Much as the synthetic-analytic divide, which is certainly a stroke of metaphysical genius entreats us to take propositions and dichotomize them, so too do Quine's attacks on that distinction force us to draw pause and consider what is the proper use of dichotomy? In simpler terms, how exactly is it that we know when we are doing philosophy and when we are answering factual questions about philosophy, since the explanatory powers inherent in our answers are inevitably imbued with normativity much in the same way measurement is. Let's consider the latter case briefly.

When one says, math is the queen of the sciences because of the apparent objectivity of numbers that builds consensus, perhaps things aren't quite so clear. Measurements are not objective strictly speaking. Take note of the following questions and the normativity inherent in them:

  • What do we measure? Which parts and to what end?
  • How do we measure? With what units and to what precision?
  • Who measures? Is it better to be redundant in terms of cost, quality, and quantity?
  • Which techniques? Which measures of measures should be used in statistical analysis?

Does the claim 'numbers and measures are ultimately objective' stand when viewed under this lens?

Isn't it highly normative when we take measure of whether or not something is philosophy or merely a proposition about the factual nature of what constitutes mere subject-matter expertise which is inescapably epistemological and ontological insofar as the methods used to determine the question determine the membership of the dichotomy? And isn't this at its heart the primary issue of the metaphilosopher? And if that's the case, doesn't it essentially answer dispel the notion that there is some algorithmic basis for determination? Certainly, we can concede that the application of reason to such an endeavor must be at its core more closely related to the defeasibility of jurisprudence than formal, deductive proof, right?

And I offer a simple assertion:

> Those best in a position to answer a good Q&A question are those who are best at doing philosophy precisely because the distinction between "Q&A" and "original philosophy" is artificial. Answering a good Q&A question is the heart of the philosophical method.

Who provides the resources for us to conduct this passion of philosophy we engage in here? StackExchange, and their motivations are simple: draw traffic, promote brand, do it in the way you see fit. At its heart, crowd-sourcing is the essence of the bazaar, and those SE venues that succeed the best have found a method to encourage contribution according to consensus, balancing the power of authority against the will of the people. But isn't each SE community inherently unique in its interpretation of the method to bring that about? Does psychology use the methods of physics? What of the differences between biology and chemistry? Are they not both science, but have different methods? Can we answer honestly that too many here pretend that the dichotomy is honored through some rigorous formalism when intuition is the key to its application? (Perhaps these are only questions a philosopher can answer?)

Does anyone here really think we are doing "original philosophical research"? Of course not. What I'm asking is isn't this place a cathedral, because the dominant method for doing Q&A questions is based on a false dichotomy, that of "philosophy proper" and "philosophy subject-matter expertise"?

We are here to learn -- not to vent, bully or distract. We have a shared ethos with Wikipedia for a reason. It's really important that content is formulated from a neutral point of view. This dramatically increases the quality of contributions, but also speaks to the basic foundations of our community -- that we're here for education, not here to impose our views on others.

So, if we close a question that is clearly on-topic because of its prominence in the primary literature and secondary and tertiary sources, how are we possibly conducting ourselves in a way that promotes a neutral point of view? The obvious answer is that we are not, at least consistently and with consensus. And until all of the vectors point in the same general direction, all of our answers will continue to have components that cancel, will they not?

So, let's say there is a dichotomoy and I'm wrong, then the question still stands, what exactly is the difference between 'being a philosopher' and 'being a philosophy SME'? Empirically speaking, when we clearly have consensus on this, perhaps we will find that we don't make errors like closing questions about dispositions which is a topic that as philosophicaly essential as the notion of 'essence' itself.

3 Answers 3


You can be a philosopher without ever taking a philosophy class, reading a philosophy paper or even knowing what philosophy is. It's an approach to the world, one disinclined to accept things as given, a need to probe deeper beneath the surface, a certain intellectual contrarianism. A philosophy SME, on the other hand, is well informed and knowledgeable about the history, the literature and the practice of philosophy. He or she knows major philosophers, and can cite their views, can define obscure terms, is familiar with major arguments, and so forth. A philosophy SME usually has a philosophy degree, or at least has done some philosophical studies.

The consensus on this site has long been that this is a place to share knowledge about philosophy rather than original philosophy, precisely because live philosophical questions don't have agreed-upon objective answers. If we allowed original philosophy here, the voting would just be a popularity contest.

You may, however, have noted that some people's answers --notably mine --do seem to contain a fair amount of original philosophizing. How does that work? Well, when I want to include my own views, I take the approach I recommend here: https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/33620/10479 . In summary, I start with solid, objective, cited, on-topic info, and confine my editorializing to a relatively brief statement at the end. That allows people to upvote the objective info, yet still gives me a platform to share my views. In cases where I don't want to go through all of that trouble, I tend to stick more closely to less controversial, more generally held views. Extraordinary claims, etcetera.

