Should a source be cited for the major claims in an answer?

Is this something that Philosophy.SE thinks might improve answer quality in general? Or could it stifle some of the "good subjective" contributions that may be useful within a given theoretical context?

I think something like this could potentially work for Philosophy.SE much as it has worked for Skeptics.SE as a sort of sanity check or automatic quality control on answers.


3 Answers 3



All good answers will cite a source that allows the reader to verify the claims made and learn more about the subject under discussion.

I've attempted to expound the benefits of citation before, but in summary, I think that this is an important guideline for the following reasons (among others):

  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. My general experience has been that people write a lot of hooey; we don't want that here. In fact, this is largely the motivation behind the Stack Exchange network in the first place. We've reinvented the online Q&A site with accurate, focused, and useful content.

  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 all necessary and good. But all philosophy is influenced in varying degrees by those who have come before. And it's important to respect those people's efforts in shaping your own thoughts and conclusions. Remember Isaac Newton's famous metaphor, that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

  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.

Now, this "citation" doesn't have to be anything particularly difficult or burdensome. A complete "academic style" cite with book/article title and page numbers is certainly not required (although may be appropriate in some cases where a specific, relevant quotation is extracted). Links are also optional, although should be strongly encouraged in cases where there is relevant and useful supplementary material to be found online.

All that I really mean should be required is an explicit reference to a published work, a generally accepted theory, and/or a well-known theorist. Logically, the more obscure your referent, the more thorough that the citation requirements become. This should not be interpreted is an attempt to discourage people from discussing lesser-known ideas or philosophers, but rather serve as a useful guide for other users of the site who are presumably not as familiar with the concept that your answer is presenting.

There should be no reason that this requirement will stifle the good subjective contributions. It doesn't prevent independent theorizing or analysis. It merely requires that the historical debt of those conclusions be paid, and it helps to prevent bad subjective discussions. And it's always possible for thorough, well-developed analysis to stand in for citations, but I expect this to be relatively rare. The types of questions that are on-topic here should demand more rigorous answers than round-table discussions with friends.

My answers probably tend to go overboard with citations; some other answers that I've seen don't do quite enough. As usual, somewhere in the middle is a nice, happy balance that you should strive for.


I almost entirely agree with Cody. This site was always going to be difficult to regulate, as was evident in its long 'definition phase'- if philosophers could agree on what constituted a right answer, there would likely be precisely one or zero philosophy books in circulation. And, certainly, if this site is to succeed we need strong criteria to justifiably dispense with woolly and unhelpful answers, but I do not think citation quite covers it.

To ask for citations is, on the one hand, too intimidating- in spite of the dramatic upvoting of Cody's previous post extolling the virtues of citation, very few answerers have actually managed to cite effectively- and on the other, too open to abuse- if we allow citations of a non-academic nature, where are we to draw the line beyond which the 'citation' in question is simply a name drop (for me, at least, this is not a case of 'I know it when I see it')?

I suggest that we need something akin to the 'back it up' principle, referenced in the SE blog post Cody linked to. Here's my attempt:

Tell us where you're coming from

Philosophy as a subject consists in a multitude of perspectives, each consistent and justified in its own right. In time, perhaps exactly one such perspective will prove to be objectively true, all others being false, but at the time of writing this is emphatically not the case.

As such, it is vital when providing an answer- both so that conclusions can be examined as following from premises, and to provide context for further research by the querrant- that you declare the perspective by which the answer is given. This means pointing the reader toward information on the school of thought or methodology that motivated your answer, allowing them to in turn to explore the observations that motivated the perspectives themselves.

In the unlikely event that your answer is rooted in an entirely new perspective- that you, Jones, have discovered the brand new 'Jonesian Phenomenology' (and have yet to publish a paper on the subject), then feel free to expound it (making clear, of course, your motivations in devising it)- but be aware that your new perspective may be subject to the same scrutiny that any citeable perspective will have had to have survived since its inception.

In short: great answers are self-contained aside from their references, good answers tell us where they are coming from.

Now perhaps this is simply a rewording of the requirement for citation. But, rewording or no, it feels clearer and less intimidating than asking for references.


Citations should definitely be recommended/strongly suggested. I think as a requirement, however, it would be a bit too strong. I wouldn't want to discourage people from answering a question because they couldn't remember exactly where they got a piece of information. Sometimes, the community can kick in and help with that via comments and whatnot.

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