We've recently gotten a few "can I understand" questions.

For instance, Can a beginner in Philosophy understand the following books?

(In this particular question's case, I think there's a separate reason to dislike it which is that it's a somewhat arbitrary list).

What should we do with these sorts of questions?

  • Is there a reason why that question doesn't have a close count anymore? Oct 1, 2015 at 21:27
  • Unfortunately, if I undo my close vote, it automatically reopens and undoes other close votes. It's one of the negative aspects of being a moderator
    – virmaior
    Oct 1, 2015 at 23:26

3 Answers 3


My own personal view is that we should close questions that ask "can I understand."

My thoughts on this are that

  1. These questions are too provincial (they have no bearing except to the OP) -- this is a close reason on say academia.se.

  2. The answers are going to be opinion-based in two directions. First, we never know enough about the OP to know what sort of background knowledge they have on a site used all of the world (Is Confucius or Laozi too hard? Well, if you are in China, Japan, or Korea, that's background knowledge much the way that Christianity is/was in the West). Second, how hard each of us things something is is either somewhat subjective for similar background reasons or merely a question about Flesch-Kincaid reading levels.

  • I basically agree, certainly concerning the linked thread, there are already 9 answers, all of them vague and subjective. But I would give such questions a couple of days before closing, depending on quality/quantity of answers. Sometimes people find an insightful way to answer, and it shapes the thread to become of interest more broadly.
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2015 at 0:57

In general I agree with virmaior's answer that the questions are not a good fit for Phil.SE, however in the spirit of debate here's why it might be worth keeping them:

  1. Generally speaking, the questions are answerable. This isn't a huge point in their favour, but it does mean that the problem lies with the the specifics of what is being asked, not how they are being asked. One could argue that the questions are subjective, which is true to an extent, but it's fair to say that there is agreement that while Descartes' Meditations would be safe for someone new to reading philosophy, Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is far more advanced.

  2. Phil.SE is still comparatively small, and still in beta. While I believe the current state of the site is fine, we should be looking for ways to make it more accessible and more useful to the person with only a passing or beginner-level interest in the area. Questions asking in one manner or another where to start reading are very common in all philosophy communities, so we should at least try to handle these somehow instead of just closing them as "bad questions" and probably frightening those people off.

  3. The strongest objection from virmaior is that the questions have little relevance to anybody other than the OP, and I would agree (at least in the situations I've seen). However, this does not have to be the case. We could instead allow questions like these precisely on the basis that they are made applicable to everyone, and encourage people to ask questions more along the lines of "Is there any required knowledge for [Plato's Republic]". I argue that if we can develop a few structured, publicly-useful and answerable questions for specific recurring issues (where to begin studying X, is X suitable for a beginner, etc.) and then encourage new users to model their questions after those, then the site will be better for those new users and better on the whole because of the flow-on effects of grater activity and a wider variety of content.

  • 2
    I agree with needing to make the site more accessible, but "Where do I start with X?" questions are different than "Can I read X?". Questions about where to start for a particular subject already have given the context that the asker knows little about the subject. "Can I read X?" questions don't have that. Oct 2, 2015 at 18:16
  • I like the "Is there any required knowledge for X" way of phrasing it better. The question under consideration would be hard to change into something of that format though, because the OP asked about a bunch of random things. Oct 2, 2015 at 18:20

I don't think they're great questions; it's seems more likely to provoke debate and discussion.

Surely if a beginner in philosophy is seriously interested in philosophy then they would ask questions about the text, and their comprehension of it.

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