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This stackexchange has been stormed by non-philosopher (in the academical sense). To some extent, this can be a great source of naïve and yet profound questions.

However, as it is way easier to write your opinion than a real educated and sourced answer, this as devolved into a pub-like forum. Anything that entertains the passer-by is upvoted (see this recent question) and an army of well-established and enthusiastic opinion givers encourages vague and out of place questions (see for example those answers). This has been going for a very long time and likely won't change—those people not reflecting on their own practice of philosophy and invasion of the quasi-public space.

Now this is a natural phenomenon. Any beginner in a field has different standards of rigour and exactitude. When those form the great majority of a community, the standards of said community are logically lowered. This may be a good thing to help beginners express themselves in such a field, still imprecisely but without feeling that they are shutdown.

But then, this become a place for beginners and not a place for academical (or research-level) discussions. This is fine because one natural work-around is simply to have two distinct SEs. This is the solution which has been put in place for mathematics: there are math.SE for any kind of beginner or student question and mathoverflow for academical questions.

Has such a separation been envisaged or discussed for philosophy? What does the moderation team think?

One obvious counter-argument would be that there would be too few participants in the academical philosophy SE, as clearly we see very few questions or answers which respect the actual standard to which this SE tried to live up. But I think that all the people actually capable of doing philosophy and who left this SE over the years because of its pub-like state would already make a big enough community.

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    I upvoted to indicate that I think it is a question worth considering, not that I think we should do it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 2 at 1:43
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    In my very limited anecdotal experience, it definitely seems that quality has improved significantly over the last few years (although questionable opinions do get a few too many upvotes). Answers of old seem to tend towards word salad that barely even addresses the questions they're answers to. Then again, those answers do contain more citations than the average answer today, and maybe you think that's what "good" philosophy answers are supposed to be.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 2 at 2:15
  • @ScottRowe Sure, I am happy as well to at least open the discussion and to hear some thoughts on the subjects.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 2 at 9:12
  • @NotThatGuy Ok that's an interesting experience. I may have an idea of those salad answers you refer too, relatively long answer which still skim over the interesting part of the question and which heavily cites the SEP? If it the case I agree that those are generally not the best answers. By citations we mean citations from philosophical works—the quality of SEP articles is variable. If it this not what you have in mind, would you have an example at hand?
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 2 at 9:26
  • I personally find the site’s self-moderating to be effective. The more you participate in the site, the more influence you slowly start to have. Higher rep unlocks more moderation abilities. I think a gradual shift to higher and higher quality standards is in our future. Commented Apr 2 at 19:22
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    @Johan Something like that, yes.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 3 at 4:55
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    The problem I see here is that a lot of academic philosophy is also just someone's opinion, but in a book, and often itself outdated. So does this community want to constantly revere older thinkers, or does it want to let members challenge established forms of thought? I'd put myself in the boat of - we're doing philosophy - on this site, not just re-iterating and explaining pre-existing literature.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:24
  • @Cdn_Dev Clearly not the the second alternative. See Friends, we are not philosophers. And I am yet to see anyone challenging centuries-old philosophical traditions in a Q&A website.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 4 at 20:40
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    I guess what I'm trying to say is that a great deal of the field of philosophy is outdated. I'd argue that most of it occurring before the twentieth century amounts to a history of ideas in relation to modern understanding. So if you're expecting people to show up en masse and ask questions about thought from eras in the distant past, you'll be waiting a long time. And what relevant theory has the 20th century produced? Some, but not much. There's just not much of a use case for questions on academic philosophy. But there is very much a use case for questions of the personal type.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:59

9 Answers 9

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I understand, and substantially agree, with what you are saying. Too many answers here are nothing more than statements of personal opinion rather than an attempt to give an account of a subject or question. The splitting that you describe happens on the mathematics part of StackExchange. There is a Mathematics SE for general math Q&A and also MathOverflow for professional mathematicians. I doubt whether this would work for philosophy.

  1. The volume of posts and answers here is much lower than it is on the math sites. I suspect there would be very few posts on a Philosophy Overflow site.

