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One of the issues that other Stack Exchange sites (such as Mathematics and Computer Science) have faced in defining the scope of their site is whether to allow questions from the casual reader/enthusiast, or whether to limit discussion to those who have in-depth knowledge about the subject (which likely requires that one has studied the subject for many years, probably at an academic institution).

Depending on your perspective, this is a clear strength or weakness of those other sites.

We now face the same issue on the Philosophy site: Should we aim to restrict the scope of discussion to academic questions only, or are we aiming the site at the more general and 'casual' audience?

Sometimes, I get the feeling that the site has morphed from its original proposal, via about 3–4 people, into "Philosophy for post-graduates only". This isn't really what I committed to in the Area 51 proposal, a site "for those interested in logical reasoning".

See also: Is this site for doing philosophy or discussing philosophy?

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    I'm curious what prompts you to say people are pushing for a "post-graduates only" site. I'm seeing a lot of high quality dialog here, which can intimidate a relative newcomer. For myself there are plenty of questions outside my depth (I can't answer about Kant). And of course some of these questions require more rigor to answer than you would use in everyday conversation. But I don't see it being so much exclusionary as challenging. Maybe some examples of what bothers you might help. – Jon Ericson Jun 11 '11 at 0:14
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    I agree with @Jon. If you post some of the problem questions then we can look at ways of improving them. I also say that high standard ≠ exclusionary. Some will have expertise in certain areas (e.g. Kant - not me) whereas some will be better suited to other areas (e.g. Nietzsche - not me). What you say in your last para does ring true with me though. "Perhaps the subject just isn't geared towards a scientific Q+A?" I'm thinking the same thing and I'm hoping the community will prove me wrong. I'll at least stick around until the private beta is finished. – boehj Jun 11 '11 at 6:34
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    I have no problem with an academic site -- although that means I won't have much part in it -- but I've observed the same shift. The proposal appeared to be for laymen. – Matthew Read Jun 13 '11 at 13:40
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    @Jon and @Boehj the question has come from answers on meta mostly, and the large number of closed questions (the most of I've seen on any site). I have no problems with solid, academically referenced answers I just think it's a little bit silly to be so draconian about the questions. – Chris S Jun 15 '11 at 17:30
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I'd say that we should lean towards academic answers. But I'd say that 'casual' questions should be answered as best as they can be by academics. So if someone comes on and asks a sort of self-help type question about, say, the ethics of a love affair, we should try and give it the same kind of quality of answer as we would someone turning up to discuss Kantian minutiae!

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    I agree with most of your answer, but I don't think that we should allow this site to become "self-help" for ethical questions. Not only are "experts" unlikely to find that interesting, but it quickly becomes a slippery-slope to all sorts of off-topic questions. Please use your close vote privileges if you see such a question come up about the ethics of a love affair! – Cody Gray Jun 8 '11 at 4:51
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I'm curious how the proposal and site has morphed, via about 3-4 people, into "Philosophy for post-graduates only". This isn't really what I committed to in the Area51 proposal.

You very probably think I'm one of those people. And reasonably so: I've made a number of comments about how I think the questions and answers should be somewhat more academic in nature, as opposed to bordering on "armchair philosophy", or the kind of things that you and your friends might talk about after experimenting with some psychoactive substances.

I respectfully disagree. It's not been (and is still not) my intention to exclude anyone from participation in this site, either for their level of exposure or experience with philosophy. I myself hold neither a degree nor any type of official academic certification in philosophy. I have never even pursued one. I also think snobbery and exclusion is a Bad Thing, both pragmatically and philosophically speaking. Philosophically, that comes from my strong bias towards critical theory, and pragmatically that comes from the fact that this site isn't going to do very well if we go about excluding people that we don't think are "good enough" to participate.

To wax editorial for a bit: When I first visited this site about 2–3 hours after it opened in private beta, I was a little disappointed by the questions/answers that I thought I was seeing. I wasn't too sure yet if I wanted to continue my participation in the site, a fear that I suspect some others might have shared as well. But fortunately, that reservation has entirely evaporated now. Both the content and quality of the questions and answers seemed to turn themselves around completely within the first day of the site's existence. It is my personal conclusion that this site is doing amazingly well right now. Not all of the questions are ones that I would have personally asked, but that's not the goal. Not all of them are ones that I can give an intelligent or coherent answer to, but that would certainly be very boring if I could. The point is that they're almost all good questions, ones that we want to have on this site and prompting discussions that I think are very valuable. And for the few that I've seen that concern me, I have tried to leave very detailed comments explaining what my specific objections are, hoping that the asker can rephrase or rewrite the question because none of them have been so far gone that I haven't felt that they could be easily salvaged.

Thus, I have absolutely no interest in making this a site for post-graduates only.

