A reader (who is an Assistant Professor at a large public university) sent me the following email this morning:
"I have an issue that I've been wondering about that might be helpful to discuss on your blog.
The issue is this: what makes a philosophy paper good? What makes one bad?
Here's the context: I often hear philosophers make statements like, "most philosophy papers are crap", or "the philosophy journals are clogged up with junk", or, of course, the famous "90% of everything [including philosophy papers] are crap" rule.
My impression, though, is different. I think I've only ever come across two papers that are crappy -- one that I reviewed for publication for a journal (I said "reject") and one that I read about six or seven years ago (which, if I read it again, I might conclude is good). My impression of every other paper I've ever read is either something like, "this is fantastic!" or "I would be very pleased if I had written this" or "this is good". I'm serious: I think just about every philosophy paper I read is good.
So, I'm wondering, what makes a philosophy paper good? What makes one bad?
Here are some considerations that I believe contribute to making a paper good:
(1) It shows a nice grasp of the literature, bringing articles to my attention that I hadn't noticed before;
(2) It puts familiar ideas in a new way that makes me see significance to them that I hadn't seen before;
(3) It puts forward a clever argument for a plausible or an implausible conclusion.
(4) It's written beautifully or very clearly.
(5) It draws heretofore-unnoticed-by-me connections between works (this is especially important for exegetical papers).
(6) It persuades me of something I didn't believe before, or it at least moves me closer to adopting a position I hadn't adopted before.
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.
By contrast, I've heard some philosophers say things like, "the ontological argument is a terrible argument", which I find to be a shocking and unbelievable statement. Even if you're not persuaded by the ontological argument to believe in the existence of a greatest conceivable being, I find it to be massively creative, provocative, and useful for advancing the field of philosophy. By contrast, other philosophers seem to think that, since they're not convinced by it, it's bad, or that, since it's (perhaps) invalid, it's bad.
Anyway, I thought I would bring the above to your attention because your blog seemed like a good place to discuss this issue."