Ladies, Gentlemen, and everyone in between, but particularly PhilSE: Moderators,

I have now been gleefully contributing for a year, experimenting with the psychology and technology at play in this forum as well as exploring the mechanisms and policies operant in this social venture, and as I would like to make this my intellectual home and contribute for an extended period of time because of the utility and joy (sometimes derivative of ironic cheekiness), I pose the following question:

Is there a mechanism for governing the governance of content related to PhilSE: The FAQ? I couldn't find anything, so should I presume it's by universal consensus of the Tribunal of Moderators? In other words, were (subjunctive implies possibility, not necessity, mind you) one group of users be caught gaming the system with game-theoretic tactics by abusing closure to avoid the penalties of downvoting and discourage participation driving down traffic, is there an alternative means of realigning with the intent of the foundation of this forum other than forming a second faction and reopening such questions, perhaps by the use of democratically decided by-laws to serve as a font of policy to complement the non-normative-by-design mechanism?

I concede and suggest:

  • We as a tribe should have the capacity given the lessons of the Enlightenment the need for such methods of governance given human nature.
  • Democratically elected is not fungible with democratically accountable.
  • Organizational management by policies and procedures and the rule of law are hardly radical notions.
  • The sheer lack of activity on the meta-side is symptomology, and not demonstrative of a lack of conflict.
  • This site is not living up to its potential for being more active among a greater variety of users, but rather may be serving the needs of the technical elite at the expense of the needs of the many and our corporate sponsors.

Has the political will of the veteran user base decided that the current status quo is the terminal velocity and terminus of this institution that aims to facilitate philosophical pedagogy and critical thinking?

As a former educator, labor unionist, and social democrat, I have no lack of experience dealing with organized interests that maintain the status quo; I am trying to determine to what extent the political elite here (potentially with the complicity of the moderators elected thereby) harbor the ambition of growing the traffic to this site. I needn't point out that no matter how many questions are actually posted (clearly benefiting the interests of our corporate aegis), the gaming of the system of closure works counter to their interests (and serves to exclude many interested in gaining knowledge).

It is unfortunate that a site purporting to be expert in Philosophical Q&A now closes discussion of ideas that have their own articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If an entry in the SEP and multiple sources by recognized philosophical expertise in diverse fields doesn't constitute a basis for establishing a question is on-topic, why should anyone take our expertise seriously at all?

Were this any other organization, I wouldn't waste my breath because of the lack of comprehension of the dynamics at play, but I do in the hopes that I see enough intelligence (fluid and crystallized), that some constructive discourse can occur. My only question is there still an interest in using this forum to broadly encourage the study of philosophy conducted by the Demos of Athens, or is this now an Ephorate in Sparta that prefers gold to iron? In the modern tongue, are we still a bazaar or are the empty halls of the meta side evidence that we are a cathedral?

These words are the message, and I'm the mere messenger. I can abide by the rules of either, but as a soldier and thinker, I want to know which rules are in play and not bruise any of the delicate egos here; I'm a corporate shill who takes the king's coin and does the king's business so I have no academic reputation to conceal here, but it might not hurt to leave a signpost for future thinkers coming here so they too know the folkways and mores of this group without having to spend a year doing research.

Let's consider this the null hypothesis, and all this community needs is one good argument to derail it. As American of English, German, and Scandanavian decent, I take great pride in the innovation of the common law, and feel it is my duty to publish an RFC for the establishment of by-laws to clarify the boundaries between vox populis and those who have been elevated by franchise. Do you or do you not share that pride? Because if you do, it shouldn't be too hard to come to consensus, right? After all: friends, are we not philosophers?

