Lessons in essay writing from Mary Astell

I was reading Jacqueline Broad’s excellent book on Mary Astell, when I came across Astell’s six rules for thinking, and decided that they were in fact perfect advice for students writing philosophy essays. So here they are (from Jacqui’s book, pp.31-32 – references from footnotes are in square brackets).


  1. To ‘Acquaint our selves throughly with the State of the Question, have a Distinct Notion of our Subject whatever it be, and of the Terms we make use of, knowing precisely what it is we drive at.’ [Proposal II, 176]
  2. To ‘Cut off all needless Ideas and whatever has not a necessary Connexion to the matter under Consideration’ [Ibid] This entails that we ‘Reason only on those things of which we have Clear Ideas’. [177]
  3. ‘To conduct our Thoughts by Order, beginning with the most Simple and Easie Objects, and ascending as by Degrees to the Knowledge of the more Compos’d.'[Ibid]
  4. ‘Not to leave any part of our Subject unexamined.’ [Ibid] This entails ‘Dividing the Subject of our Meditations into as many Parts, as we can, and as shall be requisite to Understand it perfectly’ [178].
  5. Always to ‘keep our Subject Directly in our Eye, and Closely pursue it thro’all, our Progress.’ [Ibid]
  6. ‘To judge no further than we Perceive, and not to take any thing for Truth which we do not evidently know to be so.’ [Ibid]
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