Having recently asked a question which clearly fell foul of the above rule, I would like to point out the difficulties in policing it and see if any improvements can be made in this regard for new users.

Firstly, the policy isn't actually written down anywhere, I've been referred to the how to answer and how to ask sections, no-where does it say that your question/answer must refer to a well-known philosopher.

Secondly and most importantly, whilst those who work in Philosophy might like to think otherwise, there is no objective measure of what constitutes a "philosopher" other than who other philosophers choose to include in that group (consider how many philosophers actually wrote stories, yet not all stories are philosophy texts). This leads to a paradox in which in order to ask a question you must already be aware that there is an answer written by one of the accepted philosophers. If you are already aware of this, why ask the question?

The reason other sites do not have this problem is not because they are more strict it is because it is immediately apparent to the layman that, for example, Douglas Adams is not a physicist, nor a chemist, nor a computer scientist etc. Whether or not he's a philosopher can only be decided with a pre-existing knowledge of the field of philosophy so that one can trawl through the existing canon of accepted texts to find he isn't there.

Consider Physics.SE. Anyone could ask "what is the rate of acceleration due to gravity?" and anyone who knows what it is could answer (without, I might add, having to preface their answer with "Accoring to Newton..."). Questions like "what is the history of scientific thoughts about gravity?" might well be considered meta, or even off topic - matters for History.SE perhaps. With Philosophy.SE, it seems like you're asking only for the second type of question, not a question of actual philosophy, but a question about the study of philosophical questions by a select group of people.

You therefore risk setting up a site in which laymen cannot ask questions without considerable prior knowledge of the membership of this select group (which is very much against the Stack Exchange ethic).

Basically, you have to accept that philosophy as a academic subject is weakly (and in some case arbitrarily) defined. As such a Stack Exchange format site on the subject is going to have to work slightly differently from other sites on more objectively defined subjects.

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    I am not aware of such a policy. Your recent question has not been closed, so I'm not sure what you're really asking. At least this seems relevant: Friends, we are not philosophers. Is there any particular question/answer you want to discuss, or can you give some examples? – user2953 Sep 19 '16 at 9:18
  • No problem. I'm thinking recently of philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/37912/… (I don't know how to link in comments, sorry) which was put on hold, the comment being that it was only answerable "if you specify a framework / philosophical school from which you're working". – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 9:38
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    Secondly, an answer I attempted to a question I thought relatively within my area of expertise was flagged with "Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted." Despite the facts on which the argument was based being well accepted scientific facts. I note the answers above were either religious or from Woody Allen both apparently more "reliable sources" than Darwin! – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 9:43
  • I'm also referring to some quotes like this one from comments on philosophy meta - "I do think questions should be answerable with reference to the academic literature". – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 10:19
  • Finally, my question was put on hold, not closed, that's not the crux of my point, it's more what started me thinking about it and reading the posts on meta related to it, from which, as per the quote above, I was picking up what I felt was a disturbing trend for a site supposedly open to laymen. – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 10:21
  • Apologies for my misuse of the word "finally", but additionally, the post you've marked as relevant seems, on my reading, to say exactly what I feared was the case " the most trivial way to demonstrate theoretical context is to connect the question to a text or thinker, serving to indicate at least a minimum of topical research and reflection.". i.e. no-one can ask a question without first having discovered which writer from the accepted canon of philosophical texts, has already written on the subject. – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 10:26
  • Oh, and this quote from an answer to the question prior to this one "I don't really see how the question engages with a philosophical school of thought.". These are just the ones I'm finding after a few minutes reading, unless this is a coincidence, one might reasonably presume that there are many more. My question specifically states that the policy isn't written down anywhere, but there certainly seems to be a concerted effort to enforce it. – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 10:55
  • "I believe that it is vitally important that both questions and answers must contain references to extant philosophical literature." (philosophy meta). Shall I go on, or has the point been sufficiently made now? – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 11:01
  • It's a little hard to respond to your quotes from comments without links. You can right-click on the timestamp next to it, then 'Copy link location'. Use [link text](url) for inline links. Although it is not completely clear to me what it is exactly that you're asking, I have written an answer. If anything is unclear, I suggest we continue the discussion there. – user2953 Sep 19 '16 at 11:06

Defining what is on-topic

It is impossible to specify exactly what questions can and cannot be allowed on the site. It is always a judgement call, which is in all but the most trivial cases made by multiple users: it takes five users with a reasonable amount of reputation to close a question. In the cases where it is obvious that the question does not fit, a moderator can use his binding vote.

Stack Exchange sites are Q&A sites. They only work well with well-defined, objectively answerable questions. To a question "What do you think about ...?" any answer is equally valid. This is described on the How to ask page:

Our community is defined by a specific set of topics that you can view in the help center; please stick to those topics and avoid asking for opinions or open-ended discussion.

The question you gave as an example is clearly asking for opinions and open-ended discussion, hence it was put on hold. The most obvious way to make it fit on the site is to not ask for the opinions of random internet people, but for the positions of philosophical schools and their arguments.

Indeed, it is not possible to define what is and isn't accepted as philosophy. Therefore, also here we have a system where the community decides what is acceptable, through voting and flagging.

Educating new users

It is vital for the education of new users that they understand why questions are put on hold, answers are given notices and the like. That is why we should always leave a comment to explain, which I think we do (though perhaps not in the most obvious cases, where the message explains itself).

Unfortunately, usually the user starts debating or referring to other answers that have similar problems. This kind of tu quoque arguments aren't relevant, appropriate or helpful. If you see something that doesn't belong on the site, you should flag it – not degrade to the same level.

An example

Please don't take this personally, but let's have a look at a recent answer of yours for example:

Life is a biological construct and so it's goal is defined by evolution to be that of successfully rearing children of the same or similar genetic type. Our feeling towards that goal is generated by evolution as whatever feeling best encourages us to act towards that goal. These are unavoidable facts of science and no philosophy could be truly useful without acknowledging them.

The question asks for different philosophical views. This discusses one possible philosophical view, but:

  • Does not give it a name or provide references, so it is probably little helpful if the OP wants to do further research;
  • Presents the view as the only possibility, thereby not being objective.

It is not that the view itself is wrong, or that it does not belong here. It is simply that without references it will be little helpful, and that this answer - especially the last sentence - gives a false idea that this is the only acceptable position.

To sum up

We have several policies, one of which I quoted above, but they are not well-defined. That is why user education is important, and indeed this is more important (and difficult) here than on other SE sites.

That the policies cannot be well-defined does not mean that everything should be allowed. We have a system where the users themselves can decide what is and is not on-topic.

If you have an idea to improve user education or a formulation in the help center, please let us know.

  • I think that one of the main strengths of the SE format is the fact that questions and answers get commented on and edited to improve them, so no, I do not take any offence at your example and agree entirely with your criticism of my answer. My concern, relates more to the direction and tone that criticisms, and comments are taking in general. As I said in my original post, philosophy has to accept that it is in a unique position. Unlike the sciences, no-one has any more authority to answer a philosophical question than anyone else. This makes referencing of different significance. – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 12:11
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    @Isaacson this site is not for doing philosophy. A teacher in philosophy will usually provide better answers than a student, as on other SE sites. That both may have interesting ideas themselves is relevant to a rather limited extent. From the post I linked earlier: "Our goal is not to create new concepts, to 'play philosophers'; ... [but] asking questions that arise during the study of philosophy; answering with an appropriate degree of clarity, depth and rigor that hopefully spark interest in the discipline." – user2953 Sep 19 '16 at 12:14
  • To take my answer as an example. It would have been useful to reference the evidence from evolution (though I felt it was unnecessary as it was so widely known), but the conclusion I drew from that evidence would not be any more verified by reference to a philosopher or school, it would not make it any more (or less) true. I think in this example the point is moot, but I interpreted the OP as asking for a philosophical point of view as opposed to the point of view if a particular philosopher. This, I thought I provided, the other answers I would take issue with the logic of. – Isaacson Sep 19 '16 at 12:17
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    @Isaacson the issue with that answer, in my opinion, is that there is too much interpretation. A reference to evolution theory in general would indeed not be very helpful. The theory itself does not state what you claimed in your answer, and your answer does not directly follow from it. From the same theory, different conclusions can be drawn, and this is not the place to do that, per the quote above. – user2953 Sep 19 '16 at 12:22
  • Sorry, I'm left more confused than when I started now. The attachment to my answer was "Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references.". You now seem to be suggesting that references to my evidence would not have helped, so it seems the only issue left that could require a reference is my conclusion.i.e, because it was what I concluded, not what a famous philosopher concluded, it is not an acceptable answer. I did not realise that Woody Allen was now part of the accepted canon, not that I'm surprised. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 6:17
  • @Isaacson when I added the notice I still assumed that the ideas in the answer weren't yours. But I see how this can be confusing, apologies. – user2953 Sep 20 '16 at 7:09
  • Yes, I presumed that, it still rather leaves the main question unanswered. Are you really trying to create a site where a logically valid, evidence based answer is flagged for removal because it doesn't quote a philosopher, but one whose only quote is Woody Allen gets voted up without comment? – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 7:14
  • @Isaacson to quote my answer: "Unfortunately, usually the user starts debating or referring to other answers that have similar problems. This kind of tu quoque arguments aren't relevant, appropriate or helpful. If you see something that doesn't belong on the site, you should flag it – not degrade to the same level." Your answer is a far-fetched conclusion based on some evidence, and does not provide pointers for further reading. I don't see how it will help anyone, but the OP in particular. – user2953 Sep 20 '16 at 7:33
  • Please see my comments on the answer below, my point is not that the Woody Allen quote was wrong, but that there is no need to police the site that heavily in any case. It's hardly swamped with answers. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 7:38

