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I've noticed on the Philosophy Exchange that all questions are answered with references to secure a more logical and strengthened argument (which is sensible), but why do we assume that these references are concrete enough to act as the basis of "fact" towards supporting an argument or viewpoint?

In other words, we tend to use the ideology from philosophers of the past, but never truly accept new ideas or ideas unrelated to modern scientific study. For example, Newton's theories of gravity and space-time were revolutionized by Einstein's "out-of-the-box" thinking, wouldn't this same pattern/case apply to every field of study? Wouldn't it be true to say we are restricting our own minds by placing these parameters or bounds on the questions being asked? Should we not be "injecting" modern ideas into our answers as well to help expand on our views? Rather than punish members of this community, should we instead allow them to open up new thought patterns to potentially arrive to a more succinct conclusion?

One can argue that none of the questions asked nor answered on this exchange are ever close to certain. The rules seem to be a bit backwards, or maybe I am not understanding the limitations that seem to govern this site. Please help me understand this better, so I can engage accordingly.

migrated from philosophy.stackexchange.com Oct 21 '18 at 11:24

This question came from our site for those interested in the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.

  • This is more a question about the site than a question about philosophy, and should be asked on meta. However, it doesn't jibe with my experience here. Modern philosophers are quoted all the time, and I've used modern physics in at least one answer here. – David Thornley Oct 19 '18 at 15:57
  • Understood, I thought I had posted this on the meta exchange, sorry about that, but I appreciate both of your prompt responses. – LuxDivina Oct 19 '18 at 16:04
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    "none of the questions asked nor answered by philosophers are ever close to certain." EXACTLY. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 19 '18 at 18:50
  • Maybe it's like fine art; nobody cares about a philospher's ideas until you're dead. – Cell Oct 19 '18 at 21:27
  • Also, regarding Einstein, he worried that he was over-turning Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic. In fact, compared to many of today's scientists Einstein was the very model of a man who took philosophy seriously. – Gordon Oct 21 '18 at 14:50
  • You may want to read the beginning of this book too: "Quantum Enigma: physics encounters consciousness" by Bruce Rosenblum, and F. Kuttner. One of the authors, while still a student, was taken with another student by their prof. to see Einstein at his house. The first question Einstein asked the students was a philosophy question. And Einstein seemed disappointed that the students were not prepared to engage on philosophical questions. – Gordon Oct 22 '18 at 13:37
  • There are some certain answers to be found so we cannot generalise about the answers here. The view that philosophers can never be certain is common but not proven and is wrong according to some philosophers. There are good reasons for quoting authorities, one of which is to quickly show that one has studied the field. But I'd agree about philosophers often being unable to move on. . . – PeterJ Nov 1 '18 at 12:06
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The best general answer I can give you is that philosophy is a difficult, rigorous subject and it's impossible to answer a philosophical question without using technical language and special concepts (although you might be able to refute naive answers using ordinary language, thus proving that it is a meaningful question). If instead of giving someone else's answer to a question I were to give my own, I would either be giving it in a rough form (s.t. you wouldn't really be able to tell why it was correct) or I would be using very specific terms and methods advocated by, say, Brandom or Heidegger or Canguilhem. But not everyone studies or understands those terms and methods; and explaining them would be more effort than answering whatever question was asked in the first place! However, all these recent developments are in some way dependent on the classics of modern philosophy (so e.g., anyone familiar with those three philosophers will probably take Kant very seriously) and the various modern classics all depend on ideas and terms advanced in ancient philosophy (primarily Plato and Aristotle, but also the Stoics).

The long and short of it is that if you can answer a question by giving an example of some other philosopher's answer, it will be much clearer and much more accessible (and there will also be a source-text the questioner can go to for more detail); and the earlier the answer is, the larger the fraction of the philosophical community that will be able to grasp and access the answer.

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I think there are certain potential misconceptions about philosophy and StackExchange involved here which I would like to address, namely:

  1. Philosophy as fact

  2. The sense in which sources are factual bases of answers

  3. Philosophy.SE as being about philosophy vs. being for doing philosophy

Factuality, philosophy, and StackExchange

[W]hy do we assume that these references are concrete enough to act as the basis of "fact" towards supporting an argument or viewpoint?

According to modern understanding, that which states/ensures/produces "facts" is science. There are some authors who want to establish philosophy as science or "science of sciences", but usually, branches of philosophy that "mature" into science proper are seen as just that - a new science - and in a sense exactly not philosophy anymore.

Philosophy is about arguments and reasons, about meanings and the "why"'s and "how"'s that are not answered by facts. In other words: That which stands into question - in a sense the opposite of that which is "factual", i.e. that which just is (obviously, insofar that which is stands into question, it is a subject of philosophy). Philosophy obviously has to include "facts", but facts are - at least according to the vast majority of philosophers - about the world and play a role of justification in philosophy.

Now, StackExchange, by its very nature, bids us to build our answers on facts. So why use texts of philosophers of old (or not that old) as the basis of answers here? Why use references instead of allowing for ingenious, revolutionary, progressive thought? Because references constitute a factual basis, in a sense: They, as a matter of fact, state what they do state, are publicly available and in this sense objective, similar to the insights of science. The difference is that the intension (mind the "s"!, technical term!), i.e. the referent and guarantor of the objectivity, is itself not a fact in the world, but rather a meaning, i.e. the sense of that which has been written.

