Monday, July 30, 2012

Titles Good and Bad

I was doing a little research this morning, and I stumbled across a paper by Frances Howard-Snyder, which I think I'd read before but hadn't thought about in a while, called "Rule Consequentialism is a Rubber Duck." I think that might be the best paper title in the world. At least, I haven't thought of one I like better in the last hour or two.

And it makes me a little sad. It seems that, as a group, we philosophers don't work very hard at titling our papers and books. A title should cultivate interest in the project--make us want to read the paper--first and foremost. It should also give a clue as to what the paper is about, I suppose, but if I know what the paper is about but I still don't feel like reading it, the title didn't work. "Rubber Duck" doesn't tell me what the paper is about, exactly (though it gives a clue--bath time), but it does make me want to stop what I'm doing and find out. And in my view that makes it a pretty good title.

If you're not going to give your paper a snappy title that grabs me and makes me want to put down what I'm doing and read the paper, I guess I am okay with the titling convention that lists the two or three topics that the paper addresses. "Blank and Blank" or "Blank, Blank, and Blank," or "Blank and Blank in the Context of Blank," or maybe "On Blank," or "The Nature of Blank," or "A Theory of Blank," or even "Principia Blankica." These are fine, and if you have to use one it will do.

One convention that I don't really care for is when the title is identical to the question the paper attempts to answer. I would much rather know, for example, that the author thinks that time does, in fact, pass than to merely know that the author has taken up the question of whether time passes. And it would be even better for the title to give me a hint about what argument for the passage view the paper defends. So, "Does Time Pass?" is not as good as "Time Passes" or "A Defense of the Passage View of Time," which is not as good as "A New Version of the Irreducibility of Tense Argument for the A-Theory." Or whatever.

But I'm not in love with that kind of title, and I increasingly feel like I don't have the knack for coming up with snappier ones. So instead I'm going to start doing what Plato did, and that's name the paper after one of the principal people the paper is in dialogue with. So, for example, my paper defending consequentialism in normative ethics from objections based on integrity is going to be called "Bernard Williams." The only problem is, my paper attacking mental functionalism is called "Hilary Putnam," but so is my other paper defending it. I'm worried that people might get confused.

--Mr. Zero

28 comments:

Charles Young said...

Before he went south, Richard Rorty noticed that Aristotle has two criteria for being a member of a species: satisfying a species definition and having as one's parents members of a species. He also noticed that these criteria come apart in the case e.g. of mules. So the working title for his paper on the subject was "Two Concepts of Mules."

Charles

Ben said...

Some journals are pushing search engine optimization, which suggests that if you want your paper to be found it's better to stick to something boring like 'On X and Y'. The rubber duck title is intriguing, but no one is likely to Google it unless already looking for that specific paper.

Ben said...

Needless to say, I did Google the paper. It turns out that Brad Hooker wrote what seems to be a reply using the question form:
Is rule-consequentialism a rubber duck? Analysis (1994) 54(2): 92-97.

BunnyHugger said...

My favorite paper title has long been Stephen R. L. Clark's "On Wishing There Were Unicorns."

Anonymous said...

My personal favorite: "Can Time Pass at the Rate of 1 Second Per Second?", published just last year in AJP. The conclusion to the paper is...you guessed it: time can pass at the rate of 1 second per second. (Hand slap to forehead). Is this really what passes for philosophy these days? In a top journal to boot!

Anonymous said...

Ben hit the nail on the head. And from what I've been told (though I haven't experienced it myself) some journal editors "encourage" authors to change snappier titles into the more boring, but easily searchable, kinds we see in print.

Anonymous said...

I've always been a fan of the not-so-clever-pun-as-title that nevertheless reveals what the paper is about. For instance, Kaplan's "Trans-World Heir Lines", Kaplan's "How to Russell a Frege-Church", Salmon's "How to Become a Millian Heir", and Meghan Sullivan's newly published "Change We Can Believe In (and Assert)".

CTS said...

@Ben:

But cannot one search by topic as well as title? I usually do unless I know the title or the author I am specifically searching.

Anonymous said...

How do people feel about subtitles? This might be a way of achieving both the OP's goals and Ben's SEO goals: "Razzle dazzle: list of keywords" (or vice versa).

Munni said...

Taking Taking Rights Seriously Seriously!

Anonymous said...

"Kaplan's 'How to Russell a Frege-Church'"

I've never been able to see/get the pun. Can someone help me here?

Anonymous said...

.
James M. Brown (1984). Popper Had a Brand New Bag. Philosophy 59 (230):512 - 515

Eric said...

On my "Applied Ethics" feed from Academia.edu today, up popped this awesome paper title:

“Who owns your poop?": insights regarding the intersection of human microbiome research and the ELSI aspects of biobanking and related studies

Anonymous said...

Bill Lycan's "The Gettier Problem Problem" met the dual criteria of attention grabbing and revealing about the content. Too bad there wasn't a reply "The Problem with the Gettier Problem Problem" and a rejoinder "A Problem with the Gettier Problem Problem? No Problem."

Anonymous said...

3:20 wins the thread--I'd forgotten about that paper!

Anonymous said...

"The Phenomenology of Fucking"
by Michael Kosok

http://journal.telospress.com/content/1971/8/64.abstract

I have often wanted to write: "Taking 'The Phenomenology of Fucking' Seriously" and now that I have tenure, maybe I will...

Anonymous said...

""Kaplan's 'How to Russell a Frege-Church'"

I've never been able to see/get the pun. Can someone help me here?"

To 'rustle' cattle or horses is to abscond with them by driving them off together in a group--the practice was employed in the wild west. Kaplan argues in that paper that a Russellian semantics, which makes do with reference alone and no intensions, can cover all the same cases as Frege's sense-and-reference approach, as developed by Church (modulo some quibbling at the edges, I'm sure). Hence, "How to Russell a Frege-Church."

Now of course you can't really rustle a church, but the title's so great we ought to give Kaplan the license.

Anonymous said...

I like punny titles, myself.


Also, my favourite paper title has got to be "Calvin and Hobbes" (subtitle: Trinity, Authority, and Community). I've never read the paper, but the punny kills me.

Seamus said...

What are people's feelings on riffing on an existing paper's title? How many "What X could not be" papers are there? [See also Colin McLarty's reply to Benacerraf's original [X=numbers] entitled "Numbers can be just what they have to"]

I'm sure there are a couple of "What is it like to be X" papers too.

Any other recyclable philosophy title tropes?

Anonymous said...

A few more:

Greco - "How to Reid Moore"

Priest "A Site for Sorites"

Bach "The Emperor's New Knows"

Anonymous said...

"Any other recyclable philosophy title tropes?"

"How to do Things with Words/Worlds/Junk/Things/Irigaray"

Never gets old...

Anonymous said...

another:

does PHI rest on a mistake?

Xenophon said...

Very funny. Thanks. Can't get enough Putnam jokes.

Anonymous said...

Titles of the form "X as Y" (e.g., ''Boxing as Unicorn Mating Ritual'') are terrible and often make for terrible papers.

zombie said...

Goddu: "Time Travel and changing the past (or how to kill yourself and live to tell the tale)"

I also quite like Midgley's "On trying out one's new sword."

Alchemist said...

Alain Badiou's 'The Fascism of the Potato'. It's about Delueze and Guattari.

Anonymous said...

Bad trope: "__ __ __: Toward a __ of __"

Good title: Mark Johnson, "Feeling William James's But"

Anonymous said...

"What is it Like to be a Bat?" is a pretty sweet title