  • I don't want to nail theses to the door if I do not have support of the German princes. – J D Nov 3 '20 at 15:47
  • For readers: Please also read this other notable post by JD philosophy.meta.stackexchange.com/a/5193/17209 – Philip Klöcking Nov 4 '20 at 9:20
  • I featured the post in the hope that more peoples' attention is drawn and we get a broader contribution and base of votes and takes on that matter. Please, everybody: Write something, vote, take part! – Philip Klöcking Nov 4 '20 at 9:26
  • As an information: the @... only pings persons if they already contributed in the comment thread. You cannot summon non-participating users with that, unfortunately. Even I cannot. – Philip Klöcking Nov 4 '20 at 9:31
  • I had the same question as @Bumble last sentence. At first I thought to (smugly!) point out to you your inconsistency. Then thought: Its just too close a juxtaposition in space and time for you to have not noticed. But its still unclear whether we are or are not philosophers (according to you) – Rusi-packing-up Nov 6 '20 at 6:45
  • "abusing closure to avoid the penalties of downvoting" as a statement seems odd. You can only close questions, and downvoting questions has no reputation penalty. You also have 10 additional votes per day on questions. I understand my concern is probably just a petty technicality and you have bigger fish to fry. – user47215 Nov 28 '20 at 1:41
  • @user47215 I believe I crafted that statement in regards to down-voting answers, not questions. My thinking is that any question here can modified with a minimum of effort to be presented as a defensible question, and that the quality of answers tend to match the quality of questions. So, instead of adding a few words, responding to the question, and down-voting bad answers, it's easier just to try to toss the question. The result is that the questions most likely to be of use to the greatest number are tossed in favor of highly technical questions that appeal to a small cadre. – J D Nov 28 '20 at 21:06
  • See Paul Ross's response below for what I consider to be an adequate representation of what I see as the chief demographic dichotomy. – J D Nov 28 '20 at 21:07

A discussion long overdue

First off, I very much welcome any discussion or discourse. This community essentially is a cathedral, which is a pity and it does not even fit the StackExchange model. We simply lack contribution. Attempts to make it a lively one (chat, events, themed weeks, you name it) failed. I pledge guilty of having reduced my efforts after seeing them having no effect whatsoever.

A theory of moderation

The StackExchange model is democratic and the moderators are generally bound by the decisions made by the majority of (active) users of this site (within the bounds of what the founders and hosts of this site, StackExchange Inc., have decided).

I cannot simply overthrow a community close vote because it suits me, ie. moderators are far from being a sovereign government. We are primarily here to handle cases that go beyond the moderation privileges normal users can achieve: bigotry and harassment, misuse of the system, repeated misconduct. And these decisions can be appealed by community vote on meta and/or the community team of StackExchange Inc., ie. the Community Managers.

We moderators have to be more involved into moderation beyond handling flags here not because we like to, but because more often than it should be, there simply are not enough users who do have the privilege (which is named that way because it implies a right as well as a duty) to participate in the self-governmental moderation process and actually do clear their review queues.

On producing by-laws (community-specific policies)

Because of the strong democratic principle of StackExchange, particular policy by-laws for specific communities as an expression of self-government are a thing here, as long as they fit the general model. They are in no way up to the moderators to decide upon but as a peer with equal vote, here on meta.

Actually, having some rules more specific than the help center would make moderation much easier, both for us and for you, the community.

Contribution vs. scope: the dog chasing its tail

The main problem of this site is the comparatively small basis of active users, both on the main site and meta.

That's the reason why we sometimes actually lack the expertise to properly handle certain questions (as I already mentioned elsewhere) and that's why problematic votes which usually would be leveled by sheer mass have significant effect here, both in down- and close votes. Last but not least, it means that there are few votes cast and it takes much more and longer commitment than on other StackExchange sites until you have the privileges needed to actively shape the moderation. This also cements the 'cathedral' aspect of the community, since the self-governmental aspect only gets real after quite some time in which you had to endure governance you had no influence upon, which encourages a self-selecting user base development.

This is good and wanted, but obviously can lead to problematic outcomes, potentially. Especially when partisan policies are institutionalised.

That been said, I know that being more open to philosophical discussion and original ideas would enable us to integrate a broader user base. But I am wary of opinions being thrown around casually because it becomes a habit. It would deprive the site of its main worth: You get impartial, expert knowledge to the question. If a question cannot be answered that way, it does not fit with StackExchange.

