We decided to keep the Philosophy Stack Exchange in PRIVATE beta a bit longer until we can get a clear statement (and enforcement) of one major issue:

What is this site about?

In particular, there seems to be two types of questions asked on this site:

  1. Questions about the branches of philosophy and its principles.
  2. Questions posed as philosophical arguments or declarative sentence which would then be answered by an argument in logic.

There have been a few meta posts bandied about this issue, but the threads were far from conclusive. Some seem to feel that it should be one or the other, but not both:

Academia means studying Philosophy at degree level or beyond. If the site concentrates on these very specific questions only, I can see it dying very quickly. If it allows more generalized questions then it can cater for both worlds.


Encouraging "philosophizing" over academic philosophy would be huge mistake, creating another Yahoo Answers-like site in its wake. Have you ever read "mainstream" philosophy forums?

Before we can move forward, we need to define the purpose of this site as clearly and concisely as possibly (supported by voting).

Define this site and its scope; What types of questions will be on-topic and which should be closed — and vote up (or down) to show your support.

  • Are you going to put those answers below or should one of us do that? Jun 13, 2011 at 23:27
  • @Jon Ericson: However you want to proceed. I'm looking for answers, feedback, insight... whatever you can give me. Someone should be able to answer "what is this site about?" but I would rather it come from the community; not reduced to a simple a-b poll posted by me. Jun 13, 2011 at 23:41
  • Maybe the question shouldn't be phrased as "a simple a-b poll" then. ;-) Jun 13, 2011 at 23:46
  • Probably a basic question I should ask at Area 51 or something, but is the site going to go public automatically or at such time as the, um, people in charge deem worthy? Jun 14, 2011 at 0:32
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    @Jon Ericson: The site is being held back from public beta until these issues can be discussed and a consensus (and enforcement) reached. I updated the post to clarify. Jun 14, 2011 at 0:41
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    @Robert, in addition to voting on opinions expressed in answers to this question, it might be worth while arranging a meeting in the chat.stackexchange.com chat room so that specific concerns can be voiced and responded to, etc...
    – Ami
    Jun 14, 2011 at 1:39
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    @Ami: Good idea. I would suggest posting it as another meta thread and use the tools of the chat system to announce and organize it. Jun 14, 2011 at 1:55
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    @Robert: I'm not certain, but I don't think I have the permissions to make an event in our chat room.
    – Ami
    Jun 14, 2011 at 2:12
  • I'd really just like to throw out the idea of a name change. 'Philosophy' has many misdefinitions and misunderstandings in the general populace, and I could see that becoming a very serious problem if this site does get out of beta. I'd opt for something that is a clearer indication of what this site is about. Something like 'Logic' or 'Reasoning' would go well, although I'm sure someone other than I can come up with a much better rename. Jun 14, 2011 at 3:17
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    I think the name is fine -- after all, pure logic is covered pretty well between SO and math.se :) I think we just need to agree upon a bright line and walk it.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 14, 2011 at 4:25
  • I perceive an anti-logic atmosphere here. Perhaps that's fair enough and if you want to know about logic you should go to another SE site. But perhaps it's not. Deductive reasoning should be used in any argument, philosophical or not. Also, the philosophy of logic is an extremely interesting topic. If we push aside pure logic, I think it will be more difficult to have phil. of logic questions accepted by the community as on-topic.
    – boehj
    Jun 14, 2011 at 11:05
  • @boe actually the debate about necessary/subjective in the context of propositional logic, and the suggestion that it be pushed to English.se, seemed like a lazy police department trying to push along jurisdiction to the sheriff or something else
    – mfg
    Jun 14, 2011 at 18:45
  • @boehj: Who is pushing aside pure logic? I don't see any examples of that, and I don't see anything wrong with those types of questions. It isn't my area (I'm not very good at math, either), but it's undoubtedly an area of philosophy, and should certainly be on-topic here. The questions I'm trying to push aside are those that have more to do with applied ethics, "self-help", and discussion-based issues that have no real answer, like "Do you think...?" questions. Formal logic doesn't meet any of those criteria. But that's very different from "is it logical that I believe in God?" Jun 15, 2011 at 6:38
  • @Cody: I'm not referring to you or anyone in particular. And in fact I've appreciated your (very) thoughtful contributions.
    – boehj
    Jun 15, 2011 at 7:07
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    I think there should be some quick and dirty method for determining acceptablilty. The criteria should be simple and easy to understand and not subjective themselves. It appears to me that several of the questions that have been closed in the last few days are reasonable questions.
    – Chad
    Jun 15, 2011 at 21:19