There is always and necessarily room for people of all backgrounds. Those people bring an important plurality of perspectives, enlightening those of us who may have been overcome with a difficult-to-escape academic pallor, and conversely, enlightening those of us who may not have had any formal academic training whatsoever. It's worth noting that this problem is well-solved on other Stack Exchange sites, as well. Even the most basic, entry-level questions about programming (i.e., those that might be asked by a beginner teaching himself a language in his spare time) are still considered on-topic on Stack Overflow. And, of course, the advanced, high-level questions that can only be answered by true experts in the field are very much allowed and encouraged at the same time. That's important, and I don't think anyone really wants to lose that. We've staunchly resisted applying meta-tags to questions like "beginner", "expert", and "easy" both because those things are very subjective and difficult to assess by the asker, but also because it's important that we not create such divides at all.

However, none of that is intended to diminish the necessity of developing (and enforcing) some minimum guidelines regarding the types of questions that we think are "on topic", as well as the type of answers that we think are "good"—the ones we want to encourage our core group of members to leave. We need everyone here to participate in that, and a question has already been opened to solicit discussion from the community towards that end.

Of course we don't have everything hammered out yet as to what is and what is not on-topic, but we probably never will. Stack Overflow has been around a good while longer, and there's still some dissension in the ranks about what specific questions are on-topic (i.e., are questions about networking and networking protocols relevant enough to programming to be allowed? It's hard to say, just as it will be here with things like religion, law, and other applied ethical fields). Fortunately, there's a great solution for that already in place. It's this site (Meta), and the strong core group of users that we're building right now, including you. Yes, you. Not just the person who asked this question, but you, the person who's reading this answer.


† My personal position (if anyone cares, and for clarification purposes, since I think I've been accurately pegged as a pretty big advocate of the "academic" perspective) is that we should, as a community, attempt to very strongly encourage that answers contain some reference to the existing literature on a subject.

I have a couple of reasons why I think this is an important guideline:

  1. It helps ground your answer in reality and ensure that what you're saying is at least somewhat plausible. People who come here asking questions should be able to expect good answers. The problem with many discussion-style forums is that, in reality, the answers you get aren't very good. Especially on sites with subjects like philosophy (although, in my experience, this is really an endemic problem, and largely the motivation behind the Stack Exchange network's charter in the first place). People write a lot of hooey. I don't want that here.

  2. It's real-world: Very little of philosophy can truly be considered "original" or "unique". Sure, each individual idea is unique, and that's good for all the normal reasons. But all philosophy is influenced in varying degrees by those who have come before. And it's important to respect those people.

  3. It provides a built-in way for people to verify the content of your answer and learn/explore more if they wish to do so. If you refer to, say, Jacques Derrida in an answer about deconstruction and refer to his book Of Grammatology or Afterword, then those who didn't really understand your answer and/or those whose appetites were strongly whet by your answer and wish to learn more can go look up that author and those books/articles/essays. Logistically, one answer here can't cover everything. But it can be an excellent start for those who want to learn more.

  4. See also the discussion had over on the Skeptics Stack Exchange site, trying to combat a somewhat similar problem: Must all claims be referenced?

Obviously if you don't know, that's cool. But please don't just make up a bunch of random ideas. This is a question-and-answer site, and the format isn't really conducive to creating our own philosophies. It's a Q&A about philosophy, not a discussion forum for philosophizing. And it has nothing to do with the fact that you're not a famous academic: I'd very likely tell Saul Kripke the same thing. Whether or not you think this is a desirable restriction, it's a very real one that we can't afford to simply ignore.

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    Upon rereading this answer, I find it particularly compelling. Reasons #1 and #3 for referring to existing literature seem particularly insightful at the moment. I wonder if you still think the site is moving in the right direction? – Jon Ericson Jun 21 '11 at 23:30
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    I think this is great. I agree heavily. – davidlowryduda Jul 3 '11 at 1:06
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    #1 assumes that and answer from and academic or that quotes sources is more grounded on reality because of that, which is an obvious fallacy. Many of what is produced in academic circles has absolutely no connection to reality, some even admitting that. Slavoj Zizek himself, whom the author seems to hold in high steem, is obviously compromised with reabilitating marxism despite all its failures, not with reality. #2 Is another fallacy by claiming something that came before deserves respect because of that. – user1746 Apr 27 '12 at 3:56
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    Whether you like it or not, Slavoj Žižek really happened. Remember that that is not a site for doing philosophy, it's a site for analyzing philosophy. – Cody Gray Apr 27 '12 at 3:58
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    The essence of philosophical method applied to the works of past philosophers is to relate to them as men in the same way you are. Time has no relevance in that. #3 Referring to existing literature is obviously of great value, but I couldn't imagine a worst example than Derrida, for obvious reasons. – user1746 Apr 27 '12 at 4:00
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    If you don't like it, you're free to go elsewhere. People are losing their patience for this sustained war against academia and perceived "abuses of power" around here. If there is a war to be fought, it ain't here. (And yes, the site is for analyzing commonly accepted philosophy. I thought that went without saying. That's not something we invented, it's true across the entire network. This argument is an utterly nonsensical one. Questions about your favorite politician will also be closed as off-topic, despite your protests that (s)he is a brilliant philosopher.) – Cody Gray Apr 27 '12 at 4:17
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In any forum that encourages philosophical discussion, people are going to say whatever they like. If on top of that we encourage them to do so, then quality and intelligibility will suffer as a result.