Also, it most definitely would mean losing expertise (as we already have in the past) because knowledgeable users are frustrated by witty concepts and discussions which lack a proper base for answers (or discussions) since they are based on absolutely ingenious, never existing (or found by philosophers), and generally misunderstood insights into the fabric of Reality which is usually based on playing with language to the point of losing any conventional meaning (Does this sound as sarcastic and derogatory as it should? Good). Basing questions on a textual basis is preventing this kind of digression into the absurd (or idiosyncratic) discourse, but at the same time, making it mandatory seems too much of a confinement. Finding the reasonable middle ground here is the key to glee, which I have yet to find.

The knowledge that philosophy needs discussion and we actually encourage users to think about and discuss what they read here (since that's when they engage and learn) is why we encouraged philosophical discussion in chat some time ago, but it has never been received that well.


As for me, ideas for policies that do not let us lose reasonable scope and at the same time invites a broader user base are always welcome. I would love to contribute to any such discussion. But I'd also suggest that it always comes down to how these are enforced and communicated by the broader community of high-rep users via comments and edits.

Last but not least: Nothing is set in stone

(Except what the company says, basically. But we can ask kindly)

This is my current take as a user with some more rights than others, though. I am happy to discuss every single point and always open to suggestions and ideas. And if the community decides that my views are crap and nobody can convince me otherwise, so be it. I will enforce the policies despite my own stance on the subject matter.

  • "Basing questions on a textual basis is preventing this kind of digression." What do you mean? Do you mean that this site already requires questions to be based on a text? (As far as I can tell, it either doesn't, or fails at it, and the closed question under discussion did cite its source). Or do you mean that the policy should be changed to require questions to have textual basis? – b a Nov 4 '20 at 11:24
  • @ba Good question! I do not think that every single question has to have a textual basis, nor did I want to suggest that there is or should be such a policy. It was rather a try to illustrate the other end of the spectrum between everything goes and objectivity in which we have to find a reasonable middle ground. I do not have the perfect recipe and personally would not have closed the question, as I expressed in the corresponding meta discussion – Philip Klöcking Nov 4 '20 at 11:29
  • @ba Edited accordingly, thanks for the heads-up again. – Philip Klöcking Nov 4 '20 at 11:45
  • This is an invigorating response. In spirit with Marshal McLuhan's precept, 'the medium is the message', and Lawrence Lessig's notions in 'Code' of how digitial architecture shape governance, the real challenge is to challenge our collective energies towards herding the cats of philosophy, perhaps an unattainable goal. The challenge of community organizing is finding ways to build consensus which manifests itself in the adoption of wide-spread habit. Now that's there's still a pulse in this body politic (for all bodies that require cooperation are such), let's ask the next question. – J D Nov 6 '20 at 17:33
  • @PhilipKlöcking hi, I've addressed some of your points in my answer. You're more than welcome to read :) – Yechiam Weiss Dec 28 '20 at 21:11

I agree that recently some questions have been closed that should not have been. For myself, I rarely vote to close a question and I have occasionally wanted to answer a question that has been closed.

Good reasons to close are:

  1. The question is simply off-topic. The OP is confusing philosophy with psychology or theology or something else. On the other hand, philosophy does traditionally include philosophy of religion, political philosophy, ethics and logic.

  2. The question is an attempt to push some original theory. Stack Exchange is not designed for this. It is not a discussion forum.

  3. The question is so broad that the only appropriate answer is: read this article in the SEP and then come back if there is something specific for which you require clarification. Maybe this was a reason to close the recent question about dispositions.

  4. The question is a duplicate, especially if it is an 'old chestnut' type question such as: is determinism compatible with free will?

  5. The question is too vague or unclear.

Bad reasons are:

  1. The question is not one usually discussed in mainstream western philosophical traditions.

  2. The question is badly worded or is making unwarranted assumptions. Often this can be fixed.

  3. The question is too simple. Simple questions are still important.

  4. The question requires an opinion as an answer. This is more tricky, because other sites within Stack Exchange try to exclude questions like this. The nature of philosophical questions is that they will often be matters of opinion. That said, a good answer shouldn't be a case of here is what I think, but here are the main positions that have been taken by the major philosophers and/or here are the main arguments pro and con.