  • So in other words, there's no clear boundary of where philosophy ends and expertise begins and normally you just do both anyways constrained by a set of rules of thumb because the attempt to measure which is which is so fraught with a lack of clarity, that contributions' and their avoideance of closure merely appeal the masses intuition?
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 15:50
  • See comments, closure vote, and upvote on this question: Which discipline of philosophy is most interested in the nature of change?.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 15:51
  • @JD - If I had meant that, I would have said that. I think I was quite clear in what I actually stated, which is decidedly non-identical with your statement. Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 20:58
  • Thanks for giving me feedback on my interpretation. I'll reflect.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 22:37
  • To address my deliberate mischaracterization, it by your claims is an act of philosophy, because it exhibits "intellectual contrarianism" and was "disinclined to accept as given". It uses language in acts of specification, generalization, and synonymy to "probe deeper beneath the surface" of a response. Your answer is also the act of an SME because broadly you have "done some philosophical studies"...
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 22:59
  • By your own admissions, you are inclined to dispense with citations, but do against the "consensus" about the nature of this site, conduct "a fair amount of original philosophizing" using guidelines you yourself have devised as per the reference to you own work. You attempt to stick to a NPOV, use references to general accepted claims, and but may editorialize. Clearly your reputation speaks for the efficacy of this approach.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 23:01
  • And the strategy for dealing with the way-off-the-mark characterization is to just reaffirm your original claims through a self-assessment of confidence and to emphasize the nature of the false equivalence.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 23:04
  • This is an excellent example of how to answer and respond to a non-identical restatement. Thank you for your efforts. I'm adding a link to your Writing answer elsewhere. I think it's a persuasive guidance.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 23:05
  • @JD, I appreciate you! :) Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 2:37
  • Not as much, I you, dear sir. I'm incorporating a link to your post into my boilerplate. One of the moderators who hasn't participated in the discussion started linking to your post. Time to get the Gospel of Chris Sunami out there! ; )
    – J D
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 15:50

Does the claim 'numbers and measures are ultimately objective' stand when viewed under this lens? (J.D.)

It seems to me like this quote gets to the root of the issue. There is a jump that is sometimes made between the idea that something is "a measure" and the idea that this metric is "the measure" (or, more generally, among the measures) by which quality is to be assessed.

An interesting parallel might be found in examination scores and in how philosophy papers are graded in scholastic academia. One never doubts, for example, that it is possible for a team of assessors to assign a number to an essay which one takes to be a position on a scale. The question is to ask how it is that one holds such a scale to be reflective of the quality (whether absolute or relative) of a paper.

The University of Edinburgh has posted a metric scale to assist in grading philosophy papers, which I submit for your consideration. Importantly, this scale is made available to all candidates prior to submission, and applies to philosophy papers independent of specific fields or courses of study.

Is there anything determinitive in this description, independent of consideration by the Edinburgh department of philosophy, that we think all good philosophy writing must adhere to? Moreover, the criteria themselves are laden with subjectivity - in distinguishing the highest bands of grading it is for an examiner or marker to judge a submission as so novel and well-supported as to be deserving of publication, for example. Is this tolerable?

Well, in the case of the Edinburgh University Philosophy degree, it seems fine. To see why, one need only ask "What question is it that an essay writer is answering in the submission of a paper in consideration of grading?" The question is being asked in the context of an academic assignment, of which this guideline forms a proper part. The semi-objectivity of the essay question comes from its being asked by a school following these marking guidelines, of which I should be well aware (similar to following a client's brief in the presentation of any written work for hire). These qualities being assessed are also chosen in such a way as to reflect the kind of skills that are constitutive of the work of publishing impactful papers, and by design someone who excels at these will demonstrate promise as an academic writer.

By contrast, the same string of words used in the posing of an essay question might, independent of this particular context, be subject to different measures of quality. The Philosophy Stack Exchange has no particular expectation to follow the University of Edinburgh's guidelines. Indeed, it seems as though there are two simple metrics to consider in the case of a question or an answer's quality - namely, "how many upvotes does it get?" and "how many page views does it get?" (a potential third is "how many citations does it get", though this will probably be a fairly narrow band of quality distinction!)

Obviously these two metrics are radically subjective - individuals can click, upvote or downvote however they choose. A small subset of users may collectively agree to follow a set of voting conventions or submission standards, but there is no prima facie reason to think that such a standard must be followed by every site visitor able to contribute.

In actual fact, the most likely notion of Truth at work in Philosophy SE is probably close to a Deflationary model. That is, those "answers" that receive the highest marks are likely to be those that literally answer the question, even if these answers are not necessarily the most well-developed or compelling pieces. My most highly voted answer is in an area in which I have very little philosophical expertise, but where being methodical and exact in drawing out what the user was asking seems to have drawn much approval.

