I've been told that "this site is not a site for doing philosophy. It’s a stack exchange site for answering questions about philosophy."

I just can't see any difference between asking/answering philosophical questions and doing philosophy. From the etymology of the word, philo-sophy means "love of wisdom", thus asking and answering questions regarding every area of human experience (such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language).

What's the strict definition of philosophy adopted here? And what's the difference between doing philosophy and asking/answering philosophical questions?


There's a related question, but I'm not asking "which of the two is this site about", I'm asking if there's a real difference between them, and if so, what is it?

  • 1
    For reference, since I'm sure this will unfold into a very long discussion, this is an example of "doing philosophy" (notice that it was flagged as "requiring citations and sources" and explicitly states that it's subjective and personal) while this is an example of "answering a question about philosophy". "Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted." lends credence to the idea that we are not doing philosophy.
    – Not_Here
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:43
  • That is how I've always seen this site moderated. Subjective answers that seem to just be expressions of the author's own ideas (especially when they're completely biased towards one view and state the view declaratively, even though in philosophy the question is an open question) have always been voted down, flagged for needing citations or outright deleted. I admit that the subtly between doing philosophy and answering questions about it is huge, but this site has been moderated through that lens for as long as I've been here.
    – Not_Here
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:46
  • 3
    Stackexchange sites have always been made to try and answer questions objectively. That is incredibly hard to do in a topic such as philosophy, but it is very clear that someone writing their own personal and subjective opinions about a philosophical question (doing philosophy) hasn't been well received and has actively been discouraged because we are trying to provide as close to objective answers as possible. I don't think this style of moderation and methodology is perfect but it absolutely is the direction that the site leans towards. Look at the voting differences between types of answers
    – Not_Here
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:50
  • Here is another perfect example of someone doing philosophy instead of answering the question with regards to philosophy. Again, they even state as much in their last paragraph. That specific question is full of people doing philosophy instead of answering questions about philosophy. On that note though, I believe your answer to that question is a lot better than most answers there, an example of the opposite. The downvote is explained in the comment; I do not think it has to do with you expressing your own ideas like the other answers do
    – Not_Here
    Aug 10, 2017 at 8:02
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of Is this site for doing philosophy or discussing philosophy?
    – Conifold
    Aug 10, 2017 at 8:32
  • @Conifold The trouble with that question is that none of the answers come from currently active members of the community and the top voted ones (the first two) say slightly different things, neither of which quite represent what is currently being advocated. I'm not sure what the protocol is for such questions on Meta, but it think simply adding up-to-date answers to that question might not be as useful as just answering this one.
    – user22791
    Aug 10, 2017 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


I would like to distinguish three layers here: The level of personal input, the level of knowledge and the voting/commenting/deleting behaviour how it should be vs. how it is actually (sometimes) handled.

personal input vs. depth of knowledge

To highlight what I mean, I want to use the example of a first-year undergrad essay compared to a master's thesis.

On a first look, they write very similarly: They write on philosophical questions, using lots of references and remarks.

But they have different tasks: The undergrad essay is supposed to show the student is able to use literature, to paraphrase and reference correctly and get what the text is saying. Critical acclaim is only but a small fraction and the difference between distinction and (very) good. So they basically first and foremost have to show that they can write about philosophy in an academic style.

The master's thesis, on the other hand, definitely has to use literature, paraphrase and reference correctly, and get what the texts are saying, as well. But it also has to substantially go beyond (existing) literature, make good points against it and develop own positions. It should not only develop a position towards the existing literature, it should develop an independent and original position, highlighting the differences to literature. This is doing philosophy and critical for a master's thesis (read: at least should be!, latest here is PhD...).

Of course, this is a continuum and there are borderline cases, but considering the design of StackExchange, any site in the framework should methodologically stick to what is asked from a first-year undergrad, as it were.

Problem: Level of knowledge

Some of the questions are going quite into depth or broad enough so that they can hardly be answered by an undergrad (which is/may be good). This means if there are people able to deliver a satisfying answer (content wise), these people are either very deep into the topic and can reference off the top of their heads (perfect case), or know the answer, but would have to put a lot of time and effort they do not have in order to find references to support the knowledge they gained over years (this is bad). E.g. this recent answer took me some good hour to complete, although I worked on that topic quite a lot and had electronic versions of the corresponding sources at hand.