4 Answers 4


My position is that a Q&A site labelled philosophy will be doing philosophy whether we want it to or not. The split you observe comes from two of the ways philosophy is engaged with:

  1. Discuss the work of others and see how they may (or may not) apply particular question.

  2. Construct an intellectual problem that may be addressed (if not always solved) with the tools of philosophy.

In fact the first way may be seen as an example of the second as the problems are predefined in the literature. In some ways, limiting a dialog to the ideas of a particular philosopher or school is like using training wheels to learn how to ride a bike. Having a familiarity with the work of previous philosophers is a sort of advantage in a philosophical argument, but not a trump card.

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    I think the on-topic/off-topic line might just lie within your second point. I've heard the term "with domain knowledge" thrown around. That might be key. It differentiates a question asked as a tool of learning (e.g. "How would you use [philosophical tool] to resolve [hypothetical problem]?" -- On topic), in contrast to a question asked in the context of a self-help forum (e.g. "Does God exist" or "If you kill someone who is committing suicide..." -- off topic). Am I misrepresenting your point? Jun 14, 2011 at 1:02
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    I agree with this. On topic questions are practical and addressed to real problems in philosophy.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 14, 2011 at 1:47
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    @Robert: Many of the God questions are poorly formed because they tend to toss around ideas without the proper context. The other question (about killing someone about to die) is valid at least in the context of philosophy of science. But it probably could have used more background to make the connection clear. I think "with domain knowledge" gets across the idea I meant when I said "with the tools of philosophy". @Joe's answer covers the minimum in my opinion. Jun 14, 2011 at 16:23

My goal is a place for people asking objectively answerable questions about philosophy. I think some domain knowledge should be expected from askers, and that people with great questions about philosopy should have somewhere to go to get expert-level answers.

These are my minimum standards:

  • Would this question be worth more than a few moments of a subject-matter experts time? Can it be just as effectively answered by a Google search?
  • Does this question exhibit any domain knowledge whatsoever? Does the question address itself to a philosophically-informed audience? Does it concern thinkers and ideas?
  • Does it pose a real and practical question about philosophy? Or is it a practical question about something else?

Since we are being given time to determine a robust definition, I'd like to point out that many of the most-up voted questions for the week look pretty good to me. In terms of fighting main page drift, please keep voting and using your close votes and flags. We have got to be ruthless or it is going to keep sliding.

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    Is there some hurry to going public? I'd like it to be soon, but no sooner than needed to be ready. You can only make a good first impression once or whatever applicable proverb you chose. These standards seem good in any case. Jun 14, 2011 at 0:29
  • @Jon: 18 hours from now, the beta will be public.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 14, 2011 at 0:29
  • Ah. My impression was precisely the opposite. Jun 14, 2011 at 0:33
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    The site has been held back from public beta until these issues can be discussed and a consensus (and enforcement) reached. Jun 14, 2011 at 0:35
  • @Robert, understood. Thank you.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 14, 2011 at 0:43

In answering questions so far on this site, I've made a habit of linking to tangentially relevant topics on Wikipedia for those who might want to know more about them. And of course, in doing so, I've actually read or skimmed the Wikipedia articles on philosophy-related subjects for the first time. I'm struck by both the high quality and comprehensiveness of their content. It seems to me that most of the basic questions that might be asked here by those without "domain knowledge" could be satisfactorily answered with a cursory glance at the relevant Wikipedia article. I'm not really sure that we need to duplicate all of that here.

The standard, I think, should be those questions which require specific, expert-level knowledge to be adequately answered. Which questions could not be answered by a simple check on Wikipedia, and which questions require in-depth knowledge of a concept in order to get accurate and useful answers.

That seems to include questions like:

While simultaneously excluding questions like:

(Interesting to just compare the titles, isn't it?)

