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What are the rules of the site on definitions?

I asked a question on how four terms are different, and it was swiftly closed, despite having enough context to make sense.

There's probably hundreds of questions here that ask for definitions. Do I just have to seem nicer? Or perhaps I am unlucky with different people voting to close for different reasons?

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    I agree that I've seen mixed signals on definition questions and I think a definitive meta response would be good to set future precedent. I think the divide is usually made between general questions that ask about definitions and very specific questions that ask for some philosopher's specific definition, but I can see issues (and I think they've been highlighted) with making that distinction and allowing one and not the other. – Not_Here Aug 13 '17 at 8:54
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Although this is an old question, I will attempt an answer rather than ask a new question along the same lines.

This is a partial answer because I don't think there are any specific rules for definitions. In general, one should "only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face". That seems general enough to include definitions. (See https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask and https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic)

Regarding definitions, this is what I, as a reader, would like to see.

  • A question requesting a definition should contain some cited and sourced text providing context for why the questioner needs to understand something as a definition better. This focuses the answer and allows a reader like myself to decide quickly if I want to bother reading any of the answers. The question introduces the answers.

  • An answer providing a definition should contain a sourced quote giving the definition. The answer should not be something the person answering the question makes up no matter how obvious such a definition might appear. The person answering the question needs to cite an authority from a published source quoting the offered definition. That provides me a place to go as a reader to get more information and it strengthens the answer.

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My sense is that there's three things going ... maybe four in fact.

Definitions of common words

Asking us to define or make sense of common words is off-topic here. That's for English.SE or ELL.SE or other language SEs accordingly.

Definitions of words that have a common meaning in contemporary philosophy

Some words like "validity", "truth table" from logic and some words like "thing-in-itself", "epoche", "utilitarianism", "Geist" and others have a specific definition in philosophy that is common across multiple philosophers or eras or are idiosyncratic to one philosopher that they have an agreed to definition (in the general contours) among philosophers.

Definitions of words in the vocabulary of a single philosophy

Some words are used in specific ways by individual philosophers and thus on-topic when properly marked. For instance, "metaphysics" and "ontology" are too big to be simply defined for everyone, but if you said "What does Heidegger mean by metaphysics?" or "What is essence in Aristotle?" then the question which would have been too broad for the "common meaning in contemporary philosophy" category becomes sufficiently narrow.

In a sense, the words that are so idiosyncratic to be recognizable "manifold of apperception" are words that shift automatically from the second category to the third category.

The Caveat

The fourth dimension here is that philosophers know (at least within their sub-fields) which words are which.


Functionally for answers, the key is to be able to explain where that philosophers explains or what that philosopher uses the term as for (3). For (2), much of it as so foundational that it's odd to meet someone in philosophy with a substantially different definition (and usually then they know the common definition but don't like it for some reason).

  • +1 I agree that definitions of common words are off-topic and belong on a separate SE. Not giving a source for common philosophic definitions doesn't give the reader a place to go for more information. Even if most philosophers agree on the definition, picking out some philosophers as examples may have value to the reader. – Frank Hubeny Jan 4 at 5:07
  • @FrankHubeny that's a very fair point on the second category and I would gladly upvote / reward answers that trace without becoming tedious the origins of some of the shared philosophical vocabulary. – virmaior Jan 4 at 16:26

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