So basically, we should give both knowledgeable answers with a lot of background in order to answer at all, but at the same time invest the effort a first-year has to, explicitly referencing particular papers and/or books with pages, without adding a lot of personal opinion/flavour/content. This is a lot to be asked, which I can tell as there were answers I had to invest several hours into (even without consideration of much secondary literature).

Result: Lax/forgiving behaviour in direct conflict with the rules

So we basically are caught in a dilemma: Either we are rigorously downvoting/deleting/negatively commenting valuable, correct answers (possibly losing this content and the user), or we are generous and cautious, editing in sources (suggestion by @Isaacson) or simply silently accept that it is asked a lot in some cases to answer the question in a way that it should be.

This harbours the risk of a slippery slope: Where do we stop? And this is exactly what the community as a whole has to dynamically decide on in every single case by votes. I personally, as a moderator, would condemn some of the highest voted answers as bad ones. But it is not my personal decision, it is a social one.

My feeling is, though, that the more sensible or knowledgeable a post reads, the more forgiving the community is regarding sources. I do not think this is a good thing, despite being understandable.

Personal suggestion

I would like to see a conscience of the continuum between common sense/knowledge (e.g. logic) that probably must not always be sourced/referenced and more uncommon or debatable ideas or propositions that gradually more urgently demand sourcing. In general, if I have never read a position or know that it is a minority position, I should ask for sources and/or downvote - given a certain level of knowledge in that matter (which leads us to the next problem...).

  • The task here surely is first and foremost to provide an answer to the question, I don't think, therefore, that showing how much you know about philosophy (the task of the undergraduate) is a very good model to emulate, especially for those qualified beyond undergraduate level who can provide more involved answers. I realise not all institutions are the same and we have a global community here, but certainly here in England colleagues of mine involved in academic philosophy have commented on the poor level of engagement with criticism of secondary sources in their undergraduate papers.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:05
  • 1
    Also, the questions an undergraduate might be expected answer are exactly those questions that are promptly put on hold as too broad here "How far does a person's happiness depend on their being morally good?" (an actual Undergrad exam question), would almost certainly get closed as too broad. Less broad questions though, answered in an undergrad, reference style, risks turning the site into little more than an index page for the SEP, in that we might as well just paste a link to the appropriate SEP page which will have all the relevant information in an objective, well referenced essay.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:14
  • Essentially, I'm saying if we do not have opinion/critical engagement in our answers, the site will become either a dry and redundant index, or will be unable to answer the questions we actually get asked because to do so in a completely objective manner would require a 4,000 word essay.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:16
  • @Isaacson: True, but I think I made clear that the distinction is, of course, problematic in and of itself. It is more a question of what the primary task is. And this is not critical acclaim, but plain answer and report of literature, as it were. Regarding being a SEP mimic: I think that the idea is having answers that specifically answer a question instead of presenting a (not the) take on a subject matter as completely as possible (the task of SEP). Of course, the choice of quote and sources is to some extent doing philosophy as well. But less so than going beyond them, if not asked for
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:19
  • Yes, I think your idea of "going beyond" the question is an excellent measure of where opinion definitely has no place on this site, and even though slightly subjective, I would be all in favour of hard moderation against answers that did this (using the slightest mention of some topic in a question as a springboard for a rant about it).
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:38
  • My concern is probably best summed up by your penultimate sentence. I think what you describe as "to some extent doing philosophy", by selecting sources, too often ends up massively "doing philosophy" particularly when tackling unpopular positions, appearing too often to come across as "this is just how things are". This creates a kind of unpleasant battle line with the populist answers hiding behind a justification of "we're just objectively reporting the literature" and the less populist answers feeling like they're judged by a standard populist answers are not held to.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:39
  • Aside regarding your example from an undergrad exam: It certainly a) refers to the content of a lecture, i.e. is reduced to the discussion of certain positions that were part of the syllabus and b) even if it was a very good, outstanding answer (for the exam), it would probably still be bad and too unspecific to be a good fit for an SE, as clearly they do not have the time or possibility to check pages and quotes in their textbooks during exam. I think it is, in this light, perfectly reasonable to close these questions as too broad, as the implicit limits of the exam do not apply here.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Aug 30, 2017 at 8:47
  • I absolutely agree, my point was that if undergrad essay questions are not good fits for SE, then undergrad style answers might not be suitable either. Obviously it is outside of the scope of an SE to provide an exhaustive answer, yet this is the kind of question we get asked all the time. Either we close 90% of our questions or we find some way to regulate answers so that poor quality ones can still be fairly and justifiably removed/downvoted.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 9:14
  • At the moment, as evidenced by the numerous examples I've linked in my answer (and comments), it feels as though the system allows such questions, and rewards subjective answers on the basis of a fairly crude popularity contest, which to my mind, is obviously unsatisfactory. I'm concerned that your solution, would either close the site due to lack of interest, or escalate the kind of 'flame wars' we've suffered from recently as less popular positions seem to be judged by a more demanding standard than popular ones.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 9:14
  • If I may be permitted an aside of my own with regards to your final paragraph, "Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it." - Descartes. There is a difference between true Common Sense and Idola Theatri.
    – user22791
    Aug 30, 2017 at 9:39

