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11/04/2012

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David Morrow

If I knew what made a philosophy paper "good," I would probably be better at getting papers published. So you should probably ignore everything I say. With that caveat, I'd say that several of our reader's criteria are far from sufficient, although they do contribute to goodness in papers. (I'm not saying that the reader thinks they're sufficient.) And some other criteria are missing from his or her list.

Papers can show a good grasp of the literature, be beautifully written, and/or draw unnoticed connections between works without being good papers. I don't want to read 8,000 words to learn about interesting papers or see connections between existing works. And if I want to read something beautiful, I don't read anything by professional philosophers.

In thinking about what the senior faculty in my department regard as a "good" paper, two criteria stand out: The paper should involve a complex chain of reasoning for a philosophically interesting (i.e., non-obvious and non-trivial) conclusion, and that chain of reasoning should not be obviously flawed. Note that complexity differs from cleverness; an argument can be clever but simple. Being obviously flawed differs from having a flaw that is obvious.

To elaborate on the last point, I'll report my own experience with Anselm's argument, since the reader mentioned it. I'd heard about Anselm's argument many times and thought it silly. Then I read (a translation of) the argument itself, and I thought, "Wow! I'm not convinced, but that's an incredible argument!" But even though it's hard to say exactly *what* is wrong with the argument, Gaunilo's response makes it seem pretty obvious that *something's* wrong with the argument.

Incidentally, if you Google 'Gaunilo' (e.g., to make sure you've spelled his name correctly), you'll get pictures of Gaunilo, Anselm, Norman Malcolm, Charles Hartshorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Joel Feinberg.

David Morrow

I should add that I mean for my comment to address "good" in Hare's "inverted comma" sense. That is, I'm not necessarily expressing my own views about what kinds of philosophy papers I think are good. I don't know that I can express my own criteria. Rather, I'm suggesting some things that others in the profession seem to regard as criteria for goodness in papers.

Rob Gressis

I wrote in my question that:

"I think just about every paper I've ever read does at least one of (1)-(6), so I think just about every paper I've seen published in philosophy, or even heard presented, is good."

The above implies that having just one of (1)-(6) is enough to make a paper good. I think I should have written that just about every paper I've read has at least one of (1)-(6), so every paper I've read is at least somewhat good. But I would go farther and say that every paper I've read, save for that one I rejected, is at least not bad. Maybe even stronger, every paper I've read has two of (1)-(6), so is at least pretty good.

As for whether an argument is "obviously" flawed, obviousness is reader-relative. So, I've read papers attributing some view or other to Kant that I do not think he held, and that I think he obviously didn't hold, given what he write in book or essay Y. That said, I can understand why the author might have missed book or essay Y, given the vastness of Kant's corpus. Consequently, the fact that I think the argument is obviously wrong doesn't lead me to conclude that the article is bad.

I think a better criterion for an article's being bad would be "(1) the paper contains an argument about X that most philosophers who are specialists in X would be able to see is obviously wrong, AND (2) the article is mainly about X."

Thitherward

I'd call a philosophy paper crap if it assumes a major premise that I don't already support and doesn't tell me why I should assume it. A lot of political philosophy falls under this category: people keep going on about what the existence of rights implies, but where do the things come from? But that's a sufficient condition, not a necessary one, so it's not very interesting. (If it assumes a *minor* premise that I don't already support and doesn't tell me why I should support it, it's not necessarily crap. [The typical undergraduate coverage of?] Rawls isn't crap, but why should I buy that justice is the first virtue of social institutions?)

I almost said that another criterion for crappiness is opaque writing, but that's crappiness of the *paper*, not the arguments contained therein, and those are two separate things. Every time I've tried to read Foucault, I've come away thinking it's crap, but watching his debates shows that his *arguments* aren't crap.

But what I've heard from others seems to be generally that things are crap when they take up points of view now discredited within the mainstream of the discipline or deviate too far from the discipline's style: Carlyle is crap because he's a Hegelian and Hegelians are crap, Nick Land is crap because it's exceedingly difficult for someone who reads only [analytic] philosophy to figure out what he's on about, and so on.

Rob Gressis

Thitherward,

Your criterion seems too strong to me. Lots of papers and books don't have time to justify some of their major premises (or maybe the author justified the relevant major premises elsewhere), but they may be excellent for all that. For instance, if you're a dialetheist, you might have book problems with any paper that just assumes classical logic, but surely it would be too quick to describe the paper as crap?

Thitherward

I'd be fine with just a citation, and that's not even necessary if it's something like modal realism or the Categorical Imperative (or classical logic, I guess? I'm not a logician, so...), where it's obvious where to go for the background arguments.

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