To insist on sound logical argumentation is not to demand university-level philosophical exchanges - rigour, care and clarity are not qualities that aim at snobbery and exclusion, nor are they qualities that are obtained only if one studies philosophy in an academic environment. They are the basis of good and fruitful discussion and we should do our best to ensure that our guidelines encourage them.

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    I disagree that the qualities of high-level philosophy require study in an academic environment. Sometimes all you need is a good book. But +1 for the need to set a high standard. – Jon Ericson Jun 11 '11 at 0:16
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    @Jon: I agree we should set a high standard. Over on the math.SE, that's what they do. Here's a semi-randomly chosen Q&A from there. Philosophy requires the same precision required of the sciences. Even if one takes a 'philosophy is art, not science' view, one must still put one's ideas across clearly. – boehj Jun 11 '11 at 6:27
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It is not at all true that you have to study mathematics at an academic level to pose a question at math.SE.

The key problem that I see with the recent question here is not that they are not "academic" (whatever that would mean), but that the authors have not taken care to formulate them in a good way.

For example: "Is there free will?", "Do humans have souls?" are all subjective, argumentative, etc.

But it is absolutely possible to focus the question on some clear-cut aspect:

Are there recent definitions of free will that reconcile the introspective feeling of autonomy with lab results on decision formation in the brain?

Is there a philosophical school that is compatible with an evolutionary development of the human brain and the existence of human soul that live on after the death of the body?

  • 1
    Academia means studying Philosophy at degree level or beyond. If the site concentrates on these very specific questions only, I can see it dying very quickly. If it allows more generalised questions then it can cater for both worlds. For example expecting questions on specific Bertrand Russell topics vs "How do I know I'm not a brain in a jar" – Chris S Jun 7 '11 at 22:14
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    I don't care if it dies "very quickly" as long as good answers are generated. A Stack Exchange site will not grow in the correct way we want it to if it doesn't generate non-trivial content. To do that, we need to use the ontology of academic philosophy, which has thought through many of the parts necessary to answer such questions in a systematic way. Encouraging "philosophizing" over academic philosophy would be huge mistake, creating another Yahoo Answers-like site in its wake. Have you ever read "mainstream" philosophy forums? – Uticensis Jun 7 '11 at 22:38
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I agree with Tom Morris. People can ask uneducated philosophical questions, but largely and for the most part, the history of philosophical discussion has already attended to their question in some form and answers should refer them to such further reading or explicate those responses. Duplicates just need to get merged or closed.

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I agree with you Chris S. To be more specific, I would argue that the Philosophy Stack Exchange is against any question which either challenges or questions a viewpoint held by contemporary Philosophy academia. e.g. Plato/Kant/Hegel/Marx are infallible according to some faction of the academia. So anything which questions their ideas are almost always automatically eliminated.

Many philosophers also realize that everybody is a philosopher, and so they believe if they let everyone philosophize, then it would make the trouble they took to learn philosophy worthless.

While scientists & mathematicians welcome amateurs and newcomers into their fields which question & sometimes destroy popular ideas of their subject, philosophers are afraid that someone might call the emperor nude.

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    This is in very poor taste. – davidlowryduda Aug 5 '11 at 17:44
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    Ok, I would like to clarify. This site is not a discussion forum, and in general I expect relatively little philosophizing to occur here. Some will occur as natural extensions of answers and questions, but the foci of the questions and answers here should be on the reasoning and ideas of philosophers. I am actually a mathematician (hence my moniker), but I have found this site very welcoming so long as you are patient and calm. – davidlowryduda Aug 5 '11 at 17:48
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Why not allow the asker of a given question the option to restrict answers and comments so that they come only from those with certain minimum credentials?

Perhaps questions could be set such that it requires a certain minimum point total in order to comment, even more to provide an answer.

Or, perhaps a system could be developed where users can actually submit their academic or other credentials and in effect use these as admission passes to questions where a certain level of discussion is desired?

  • 1
    Because who sets those credentials? Are you talking about the reputation of the answerer? What if someone is an expert in the field but new to the site? They haven't had time to build up any reputation, but they'd still be perfectly qualified to give a good answer to the question. And there's no way of assessing someone's external qualifications, so I'm not sure how this works. We also would prefer to keep the site from becoming exclusionary. I don't have any academic credentials, but I know quite a bit about philosophy and like to think I give good, high-quality, referenced answers. – Cody Gray Aug 4 '11 at 14:51
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    Solid points. I guess it would be up to the community to agree what credentials are appropriate, whether in general or maybe even on a per question basis. I haven't got a philosophy degree either but I also know and wouldn't want to be excluded from interesting discussions. On the other hand, if I had a very specific question which I wanted to ask experts in a particular area of philosophy, I might want to set some filter up so only they can answer (maybe they'd earned some "philosopher king" badge for some area related to my topic, or whatever). – Darth Continent Aug 4 '11 at 19:09

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