Regarding the definition of philosophy being used here (the easier question to answer). The second answer in this meta post gives a very good definition of what "philosophy" is according to this site

... understood broadly but generously in line with the academic discipline which traditionally includes metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics


We take an expansive view of what traditions to include in philosophy (Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, Native American philosophy, African American philosophy, Greek Philosophy, Medieval Islamic and Christian philosophy, Logical Positivism, etc.) can all fall under the banner.

I don't think it could be much clearer than that.

The obvious answer to the second question is that there is no difference, asking and answering philosophical questions definitely is doing philosophy. For whatever reason though, that's not what the community here want this site to be about. What the community is suggesting makes the answer sufficiently objective is that it contains the opinion of a published author within the realm of philosophy as defined above. Preferably, it contains the opinion of several published authors representing different approaches. That much seems to me to be simple. The site is about answers that are already within the written canon of philosophical works as defined above

The trouble, I think, which causes such a problem for moderators, also some resentment from a certain class of newcomer and a considerable amount of closed questions/downvoted answers, is that it's just not that simple.

Firstly, there's a considerable amount of contrary evidence still on the site. The top voted answer to the Meta question "What is this site about?" still suggests that answers might be acceptable if they are...

... such as to be focused on abstract reasoning and widely accepted methods of argumentation and be precise in that they rigorously adhere to the demands of the original question.

more importantly, perhaps, some of our highest voted answers from some of our highest rep users are completely un-cited opinion, the last example even starts with "I think". See here, here, here, here, here. I don't think any long-term user would doubt that we could come up with dozens of further examples without any trouble.

Secondly The definition of what constitutes a 'good subjective' question is, itself, subjective, but quite often the argument "that's just not what a Stack Exchange site is for" is used to justify the community's preferences here. We prefer answers to contain only the opinion of published authors. They do not need to, to fit on a Stack Exchange site, I'd be interested to see how World-Building.SE gets on limiting it's answers to those that can be objectively supported by citation.

Thirdly, there seems some reluctance to see citation as a simple editing process, which I think may lead some people to consider their opinions unwelcome. As anyone who has spent considerable time in the world of academic philosophy will know, you can find someone within the canon who will support almost every position it is possible to hold, yet lack of citation is used too often as a means to belittle answers that are perhaps a bit outside of the norm. In the last few weeks alone I've commented on two answers where the answerer had failed to cite their (admittedly unpopular) positions. My comments added the names of the published philosophers who supported those positions, other comments simply derided the post for not fitting the "standard" model. Adding a few references to an otherwise perfectly legitimate answer should be standard editing (or commenting) practice, if it's really the lack of citations we think is the problem and yet I hardly ever see it happen.