The latter set of questions also sticks out to me as being characterized primarily by those that might be asked in a [bad] undergraduate philosophy class. These are very unlikely to be interesting to a true expert in the field, and probably going to discourage them from participating in the site. They certainly discourage me, and I'm hardly what one would call an "expert". As one of the other users put it, these are questions that evoke the following quite undesirable response:

"Ew, this is worse than an undergrad class."

I don't understand this "academic" vs. "layman" divide. There's nothing decidedly academic about having knowledge in the field. This isn't a "self-help" site, and "discussion-based" questions like "Do you think...?" don't work out very well on a focused Q&A site. Lay people can still ask and answer questions about philosophy without resorting to arm-chair philosophy and people making stuff up. Granted, if you know nothing about the entire history of philosophy that came before, then you might not belong on this site. But I struggle to see how that's different from any of the other sites on the network.

  • Some of the second group seem reasonable to me, but I can see them being generally uninteresting. Perhaps the bar for the second set ought to be higher than for the first, since it's so easy to crank out that sort of question. Or maybe the answer is aggressively mark duplicates so that these sorts of questions get canonical answers. Jun 14, 2011 at 16:34

I think that this site should be about asking questions and providing answers, and voting for and against, and commenting on, the same. I don't think anyone disagrees there, since that's the core functionality of the platform.

If we're an academic community, the votes will reflect that, and if we're not, the votes will reflect that too. If we're a mixture, the votes will reflect that, and the truly spectacular questions and answers will rise to the top.

I think that merely having the word "philosophy" attached is enough to keep a suitable interested community around, where votes and comments can keep everything in order through self-moderation. I think that closing questions should be disabled or made much more difficult; or, I would at least like some discussion on whether changes to the closure mechanism might be in order for this particular site. Closing questions is much easier than reopening them and closing questions goes against the core purpose of the site as it disallows answers.

Please do not respond to this by regurgitating SE dogma as though the Philosophy site ought to be similar to all of the other sites. It's not constructive, and you're likely to believe that I'm not being constructive either, and we can't get anywhere with that.

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    As a member of Atheism.se, where a similar strategy was employed, and closures were lenient- no questioner felt satisfied, no answerer felt rewarded, and only Rainbow Unicorn Magic exists at that URL. Moderation should have been handed out earlier and sooner; we would have benefitted greatly from more rather than less.
    – mfg
    Jun 15, 2011 at 21:41
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    Atheism isn't the only site to realize the pain of lax moderation, but they're a good example because they couldn't recover and ended up just shutting down. What is it about philosophy that necessitates a change in close voting? It's not an unfortunate side effect of closing that it disallows answers, it's the entire purpose -- you close questions that you don't want on the site Jun 15, 2011 at 21:44
  • First, thank you for a relevant response. Atheism is a particular stance, and I find that people taking particular stances tend to like feeling good about it. I question whether anyone on THIS site, Philosophy.SE, is really looking to feel satisfied after asking a question, except insofar as it received answers. Jun 15, 2011 at 21:45
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    If you think that this site should be substantively different from the other Stack Exchange sites, at least to the extent that you're willing to violate core and foundational principles, then why should it be a SE site at all? Why not participate on one of the hundreds of other "forum" style sites where there is no risk of questions being closed? Personally, I won't do that because I like this system. It isn't dogma, it's a preference. And many of the users are here for precisely that reason. If we start abandoning those principles, we no longer have something unique. That's a big negative. Jun 16, 2011 at 4:01
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    I don't know whether this qualifies as SE dogma or not, but it should be self-evident: you can't stop anyone from showing up here and participating just by wishing for it hard enough. Sure, we could put a huge red banner on every page that reads, "Serious Academics Only Please" - but cranks and trolls and assorted n'er-do-wells will simply ignore it. You can down-vote them all you want, but they get to vote too and there are more of them than there are of you. If you don't want me & my drunk troll buddies showing up to change the site topic to "Cheese" overnight, you need a big hammer...
    – Shog9
    Jun 18, 2011 at 2:48
  • @Shog9 I definitely understand your position, I just don't necessarily agree with it. I guess I have more faith in people, even on the internet? There are plenty of places people can go to cause a fuss, I'm not convinced that they'd pick this site. But, like I said, I understand. Makes sense. :) Jun 19, 2011 at 4:12

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