So, I ask myself the question: "What is the meaning of life?" Since I've been on SE for a few days, even before joining the philosophy branch I'm fully aware that this is a bad subjective question.

Existing questions

Nevertheless, I join the fun here and browse through the meaning-of-life tag. And of course I see many closed questions, for example:

Similar questions are:

Great meta questions (meta about the question of meaning of life) are for example

My proposal

The question "What is the meaning of life?" seems to be one that is important to many people and will be asked time and time again. And as long as the community is expected to come up with own answers, this will stay primarily opinion-based.

So, what if we have a question that asks "What do philosophers say about 'What is the meaning of life?'?" Wouldn't be opinion-based anymore I guess. This, as a community wiki question with answers could certainly enrich this site as I see it. When additionally restricting the answers to one philosophic per answer (in connection with community wiki) we could avoid list answers and duplicate answers. Ideally, the question and answers would provide some alternative to Wikipedia's take on the matter.

I ask you to discuss if this would be a good idea. I should mention that there is one question similar in what I want: Various Philosopher's Perspective on the Meaning or Purpose of Life. But the question itself is more focused on references and "something short [...] that I can just put in a document that I'd have them read before the next meeting." I would like answers to be more verbose.

  • +1 Although I don't know how a community wiki question would work. Apr 8, 2018 at 18:10
  • @FrankHubeny I think this refers to the 'community wiki as no-points mechanism' that forces all answers to the question to be 'community wiki' (CW). However, this usage of CW is currently outdated (except on MO and maybe TCS?): stackoverflow.blog/2011/08/19/the-future-of-community-wiki . I think this idea is ok, but using CW for it is likely inappropriate. Apr 12, 2018 at 12:39
  • @Discretelizard I think what the OP proposed is to make a canonical reference post as a dupe target. e.g. a discussion on MSO
    – Andrew T.
    Apr 13, 2018 at 4:26
  • I love the idea and thought about it as well, seeing many questions pop that have a very similar manner. I'd like to expand on your proposal and suggest we have a sort of "pinned posts" that'll be the questions that moderators see that have many duplicates (meaning of life is one example, scientific method is another. Of course the questions should be specific according to the guidelines). I propose that those posts will be in the form of "answer your own question" (with only one answer, by the OP) presented by a mod (and editable and discussable as every other question to improve the answer). Apr 13, 2018 at 11:07
  • Although this might require the mods to talk with higher ranks in SE to allow such feature. Maybe SE will take this feature and introduce it to all its sites. The "pinned" might be in another tab with the existing "active" "hot" "week" and "month" tabs. (edit: perhaps comments shouldn't be allowed for it, that's for internal discussion though between the mods if the idea ever takes off.) Apr 13, 2018 at 11:07
  • Perhaps I should mention the related concept of 'reference questions' on Computer Science (see cs.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/reference-question). One purpose of them is to select them as a duplicate target for questions that are simply too elementary that they are essentially covered in the 'standard reference'. Apr 13, 2018 at 12:14
  • There were multiple. They were closed as unconstructive or too broad. If you open another, it will be closed as unconstructive or too broad, because the question is unconstructive and too broad. Apr 18, 2018 at 20:28

3 Answers 3


The problem in terms of the site structure is that there is no single correct answer. The voting process is supposed to reflect correctness of content and not form or agreement.

If you avoid list and survey answers, what does a vote mean? The best exposition of Sartre and the best exposition of Diogenes of Sinope would be competing, theoretically for listing positions. How would we expect one to compare them?

I think the question itself would be OK, if it kind of 'temporarily called off' the competitive structure of the site.

  • 2
    Exactly. SE is not about polls and questions should be answerable objectively. Votes should reflect coherence, objectivity, form, and conciseness for questions and relevance, completeness, coherence, correctness, and form for answers. Narrowing down to "What is the meaning of life for philosopher XYZ" or for a certain branch of philosophy (which already can be too broad in some cases) may be completely legit, though.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Apr 14, 2018 at 10:31
  • That's one of the reasons why I think my proposal would work - it's a post editable and discussable (via comments) by anyone, with the sole limit that a change to it would require a mod confirmation. We keep the "no single correct answer" mode by the way of introducing multiple answers in one post. It might look something like a SEP page. Anyone could add, edit and shed a different light on the subject, all under an organized post. To be honest, it could also be just like a regular SE question, only with the benefit of being able to pin it in a special "pinned" tab. Apr 19, 2018 at 12:29

I have thought about this and I think I raised a similar question on meta at some point, or at least wrote half of the question out and didn't end up finishing it. I think that it's a good idea to have a question like this and I think it can work with or without the community wiki style answers.

