Is it acceptable to ask a question about origin of a statement or about statement's meaning (what author meant)?

Jeff Atwood added this close reason:

General reference: this question is too basic; the answer is indexed in any number of general internet reference sources designed specifically to find that type of information.

If you open the link above, you'll see that it's OK to ask a general question if there's no easy way to find an answer through a web search. Does this also apply to Philosophy.StackExchange?

2 Answers 2


Obviously as someone who has a question with a bounty that revolves around this question, I am biased. However, in some cases, as I have said elsewhere, there are philosophical questions that are too general and worthy of GIY/LMGTFY answers; as the bountied question above would suggest, there are some that are not so simple.

Likewise, if a question about a quote has interpretations so readily accessible (e.g. "What is Augustine's view on jus ad bello?") then it is too general; however there would be authors where the resources would be too scarce or too nuanced to really find a good resource.

To answer your question directly:

  • the 'over-simplism' of some questions has to do with their ability to be constructive and exists not only on a spectrum, but also with benchmarks
  • designating entire swaths of intellectual inquiry (sourcing quotes, interpreting content) as off-topic seems over-general and against the purpose of our site (at least as I see it)
  • there should be boundaries and pre-requisites on how far a question can go to get an answer, and how little it can provide in way of details/specificity without being closed as too local/general reference
  • this does not apply to "[Find a quote for me]"; I haven't seen this yet, but I suspect that it would be similar in toxicity as recipe-requests on cooking.se

Please note, the "General Reference" is in some ways a canard to the rest of your question; for something a bit more informing perhaps, refer to the gaming.se discussions where Jeff stepped in to say he would personally monitor questions. They really get at the substance of whether these questions are of value. With their tag thriving in its way, I would say the questions have value.

There is no inherent lack of depth to [source this quote] question; only to the amount of energy people are willing to put into it. It actually involves forethought on the part of the question asker, and either expertise in recall or research in the question answerer; two things that are actively encouraged on stackexchange. Also, if we have these questions, and they do prove interesting (perhaps some of the experts here now aren't quite as expert as they believe), it is an question-activity for the expert to participate in.

  1. If you have a philosophy stackexchange, I would expect that a community, mostly academic in nature, would grow around it.
  2. I presume, as is the case with any actual philosophy class, that there would be more students than professors, and likewise more questions than answers.
  3. If the currency of the community is questions asked (that are worth asking) and answers rendered (that are actually useful), then we should be promoting that exchange.
  4. So the "easy" ones, the nuts & bolts, and bread & butter, "Who said X"; we can boost that sector of the economy and provide a service by answering those questions rather than shutting them down. If needs-met isn't a tool for recruitment (Get 'em young, get 'em early), what is?

I once read a theory about how various skill levels respond to basic questions, but by some twist of fate I can't remember where I read it. Google is of no help because it indexes words and I can't quite remember which words were used. (Was it "novice" or "newbie"? Was it "simple" or "basic" questions? And so on.) I've spent about 1/2 an hour trying to track it down and I can't. It's possible that as soon as I post this, someone will recognize it and source it for me in 10 seconds. Or it might be a community puzzle that never gets solved. (Except I have no clue what subject matter the idea was first expressed in. It's probably related to programming, but who knows?)

At any rate, the idea is that novices are intensely interested in basic questions. They don't know the first thing about a subject, so every bit of knowledge is nourishing to them. Average users are intensely disinterested in basic questions. They know where the answers can be found and it's boring to see questions that can be answered in a FAQ or the manual. Bizarrely, experts are sometimes interested in basic questions again. The reasons range from basic questions being deeper than they first appear to the official answer being subtly wrong. It's as if these questions gain new life once you obtain mastery in a subject.

Assuming this unsourced theory is correct, we'd expect the majority of users to object to basic questions even though they might be interesting to both newcomers and experts. That's because most participants will be average users. Newcomers will quickly become average users or will wander off. Experts will be few in number in the best of times.

Now I'm not saying that if you hate all basic questions, you aren't yet an expert. But I do say that if you look, there's a surprising amount of depth to most of the questions that get labeled "too simple" or trivial. It seems to me that philosophers are obsessed with reexamining settled questions.

I personally find sourcing quotes a valuable exercise. Earlier I quoted Cromwell's Rule in an answer and it was fun to trace it all the way back to its origin. I like knowing the true context behind those things we vaguely remember as important. Sometimes we find that the words surrounding the words we remember are vitally important to recall.

The only real objection I have to these questions is that they are contagious like yawns (they start popping up all over and get tedious) or like songs (you can't get them out of your mind once they get there).

(And I agree with mfg's answer as well, if it isn't already clear.)

  • I think this is Atwood, somewhere. (I might be wrong.)
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 18:39

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