Fourthly, there seems to be some difficulty in drawing the line between simply pointing out the logical flaws in an argument and doing philosophy. This answer here for example, contains no references supporting the notion that the argument has logical flaws, nor does it need any, but it could be argued (indeed has been) that all of philosophy is about finding logical flaws in an argument, so where do we start expecting someone to support the flaws they think they've spotted with citations from published sources. If one were to answer a question such as this one, in a similar vein to the answer I've just cited, with a logical flaw they think they've spotted, what increased justification do we then have for demanding that they reference some published philosopher who also sees those flaws?

Resolving these issues will not be simple, but I think it might reduce the workload for the moderators and improve new user retention, both of which have recently been flagged as problems.

  • "some of our highest voted answers from some of our highest rep users are completely un-cited opinion" -- looks like well based opinion (clear, inspired, thoughtful) is also a good format for this site, after all. Otherwise, it would mean we're only parrots, without the ability to think for ourselves, and that would be a shame.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 10, 2017 at 13:55
  • In regards to the question you linked that I answered, that question is a basic question about game theory, which really makes it off topic for this site as it has nothing to do with philosophy and my answer is entirely composed of saying basic facts about arithmetic and telling the OP their question didn't make sense. I answered it because Conifold suggested that my comments served as an answer to the op as the question was currently written. In no part of it was I doing philosophy, the question isn't even about philosophy and it kind of strikes me as weird that people haven't voted to close.
    – Not_Here
    Aug 11, 2017 at 2:02
  • (1) there is no difference, asking and answering philosophical questions definitely is doing philosophy. Maybe or maybe not. A lot hinges on what the adjective "philosophical" is doing here. There's a clear cut distinction between asking questions about "art" and making pieces of "art," and the same distinction is meant to apply here.
    – virmaior
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:08
  • (2) I agree with you on the good subjective / bad subjective thing. I've never really understood that. (one problem is that the word "subjective" has at least three distinct meanings).
    – virmaior
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:09
  • 3
    (3) the example of world-building.SE highlights the problem rather than undermines it. A good answer on world-building is one that would help a person designing their own fictional world. That feature of answering and voting on answers is hopefully not arbitrary. Here, the same guiding criterion should be whether it answers the users question about philosophy. The problem here vs. there is that often people do not have a question about philosophy. They have a position in philosophy they want to validate and that makes the voting arbitrary and breaks the point of an SE.
    – virmaior
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:11
  • @Not_Here The point is your answer has been both accepted and now has 5 votes, given the generally low voting activity on this site, that's enough to put it in the top 10-15% of answers recently, plus the question itself has four. It's the inconsistency I think people find hard to follow, if you think it's not philosophy, then vote to close, don't answer it. Personally, I think it's a perfectly good answer to a perfectly reasonable question (I'm one of the five votes), but then I think that answers pointing out reasonably argued logical flaws are acceptable in general.
    – user22791
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:37
  • @Virmaior Who doesn't have a position in philosophy they want to validate? Some are more ingenious than others in how to go about advancing that agenda, but most do, that's just human nature. What we see stand out are just the cruder approaches, the more subtle ones cannot be flagged so easily, but build up a certain amount of resentment over time. That academic philosophy in it's entirety (existentialism included) is saying something that mere musings in the pub is not, is just such a position, and questions (and answers) often reflect that.
    – user22791
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:47
  • @Virmaior The difference between philosophy and art in your example is that at no point does asking the question about art ever become art. At some point asking the question "what did X really mean by ..." (an acceptable question here) actually becomes philosophy, in the academic sense when it is answered by a professional philosopher. Many of the best modern philosophical works are answering exactly those kind of questions. So if one has little faith in the differentiating value of professional employment (as many do), the distinction becomes entirely arbitrary.
    – user22791
    Aug 11, 2017 at 6:55
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2953
    Aug 12, 2017 at 16:16

For me, the biggest difference is that answers that do philosophy have no references.

But that covers over 90% of answers on this site, so hey hum.

It's frustrating, though not as bad as people using the voting system to do philosophy.

  • But even answers that do have references may still be doing philosophy.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 13, 2017 at 13:47
  • it's not the only factor, for sure. @Rodrigo
    – user28117
    Aug 13, 2017 at 14:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .