The community was recently asked an interesting question about the meaning of a line from Joyce.

Is this question on topic?

How about questions on literature in general?

So more generally, do we start to cut into other sites' "core areas" by accepting questions that aren't about philosophy, but rather literature (or history, sociology, political science, etc.)? Do we diminish and degrade our own focus in doing so?

Finally, how about the edge case when we are asked about works of literature composed by a major philosopher (I am thinking of Sartre and Camus in particular here)?


2 Answers 2


The Joyce question seems clearly off topic. Its being closed seems to indicate that there is consensus about this. If a question is about literature and not really about philosophy, it should be closed.

If the question is about something philosophical as encountered while reading certain literature, the question should be judged on its own merits.

  • Is an interesting answer possible without straying too far from the question?
  • Would it be a philosophical answer?
  • Is it possible to answer in such a manner as to avoid taking a controversial position (as in "no, there is no free will")?

If it is "yes" to all, then the question should be OK.

  • -1, @cerberus please see my answer. Jul 3, 2011 at 12:40
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    I agree. It seems to me that this question is better suited at a literature forum than here. It also seems better suited at a discussion forum (which PhilSE is not). Jul 4, 2011 at 5:20
  • i'm not sure that closed questions indicate a "consensus", not sure at all
    – user35983
    Jan 19, 2019 at 21:25
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    @confused: Yes, perhaps not. I don't really remember, it was seven years ago. And consensus can change!
    – Cerberus
    Jan 19, 2019 at 21:43

Literature questions with philosophical implications are not off-topic.

There are several cases in which a "literature question" can have "philosophical implications"

  1. The question discusses the meaning of terms. The most important thing one must do when assessing a philosophical argument is to clarify what exactly is being argued. This necessitates a fundamental agreement on the meaning of the terms involved. Any question that seeks to make clarify the meaning of confounding statements whose subject matter could be relevant to philosophical discourse is on topic. The branch of philosophy to which such a question applies is called Philosophy of Language.

  2. The question addresses a work that can be used as a case study for aesthetics. Aesthetics is the "branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty". Philosophy of art is a subclass of aesthetics. Literature is clearly an example of art. If a question about literature is framed in such a way that its answer would have implications for aesthetics, then that question clearly has philosophical value.

  3. The question discusses a work that is an allegory for some philosophical standpoint, whose characters are mouthpieces for some philosophical standpoint. Many philosophers have chosen fiction as a medium to express their standpoints. As the OP mentioned, Camus and Sartre are two such examples, however, there are many others. I think everyone on this board would agree that Plato's works are on topic for philosophy. However, he didn't expound his views in essays, but told stories that had philosophical content. There are plenty of writers whose fictional works are studied heavily in philosophy, (e.g. Borges). In addition, there is a genre of books that discuss the philosophical implications of elements in pop culture, including the Simpson's, Batman, Alice in Wonderland, the Lord of the Rings, South Park, Harry Potter and many more. When there are multiple books written about the philosophy of a single literary work, I find it hard to believe that the literary work is "off the topic of philosophy".
    - What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, Lewis Carroll - An example of "literature" that is clearly philosophical in nature

Regarding the Joyce Question,

The Joyce question satisfies all three situations in which a question about literature is on topic.

  1. The question is about the meaning of terms. The actual title is "What did Joyce mean when he wrote that “silence, exile and cunning” were the only weapons he allowed himself to use?"

  2. Joyce's work is very relevant to the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a bit about this from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on Postmodernism.

    "But where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, as in Marcel Proust, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself, thus denying what Kant would call the consensus of taste."
    It would seem that any work which serves to undermine Immanuel Kant is at least worth considering as philosophically relevant.

    I also found a book on Amazon about the relevance of James Joyce's works to aesthetics: Sensual Philosophy: Joyce and the Aesthetics of Mysticism.

  3. The particular passage that is addressed in the question can be interpreted so suggest an assertion prescriptive action, which has ethical implications. The main character's statement that "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning” seems a lot like it could be saying that "One should express themselves in some mode of life or art as freely and wholly as they can," and that "silence, exile and cunning" are the permissible/recommended modes of action. This type of statement is not fundamentally different from statements that Aristotle made about leading a virtuous life. The only necessary difference is the particular criteria.


I think it is very important that this community avoids closed-mindedness. Just because Kant or Locke didn't say something, doesn't mean that it has no philosophical value. Finally, if you don't have enough of a background in philosophy to know if the question you are voting to close is really "off topic", it is the responsible thing to do a little research and make sure. We aren't going to grow this site by discouraging users and closing their on topic questions.

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    I very much agree with what you're saying here, but I don't think that the question itself is worded in such a way as to evoke this type of high-quality answers. This is an example of a topic that's good, but a specific question that's poorly asked. Explaining the meaning of a quotation does seem like something that would have more relevance on the proposed Literature site, rather than Philosophy. However, examining the philosophical implications of this quotation is unquestionably on-topic here, for all the reasons you've cited. I'm hesitant to re-open until the question is fixed. Jul 3, 2011 at 13:42
  • @codygray, I think if you read my answer to the Joyce post you will find it is reasonably high quality. Surely you must agree that the presence of a high quality answer refutes the speculation that the question will not yield high quality answers? Jul 3, 2011 at 14:13
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    Yes, your answer is good. I believe I upvoted it. But I disagree that the presence of a single good answer either redeems the question at large or indicates a likely trend toward other good answers. My experience on other SE sites is that, though there is a small group of users who can provide consistently excellent answers even to the worst questions, that's not something that can reasonably be expected from everyone. Questions that are poorly phrased tend to attract poor answers, and that's not something we want to encourage. As I said, if you can improve the question, that would help a lot. Jul 4, 2011 at 6:50
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    I generally dislike closing questions, but I can't see the question itself as a good question on philosophy. Part of the problem as I see it is that it asks about a claim made by: a) a fictional character who may or may not have been the author's mouthpiece and b) a famous actor. On the face of it, the claim has no philosophical support. Thankfully you provided the support in your answer. But that ought to be the job of the asker. If your prologue combined with the original question were the question, it would be a good philosophical question. Jul 6, 2011 at 19:39

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