I think it seems fair to say that what is being assessed on Stack Exchange metrics is not, strictly speaking, one's capacity to effectively "perform philosophy", but rather to answer questions on topics in philosophy to the satisfaction of its users. A body of knowledge of prior philosophical writings is useful to this end, as is one's capacity to philosophise, but one is never expected to be at the forefront of academic philosophical research. In as much as most thoughts in philosophy are not new, the former, rather than the latter, seems to carry the greatest weight, but even this is a broad-strokes assertion rather than a definitive, revealed truth about our users.

  • Outstanding response.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 15:09

First off, the idea has never been that there would be a clear-cut dichotomy. But I think that is not even the question which the point is focusing around. It is, first and foremost, how we reconcile the fact that StackExchange aspires to provide impartial, objective knowledge with the nature of philosophy and the questions that make the centre of its being.

With StackOverflow - the original site - this is quite unproblematic: Either the code does what it is supposed to do and solves the problem or it does not. Everyone can try out and see it. Philosophy.SE has always wrestled with the problem that it is virtually impossible to find a single question, may it be philosophical or about philosophical texts, on which there is not a plethora of literature with conflicting positions, probably not even with an authoritative majority position.

The consequence is that each author of an answer has to choose. They choose unwillingly because of their own limitations of knowledge, they choose willingly because of what they deem relevant and appropriate to the level and scope of the question, they choose because they like some positions above others. They also have to argue. They have to argue to provide a bridge between quotes, to justify why they think one source is better than the other, or why they omit a certain discussion since it does not seem pivotal to the question. Nobody can write truly impartial answers in that situation. Here is where the "doing philosophy vs. subject matter expert" discourse comes into play.

The idea is not asking for inhuman efforts to get rid of anything personal and write a robotic, perfectly objective answer which involves not an iota of "doing philosophy". Philosophy has always been discussing, reflecting, and commenting on arguments. That is obviously what a good answer here should do as well. But when an answer consists only of what I feel fine with and is "Truth" in my book, this can be very much doing philosophy while it certainly does not necessarily make a good answer - especially as it often reflects a fringe position shared only by very few people, if not only the author themselves.

This is why there used to be quite a few people here advocating for some amount of impartiality and formality as being mandatory for a good answer: It should ideally weigh different positions and be based on reputable sources (other than the author's mind). If we say "subject matter expert", we should probably understand by that nothing more than somebody who knows relevant sources and is able to summarise and discuss them, to choose and argue, as I put it above.

I write this not to say that this is an ideal solution, nor do I or did I ever think this to be absolute gospel, but this has a history to it and I think knowing this history helps to properly relativise the point.

  • I came to that same conclusion early this year after I came to grasp that normativity is inherent in measure. The real challenge is convincing some people their hard dichotomy is unnecessarily likely to reduce contribution to the community and building consensus in the gray, or if you prefer, grey zone. I believe @ChrisSunamisupportsMonica has a great handle on the balance of the notion of the editorial which is the middle ground between methodological philosophy and subject-matter expertise...
    – J D
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:43
  • The act of answering with the right linguistic properties goes to the heart of Herr Ludwig's language-game and Grice's principle of cooperation, and it seems there's a small, but quite capable group who recognizes and practices this; at this point I'll affirm that I'm trying to understand the mechanism of discourse in this forum to bring the technology practice in line with the potential of the τέχνη pe se. Let me know at any point if I become annoying. That's my superpower. Sorry for the slow process, but it's an avocational pursuit!
    – J D
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:45
  • @JD I'll keep that in mind and let you know if that should be the case at any point ;) I think that the spirit of SE has always been cooperation, being of help, and expecting the best from people. So that's what we all should aspire to here. I admit that it becomes hard at times when you are bombarded with ever-identical questions, personal theories being stubbornly discussed and asked for approval, or anonymous trolls and their armies of socks. That's probably where a certain tension arises which eventually finds its way into unwarranted close votes or snarky comments. Humans being human.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:52
  • @JD And of course, normativity is inherent in language itself. Meaning, truth, denotation: All of them are inherently normative as they are about shared use of signs which is ultimately arbitrary. This is the axis of Cassirer - Wittgenstein - Quine - Sellars which is too often overlooked, the point that every expression is a semiotic relation which involves interpretation of signs and shared live-worlds.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 20:08
  • Oh, of course. I don't believe I didn't see that. I was too focused on showing how telelogical notions of biology are responsible for an agent's preference, but it applies more widely to any entity in which there is a disposition including symbols, languages, societies, and realities themselves. That's a huge leap, thanks!
    – J D
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 2:55
  • Whew! Revealing and at the same time equally frightening. Perhaps a meta-meta site or perhaps using personal email would be a more appropriate place to extoll your own virtues. Besides, you should not permit us plebians to see the Emperor's new clothes!
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 3:54
  • @CharlesMSaunders So you deem it frightening when someone utters their opinion and makes clear that ultimately, it is StackExchange and the community who decide policies and moderators have to help realising them? Instead of more or less witty comments, how about openly offering criticism and helping me to understand your reservations?
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 19:35
  • @Philip Knocking- No complaints about policies what was frightening was some of the conversants, not your, condescending comments.
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 20:00

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