  2. It would be extra work for moderators. Somebody would have to decide which questions merit being on the Overflow site and which answers do not meet the standards for being an authoritative answer.

  3. In my experience, professional philosophers are reticent to participate in public forums. Maybe my experience is not typical, but a lot of philosophers will draft papers, present them to other philosophers in order to get feedback and then go straight to publication. Discussing philosophy on a public forum provides no academic kudos and discussions quickly degenerate in quality because everyone and his dog thinks they are qualified to contribute.

  4. The question and answer format is not ideal for philosophical discussion.

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  • Your first point is surely the most problematic--and I agree that it is not clear at all whether there would be enough activity. 3. is somewhat related to this first point. However, I think that for 2. and 4. it would actually be the opposite. Q&A format is way better suited for questions regarding, say, a specific excerpt or a specific concept from a philosophical work, than for questions which more or less amount to "what is the meaning of life?"
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 30 at 18:57
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    And further, stricter standards often mean easier moderation. E.g. if we require that answers support their claim by citing relevant philosophical work, it is very quick to see which does and which doesn't and the answer which do will very often be of a good overall quality. It is similar to the time spent grading a good student versus a less good student. That said, I agree that the overall work for moderation would be at least greater.
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 30 at 19:04
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    I've been calling this "the Philosophy Hep Desk" for a while. There are all these urgent pleas to answer questions that people have tossed around for thousands of years. I can't imagine where all this angst is coming from.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 2 at 1:41
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To be honest, I do not think this would work out for the reasons @Bumble gave. I would, maybe, add that professional philosophers still tend to be bookworms rather than tech cracks (ie. have problems setting up a moodle course on their own and generally shy away from anything that has to do with IT).

There have been several tries over the years to make this site more attractive for serious philosophy and academics but the format basically depends either on people

  • having specific, narrow questions they cannot answer themselves (almost exclusively students and academics that usually get their answers out of relevant literature or discussions with other academics on international congresses, talks, and lectures), or

  • very literate or motivated, with the according resources like access to databases and books, time, and the will to research and answer the questions on the appropriate level (almost exclusively former academics since the rest usually lacks the time or skills)

The only alternative I see is to get a lot of professionals onto the site in a one-off movement to get the thing going. Before that makes sense, we would need a joint effort to get a hand on all the junk (sorry if that sounds elitist) that predominantly makes up the site at this moment. Three pro bono moderators just cannot handle this on their own. We would need to work full shifts 24/7 for months to do that. And many (almost all) high-rep users that have the rep and experience to do so do not really engage in moderation duties and meta discussions.

Maybe another alternative would be a StackExchange Team site running for philosophy professionals only. Here, the question of financing remains the main problem besides getting the people there in the first place

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    Computer Science Educators SE is even smaller and has less activity. It has good quality answers, but all kinds of questions come in. Making a site too small would probably not work well. I have no idea how to get more participants with strong backgrounds in the topic.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 2 at 1:48
  • It's hard not to agree. Still, for the alternative that you see, that's where a clean and new SE would come in helpful. With the added benefit that the current SE would act as a buffer zone between a new SE and low quality questions/answers. That said, I agree that it is mostly a deadlock, which makes this quite infuriating.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 3 at 17:52
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Participating on philosophy stackexchange since many years, I agree with the OP’s diagnosis concerning the many questions and also comments far off the shot.

  1. I consider one of the highest principles of this site, that up- and downvoting is done by the community. Not by the moderator or by a censoring board. I want to uphold this principle.

  2. The site allows the community to vote for closing questions and answers, if they seem unclear, not focused or look like machine-generated. This possibility could be employed by the community in a more consequent manner. Because the author has always the possibility to improve his statement accordingly, and the community can vote for reopen.

  3. Hence the voting of the community can act like a peer review. I welcome this type of voting for closing and reopening, which is well-established in a similar way by all respectable journals.

    But the community should use this method of assessment with more consequence.

