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Questions.

I'm somewhat concerned about the quality of questions and answers recently on Philosophy.SE. In particular, I am concerned that my own level of participation is a symptom, or perhaps even a contributing factor.

  • Is there a 'problem' with the pattern of activity on this site, vis a vis the goals of StackExchange and the mission of this site in particular? And if so:

  • Is behaviour like mine a symptom of this problem? Or possibly:

  • Is behaviour like mine a driver of this problem?

In particular, I'm worried that I may be a problem user, and want guidance. But I also want some perspective on how the moderators and founders feel about the recent activity on the site and whether it is broadly appropriate to the mission of the site.

Context.

I will apologize in advance for the self-indulgent presentation of the problem, but it's difficult to avoid, because the problem I perceive is the potential impact on this site of my self-indulgence — I see a problem, and I'm concerned that I'm part of it. I would like to be quite clear on the sort of feedback I'm seeking on my own participation: please just tell me if you find it problematic to the mission of Phil.SE, and if so, in what way it is problematic.

In short — I would rather be a less central participant, on a more rigorous site. But I don't know how to help this to happen except to continue doing what I'm doing, which doesn't seem to be helping.

My original motive for participation on Philosophy.SE has been to broaden my own awareness of philosophers, and in particular to get a better understanding of some fine points of the development of logic. However, after eighteen months, I find myself one of three people with the [logic] badge, and (to my genuine surprise) the only one with the [philosophy-of-mathematics] badge. At the moment I am the fourth-highest ranking contributor to the site, and I have recently attained "trusted user" status. I am not watching so much as I am become one of the stewards of the site. Do I belong in such a role?

Please understand that I'm not remarking on the above to boast. I'm concerned that it's a sign that something has gone wrong. I am aware of how cheaply I have won these "prizes": my answers are of a particular style which is popular among a certain sort of personality which is fairly common among technical workers, so that my answers are likely to be voted for as an example of rhetorical and analytical style, as opposed to scholarly rigor. While I put real work into my contributions, it may not be the correct sort of work. I put in the work because I don't often see anyone giving better answers to these questions, than I could give from first principles; but maybe this encourages people to keep asking the sort of question which does not attract an expert answer.

I regard myself as a total dilettante in practise, and while I am happy to participate, I'm uncertain that I ought to have such a status on this site. The fact that I do have it — and the way that I got it, and its possible relation to the activity of others on this site — gives me pause. Despite my status as a dabbler, I find myself in consistent violation of the spirit of Joseph's thesis that we are not philosophers — almost all of my contribution to this site has been not well-referenced citation of existing philsohopers, but application of critical thinking with regards to the meanings of words. It is not that I'm unaware of Joseph's thesis (which seems sound): my continued violation comes from the fact that this is how I have come to use the site, because there is little more for me here than to put in my two cents on topics where I feel I have the tools to derive (as opposed to cite) an answer.

What I find here invites me to scratch the itch of personal contribution, to answer what are often quite elementary questions, despite my lack of knowedge of good references. Notably, there is a class of questions which I have answered (In what sense is atheism scientific?, What is virginity from a philosophical perspective?, Is Autocracy superior to Democracy?) for moral rather than intellectual reasons: I feel keenly enough that such questions demand answers in a certain spirit that I write answers which are borderline polemic (albeit while trying to support my position analytically). And while I am proud of some of my contributions — whether intellectually or morally motivated — I have no illusions that much of it is likely to be original: probably many of them should be replaced by pointers to the literature, if only I knew where, or if the appropriate specialists were on the site and could be troubled to answer.

So: despite myself, I find myself using this site to opine, because I find it difficult to use it any other way — precisely because I am a dilettante without the ability to marshal references for the points I would like to make, and there is not a sustained stream of questions which would force me to quietly take notes. I suspect that there are a number of other users who are using this site in the same way; the reason why I suspect this, is because I see many contributions which I feel don't fit the spirit of the site, and opine in a way that is not unlike the way I do it. Being biased and having a history of self-centeredness, I naturally feel that my contributions are of higher quality — but then, I'm uneasy even about my own pattern of participation.

I have seen a similar devolution of activity elsewhere on the internet, on forums for technical topics such as philosophy. It's likely to be in part the nature of viral spread of a community. My understanding is that the StackExchange format, involving a focus on Q&A, and user moderation starting from a dedicated core of users who steer the site to maintain its mission, is meant as a check on the usual progression from high-signal activity to high-noise activity. I am concerned that this is failing. I'm concerned also that my very activity is one of the reasons that it is failing: that I am setting a bad example (mostly "original" contributions with few citations) for others — but an example which is not bad enough for the top users to try to correct it, because they hope to foster activity on the site. Thus my bad behaviour stands as an observable pattern of usage for others to mimic, and so they do.