As to the more general question about what the site is for, I see it mainly as a place where someone with a question about philosophy can come and get an informed answer. It is comparable to a student asking a teacher a question at the end of a lecture, or co-workers picking each others' brains because they believe some colleague will have more knowledge than they do. The question/answer format is not suited for open ended discussion. As a matter of interest, did you word the question specifically to contradict this question?

  • Re-iterated your last sentence in the comments to Q above – Rusi-packing-up Nov 6 '20 at 6:46
  • Certainly. I may be an analytical thinker, but Hegel's dialectic certainly has all the semblances of a process at play in the synthesis of theory. I see dialethia as the technical embodiment of that principle. This was recognized by Charles Dodgson a long time ago that contextual disambiguation is the tool by which contradiction becomes truth. – J D Nov 6 '20 at 17:11
  • Your contributions to this site are certainly valued, and I count myself fortunate to see you have given this some measure of thought. It seems we must digress into the question of the purpose of the site, before we can reinvigorate and reform the mechanisms by which it is operated. Let's move on to another important question, then, one of mission statement. – J D Nov 6 '20 at 17:35

I think some historical context is perhaps appropriate here. About a year or so ago, SE changed leadership and as a part of that made some decisions that angered a lot of people, most notably the summary dismissal of a popular, well-respected, long-time moderator (Monica Cellio) for several SE sites. There was a resulting firestorm that raged across the entire SE family of sites, and in the wake of it, quite a large number of other moderators and high rep users quit in protest, either officially, or just by drifting away.

As a result, Philosophy, like nearly other SE, is in a rebuilding phase on the administrative end. I was never a moderator here myself, but my sense is that there was a certain sense of community among the moderators that may or may not ever come back.

To your immediate point: If you want to be a moderator for this site, and are willing to put in the requisite time, effort, and neutrality, there are elections several times a year, and SE is definitely low on moderators right now.

  • I did read some of the exchanges between the parent corporation and the community, and I found it interesting. I don't think that I realized it impacted this forum specifically, but I've been on only a year. Thanks for adding some historical perspective to the question. – J D Nov 7 '20 at 23:15
  • You have my upvote... With the caveat that voting on meta carries a good idea too far😆 Much to agree and disagree on. The upvote is in effect "a random resultant". In particular the agreement: steep downhill after Monica. Disagreement: (1) This is about Monica; no it's about banana-republic governance. (2) This is caused by new CEO. He was in place for less than a month when "Monica happened" See for counterpoint meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/393552/… – Rusi-packing-up Nov 8 '20 at 12:00
  • @JD We lost one of our moderators back then. – Philip Klöcking Nov 11 '20 at 18:49

I am trying to determine to what extent the political elite here (potentially with the complicity of the moderators elected thereby) harbor the ambition of growing the traffic to this site. (JD)

First of all, thank you for posing this interesting series of questions. There is something both complex and compelling about considering the operation of this Philosophy forum as a venture in modern web ethics - namely, the maximisation of clicks.

Surely, we must recognize, Philosophy as a field is fertile ground for such a venture. Are you not sure what "Meaning" means, why aren't we all just Brains in Vats, how do we Math, why is Einstein so great, does God exist etc. etc.

And yet, the answers to such questions, in as much as they can be phrased concisely and rigorously, do not often follow the compelling quality of the questions. Who is this Quine fellow, and why do I have to read the entire history of analytical philosophy just to understand why he argues that individual meanings are radically indeterminate? I just wanted you to tell me what "Meaning" means!

The very nature of the problems most users ask this site is that they are incredibly difficult, demanding enormous talent to address both to the satisfaction of the casual and expert reader. Unlike in programming, math, graphic design and so on, where the output of one's expertise in a field often translates into digestible, applicable, reusable chunks of Practical Knowledge, the circumstances in which one asks a genuinely philosophical question and derives a concise, specific and definitive answer are often contexted entirely within one's study of or contributions to the field of Philosophy.