There's a long history of discussion on this site about what direction questions should go, whether having a proclivity towards academic philosophy and well sourced answers are better than the opposite (I am of the opinion that the former is better), but I don't think going into the details of that discussion is necessary for this question. What I do think is that it is very apparent that when an average person who hasn't been exposed to rigorous philosophy thinks of the field of philosophy, some of the questions they instantly associate with it are questions such as "what is the meaning of life?" "who are we?" "where are we going?" and other similarly novel questions like "if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around it, does it make a sound?" Those are questions that the average person thinks are philosophical (which, in a strong way, they are) and I think that it would be a smart decision to have those questions on this site.

In the case of "if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around it, does it make a sound?", someone asked that question or at least something similar some time last year I believe, and in an answer I tried to show them that the philosophical aspect of that question has to do with definitions. We know that physical interactions cause vibrations in the air, we know that if a tree falls those vibrations will happen, so the only part of the question that needs to be sorted out is whether or not "sound" refers to those vibrations or to the act of some sense organ picking those vibrations up and a mind processing them. So, what I tried to point out is that the philosophical import of that question isn't whether or not there's a sound, the import is in that question being an example of how philosophy uses analysis and careful understanding and setting forth of definitions in order to answer questions. It's sort of like a case study in using philosophical analysis, the question vanishes once we're clear on what we mean by "sound", and that's the lesson of the question. I think that having a question that asks "if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around it, does it make a sound?" and having an answer that explains what I've just stated is valuable for this site, because that question is a very common question that the average person associates with philosophy. As I recall (I may be wrong, it was a long time ago), that question was closed because people viewed it as being a question about definitions and English, and not an actual question about philosophy. I agree that at face value it's a question about definitions, but that in and of itself is exactly why it's philosophical, it's a case study in philosophical analysis of language and concepts.

I feel the exact same way when it comes to "what is the meaning of life?" It's a question that is very often associated with philosophy by the average person, even if they don't understand how difficult of a question it is to answer and how much work goes into formulating a concrete philosophical argument about it. I think that a detailed answer that contextualizes that specific question's place in philosophy and gives examples, with a large amount of sources and quotes and everything else that a good objective answer about a humanities question should have, is both achievable and overall beneficial for the site. A community wiki would be a great format for that type of answer.

However, even if people were still disposed towards objecting to this question and saying that a contextualizing answer wouldn't answer the real question or wouldn't be good enough of an answer, I think that we can mask the purported lack of objectivity by putting it under the "Summer Silly" tag. Here and here we've talked about having a certain period during the summer where silly, less serious questions about philosophy are allowed to be asked in good spirit, and I think that questions like "what is the meaning of life" and "if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around it, does it make a sound?" are the exact type of questions that fall under this heading. Sure, it's not summer right now, but I believe that we can make an exception to the time frame given the nature of this question. Maybe we could even introduce a different tag instead of summer silly, something like "colloquial philosophy" to specifically refer to these types of questions. Of course there is instantly the problem of adjudicating when a question is "colloquially philosophical", people will disagree about specifics, and there would need to be a larger discussion about it before any sort of implementation could take place, but that's another thought at least.

So, to recapitulate, I believe that this is an important question that is considered to be the definition of a philosophical question by a large amount of the global population; I believe that a very strong objective answer is achievable by contextualizing the question in the history of philosophy and making sure to provide a large amount of sources and quotations (this, I believe, would be good to do as a community wiki style answer); and even if people object to the idea of the question as not being objective enough, there is the option of putting under an alternative tag that lets everybody know the specific nature of the question and the answers and that the usual quality of objectivity that is aimed for might not be possible in this case.

I am very curious to hear people's responses to this, especially the moderators'. One objection that I perfectly accept is that even if we do have this platonic ideal answer that I've loosely described, there will still be a large amount of people writing their own subjective and personal answers to the question. Does labeling it a summer silly question absolve those subjective answers? Maybe not, but I am very interested in opinions on this option.

  • I think the problem with your proposal of "summer silly" is that people would instantly consider those questions to be, as the phrase suggests, silly. That might, in turn, backlash at us and cause many inappropriate behavior in answering those questions, while what we really need is to not consider these subjects lightly and provides as much detail and perspectives as we can, much like every Phi.SE question we face here. And I'm not sure that changing the phrase will help. Apr 19, 2018 at 12:40
  • @YechiamWeiss a priori that might seem plausible but there are questions that have been asked under the summer silly tag and there was no giant backlash from random people coming to the site seeing those questions.
    – Not_Here
    Apr 19, 2018 at 21:05

One place to put information about the meaning-of-life tag is in the info page for the tag. That page includes a brief description or "usage guidance" and an optional longer section or "tag wiki" that is peer-reviewed.

Currently there is neither a usage guidance nor a tag wiki for the meaning-of-life tag: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/tags/meaning-of-life/info

Other tags have both a usage guidance and a tag wiki, such as, epistemology: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/tags/epistemology/info

One can find the info page by clicking on a tag icon and then clicking on the "info" link.

Perhaps filling in this information for the meaning-of-life tag would fulfill the request.

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