Obviously the person in the best position to police my behaviour is myself. As I find myself a "trusted user", one could not even ask for a more qualified policeman. However, I am in need of some guidance with respect to the problematic user which I've been tasked with policing.

  • How determined are we to be a site concerning scholarly philosophy, i.e. primarily referencing the body of knowledge built up by a small community of academics whose work is evaluated by peer review, or appreciated as literary works which contribute significantly to the body of ideas considered by those people? Conversely: are extended analyses from first principles considered acceptable?

  • What is the best way to distinguish between those analyses which are acceptable and those which are not? Specifically, what do we look for in the strength or the relation of an answer to the literature (whether scholarly philosophy literature, or more general literature)?

  • To help maintain the mission of the site (assuming that we're mostly interested in links to the literature), for users other than myself, what would you recommend for maintaining a firm but friendly stance on the quality of questions and answers?

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    Your posts are, as a rule, erudite and illuminating. But I think it is unrealistic to expect that most posts will meet the high standards you set. In my comment to stoicfury's response to your question, I expressed what I think the expectations and goals can and should be on a public site of this nature. IMO the formula for success is to let your users set the level and pace. Moderators/'policemen' should probably try to limit their expectations, focusing on ensuring that questions are coherent and relevant to the site, and that the discourse is civil. – Vector May 17 '13 at 4:42
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    @ReallyRational - RE: your last two sentences - Do you think we've done a poor job to that end? Despite our "aims", I think we end up being really liberal with what we allow here and I don't think there have been too many (any?) issues with us closing or deleting a question/answer which was not already universally agreed to be low quality/not a good fit for the site. – stoicfury May 19 '13 at 22:02
  • @stoicfury - No. I do not think you have done a poor job at that. You are in a difficult position, I understand that. You would like a 'professional level' of discussion, but in a public forum about a very open topic like "philosophy", it is doubtful that will happen. If I was moderating a technical site I would not be faced with the same challenges because only programmers can talk about programming! I was simply expressing my ideas about how this site should work. – Vector May 19 '13 at 22:08
7

I just wanted to weigh in on the sense that you might be "guilty" of "violating" the rule of "not-playing-philosopher." This is perhaps an over-extension of the spirit that animated my post about us not-being philosophers. That said, I can't deny it's something of an intended implication; or at least something I'm excited you are thinking about carefully and trying to err on the side of caution when experimenting and evaluating "deploying" new concepts.

It might be that SE is not usually (or hardly ever) at the right degree of coherence, clarity, depth, robustness to capture or digest the new or reconstituted concept properly -- that perhaps the substrate here cannot support the infinite speeds necessary to think the way a book might; or at least to think what is least-thought in thought, a thinking that would also be a creating, and so on.

To my mind it would seem that 'dabbling' in philosophy is already to be swept into a kind of dangerous or untimely vortex: variously semiotic, ethical, aesthetic, etc. We can't fully expunge the traces of this involution, these new births (not physical of course but just as real -- whether legal, psychoanalytic, economic, etc.) A cautious deconstruction will always be able to detect this line fragmenting every thinking "in the image of philosophy" from the inside out (but philosophy needs a nonphilosophy to comprehend it, it demands a thought-to-come or thought-without-image, furtively safeguards an untimely future of thought...)

I'm permitting myself some creative space, some textual liberality with the tone, style and spacing of this response to the question -- because this is already philosophy, that is: syntax and semantics, the use of words to illuminate (make-transparent) many-dimensional relationships.

Philosophy, then, is maybe a question of making language (the unconscious, the law, territory) something we can inhabit -- or on the other hand, of making ourselves "foreign" to our own mother tongues, native lands, but while remaining "still" -- still speaking, still standing on native land. Deleuze and Guattari suggest the characteristic "gobbledygook" of philosophy owes its character precisely to this -- so many techniques to make ourselves escape the territory through stationary journeys.

One thing I would want to emphasize is that there's no way we could completely avoid philosophizing to the extent that these infinite speeds always-already inhere in the inspiratory community itself. The site is a way of focusing a kind of global philosophical super-intelligence, that is asking and answering questions about philosophy at an inhuman rate and quantity; I don't think there's any way it could avoid having some more or less philosophical layers or aspects to it.

Finally an important implication of the thesis in question ("we are not philosophers") seems to me to be humility, respect and love -- to try to augment the amount of joy (and diminish the amount of servitude) in the conversational spaces between questions, in the silences that precede questions and answers, to increase reflection about relationality in the spaces and silences and blindnesses that inevitably precede commentary. To help us keep the spaces and silences and blindnesses separating and linking us; to help us remember the ethico-aesthetic dimension of our participation in this community, the urgency of gentleness, generosity, respect. As far as all this goes I can't imagine any way your earnest and well-thought contributions could be seen in any way to have failed this spiritual "kernel" which animated the suggestion.