In order for this site format to work to the ends most suiting that elite, what they need are Unicorns: individuals presenting brilliant work translating live research into bite-size chunks for easy consumption. Realistically, anyone with the talent needed to do that work is hugely in demand elsewhere both in academia and in media, and can be much better remunerated for their time. Yes, if such talent exists freely distributed in the undiscovered realms of the internet, best to give it a platform and use it, but given just how already embedded in existing social frameworks prior philosophy knowledge is, it is fairly unlikely that it will remain so for long.

Policy-makers must thus address a compromise of the priorities of the two disparate groups of amateur users that it expects to profit from - those with very little academic training but some casual interest, and those with a moderate amount of academic training and interest but not significant enough to have proceeded to the professional level.

Trying to bring these two user groups together is a very challenging balancing act. The latter often have some interesting discussions amongst themselves, but relatively little wider appeal. The former, while promising much, rarely deliver on that promise. And even with (as you propose elsewhere) a Pedagogical model, this normally only serves to induct the former group into the latter, rather than encouraging them to thrive in academia or really resolve complex internal struggles.

I think it's fair to say, therefore, that even as regards the narrow question of popular demand, the ambitions this site's proprietors can have towards its aims must be modest. There is relatively little cost to maintaining a Stack Exchange on Philosophy, given that one is already supporting the platform on other more profitable topics, but in the absence of a known resource of truly gifted contributors, there is only so much market value in a philosophy answer freely given.

  • Challenging, indeed. I think the difference in views on closure represents the crux of this balancing at between bringing the two user groups together. – J D Nov 27 '20 at 14:57
  • I somewhat disagree on the premise that "[r]ealistically, anyone with the talent needed to do that work is hugely in demand elsewhere both in academia and in media, and can be much better remunerated for their time". I've seen some brilliant minds on this site that overflow with philosophical information. – Yechiam Weiss Dec 28 '20 at 19:55

A bit late for the party, I'd like to address several points.

Actually to start from the end of the post:

After all: friends, are we not philosophers?

As one of the legendary moderators of this site said in the past: no, we are not philosophers (and I don't like that you've edit the post with a question mark; it defeats the whole point of the post).

Yes, the site relies mostly on experts of philosophy (and people with enough interest in a certain field to be able to provide a proper answer) that knows how to answer the difficult questions raised by the users of the site. But we are not here to "philosophize", as stated in Joseph's post:

We are not a community of philosophers, or an academic enclave. We are a group of students and teachers of philosophy... Our goal is not to create new concepts, to "play philosophers"; our goal within the context of the main page is to behave like responsible students and teachers of philosophy. Which just means: 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... [a] 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.

"status quo"

Has the political will of the veteran user base decided that the current status quo is the terminal velocity and terminus of this institution that aims to facilitate philosophical pedagogy and critical thinking?

The users of this site (mostly mods but also "regular" users like you and I) have repeatedly tried in the past to change the "velocity", direction and style of this site. As Philip wrote in his post, and in many other places, this isn't the first time the red flag has been raised (perhaps most recently was my post from over a year ago).

Voting System

Again, we cannot afford to have questions that lean to the more discussion-y type. Hence we must enforce a (perhaps harsh) policy of closing "off-topic"/"personal philosophy" questions (sometimes for a lack of better closing-reasons). Admittedly, I tend to vote to close more often than not (in my opinion it shows the vast amount of this kind of questions), but most of the time I try to provide a productive feedback to the OP. I don't think anyone tries to drive users away from this site, albeit we perhaps can do a better job at providing productive feedback.

Personally, I do not see the benefit of down-voting instead of closing a question that does not fit our model. I haven't spend too much time in other SEs to really know, but I assume that with the nature of this SE we get (at least currently, perhaps forever) a truly vast amount of questions that simply don't fit this site (see this post for example).

Obviously, if a user thinks this question is not a good question within the constraints of the site's model, I'd expect them to down-vote, and not vote to close. But it's a bit of a thin line and I'll understand a user that decides to vote to close instead. After all, for a question to be closed we require at 5 votes - it takes time to get 5 votes, which that gives the OP time to revise their question. And even after that the OP can edit the post and request to reopen it. A very standard procedure on the SE network.

My thoughts

All that being said, and putting aside my fair share of pessimism on the subject, I'd like to offer my thoughts.

