What Makes for a Successful Philosophy Paper?

There is a well-known philosophy paper that has always fascinated me for several reasons. It is Richard Feldman’s “Reasonable Religious Disagreements”, which was first published in 2007. In this paper, Feldman admonishes those religious and atheist types, who continue to cling to their strongly held beliefs in the face of persistent disagreement. Instead, he argues that everyone should by now have converged on some kind of agnosticism: everyone should by now have realised that the disagreement is not going anywhere, and so everyone should have put the disagreement on ice.

This blog post is not about whether persistent religious disagreement is a good reason to give up on one’s religious beliefs, although that’s an interesting question. It is instead about the fact that Feldman’s article is quite well cited, at least, so far as philosophy papers go. Indeed, as of this date, the article has 369 citations, according to Google scholar, and it’s reasonable to think that the true number of citations lies somewhere closer to the 400-mark. Dicky Feldman must be absolutely chuffed that he can bring so many citations to the table when the University of Rochester’s Philosophy Department tallies up citations to prove its research impact. But is his paper an example of good philosophy? What does the high citation rate indicate? Is a high citation rate indicative of anything good in philosophy?

This might seem a strange question. For if an article is well cited, it would seem to follow that others have found the article particularly useful or on point. Yet a great many of the citations of Feldman’s paper are quite negative. Indeed, many papers citing Feldman are often, in my humble opinion, knock-down arguments against his position. Objections have been mounted over almost every part of his argument, whether it be that his toy examples are contrived, that his tripartite analysis of belief states (belief, disbelief, and non-belief) is too crude, or that his conclusion is so implausible as to constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that disagreement counts as evidence in the first place. His paper is, in many ways, problematic. And it is partly because his paper is problematic that it enjoys such a high citation rate. That is not to say that his paper has not contributed to the debate about religious disagreement, it certainly has, and often very positively. The point I wish to make is that a high citation rate, especially in philosophy, may be evidence that a paper contains errors, lacunae, or other shortcomings that subsequent authors are desperate to address. Every philosopher wants a scalp or two.

And so, just what makes for a successful philosophy paper? How does one ensure that one’s paper will collect the currency of academia? If we are to identify the success of a paper with its citation rate, then it seems that a balancing act needs to be performed between several competing qualities. I propose the following three features of successful philosophy papers.


  • The paper must defy common sense


The paper must make a claim that is so outrageous that it can’t possibly be correct. Take, for example, Feldman’s claim that everyone ought to be agnostic about religious propositions. This claim is just downright, bat-shit crazy. Only a philosopher, steeped in years of having to entertain the most implausible sceptical scenarios, would even entertain such nonsense. No-one would (or even could) follow this advice, and there seems to be nothing at all gained from doing it anyway (Feldman admits at the end of his piece that even if ultimately we ought to be agnostic, we ought to keep arguing about religious claims as though we believed or disbelieved them, since this would be conducive to establishing the truth of some claim or other (i.e. the very reason that civil disagreement is valued in an open society after the pursuit of truth)). In short, a successful philosophy paper will need to make a claim so independently ludicrous, that it will force subsequent writers to show just how, by engaging with the paper, and so citing it.


  • The argument must be be built from “sloppy truisms”


Of course, it would be silly to argue for a ludicrous conclusion if the premises of the argument were themselves ludicrous as well. Instead a fine balance is required between truth and vagueness. The premises of the argument have to be around about right. For if the premises are too clearly formulated, it will be difficult to derive the necessary bonkers conclusion. On the other hand, if the premises are too poorly formulated, few will take the paper seriously. All that is required is enough wiggle-room such that the premises can be seen to be, as philosophers so often like to say, “plausible enough”, while allowing the implausible consequence to be derived. This sloppiness also ensures that subsequent writers will have to do all the hard work, teasing out exactly where the sloppiness is playing out. Let them do the work while you lie back and put your feet up, soaking up the citations.


  • Lay traps


My one-time supervisor and friend, the now departed Josh Parsons, once wrote of the fine art of “trapping”. According to Parsons, to have trapped an opponent is to have “dug a hole in your paper, covered it over with some straw,” and to have your opponent fall right into it. Although trapping is usually performed in a seminar, trapping is also an effective way to gain citations. If your current paper has a section titled “Objections and Replies” then cut it. If pesky peer reviewers insist that you address a particular objection, then do so, but make sure to do so inadequately. Make sure to know what objections one could make to your paper, to ensure that eventually such objections will emerge somewhere (you might even get to reply to these objections, if you have anticipated them, and this means more publications for you!). A watertight thesis may prove you are right, but if you are clearly and obviously right about your new philosophical argument, then it seems to me that your argument must have been trivial and unworthy of ink to begin with!

It seems clear that these features are not conducive to any kind of collaborative attempt at uncovering the truth. If that’s right, then perhaps philosophers require another kind of metric when it comes to assessing the merits of each other’s research. Citations, I believe, can be a terrible red herring.


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