To refer back to the "factuality" of philosophical sources: So yes, obviously the content of the answers is not certain, even if they are well-sourced in philosophical references, because philosophical propositions are philosophical insofar they have questionable truth-value. But it is certain that these are (the) answers that exist.

The problem of knowledge about philosophy vs. doing philosophy

One of our best-voted Meta-questions is Friends, we are not philosophers and the only, clarifying answer correctly states:

Just to clarify [...], the point is not that none of us are philosophers (which would be false), it is that we are not here in our capacity as philosophers, but in our capacity as subject matter experts about the field of philosophy. Our task is to answer questions about philosophy, not philosophy questions per se. The reason is that StackExchange itself is oriented towards questions with well-defined, objective answers, and few (if any) open philosophical questions have those.

A similar point has been made (based on the help center guidelines) here in an answer of mine regarding "philosophical questions".

Long story short: Since StackExchange demands that questions are answerable (and answered) based on facts rather than opinions or standpoints, we have to base answers on the factual basis there is in philosophy: formerly written texts. Original philosophy is obviously important for the subject matter of philosophy itself, but Philosophy.SE is not a place where it does fit.

Similarly, an answer based on a revolutionary, yet undocumented (and untested) theory on Physics.SE would not be received well. In a sense, StackExchange is conservative, since it is supposed to build a databank of and thus preserve existing expert knowledge about solutions within the various subjects in form of a Q & A format. It is not supposed to be the platform for the promotion of new, unprecedented and therefore "experimental" content that - even if based on and originated from expert knowledge - itself is not part of that which we commonly call "knowledge", but perhaps rather "intuitions" or "hypotheses".

Conclusion: Even if all philosophical writing could be rendered as "mere, unertain hypotheses" (taking an extreme limiting case), it could still be the basis of an answer on StackExchange since that these hypotheses exist and how they are argued for is still factual. To the contrary, mere hypotheses (even if they may turn out to be revolutionary and "correct" or "accepted") do not meet this minimum standard of StackExchange.

((Disclaimer: I am aware of the fact that about 80% (conservatively estimated) of the questions and answers do not meet the standards described here and in the help center. This is unfortunate, since it repels experts from participating and berefts the site of valuable contributors, see e.g. here. It will take a huge joint effort of a significant part of the community to change that, as there is no way the moderators alone can do it. Opening meta-threads with proposals for and discussions of a definite policy as well as voicing positions on meta in general is explicitly welcomed!))

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To answer this question, let me tell you what alfred whitehead said: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

The reason for that is plato and aristotle have something on literally everything pertinent to contemporary philosophy. However, to say we rely on them is not really true. Modern philosophy has came a long way from ancient philosophic traditions. Sure, they are at times reffered to, but their ideas are not held as an absolute.

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You may have hit on one reason for the stagnation of Plato's academic tradition. Physics has moved on but this philosophy remains where Plato left it. Too much of what is called philosophy is just a historical review of its problems.

Having said this, it would waste of much of everybody's time here if answers were uninformed by the work of earlier philosophers. So I have no problem with the rules. They seem flexible enough to allow for all informed views but robust enough to prevent the site from becoming useless (as are some philosophy sites). Indeed, it's the most interesting and useful site I've come across thanks to the people and the rules. My views are unorthodox here but I find no problem in expressing them and when I've run foul of the rules I've always accepted that it's my error and not a problem with the rules. I wouldn't want to change them.

I feel the problem is not that we award the past greats of philosophy too much respect, often they deserve more than they get, but that we do not recognise their failure and try to do better. It's as if trying to do better is considered hubris or impossible. They say that without a knowledge of history we are doomed to repeat it but in Plato's tradition it is as if the whole point of learning history is to repeat it. Perhaps this is what you're getting at, and if so I can see where you're coming from.

Another issue may be pessimism. Most if not all of the philosophers studied in the university system failed to solve any philosophical problems and the study of them seems to very often lead to the idea nobody could do better. But if we cannot do better then we will never understand philosophy any better than they did, in which case it becomes debatable whether philosophy is worth discussing. There's no point if its just footnotes to Plato.

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Here is the concern:

The rules seem to be a bit backwards, or maybe I am not understanding the limitations that seem to govern this site. Please help me understand this better, so I can engage accordingly.

The rules allow anyone to participate whether they are a professional philosopher or not. As the user gains reputation points the user receives opportunities to participate more. No one is forced to participate.

The site is formatted in a question and answer style. It is not a forum (although there are chat room opportunities for forum like discussions). That means to start things off we need a question. Comments are permitted for clarification, but if there are too many comments a chat room is made available. The way to respond is with an answer.

This puts a structure around open topics (questions). Some people, like myself, find this a good way to learn. It gives us an opportunity to express ourselves which improves our understanding. There is also a set of old questions that are tagged for easy reference. Reading these old questions and answers can help formulate new questions and answers as well as understand specific aspects of philosophy better. You can always answer a question from the past that is still open.

There is also a game structure to focus and motivate activity. Part of the game an individual user can do independently of others just by participating. Another part of the game requires other users to participate with them (or not). It may seem like one is "punished" by some of the actions of others, but they may feel that they are being punished as well. Don't take any of it seriously. Focus on what interests you among the open questions.

If you find this an enjoyable way to learn philosophy, I welcome you to continue participating. Don't worry if your posts get down-voted, closed or receive a possibly negative comment. You are talking to real people. Keep participating. Find ways to work around those problems. Those currently active here come and go and in the process the social environment changes.

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