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    Great answer. The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs hit the nail on the head with the issue and what we're trying to avoid, especially. You're something of a writer, sir. :) – stoicfury May 19 '13 at 21:57
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The difficulty of a philosophy Q&A

There are a lot of issues here; thanks for bringing them up (although some could be discussed in their own right). As for your participation, you should give yourself more credit and continue coming at your leisure. :) It shouldn't disturb you that we don't have many experts here; this is a whole different can of worms than some tech site with clear-cut solutions. Either a piece of programming code compiles, or it does not. A math solution either works, or it does not. Furthermore, asking a question in a technical site is a lot easier. You have a piece of code, or a math problem, and you can just ask it. It's all there. But half the battle with our site is having people ask questions that make sense. Lots of times people haven't even fully thought of the question in their head and when they write it down it comes out poorly. Or worse, even when it is understandable, some portion of their logic or reasoning is wrong, or they simply are naive in a particular subject that would throw off their entire argument had they known. Because of this, "expert" users, I reckon, are probably less likely to emerge because they probably don't want to have to weed through all the naivete. When a good question is posed though, you see people step up and give amazing answers, so we know the expertise is out there. It's just harder for us, and it's going to be somewhat of a challenge, but such is the nature of these things. Helping us figure out what kinds of questions and answers we want on this site may be useful to that end (which is your next question).

Setting the tolerances / guidance for our site

We have tried to discuss before (I'll see if I can dig up the links at some point) how we want to shape this site in terms of questions we allow and answers we allow. In general we prefer academic-style questions with a specific focus and which are reasonable answerable. But we allow questions that aren't grounded in any specific philosophical literature as long as they are developed enough, of sufficient focus, and can be reasonable answered. With answers right now we basically use the voting system to determine if something is valid or not. I try to source at least SEP or Wikipedia in all my answers, if not a more specific text (should the question warrant such), and in my experience the answers which get the most upvotes are well-sourced, so it sorts itself out. We can surely talk about changing either paradigm though (do we want to allow more open questions? Should we force people to source their answers? etc). We should talk about this; maybe we want to allow people to be philosophers, so to speak. Maybe as a site, philosophy needs a special exception to 1 or 2 key rules other sites strictly follow.

Conclusions

I don't think Philosophy.SE is ultimately not a great option for a Q&A site. I think it does have a purpose; there are people who come here with questions and they get answers. That's a fact. I think it will just take a bit of extra work from the community and moderators to keep the question pool up to par by improving ones that can be improved, closing poor ones, and helping newcomers. We'll also have to live with the fact that Philosophy geeks aren't always as glued to their computers like programmer/math nerds are, so participation will naturally be less and it will take time to grow a community. But the point is, there is a community, and it's worth fighting for.

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    'maybe we want to allow people to be philosophers, so to speak':How does one attain the title of 'philospher'? Is it measured by academic degrees? Ability to cite numerous sources from previous 'philosophers'? Fluency in certain types of jargon and 'terminology'? IMO, any question or answer that is logically sound and coherent should be 'allowed'. Is this not how 'philosophy' originally developed? The first philosophers had no sources and no vocabulary other than what their own powers of reason could muster. Why must philosophy be 'static', or constrained by particular academic conventions? – Vector May 17 '13 at 4:19
  • I agree with most of what you say here, @stoicfury. I do think we should experiment and evaluate continuously to see what is most effective for the community at the present phase of development. – Joseph Weissman May 19 '13 at 20:40
  • @ReallyRational I don't disagree, and I have never disagreed. This is just the convention that existed before I joined the site; the community tended to prefer academic-style questions with definite answers rather than open-ended, long-winded philosophy discussions without any prior philosophical basis or attempted grounding in existing philosophical discussion. It's a threshold; we do allow those questions, but with great development and focus. We could considered moving that threshold, especially as many newbies lack the experience / presence of mind to focus their own thoughts effectively. – stoicfury May 19 '13 at 21:52
  • @stoicfury -IMO moderators would do well to encourage downvoters to provide explanations for their downvotes or post ALTERNATIVE ANSWERS. I don't gave a d-mn about my points. I'm not a philospher. But I loath people who take 'pot-shots'. If you want an active, successful site, that is what should be happening. Otherwise, you should close this site and move to some closed University format. I do see some attempts to encourage the inarticulate to express themselves better-that is good. I have tried that myself a few times, but again, I am NOT a "philospher" in any academic sense at all. – Vector May 19 '13 at 22:03

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