest of the essay. Finally, lead up to your thesis statement.
Writing about philosophy is by definition heavily dependent on using textual sources. Even if you simply have to classify schools of philosophy or famous philosophers, you have to back your claims by quoting, summarizing or paraphrasing the texts by other authorities in the field. However, you have to be extremely careful when doing so. Using too many direct quotes makes it look like you do not have thoughts of your own. Paraphrasing can alleviate this problem, but many students misunderstand what it means. It is not enough to simply replace some words in the original quotations with synonyms or rearrange their order. Instead, you have to restate the information from the source using your words only and, preferably, using a different structure.
It is not enough to enumerate the categories into which your classification divides the things you analyze and describe their distinctive characteristics. To give your classification more substance, you have to support your claims with examples. When describing a category, add at least one or two examples illustrating its important features.
The body of your essay should not be simply an enumeration of the categories followed by their descriptions and examples. You should logically connect them to each other and the rest of the essay in some way. For example, if your classification is based on how this or that philosophy thinks about the concept of death, you can list them in a meaningful manner: e.g., from the schools of thought that do not focus on it at all to those for which this concept lies as the center of their worldview. Similarly, if knowing about one category makes it easier to explain another one, list the former first and refer to it when you discuss the latter.
You can make the connections between paragraphs look smoother if you use transition words like ‘therefore’, ‘unlike’, ‘differently from’ and so on.
After you finish writing, your first impulse will probably be to hand the text in and get rid of it as soon as possible. Resist it – the first draft is rarely ideal. Do not start revising it right away as well – this way you are likely to miss many mistakes. The best way is to take a break and sleep on it – after you return to your essay the next day, you will not even have to apply any special effort, as a fresh perspective will allow you to see many imperfections that eluded you before.
Ask somebody (best of all, a fellow student, because he/she is better suited to understand what you are writing about and notice if something is amiss with it) to read your essay and tell you what he/she thinks. Is it easy to follow? Is your classification comprehensive? Is your logic sound? Did you miss anything? Repeat this step after you complete all the other steps of your revision, especially if you significantly change your essay in the process.
When revising your essay, start with things that can potentially require bigger changes. First, check if the overall structure is sound and if the essay reads smoothly as a whole. Do you effectively introduce the topic in the beginning? Do you stick to your thesis statement throughout the essay? Does your conclusion reflect your introduction? Do you logically connect individual parts of the essay to each other? Are there any inconsistencies, omissions or repetitions?
It is sometimes said that the art of writing lies not in writing per se but in the ability to cut away what you do not need. Follow this principle. Look through the essay, read it carefully and evaluate every word, sentenced and paragraph based on how valuable and effective it is for moving your argument forward. If something is not necessary, do not hesitate to remove it. It covers everything from superfluous words (like unnecessary adjectives and adverbs) to turns of phrase to entire paragraphs that are not relevant for the argument as a whole.
Finally, go through what is now close to being the final draft and check if it for grammar and spelling mistakes. If you know that you tend to make particular kinds of mistakes, make a list of them and reread the essay several times, each time focusing on a single type.
Online grammar and spelling checking tools like Grammarly and Ginger Grammar Checker can help you a great deal at this stage, but make sure to recheck their suggestions and never take them at face value. While they are good at noticing simpler mistakes (those you simply overlooked yourself), when it comes to more complex structure and more obscure rules, they tend to make blunders of their own.
While writing a classification essay may appear like a straightforward task at first, this job has multiple pitfalls and challenges, especially when you are dealing with philosophy, a discipline that deals with mostly highly subjective opinions and judgments. We, however, believe that this guide will make your work at least a little bit easier – follow it, focus on getting your facts right and you are sure to succeed.