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  • I fully agree that this would be the way to go. It depends on people understanding the StackExchange model. And at the moment, it is mere wishful thinking.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Apr 6 at 8:05
  • I think it is a bit too easy to hide behind the democratic principles of SE and to ignore the individual responsibility of the answerer. Peer review in science is precisely the opposite of SE since only a few selected highly-qualified individuals are asked about their opinion. In SE the voting process is however far less foolproof which is why in my opinion a good part of the responsibility weights on the answerer.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 6 at 11:14
  • As an example, have you looked at the second link in my post? It is a question which is clumsily asked but which comes closer to interesting things. However the highest voted answer is an answer which in my opinion is very low effort and does not address the question at all. And other answers, upvoted as well, are similar unsourced opinions.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 6 at 11:21
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To build on my earlier answer...

It seems that the initial idea behind the site was for it to be a space to ask and answer questions that arose in the context of the academic study of philosophy. Given that, why not have an 'Academic' tag to allow such serious questions to be flagged as such. Users interested only in 'Academic' questions could then filter out the rest at the touch of a button. You could add an explanatory note to the site guidelines explaining the intended use of the tag, and any mis-use of it could readily be stamped out by anyone with sufficient privileges.

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    That is only part of the truth. The StackExchange model requires questions that can be answered based on the body of (written publicly available) knowledge that is usually labelled "philosophy". Without that, everything amounts to nothing more than bias and opinion. Whether that is based on reading in an academic context or not is irrelevant. But asking open, overly broad, or unspecific questions, ie. those that can arbitrarily be answered by opinion or literally thousands of contradictory sources, just do not fit The general model of StackExchange.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Apr 7 at 8:00
  • @PhilipKlöcking then why not propose some other tag that makes whatever distinction you think it is important to make between the class of question you would ideally like to see and the rest? Commented Apr 7 at 9:02
  • @PhilipKlöcking Perhaps don't be too hasty. You are 100% right... it would not fix the larger problem. But. Would it help with some of the impact caused by the larger problem? Perhaps. Could it attract the use of the user-base you wish to attract? Perhaps again. Would perhaps more good quality content be created? Perhaps. Could this help with the larger problem as well? Certainly will not fix it. But might it be a step in a good direction that is super-simple to implement. A pragmaticist's step in positive direction. Not an idealist's solution that fixes everything. Commented Apr 7 at 20:07
  • Maybe call it Formal Philosophy (Academic is a great suggestion too, Marco, and the underlying concept of an "elite" or "stricter rules" tag. BTW. Commented Apr 7 at 20:08
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    @AlistairRiddoch there's chance this would create more confusion, as 'formal philosophy' is probably more commonly understood as philosophy done with the aid of syntactical/formal theories, as modal logics and similar stuff
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 8 at 19:21
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    @ac15 agreed. I am spitballing/brainstorming. And am not attached to my suggestions. Commented Apr 8 at 19:58
  • Maybe a set of tags... "Phi101, Phi201, etc... for topics that tend to fit into such a schema", to indicate within such tags, a more academic approach will be the trend?? Commented Apr 8 at 20:00
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This might sound elitist as some of the professional philosophers on here may sound themselves so forgive me in advance, but the problem with focusing on “research level” questions is that there is nothing to research in philosophy. “Research” in philosophy amounts to knowing more about others’ works that have contributed to philosophical literature. What this amounts to, ultimately, is to read others’ opinions about the world, or create opinions in a more formalized setting. Quite literally, philosophy is fundamentally opinion based.

Thus, analogies to literally any other field simply do not work. Physics is not opinion based. Mathematics is not. Biology is not. Chemistry is not. And so on and so forth.

Once you realize this, the problems that you cite about the stack exchange being opinion based go away. The only legitimate problem that I see, of course, is to make it a rule to cite people’s works, especially known historical philosophers, whenever that happens. If you’re going to cite Hume’s Dialogues for instance, a specific reference should be required. So that concern is legitimate.

But the concern behind the SE being full of opinions is not. There is no objective consensus behind anything in philosophy.