For SE's to work the questions must answerable objectively to some degree. Yes there is some wiggle room for interpretation/bias/subjectivity for some questions, but to be useful we need a critical mass of objective questions and answers, and users poised to provide this kind of factual information.

The problem is that the "facts" of philosophy are hard to come by. "Philosopher X said Y" is usually pretty close to an objective fact about/in philosophy ("It is the case that Y is true" is typically not an unassailable "objective" fact). Thus the drive to have objective answers to questions tends to favor answers that to re-iterate, and in good cases refine for the question at hand, what accepted philosophers have already said.

  • Your argument is rather circular. If the "facts" of philosophy are so hard to come by then surely it is completely unnecessary for a website aiding others with its investigation to be so excessively concerned about objectively factual answers. Surely if these interested student do not know how to handle answers which are logically valid but subjective then they're in the wrong subject. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 6:25
  • Take a glance down the list of newest questions this month. The average number of answers is barely over 1. You're hardly facing such an inundation of answers not quoting philosophers that you need to cull them from the site. If you restrict answers (and especially questions) to those which actually quote from a selective canon of philosophy texts you're average answer rate would drop possibly even below one and the site would be dead in the water. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 6:29
  • I'm sure it would be nice for philosophy academics to have a site where they can put to some use the hours of reading they've done, but the reality is that not enough people believe in the authority of accepted philosophers to seek out their answers to life's questions as opposed to anyone else's. Most questions on the site not directly related to a philosopher are basically people wanting to "try out" their own theories, and why not? Good luck to them. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 6:33
  • @Isaacson that volume may be a little low the last weeks does not mean we should accept any answer. Quality should be maintained. SE is not the place for people wanting to try out their own theories (though to a limited extent questions like that can be accepted - for example, "What would be the implications of adding this idea to that theory?"). It is simply that the SE format does not really facilitate this kind of open-ended discussions. People looking for that need to go somewhere else. We simply cannot allow them, because the system doesn't work for it. – user2953 Sep 20 '16 at 8:10
  • I can see that I'm not going to convince you, so we are probably best agreeing to differ, it's a shame though, not least because anyone wanting to set up a SE inviting well thought out answers to philosophical questions will now be unable to do so as the overlap will appear to be too large. Still, I'm sure there are many other philosophy forums on the internet. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 8:50
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    @Isaacson c.f. this (blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective) in particular "We never claimed that subjective questions were horrible abominations that should never be asked. We simply choose to forego those subjective discussions, as there were dozens upon dozens of forums which already catered to them." and the "back it up principle" described therein. To users who want this to conform to the standard SE model, this means that there will be a lot of emphasis on answering questions in the light of accepted/conventional philosophers have done. – Dave Sep 20 '16 at 20:18
  • @Dave Yes, I read that blog in researching what people had already said on the matter. As I said in my comments above I'm not unaware of the current position with regards to focussing on accepted/conventional philosophers, I just think it is unjustified in the light of the poor answer rate on the site (barely more than 50% of the last 100 questions have been answered, nearly one in five have been put on hold because they don't fit the mould), and the fact that the title of the SE and its strap-line make no mention of the fact that it is a site exclusively for the study of this select group. – Isaacson Sep 21 '16 at 6:38

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