First of all, I'm rejoiced to see this topic being talked about again. This shows me that we all want to see this site improving.

The fact that you've brought the FAQ into question baffles me a bit (perhaps I understood wrongly?), as the way I see it the on-topic post is very clear on the rules of the site, and I've seen questions being closed with that post linked in the comments to help the OPs understand the reason for closure. Perhaps it needs some tweaks, which you're more than welcome to suggest in a separate Meta post and we can all vote on.

I did nevertheless thought while reading the question and the answers here, and have a suggestion (which I hinted to in the past) to help solve our rather distinct issue:

"discussion" tag on the main site

I'd like to suggest, perhaps we should indeed accept posts that encourage discussion and free exchange of thoughts on the main site, but simply put them in a very unique tag. This way, users that do not want to participate in such posts can simply filter them in their feed, and many posts that would've otherwise been closed, will actually be valid.

Indeed, it is in no way shape or form adheres to SE's Q&A format, but it isn't the majority of the site (*we would need to take this into consideration, if that were to happen what will we do). Honestly, I don't see another solution.

As Philip rightfully said, "regular" users are currently simply not active enough in their review queues (and I'm no saint at all). In my opinion we need some way to encourage more activity (new users, but more importantly keep "regular" users active), and I honestly think this might be a good way to do so. Give the users a) the option to have free discussion, and b) take away some pressure from the review queues.

Finally, I do agree with Philip that at the end of the day moderation, moderation and moderation is what keeps this site (as every other SE site) enjoyable. I'm simply attempting to ease the need for moderation a bit while trying to solve another big issue (active userbase) as well.

Anyway, I haven't been quite active for a while now, mostly because of personal life. Hopefully I can now return to the site and give a helping hand to the "burden" of moderation.

  • 1
    Thanks a lot for the diverse (and supportive) answer. I think we agree on a lot of points here. As you know, I do fully understand the merits of a discussion tag, and still, am a bit wary with regards to what it does to other question threads and the need for heavy moderation to draw the line. Maybe it is worth to give it another try here on meta, though. Anyway, good to hear you're back! – Philip Klöcking Dec 29 '20 at 6:48
  • Certainly, there's no rush. The site's been like this for awhile. I have come across your answers on many questions, and have found much value in them. I am raising points because I think on a go-forward basis, many problems can be solved by properly building a consensus and formalizing some of the folkways here to give moderators a break by structuring their tasks better allowing more people to participate in moderator-ish duties by having some standards in place. Thanks for your response! – J D Dec 29 '20 at 8:19
  • @PhilipKlöcking I fully support and encourage your even-handedness in moderation, and appreciate your contributions as a moderator and contributor. – J D Dec 29 '20 at 8:20
  • @JD I think, and that's one of the main points I tried to make here, that our moderation rules are very straight-forward and understandable and in the majority of cases closure of posts can be well-justified using those rules. Again, perhaps some tiny tweaks are required to cover ALL the cases, but I think most of the cases that arrive here on Meta with "why was this closed" are simply by users who didn't read/fail to understand the site's rules (mostly didn't read). Surely, some small fraction are the result of (minor) bad moderation. But it's a small fraction and it's understandable imo. – Yechiam Weiss Dec 29 '20 at 8:59
  • 2
    @PhilipKlöcking I understand your obvious concerns. I'm not sure how much the site/userbase has changed in my absence, but from this post it seems to me such a solution is still required (perhaps for the lack of better option). I do think that we talk about these subjects for quite a while without taking some significant action, the discussions mostly end with "we need to keep on moderating". And as J D said, it's not required to have a solution right away, but I do think we should take advantage of the fact that we are discussing the subject. Else we'll see another post like that next year. – Yechiam Weiss Dec 29 '20 at 9:04
  • And it's good to be back, thank you :) – Yechiam Weiss Dec 29 '20 at 9:05
  • @PhilipKlöcking I concur we talk and don't act. I will post a question about feature-requests, and as the most responsive of the moderators, at your leisure, perhaps you can clarify and build consensus. – J D Dec 29 '20 at 9:42

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