P.S. I don’t mean to barrage philosophy. I myself come from a computer science background and am far more interested in philosophy than anything else! I think that it is probably the most important field. But part of the beauty behind it is that there are no experts. This doesn’t mean questions and answers that are incoherent should be allowed. I would argue that answers/questions that are low quality have more to do with the person rather than their expertise, and this can be moderated

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    Imho there is a lot of misconceptions here. To address the bulk of them, let's look at mathematics. What is a proof for you? I'd wager that it is a finite sequence of sentences, one following the other according to a set of formal rules. But if you have done mathematics at any academic level, you'll know that proofs in paper rarely fall within the definition. For example a proof could simply be a drawing--as long as the audience accepts it as a proof. And this is fundamental, a proof in the mathematical practice is a consensus. That is, it is an inter-subjective opinion grounded on reason.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 7 at 10:47
  • Of course, and that is why mathematical proofs can only be done a particular way. It is not a matter of opinion which is my point. Philosophy, on the other hand, is. Commented Apr 7 at 10:51
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    "mathematical proofs can only be done a particular way" That's where I think you're wrong. If you have a basic knowledge of mathematics, you'll see how the first combinatoric proof here is illuminating, despite being without words. Moreover, I wrote "inter-subjective opinion"--which is a big difference with a mere individual opinion and which is the distinction which we are trying to enforce on this SE.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 7 at 11:00
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    @Johan By one way, I mean there is a consensus as to whether a proof (regardless of how it is communicated) is correct or not in mathematics. There is no such thing as a set of equations that “may” or “may not” be a proof in mathematics. This is because mathematics is built upon axioms and everything else in mathematics is simply an extension of these axioms. Either certain elements fit those extensions necessarily or they do not. Commented Apr 7 at 11:15
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    "there is a consensus as to whether a proof (regardless of how it is communicated) is correct or not in mathematics." So we agree. And formal mathematics is built on axioms, but the day-to-day mathematician does not work at all from those axioms. He works with a belief that his work could be put into formal logic but it is often not humanly doable. So he must, in order not to work blindly, rely on inter-subjective opinions of which proofs are true and which are false.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 7 at 11:26
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    I totally agree that there is almost magical formal grounding of mathematics which is way less palpable in philosophy. But I wanted to correct the misconception which conflates the formal grounding of mathematics (formal logic with axioms) with the mathematical practice (when a mathematician writes/reads a proof, those do not appeal to axioms and deductive rules but to a more intuitive mathematical reasoning). All this to show you how science is itself built on inter-subjective opinions and that those are, from this point of view, not so different from philosophy.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 7 at 11:30
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    perhaps philosophy's greatest contribution to humanity's general knowledge is the observation that what counts as methodology, evidence, experiment, etc. in the (empirical) sciences is not 'god-given', but rather, to some extent, a matter of convention, tradition, opinion... this observation itself seems not to be a matter of opinion, but who knows?; for more on the particular situation of ordinary, non-mechanically-checkable proofs in mathematics, check the bits of literature collected on queenisnaked.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-myth-of-proof.html :D
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 8 at 1:00
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    @johan come off it! Many parts of philosophy are definitely opinion based. The fact that a particular philosopher's view might subsequently be assessed and shared by others, so that some school of thought forms around it, does not stop it being opinion-based- it just becomes a collective opinion, like a fan club. I agree that you can say the same about aspects of physics, say, in the sense that different groups will argue for again against different interpretations of QM... Commented Apr 8 at 6:02
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    ...which is fine by me, since I write them off as collective opinions too. The point is that in physics, say, there are ultimately experimental tests of the collective opinions. Commented Apr 8 at 6:05
  • "which is fine by me, since I write them off as collective opinions too" I think we agree, this is precisely what I was trying to explain. Different fields come with different scientifical habitus and so in those fields, collective opinions have different rules to be assessed. Experimental test is just one part of those in physic but not at all the be-all and end-all. It is always subject to interpretation, misinterpretation and discussions. As it is often said, we see the experiments through the lenses of our guiding theory.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 8 at 10:56
  • But maybe I should altogether stop interacting with people of the like here. That one could claim so sure of oneself that "there is nothing to research in philosophy" is truly beyond me.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 8 at 11:00
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there are math.SE for any kind of beginner or student question and mathoverflow for academical questions

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Alternatively, you could vote less based on whether you agree with the "enthusiastic opinion" or the "well established" sense of humour of the user.

