I often see questions such as this one that are downvoted because:

Questions on the definitions or semantics of words or phrases are off-topic here as they are already well-answered elsewhere. There are many fine dictionaries available on The Internet, and Wikipedia offers good introductions to most common schools of philosophy.

I have in the past seen questions that could be answered simply by referring to a dictionary. To me, however, it seems:

  1. Sometimes people are looking for technical definitions that would differ from the common-usage definition. These seem like they should be on-topic since one cannot easily find something in the dictionary that addresses the question.

  2. Sometimes, as in the above linked question, "There is no online resource which explains the term and what is this position." I can see sometimes closing questions because the answer is to read the IEP or Stanford or Wikipedia article, but if there is none it seems odd to close the question in that case.

In any case, these non-dictionary-definitions seem to be great fits for the SE format - they are objective (whatever one thinks about the usefulness of a given definition, whether a definition is the right one is objective) and there are often subtleties that having a community to help one understand is helpful.

What does the community think about this? Do we need to be more specific about the "definition" close reason? Have others been using similar reasoning for when to close due to the question being a "definition" question?

  • I think the particular question is very on-topic as it's how a philosopher uses a technical term, and the answer is equally fitting.
    – virmaior
    Jul 9, 2015 at 5:30

5 Answers 5


Questions that are basically "What does X mean?", even if X is a philosophical term/concept frequently fall into a mix of too broad and insufficient research. If a viable answer is "read the SEP article on it", then it's not a good question.

Limiting the scope of the question (as in the linked example), e.g. "What does Kant mean by X?", or better yet "What does Kant mean by X in chpt. Y of Critique of Pure Reason?" Or, maybe comparing and contrasting how a given term is used by different philosophers/theories would make the question on topic. In any case, what is required is some additional input that limits the scope and demonstrates where the asker is coming from to.


Agreed. I may have been closing these questions too swiftly over the past time, so thanks for bringing this up.

To clarify this, perhaps we could change the close reason text to

Questions on the definitions or semantics of common words or phrases are off-topic here as they are already well-answered elsewhere. There are many fine dictionaries available on the Internet, and Wikipedia offers good introductions to most common schools of philosophy.

It may also be an idea to add the IEP / SEP to this close reason, in addition to Wikipedia.


I do think this is a harder topic. I feel like we've had to make a lot of judgment calls in deciding whether a definition-question is so basic that we regard it is close-worthy.

Or to state it in a different way, there are clearly some questions about definitions that are valuable and should be answered. There are other question we get about definitions or words that reflect a poor grasp of English rather than a philosophical question. And there are questions where dictionaries don't do justice to the way the word is used in philosophy.


Short answer: ask Wittgenstein. (He'll say "always.")

Slightly longer answer: obviously, we can reduce some large portion of the questions asked here to "what do you mean by x?" and that would be a terrible reason to close. For example, I saw a question recently asking whether all art required sentiment -- which is essentially just asking for a definition of art, and asking for a binary check on that definition. The fact that there is a definition at the core of the question in no way invalidates it. The answer is still certainly up for discussion, and we might as well discuss it as any other topic.

The questions that should be closed are the ones that aren't asking "can you explain x" or "let's discuss the definition of x," but "I haven't done the slightest bit of thinking or reading about x, tell me what it is because I'm too lazy to run a Google Search." I imagine the last set will be rare.

  • I dunno. If we cannot understand what askers mean by their terms, that seems like an obvious reason to close. If the terms are technical and philosophical and they are asking how philosophers use the terms, that seems to be more thoroughly on topic.
    – virmaior
    Jan 14, 2016 at 4:58

Regarding this topic I personally have problems seeing no sense in it being discussed, like I stated in a comment.

I think it should be distinguished between "How did A define term B?" or "How is the [well-defined] term B usually defined?" from Questions like this. Because it is in fact a philosophical question if empiricism is able to be qualified by "inductive" or this would be analytic and therefore tautologous.

So the question should be: "Is there a discussable core in this question?"

  • I think the question you are bring attention to is a different situation. If you want, please open a different question on Meta.PSE to discuss. In any case, the question as asked is just "what does X mean?" which can be answered by googling X. Oct 5, 2015 at 15:08
  • 1
    Even if there is some discussable core in a question, that doesn't mean it's a good question. The question should not have a discussable core, it should be answerable itself. No matter how you can sidetrack to get a relevant question, if the question as stated isn't a good fit, it's just not a good fit. This is why people are allowed to edit their questions.
    – user2953
    Oct 5, 2015 at 16:14

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