The best altenative, IMHO, is how well the references of an answer support the conclusion, and for questions also whether or not they are genuinely new to the site (I'm looking at you thinkingman).

I try to do this with my questons and answers, and they are not well received, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps I seem confused?

I have tried to ask questions specifically raised from lesisurely study, but the responses tend not to be helpful enough to warrant seriously reaching out for assistance, and it was sometimes met with hostility.

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    with a little time, i've come to learn to appreciate your thinking and humour :)
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 8 at 14:44
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    @ac15 that's not true, as i have no sense of humour
    – andrós
    Commented Apr 8 at 16:24
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It seems to me that questions and answers are trivially easy to ignore, so aside from having to scroll past them, I don't see what harm arises from a greater number of lower quality posts. Splitting the site in the way you suggest seems both inefficient and ineffective, given the drawbacks mentioned in other answers and comments. If you want a quick way to filter out the junk, why not encourage the use of suitably named tags?

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    To cite one issue, we often see low quality answers to interesting question being upvoted over better answers. Or more perversely, good question being flooded by low quality answers in a few hours and hiding the good answer which may come a few days after--or even discouraging users to write a good answer.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 4 at 20:47
  • What has the voting got to do with it? Surely if you have a serious interest the voting is irrelevant. And I would have thought that a slew of low quality answers would be a spur for someone to trump them with a better answer. Commented Apr 4 at 21:24
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    @MarcoOcram For experts the site is not useful if it is full of junk. Time is of the essence and there is just not enough time to read through all answers. After you read three prose answers that essentially reflect a person's opinion with a few upvotes, you will judge that this site has nothing to offer given you are knowledgeable in the field of philosophy. This perpetuates bad-quality postings as prevalent.
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Commented Apr 5 at 18:15
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Check out Philpapers. It’s sort of like a social network for actual professional philosophers / philosophical researchers. You can upload drafts of articles you’re working on, and there are even discussion groups.

Also, this is an extremely awesome Zulip chat server for category theorists. I think like more than 50% of the people there are distinguished academics. There is a sub-channel for “Category Theory and Philosophy”. It’s really awesome.

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I have seen this kind of complaint and debate in several posts. On the one hand, some people who are eager to obtain professional answers complain that the website has too few professionals, too many beginners or enthusiasts, resulting in generally low answer quality. On the other hand, I have also seen some people complain that this website has too many restrictions, which is not conducive to people seeking answers to their questions.

But why are professionals unwilling to post on this website? Is it just because beginners or enthusiasts lack professional competence?

Imagine you are an authoritative expert in a certain field, would you refuse to answer their questions due to their lack of professional competence? No, you refuse to answer the other person because their attitude towards professional issues is not serious enough. If the situation is the opposite and the other party is willing to take it seriously, I think even if the other party is just a beginner or enthusiast, you are willing to communicate with them and answer their questions.

So, a very important condition for a philosophical Q&A website to attract professional participation is that the website must have a sufficiently serious atmosphere, rather than having many authoritative experts. I think there are already enough philosophical forums now, and philosophers do not need stackexchange to complete their academic work.

But philosophical problems do have significant differences from other disciplines, because philosophy is always at the forefront of understanding the world. Unlike mathematics and physics, philosophy is not always computable and verifiable, so no philosophical problem can have a standard answer. Every philosophical problem will have huge differences and debates, which is also the tradition of philosophy.

I believe that as long as there is a relatively rigorous argumentation process, and the evidence is based on verified scientific research results or obvious common sense, these answers should not be regarded as biased personal opinions, at least they can serve as reference answers for the questioner.

Of course, there is a type of question that does have a standard answer, which is "Which philosopher said something? On which page in which book?" But I don't think this is a philosophical question, it should be a book index question.

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